Executives love power. It's why President Barack Obama hasn't reversed most of the executive excesses of the Bush administration. With a hostile Congress, Obama is likely to push the office of the presidency even further in his last two years. The American president in the 21st century, regardless of party, follows the Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor Doctrine -- "MORE POWER!"
While he is gearing up for a presidential run of his own, Gov. Scott Walker isn't waiting to expand his executive power. With a friendly and lopsided Legislature, it is only natural that Walker will try to expand executive power at the state level. However, legislators should be wary of expanding the governor's power just because they like the person in office. Walker's current power plays involve the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Economic Development Council.
The governor has confirmed there are discussions about giving the UW System more autonomy. Details are slim but it looks similar to a previous proposal to spin off UW-Madison as a "public authority," only this time it would include all of the campuses across the state.
Under the previous proposal, the New Badger Partnership, the governor would appoint the majority of members to a new and powerful board of trustees that would have oversight over many areas now under legislative purview.
True, the current Legislature is borderline hostile to the UW System, and some extreme members would like to dissolve UW Extension altogether. But exchanging a group of people who want to starve our public universities with a perpetual tuition freeze for a board of trustees willing to raise tuition by double digits isn't much of a win.
The Legislature is too driven by anti-public education ideology, but that doesn't mean the oversight system is broken.
Walker is also eager to expand his power over the Wisconsin Economic Development Council by getting rid of the lawmakers from both parties who sit on the board of the quasi-public agency and replacing them with gubernatorial appointees.
Most state agencies don't have boards featuring representation of the minority party. Most state level agencies are run by political appointees. The key difference between WEDC and other state-level agencies revolves around open records access. Open records requests keep the government's business public, a crucial bit of sunshine that promotes efficiency and transparency -- even if they can sometimes be really annoying for those of us who work in government.
But much of the work of WEDC isn't subject to open records requests, specifically, meetings officials hold with businesses about incentives for relocation or expansion. The governor's legal counsel has stated that releasing that information would harm the state's economy.
"If businesses hesitate or simply refuse to deal with WEDC because they fear disclosure of this information, the people of this state suffer the consequences," says a statement from the governor's office.
It's an argument for economic development, but it is a terrible recipe for good government. It's as if the Department of Public Instruction could withhold information on any meeting it has with a school. Or if the Department of Natural Resources could shred any memo featuring the words "deer" or "tree."
With limited access to open records from WEDC, the board provides an element of accountability for this state agency. Walker's reorganization proposal for WEDC represents the worst formula for a public-private organization -- it lacks the public-sector oversight that comes from open records and the private-sector oversight of a board of directors. Whether they like the current governor of not, the Legislature should have an eye on WEDC. It is in the best interest of both parties to keep representation on the WEDC board.
A strong Legislature is in the interest of all Wisconsinites, perhaps more so for Republicans. Republicans have a lock on state government right now, but that can't last forever -- someone please tell me it can't last forever -- and it is a heck of a lot easier to flip the governor's mansion than the State Assembly. Democrats tend to pack themselves into our state's urban areas; a 70% Democratic district produces the same number of state reps as a 51% Republican district. Even without gerrymandered maps, Republicans have a natural advantage to hold at least half of the Legislature.
Republicans should want to keep the Legislature powerful with key oversight over both the UW System and WEDC.