MADISON, Wis. - Gov. Scott Walker established a program that has given hundreds of thousands of dollars in merit raises and bonuses to some state workers even as he preached cost-cutting and pushed through a law reducing most public workers' pay and eliminating their union rights.
An analysis of data that the Associated Press obtained through an open records request showed Wisconsin agencies have handed out more than $765,000 in bonuses and merit raises this year to nearly 220 employees.
The awards are meant to reward stellar performance. But they come as the state faces a $143 million shortfall and after thousands of state workers took pay cuts through provisions in the collective bargaining law requiring them to contribute more to their pensions and health care.
Walker, who faces a June 5 recall election prompted by anger over the collective bargaining law, prides himself on fiscal restraint.
The Republican governor wasn't available for comment Friday. His spokesman, Cullen Werwie, referred questions to Walker's top aide, Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, who said the governor established the program because he felt it was important to mirror the private sector and provide rewards for outstanding work.
"It is a tool for a manager to go in and say this person truly set themselves apart," Huebsch said.
Agency managers must find the money within their own budgets, he added; the state doesn't provide money specifically for merit compensation.
Still, Huebsch said he warned agencies run by the governor's secretaries to hold off on issuing bonuses or raises at least until the fiscal year ends June 30. Most did, but the Department of Workforce Development gave raises to two workers, one in January and one in April.
Huebsch said managers asked for special permission to make the moves because they were afraid the workers were about to leave for the private sector.
Marty Beil, executive director of Wisconsin's largest state employee union, said the group has always had problems with merit pay because it smacks of favoritism and Walker's criteria are too subjective and vague. Beil also said he doesn't know where state agencies can find the money.
"If agencies are giving merit out, they're doing it at the expense of something else," he said. "They're all supposed to be in this frugal mind-set, which is kind of interesting."
According to the AP analysis, 218 employees across nine agencies received raises or bonuses adding up to $765,195 between Jan. 1, when the merit program took effect, and Tuesday.