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GOP-controlled Senate fires agriculture secretary

Gov. Tony Evers, seated at center, listens to a Senate debate regarding his choice to lead the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection in the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison on Tuesday. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Gov. Tony Evers, seated at center, listens in the state Capitol on Tuesday to a Senate debate over his choice to lead the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Senate fired the state agriculture secretary on Tuesday, and the Democratic governor who appointed him watched quietly a row behind lawmakers before using profanity to blast the process.

The vote to oust Gov. Tony Evers’ Cabinet secretary was the latest in a series of skirmishes between the governor and the GOP. It came as Wisconsin was losing dairy farmers at a record pace. The normally mild-mannered Evers, a former state education chief, sprinkled profanity throughout comments, saying he was “p.o.’d” with the vote and later tweeted that it was “political BS.”

“It’s a message (Republicans are) sending to all other secretary-designees,” Evers said in the halls of the Capitol minutes after the vote. “Stay in your place, folks. You can’t challenge people. You can’t speak. … To think they’re going to have to keep their mouth shut for the next, who knows, four years, in order to get approved by the Senate, that’s absolute (expletive).”

Republicans and Evers have been fighting since before Evers even took office. Republicans convened a lame-duck session in December to pass laws weakening Evers’ power. This summer, Evers used his veto powers to reshape the GOP-passed state budget, resulting in attempts in court and through a constitutional amendment to weaken his veto authority.

But rejecting a Cabinet secretary is a step not seen since at least before 1987, according to Legislative Reference Bureau records, and no one has cited an example from before then.

Evers injected more drama into the vote, showing up on the floor of the Senate sitting through nearly two hours of debate. He sat just behind the Democratic leader and outside the office of the Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who walked over and shook his hand during the debate.

The Evers administration, state and federal Democratic office holders and a variety of agriculture industry groups urged Republicans to back off and allow Brad Pfaff to continue to serve in the position he’s held since January. The Senate split along party lines to fire Pfaff, all 19 Republicans voting in favor and all 14 Democrats against.

Evers, in a Twitter message, praised Pfaff and excoriated Republicans.

“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,” Evers said. “This is the same political BS people are sick and tired of and to say it’s a dark day for WI is simply an understatement.”

Democratic Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said Pfaff’s upbringing on a farm in western Wisconsin helped him understand the needs of farmers and the state’s agriculture community.

“Agriculture is in Brad’s DNA,” Shilling said. “It is who he is. … He was born to do this job, to travel this state and be the cheerleader for the agriculture industry.”

Fitzgerald cited what he called “missteps” Pfaff had with Republicans as justification for his nomination’s facing rejection. Five Republicans who voted in committee to recommend Pfaff’s confirmation did not speak during debate and refused to answer questions from Democrats about why they had changed their positions.

The committee chairman, Sen. Howard Marklein, said in a statement after the vote that Pfaff had “played politics” and “attacked the legislature” when he should have been focused on helping farmers.

Sen. Andre Jacque, who also previously supported Pfaff, said after the vote a “number of concerns” had come forward after the February committee vote and neither Pfaff nor the governor could resolve them. He declined to specify what they were.

Pfaff angered some Republicans when he criticized them for not moving faster to release $200,000 for farmers’ mental health and suicide prevention. Pfaff also upset Republicans and powerful agriculture industry groups when he moved forward with new siting rules, first started under Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, that are designed to protect farmers’ neighbors from the stench of manure.

Opponents insist the agriculture department didn’t consult farmers on the setbacks, which they say are so tough that no one will be able to expand their operations. They also fear that local governments that oppose factory farms will use the restrictions to block new operations.

Pfaff put the proposal on hold on Friday, hours after Fitzgerald said he didn’t have the votes to stay on the job.

Pfaff’s supporters, including groups representing cheesemakers, dairy farmers and corn growers, argued that ousting him now will only create more instability for farmers who are struggling to deal with low milk prices and an ongoing trade war. Wisconsin lost nearly 700 dairy farms last year alone, the highest number of closures since 2011.

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