Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Gladys Walsh and the Dept. of All

Headline: Doyle cancels travel contract
Award to travel firm dogged administration

Gladys Walsh was a little old lady who appeared faithfully every session in the early 1970s to deliver a single message to the Joint Finance Committee: "Abolish the Department of Administration."

Miss Walsh -- this was an era before the title Ms. was invented -- dressed like my eighth-grade teacher. She wore Navy blue flowered print dresses and hats, and looked over her rimless glasses at committee members as she lectured them in Political Science 101.

She argued that the Department of Administration was an unconstitutional agglomeration of power in a single state agency, a creature whose appetite for power had been fed by the Kellett Commission of the late '60s, which created the Department of Natural Resources and various other agencies with long names, from smaller agencies with fewer powers.

But DOA was above them all, in charge of creating the state budget for the governor and generally running the show. In the days when Pat Lucey was governor, the governor had to say "Please..." to a lot of state agencies, which were mostly independent fiefdoms run by boards that the governor could influence as he appointed his people.

DOA was the only agency that was clearly under his control. In those days, Joe Nusbaum was DOA secretary, the agency had 974 employees and its two-year budget was $40.1 million.

Governors made a habit of adding to DOA's authority over the years, no doubt causing Miss Walsh to spin in her grave.

The zenith of DOA power, of course, was under Tommy Thompson, who evidently inculcated the agency with the notion they were under under the governor's personal and political control. A long list of DOA employees were on the list of Tommy's political contributors in my database, the first -- and last -- ever assembled by a news organization in Wisconsin.

Today, the DOA has fewer employees than it had in 1973: 902.08. Somebody should find that eight-hundredths of an employee and interview him or her. That is, if the eight hundredths includes his or her mouth.

But DOA's budget has soared to $915.8 million. That's more than a five-fold increase in budget, in inflation-adjusted dollars, since the Lucey years.

Under Tommy's DOA secretary, the Germanic Jim Klauser, DOA's major failure was its attempt to sneak a gas tax increase into law. It strove to centralize the state's data functions into a giant computer under Klauser's control and accumulate still more power any way it could. Its nickname was the Department of All.

One of the first powers DOA got was control over state purchasing, in 1959. Today the agency is reeling under the indictment of a career civil servant for allegedly throwing a contract to friends of the governor.

Regardless of who knew what and who did what, maybe Gladys Walsh was right. Maybe too much authority in one place is a truly dangerous thing.