A Wisconsin Senate committee gave one of Gov. Tony Evers’ most debated Cabinet picks unanimous bipartisan approval Thursday, setting the stage for a larger fight in the fall.
Craig Thompson, a former lobbyist and Evers’ choice to lead the Department of Transportation, easily cleared the state Senate’s transportation committee in a 4-0 vote. But the full Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, will still have the final say on Thompson’s confirmation.
Fights over Evers’ picks to lead state agencies have gone on largely in the back halls of the Capitol, giving Republicans a way to foil the will of the Democratic governor by stalling Senate confirmation of his choices. All of Evers’ secretaries now only enjoy interim status. But even though they are not officially confirmed, they will stay in their jobs unless or until the Senate votes to reject them.
State Sen. Jerry Petrowski, the chairman of the Senate’s transportation committee and a Republican from Marathon, praised Thompson before voting for him.
“I have known Craig for a long time. I believe that Craig is a class act and he will do a great job for the state of Wisconsin,” Petrowski said. “I know there is constantly in the world we live in a lot of sniping going on for some of the secretaries, but I believe Craig has been involved in transportation for a long time and I believe he will do a good job not only for the governor but all the people of the state.”
Some Republicans have expressed opposition to Thompson because of his former work as head of the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association. In that capacity, he lobbied regularly for the interests of road builders and others in the transportation industry.
In statements on the committee’s vote on Thursday, Sens. Duey Stroebel, a Republican from Cedarburg, and Steve Nass, a Republican from Whitewater, said they were displeased at the outcome.
“Any senator that votes in support of this appointment should be held accountable by the taxpayers,” Nass said. “Even worse was the inappropriate statement by the Republican committee chairman referring to opponents of Thompson as ‘sniping.’ Today’s vote is further proof that too many Republican legislators are willing to aid-and-abet the extreme tax-and-spend policies of Governor Evers.”
In a separate statement, Stroebel noted that, in a recently published article, the conservative group MacIver News Service had found that single-bid contracts had grown more common in Thompson’s brief time in office.
And they weren’t the first questioned raised about Thompson and lone bidders.
During a committee hearing in February, Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, asked Thompson why only a single bid had come in for a contract calling for the reconstruction of part of Interstate 39 near Janesville. The offer, from a joint venture named I-39 Constructors, came in far higher than the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s estimate for the project.
WisDOT had expected the job to cost about $100 million. I-39 Constructors — formed by the Black River Falls-based company Hoffman Construction and Janesville-based Rock Road Companies — bid $126.6 million. Despite the discrepancy, Thompson approved the contract, saying that putting it out to bid again could have pushed the cost even higher.
Marklein was not present for Thursday’s vote.
Stroebel has separately criticized Thompson for drawing up a budget proposal that would have undone the state’s right-to-work law, reinstated prevailing-wage requirements and enacted other union-favored policies that were undone under former Gov. Scott Walker.
“There is a fundamental conflict of interest inherent in appointing the lobbyist of a group of vendors to head an agency that hands out contracts to those same vendors,” Stroebel said in a statement.
But Thompson is also well known and liked by many lawmakers. The approval on Thursday from the Senate’s transportation committee now puts him one step closer to confirmation.
It’s unclear when the Senate would vote to confirm him.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has been coy about what may happen, saying only that Senators will meet later this year to discuss who will be confirmed and who could be in trouble. The Senate isn’t expected to vote on any Cabinet appointments until October.
Republicans control the Senate 19-14, meaning that only three of them need to be opposed to a particular nominee to make confirmation unlikely.
– The Associated Press contributed to this story
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to state that state Sen. Howard Marklein was not present for the vote Thursday on Craig Thompson’s appointment to lead the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.Follow @natebeck9