Matt Pommer: Do state officials have right to control speech?

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Matt Pommer
Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Two top Republican officials have banned state workers at a small agency from any on-the-job discussion or work-related talk of climate change.

Voting for the gag order were Atty. Gen. Brad Schimel and State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk. They won their first statewide races in last year's general election. They and Democratic Secretary of State Douglas La Follette are the three members of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. La Follette voted against the gag order.

Earlier, Adamczyk had sought to fire Tia Nelson, who has served as executive secretary of the board for a decade. She is the daughter of the late Gaylord Nelson, who served four years as governor of Wisconsin and 18 years in the U.S. Senate.

In interviews, La Follette has labeled Adamczyk a “tea party Republican,” contending the state treasurer hates environmental people. Adamczyk has declined to discuss his views about rising global temperatures. “Honestly, I don't care to discuss it,” he has said.

Tia Nelson served as co-chair of a 2007 global warming task force appointed by then-Gov. Jim Doyle. She said she had done little or no work on climate change since serving on that board.

Any tie to Doyle could be a scarlet letter in today's Republican-controlled state government. Gov. Scott Walker frequently criticizes the old Doyle administration.

Atty. Gen. Schimel said he voted for the gag order because climate change isn't directly related to the commission's activities. It manages 77,000 acres of state-owned land. Schimel said the board's commissioners appeared to have approved her role on the task force.

Schimel said he voted for the ban because it was political and climate change issues aren't connected to the agency's work.

“It would be irresponsible for me to vote to prospectively permit government employees to engage in political activity while at work,” Schimel said in a statement.

Schimel has joined other Republican state attorneys general in a lawsuit challenging plans by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency to slow global warming by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Walker, who wants to be the next U.S. president, has endorsed Schimel's legal move.

The governor's spokesman offered support for the gag order.

“Gov. Walker does not think it is unreasonable to enact policies requiring board staff to focus on board-related activities,” he said.

One Republican who doesn't agree with the gag order is Jack Voigt, who served as state treasurer from 1995 to 2007. He said Adamczyk is meddling in administrative affairs of the agency. Adamczyk had sought to stop newspaper purchases by the agency, including a subscription to the New York Times.

It's becoming political to the point that Adamczyk wants to control everything, Voigt said.

La Follette voiced similar criticism. He said the new state treasurer has barraged Nelson and her small staff with requests for information and reports. “It's harassment, pure and simple,” La Follette said.

Adamczyk said his requests for a lot of information reflect that he is a new member of the board and has a lot to learn about the agency's operations. He said he is concerned about the amount of money the agency is earning.

Adamczyk wants to eliminate the state treasurer's office from the state Constitution. The new gag order may give new life to that idea.

Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at mpommer@sbcglobal.net.


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