Status of Evers’ appointees up in the air as he enters second term

By: - November 14, 2022 6:35 am

Sen. Devin LeMahieu | WisPolitics program

At a campaign stop in Reedsburg in October, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) warned that if Democratic Gov. Tony Evers were reelected, it would be hard for him and Senate Republicans to stop the “liberal takeover” of Wisconsin’s agencies and boards. 

Through Evers’ first term, two Senate majority leaders, LeMahieu and now-U.S. Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, worked to prevent the governor from installing his own appointees as secretaries of state agencies and members of the many boards and commissions that control various pieces of state government. 

LeMahieu’s comments at the Sauk County Republican Party headquarters were made in the heat of a very close gubernatorial race as he and other Republicans attempted to make the case to Wisconsinites that reelecting Evers would push state government in a direction different from the one they wanted. It’s not clear what, if anything, has changed that would alter Republican leaders’ strategy of obstruction in Evers’ second term. LeMahieu’s office did not respond to a request for comment seeking more information about the comment or his plans for confirmations in the next legislative session. 

In January, LeMahieu said the Senate would not be holding any more confirmation votes for the remainder of Evers’ first term because his nominees were too partisan. 

“If you go into some of the different appointments, some seem to be highly partisan and maybe not good appointments to these boards,” LeMahieu told in January. “We definitely aren’t going to confirm some of these appointments.”

For years, the Senate refused to hold confirmation votes on nominees for state agencies, forcing them to serve only as secretary-designees. State law allows nominated secretaries to do the jobs they’ve been nominated for before they’re confirmed, but the distinction meant that the Senate retained the ability to essentially fire Evers’ nominees whenever they wanted. 

Brad Pfaff, now serving in the Senate himself, was the Secretary-designee of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for 10 months when a skirmish with the Senate over funding for a program meant to provide better mental health support to farmers led to a party line vote in which the Republicans voted not to confirm him and removed him from office in 2019. 

“They’re very best people for the job and to think that they’re going to have to keep their mouths shut … in order to be approved by the Senate. That is just absolute bullshit,” Evers told reporters after Pfaff was fired. 

A year later, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Wisconsin and the state’s Department of Health Services took a front row seat in state politics, the fact that Evers’ chosen leader for the agency  had not been confirmed by the Senate hung over the head of then-Secretary-designee Andrea Palm. Palm left the position without ever being confirmed to take a job in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Now, with Evers about to start his second term in office, his nominees for secretary of the Departments of Administration; Health Services; Financial Institutions; Safety and Professional Services; Transportation and Workforce Development have still not been confirmed by the Senate. 

Beyond state agencies, Senate Republicans have also refused to hold confirmation votes on Evers’ nominees to a number of state boards and commissions. These boards and commissions, while often under the radar, ultimately make and guide a lot of the policy decisions in state government. Throughout Evers’ first term, as previous board members’ terms have expired, Evers would have been able to install his own nominees and gain a Democratic majority. 

Instead, appointees of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker have been allowed to remain in their positions, keeping Republicans in control of these bodies

None of these holdovers have been more prominent than Frederick Prehn, a Walker appointee to the Natural Resources Board who has refused to step down even though his term expired in May of 2021 and Evers nominated Ashland educator Sandra Dee Naas to take his spot. 

The Natural Resources Board guides policy for the state’s Department of Natural Resources, making consequential decisions on important issues such as water quality, hunting regulations and state conservation efforts. When he first refused to step down, Prehn insisted that it wasn’t a political decision, but his emails and text messages have shown he stayed on largely to influence policy surrounding wolf hunting and sought advice from major state Republicans including Walker, LeMahieu, U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany and a number of lobbyists as he held on to the role. 

The state Department of Justice under Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit attempting to have Prehn booted from the seat or give Evers the power to fire him, but a conservative majority on the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Prehn. In her majority opinion, Chief Justice Annette Ziegler wrote that just because a board member’s term has expired doesn’t mean the seat is open. 

“The expiration of a defined term for an appointed office does not create a vacancy,” Ziegler wrote. “Without a vacancy, the Governor cannot make a provisional appointment and Prehn cannot be replaced with an individual whom the senate has not confirmed.” 

The decision effectively meant that with the state’s legislative districts heavily gerrymandered in favor of Republicans, a Democratic governor has no power to install his own nominees to the state’s boards and commissions so long as the Senate refuses to hold confirmation votes. After the court refused to remove Prehn, Evers said it was undercutting democratic governance and the choice of Wisconsin voters to put him in charge of the government. 

“Today, I remind the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the Republican Party of this state that we do still live in a democracy, a very basic function of which is the peaceful and respectful transfer of power, even — and most especially — when you lose,” he said. “Since becoming governor, I’ve worked to appoint experienced, hardworking Wisconsinites from every corner of our state to serve in important roles in our government — just like every governor has before me, and every governor will after me. These Wisconsinites are exceptionally qualified, should be considered on their merit, and should have the opportunity to serve the people of our state, regardless of whether or not they were appointed by a Democrat or share the same ideas as Republicans in the Legislature. They should’ve been confirmed a long time ago now.” 

A number of Evers appointees to state boards who are currently serving in those seats but haven’t been confirmed are essentially in the same position as the unconfirmed secretaries. Seats on the UW System Board of Regents, Technical College board and even the highly obscure Livestock Facility Siting Review Board have been affected by the Senate’s refusal to hold confirmation votes. 

Since winning reelection, Evers has said he’s willing to work with the Senate to get his nominees confirmed and the government working at its full capacity. 

“My message is this: Sen. LeMahieu, tell me what I can do to get you to move on these issues,” Evers said at a press conference the day after his reelection. “He needs to tell me. If it’s gonna be impossible, it’s gonna be impossible. But the idea that we’re going to shut down the Board of Regents and the DNR for another four years hoping that they’re going to win another election…so, tell me. Tell me what we need to do, and we’ll take a look at that.”

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.