What in the World is Happening in Wisconsin?

This morning the Wisconsin legislature took unprecedented steps to remove power from the executive branch to the legislative branch during a lame duck session. Though Republican leaders have tried to downplay the significance of the changes the reality is far from insignificant. Some of the statements from legislative leaders are simply stunning in their honesty. Republican leadership says they do no trust Evers, they say they want to codify current practice, they say they want to stop a liberal governor, they accuse the media of being a branch of the Democratic party. In other words this is about consolidating political power, plain and simple. Election results and norms do not seem to matter.

What is happening in Wisconsin is a symptom of a broader sickness in our politics that we, as citizens, and as those with a voice, need to address. What are the roots of that sickness? The first is the winning fallacy. In 2009 Wisconsin Democrats controlled Wisconsin government. In 2011 Republicans took control. In January we go back to divided government. These swings are a healthy part of democracy. Yet moves such as gerrymandering, reducing the authority of agencies, taking power away from the executive branch, and messing with voting all assume a permanent victory by one party is possible. It is not. Governing as if one party can win assures that Wisconsin’s diverse citizenry lose. Why? Government becomes a tool for consolidating power rather than meeting the needs of all citizens.

Second is the association of institutional checks with political parties. The professional bureaucracy ensures expertise in continuity in service delivery even when political power changes. Bureaucracy is the steady hand that keeps our government moving. Taking power away from agencies because they are unelected or seen as too liberal is a move born of ignorance or indifference to the machinery of government. Improving government performance, holding agencies accountable and demanding transparency are good things. Dismissing agencies as unelected political actors by taking away the tools they need to do their jobs only serves to hurt our citizens. And the assertion that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is an arm of the Democratic Party is straight obfuscation to justify that which cannot be logically justified.

Third is tribalism. These moves are opposed by Democrats so if I am not a Democrat these must be good moves. It cuts both ways, if a Republican proposed the idea it must be coming from a bad place. Tribalism is, in my opinion, merely an excuse not to engage with political opponents. In a state as politically divided as Wisconsin tribalism threatens the basic functioning of state government. I am genuinely surprised and saddened that there are almost no voices from the right speaking out against this power grab. I spent a long time working closely with Wisconsin Conservatives and I cannot believe so many folks who care so passionately about Wisconsin are ok with this.

Fourth is the tendency for the freak out. I may catch hell for this, but I say it in private all the time, I do not think Walker wins a second term if not for the recall elections. Protest is good, but when it goes too far and manifests in strategic blunders it gives people cause to dismiss your position as unserious. We are seeing this right now in how supporters of the power grab are comparing protests today to Act 10. The two are totally different, Act 10 was a major policy change by a new governor that enflamed passions. As ugly as it was, the administration was empowered to do it. This power grab is an attempt to undermine basic democratic norms by undermining a duly elected governor. I hope the reaction to this is a concerted effort to address why it is indefensible and not overreach; the time for political accountability will come in due course.

Despite my sadness I am optimistic for the future in Wisconsin; people are paying attention, and overreach corrects itself. I do believe these moves will be a strategic blunder. With Act 10 people were able to compartmentalize the impacts; not all citizens are public employees, and the role of organized labor is contested in the electorate. Not so with democracy. I have to believe support for basic democratic norms is something that can unite Republican and Democrat alike.

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The Wisconsin Power Grab

So a little bit about what is going on in Wisconsin. It is a blatant political move to handcuff the new administration and it is disgusting. Much of it is in the weeds, meaning it may not get the attention it deserves. So what is in it?

  • Redundancy. Currently state agencies can be asked by the legislature to conduct a retrospective economic impact analysis of an admin rule. Under this law the legislature can ask for an independent analysis within 90 days of the agency’s analysis. It shows distrust in agencies.
  • Power grab. This bill subjects the Governor’s appointees to the Group Insurance Board to Senate confirmation.
  • More power grab. The bill increases the size of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) from 12 to 18 people; 10 of which are appointed by the legislature. This shifts control of the WEDC from the governor to the legislature.
  • Naked politics. The bill moves the presidential primary from April to March to suppress turnout in the supreme court race. This is also inefficient.
  • Undermining the Attorney General (AG). Currently when parties (like local government) allege a statute is unconstitutional it goes to the AG. Now it will go to the legislature.
  • More undermining. The AG will no longer be able to “compromise or discontinue” a DOJ action at the governor’s request, it instead is decided by the legislature. So the new AG will not be able to get Wisconsin out of all the cases the current AG signed us up for.
  • Undermining agencies. Agency compliance plans with federal law will not confer rule-making authority or empower agencies to promulgate rules.
  • Paperwork! Agencies will have to submit quarterly reports to the legislature listing “all expenditures for administrative supplies and services that are made at the discretion of or to be used by” high-level agency administrators.
  • More undermining. Currently the legislature can suspend administrative rules, but the suspension sunsets if a bill is not passed to that effect. Under this law the legislature can suspend rules multiple times, so essentially forever without passing a bill
  • More undermining. Limits the Governor’s ability to do provisional appointments
  • Guns at the Capitol. Because why not, if the new administration wants to ban firearms in the Capitol the legislature now must approve.
  • More undermining. Agencies and the Governor cannot pursue federal waivers unless the legislature passes legislation requesting the waiver.

There is more, but this gives you a taste of how obscene this legislation is. If any of this is anything more than a naked attempt to undermine the newly elected Governor and the Administrative arm of government the legislature can wait until January.

Thoughts on Wisconsin’s Governor’s Race: What Went Wrong with Gov. Walker and What to Expect from Gov. Evers

I almost made it. But I did go to sleep before the Wisconsin governor’s race was called, so I did not learn about the victory until checking my phone sometimes around 4:00 AM. So what happened, and what should we here in Wisconsin expect?

I have mixed feelings about Scott Walker and the legacy of his tenure. I voted for him more than once, attended his first inaugural, and spent a lot of time defending his policies to skeptics. I do not regret that support. Walker’s first budget was a needed correction to decades of poor budgeting practices at the state level. Walker’s public indifference to cultural issues was refreshing and made me hopeful for a substantive tenure. Even Act 10 held promise as a public management revolution. Walker’s start was, in my opinion, promising. What happened? Here, in no particular order, are the missteps that sunk Walker (in my opinion of course):

  • The 250,000 jobs promise. It was just dumb. It was a gimmick rooted in rudimentary messaging strategy rather than serious leadership.
  • The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). This was a promising idea executed poorly. And by poorly I mean not at all; I see little evidence that serious thought was given to how this would work in practice.
  • Turning down federal healthcare dollars and stopping the high-speed rail project revealed a leader who favored political calculus over cost-benefit analysis. Federalism does not mean the absence of a fiscal and regulatory relationship with other layers of government.
  • Disjointed education policy. Rather than a clear vision we saw bits and pieces that never really came together. I could spend a lot of time on this, but changing state tests, never separating education spending from tax relief, and the shift away from equity evidenced by favoring general categorical aid increases over revenue limit increases are the biggest trouble spots.
  • Starving local government. The fiscal stress facing municipal government due to the shared revenue freeze is inconsistent with what I thought would happen when a former county executive who favors local control took office. It placed local government in constant react mode. I really thought Walker would empower rather than hinder local government leaders.
  • Punitive higher-ed policy. I am probably too close to this one, but Walker’s statements and funding decisions in higher-ed show a lack of understanding (or concern) of how faculty labor markets work. Any potential to enact needed reforms in the UW system were undermined by punitive actions.
  • Another case of a potentially good thing undermined when political calculus overtook cost-benefit analysis.
  • Lack of post-Act 10 follow up.. Act 10 was tough, but had (and still has potential) to improve public management in the state. But where was the follow up? Why are we still talking about fiscal impacts 7 seven years later? What has been done to empower local governments to make the most of their new management freedoms and responsibilities?

The common theme here is that Governor Walker did not have a second act. The execution and the follow-up were not there, and hence there was no comprehensive governing strategy evident to the public. All of these problems were magnified in the aftermath of his failed presidential bid, and the chaos of Trumpism.

So what will happen under Evers? With split control of government I am not expecting radical changes. But here are my reasonable expectations (hopes?):

  • Rather than focus on a repeal of Act 10, which is not realistic, let’s develop new supports for public managers, and new avenues for public employee empowerment (I will expand on this idea in future writing I promise!).
  • Reasonable shared revenue increases, and the return of inflation indexing to increase certainty in local government finances.
  • The implementation of Evers’ Fair Funding for our Future education funding plan. I supported this back in the day and continue to think there are good ideas here to make our K-12 funding system more logical, equitable, and impactful.
  • Throw us a bone in higher-ed! The resource environment is rough and our creative solutions are well-intentioned but are not the long-term answer.
  • Rather than talk about repealing the Milwaukee voucher program let’s make it work as part of a common Milwaukee governance reform (I have ideas, feel free to e-mail me!).
  • Engage the talent in the UW system. A plug here for UWO’s MPA program: We have expertise, ideas, and will travel!

Less specific but more important is competent management and execution of a clear vision for Wisconsin. As I said, I have confidence based on what I’ve seen, and I am hopeful.

 

Doing More with Less: Making it Work at a Wisconsin University

Little is as professionally difficult as being told you must do more tomorrow than you did today because of external issues unrelated to your job performance. Oh, and with fewer resources. But this is the reality facing many public sector employees, and this is my reality at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. In my five years here my travel money has been cut to $400, my teaching load increased to a 4-3, and my department cut to just three faculty members. During the same time period I’ve published consistently, received good teaching evaluations, and watched our MPA program grow from 58 to 80 students. We’ve launched new online programming, and new emphases in areas like nonprofit management. As important, my colleagues are awesome. They publish, innovate, and contribute to the health and vibrancy of our field, our university, and our community.

In short, our program is doing great things, and poised to do even better things.

Hence it is an odd time of consistently good news within my program, and mostly bad news coming from the outside. People are reacting to our resource challenges in different ways. Some faculty members have left. Many more have been tempted to leave. Some are organizing to create a union presence. Some are understandably cutting back on research. In some quarters morale is suffering. I myself am choosing to have a positive attitude. Why?

It’s not the university’s fault. Ok, no doubt the university is not perfect, and questionable management in the past is at least a partial cause of the challenges we face today. But our primary resource challenges are a function of political decisions beyond the university’s control. Changing demographics are also a major factor. It is hard for me to fault the current university administration; someone has to make these tough decisions.

It’s what I signed up for. As I tell my students, part of working in the public sector is living under a level of political control. No, my dean is not a politician, nor is the rest of the university’s leadership, but fiscal and policy decisions are subject to the political whims of the day. I do not like getting resources cut, but having worked in politics I understand that these things can and do happen.

I’m stubborn. We all create our own personal narratives to a degree, so allow me to share one of my foundational anecdotes. When doing my dissertation research I sought cooperation from professional entities that would have made my work a lot easier. They declined to cooperate, which only increased my enthusiasm for doing the project. It was harder, but I was not going to allow others to dictate my course of action.

We can be creative. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I think Abe Lincoln said that (this is a multi-level Bob Dylan reference for the uninitiated). Resources can come from many places. Personally it is hard to complain about cuts in travel money when I still get to travel to present research on a regular basis. The money for this travel comes from external grants and organizations willing to fund my talks. I have to be proactive, and often have to turn good opportunities down, but so far it is working. Other creative solutions, like collaboration between departments, partnerships with organizations outside the university, and multi-campus collaborations are occurring as well. Universities are populated by smart people adept at finding creative solutions to difficult problems. An unintended positive impact of our challenges may be the unleashing of these creative forces.

Things change. I am confident the resource environment will improve. This may be a political change, the realization of our university’s right-sizing goals, or the creation of a university bureaucracy that is more personalized to the goals and talents of individual professors. Why not play to our strengths? Give those who publish more the time and resources to continue to publish. Let those that teach best teach more classes and get rewarded for it. Let those that serve best serve more. I realize it is much more complex than my simplistic presentation, but I do think incentive structures within the university bureaucracy can be individualized to the benefit of all.

Our work is important. I see it when a student has a break through. I see it when a piece of research impacts practice or a policy debate. I see it when our graduates do great things in their communities. I see it in our collaborations with practitioners. I refuse to allow something like reduced travel money or increased teaching loads dilute the positive impact our program is having.

Perhaps I am delusional, but I prefer to simply control what I can control. I cannot unliterary solve the resource and political challenges faced by my university. But I can work hard every day to provide the best student experience I can, do my part to contribute to a positive work environment, and produce research that advances practice and my field. So that is what I choose to do. I figure any positive impact I have in a difficult resource environment will only be magnified when things improve.

Slow Blogging, But Still Doing Stuff!

So I have been a little dormant over here, a higher teaching load is cutting down a bit on my blogging. But, if interested, you can still check out my latest academic research below:

I also have new blog-style pieces of at the PATimes

And last, be sure to check out this excellent story on student mobility in Milwaukee schools.

Remembering 17 Years Ago

I was a sophomore in college on September 11, 2001.

I woke up at 7:30 that Tuesday morning, put on my old sweaty baseball cap, and walked across the campus to my composition course. I still remember the lesson, we were discussing the various types of citation style, Chicago style, MLA, etc. The class began at 8:15, 8:48 passed and went. Incredibly bored, I stared at the clock and finally got out at 9:30.

Like I did every Tuesday and Thursday, I went to the Connelly Center, the ski lodge style student union, and bought a muffin and smoothie from Holy Grounds.

The Connelly Center has dozens of televisions that broadcast the news, sports, and other programming at all times. By 9:30 all of those televisions were tuned to CNN, or the local news. But the only sign I saw that something was amiss was a curious comment from Andreas Bloch.

He was a basketball player from Germany, he had a nice shot but was not overly-impressive on the court. My only relevant memory of him was on 9/11. As I walked away from Holy Grounds, I overheard Bloch saying something to the tune of “something hit the World Trade Center.”

My first thought was to dismiss the comment. If something significant had happened I would have seen it on CNN.com earlier that morning. Nonetheless, I made my way back to by dorm room to turn on my T.V.

Walking to my building, there was little to indicate that there was anything wrong. What I remember most from the walk was the sky; it was blue with just a few clouds. It was crisp, and I felt like maybe I needed a jacket. I walked up to the third floor and saw one of my neighbors and his girlfriend crying.

I didn’t put the Bloch comment about something hitting the Trade Center and the crying together. My thought was that my neighbor and his girlfriend had suffered some sort of personal tragedy. In retrospect, maybe they did have family and friends in the towers; who knows?

I entered my tiny room, turned on my tiny T.V. and immediately saw the helicopters flying around the north tower. It was a close-up shot, and the announcers on CNN had already concluded that it was an act of terror, and were haphazardly trying to figure out who would do this, Osama Bin Laden was the default enemy.

Not knowing what to do, I opened up my door and saw that my next door neighbor’s door was open, I walked in, “do’ya believe this?”

His response, “Tom Clancy predicted this.” Now, my next-door neighbor was a jerk. Living in a single dorm your sophomore year is code for “I’m incapable of living with other human beings.”

“Tom Clancy?” I thought sarcastically. Whatever.

I made my way to the Connelly Center, still clutching my muffin and smoothie. My stomach was churning. As I made the short walk I saw dozens of people freaking out, desperately trying to call relatives on cell phones. Of course, all across the east coast cell phone networks were jammed; no one was getting through.

There were no screams in the union; just soft statements of disbelief.

I did not believe the tower fell. I was not trying to be optimistic, the camera angle on CNN which showed the tower falling was obstructed with so much smoke I believed there was some sort of secondary explosion.

That day was in slow motion, it was still only 9:45 A.M. I had a ten o’clock accounting class…I went.

Being enrolled in the College of Commerce and Finance guaranteed you two things, a laptop, and accounting. I walked into class, plugged in, and along with the rest of the class tried to get to CNN.com. It took ten minutes to get a page. “Damn” I thought, “it is still going on.”

My professor walked in and said, “I know something is going on, if you need to leave you can, but the University has suggested that classes go on. In here we will be doing accounting.”

For the next hour I watched on CNN.com as the second tower collapsed, and word of the attack on the Pentagon spread. Everyone in the class whispering to each other the latest rumors.

The one I remember most was the report of the bombing of the State Department. After class when I got to a T.V. CNN was showing footage of nothing happening at the State Department, suggesting that the bombing took place on the other side of the building.

In downtown Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) shut down as a safety precaution. At the same time, thousands of workers in downtown Philadelphia flooded the streets after being sent home. For awhile they were stranded, but eventually SEPTA began running trains to get people home.

That night, I attended a prayer service at the Pavilion. The Pavilion is the campus arena where the basketball team plays many of its home games. That night, it was a candle-vigil attended by thousands of students. The speaker gave a lovely speech about how we can only imagine what is happening just 90 miles north of here, but we can pray.

I looked around at the wood bleachers, the thousands of candles, and realized it was a small miracle that the building did not start on fire.

I walked back to my dorm alone with the stars shining down upon me. Something was different, no planes. Except the occasional formation of A-10’s flying up and down the east coast I would see no planes for several days.

And that there is my 9/11 play-by-play. The next morning I woke up, checked CNN to see if the day before really happened, and went for a run. I was astounded by all the American flags. They were everywhere.

What is so interesting to me about that day is what you learned about friends, families and neighbors. Who was scared, who was logical, who was a conspiracy theorist, who was rational (or irrational), who wanted vengeance, who thought the chickens had come to roost, and who you didn’t hear from. There are, thankfully, so few days that exist as a collective memory.

It is incredible that it has been this long. Back in 2001 I took a political theory course and the professor asked us to write an essay on evil, every single person in the class wrote about 9/11. His reaction was that like everything else, the horror of this will fade. I suppose he was right, 17 years of war, politics and distractions has faded our collective memories. Still, it is remarkable how clearly I (and presumably most everyone else) can recite the events of that day. Just thought I’d share.

Breaking down Wisconsin Gubernatorial Candidate Positions on Vouchers

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a nice overview of the policy positions of the eight politicians vying for the Democrat gubernatorial nomination August 14th. I am particularly interested in candidate views on school vouchers, and unfortunately, most of the stated policy positions are out of step with reality. For example, Matt Flynn says he would “require voucher schools to accept students with disabilities until systems are phased out.” How exactly can you require schools to do something they are already required to do? Voucher accepting schools cannot screen for special needs, and though there are real differences in the number of special needs pupils and the severity of their needs pupils in public and voucher accepting schools, the issue of screening is a matter of law.

Mike McCabe states he would immediately end the voucher system. In Milwaukee this would create an immediate crisis. Ninety-three private schools with 29,769 students enroll over half of their students via the MPCP. It is not a stretch to say these schools (and probably many more) would no longer be viable without the MPCP. Ending the MPCP means closing schools, gutting a part of Milwaukee’s education infrastructure, and creating chaos for both families and school systems. Racine similarly has a large number of private schools highly reliant on vouchers. Simply, McCabe’s position could be implemented statewide, but is an impossible one in Milwaukee and Racine.

Most of the other candidates advocate phasing out the voucher programs by stopping new enrollees from attending, which would essentially phase vouchers out one grade level at a time. This position obviously comes from a good place; candidates do not want to disrupt lives by kicking kids out of school, but will nonetheless create chaos in Milwaukee, especially in K-8 schools. Schools have fixed costs, eliminating a grade level at a time is not viable beyond a year or two for the huge number of MPCP schools highly reliant on vouchers. On average, each K-8 grade enrolls about 10% of the total MPCP K-8 student population. Assuming this holds more-or-less true at the school level, MPCP schools will see 10% of their revenues disappear each year. You combine this with high mobility (which exists across all sectors in Milwaukee education), and you will see school closures in a year or two, and a full-blown crisis soon thereafter.

The only candidate with a plausible plan is Tony Evers, who says he “Wants to phase out four voucher systems over time, unless Legislature passes a significant funding increase for public schools and adds accountability regulations for voucher schools.” Such a phase out would create the problems I just mentioned, but at the very least Evers expresses an openness to compromise on the issue. I can only speculate this openness comes from his awareness of the reality in Milwaukee based on his work at DPI.

I am the first to admit that voucher programs have their flaws, heck I continue to take heat for not seeing the merit or urgency in the statewide and special needs voucher programs. And I wrote a whole book on the practical problems created in Milwaukee due to governance fragmentation. But on balance I was disappointed that so many candidates are taking a position divorced from the reality of Milwaukee’s education infrastructure. Recognizing the problems as it exists is a necessary step for positive action. It is likely these positions are merely primary politics. It is also likely the candidate with the most reasonable response and the most understanding of the MPCP will win the primary. Meaning, the MPCP is not going away. But still, can we improve this debate?