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Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials

November 6, 2017

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 27

Sensitive Wisconsin environmental areas at risk in wetlands legislation

For more than a century, Wisconsin has been at the heart of a long debate between builders who want to develop the land and conservationists who want to preserve it. Out of those lively discussions has come a rough balance of interests and an understanding that the state needs development to continue to grow economically but also needs to honor and protect its unique environmental heritage — the rivers, streams and lakes that make Wisconsin an outdoor treasure.

Unfortunately, a bill now moving through the state Assembly fails to do that.

Assembly Bill 547 would upend 16 years of careful management of isolated wetlands in the state. The proposed law seeks to repeal what was put in place by a bipartisan act of the Legislature after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2001 that said federal clean water laws didn’t allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to regulate wetlands that weren’t connected to a stream or river.

More than 1 million acres of wetlands in Wisconsin — 20 percent of all the state’s wetlands, according to the Wisconsin Wetlands Association — fall into that category.

A high-powered group lobbying in favor of AB 547, including Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, argues that the new bill is just common sense — that the 2001 law has hindered property owners and builders from developing land that has little ecological value. As Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) told the Journal Sentinel’s Lee Bergquist recently, “The vast majority of those wetlands, you would never assume they were wetlands.”

That’s debatable. But even so, why not deal with that concern instead of putting millions of acres of wetlands that do have value at risk? And why not find a smart compromise with the Wetlands Association and an array of outdoors groups that oppose the bill? Why not use your power wisely?

Lucas Vebber, general counsel and director of environmental and energy policy at WMC, said the state chamber is “more than willing to sit down” with conservation and sporting groups and said the motivation behind the legislation was to solve “a very real problem” for developers.

“We would love to work with them in a way that maybe tightens up the bill,” he said. “We’re not looking to push through this original bill.” And that’s certainly good to hear, but so far, it has appeared that this bill is on a fast track and conservation groups say they feel left out of the process.

Wetlands are a critical feature of the Wisconsin environment. They filter drinking water, provide natural protection against flooding and shoreline erosion and provide a rich habitat for hunters.

The legislation requires replacement of wetlands at a ratio of 1.2 acres for every acre destroyed, which at first glance sounds reasonable. But look closer and you begin to wonder: Replacement with what — and where? Filling in wetlands in one spot, even if another wetland is built somewhere else, might still put residents downstream at risk during heavy rain, cause soil erosion and destroy habitats for ducks, geese, pheasants and rare or endangered species.

“Who knows how much you’d have to spend to create the flood control potential of these wetlands,” said Brian Vigue, policy liaison for Wetlands Association.

Could some marginal wetlands be filled in without significant harm? Yes. But if the concern is assessing these marginal areas, then address that concern. This bill is like using a sledgehammer when all that’s needed is a chisel.

Wisconsin may, indeed, be an outlier among the states in how it regulates wetlands. Maybe it should be. This state is unusual for a natural bounty that attracts hunters, hikers and all manner of outdoor recreation.

Kyle Rorah, government affairs representative for Ducks Unlimited in Ann Arbor, Michigan, noted that about 70 percent of all mallard ducks harvested by hunters in Wisconsin are produced in our state. That’s not the case in many other places. “Many of these birds are relying on these smaller, geographically-isolated wetlands,” he said.

There is still time to take a deep breath and address the real issues. Steineke and the rest of the Republican leadership in the Legislature should do that. We can have both smart development and smart conservation. But only if developers and conservationists are willing to work together to make it so. The Legislature has an obligation to lead that discussion in the public interest.

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The Capital Times, Nov. 1

Scott Walker threatens family farms and the environment

Scott Walker, who represented suburban Milwaukee in the Legislature and served as Milwaukee County executive before becoming governor, has never been accused of showing undue interest in rural Wisconsin.

Walker gets far more excited about jetting off to New York, or Florida, or Texas, or Arizona, or California to beg for campaign donations than he does about visiting New Holstein, or Florence, or Texas (the one in northern Marathon County), or Argyle, or Calumet. And his policies show it.

The governor focuses on running for president (unsuccessfully), currying favor with conservative elites (ardently) or promising taxpayer funds to Taiwanese corporations (extravagantly). He doesn’t bother with issues that matter to the small towns and rural stretches of Wisconsin, unless a campaign donor or a lobbyist for some out-of-state corporation encourages him to pay attention — and even then it is only to do the bidding of the interests that pay his way politically.

So it should come as no surprise that Walker’s big move as regards rural Wisconsin is a promise to keep working to transfer regulatory authority over factory farms — concentrated animal feeding operations — from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Anyone who knows anything about the environmental impact of factory farms, not to mention the stench, will tell you that the DNR needs to maintain its oversight responsibilities with regard to industrialized agriculture.

Factory farms have little to do with traditional farming as Wisconsinites understand it; they are moneymaking ventures that disregard historic models of caring for animals, create daunting threats to clean water, and replace the land stewardship of family farmers with the profiteering of corporate agribusiness.

As such, Walker’s proposal to shift oversight of factory farms away from the DNR, which has experience when it comes to regulating corporations and controlling against industrial threats to the environment, makes zero sense.

Walker’s thinking is so out of sync with Wisconsin values and Wisconsin needs that the state’s conservative Republican state legislators showed little interest in his scheme. Walker included funding for a study of whether DATCP could do the job in his budget proposal only to have it removed by the legislative Joint Finance Committee. And the chair of the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, Green Bay Republican Rob Cowles, recently told the WisPolitics website that “he wasn’t interested in bringing Walker’s provision back as stand-alone legislation — and that no one he’d talked to was either.”

That’s good, because environmental advocates rightly note that giving regulatory authority to DATCP would make it more difficult to address pollution of groundwater, lakes, rivers and streams.

So why is Walker pushing a proposal that is supported only by factory-farm owners and their lobbyists? The answer to that question is easy. As Midwest Environmental Advocates staff attorney Tressie Kamp explained, Walker’s focus on the issue provides a reminder of “the unimpeded access and control that (factory-farm advocates have) over the governor’s office and ultimately over large-scale policy decisions in our state.”

Kamp argues: “Our elected officials should prioritize citizen voices over industry interests.”

Unfortunately, Walker does not listen to citizen voices with anywhere near the attentiveness that he accords industry interests. And he is particularly neglectful of the voices of Wisconsinites who live in rural counties, where family farmers struggle to stay on the land and where small towns face increasing threats from the policies not just of Walker and his cronies in Madison but from Walker-ally Donald Trump and his cronies in Washington.

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The Journal Times of Racine, Nov. 5

A fox to guard the DOT hen house

A release issued in September announced a new Wisconsin Department of Transportation inspector general position and it seemed to be a good thing.

“At Gov. Scott Walker’s direction, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) will create an Office of Inspector General position with a primary role in the Department to review all programs and initiatives for inefficiencies, waste, fraud and abuse,” the release stated.

“The primary role of the inspector general is to review WisDOT policy and practices looking for cost savings and efficiencies, then to make recommendations for implementing policy and program improvements.”

Unfortunately, a report from the Wisconsin State Journal last month detailed that it’s not all roses.

The “new watchdog will report to the chief of the agency for which he or she will provide oversight, raising questions about whether the inspector could face a conflict of interest or be limited in the scope of investigations,” the State Journal report stated.

As Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, stated: “You have a little bit of a fox guarding the hen house.”

Earlier this year, the Legislative Audit Bureau concluded the cost of major road projects in the state from 2006 to 2015 was double the costs that were originally estimated — costing $1.5 billion to build 19 major projects which was $772.5 million higher than the estimates.

The bureau report said the DOT did not take into account the considerable effect that inflation and changes to project design would have on those costs over time.

The January audit also said 16 projects that were ongoing as of last August faced similar cost jumps and instead of costing an estimated $2.7 billion, the final bills were estimated to come in at $5.8 billion.

Those numbers are unacceptable and Walker was right to create the inspector general position to review programs and look for cost savings. Something needs to be done.

Unfortunately, the governor’s plan failed in one regard.

It doesn’t make sense for the inspector general to be reporting directly to the secretary of the department. An outside agency would be able to be more objective.

The State Journal reported that when Sanfelippo and Sen. David Craig, R-Big Bend, introduced a bill earlier this year to create a DOT inspector general, there was a key difference between their bill and Walker’s order. Their bill would have had the inspector report to the Legislative Audit Bureau instead of the DOT secretary.

“It seems hard for a subordinate to be in the role of whistle-blower or raising flags occurring within the department,” said Craig Thompson, director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, an alliance of businesses, labor, local government and other groups, said in the State Journal article.

We agree. The roads are too important of an issue and too expensive for problems to be ignored. Our state needs this new position there needs to be a proper reporting structure to ensure no issues go unaddressed and no efficiencies are missed.

At the very least, if the structure is not changed, members of the Legislature should ask for the report in December 2018 to ensure nothing is missed and issues are addressed.

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