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Why Recall Scott Walker?

Wisconsin's wonderful environment would become much healthier

May. 9, 2012
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When campaigning for governor in 2010, Scott Walker promised that he would create 250,000 jobs in his first term. Each act of his administration would serve that goal—including his stewardship of the environment.

Just a little more than a year later, Walker has the worst job-creation record in the country, as Wisconsin lost 23,900 jobs between March 2011 and March 2012—the highest percentage of job loss of any of the 50 states.

And his stewardship of the environment hasn't been so great, either.

“Walker has pretty much the worst environmental record in Wisconsin history,” said Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.

Cullen Werwie, Walker's gubernatorial spokesman, and Walker's campaign did not respond to requests to comment for this article.

The DNR as 'Enterprise Agency'

One of Walker's signature moves was a total reorientation of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Walker appointed a former Republican legislator and home builder, Cathy Stepp, to be his DNR secretary; Matt Moroney, the former executive director of the Metropolitan Builders Association of Greater Milwaukee, was appointed deputy secretary.

In August, Walker made the DNR the state's first “enterprise agency,” giving it more autonomy and enhanced performance goals.

Instead of making environmental protection a top priority, Walker and Stepp's DNR would now make customer service its main mission by streamlining the permitting process and being more responsive to the public.

But the DNR's “customers” aren't average Wisconsinites who want to drink clean water, breathe clean air and enjoy healthy natural resources.

The DNR's “customers” are businesses—the same entities the DNR is supposed to regulate.

According to recent news reports, the DNR under Walker and Stepp isn't fully enforcing environmental regulations:

  • The Wausau Daily Herald reported that the DNR isn't enforcing phosphorus limits; just 19 permits have been issued since 2010 and hundreds more are pending. The state adopted more restrictive phosphorus limits during the Doyle administration to prevent algae blooms in the state's waterways—thus protecting the state's tourism industry and residents who live along the water—but Walker attempted to delay the new rules' implementation. The new rules went ahead eventually, but the DNR is behind schedule in issuing new permits. 
  • In late April, Ron Seely at the Wisconsin State Journal reported that the DNR's permit violation notices hit a 12-year low in 2011, with just 233 notices written last year compared to an annual average of 516. They are closing their eyes to the violations.
  • Over the weekend, Seely reported in the Wisconsin State Journal that Delafield-based Herr Environmental received a $4,338 fine and five citations for “treating fields with so much human waste from septic tanks it risked poisoning nearby wells.” But those penalties are merely a slap on the wrist.

DNR investigators had recommended levying up to $40,000 in fines and sending the case to the Department of Justice for prosecution. But the DNR leadership decided to handle it internally. In addition, state Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc) intervened in the case on Herr's behalf; Kleefisch and his wife, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, have received campaign contributions from the company's owner, as did DNR Executive Assistant Scott Gunderson (a former Republican legislator).

In 2010, before Walker came into office, Herr Environmental's owner, Richard Herr, and his development company Stoneridge Associates paid a $240,000 fine related to runoff pollution violations at a Dousman development, Seely reported.

Stepp sent out a sharply worded statement after Seely's report was published to defend the agency's handling of Herr's problems, saying “the company did not go unpunished” and that members of the DNR had disagreed about how to proceed with the case.

Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates and a former DNR staffer, said she found it to be “a little frightening” that recommendations by DNR investigators and scientists were overridden on a subject as important as public health.

“It doesn't take a lot to make people sick,” Wright said. “We can make people sick by not enforcing the law.”

Cutting Recycling, Refusing Rail Money

But Walker's environmental record extends beyond his reorganization of the DNR. Interestingly, some of Walker's attempts to weaken environmental protections to promote business were so radically misguided that they were thwarted by the state Legislature, currently led by his fellow Republicans.

Walker, Stepp and the Fitzgerald brothers lost their battle to weaken environmental regulations and stifle public input so that an open-pit strip mine could be launched in northern Wisconsin. That effort failed because state Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center), who held the deciding vote in the state Senate, wouldn't agree to the bill. Like Walker's attempts to delay the implementation of the phosphorus rules, the mining bill was too extreme for even the Republican majority in the state Senate.

Walker also lost another round on eliminating the recycling mandate and the $32 million in state support for local recycling programs. While the Legislature rejected Walker's proposal, it only provided $20 million for recycling programs.

That said, Walker is able to unilaterally change or block environmental regulations. Last year, the state Legislature diminished its own power and gave Walker a role in the rule-making process. Previously, the Legislature passed laws and then the details were developed as rules and implemented by state agencies—including the DNR—after being approved by lawmakers. Now, proposed rules are sent to the governor's office first, and Walker doesn't have to act on them if he doesn't like them.

Wright, of Midwest Environmental Advocates, said it's another example of the Walker administration allowing politics to trump the work of scientists and environmental experts at the DNR and other agencies.

“It's kind of like they've burned down the house,” Wright said.

Walker's rejection of $810 million of federal funds for high-speed rail and his attempt to scrap long-in-the-works wind power siting rules have helped to weaken Wisconsin's job market, said Schumann of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.

The rail project would have led to an estimated 4,700 construction jobs and 9,000 additional jobs. Three wind energy companies have left the state, taking with them $600 million in investments and 1,100 jobs, because the regulations of that industry were so uncertain and unpredictable, Schumann said.

As a result, Wisconsin only generates 5 megawatts of wind energy, while Illinois generates 614 megawatts, Iowa generates 470 megawatts and Michigan generates 348 megawatts of wind energy.

“The damage has been done,” Schumann said. 


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