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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Joint Finance Vote Pushes Wisconsin DNR Restructuring Forward

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Public Radio
Critics of Gov Walker's budget worry the DNR will be unable to watch over state's resources - including water quality.

Thursday, the GOP-dominated Joint Finance Committee voted on the DNR's budget. Emotions flared and sparks flew, but in the end, the measure to restructure the DNR passed 12 to 4.

While Democrats urged folding in more funding to protect the environment, they really dug in their heels when it came to plans to reorganize the agency.

In recent years, the department has gone through a number of significant changes.  For example - in 2015, some 60 scientists worked in the DNR’s central science services bureau. Today 15 remain.

Gov. Walker’s current budget dissolves the bureau and scatters those 15 scientists to departments throughout the agency.

Rep. Gordon Hintz of Oshkosh – a Democratic - said the move follows a disturbing trend of centralized government control:

“You know, natural resources are something that have been longstanding priorities in this state and the Department of Natural Resources and the men and women who work there, we were a model for the rest of the country. I always like to use this example – we can’t wait until it’s too late on some of these things. And I feel like we keep getting examples where if we had maintained proactive management of our natural resources, we wouldn’t have these issues. We didn’t clean the air in this country until you could see it."

Republican Rep Amy Loudenbeck argued that shuffling the DNR is long overdue. She said budget refocuses the agency on the job it’s supposed to be doing:

"This is a regulatory agency, it’s not a research agency. The function of the DNR is environmental protection and natural resources management. I think that the reorganization that we’re voting on today will ensure consistency with permit decisions, responsiveness and interpretation of state law."

“We asked the secretary (Kathy Stepp) to identify and document core functions, analyze the work, identify opportunities for efficiencies and ways to prioritize. And this is the result that we have and, I think, it will make the department more responsive, more consistent and improve the customer experience, which is the public,” Loudenback said.

Senator Lena Taylor said streamlining and prioritizing the DNR will not result in a protected environment. The Milwaukee Democrat pointed to a recent report that indicates the agency is woefully behind.

“The audit found 41 incidents of industrial polluters. It took them six or more years for them to go through the process to review and renew expired permits, so people were out there doing what they wanted to do, without the DNR actually going in and doing the work that they need to,” Taylor said.

Rep. Mary Felizkowski, Republican from Irma, rebutted Taylor’s criticisms: When a business is struggling, it pulls up its boot straps and restructures. Why can’t that work for the DNR?

“This is a regulatory agency, not a feel-good agency. They are here to regulate and do their job. And having clear concise lines and who they answer to, and the same parameters for each and every division is extremely important so that those regulations are implemented fairly, without being burdensome and yet committing and protecting the environment the way they are supposed to," she said.

There's likely to be more heated discussions ahead. Joint Finance has yet to tackle education and transportation.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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