Cathy Stepp, a former Republican state senator and outspoken critic of the state Department of Natural Resources, was named Thursday to head the agency by Gov.-elect Scott Walker.
Stepp’s appointment immediately drew stinging criticism from Democrats and environmentalists.
“Putting Cathy Stepp in charge of the DNR is like putting Lindsay Lohan in charge of a rehab center,” said Brett Hulsey, an incoming Democratic state representative from Madison.
Stepp is a former member of the state Natural Resources Board. She also served as state senator from 2002 to 2006. She retired from the Senate in 2006 to help run the family’s construction business in Sturtevant, near Racine.
Joining Stepp at the DNR as deputy secretary will be Matt Moroney, an attorney and former executive director of the Metropolitan Builders of Greater Milwaukee. State Rep. Scott Gunderson, R-Waterford, was named executive assistant.
Stepp’s appointment was one of 14 Cabinet positions Gov.-elect Scott Walker announced Thursday.
In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Walker said he chose Stepp to lead the natural resource agency because her experience as both a business owner and a former member of the Natural Resources Board will allow her to balance environmental protection with economic development.
“I wanted someone with a chamber-of-commerce mentality,” Walker said.
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A longtime critic of the agency she will now oversee, Stepp served on a legislative committee that toured the state seeking comment and criticism about the DNR. And in a post on a conservative blog last year, Stepp said the people who work at the DNR tend to be “anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes, karner blue butterflies, etc.” In the same post, she called agency employees “unelected bureaucrats” who tend to “come up with some pretty outrageous stuff that those of us in the real world have to contend with.”
Stepp, who will be paid $125,000, said Thursday that her past criticisms of the DNR should not affect morale at the agency.
“I think it is going to be helpful,” Stepp said. “Everybody who works in any big agency or business knows there can be improvements.”
Stepp called her first meeting with DNR employees Thursday morning “incredibly warm and welcoming.” She said she emphasized that she will have a relaxed management style. She said she will work to streamline environmental permitting and encourage a focus on customer service.
Walker expects more review of environmental regulations and rules, including some already in place. He cited rules recently passed to regulate the discharge of phosphorus, a pollutant that spurs growth of weeds and algae in lakes and streams. Walker said the phosphorus rules could hurt local governments that have to pay for new treatment systems.
“Without a doubt, we’ll be doing a cost-benefit analysis of every rule,” Walker said.
George Meyer, who served as DNR secretary while Stepp was on the Natural Resources Board, had both praise and criticism for the new secretary. He said Stepp, who is a snowmobiler and turkey hunter, was strong on hunting and outdoor sport issues. But Meyer, who now is executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said when she was a state senator, Stepp supported legislation that weakened environmental protections.
Meyer said his biggest concern is that none of those named Thursday to take leadership roles at the DNR have a professional background in natural resource management.