Committee to Consider Eliminating Labor Review Panel

Wisconsin’s 106-year-old labor commission would vanish and Gov. Scott Walker’s administration would decide workplace disputes in its place under a budget proposal up for consideration Thursday in the Legislature’s finance committee.

Walker’s plan to eliminate the Labor and Industry Review Commission could create uncertainty in applying Wisconsin labor law, raising questions about whether the commission’s precedent-setting decisions would evaporate and whether his administration can fairly weigh cases.

The commission was formed in 1911 as the State Industrial Commission. The panel of three governor’s appointees considers appeals of administrative law judges’ rulings in fights over unemployment benefits, worker’s compensation and equal rights in the workplace.

The finance committee is a key testing ground for the budget. Its changes to Walker’s two-year, $76 billion proposal are the blueprint for what the Senate and Assembly will vote on, and though the full Legislature often makes changes, they typically don’t stray far from the committee’s recommendations.

Walker’s budget would eliminate the commission and its 26.5 positions in January to save an estimated $5.1 million. Its work would be handled by the Department of Workforce Development and the Department of Administration’s Division of Hearings and Appeals — both Walker cabinet agencies.

The governor’s administration justified the move by noting the number of appeals has dropped nearly 60 percent between 2011 and 2016. DWD Secretary Ray Allen said eliminating the commission would speed up appeals.

Parties can appeal the commission’s decisions to circuit and state appellate courts. Those courts have given great deference to the commission, lending certainty to labor disputes. Parties in disputes could end up going to court more often if it’s eliminated, leading to more expensive disputes. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates about 1,000 additional cases could end up in court annually if the commission disappears. Only 88 commission cases went to court in 2016.