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Wisconsin Senate votes to reject 4 Evers appointees

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Harm Venhuizen)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate voted Tuesday to reject four of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ appointees, including a member of the state’s natural resources policy board and a former lieutenant governor who was to serve on a hospital governing board.

That brings to 13 the number of Evers appointees that the Senate has rejected, which has the effect of firing them. Evers immediately named replacements while slamming the Republican votes as “petty, partisan politics.”

The Senate also sent Evers a massive tax cut package, while the Assembly passed a constitutional amendment that would curb the veto powers of Wisconsin’s governor, which are the broadest in the country. That proposal would ultimately need to be approved by voters statewide.

The moves come as the Assembly was planning to finish its work for the session on Thursday, with the Senate wrapping up next month. Lawmakers will then quickly turn to campaigning for the fall election under new maps Evers signed into law on Monday.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos urged the Senate to pass a bill that would allow for absentee ballots to be processed the day before Election Day, a bipartisan measure that is languishing in the Senate. His comments came after Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said on WISN-TV that the measure was likely dead.

“I have no idea why senators would not want to solve the problem of these late-night ballot dumps,” Vos said at a news conference.

The Senate voted along party lines to reject the appointment of Todd Ambs to the state’s Natural Resources Board. Ambs was the only one of four Evers appointees rejected by a GOP-controlled Senate committee following a tense public hearing last year. All four appointees were forwarded by Evers after the Senate in September rejected four DNR board appointees.

The Senate has yet to confirm any of Evers’ appointees to the board.

Ambs served as deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources before retiring in December 2021.

Ambs was questioned by GOP lawmakers at a December hearing about his online criticism of the Republican Party. Ambs said at that hearing that he would make “no apologies” for speaking out against former President Donald Trump.

Republican Sen. Mary Felzkowski said members of the board needed to show that they could work with both Republicans and Democrats.

Ambs rejected the notion that he can’t work with Republicans, saying in a statement after the vote that he has spent more than four decades working with both parties on a variety of conservation issues. He accused Republicans of making a “mockery” of the confirmation process.

“I know how to work in a bipartisan manner,” Ambs said. “The majority party in the Wisconsin State Legislature does not.”

The Senate also rejected the appointment of former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and former state Rep. Sondy Pope, both Democrats, and Candice Owley to the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics Authority Board. Democrats assailed the votes as unwarranted partisan attacks.

“Just don’t do this,” Democratic Sen. Mark Spreitzer said. “Back off.”

The vote to reject Lawton was 19-13, with three Republicans joining all Democrats against it. The Senate voted 20-12 to reject Pope, with two Republicans joining all Democrats against. Owley was rejected on a party line vote.

The Senate had previously rejected nine of Evers’ appointees since he took office in 2019. More than 180 of Evers’ appointees to lead state agencies and serve on a variety of boards and commissions have yet to be confirmed.

The Senate gave final approval to a package of bills opposed by Democrats that would cut taxes by about $2 billion in the first year and $1.4 billion every year after that. Evers has not said whether he will sign the package, or veto it like he has other similar Republican-backed tax cut proposals.

LeMahieu said Republicans were giving Evers another chance to sign “meaningful tax relief to hardworking families in Wisconsin.”

The centerpiece of the package is a measure that would expand the state’s second 4.4% income tax bracket so more income would be subject to a lower rate. Other measures would increase the income tax credit for married couples, expand the state’s child care tax credit and increase the amount of retirees’ income exempt from the state income tax.

Meanwhile, the Assembly approved a Republican-authored constitutional amendment that would prohibit the governor from using his partial veto powers to create or increase taxes or fees.

Wisconsin governors have the broadest partial veto power in the country. State laws allow them to strike almost any part of a budget bill. Evers last summer struck a hyphen and “20” from language in the state budget to change the end date for a $325 per-student spending increase from 2025 to 2425, locking the increase in place each year for 400 years. The move left GOP legislators outraged.

“The bottom line is the governor is not a legislator and should not be abusing the partial veto to act as a legislator,” said the amendment’s lead author Rep. Amanda Nedweski. “It’s time that we are the ones to have the courage to restore true representation in taxation.”

The Assembly also was set to approve a bill that would raise bow and crossbow license fees for out-of-state deer hunters for the second time in less than a year in an attempt to shrink a gaping deficit in the state’s wildlife management account.

The Republican-authored proposal would raise out-of-state fees for bow and crossbow licenses from $165 to $200, the current cost of a nonresident gun deer license. The $35 increase is projected to generate an additional $409,000 for the account annually, according to DNR estimates.

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