Candidates for Wisconsin governor and attorney general are offering voters clear-cut choices about the state’s role in protecting natural resources and reducing the threat of climate change.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has been at the center of an ambitious eight-year culling of environmental regulations long disparaged by businesses, while Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel in his first term issued a formal opinion that prompted a significant streamlining of ground water protections sought by farming interests.
Walker and Schimel have eased penalties for polluters and sued to block federal rules aimed at water pollution, smog and climate-altering greenhouse gases.
Their Democratic opponents on the Nov. 6 ballot have vowed to reverse several of those policies.
Tony Evers, the longtime state schools superintendent challenging Walker, accused the governor of allowing corporate and political interests to influence environmental regulation and said he would rely on science to guide natural resources policy and join other states in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“While other Midwest states benefit from clean-energy jobs, Walker’s Wisconsin lags behind,” Evers said. “I will respect the evidence and reduce the greenhouse gas pollution that causes climate disruption, while creating tens of thousands of good-paying, clean-energy jobs.”
Josh Kaul, an attorney and former assistant federal prosecutor challenging Schimel, criticized the incumbent’s record on conservation issues and said he would do a better job of holding polluters accountable.
“Our current AG has put special interests ahead of the interests of Wisconsinites far too often,” Kaul said.
The Wisconsin State Journal sent questionnaires about environmental issues to all four candidates. Only Evers and Kaul provided responses to the questionnaires.
Walker took office in 2011 saying he would make the state Department of Natural Resources more business-friendly.
Walker and the Republicans who control the state Legislature have rolled back environmental regulations, saying fewer strictures will entice more businesses to locate in the state.
But conservationists say the change has come at a cost: Destruction of wetlands has accelerated, threats to drinking water are worsening, and billions of gallons of new groundwater withdrawals have been permitted in places where state scientists warned they would harm lakes, streams and drinking water.
Walker said he opposed President Barack Obama’s federal greenhouse gas rules because he believed they would harm the economy.
Through a spokesman, Schimel said he is doing what he believes is best for Wisconsin and follows the law. He said he joined with other Republican state attorneys general to block federal clean water and clean air rules because, he said, the rules overstep what federal law allows.
Walker’s DNR has defended a decrease in pollution penalties by claiming it emphasizes resolving violations with minimal formal action, an explanation former DNR executives have challenged.
Evers pointed to a nonpartisan audit that found two decades of cuts to the DNR workforce contributed to the failure from 2005 to 2015 to take enforcement action on 94 percent of water pollution violations, properly inspect manure-laden feedlots and review waste management reports.
“Walker has underfunded enforcement and devastated DNR staffing, leading to heavy workloads, poor morale and high turnover,” Evers said.
In a 2016 case, Schimel disagreed with his enforcement chief’s recommendation that 3M Co. of Wausau pay a hefty fine for air pollution violations near a residential neighborhood. Schimel instead settled for no fine, something former agency officials said hadn’t happened in at least 25 years.
Schimel has noted 3M agreed to spend an unspecified sum on pollution controls above what was required to comply with the law. Critics said fines help deter further lawbreaking. This year the DNR found more violations at the facility.
Evers and Kaul promised more consistent enforcement to deter violators.
“Weak environmental enforcement undermines the deterrent effect of our environmental laws,” Kaul said. “I believe that polluters that break the law should expect to be held accountable.”
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business lobby, said deliberate pollution violations should be penalized so that cutting corners on environmental controls doesn’t give a polluter an advantage over law-abiding competitors.
Schimel “has done a great job of striking the enforcement balance between businesses who make a mistake with a minor infraction and work to immediately correct it, and punishing bad actors who have engaged in deliberate violations,” said Scott Manley, WMC senior vice president of government relations.
Manley, the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce vice president, decried “hand-wringing and hyperbole” from environmental groups.
“Wisconsin’s environment is in better shape today than it was before Governor Walker took office,” Manley said. “Our air is cleaner as a result of dramatic reductions in air pollution that have occurred during Governor Walker’s term.”
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says air quality improvements are happening across the U.S., not just in Wisconsin, in part because less coal is being burned in power generation.
Under Walker, Wisconsin has been less aggressive than other states in controlling chronic wasting disease, a fatal disease that has raced through Wisconsin’s deer herd. Walker recently proposed additional measures. Evers said he would do more.
Walker and the Legislature raised state park user fees and cut all tax support. Evers said the change helped the GOP give tax breaks to Wisconsin’s wealthiest, but it puts at risk a park system that is essential to tourism and quality of life.
Walker has appointed former Republican lawmakers to top DNR posts. Evers said he would hire based on skills and experience, not political influence or campaign donations. He said he would rebuild DNR educational programs and restore the ability of agency experts to speak publicly on proposed laws.
The Democratic candidate also said he would look into reversing laws that made filling wetlands easier, postponed controls on phosphorus pollution and limited local authority.
“Allowing the destruction of wetlands and prohibiting local governments from protecting our lakes has contributed to the flooding and blue-green algae pollution we experienced this summer,” Evers said.
Evers said he would bring together experts — including farmers — to solve what the state’s own experts describe as costly, widespread, significant health risks of agricultural pollutants in drinking water.
George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a former DNR secretary, said that after decades of improving water quality under the federal Clean Water Act, weakened environmental laws here have allowed more water pollution.
“In the last eight years there has been significantly less emphasis placed on the protection and enhancement of the state’s natural resources than any other period in the last fifty years, under past Republican and Democratic administrations,” Meyer said.
Wisconsin currently is last among 28 states with renewable-energy standards.
In 2016, Walker’s administration provoked a backlash from the public and UW-Madison professors by quietly removing climate change information from state web sites. Schimel voted in 2015 to ban state land managers from on-the-job talk about climate change, saying workplace political advocacy was wrong.
“I would have voted the same as to any political activity,” Schimel said at the time.
In August, Schimel filed a federal court brief with Walker’s approval disputing established science showing that greenhouse gas emissions from sources like fossil fuels are causing climate change.
Claiming there is a “raging” debate on global warming, the brief supports an Exxon Mobil lawsuit aimed at blocking a government probe into whether the company illegally downplayed what it knew about harm its products could cause.
Evers and Kaul said they wouldn’t have inserted the state in the matter.
Walker and Schimel have framed their opposition to greenhouse gas rules in economic or legal terms. While some Republicans have publicly tried to cast doubt about global warming, Walker and Schimel have mostly declined to discuss their views.
Walker’s campaign is being bolstered by $3.1 million in advocacy advertising announced in August and September by Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin, part of the network run by billionaire oil and petrochemical magnate Charles Koch. Schimel’s campaign has received thousands of dollars from a Koch political action committee.