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Department of Transportation Secretary-designee Craig Thompson

A panel of Senate lawmakers unanimously approved Gov. Tony Evers’ pick to lead the state's Department of Transportation, Craig Thompson, who has faced scrutiny over his ties to the industry.

Thursday’s 4-0 vote came after one conservative senator urged his GOP colleagues on the Transportation, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee to reject Thompson or delay the vote in light of a new report drawing attention to the number of single-bid contracts DOT has signed off on under his leadership.

But the topic didn’t come up during the meeting, where members — including Chair Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon — instead praised Thompson, former head of the Transportation Development Association, and his work ethic. 

“I believe that Craig is a class act and he will do a great job for the state of Wisconsin,” he said. “I know that there are, constantly in the world we live in, a lot of sniping going on for some of the secretaries, but I do believe Craig has been involved in transportation for a long time and I believe he will do a good job not only for the governor but for all the citizens of the state.” 

Meanwhile, Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, called Thompson a "hard worker" and added "he's got his heart in the right place."  

Thompson — as well as Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary-designee Mary Kolar, who committee members also unanimously voted to advance — still need the approval of the full state Senate for their appointments to be permanent. 

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a statement this week that Republicans in his chamber will meet as a caucus in the coming weeks "to see where members are at on confirming nominees."

A spokesman for Fitzgerald, who has criticized Thompson for his record as a lobbyist, didn't immediately comment on the committee's latest actions. 

None of Evers’ choices to lead the state’s agencies have yet received a floor vote in the Senate. Instead, the Cabinet designees are still making their way through the committee process as they await to receive approval from the entire chamber, where Republicans hold an 19-14 majority. 

Ahead of Thursday committee vote, conservative Sen. Steve Nass urged committee Republicans to delay the vote or reject Thompson’s nomination, citing a MacIver report showing he approved 60 single-bid contracts totaling $320 million in his first eight months at the head of DOT. 

A 2017 analysis from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau noted the agency could "potentially achieve significant savings if it received multiple bids for all contracts." The report showed between January 2006 and December 2015, 16 percent of state highway construction contracts received a single bid. 

Nass, R-Whitewater, in his email Wednesday wrote the contracts so far this year raise "serious ethical and fiscal questions that should not be ignored."

But Thompson in an interview noted he's rejected nine single-bid state highway construction contracts over his time at the helm of DOT, higher than the seven the agency under then-Gov. Scott Walker's leadership turned down in 2018. 

"We can’t control how many single bids we receive," he said. 

He added the agency is planning to hire an inspector general in the near future, a position that will in part be tasked with looking at long-term strategies to attempt to increase bidding competitiveness.  

As for the I-39/90 expansion, one of the single-bid projects Thompson approved in his tenure so far that was highlighted in the MacIver article, Thompson acknowledged that the "politically expedient thing would have been to reject it." But instead, he said he listened to the agency's engineers, who told him that doing so would mean missing an entire construction season and harming public safety. 

Meanwhile, Petrowski downplayed the news surrounding the single-bid contract numbers, telling reporters after the vote that there's a series of factors to consider in evaluating transportation projects and adding "my faith is really in Secretary Thompson doing a good job." 

As for criticism of Thompson's past work with a Wisconsin transportation advocacy group, Petrowski defended the nominee, saying his history likely helps him "understand the issues much better than somebody else who's not involved in transportation." 

Nass later on Thursday slammed Thompson and senators who support him, saying they "should be held accountable by the taxpayers."

"Today’s vote is further proof that too many Republican legislators are willing to aid-and-abet the extreme tax-and-spend policies of Governor Evers,” he said.

Thompson responded Nass' reaction is "unfortunate," and he pointed to the support he's received from local government and transportation groups that have "all put out very opposite statements supporting my nomination."

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.