The secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is sticking up for a proposal to strip the Natural Resources Board of its decision-making authority.
The provision, included in Governor Scott Walker’s proposed state budget, would make the board an advisory panel. The seven members of the board are currently charged with approving the rules prompted by laws passed by the Legislature.
Secretary Cathy Stepp went before the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee Tuesday morning, which is holding agency briefings this week on the biennial budget plan the governor introduced last month. Stepp told lawmakers that removing the board’s rule-making authority would help improve legislative oversight of the DNR, while shrinking the time that it takes in order to get rule changes passed. Stepp said “since rules have the same impact as law does…those kinds of decisions should be made by people who are directly accountable to the public.”
State Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) questioned the accountability claim though, noting that the governor currently appoints the members of the board. The Middleton Democrat said “the governor is directly accountable for what the board does and what the board doesn’t do…so the accountability aspect, I’m not buying.”
Erpenbach also questioned why Stepp appeared to have not been part of discussions about making the change. “For the life of me, I cannot understand why a cabinet secretary appointed by a governor, would not be part of a discussion in perhaps one of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the DNR in the last, as you put it, 60 years.”
Stepp said the idea reflects many comments she’s heard from business and conservation groups over the years, who she said currently don’t have an effective way to respond to decisions made by the Natural Resources Board. Stepp said Walker is “responding to things he’s been hearing for a long time” with the proposal.
Even some Republicans have expressed skepticism. State Senator Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) noted that all of the powers of the board would be given to the secretary, questions Stepp “when’s your election?”
The provision will be one of many lawmakers review in the coming months, as they begin the process of making changes to the budget plan before handing it off to the full Legislature for a vote.