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Wisconsin GOP targets ag secretary in latest spat with Evers

November 4, 2019 GMT
FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2019 file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers addresses a joint session of the Legislature in the Assembly chambers during the Governor's State of the State speech at the state Capitol, in Madison, Wis. Behind Evers is Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, left, and Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton. Evers tried for months for the Legislature to take up gun control bills to no avail. So he recently called a special session to force them to convene on the issue. (AP Photo/Andy Manis, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2019 file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers addresses a joint session of the Legislature in the Assembly chambers during the Governor's State of the State speech at the state Capitol, in Madison, Wis. Behind Evers is Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, left, and Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton. Evers tried for months for the Legislature to take up gun control bills to no avail. So he recently called a special session to force them to convene on the issue. (AP Photo/Andy Manis, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Senate on Monday was preparing the extraordinary step of rejecting a governor-appointed Cabinet secretary, the latest flash point in a series of ongoing tensions that began even before Democratic Gov. Tony Evers took office in January.

Senators have never rejected a governor’s Cabinet appointee since at least before 1987, when the Legislative Reference Bureau began keeping records. But Republicans are targeting Agriculture Secretary Brad Pfaff in part due to his push to enact tougher siting rules designed to protect farmers’ neighbors from the stench of manure.

The push to fire Pfaff has encountered resistance from Democrats and some agriculture industry groups.

Evers appointed Pfaff in January, and he has been serving since then. But if the Senate votes to reject his confirmation on Tuesday, he would be fired. A law Republicans passed during a lame-duck session weeks before Evers took office forbids the governor from re-appointing Pfaff to the job later. It was one of a series of laws passed in the lame-duck session to weaken Evers, a move that helped to sour their relationship early and has led to ongoing legal battles .

Evers’ administration and farm groups were urging Republicans on Monday to back down, arguing it made no sense to oust the secretary in the middle of a dairy crisis and trade war. But Republicans showed no signs of conceding.

“Brad Pfaff is part of the problem. He hasn’t dealt with this crisis at all,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told WTMJ-TV on Sunday, referring to the state’s losing nearly 700 dairy farms last year alone, the highest number of closures since 2011. Fitzgerald said Pfaff had “bungled this job since day one.”

Ousting a secretary, perhaps for the first time in Wisconsin history, would be a “very dramatic and drastic step,” said Evers’ top aide, Joel Brennan. He was trying to convince Fitzgerald, and other Republicans he said were concerned about the vote, to at least delay a decision. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind — both Democrats — also got into the fray, urging confirmation of Pfaff. Pfaff, who was born and raised on a dairy farm in western Wisconsin, previously worked as Kind’s deputy chief of staff.

“At a time when three Wisconsin dairy farms are closing a day, it’s a no-brainer to have Brad Pfaff leading the (agriculture department),” Kind said in a statement. “Any decision otherwise isn’t putting the best interest of our farmers or our state first.”

Republicans control the Senate 19-14. That means at least three Republicans would have to vote with Democrats in order for Pfaff to keep his job.

Industry groups, including the Dairy Business Association, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association and the Wisconsin Agri-Business Association, also joined the push on Monday, urging Republican senators to confirm Pfaff.

One of the justifications for firing Pfaff that Republicans have pointed to is his decision to move forward with new siting rules, first started under Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, designed to protect farmers’ neighbors from the stench of manure.

Under the plan, new farms with at least 500 animals, as well as farms looking to expand to at least 500 animals, would have to place manure storage facilities from between 600 feet and 2,500 feet (183 meters and 732 meters) from neighbors’ property lines depending on the size of the herd. The current setback is 350 feet (107 meters).

Opponents insist the agriculture department didn’t consult farmers on the setbacks and the restrictions are so tough no one will be able to expand their operations. They also fear that local governments that oppose factory farms will use the restrictions to block new operations.

Agriculture officials have since scaled back the restrictions, proposing setbacks ranging from 350 to 1,450 feet (107 to 442 meters). The department’s board was scheduled to vote on the final version this week. But on Friday, just hours after Fitzgerald said he was going to fire him, Pfaff announced the rules would be pulled from consideration from the Thursday meeting as originally scheduled to “take more time to continue these discussions.”

A coalition of 20 groups, including the state chamber of commerce and groups representing cattlemen, corn growers, cheesemakers, dairy producers, corn and soybean growers and others, sent a letter Friday urging rejection of the proposed rule. Many of those same groups registered in support of Pfaff when a Senate committee considered his appointment. That committee voted unanimously in February to endorse his confirmation as secretary, with all Democrats and Republicans joining together in support.

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