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MADISON – The power struggle between Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who won office last year, and the Republican-controlled Legislature came to a head over Evers’ appointee to lead the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. On a party-line vote on Tuesday, the Senate fired Brad Pfaff who has been Secretary-designee since January when Evers took office. It was the first time since 1987 that the Senate had rejected a gubernatorial appointee.

Senate Republicans defended their move, implying that Pfaff hadn’t done enough to help the ailing farm economy; rejecting his nomination would help farmers, they indicated.

After the vote Evers responded angrily, saying that Republicans ignored pleas from farmers and agriculture stakeholders who expressed broad support for Pfaff after learning the Senate poised to reject his nomination. Not a single Republican Senator voted to confirm Pfaff as DATCP secretary.

'Callous and cruel'

After the vote, Evers praised Pfaff, noting that the passion and joy he brought to his job was contagious, calling him “an extraordinary person and public servant.”

He called the Republican vote “nothing short of callous and cruel. Republicans voted to reject a good man who has a good heart and who wakes up every day ready to serve,” Evers said. “It was apparently more important for Republicans to serve up political retribution because Brad had the courage and the audacity to scold them for playing politics with farmers’ mental health during this dairy crisis. Frankly, it would have been a disservice to this state if I’d appointed a secretary who didn’t fight like hell for our farmers, regardless of the consequences.”

The governor called the action “the same political B.S. people are sick and tired of, and to say it’s a dark day for Wisconsin is simply an understatement.”

Evers said he was not going to tell his other not-yet-approved appointees to “keep their mouths shut” for fear of drawing the ire of the Republicans because he hired them to be forthcoming and advocate for the people they serve.

Withdrawing support

In an unprecedented move, on Friday (Nov. 1) Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald asked the governor to withdraw Pfaff’s nomination. There have been hearings for Evers’ cabinet appointees, but few have been approved by the Senate.

In Pfaff’s case, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions offered its unanimous approval – including five GOP members – following a hearing on his appointment in February. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the five Republicans who changed course after initially backing Pfaff are Kathy Bernier of Chippewa Falls, André Jacque of De Pere, Howard Marklein of Spring Green, Jerry Petrowski of Marathon and Patrick Testin of Stevens Point.

The final step in the approval process is a vote by the entire Senate and Fitzgerald told the governor last week that he didn’t have the votes to approve Pfaff. As the dustup gained speed, several statements from Fitzgerald indicated that if Evers didn’t withdraw his DATCP Secretary-designee it was all but certain the Senate would reject Pfaff’s nomination. Evers, upset by the partisan wrangling, said he would not withdraw Pfaff’s name.

“It is astonishing that, in the middle of a dairy crisis and trade war, Republicans want to create even more uncertainty and instability by firing the leader of the agency charged with fighting for Wisconsin’s farmers and rural communities,” the governor replied to Fitzgerald’s threat.

In another unprecedented move, the governor watched the debate on his nominee from the Senate floor and angrily decried the final outcome – 19 votes against Pfaff and 14 for in favor. Not a single Republican member voted for Pfaff’s nomination despite a flurry of calls from state farmers and agriculture groups supporting him.

Many have pointed to a war of words between Pfaff and the Republicans controlling the state budget for creating bad blood. When funding for farmer mental-health programs was held up in committee Pfaff told lawmakers that his agency was down to counseling vouchers for only five more farmers. “If the Joint Finance Committee doesn’t want to move this funding forward immediately, then they have a choice to make – which farmers will get mental health care?”

'Part of the problem'

At the time Fitzgerald responded that Pfaff’s comments were “offensive and unproductive.” Apparently the flood of support for Pfaff in the last few days did nothing to change Fitzgerald’s mind on the nominee.

After the no-confidence vote, Fitzgerald told the Journal-Sentinel that farmers are struggling, adding “unfortunately (Evers) pick for DATCP Secretary was part of the problem, not the solution. (Pfaff) tried to place burdensome rules on Wisconsin farmers at a time they can least afford it and repeatedly engaged in partisan political games targeting the Legislature.”

State government watchers have noted that generally if there is not sufficient support for a appointee, that nominee is not brought up for a vote. A cabinet nominee could serve for all four years of a governor’s term without being confirmed and could continue to serve as a secretary-designee. With the no-confidence vote, it appears Evers will have to find someone else to lead the agency.

No one questioned Pfaff’s credentials to be state ag secretary. He worked at the state capitol for State Rep. Virgil Roberts (94th Assembly District) and then worked in agricultural policy for U.S. Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI) during the mid-1990s.

When U.S. Representative Ron Kind (D) was elected to the House, Pfaff worked on agricultural policy for him. During the Obama administration, Pfaff served for six years at the USDA’s Farm Service Agency as Wisconsin State Executive Director and was then asked to serve as National Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs at the federal FSA office in Washington, D.C. Apparently that long resume did nothing to convince GOP lawmakers in the Wisconsin Senate.

Siting rule debate

The chaos over the Pfaff nomination played out as the DATCP citizen policy board was poised to consider final changes to what is known as ATCP 51, the Livestock Siting rule which has been the subject of heated debate and numerous public hearings in recent months.

Several state agriculture groups and some GOP lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate leader Fitzgerald, had asked DATCP not to hold public hearings on the proposed rule changes. Many have suggested that their ire against Pfaff is due to his taking revisions to that rule forward with his citizen policy board.

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Amid the uncertainty over his confirmation and just a few hours after the phone call between Fitzgerald and Evers on Nov. 1, Pfaff announced that the agency had decided not to bring the proposed updates to the state’s livestock siting regulations, to the DATCP Board for a final vote, which was scheduled for Nov. 7.

In a statement he released with his decision to wait on the livestock siting rule revisions, Pfaff said that “since holding public hearings earlier this year, the department has held ongoing, constructive meetings with stakeholders on this complex rule. Given the tremendous importance of our dairy and livestock industries to the state of Wisconsin, we’ve decided to take more time to continue these discussions.”

The livestock siting rule is set up as a model ordinance for townships or counties that want to use standardized rules to regulate large livestock operations. The rule sets standards and procedures that local governments must follow if they choose to require permits for new or expanding livestock operations. The state’s largest livestock operations are regulated by the Department of Natural Resources.

The Livestock Siting law requires DATCP to review this rule every four years. Technical committees have undertaken this review in 2010, 2014, and 2018 but prior to this proposal, there have been no updates to ATCP 51 since its adoption in 2006.

Dems cry foul

Democrats in the Legislature have cried foul, saying that in threatening Pfaff’s nomination the GOP is putting politics over Wisconsin’s farming communities. Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) defended Pfaff, noting that he grew up on a farm and “has dedicated his life to advocating for Wisconsin farmers, agriculture, and our rural communities. This is politics at its worst, and most vindictive.”

To threaten Pfaff “is a cynical, partisan maneuver made with no thought for Wisconsin’s farming communities,” Hintz added.

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Some observers noted that because of the length of time the Senate has taken to confirm nominees, those nominees are being judged more on their performance in the job rather than on their qualifications to serve – which would be the case if they were confirmed in the early months of an administration.

Wisconsin’s U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Ron Kind, both Democrats, had voiced support for Pfaff, as did the Wisconsin Agri-Business Association, Cooperative Network, Organic Valley, several county Farm Bureau presidents and others. The Wisconsin Corn Growers Association issued a statement saying: “Our members need stability and continuity. They need someone to speak on their behalf, to work on their behalf and to put it simply: someone to care. Brad Pfaff is that person.”

The Dairy Business Association (DBA) had urged the Senate to approve Pfaff’s nomination. In a statement issued on Monday the DBA said: “Our dairy farmers are being battered by a perfect storm of challenges, from low milk prices in recent years and extreme weather conditions to shifting regulations and trade disruptions.

Need certainty, not a political fight

“What we desperately need is certainty and stability, not a political fight. DBA supported Mr. Pfaff’s appointment at the outset and we see no reason to change that position now. At this critical moment for Wisconsin’s dairy community, the right thing to do is to keep him in place.”

In its own statement, Wisconsin Farmers Union took issue with Pfaff’s decision to delay a decision on the siting rules revisions. “To scrap the rules now is to ignore the input of hundreds of citizens who participated in the public comment process, not to mention the hundreds of hours invested by technical review committee members in 2010, 2014, and again in 2018 to make science-based recommendations for improving the rules,” the farm group said.

“To abandon the revisions now at the 11th hour is a colossal waste of government resources. It's time for these rules to go forward.” WFU supports periodic and substantive changes to these rules with the benefit of Technical Committee recommendations, as parts of the existing rules, the group said,  “are outdated, unworkable, and contrary to the available science.”

Prior to the no-confidence vote Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association Executive Director John Umhoefer said that Pfaff “recognizes the economic hardship and other challenges faced by our partners in the dairy farming community, and he has done the right thing in calling for additional time and consideration of livestock siting regulations.

Several GOP Senators who voted against Pfaff told reporters that they were concerned about the livestock siting rule revisions.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel contributed to this story.

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