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Senate committee advances 3 appointees, rejects former agency leader to DNR board

GOP-controlled Senate previously fired 4 of Gov. Tony Evers' appointees to the board

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DNR sign
Melissa Ingells/WPR

A Senate committee has signed off on three of Gov. Tony Evers’ appointees to the policy-setting board for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. But lawmakers voted to reject confirmation of a former agency leader to the board.

The Senate Committee on Financial Institutions and Sporting Heritage unanimously approved confirmation of Evers’ appointees Doug Cox, Patty Schachtner and Robin Schmidt in a vote by paper ballot on Friday. However, lawmakers voted 3-2 along party lines to reject Todd Ambs, who formerly served as the DNR’s deputy secretary.

Evers appointed the four to the Natural Resources Board after the Republican-controlled Senate fired the governor’s prior nominees in October. Those who were fired include Sharon Adams, Sandra Dee Naas, Dylan Jennings and Jim VandenBrook.

Friday’s vote clears the way for the Senate to fire Ambs as well. If it does, it will be the fifth time the Republican majority has acted to remove an Evers appointee from the board that oversees environmental and wildlife policies.

The committee’s decision comes after its chair, Sen. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, questioned whether Ambs could serve in a bipartisan fashion during a public hearing in December.

Sen. Rob Stafsholt
In this file photo, Sen. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, talks about a bill that would require the DNR to set a statewide population goal for wolves. He and other GOP lawmakers questioned Evers’ new appointees to the Natural Resources Board on Dec. 19, 2023. Screenshot from WisconsinEye

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GOP lawmaker questions whether Ambs can remain bipartisan

During that meeting, Stafsholt expressed concerns about Ambs’ ability to work with both political parties, citing two social media posts. In one, Ambs said the Republican Party and Fox News are filled with “domestic terrorists and traitors,” using an expletive to describe them. The posts have since been deleted from Ambs’ account on the website X, formerly known as Twitter.

“Would you like to explain to me how, as a Republican, I believe that I can work with you?” Stafsholt said during the December hearing.

At first, Ambs said he hadn’t posted on the social media site in many years. When Stafsholt said one post was from April of 2022, Ambs said he didn’t know what it may be referencing. He added that it’s no secret he’s not a fan of Republican former President Donald Trump.

In January, Ambs further responded to the allegations during a Natural Resources Board meeting.

“The falsehood being levied is that I’m unable to work in a bipartisan or nonpartisan manner. That allegation is patently false,” Ambs said at the  meeting.

Ambs, who stepped down as the agency’s deputy secretary in 2021, highlighted his work to negotiate the Great Lakes Compact with other Great Lakes states. Ambs said he worked with Democratic and Republican appointees to help develop the landmark agreement that bars water diversions from the Great Lakes basin with limited exceptions.

He also cited his unanimous approval to serve as chair of the Great Lakes Commission, a nonpartisan binational group that oversees water use in the Great Lakes region. Ambs just completed a two-year term as head of the group that represents eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. His successor, Mary Mertz, was chosen by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio.

“I know how to work in a bipartisan way for the benefit of our natural resources,” Ambs told the board. “It is my fervent hope that these baseless claims will not carry weight with the majority of the state Senate as they consider my nomination.”

Partners view work to slow the flow of runoff into a Lake Superior bay
From left to right, research scientist Matt Hudson with Northland College, former Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Todd Ambs and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ted Koehler viewed work underway to prevent thousands of tons of sediment from reaching a bay of Lake Superior. Danielle Kaeding/WPR

Senate confirmation vote set for Tuesday

The full Senate is set to vote on Ambs’ confirmation tomorrow, but he declined to comment ahead of the upcoming floor session.

A representative of Stafsholt’s office said he was unavailable for comment on Monday. Other Republican lawmakers on the committee either declined to comment or were not immediately available.

At its January meeting, Ambs told the board he will continue his work in public service, saying he’s proud of the role he’s played in “many shining successes” over the past four decades.

“I will not allow that record to be tarnished,” Ambs said.

The committee appeared to be in agreement about the qualifications of Schmidt, the DNR’s former environmental loans section chief; Schachtner, a former Democratic state senator; and Cox, a former chair of the Menominee Indian Tribe. 

Gov. Tony Evers looks ahead as he speaks.
Gov. Tony Evers speaks before signing the 2023-2025 biennial budget Wednesday, July 5, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

More appointees fired by Senate now than previous 4 decades

In October, GOP lawmakers voted to fire eight appointees to state boards and commissions, including the four former members of the Natural Resources Board. All Republicans except for Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, rejected confirmation of Adams, Naas, Jennings and VandenBrook.

The governor and Republican lawmakers have frequently sparred over nominees. Prior to the vote in October, only five appointees to boards, commissions or cabinet positions had been rejected since 1981, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.

As of early January, the nonpartisan legislative research agency said 166 appointees had yet to receive a confirmation vote by the Republican-controlled Senate. Later that month, the Senate voted to fire then-Public Service Commissioner Tyler Huebner, who had served since 2020. GOP lawmakers cited the utility regulator’s decisions to allow use of a solar financing tool for a Stevens Point family and a low-income program for Madison water utility customers.

Evers has said the firing of his appointees has made it difficult to hire a new DNR Secretary after the agency’s former head Adam Payne stepped down for personal reasons on Nov. 1.

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