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Republican senators fire host of Evers appointees

Democrats say the actions are another example of the GOP's attempt to obstruct state government despite Evers' reelection

The Wisconsin State Capitol
Joe Tarr/WPR

Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Senate voted Tuesday to fire more than half a dozen Democratic appointees who’ve been serving on boards overseeing issues ranging from the environment to elections to medial licensing.

All but one Republican senator voted against confirming four of Evers’ appointees to the state’s Natural Resources Board. That amounts to nixing more than half of the seven-person body, which sets sometimes-contentious policies, including regulations on wolf hunting.

Unconfirmed appointees are allowed to serve until they’re either approved or rejected by the Senate. Evers has already announced replacement nominees for all but one of the positions, so commissions, including the Natural Resources Board, can continue their work.

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Still, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard of Madison accused the GOP of continued attempts to undermine state government, despite Evers’ being elected in 2018 and again in 2022.

“It is clear that this is an example of more extreme actions, and the inability to carry on even the most basic responsibilities of the Senate, highlighting the dysfunction of this body,” she said.

Agard said Tuesday’s actions could hurt Wisconsin’s ability to recruit the “best and brightest” to serve on boards and commissions in the future.

“Why the heck would they put themselves through this process, if they’re just going to be pulled over a cheese grater, and denied the ability to stand up and serve the great state of Wisconsin?” Agard said.”This is alarming. This is unprecedented.”

Republicans defend duty to vet appointees

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, it’s been rare for Wisconsin’s Senate to vote down executive appointments — the body had rejected a total of five such appointments since 1981, Agard said.

In 2019, Senate Republicans broke the longstanding mold when they voted to fire then-Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Brad Pfaff, an Evers appointee who has since been elected to the state Senate as a Democrat.

On Tuesday, the nonprofit environmental law center known as Midwestern Environmental Advocates blasted the firing of Sandra Dee Naas, Jim VandenBrook, Dylan Jennings and Sharon Adams from the Natural Resources Board as “a new level of partisan dysfunction.”

Republican lawmakers, however, said they were carrying out their duty to vet appointees. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, said Adams wasn’t able to answer questions about statewide policy in enough detail. And Felzkowski said she wasn’t satisfied with answers given by Naas about a 2017 law that limits the NRB’s authority to approve agency rules that require more than $10 million in spending over two years without legislative approval.

“This is a message to Gov. Evers to appoint people that are up to speed on the state as a whole so that we can continue to make good decisions around our natural resources,” Felzkowski said.

Senate fires elections board member, who defended nonpartisan administrator

Also on Tuesday, Republicans fired Joseph Czarnezki from the Wisconsin Elections Commission when they declined to approve his nomination by Evers for a term that began last May.

Czarnezki, a former Milwaukee County clerk, has come under fire by Republicans for defending Wisconsin Elections Administrator Meagan Wolfe, the nonpartisan official who oversees how Wisconsin’s elections are run.

Earlier this year, Czarnezki joined the other Democratic members of the bipartisan commission in abstaining from a vote to advance Wolfe’s renomination to the Senate, with the goal of preventing that body from having the chance to vote to fire her. Wolfe has been a target of false conspiracy theories from people who deny Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential election.

“The Governor’s appointment to the Wisconsin Elections Commission violated the law by refusing to promptly and properly appoint an election administrator,” Sen. Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R- Oostburg, said of Carnezki in a statement.

Even though the Elections Commission never advanced Wolfe’s renomination, the GOP-led Senate held a vote to fire Wolfe as if her nomination had been advanced. That prompted Wisconsin’s Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul to sue, asking a Dane County judge to clarify that Wolfe can remain in her job because the Senate’s vote had no legal force. In the latest filing as part of that lawsuit, attorneys for the Republican Legislature admitted the vote to fire Wolfe was “symbolic rather than legally binding.

Some Republican lawmakers have threatened to impeach Wolfe for remaining in office. Tuesday’s firing of an elections commissioner “represents yet another escalation of Republicans’ attempts to usurp control of the Elections Commission,” a news release Tuesday from the governor’s office said.

Sen. Rob Cowles of Green Bay was the lone Republican to vote against firing Czarnezki and the four Natural Resources Board members.

Republicans senators on Tuesday, however, were united when they declined to reappoint Dr. Sheldon Wasserman to the Medical Examining Board. The obstetrician-gynecologist has been leading that board which oversees licensing for medical professionals since 2019. Wasserman, a former Democratic state representative, is a supporter of abortion rights and a plaintiff in ongoing lawsuit from Wisconsin’s attorney general which seeks to block prosecutions of abortion providers.

Additionally, GOP senators rejected Evers’ appointment of Democratic strategist Melissa Baldauff to the Council on Domestic Abuse. And they voted down the agriculture secretary’s appointment of Jerry Halverson to the board that reviews permit application appeals for livestock facilities.

Evers has appointed Todd Ambs, Robin Schmidt, Patty Schachtner and Douglas Cox to the Natural Resources Board. He’s also nominated Carrie Riep to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Dr. Steven Leuthner to the Medical Examining Board and Shannon Barry to the Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse. Agriculture Secretary Randy Romanski has not yet named a replacement to the Livestock Facility Siting Review Board, an agency spokesperson said.