Monday, March 9, 2009

Zealots with hearts of gold

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 16, 2009

By Bill Kraus

There is a movement afoot in Wisconsin to give the board of the Department of Natural Resources the power to hire and fire the secretary of that department.

This is a back-to-the-future move to a system of governance in Wisconsin that was in place until 1968. The major departments of state government (now called cabinets) were governed by boards or commissions not the elected governor. The governor, who was nonetheless responsible for the work of and results achieved by those departments, was one step removed from the direct supervision of the operating managers of those departments.

The governor did have the power to appoint those commissioners and board members, but since their terms were staggered the governor did not get putative control of the agency for several terms. Even this control was subject to the immutable law of government that every appointment creates 10 enemies and one ingrate.

A commission headed by the legendary Bill Kellett decided, properly, that since the governor was a.) elected to govern and b.) held responsible by the voters for the management of state government, the governor should have the authority to go with that responsibility, which would include hiring and firing the people running those departments.

Thus cabinet government came to Wisconsin. The governor appoints cabinet secretaries. The state Senate approves those appointments.

None of the 13 governors I have known disputed the wisdom of the Kellett Commission’s conclusions and recommendations. Nor would any scholar of governance and management. Authority and responsibility must be commensurate.

So what has brought this discredited idea back to life?

Distrust and dislike of the governor?

Distrust of elected officials?

Distrust of democracy?

Not likely.

What seems to be in the forefront of the move is a desire by large numbers of citizens whose organizations make the worthy case for environmental issues and programs to increase the spending on, attention to, and priority for these issues and programs.

This is suspiciously like the efforts of other zealots who are determined to put their special issues above the more important but general issues which voters elect officials to promote and protect.

Many years ago a man named John Gardiner said, in effect if not in fact, that the people are the least organized and most endangered sector of society.

What government by special interest has got us is what the New York Times’s Bill Safire predicted it would get us 30 years ago: hardening of the arteries.

The environmentalists’ hearts are true, their issues are important, and their cause is indisputably honorable, but they and it are not the whole thing. They and it may not even be the main thing in some cases.

The proposal is anti-democratic at best and elitist at worst.

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