The Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest near Boulder Junction includes stands of mature conifers. (Jonathan Kult | Wisconsin DNR)
Wisconsin’s Green Fire, a nonprofit group that says its mission is “to protect Wisconsin’s conservation legacy” by “promoting science-based management of natural resources,” recently issued a report that says the Legislature and state agencies are in the vice-like grip of powerful lobbyists led by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
Green Fire says efforts to protect natural resources and human health are paralyzed as a result, leading to what the group calls a “public health crisis.”
The report, “Imbalance of Power: How Wisconsin is Failing Citizens in Conserving Natural Resources and Protecting our Environment, documents how rule changes begun in 2011 and continuing to this day have subverted the abilities of agencies to set rules and throttled public input. The report didn’t say so, but Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the largest business lobby group in the state, and its allies are a de-facto unit of government given the powers they have, and are subject to very little scrutiny.
Agency rule-making with robust citizen involvement is often squashed by a simple thumbs-down by lobbyists who have the ear of legislative leaders, Green Fire’s Fred Clark and Paul Heinen have told the Examiner. They say citizen input has been on the decline as a result, and state laws such as Wisconsin’s nationally recognized ground water quality laws are being skirted or ignored. This has accelerated the spread of so-called forever chemicals – per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS), linked to cancers and other illnesses. Nitrates in ground water across the state, primarily from agricultural sources, are also linked to a growing list of health concerns. Powers of local authorities to address the siting and operation of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and frac sand mines have been squashed by the decades-long Republican majority in the Legislature, the report says.
Meanwhile, the Legislature has refused to act on citizen body appointees by Gov. Tony Evers, leaving in place more than 100 appointees of former Gov. Scott Walker whose terms have expired. One example is Natural Resources Board holdover Fred Prehn of Wausau, the self-proclaimed “turd in the water,” who has declined to leave the board, thus keeping a Walker-appointed majority.
All of this leads to the question: What can be done? Green Fire includes a set of recommendations in its report.
Many of the suggested legislative changes focus on the Joint Committee on Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR), which has been granted unprecedented power to lord over and squash agency rules with little or no notice and no public input. Green Fire recommends the committee at least hold a public hearing and invite public testimony on any administrative rules it chooses to take under active review. A five-day public notice before a JCRAR hearing on a rule should be required, and agency staff and citizens leading advisory groups that participated in rule development must be invited to testify.
Green Fire also recommends that permanent blocking of a rule should only occur through legislation introduced and passed in both houses.
Economic impact analyses can stall rulemaking if costs to affected businesses are determined to be $10 million over two years. The current law makes no provision for balancing that by assessing and comparing environmental and public health economic benefits derived from proposed rules. The Green Fire report includes a recommendation to reform this imbalance by removing any cap on estimated cost.
Green Fire says the state should place equal weight on an assessment of avoided costs or direct benefits anticipated as a result of environmental rules. It adds that non-monetary or non-quantifiable environmental benefits must be included where they are relevant. In many cases, though, avoided costs and actual financial benefits can be calculated. They are driving markets today on everything from wetlands to carbon to water quality improvements.
Several recommendations focus on restoring local control, which has been steadily eroded over the past decade. Green Fire advocates allowing local regulation of the siting of nonmetallic (frac sand) mining. It also proposes allowing and broadening counties’ authority to site or regulate CAFOs. It also recommends county-level power to set standards for shorelands that exceed state standards and would allow county regulation of current shoreland structures.
Addressing the squatting by expired appointees on citizen boards, Green Fire proposes clarifying in statutes that when a term of a member of an appointed body ends the seat is immediately vacated. You could call this the “turd in the water” rule. Governors at their discretion could make a temporary acting appointment for up to 60 days not subject to state Senate confirmation, and the Senate would be required to hold a hearing and take action on permanent appointments within 60 days of the appointment.
A few points are worth noting through all of this: While Green Fire focused on the impact of rules in the natural resources and public health sectors, the same imbalance of power exists on all state rulemaking. And while the recommendations stand little chance of passing in the current environment, they are common-sense, citizen-focused changes that would restore some balance to a system now in the grips of monied interests.
Finally, here’s a simple way of looking at the current situation: A handful of powerful financial interests have tight-fisted control over state government. Does that sound like a good idea in a so-called democracy?
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