Wisconsin DNR Secretary-designee Adam Payne speaks during his confirmation hearing on March 15. (Screenshot | WisEye)
As the Republicans in control of the Wisconsin Senate begin holding confirmation hearings for cabinet-level positions leading a number of state agencies, Gov. Tony Evers’ nominee to run the state agriculture department breezed through with minimal questioning Wednesday while the nominee to run the Department of Natural Resources submitted to nearly an hour of in-depth questions about PFAS pollution, wolf hunting and business permit approvals.
The hearings mark a change in the relationship between the two branches of government after Senate Republicans refused to confirm a number of Evers’ nominees to cabinet positions and seats on a wide variety of the state’s boards and commissions during his first term.
In Wisconsin, cabinet secretaries are able to assume their roles on an interim basis as they await their confirmation. Senators used this quirk in the confirmation process as political ammo when the agriculture secretary-designee, Brad Pfaff, angered Senate leaders.
By keeping secretaries unconfirmed, they effectively gave themselves the power to fire Evers’ nominees for any perceived political slights. In 2019, nearly a year after he took office, the Senate voted not to confirm Pfaff and he had to leave the role.
On Wednesday, now as a Democratic senator on the Agriculture and Tourism Committee, Pfaff supported the confirmation of his replacement, Randy Romanski. Romanski was confirmed by the Senate during Evers’ first term, though the vote was held nearly 15 months after he took the post.
“Thank you for your solid leadership of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection,” Pfaff said. “[I’m] very proud of the work that you and your senior team do. And I am proud to support your nomination.”
Despite the agency’s purview over one of the state’s most celebrated industries, Romanski’s hearing was largely uneventful, with only a few questions from Sen. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan), the committee’s chair, about the hybrid work options for some agency employees.
The hearing for Adam Payne, nominated to run the DNR, was much more substantive, however. Senators on the Natural Resources and Energy Committee spent more than an hour asking Payne, who was previously the Sheboygan County administrator, about agency plans to address PFAS pollution of the state’s water, wolf hunting and permit approvals for state businesses.
During Evers’ first term, DNR Secretary Preston Cole was confirmed nearly 15 months after taking office. Cole retired in December.
Speaking in support of Payne’s confirmation, Todd Schaller, vice president of the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, alluded to the difficulty that some nominees have had during Evers’ time as governor.
“We appreciate the timely manner in which you’re following the process and holding a hearing,” Schaller told the committee members.
During the hearing, Payne reiterated a point he’s made a number of times since assuming the office earlier this year, that protecting water quality is a vital issue for policymakers in the state.
“I cannot think of anyone I’ve spoken with who hasn’t expressed in some way the importance of every Wisconsinite being able to turn on their tap and drink safe, clean water,” Payne said during his prepared remarks. “As you know, a fundamental role we all share in government is to help keep people safe. We all share that. We must strive to put partisan politics aside, follow the best science, listen and learn from one another. And I know we can find common ground and take action to problem solve.”
As Republican senators asked questions about the DNR’s draft plan for the management of the state’s wolf population, the application process for agency grants to replace contaminated wells and the speed at which permits are approved, Payne said he would seek better communication between the department and the Legislature.
“We’ve got some really good people at the DNR who are always willing to share information and follow up,” Payne said. “Every now and then … we need to look in the mirror, how can we do better? I just think there’s always room for improvement with communication. And in my role here, we’re going to more effectively communicate. We’re going to work in collaboration, and we’re going to problem solve.”
The steady drumbeat of confirmation hearings, one of which was held last week for Peter Barca, nominated for his second term to lead the Department of Revenue, is a change from the last four years.
The normally swift process of confirming cabinet secretaries was slowed to a halt as Republican senators refused to confirm the nominees to major agencies in Evers’ first term, including the Department of Health Services, which took on a large role during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senate refusal to hear nominees became a major political issue when a Republican appointee to the Natural Resources Board, which directs policy for the DNR, refused to step down at the end of his term.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that as long as the board member’s replacement wasn’t confirmed by the Senate, he could remain in his post, giving Republicans an avenue to maintain control of many of the state’s policy levers long after former Republican Gov. Scott Walker left office.
Evers’ cabinet appointees must first be approved by the relevant Senate committees before moving onto the full Senate for a confirmation vote.
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