Wisconsin Republicans riding their biggest Legislative majority in years could grow more ambitious this year in efforts to help businesses by remaking laws that protect natural resources.
Legislative leaders and Gov. Scott Walker haven’t yet tipped their hands about all of their plans, but they have expressed interest in several proposals that are drawing strong opposition from conservationists.
Lawmakers are working on measures to restrict the authority of regulatory agencies like the Department of Natural Resources, and to allow businesses easier access to the state’s water, land and minerals.
Leaders have expressed interest in proposals to:
- Roll back the authority wielded by state agencies like the DNR to write administrative rules. Lawmakers have been gathering co-sponsors to revive a bill giving lawmakers more say on how some laws are implemented.
- Scatter DNR programs among five state agencies to make it more effective. Former DNR officials and a leading lawmaker on natural resources say the plan would be costly and inefficient, while DNR secretary Cathy Stepp said she hopes a recently announced department reorganization is given a chance.
- Make it easier for food processors and farmers to maintain high-volume extraction of ground water while conducting long-term studies of the connection to lakes and streams that are drying up. Lawmakers listed the contentious issue as a priority, but a legal opinion satisfying industry concerns may have left the majority less motivated to make major changes.
It’s less clear how much initial support exists for proposals to remove a legal obstacle for mining companies with less than perfect environmental records, or to respond to problems with drinking water.
Lawmakers and lobbyists named a few other items from the wish lists of business groups that could find new life in the 2017 legislative session.
Those include controversial bills to ease oversight of stream diversions by fish farmers and restrictions on lake bed dredging by owners of waterfront property, and to eliminate a prohibition on purchases of municipal drinking water systems by private companies from out of state.
Big changes already
Since taking control of state government in 2011, Walker and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature have made changes in regulations protecting wetlands and water quality, while cutting the DNR budget and reducing its overall authority to regulate the use of natural resources.
Last summer, a nonpartisan state audit exposed deficiencies in DNR water pollution enforcement, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped up an investigation into longstanding problems in state water quality programs.
But it’s unclear how long Washington will continue to press the state if Republican President Donald Trump makes promised reductions in regulations.
After the November elections left state Assembly members with 64 of 99 seats — their biggest majority in five decades — they pledged bigger and bolder measures.
In the state Senate, Republicans came away with an increase that gave them control of 20 of 33 seats.
The additional seat could make it harder for moderate GOP senators to block legislation or force compromise.
But a lobbyist for the state League of Conservation Voters said the GOP gains won’t automatically unleash a flood of laws weakening environmental regulations.
“A lot of things got held up in the last session because a lot of citizens and conservationists stood up and spoke out,” said Jennifer Giegerich, a league lobbyist. “Then they had to try to scramble and fix them and there wasn’t time before the session ended.”
The more lawmakers work with knowledgeable conservationists, they can find out early if there may be problems with legislative proposals that will prevent them from doing what is intended, Giegerich said.
DNR secretary Cathy Stepp has also offered department scientists to provide expert advice to lawmakers who have been trying for several years to write legislation to give guidance to the agency on its permitting of high-capacity wells.
There have been times when lawmakers brought in experts and interest groups from all sides, listened to their advice and wrote important legislation that was enacted, but a similar effort on high-capacity wells last session failed to defuse opposition.
For several years there have been multiple administrative challenges and lawsuits over the rapid growth in permitting of wells that can pump more than 100,000 gallons daily.
When a comprehensive bill on the topic was introduced, conservationists said it didn’t adequately protect lakes, streams and ground water, while industry groups saw less certainty in their ability to obtain permits.
After the Assembly and Senate failed to agree on a scaled-back law, legislators asked Republican state Attorney General Brad Schimel for a formal opinion.
As a result, last summer the DNR loosened regulations — and a conservation group filed lawsuits over nine permits.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, have both said they want to consider bills similar to last year’s scaled-back proposals, which would make it easier to obtain permits for new wells replacing old ones while launching studies of water problems in the Central Sands.
The Assembly version would also expand the right of property owners to sue pump operators.
However, the new regulations are likely to reduce the urgency for legislative action that many GOP officials felt previously, said Larry Konopacki, principal attorney for natural resources issues at the Legislative Council, which advises the Legislature.
In contrast, the two lawmakers who championed broader changes last year — Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, and Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa — were emphatic last week about the need to find a way to protect water while giving industry reasonable access.
Cowles is calling for a law to restore the DNR’s ability to consider the cumulative impact of all wells in an area when deciding on new permits. Schimel’s opinion prompted the DNR to stop considering that impact and to end requirements that pump operators report on how much water they extract.
“If you never look at cumulative impacts in those areas, inevitably you’re going to do damage to those resources,” Cowles said in an interview.
Krug, who represents a district in the Central Sands, said he anticipates several bills this session.
“We have a duty to act and to act soon,” Krug said.
Meanwhile, a bill designed to control businesses’ regulatory costs that faltered last session has gathered 33 Assembly co-sponsors and nine in the Senate this year, said co-author Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee.
Modeled on an anti-regulatory bill proposed in Congress, the “Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny” bill would require legislative approval of state agency rules that are projected to cost industry more than $10 million.
Last year’s more expansive version of the bill favored by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce passed the Assembly but failed in the Senate.
Critics, including small businesses and environmental groups, said it could hinder state agencies in protecting the environment and public health.
Neylon said this year’s version is more tightly focused, allows a legislative committee to seek industry estimates of costs instead of being reliant on agency projections, and creates the option for an additional public hearing on the scope of rules that agencies are about to write.
State Journal reporter Mark Sommerhauser contributed to this article.