State lawmakers are set to meet this week in what will be another partisan battle in this new era of divided government, but this time the debate will be over two of the most significant issues facing Wisconsin: the loss of dairy farms and gun violence.
The showdown pits Republican lawmakers against Gov. Tony Evers once again—the latest fight under the Capitol dome to dramatically slow legislation since Republicans lost the governor’s office last year.
Senate Republicans are on track today to reject Evers’ nomination of Brad Pfaff as secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Doing so would be the first cabinet secretary to be voted down in more than 30 years.
Pfaff has overseen the agency that plays a key role in the state’s response to the crushing struggles plaguing the dairy farm industry since January.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican from Juneau, asked Evers on Friday to withdraw Pfaff’s nomination ahead of today’s floor session. On Sunday, Fitzgerald said Pfaff hadn’t dealt with the dairy crisis “at all.”
“He has bungled this job since day one, and I know other members of our caucus feel the same way,” Fitzgerald said in an interview with WTMJ-TV.
Administration Secretary Joel Brennan tried to visit Fitzgerald on Monday to discuss Pfaff’s nomination but Fitzgerald wasn’t in his Capitol office.
Afterward, Brennan told reporters in recent days he has talked to some Senate Republicans who were uncomfortable with rejecting Pfaff, but he declined to name them. He said he hoped to persuade Republicans to back off their plans.
“I don’t think anybody likes being the ones to take unprecedented steps,” Brennan said. “There are historic things, but there are ways in which I think you’re taking the institution to historic lows, and this is an example that I think some of the people in the majority in the Senate feel that way, and so I’ve had conversations with them.”
He said Republicans and Democrats are going to disagree but that they should be able to have “healthy conversations.”
“This is not something that’s going to lead to more of that conversation,” he said. “It’s going to be the kind of thing that grinds things to a halt, and that’s not what anybody here wants.”
Fitzgerald’s office on Friday pointed to three clashes between Republican lawmakers and Pfaff since Evers appointed him, primarily over whether the state was doing enough to help farmers cope with a deteriorating livelihood.
One of the debates was over recent rules outlined by the Scott Walker administration and put forward by Pfaff designed to protect farmers’ neighbors from the stench of manure by expanding setback requirements for manure storage facilities.
Agriculture groups say they urged the agency to abandon the rules in September, but Pfaff didn’t back off from moving forward with them until Friday, just after Fitzgerald told Evers he didn’t have enough votes to confirm Pfaff’s nomination.
“Since holding public hearings earlier this year, the department has held ongoing, constructive meetings with stakeholders on this complex rule,” Pfaff said in a Friday statement. “Given the tremendous importance of our dairy and livestock industries to the state of Wisconsin, we’ve decided to take more time to continue these discussions.”
Pfaff removed the rules from consideration of the agency’s board at a meeting scheduled for Thursday, but more than a dozen groups wrote letters to the board in recent days urging members to reject them permanently.
“It’s not enough to delay consideration,” Wisconsin Dairy Alliance President Cindy Leitner said in a statement. “These proposed changes would have a devastating impact on the struggling dairy industry in Wisconsin. ... The dairy industry has been sounding the alarm bells on these rule revisions for months and DATCP simply ignored us.”
Doug Rebout, a Janesville-area farmer who is president of the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, also joined a letter sent Friday urging the rejection of the rules. While he wants Pfaff to abandon the rules, he also said Monday it is essential to keep Pfaff on board while farmers are struggling with what he called a perfect storm of trade wars, low prices, bad weather and a dispute over federal ethanol rules.
Sidelining Pfaff and trying to get a new secretary up to speed won’t help, he said.
“Brad is someone that knows agriculture,” Rebout said. “We just need that stability and continuity going on.”
Rebout sent a letter to all senators Monday asking them to delay today’s vote. He said he and his members are trying to talk to senators, including Republicans on the Senate Agriculture Committee who unanimously backed Pfaff in February.
“We’re having that conversation with them and reminding them they did support him once and we’re hoping they’ll come around and support him again,” Rebout said.
The Wisconsin Agri-Business Association, Cooperative Network, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association and Organic Valley also appealed to senators Monday to confirm Pfaff.
“Brad is a good man, steering the ship to better times for Wisconsin agriculture,” Tom Bressner, executive director of the agri-business association wrote in an email to senators.
Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach of West Point said Republicans who supported Pfaff in committee should stick by him.
“If you’re a Republican senator who supported him, you’re going to have to answer to not your Republican constituency back home, but your ag community back home,” he said.
The Senate has not rejected a cabinet secretary going back to at least 1987, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau. Records before then were not immediately available.
Last year, Republicans in the Senate denied the confirmations of the heads of the state’s ethics and elections commissions. Those officials were appointed by their commissions, not the governor.
After the Senate rejected the heads of the ethics and elections commissions, there were disputes over the effect of the vote and whether the commissions could reinstate them to their jobs.
In response, Republican legislators in December established a law that said those rejected by the Senate could not be reappointed to their jobs.
The measure was tucked into legislation passed during an overnight floor session before Evers took office, which drew national attention because it diminished the power of the governor in numerous ways.
The new law means Evers won’t be able to reinstate Pfaff if the Senate denies his confirmation. But Evers would still have the ability to give Pfaff other high-ranking jobs, either at the Department of Agriculture or elsewhere.
Republican lawmakers on Thursday plan to swiftly reject Evers’ call to debate legislation that would expand background checks on firearm purchases and transfers and allow judges to confiscate firearms from anyone deemed a threat, a so-called red-flag law.
In October, Evers called a special legislative session this week to consider legislation he wants to add more state rules on who can have a firearm.
Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester immediately rejected the idea, saying they don’t see enough support among state Republicans to move forward with the bills and considered the proposals to infringe on Second Amendment rights.
Fitzgerald said he would likely gavel out of the session called by Evers within moments of convening it. Vos has said his members plan to take the same action.
Evers has called Fitzgerald’s plans unacceptable.
“He has the responsibility to let his Senate vote on this,” Evers said.
A September Marquette University Law School poll found 81% of registered voters supported red-flag legislation. The same poll showed 80% backed universal background checks.
Ben Killoy wasn’t sure about his idea of doing a podcast for military dads until he saw it bring tears to the wife of a military man.
“Her raw emotion kind of validated the need,” Killoy said. “It felt real, and it felt like I could help them because what I said resonated.”
Four years ago, Ben Killoy wanted to get into podcasting. The Marine veteran began listening to multiple podcasts and befriending hosts and listeners of various shows.
He attended a podcasting convention last August to learn more about how to create a show before going to a military influencer conference in September, thinking he would start a podcast geared toward veterans who are now dads.
But he wasn’t fully sold on the idea until he shared his thoughts with the spouse of a military member, who was brought to tears by the idea.
The former Marine wrote his business plan on the plane ride home from the conference and started his podcast “Military Veteran Dad” in January.
Killoy served in South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and other places around the world from 2003-07. The veteran, husband and father wants to help dads resituate themselves in their family lives when they return from war.
“So many dads have come home but never really been present,” he said.
He wants to help end the chain of broken military families.
The goal of the podcast is two-fold: He wants it to become a business so he can be a stay-at-home dad and take care of his kids, but he also wants to help military dads realize they are not alone and have others to support them.
“Military men are tough, and they’re not always looking for a solution to what they’re feeling,” he said.
He thinks the niche of a military dads podcast could lead to a successful and productive experience for both him and his listeners.
“I’m the only voice for this,” he said. “I’ve never met someone serving the military veteran dad community. There’s lots of dad podcasters, but there’s no one focusing on veteran dads.”
His podcast is based off of his own experiences adjusting to a citizen lifestyle, he said.
“I’m the friend I wish I had five years ago to other veterans,” Killoy said.
The podcast focuses on four main areas, which he said eventually could turn into a book.
The first point is legacy. Killoy said some military members struggle with leaving the legacy of service and shifting into the legacy of their family. Ego, self confidence, community and communication are all talked about in the episodes, which are released weekly.
The free podcast is available on almost every streaming service, he said.
Killoy has interviewed the spouse of a military member who died by suicide, a military member who attempted suicide and others affected by veterans who struggled to adjust to home life.
“All it takes is one vulnerable statement on a podcast to cancel out that feeling they’re having inside and they can eventually see they’re not the only one feeling that way and can start to really come home,” he said.
He picks his guests by talking to “everyday military dads” and talking about life and their experiences. In the future, he said listeners can expect him to feature more experts on family and marriage related to military experiences.
Killoy wants to see the podcast and the conversation around veterans returning to everyday life continue to grow.
“Your friendship is the best gift you can give a veteran because oftentimes that friendship creates a community, and that’s what we yearn for most,” he said.
“I’m always one conversation away from something amazing. That one step took me to where I am today … there’s people around you everyday who can change your life, but you’ll never know if you don’t say hello.”
Every visitor to the Rock County Courthouse will go through an airport-like security screening starting Thursday, county officials announced Monday.
Until now, people paying taxes, getting marriage licenses or accessing dozens of other services could enter the courthouse through multiple doors.
Only those entering the side of the building that houses courtrooms and related offices have been screened for weapons.
Those familiar with the longtime security checkpoint at the entrance to the courts area will find the new arrangement similar, except for those who wear steel-toed shoes.
Those wearing the protective footwear will have to take off their shoes and place them on a belt so they can be scanned, said Brent Sutherland, county facilities director.
In the past, visitors have been allowed to keep their shoes on, and when they trip the security scanner alarm, guards check them with a scanning wand to confirm the shoes.
But a person easily could conceal a knife in a steel-toed shoe, Sutherland said, adding that people with knives concealed in belt buckles have been found in the past.
Purses and other bags also will be scanned, and people will walk through one of two metal-sensing portals, Sutherland said. Those in wheelchairs will be scanned with a wand.
Starting Thursday, visitors will be allowed entry only through the main entrance from the parking lot on the courthouse’s west, or downhill, side.
Visitors should park in the west-side surface or underground lots, Sutherland said.
Janesville city bus riders with handicaps will be dropped off on the Court Street side, push a buzzer at the door near the bus stop and wait for a security escort.
Courthouse employees, meanwhile, will park in the east-side lot or underground parking structure and enter on that side with an electronic key.
A contractor has been working on updates to the courthouse for months, including the new security screening checkpoint inside the main entrance. The county board approved the $5.2 million project, which included parking upgrades, in its 2019 budget.
The question of whether guards should be armed is still not settled after a county board committee tabled a resolution in February.
Sutherland said five county board members have now submitted a letter requesting that the full board vote on the resolution.
The vote should come at the Nov. 14 or Dec. 12 meeting, Sutherland said.
Global Security Services, which provides the guards at the checkpoints, has supported armed guards, as has the sheriff’s office.
Sutherland said armed guards meets the Wisconsin State Courts’ best-practices guidelines, which the county has followed elsewhere in its security upgrade.
Global Security has experience in providing trained, armed guards at military facilities, Sutherland said.
The sheriff’s office prefers that deputies replace the private guards, said Sgt. Jay Wood, who heads the sheriff’s office courtroom-security and inmate-transfer operations.
Wood said the sheriff’s office has a good working relationship with Global Security, and he doesn’t see any major problems if the private guards are armed, but he said deputies are better trained and equipped.
People who visit the courthouse have an expectation of safety, and they should have it, and that includes armed deputies, Wood said.
Deputies working the courthouse are armed, but their duties do not include visitor security screenings.
Objections to deputies replacing the private guards include cost and the effect on some visitors, especially those from disadvantaged populations, at seeing guards with firearms.