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Wisconsin GOP senators fire more Evers appointees from state boards

Senators also sent a package of tax cuts to the governor's desk

A wide view of the Senate chambers showing the seats and rotunda ceiling.
The Wisconsin State Senate chambers on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Another batch of Gov. Tony Evers’ appointees to state governing boards have been rejected by Republican state Senators, including a former lieutenant governor and former state lawmaker.  

During a Tuesday floor session, the Senate voted down a total of four Evers appointees, including three to the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority and Board. Included in the list was former Democratic Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, Wisconsin’s first woman elected to that office who served with former Gov. Jim Doyle from 2003 until 2011. 

Democrats blasted their Republican colleagues for the votes, saying they were putting partisan politics ahead of Lawton’s background and interest in serving as a volunteer on the hospital board. A frustrated Sen. Brad Pfaff, D-Onalaska, who was himself once fired by the Senate from his job as state ag commissioner, asked “what is happening here?” before Republicans booted Lawton from the position.

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“This is a lieutenant governor of our state who was serving on a University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics Authority Board, and there’s a move to reject her,” Pfaff said. “I hope that I get the opportunity to better understand the decision making of something like this.”

Republican senators did not explain their opposition to Lawton’s appointment.

Republican Sens. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, Mary Felzkowski, R-Tomahawk, and Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, joined all Democrats in supporting Lawton, whose appointment was rejected by a vote of 19-13.

The Senate also fired former Democratic state Rep. Sondy Pope of Cross Plains, who served in the Wisconsin Assembly for more than 20 years, from the UW Hospital board.

Senate Minority Leader Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, called it “a weird day” in chamber with Republicans opposing a former colleague. 

“What in the world did Sondy Pope ever do to you?” Hesselbein asked.

Senators also rejected Evers’ appointment of Candice Owley of Milwaukee to the Hospitals Board.

Todd Ambs, who recently served as the state Department of Natural Resources deputy secretary, was also fired by Senate Republicans from his position on the state’s Natural Resources Board, or NRB. Ambs was among four people appointed to the NRB by Evers in October after the Senate fired the governor’s prior nominees.

This time, Republicans cited a reason for the firing. Sen. Felzkowski said Ambs used his power as deputy DNR secretary to “hurt the aquaculture industry in the state.” She then read a tweet from Ambs, which claimed the Republican Party and Fox News “is filled with assholes, domestic terrorists and traitors.”

“So now, my ask of Gov. Evers going forward is to please appoint people who are willing to work with liberals, who are willing to work with conservatives, Green Party, independent, whomever,” Felzkowski said. “Because I will just use Gov. Evers’ words: We’re not a blue state. We’re not a red state. We’re a purple state.”

Almost immediately after the Senate fired the appointees, Evers issued a statement accusing Republicans of upending “basic functions of democracy” and announced new appointees to the NRB and the UW board. 

Barbara Lawton served as Wisconsin’ Lieutenant Governor under Governor Jim Doyle. Photo: Karen (CC-BY).

Evers appointed former Port Washington High School teacher Deb Dassow to replace Ambs on the NRB.

On the UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority and Board, Evers appointed former Democratic state Reps. Deb Kolste and Donna Seidel as well as Ryan Niebauwer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to replace Lawton, Pope and Owley. 

Senate approves GOP tax cuts that would spend down Wisconsin’s budget surplus, sending them to Evers’ desk

A raft of tax cuts, passed by the Assembly last week, also passed the Senate Tuesday and now go to the governor’s desk. 

The largest of the tax cuts would expand Wisconsin’s second lowest income tax bracket, so that people who earn more money would pay lower taxes.

Currently, that bracket covers earnings between $14,320 and $28,640 for individuals and $19,090 to $38,190 for married couples. The GOP proposal would expand the bracket to cover earnings of up to $112,500 for individuals and $150,000 for married couples. The tax rate for those receiving the credit would drop from 5.3 percent down to 4.4 percent. 

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said with a state budget surplus of more than $3 billion “just sitting there earning interest,” it’s time to give the money back.

“It’s the taxpayers money, it’s time to give that money back to the taxpayers of Wisconsin, provide true and meaningful tax relief for all Wisconsin’s hard working families,” LeMahieu said.

Senators sit at their desks.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, right, listens during floor debate Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, pushed back by accusing Republicans of only wanting “tax cuts for the rich” while opposing the expansion of state programs aimed at helping lower-income individuals.

Aside from the income tax cut, other bills in the package would also reduce state tax collections in other ways.

  • For retirees 65 and older, the first $75,000 of retirement income would be excluded from state taxes. For married couples, the bill would exempt the first $150,000. The average cut would be $1,582. 
  • Another bill would increase an existing nonrefundable tax credit for married couples from $480 to $870. Republican supporters say the change is what the original credit would have grown to if it were indexed to inflation 
  • The fourth GOP tax cut proposal would expand Wisconsin’s credit for child and dependent care expenses to 100 percent of what an individual claims on their federal income tax return. Currently, the credit only covers up to half of the federal credit. That bill passed the Senate by a vote of 29-3 and passed the Assembly last week 92-4. Governor Tony Evers has said “the child care tax credit seems like something that would work.”

All told, the Legislature’s nonpartisan budget office said the cuts would reduce state tax collections by around $1.4 billion per year once they take effect.

Senate passes grants to emergency departments introduced after major hospitals in western Wisconsin announce plans to close

Two Republican bills that would shore up emergency hospital services in Chippewa and Eau Claire counties were approved by senators, Tuesday.

They were introduced weeks after Hospital Sisters Health System announced it will close HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls. HSHS partner Prevea Health also announced the pending closure 10 primary and specialty care clinics in the area.

The announcements took community leaders by surprise who said it means longer drive times for city ambulance services that could affect patient outcomes.

Exterior of St. Joseph's Hospital
HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls will be closed by April 21 due to “prolonged financial and operational stress,” according to the health care system. Photo courtesy of HSHS

Other Senate actions

The senate passed several other proposals Tuesday. They include: 

  • A measure that would require the UW to instruct non-resident students on how to vote absentee in their home states. Supporters of the bill say it would give out-of-state students more information and options, while opponents say it’s aimed at turning away likely Democratic voters in a swing state that led the nation in youth turnout in the 2022 midterm elections. 
  • A requirement that local elected officials be notified of refugee resettlement plans within a 100 mile radius of where those resettlements will happen. That bill, which passed with only Republican votes, follows an announcement by resettlement agency World Relief that it plans to place 75 refugees in the Eau Claire area. Bill supporters say the agency and a local city manager did not properly notify members of the Eau Claire County board about the plan. Opponents of the legislation say it’s aimed at slowing refugee resettlements. 
  • A nonbinding GOP resolution requesting Gov. Evers send financial aid and resources to the U.S.-Mexico border to assist with illegal crossings.