Tony Evers' secretaries try to focus on jobs, despite growing uncertainty among Republican lawmakers

Tony Evers' secretaries try to focus on jobs, despite growing uncertainty among Republican lawmakers

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Travel Wisconsin Secretary Sara Meaney said she remains focused on her job, despite recent uncertainty raised by Senate Republicans who have already fired one of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ appointees.

Meaney, who started in January, is one of at least four of the governor’s appointees who have yet to receive formal approval from the Senate but now face the possibility of losing their positions entirely as tension grows between Evers and Republican lawmakers.

But Meaney said she’s focused on her job to bring more visitors — and their dollars — to Wisconsin.

“I’m not a political person … the work we do in tourism isn’t red or blue: It’s green,” she said. “It’s an economic agenda, pure and simple — more people and more dollars and better tax revenue for everyone in Wisconsin.”

Evers’ spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff acknowledged that some of Evers’ appointments have become caught up in political tensions between the Democratic governor and GOP lawmakers, but she said the secretaries who have not yet received full support from the Senate remain committed to their jobs.

“We are in a time where unfortunately it seems like politics factors in everything,” Baldauff said. “We know people don’t look at what’s happening in Washington, D.C., and say, ‘Wow, we need more of that in Wisconsin’ … People want their government to work, they want things to get done.”

Lack of support

While not receiving confirmation creates uncertainty for secretaries, Senate Republicans last week took matters a step further when they voted to fire Agriculture Secretary Brad Pfaff, something that has not happened since at least 1987, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.

Pfaff’s firing stems from comments he made in July, when he criticized the Legislature’s budget committee for failing to release funds for mental health assistance to farmers and their families. At the time, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald called the comments “offensive and unproductive.”

After the vote to fire Pfaff, Fitzgerald took aim at four other secretaries including Meaney; Dawn Crim, secretary of the Department of Safety and Professional Services; Craig Thompson, secretary of the Department of Transportation; and Andrea Palm, secretary of the Department of Health Services.

Fitzgerald said the secretaries lack support from all GOP members and are unlikely to pass the Senate.

In an interview this month with WTMJ, Fitzgerald said there was “a storm brewing on Sara Meaney … she politicized the department of tourism.”

Fitzgerald did not provide specifics in the interview and did not respond to requests for comment.

Meaney denied accusations of any partisan agenda, noting that Travel Wisconsin has seen success so far this year, including the department’s first budget increase in nearly a decade; the creation of an outdoor recreation office, increased social media and advertising performance; and efforts to expand out-of-state advertising.

One point of contention stems from Meaney’s attempt to use an online election to fill several officer vacancies. In an October letter to Meaney, Sen. Andrew Jacque, R-De Pere, expressed concerns that the Governor’s Council on Tourism may have violated state open meeting laws when it held an officer election via email.

Meaney said staff pursued the online vote last month with the aid of statutory guidance documents that indicated electronic voting would be acceptable.

“As soon as it became clear to us that that guidance had led us astray, I halted the voting process,” Meaney said. “That voting then became null and void, and we will be holding an officer election at the next publicly noticed meeting of the council.”

Crim said she is aware of the uncertainty raised by some GOP lawmakers, but she also is focusing on her role, rather than on political infighting.

“I accepted this position to lead the agency and support the administration’s efforts to serve and advance the people of Wisconsin,” Crim said. “That is what I am doing and will continue to do every day.”

Senate Republicans earlier this year raised concerns over Evers’ appointment of Crim, who was charged in 2005 with felony child abuse for jabbing her 5-year-old son’s hand with a pen, causing it to bleed. The case resulted in a deferred prosecution.

Thompson has received mixed opinions from GOP senators, with some criticizing his previous role as a lobbyist for the Transportation Development Association, while Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, described Thompson as “a class act.”

A Wisconsin DOT spokeswoman directed any questions regarding the secretary’s appointment to Evers’ office.

In an August statement, Jacque, who voted against Palm’s appointment as a member of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, criticized the secretary for her support of Planned Parenthood.

“Ms. Palm has demonstrated a willingness to put politics before the health of our state and create conflicts of interest within her department that are disqualifying,” he said in the statement.

Palm’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Growing tension

Baldauff said only seven of the governor’s appointees have been fully confirmed. Another nine are awaiting approval and the hope is they are confirmed before the end of the Senate session in April, she added.

“We want to make sure there is stability and there is certainty for the people of Wisconsin because they don’t want to see folks fighting, they want to see folks getting things done,” Baldauff said. “What we are focused on is getting the rest of our folks confirmed.”

Under state rule, cabinet secretaries are appointed by the governor, but the Senate provides final approval.

Wisconsin’s constitution doesn’t define when a Senate vote must occur, so the chamber can vote at any time on a secretary or other appointee who requires Senate approval. An appointed cabinet member could serve throughout a governor’s term without Senate approval.

Days before the Senate voted to fire him, Pfaff announced the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection board had suspended a vote on controversial farm siting regulations. Evers later said the suspended vote was an effort to appease Republican senators.

Evers expressed his frustration in the aftermath of Pfaff’s firing, using profanities on a few occasions, which only added fuel to the fire between the governor and Republican lawmakers.

This week, a legislative liaison for Evers’ office emailed Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, to ask whether the appointment of Michael Gillick as commissioner on the Labor and Industry Review Commission would be taken up in the Senate Labor and Regulatory Reform Committee’s two December meetings.

Nass replied that “as one of the individuals in the State Senate that Governor Evers considers to be a ‘bastard, amoral, stupid and a political assassin,’ my response is a respectful not a chance.”

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