WMC, Ag Industry Back Plan to Privatize, Reorganize DNR Duties

December 2, 2016

Wisconsin DNR Logo

A plan to privatize some of the work on state permits for shoreland construction projects and manure spreading on large factory farms has drawn praise from the state’s largest business and agriculture groups.

The plan to reorganize several Department of Natural Resources (DNR) functions would create a program to certify engineers, agronomists, consultants and others, who are hired by the permit recipients, to do the information gathering and background work for the permits. The DNR would retain final authority over granting the permit and inspecting permit holders.

The plan released by DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp comes after years of budget cuts and demands by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature to make the DNR more business-friendly. The DNR said it will implement the plan in phases between now and early 2018, and that some portions of it may require legislative approval.

In recent years, conservation organizations have accused the DNR of being lax on the enforcement of environmental laws. Last summer, a Legislative Audit Bureau report found backlogs in the DNR's wastewater program for factories, municipalities and large farms. The audit also said the agency issued notices of violations to polluters in just 33 of 558 instances serious enough for such citations under DNR policies.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the state’s largest business organization, praised the plan in a Wisconsin State Journal report as “making the department more efficient.” WMC is traditionally one of the top outside electioneering spenders. The group has spent more than $27 million since 2006 on electioneering activities to support Republican and conservative candidates for legislative and statewide offices.

In addition, WMC’s 3,500 members span more than a dozen special interests groups, including agriculture, business, manufacturing, natural resources, tourism, and construction. Special interests represented by WMC contributed more than $14 million to current legislators and $32.9 million to Walker between January 2011 and August 2016.

The plan also got a thumbs up from the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest agriculture organization, which told the Associated Press the plan would reduce duplicative work by the farms and the DNR. “You’re hiring a licensed professional to do his or her job,” the federation’s Paul Zimmerman said. “Those licenses have to mean something. The idea is to free up staff time.”

The group’s political action committee spent $1.3 million between 2000 and 2016 on outside electioneering activities mostly to support GOP legislative and statewide candidates. The PAC has also made direct contributions to both Democrats and Republicans totaling about $295,000 since 2000.