MADISON — Leaders of the Wisconsin Legislature’s Republican majority are expressing optimism they will pass a bill sought by developers that hunting and conservation groups say is one of the worst environmental rollbacks in decades.
Under a proposal aimed at reducing construction costs, about 100,000 wetland acres in and around populated areas would no longer be protected by state laws requiring builders to avoid or minimize wetland destruction, and to replace acreage that is filled.
“This is the worst conservation bill that I’ve seen in a generation,” said Wisconsin Wildlife Federation executive director George Meyer, a former state Department of Natural Resources secretary.
The bill on Tuesday was ready for approval in the state Assembly, but it hadn’t yet been scheduled for a committee vote in the Senate.
The legislation’s lead authors said they had compromised with conservation groups, but Kyle Rorah, a lobbyist for Ducks Unlimited, said even with proposed changes, the bill would be more damaging than any other legislation he could recall across the 21 state regions he represents for the hunting organization.
Wetlands prevent flooding, purify water and provide wildlife habitat. The bill’s co-authors, Senate president Roger Roth and Assembly majority leader Jim Steineke, said current state law impedes development by needlessly protecting smaller marshes.
Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said Assembly amendments reducing the bill’s scope from 1 million acres statewide to roughly 100,000 acres mostly in and around cities and villages is a significant compromise made in response to critics like Meyer.
“He’s making it sound like the end of the world,” Steineke said of Meyer’s continued opposition to the amended bill.
The amended bill would remove wetland protections from up to one acre per parcel of land. Meyer said the change isn’t as dramatic as Steineke and Roth make it sound.
The amendment merely focuses the wetland exemption on places with water and sewer service where the vast majority of development takes place, while leaving wetland protections intact in remote places where building is unlikely to happen, Meyer said.
And, unlike the original version of the bill, the amended version eliminates the requirement that wetlands exempted from regulation be replaced.
Steineke, who sells real estate when he’s not working at the Legislature, said the amended bill has a side benefit of discouraging sprawl.
“As someone familiar with the realty industry, what this bill will do is exactly what people have wanted to do for years, and that’s encourage denser development in and around the urban areas,” Steineke said.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said through a spokeswoman that Steineke’s work on the wetland bill was commendable and he believes it will win enough votes to pass in the Assembly this session.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The amended Assembly version of the bill is ready for a vote by the full Assembly, but no amendments have been offered in the Senate, and Sen. Rob Cowles hasn’t yet scheduled a vote by his committee on natural resources and energy.
A spokeswoman for Roth, R-Appleton, said he has been working closely with Cowles. Steineke said Cowles was working on “technical language fixes” that should be completed in the next few days.
Cowles, R-Green Bay, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“As someone familiar with the realty industry, what this bill will do is exactly what people have wanted to do for years, and that’s encourage denser development in and around the urban areas.” Jim Steineke, R-Kaukana, co-author of the bill
After graduating from college, Eric Leis meant to thank his parents for their support. He never got around to sending a card, but 10 years later he showed his gratitude — by naming a parasite after them.
Leis, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, published an article last month in the journal Parasitology Research on one of two new species he discovered in the gills of a Mississippi River catfish.
Measuring a little over a millimeter in length, Ligictaluridus michaelalicea is a flatworm named for Michael and Alice Leis.
“I just always wanted to give them a card and say thanks,” Leis said. “But time slips by.”
Growing up on the family farm near Cashton, Leis, 36, was fascinated by the outdoors. Between chores he would examine the parasites that burrowed in the backs of the cows, though it wasn’t until he was in college that he learned what they were called.
“If he wasn’t fishing with his grandpas, he was out collecting bugs, anything that crawled,” Michael Leis said of his son.
His mother helped with science fair projects and taped “Nature” and other science shows on the VCR. His father taught him how to observe the environment, where to sit when hunting deer.
“They were always just right there,” Leis said.
Alice Leis said her son was always checking things out, even when the rest of the family didn’t share his curiosity.
“We were a busy family. We’re thinking, ‘Come on, we’ve got to go,’” she said. “Things you don’t think are significant turn out to be major factors in their life.”
When he was in middle school, his parents gave him a microscope. He still remembers looking at snowflakes under the lens as he sat outside with his parents on a bitterly cold night.
“It changed my view of the world,” he said.
Leis went on to study biology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and earned a master’s degree in 2007 before going to work for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 2015, he was examining cysts on the gills of a flathead catfish — under a much more powerful microscope in his Onalaska lab — when he noticed two worms that didn’t match any of the known catfish parasites. It turned out both were undiscovered species.
One, which was formally identified in a paper published last year, he named for his mentor, former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Becky Lasee. The other, which took a little longer to go through the peer review process, he named for his parents.
Leis, who’s working on identifying what could be two additional parasites, notes there are more than 15,000 new species discovered every year.
Despite the uncharitable portrayal of parasites in popular culture, Leis said the Ligictaluridus michaelalicea doesn’t seem to have any negative effects on catfish.
“There’s always a balance between the parasite and the host,” he said. “It’s unsightly and disgusting, but they’re just part of life.”
Leis’s parents got to look at their namesake through the microscope before the slide was sent to the Smithsonian Institution for preservation.
“It’s quite an honor,” Michael said. “Not many people can say that, I guess.”
MADISON — The Wisconsin Supreme Court, deciding along ideological lines, said Tuesday that a state agency that oversees public employee union recertification elections can delay the release of voter records to prevent voter intimidation.
Government openness advocates warned that the ruling could have a broad impact on the public’s right to know how its government works because it allows records custodians to consider the perceived motivations of requestors when determining whether to release records.
The court’s 5-2 decision overturns a ruling in Dane County Circuit Court that favored Madison Teachers Inc.
MTI sued the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, which in 2015 denied MTI’s requests for lists of teachers who did and did not vote in the annual union recertification election. MTI had sought the records under the state’s open records law, but WERC denied the release of the records during the election because it feared that MTI would use that information to intimidate voters who had not yet voted.
Unions must get 51 percent of eligible members to vote “yes” during the annual votes in order to recertify their union. Non-votes by eligible members are counted as “no” votes under state law.
Open records advocates feared that the decision could have broader implications for the state’s open records law. But the court’s majority, led by Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, said it narrowly tailored the ruling to apply only to this particular situation.
“The public interest in elections that are free from intimidation and coercion outweighs the public interest in favor of open records,” Roggensack wrote, “under the circumstances presented in the case before us.”
She added that the public interest in elections free from voter intimidation, weighed against the public interest in the openness of public records, was the only issue presented in WERC’s appeal.
But Susan Crawford, lawyer for MTI, said that the ruling will have far-reaching implications beyond MTI’s case, creating an exception to the public records law that could have an impact on recertification elections across Wisconsin, leaving unions with no practical way to monitor recertification elections. She said that it’s up to the state Legislature, not the Supreme Court, to re-write the state’s open records law if it feels that’s necessary.
Roggensack wrote that WERC Commissioner James Scott properly balanced the considerations of the state’s open records law with concerns about voter intimidation before deciding not to release voter records during the election.
“Preventing voter intimidation during elections conducted by phone and email, as occurred here, is challenging,” Roggensack wrote. “Given MTI’s repeated requests for the names of those who voted before the election concluded, it is entirely possible that those employees who had not yet voted would become subject to individualized pressure by MTI of a type that MTI could not exert when speaking to all members of the bargaining unit collectively.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, joined by Justice Shirley Abrahamson, called the majority’s lip service to the state’s open records law “all hat and no cattle.” She said it was the third decision in three years in which the court has undermined the open records law, this time “by imputing an unsupported and nefarious purpose to the records requests based on nonexistent facts.”
“Neither the majority nor the records custodian points to any evidence of voter intimidation or coercion by MTI in this recertification election,” Bradley wrote. “Rather, this concocted concern is based solely on one uninvestigated and unsubstantiated complaint from Racine County, involving a different union, in a different election, in a different year, that did not involve a public records request.”
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, agreed, noting it’s the third recent Supreme Court ruling that has relied on questionable reasoning by block the release of public records.
“It’s another ruling where the court has allowed unsubstantiated speculation about possible negative consequences to block the release of records,” Lueders said. He said the ruling is “certainly disappointing.”
He noted that the ruling runs counter to an earlier state Supreme Court decision in which the court ordered state Sen. John Erpenbach, D-Middleton, to release records requested by the conservative MacIver Institute, despite Erpenbach’s argument that doing so could lead to harassment.
“The court said ‘tough cookies,’” Lueders said.
Crawford said she believes that the court makes its decisions in these cases “based on who is making the request for records, and that’s not the way the law is supposed to work.”
State Department of Justice spokesman Johnny Koremenos said that the court did not create any new law or narrow the open records law, but merely applied a balancing test. He said that Attorney General Brad Schimel supports and applies the open records law on a daily basis, but also “vigorously defends Wisconsinites’ fundamental constitutional rights.”
“While the public’s interest in open records is significant, that interest must in some cases give way to other interests,” Koremenos said. “Here, the court found that the fundamental right to vote, and to cast a secret ballot, allowed WERC to delay the production of a certain category of public records.”
“The public interest in elections that are free from intimidation and coercion outweighs the public interest in favor of open records under the circumstances presented in the case before us.” Chief Justice Patience Roggensack