During its deliberations on a two-year state budget plan, the Joint Finance Committee, on an 11-5 vote, passed a motion to direct the Department of Administration to study a merger between the Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP.)
The committee's suggestion was that this new agency could be called the Department of Agriculture, Regulation and Trade or DART.
When Gov. Scott Walker transformed the state Commerce Department into the Economic Development Corporation, some of the regulatory functions performed there were spun off into the newly recreated DSPS.
That agency is responsible for the licensing of 250 professions and works with numerous advisory panels to get this work done. There are 450,000 license holders who are regulated by the DSPS.
The agency and its advisory groups are responsible for assuring state residents that professionals in a wide variety of occupations are competent and that it is safe for them to practice their trades to citizens of Wisconsin.
State Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel said that lawmakers often assume that consolidations like this proposal will result in efficiencies and that was the rationale for mandating this study.
He said he wasn't asked by lawmakers about this proposal or the idea behind it.
Brancel, who is in his second appointment as DATCP secretary, has previous served as a lawmaker. He was Speaker of the Assembly and had also served as co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee.
"I'm told the DSPS has 161 employees in Madison and 319 authorized positions around the state. They are responsible for building and safety issues, elevators and equipment inspections," he told Wisconsin State Farmer.
The DSPS has 79 separate boards overseeing professional regulations for nurses, dental hygienists, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, barbers, veterinarians and beauticians, among others.
But Brancel builds a slow smile when asked about the name of the possible consolidated agency. "It won't be DART. I won't have a target on my back," he said.
The committee's motion directs the Department of Administration to complete a study by next January on the possibility of this merger of two agencies.
That study, says Brancel, will be a tough one to complete in the time frame lawmakers have set out.
The possible merger comes on top of an earlier budget proposal to consolidate petroleum tank programs at DATCP. The weights and measures staff at Brancel's agency is already responsible for making sure that gas pumps are accurate.
The budget proposal would also move staff and funding to DATCP for safety inspections of petroleum tanks at gas stations.
Paul Zimmerman, executive director of governmental relations for Wisconsin Farm Bureau said the merger of DATCP and DSPS is a "valid discussion to have" in terms of saving money and eliminating duplication of services but he hopes if it goes through there will be more resources at the DATCP to go with it.
"At some point in time legislators might want to look at all the agencies to look for savings that could be made and efficiencies that could be gained," he added.
Duplications of staff and services are no fault of the agencies; it's just the way things got set up, Zimmerman said.
Earlier budget bills have changed certain functions of state government, he added, like allowing DATCP to regulate captive wildlife rather than leaving that up to DNR. "It's nothing new."
Some of the committee's department merger discussion has also toyed with the idea of removing the consumer protection functions from DATCP. That subject has been a political hot potato for many years.
Some lawmakers and regulators believe that consumer protection staff belongs in the Department of Justice where attorneys litigate for consumers who believe they've been wronged.
Others maintain that the cost of consumer protection is lower when people who are not attorneys can advocate for consumers, as they do at DATCP.
Zimmerman said that having DATCP include consumer protection activities makes it an agency that all lawmakers have a stake in, since they all have constituents who may need the help of consumer protection personnel.
During the most recent meeting of the citizen policy board for DATCP, Brancel commented to members that he wasn't sure what the board's role would be if a merger with DSPS took place.
As it stands now, the board is made up of seven representatives from various agricultural sectors and two from the realm of consumer protection. If the consolidation of departments were to happen Brancel said he wasn't sure how the board would need to change.