MADISON — Environmentalists blasted a Republican state senator's decision to have his committee approve a bill relaxing high-capacity well regulations by paper ballot Tuesday rather than voting in person as a group, saying the move eliminates debate on the contentious proposal.
Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater, chairman of the Senate Labor and Regulatory Reform Committee, had his panel vote by paper ballot. The Republican-controlled panel approved the bill on a 3-2 party line vote Tuesday afternoon, sending the bill on to the full Senate for a vote as early as next week.
Legislative committees typically approve bills during in-person executive sessions, but pushback on the well bill has been fierce, leading environmentalists to accuse Nass of trying to duck controversy and advance the bill out of the public eye.
"That's bad policy, that's bad process and just kind of insulting to voters," said Raj Shukla, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, one of the bill's staunchest opponents. "We should be striving for transparency. The fact that they're not having a discussion about it publicly is just another example of concealing the effects of the legislation they're enacting."
Nass aide Mike Mikalsen countered that Democrats changed Senate rules in 2009 to allow paper ballots in non-emergency situations and Nass simply used those rules, he said.
No one is trying to avoid a debate, he said, noting the Senate passed the same bill last session and the committee held a public hearing on the measure earlier this month that lasted nearly 10 hours. No Democrats offered any amendments between the public hearing and when Nass notified the public on Thursday that the vote would be by paper ballot, he added.
"It is out in the open," Mikalsen said. "This argument that this somehow isn't transparent, had the Democrats been so concerned, they would have filed amendments before Thursday."
Sen. Janis Ringhand, a Janesville Democrat, officially introduced two amendments on Monday, three days after the paper ballot was announced. Ringhand said her office had been working on several amendments during the prior week but hadn't narrowed them down.
Her office contacted Mikalsen on Friday to tell him amendments were coming, she said. Ringhand and Sen. Bob Wirch, the committee's other Democrat, sent Nass a letter that day asking him to reconsider using a paper ballot process. The letter noted that Nass used the paper ballot process in February to approve another contentious measure that prohibited local governments from requiring collective bargaining agreements on public projects.
"Once the vote on (the wells bill) is registered the two most contentious bills that the committee has voted on will have been forwarded by paper ballot," the letter said.
Mikalsen said in a telephone interview Tuesday that Ringhand's amendments would fail if the committee voted on them. He said the Senate likely will take up the bill next week and she can bring her amendments to the floor then.
The bill would exempt well repairs, replacement, reconstruction and ownership transfers from state oversight. The Department of Natural Resources would have to complete a study of water bodies in the central sands region to determine if special measures are needed to protect streams and lakes in the area from depletion. Lake associations would be allowed to sink new high-capacity wells to replenish lakes.
Supporters say the measure will provide regulatory certainty for farmers who rely on high-capacity wells to irrigate their crops and hydrate livestock. The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association and the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association all back the bill. Conservationist groups insist the measure will lock problem wells in place forever and doesn't allow the Department of Natural Resources to consider the cumulative impact of wells on state waters.
Ringhand's amendments would create a 10-year review of wells and force the department to consider the cumulative impact.