While critics accuse Gov. Scott Walker of cronyism, the case can be made that he's not a spendthrift. In terms of appointments overall, Walker has kept a lid on cabinet costs.
"Overall, our goal was to keep the total amount the same or less than where the current administration's at," Walker said when announcing his cabinet picks in late December. Asked if he had met this goal, Walker answered with an emphatic "yes."
A comparison of the total salaries of Walker's cabinet picks and those of his predecessor, Gov. Jim Doyle, shows that Walker is right. Overall, he's paying $6,081 less in total cabinet salaries than did Doyle - and that's before the provisions of Walker's budget repair bill reduce take-home salaries further.
"Gov. Walker has been asking everybody to make sacrifices to help solve our budget deficit," says Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie, "and the team Gov. Walker has assembled for his cabinet is paid less to show the kind of fiscal responsibility we're pushing for across the board."
While Doyle's exiting cabinet appointees made $4,320,233, Walker brought the numbers down to $4,313,652 (see chart).
And all cabinet appointees, like Walker himself, will see their take-home pay decline when they start to pay half their pension contributions and significantly more toward health care costs, as the budget repair bill requires.
"It's wonderful that he's saving money," says UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden, calling this "a standard move among policymakers today" at the local, state and federal level. (Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, for instance, has pledged to trim $150,000 from his personal staff.)
But Mike McCabe, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, is not concerned with the salaries' dollar amount. What matters more, he says, is who's filling the positions and how "comfortable" Gov. Walker is with "the kind of cronyism and patronage that can cost the taxpayer money."
McCabe points to Walker's appointment of Brian Deschane to the state Department of Commerce as "an episode that opened some eyes."
Deschane, 27-year-old son of influential Republican lobbyist Jerry Deschane, was tapped to fill an $81,500-a-year position despite two drunk-driving convictions, little relevant experience and a lack of a college degree. A hubbub ensued, and Deschane was demoted from the Commerce position and subsequently resigned.
More recently, Walker has taken heat for nominating Republican campaign worker Renee Miller to the Marinette County register of deeds position, despite Miller's conspicuous lack of experience with either land or vital records.
Miller has done campaign work for Marinette County Republican Rep. John Nygren and is married to Nygren's campaign treasurer, Paul Miller. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nygren wrote to Walker aide Cindy Polzin last December noting that another candidate for the job, deputy register of deeds Becky Chasensky, "has some personal issues, and she has never been involved in the party."
Upset by the appointment, the paper reported, one register of deeds employee has sought a transfer, and another may resign to protest, potentially depriving Miller of an experienced staff.
Instances like these bother Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, more than cabinet pay.
"I think it's a lot of window dressing to say [Walker] is keeping salaries the same and trying to claim that that's a constraint," Heck says. "The real concern is what he's doing right below the cabinet level."
Under the portion of Walker's budget repair bill that passed in March and is now in legal limbo, the governor would be empowered to change civil service across a range of state agencies to 37 new political appointments (see Watchdog, 3/31/11).
Heck calls this provision a "power grab" by the governor that "politicizes the positions in a way we haven't seen in over a hundred years." It would mean the top agency lawyer and spokesperson in each of 14 state agencies would be a political appointee, serving at the pleasure of the governor.
"What Walker is proposing is to wipe away the positions based on merit...and make them political appointments to award his friends," says Heck. "This is what we saw when he hired [Deschane]."
But Burden suggests the governor may be getting a raw deal, saying people might be more sensitive to his efforts to consolidate power than those of other governors. He notes that Walker "was grabbing an awful lot of authority pretty early," in some cases before even taking office.
But Walker's desire to "get some control over the bureaucracy" is a natural tendency for someone tasked with managing such an "unwieldy organization, with hundreds of thousands of employees."