By James Wigderson
While Democrats are making false accusations of a “power grab” by legislative Republicans, some Democrats would like to engage in a power grab of their own.
State Sen. Robert Wirch (D-Somers) is circulating a proposed bill that would take away the governor’s authority to appoint the head of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Instead, the next DNR secretary would have to be appointed by the DNR’s Natural
Resources Board “with the advice and consent of the senate for a four-year term.”
“Independence in this position is necessary to ensure that decisions being made are done so in the best interest of our natural resources,” Wirch wrote in an email to his colleagues on Tuesday, looking for co-sponsors for his proposed bill. “(A)nd this bill will help restore that and keep partisan politics out of our natural resources decisions into the future.”
In the email to his colleagues, Wirch noted that a similar bill passed through the legislature in 2009. The legislature was under the complete control of the Democrats at the time. The bill was vetoed by former Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat, who had previously supported having the Natural Resources Board instead of the governor appoint the DNR secretary.
Wirch’s office did not respond to our inquiry about the possible hypocrisy of attacking Republicans for making a “power grab” while proposing legislation to take away Evers’ authority to appoint a DNR secretary.
Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) responded to Wirch’s email with a statement on Wednesday noting the attempt to take away Evers’ appointment authority by the Democrats.
“This proposal will steal authority to select the next DNR Secretary from Governor-elect Tony Evers,” Tiffany wrote. “It will turn the selection over to an unelected board. Before signing on to the proposal I urge my colleagues to understand the power grab you are proposing to undertake before Mr. Evers is inaugurated.”
Democrats have been upset by legislation passed by the Republicans during an extraordinary session that, among other things, would limit Evers’ ability to appoint the next head of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). The WEDC board will have the authority to appoint the agency’s CEO, not the governor, similar to Wirch’s proposal for the DNR.
The appointment authority would return to the governor in September 2019 under the bill recently passed. Governor-elect Tony Evers, a Democrat, campaigned on getting rid of WEDC. Current Governor Scott Walker has not yet said whether he will veto the bill, sign it, or let it become law without his signature. As of Wednesday, Walker had not received the bill from the legislature.
Prior to 1995, the DNR secretary was appointed by the Natural Resources Board. However, a change was made under former Governor Tommy Thompson in order to make the position more accountable.
In addition to taking away the governor’s appointment power for one of the most powerful positions in state government, the proposed bill would fix the term for the secretary at a full four years from the day of appointment by the Natural Resources Board. If a vacancy occurs under the current system, the next DNR secretary merely serves out the remainder of the term. This bill would start the clock over for each appointment, meaning that a DNR secretary’s term would probably not run concurrent with the governor’s term.
Wirch’s colleagues have until January 4 to decide whether to co-sponsor this attempt to take away the governor’s appointment authority for the next secretary of the DNR.
The Natural Resources Board has seven members who are appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the senate. They serve for six years.