Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee At Odds Over Lead Pipe Removal

May 15, 2019

The battle between Democrats and Republicans over the next two-year state budget is in full swing.

Tuesday, members of the Joint Committee on Finance voted unanimously on several measures meant to improve water quality. They included Gov. Tony Evers' plan to borrow $13.5 million for the clean water program and $3.6 million for the safe drinking water loan program.

» Tony Evers Chats About Wisconsin's 'Year Of Clean Drinking Water'

Democrats also wanted the committee to revisit Evers' plan to provide $40 million in bonding to help replace lead pipes across the state. Republicans on the joint finance committee rejected that proposal last week.  

State Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) held up a water bottle at the meeting, which he admits was a bit of political theater.

“I brought some water from my faucet this morning in the sink of my kitchen. Anyone want to drink it? Anyone want to take a sip? Some good lead lateral water. I don’t. I don’t drink it. I drink filtered water,” Goyke says.

» Trusting The Tap: How Perceptions Impact Whether People Drink Tap Water

He says the issue of lead laterals is personal. He and many of his constituents can't trust that the water in their homes isn't poisoned with lead, Goyke says. That's because it flows through aging lead lateral pipes, connecting older homes to water mains. Goyke called on the state to do something.

In his budget, Gov. Evers had allotted $40 million to begin replacing lead service lines. But the GOP-dominated Joint Committee on Finance rejected that proposal last week. Goyke and other Democrats wanted to revisit the issue.

“There isn’t a private sector solution for this. A week ago we debated, you can’t just throw money at a problem ... sorry, this just costs money,” Goyke says.

According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 5% of kids across the state younger than age 6 have lead poisoning. While lead laterals are found across the state, the majority are in Milwaukee — the state’s largest city — so it would have received the majority of the funding Evers proposed.

» What Milwaukee's Lead Problem Means For Children

State Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) says replacing lead laterals should not be a political issue.

"When those children are placed into special needs classes. When those mothers are getting the devastating news that their children are affected by lead, I want you guys to look her in the eye and tell her that because her child was born in Milwaukee that you're unwilling to help because there's nothing fair about that," Johnson says.

Joint Finance Co-chair John Nygren (R-Marinette) blasted Democrats for bringing up the issue of lead laterals just as lawmakers were voting on a measure that received bipartisan support.

“Good to take a motion that we all are going to vote together on and make it divisive,” he says.

Nygren reiterates the GOP reasoning for not moving forward with providing money to replace the service lines. He says a bill was passed in 2017 that would allow local governments to take out low interest loans that could be used to replace lead water lines.

» What Milwaukee Can Learn From Madison Removing Its Lead Pipes

“I’ve heard complaints about local control in the past. This is a perfect opportunity for communities to step up and address issues facing their constituents,” Nygren says.

He says the issue is best handled at the local level.

Nygren adds that it’s important to know that replacing lead laterals without replacing all the lead pipes inside a home does no good. And Nygren says that even if all of Evers' proposed $40 million had gone to Milwaukee, it would have only replaced lead laterals at 9% of the homes in the city.