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Evers seeks deal as alternative to Republican PFAS bill

Evers urges compromise as he's signaled he will veto a GOP plan to address PFAS pollution

Gov. Evers looks forward as he delivers an address from the podium.
Gov. Tony Evers delivers the State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is proposing a compromise to GOP lawmakers that would provide $125 million to help local governments and landowners address PFAS pollution.

The request comes as Evers has all but promised to veto a Republican bill that passed the Legislature to address contamination from so-called forever chemicals known as PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Last week, the Republican-controlled Assembly voted 62-35 to pass the bill along party lines. The Senate passed the legislation in November.

Evers has signaled concerns with provisions in the GOP plan that would limit the authority of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to test for and clean up the chemicals. The governor called those a “poison pill” that gives polluters a free pass.

“In Wisconsin, if someone pollutes our water, property, and natural resources, Wisconsinites expect them to pay to clean it up. That’s just common sense,” Evers said in a statement. “I’m not signing a bill that lets polluters off the hook for cleaning up their contamination and asks Wisconsin taxpayers to foot the bill. No way.”

A yard sign says "Stop poisoning our water."
A sign in Kayla Furton’s yard Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Peshtigo, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

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The legislation sponsored by Green Bay Republican Sens. Eric Wimberger and Rob Cowles would prevent the DNR from taking enforcement action against people deemed “innocent landowners” as long as they let the agency clean up the chemicals at the state’s expense.

The DNR would need to seek permission from landowners to test their water for PFAS under the legislation. It would also limit the agency’s ability to require property owners to test for PFAS unless it had probable cause to believe PFAS levels would exceed state or federal standards. That’s a concern as Wisconsin currently lacks standards for the chemicals in groundwater.

Evers said Tuesday his compromise is “functionally identical” to the GOP bill, minus those provisions. It would also guarantee release of the state funds, providing $100 million in municipal grants and $25 million in grants for landowners.

Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, who sits on the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance, said legislators shouldn’t be playing politics with people’s water.

“To me, it’s very simple. Every Wisconsinite should have the freedom to drink clean safe water from their tap, and the Legislature has the obligation to make sure they’re able to exercise that freedom,” Roys said. “I’m hopeful that Republicans will finally come to the table on this and pass this latest compromise.”

Wisconsin state Sen. Eric Wimberger.
Wisconsin state Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, is photographed during a state Senate session on June 28, 2023, in the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison, Wis. Drake White-Bergey/Wisconsin Watch

Evers’ offer comes as time is running out on the legislative session

The governor’s offer comes as time is running out on the current legislative session, which could limit Evers’ options to getting an agreement he can support.

Should Evers veto the GOP bill, practically speaking, there’s no more time for the full Legislature to send another alternative to his desk. The state Assembly adjourned for the year last week, meaning the PFAS bill they sent Evers amounts to the full Legislature’s final offer.

Evers’ compromise would take a different approach, seeking the release of state funds from the Finance Committee. While that 16-member panel is also controlled by Republicans, it can meet any time, removing one obstacle to a compromise.

At least initially, the GOP co-chairs of that committee did not signal any interest in Evers’ offer. In a written statement, Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said Republicans already prioritized dealing with PFAS contamination with the combination of the $125 million they set aside in the budget and the bill that passed the Legislature this month.

“Governor Evers should sign it instead of holding up these funds to give the DNR authority to penalize innocent landowners,” the co-chairs wrote.

Wimberger, who also sits on the committee, said in a statement Tuesday that the governor’s request only touches on two provisions within the bill that would turn the money set aside under the budget into a slush fund.

“[T]he Governor’s funding request simply can’t stand up the programs and the changes in law needed to effectively address the problems on the ground and doesn’t deliver the solutions that victims and affected communities are asking for,” Wimberger said.

Evers’ latest request for the PFAS funding comes after the governor first asked the Legislature’s finance committee to release the money in December and again during his State of the State address in January.