Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 29
Civil service reform bill must maintain principles
The bill revamping the state's civil service system approved by the Assembly last week deserves close scrutiny from citizens and the state Senate (where it goes next). But because it has the potential for improving the state's hiring practices, Democrats should join Republicans in making this a better bill and then passing it.
The bottom line should be to ensure that merit remains the abiding principle for hiring and firing state employees. There is no room for political cronyism and who-you-know hiring for jobs that are required to serve all citizens equally. Political agendas cannot play a role in serving those citizens.
State senators and Gov. Scott Walker, who supports the overhaul, should be careful to make sure that the final bill does not violate those civil service principles. After all, it was Republicans who fought long and hard for civil service reform and enacted those practices into law more than a century ago.
But the state system can benefit from some changes. It can take too long to hire good job candidates, especially at a time when baby boomers are retiring in big numbers, and too long to fire employees who are not doing their jobs. That, too, is unacceptable.
The bill's proponents have said that 23 percent of state workers will be eligible for retirement within five years and 40 percent in 10 years. And filling positions in recent years hasn't been easy. Department of Natural Resources officials have noted they had a tough time replacing workers who left after Act 10 was approved.
The bill headed to the Senate would eliminate the basic civil service exam and rely primarily on a resume system for hiring, as private firms do. That's OK, but certain agencies should still hold competency exams for some jobs to make sure that objective criteria are still part of the hiring process.
The bill also would better define "just cause" in cases of dismissal and shorten the appeals process, and in most cases bar the removal of disciplinary records from employees' personnel files and require the files of existing employees to be reviewed before they are hired for another state job.
The bill also would increase the probationary period for state workers from six months to one year, with state managers having the option to seek an extension of another year.
The amended bill also requires Gov. Scott Walker's administration to bring a plan implementing the changes to the Legislature's budget committee by March 2017. A Senate panel has approved a provision in its version of the bill to require the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau to evaluate how the new system is working. Any final bill should be sure to include that.
Democrats object to the changes — Assembly Democrats voted against the bill — charging that it opens the door to cronyism. Those are legitimate concerns that deserve a fair hearing. But none of these changes seems catastrophic to the state's hiring system and to ensuring that applicants are hired on merit rather than cronyism.
The main sticking point between the Assembly and the Senate is whether the state should end the practice of asking some job applicants upfront to check a box showing whether they have been convicted of certain crimes. Assembly Republicans want to stop that practice in most cases and included the prohibition in a version of the bill they passed last week out of committee.
We think the Assembly has it right. An applicant's record can be learned during the hiring process; a checked box on a form can prejudice the process from the get-go before anyone has had a chance to even meet the applicant.
Back to the bottom line: The Senate needs to vet this bill carefully to make sure that what becomes law improves and streamlines the hiring and firing process without violating basic civil service principles.
Wisconsin State Journal, Oct. 30
Speaker Paul Ryan should start with tax reform
Paul Ryan had been speaker of the House for barely 5 minutes Thursday when he highlighted one of his favorite causes: fixing the convoluted tax code.
"How reassuring it would be" if Washington finally got that done, the Janesville Republican told a packed House chamber and the nation during his widely broadcast introductory speech.
And unlike repealing Obamacare (which is impossible as long as Democrats share power) or overhauling a broken immigration system (which is highly unlikely during an election year), simplifying the tax system is doable.
So let's get it done, Mr. Speaker. You are now in an even more powerful and ideal position to make it happen than when you were leading the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.
Moreover, bipartisan agreement has been building for years around a basic framework for reform: Lower rates, broaden the base, close loopholes and dramatically simplify rules and forms. If done right, a streamlined and fair tax system would encourage economic growth and bring in more revenue overall to a government deep in debt and hurt by stagnant wages.
"We will not duck the tough issues," Ryan declared during Thursday's speech. "We will take them head on."
Good. Start with the tax code and build momentum from there. Ryan has long shown he's willing to take on the most difficult problems, even if they're politically risky.
The stubborn tea party conservatives who forced out Ryan's predecessor, Speaker John Boehner, may resist any compromise. But a simpler tax code — especially for small business — should please those in the GOP who are most suspicious of government.
At the same time, Ryan's speech offered Democrats applause lines focused on the needs and struggles of "working people."
"No more favors for the few," the speaker declared. "Opportunity for all — that is our motto."
Ryan, of course, will articulate sharp contrasts between his and the opposing party's visions for America in the coming months and years. That's why his fellow Republicans chose him for such a big job.
Yet Ryan made clear those differences must eventually lead to action, which requires agreement.
"If you have ideas, let's hear them," he told his colleagues in both political parties, promising a more open process. "I believe a greater clarity between us can lead to a greater charity among us."
The House is broken, Ryan correctly diagnosed. Instead of solving problems, Washington has been adding to them.
"I am not interested in laying blame," he said. "We are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean."
Wisconsin's congressional delegation should embrace that spirit and, with Ryan, engage, debate and search for smart consensus. That starts with the tax code.
Congratulations, Mr. Speaker, on becoming second in line to the presidency and the first person from Wisconsin to lead the House of Representatives.
Make your home state proud by striving every day to live up to Thursday's ambitious speech.
The Journal Times of Racine, Nov. 1
Nuclear waste disposal needs a permanent solution
In an era that has been rife with raiding funds that are earmarked for future purposes, it probably shouldn't have come as a shock to see that it's going on in the forlorn nuclear power industry as well.
News reports last week said power companies — including one in Wisconsin and another just across the state line in Zion, Illinois —have been siphoning ratepayer dollars that were set aside for the dismantling of nuclear plants when they're taken out of service and instead using it to build concrete pads and steel casks to store spent nuclear waste on site.
That's against federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules, but the NRC has been complicit in this raid.
"All of the plants that have permanently shut down in recent years have sought and been approved for the use of decommissioning funds for spent fuel storage costs," an NRC spokesman told The Associated Press.
Power companies don't deserve the blame on this. They were never expected to be the final stop for storage of spent fuel — that was going to be the job of the U.S. Department of Energy.
They had a plan, and a site: Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But those plans went astray thanks to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has blocked the federal government from developing the remote mountain site.
In the interim, utilities have had to deal with the storage of spent fuel on site for many more years than they anticipated. That costs money for both construction and security and it raises questions over whether the set aside funds will be sufficient.
It raises questions as well over just how secure these plant-based, on-site storage areas will be in the future since all of the country's nuclear plants are located near bodies of water because of their cooling needs.
Over time, bad things can and do happen. For evidence of that we have only to look to St. Louis, where a small community is on edge because a 5-year-old fire beneath a landfill is growing uncomfortably close to buried nuclear waste. County officials say there is a potential for radioactive fallout to be released if the fire reaches the waste.
This is not waste from power plants. It's almost 9,000 tons of buried barium sulfate that came from the federal government's Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons during World War II.
The raids on the decommissioning funds and the continued storage of nuclear waste at power plant sites across the country are bad public policy. With Reid set to leave office, Congress should revive the Yucca Mountain project, fund it and end the haphazard system that now exists.