Rep. Mark Born speaks during Thursday’s Joint Finance Committee executive session.(Screenshot | Wiseye)
Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee approved $125 million to create a fund that will be used to combat PFAS in Wisconsin, but refrained from establishing a plan or regulations for how the funds should be used.
Republicans announced the proposal Thursday night, following a seven-hour delay. Lawmakers passed the proposal, which was included alongside the rest of the natural resources budget, in a 11-4 vote along party lines.
“PFAS is an important issue we’ve heard a lot as we’ve traveled the state,” JFC co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) said during a press conference before the meeting. “It’s a big problem in our state, and the Legislature is taking this problem very seriously by committing $125 million to it.”
The proposal is $18 million more than what Gov. Tony Evers proposed in his executive budget, but doesn’t dedicate funds to specific purposes or include guidance on how the funds should be used. Rather, additional legislation would need to pass before the money could be accessed.
Evers’ proposal, in contrast, included a $100 million allocation for a grant program that would have allowed recipients to use the money in investigate and sample for PFAS, provide alternative sources of water and remove PFAS from water supplies.
Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay), coauthor of a bill to establish a program that would provide grants to local governments to assist with PFAS contamination, said the general fund will give lawmakers some latitude in figuring out how the funds should be spent. His bill, similar to Evers’ initial proposal, would limit the authority of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in overseeing cleanup of the chemicals.
“We need to give ourselves time to find out the right solution and this massive $125 million investment is a designated fund to be a resource to address the issue in the future,” Wimberger said at a press conference ahead of the meeting.
PFAS — or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are a family of synthetic chemicals that are found in everyday products such as nonstick cookware and firefighting foam. The “forever chemicals” don’t break down easily in nature and are linked to illnesses including cancer, thyroid disorders and birth defects in humans and other animal species.
PFAS chemicals have received an increasing amount of attention over the last several years, especially as they’ve been found across Wisconsin including in La Crosse, Marinette, Peshtigo, Milwaukee, Madison, the Town of Stella and Eau Claire.
The allocation marks a significant shift in position for Republicans, who for many years blocked Evers’ attempts to address the problem. During the last budget cycle, Republicans removed all but one PFAS measure — money for a firefighting foam collection program — proposed by Evers.
Despite the historic amount of funding to address PFAS, Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) said the committee shouldn’t applaud themselves for what they pass, saying it’s an issue that should have been addressed sooner.
“Clean, safe drinking water should be a birthright. It shouldn’t be something that’s granted to you because of where you live. If there are problems with our water, they should be addressed,” Johnson said. “And it shouldn’t have taken us an additional two or three years to get to the point where we’re willing to do something.”
Johnson also criticized lawmakers for what was removed from the initial proposal by Evers, including 11 positions in the DNR to manage various PFAS-related issues and over $2 million that was specifically earmarked for sampling and testing.
“It just don’t make a bit of damn sense,” Johnson said. “If you want the people in Wisconsin to have safe and clean drinking water, how do you eliminate the testing for their wells? How do you eliminate testing?”
The JFC had also previously removed a provision that would have allowed the DNR to establish emergency rules to set acceptable levels, performance standards, monitoring requirements and required response actions for PFAS.
Democrats on the committee were only given 30 minutes in the middle of the meeting to read over the proposal before debating. All four voted against the motion, saying that allocating the money, but requiring additional legislation before it can be spent, would cause delays to the money actually getting used by Wisconsin communities.
“We have to carve out a bill to create the policy and reserve the money in a trust fund that one day if the bill passes can be spent. It is so inefficient,” Goyke said. “It delays the delivery of these funds to municipalities to test and remediate PFAS. Whether you like it or not, your motion causes a delay to get cash out to communities to address this issue.”
Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) said the money will basically be “locked up in this sealed glass cage that can only be touched if the Legislature blesses that specific thing.”
Born said it shouldn’t just be Evers who has a say in what happens with PFAS funding and that establishing a trust fund was the best way to ensure many people’s voices are heard.
“This is not a policy document, and when it comes to this historic funding in PFAS, we want to work with other people to create the right ways to make sure that that money is having the right impact on a serious issue here in Wisconsin,” Co-chair Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said.
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