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Evers says it’s hard to find a new DNR secretary after GOP lawmakers fired other appointees

Senate Republicans say appointees were unqualified, willing to 'break the law'

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Gov. Tony Evers stands at a podium during a speech.
Gov. Tony Evers delivers the biennial budget message Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Gov. Tony Evers said the state is having a difficult time hiring a new secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources due to the firing of his appointees by the Republican-controlled Senate.

In October, GOP lawmakers voted to fire eight appointees to state boards and commissions, including four members of the Natural Resources Board. The board oversees environmental and wildlife regulations for the DNR. All Republicans except for Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, rejected confirmation of Sharon Adams, Sandra Dee Naas, Dylan Jennings and Jim VandenBrook.

Just days after the vote, former DNR Secretary Adam Payne told Evers in a letter that he was resigning as head of the agency for personal reasons on Nov. 1. Payne had yet to be confirmed by the Senate as he was advocating for resources to address PFAS contamination and the agency’s controversial wolf management plan.

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In an interview with WPR, Evers said Republicans need to stop blocking his appointees.

“It makes it more difficult just to hire a DNR secretary,” Evers said. “We’ll get somebody. We’ll get a good person. But to have that hanging over their head, and then having decisions being made by that person based upon ‘Am I going to be hired, approved by the Senate?’ That’s just wrong.”

Evers, Republicans at odds over appointees

The governor and Republican lawmakers have sparred over nominees. Prior to the vote in October, only five appointees to boards, commissions or cabinet positions had been rejected in the past few decades, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau. The nonpartisan legislative research agency said 166 appointees have yet to receive a confirmation vote by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Evers told WPR his appointees to cabinet positions or various boards are good, smart people. He has previously insisted they’re “exceptionally qualified” to serve.

“I just think that they’re getting the raw end of the end of the stick,” Evers said. “It’s disturbing to me.”

During the Senate floor vote in October, Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Tomahawk, said she rejected appointees to the Natural Resources Board because they weren’t “up-to-speed” on natural resources issues, or they would knowingly violate a state law known as the REINS Act.

The 2017 law requires agencies to obtain legislative approval to move forward with crafting regulations that are expected to cost more than $10 million to implement over any two-year period. The DNR recently abandoned work to craft groundwater standards for PFAS because the regulations were deemed too costly to put in place.

GOP lawmaker says Senate isn’t a ‘rubber stamp’ for Evers

In a written statement, Felzkowski said Friday that Evers’ office has not reached out to Senate lawmakers about what they are looking for in the next DNR secretary.

“The Senate is not elected to serve as a rubber stamp for the Governor, which is why we’re afforded the checks and balances, contained in our statutes through the confirmation process, to ensure a proper candidate is chosen,” Felzkowski said. “Finding a secretary during split government can be difficult, because it forces both sides to meet in the middle – but we have shown time and again that this isn’t impossible, so the statement from Governor Evers is a clear cop out. My door is always open if he’s interested in having a discussion.”

Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, said in a statement Friday that he worked closely with Payne for months on a GOP bill to address PFAS contamination despite ideological differences. Wimberger said Evers intervened when discussions on the legislation were at the cusp of a deal to expand funding to address the harmful forever chemicals while protecting landowners who had contamination through no fault of their own.

“While Payne cited personal reasons for his departure, I think Evers’ troubles at the DNR relate more to his agenda and unwillingness to let his appointees work across the aisle than anything the Senate has done,” Wimberger said.

Following the vote in October, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said in a statement that Republicans have approved the vast majority of hundreds of appointees since 2018.

“Wisconsinites will not stand for public servants who are unqualified or refuse to follow the law,” LeMahieu said in October.

A spokesperson for LeMahieu said he was unavailable for comment on Friday.

Evers says he’ll continue to make appointments

After the Senate rejected his nominees, Evers immediately appointed four new members to the Natural Resources Board. They include former DNR Deputy Secretary Todd Ambs, former DNR Environmental Loans Section Chief Robin Schmidt, former Democratic state Sen. Patty Schachtner and former Menominee Indian Tribe Chair Doug Cox.

Last month, a Senate committee pressed Evers’ new appointees about their views on who should pay to clean up PFAS contamination, how much public land should be set aside and whether wolves are affecting the northern Wisconsin deer herd.

Despite the firing of his appointees, Evers said he doesn’t think it will affect how new board members make decisions on policy, saying they’re expected to do “the right thing.” Even so, the governor said it’s not a good way for the government to operate if the board’s membership is frequently changing.

“If we have to appoint new people every month, we’ll do that,” Evers said. “We’re not going to give in.”

Editor’s note: Shawn Johnson contributed reporting for this story.