State News: Senate Votes to Fire Ag Secretary Brad Pfaff

The state Senate voted Tuesday to fire Gov. Tony Evers’ pick to lead the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection – an unusual move that comes amid continued conflict between the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Democratic administration. 

Senate lawmakers voted 19-14 along party lines against Pfaff’s confirmation. According to the Legislature’s nonpartisan research office, the state Senate hasn’t fired a member of a governor’s cabinet since at least 1987.

The vote means the top job in the state agriculture department will be vacant until Evers brings forward another nominee.

“I can’t even speak about that now, I’m so PO’d about the fact of what happened today,” Evers said. “This was a vote against the farmers of Wisconsin. Period.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) called on Evers last week to withdraw Pfaff’s nomination, saying there weren’t enough votes in the Senate to confirm his nomination. During debate Tuesday, Fitzgerald said Republican senators have concerns with how the secretary has done his job.

Democratic senators pushed back hard against Pfaff’s firing, saying Republicans were ignoring the will of the state’s farming community. Several groups, including the Dairy Business Association, came out in support of Pfaff on Monday. 

Pfaff has said his upbringing in a family of farmers in La Crosse County informed his work as agriculture secretary.

Forecast Calls for Continued High Water 

A new forecast says Great Lakes levels are likely to remain unusually high and may set additional records, in part because a wet October interrupted the usual fall drop-off of water levels. Storms over Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior also caused beach erosion, flooding and damage to seawalls and roads.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Detroit on Monday released its outlook for the next six months. Hydrologist Keith Kompoltowicz said that all five Great Lakes are expected to resume their seasonal decline, but they’ll remain well above normal and will be higher in January than they were at the beginning of this record-setting year.

Huron and Michigan are likely to set monthly records in February, and Superior will come close. A lengthy dry spell would be required to reverse the trend.

Lawmakers Consider Public-Defender Pay Boost

The Legislature’s state budget committee debated a plan Thursday to increase merit-based pay for state public defenders by roughly $4 million during the next two years. Supporters say the plan would more closely align Wisconsin public defenders’ pay with that of state prosecutors, bringing parity to the criminal justice system. 

The two-year state budget approved earlier this year by lawmakers and Gov. Tony Evers included a $4.5 million merit-based pay increase for assistant district attorneys and more than 60 additional prosecutor positions across the state. The new funding would be on top of the $1.2 million already approved for public defenders in the state budget.

Speaking at the budget-committee meeting Thursday, state public defender Kelli Thompson said the proposed increase would help curb turnover in public defenders’ offices across the state. 

Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon), one of the bill’s sponsors, said low pay has contributed to the shortage of public defenders plaguing the state in recent years. That shortage has led to long wait times for some trials, including an eight-week wait time in Marathon County.

“Can you imagine waiting in jail eight weeks, incarcerated, just to have a public defender appointed?” Petrowski said.

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