Republicans on the state budget committee voted Thursday to set aside $125 million in the state’s two-year spending plan to address “forever chemical” contaminants in Wisconsin’s ground and drinking water.
While the proposal, which passed 11-4, along party lines, calls for almost $20 million more in PFAS-related spending than what was proposed in Gov. Tony Evers’ budget, Democratic lawmakers criticized the measure for creating a fund with no current plans on how exactly those dollars would be spent.
Republicans said the funds would be placed into a separate account dedicated to addressing PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, contaminations. PFAS are also known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and can accumulate in animal tissues and the human body.
Some of the compounds have been linked to cancer and other health problems and have been identified in communities across the nation and Wisconsin, including Marinette, Wausau, La Crosse and Madison.
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“It really is everywhere around the state,” Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, told reporters before Thursday’s budget meeting. “We need to give ourselves time to find the right solutions and this massive $125 million investment is a designated fund to be a resource to address the issue in the future.”
Republicans on the committee said the funds would be appropriated through separate legislation, which could include a bill introduced earlier this week by Wimberger and Rep. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, that would create a municipal grant program to help communities cover the cost of testing and treatment for PFAS, expedite the cleanup of known contamination sites and streamline the regulatory process for PFAS treatment, among other measures.
“Until that money is actually allocated and spent on things, it doesn’t mean anything,” Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison said. “It’s not going to do anything to help the people of this state.”
Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, said increased funding to address water quality is “wonderful, if it is spent.”
She also criticized the lack of sufficient state funding to address water quality concerns caused by PFAS and lead-lined water pipes in previous budgets.
“We could have done something a lot sooner,” Johnson said. “We don’t get to allow our communities to be placed in harm’s way and continue to let that fester. We have not done our jobs, we have not done enough.”
Evers’ two-year spending plan included a request for $100 million in increased spending to test and respond to PFAS, a group of synthetic chemicals used in numerous products, including food packaging, nonstick cookware and water-resistant fabrics. Their unique water- and fat-repellent properties have made them a key ingredient in foam used to fight oil-based fires.
Other measures included in the Democratic governor’s budget but removed Thursday by Republicans included spending $1.6 million to create 11 PFAS-specific management positions, $2.2 million for PFAS sampling and testing and $1.8 million over the biennium to support PFAS emergency measures.
In the first day of deliberations for the state’s 2023-25 biennial budget, Republicans removed hundreds of items from Evers’ proposal, including one that would have required the Department of Natural Resources to create rules establishing acceptable levels and required response actions for PFAS.
While the Legislature has restricted the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam, other measures have largely fallen flat.
While crafting the current two-year spending plan in 2021, the Republican-led budget committee rejected Evers’ request to spend $10 million annually to create a grant program for municipalities to investigate and respond to PFAS contamination. The committee did approve putting $1 million in annual funding into the committee’s supplemental fund for collecting and disposing of PFAS-containing firefighting foam — work that continues.
The committee also voted along party lines to allocate $3 million in one-time funds over the biennium to food security grants to nonprofit food assistance groups that purchase and distribute food to tribal leaders and other participating producers. The total food security allocation is one-tenth the $30 million requested in Evers’ two-year spending plan.
Republicans also approved a $46 million increase in bonding authority for the state’s environmental improvement fund. Evers had requested a $372 million increase for the clean water fund and safe drinking water loan program.