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Gov. Tony Evers warns of possible legal action on PFAS funding


by Baylor Spears, Wisconsin Examiner
April 16, 2024

Three Democratic lawmakers on Wisconsin’s budget committee sat waiting in the state Capitol at 9:30 Tuesday morning — the start time for a special meeting called by Gov. Tony Evers to discuss the release of funds to combat PFAS and support hospitals in western Wisconsin.

Republicans, as expected, never showed up. Evers himself made an appearance, however, to criticize Republicans inaction and discuss potential paths forward.

“It’s readily apparent that we’re not going to have a Joint Finance Committee today,” Evers said. “I think the Republicans decided they weren’t going to have a conversation around this.” 

Evers called the special meeting of the budget committee last week as part of his latest attempt to push Republican lawmakers to release $140 million earmarked to fight PFAS and to support hospitals in western Wisconsin. While the funds were already approved, Republicans and Evers have disagreed about the exact way they should be distributed; that disagreement is keeping the money from getting out the door. 

Republican lawmakers last week immediately rebuffed Evers’ call, saying the governor did not have the authority to convene the committee and that he should have signed a Republican PFAS bill that included new limits on state regulatory powers if he wanted the funds to be released.

The $125 million in funding meant to address the ongoing battle with PFAS contamination in the state was initially included in the state budget. Republicans then passed a bill setting rules for allocating the funds that Evers vetoed because of provisions that would have limited the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ ability to hold those responsible for PFAS contamination accountable. 

“Republicans are missing in action,” Evers said Tuesday. 

If the PFAS funds aren’t allocated before the next budget process, they will remain in the supplemental fund that lawmakers control. Evers outlined a few actions he might take to try to shake loose the money. 

“The options are kicking some people out of their positions next November or getting them out the door or finding some judge someplace that says we need to move forward,” Evers said. 

Evers said he was not ruling out potential court action on the PFAS issue directly, but acknowledged that he already has lawsuits in progress related to similar issues. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Wednesday in Evers’ lawsuit against the finance committee for blocking spending by the Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship program.

“We can run around and go to the Supreme Court on all sorts of things. At the end of the day, we’re not getting them out the door. The money is sitting here in Madison,” Evers said. “The authority to distribute them is with the Joint Finance committee…so it seems ridiculous that you need to go to the Supreme Court to release money that should have been released and we have an obligation to release it.”

Evers noted that local communities including French Island are still combating PFAS contamination. He also said he’s worried that local governments will struggle to meet the standards set last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — a standard lower than the one set in Wisconsin — without the funds from the state.  Republicans didn’t show up to the meeting Gov. Tony Evers called on Tuesday. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

Republicans who didn’t show up to Tuesday’s meeting called it a “publicity stunt.”

Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay), a member of JFC and a coauthor of the vetoed PFAS legislation, said in a statement “Evers ignored the desires of impacted communities with his SB312 veto,” and is attempting to “distract from how he’s harmed us with a demand for a slush fund.” 

Wimberger continued, saying Evers “doesn’t want to explain why he insists on punishing PFAS victims for pollution they didn’t cause – and why he would hold $125 million in relief hostage to do so.” 

Wimberger also criticized Democrats, who voted against the PFAS legislation, saying if they supported getting the money out to communities, then they would support a veto override in the Legislature. The Wisconsin Senate voted to override a few of Evers’ vetoes in the latest legislative session with only Republican support, however none of those efforts have passed the Assembly, where Republicans don’t have a supermajority. Lawmakers aren’t expected to meet on the floor again this year.

Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison), one of the three Democrats in attendance, said the current standoff is part of a “pattern” where Republicans want “credit without actually solving the problem.”

“There was no need to put this money in a lock box,” Roys said. “We predicted… that this is exactly what was going to happen. The Republicans were going to use this to say, ‘Look we spent all this money on PFAS.’ They weren’t actually going to get it out of the communities in need because they don’t care about solving the problem. They don’t care about the Wisconsinites who are going to be harmed because their water is not drinkable.”

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