MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The leader of the Wisconsin Senate’s sporting heritage committee spent more than three hours interrogating Gov. Tony Evers’ pick for Department of Natural Resources secretary during a confirmation hearing Thursday, peppering him with questions about his management style and how tough he would be on polluters.
Minocqua Republican Tom Tiffany said he was worried about going back to the “dark Doyle days,” when then-Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s secretaries ran the DNR. Republicans felt the agency threw up too many regulatory roadblocks to business expansion under Doyle and they spent the last eight years under GOP Gov. Scott Walker rolling back environmental protections, to the benefit of industry.
Tiffany’s questions for new DNR Secretary-designee Preston Cole focused on his leadership style, signaling that the GOP is worried that Evers will take a firmer hand on regulation.
“I have confidence in (Cole), but who’s going to run the Department of Natural Resources? Is it going to be the east wing?” Tiffany said, referring the section of the state Capitol that houses Evers’ office. “We want them to do their job as regulators, but we don’t want to go back to the dark Doyle days.”
Tiffany asked Cole how he differs from Evers and how he would approach things if he and Evers disagreed about an issue. Cole, keeping his voice even, responded that Evers hired him and if they disagreed he would act not just as an employee but as an adviser.
Tiffany went on to ask Cole how he would combat “bloat” in the DNR and how he would deal with employees who believe the DNR has more authority than it does under state law, at one point calling DNR Assistant Deputy Secretary Todd Ambs “a one-man wrecking ball” on water regulation. Ambs led the agency’s water division under Doyle and most recently worked as director of Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which works to preserve the Great Lakes, before Cole brought him back to the DNR in January.
Cole defended Ambs as “honest, trustworthy and brave.”
Tiffany also questioned Cole on how he’ll approach pollution enforcement, asking if the department will measure success by the number of compliance agreements or violations cited.
“Maybe a little of both,” Cole said. “You have the enforcement arm of the organization for a reason.”
Tiffany also complained that he’d heard from some businesses that the DNR had “slow-rolled” permits for wetland construction. Cole said hadn’t heard that term before and added that the agency was within its self-imposed deadlines for issuing general and individual permits.
The committee also questioned Cole on the lack of a long-term strategy for dealing with chronic wasting disease. The fatal deer brain disease has spread to 26 counties since it was discovered near Mount Horeb in 2002. Walker took a largely hands-off approach, drawing the ire of conservationists and Democrats. Evers’ state budget doesn’t call for any additional money to combat the disease or offer a long-term plan to slow its spread.
Cole said the agency wants to continue researching the disease and watching what other states do in an effort to save money. He noted that Michigan State University is working on a test that would allow hunters to confirm whether their kills are infected within days. He also said the agency is in the midst of a four-year deer mortality study that will inform strategy. The agency is about two years into the study.
“We’re going to let the science come to us,” he said. “It’s a multi-faceted issue. We’re on it.”
Tiffany seemed frustrated with that response.
“Gov. Walker took tremendous heat for not doing something about CWD and you guys can’t commit to doing something by 2020?” Tiffany said.
His questioning was so extensive that at one point, his fellow Republican, Sen. Devin LeMahieum, said he had to ask a question because “I need a break from listening to Tom talk.”
It’s unclear if or when the committee will vote on whether to recommend the full Senate confirm Cole. Tiffany said after the hearing he needs to consider whether Cole is a good choice for secretary and he needs to confer with GOP leadership.
Cole can serve until the Senate votes to reject his appointment.