State Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, said she and fellow Democratic representatives were denied a request to participate remotely in a joint committee meeting on Wednesday.
During a joint hearing at the Capitol between members of the Assembly Committee on Sporting Heritage and Senate Committee on Sporting Heritage, Small Business, and Rural Issues, Hesselbein said Assembly committee chairman Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, denied a request to allow lawmakers to participate remotely in the hearing. At the same time, Senate members were allowed to participate via telephone or online, she said.
Wednesday’s hearing marks the latest rift between state Republican and Democratic lawmakers over holding in-person meetings amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike in the Senate, the Assembly isn’t offering lawmakers the option of calling in to meetings or floor sessions remotely, leaving it up to Democrats to either show up and face intermittent mask wearers, or not show up at all.
“My ranking member colleague made the request to Rep. Pronschinske’s office as soon as the hearing was scheduled. Those reasonable requests were immediately denied,” Hesselbein said in a statement. “I asked Rep. Pronschinske to reconsider since stakeholders were wanting to participate remotely in the hearing, but he chose not to offer accommodations to members and the public.”
Pronschinske’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Hesselbein said she watched the more than two-hour informational hearing online, in which lawmakers discussed the reinstatement of the state’s wolf harvesting season in 2021. Several GOP lawmakers participated in the meeting in-person and did not wear face masks.
“This is completely unacceptable, especially when there was no requirement that people wear masks,” Hesselbein said. “We are in the middle of a pandemic. Many workplaces and businesses have gone to great lengths to comply with CDC guidelines for their employees and customers. The fact that Republican representatives think health guidelines don’t apply to them is dangerous.”
During the hearing, several GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, criticized the Department of Natural Resources, including department Secretary Preston Cole, for submitting written testimony, but not participating in-person.
“I think it is an absolute failure by the secretary of the DNR, Gov. (Tony) Evers and his administration and the DNR as a whole to fail to show up to this hearing,” Stafsholt said.
DNR spokeswoman Sarah Hoye said Wednesday’s hearing was informational only and “due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and because there was not an option to testify remotely, the Committee Chairs allowed the DNR to submit written testimony.”
The DNR announced in early December that wolves would be delisted from the federal list of endangered species on Jan. 4 and the official season would begin in early November.
“Although gray wolf management will be under state authority in early 2021, implementing a wolf season requires adequate time not only to develop a science-based harvest quota but also to engage the public and tribal partners in the development of a season plan that adequately reflects the interests of diverse stakeholders throughout Wisconsin,” according to a DNR statement. “As such, the DNR is focused on planning a wolf season that begins Nov. 6, 2021.”
Luke Hilgemann, president of Hunter Nation, a nonprofit that reports having 20,000 members, also criticized the DNR, Cole and the Evers administration for not attending the hearing.
“Wisconsin representatives joined to listen to the concerns of those they represent, yet the DNR couldn’t be bothered to attend and answer important questions about the state’s wolf population, hunting process and regulations, quotas and more,” Hilgemann, former CEO of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, said in a statement.
“How can we continue good conversation and good government without having them here in-person?” Rep. Ken Skowronski, R-Franklin, said during the meeting. “I mean, we’re here, why not them?”