The state Supreme Court ruled 4-3 along ideological lines today that Fred Prehn, member of the state’s Natural Resources Board, is allowed to stay in power until the Republican-controlled legislature confirms a new successor.
Prehn, a Wausau dentist, was appointed to the board in 2015 by former Governor Scott Walker.
Since his term expired in May 2021, Prehn has repeatedly refused calls to step down.
Governor Evers proposed his nomination to fill Prehn’s seat more than a year ago with Sharon Adams, an educator from Ashland Wisconsin. The Republican-controlled Senate, however, has refused to hold a confirmation vote.
That has effectively maintained Republican control of the Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources, and effectively decides the state’s environmental regulations.
Recently, Prehn has voted on the board to reject PFAS regulations in Wisconsin, and has been the deciding vote on striking down water quality regulations regarding PFAS.
Tony Wilkin Gibart is the executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates. He says that Prehn goes against the wishes of Wisconsin residents for clean, safe drinking water.
“It means that environmental democracy is weakened. We have to ask ourselves why is it that Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and other lobbyists for polluters, Scott Walker, why they go to such lengths to keep an unelected dentist from Wausau on the Natural Resources Board, and I think it’s because those interests fear everyday Wisconsinites having a voice over natural resources decisions,” Gibart says.
Midwest Environmental Advocates have previously obtained emails showing that Prehn consulted with Republican lawmakers and lobbyists about staying on the board.
In today’s ruling, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that just because Prehn’s term expired, he does not need to step down. It found that Prehn can stay on the board until his successor is confirmed by the legislature.
The legislature, though, is not required to hold a confirmation vote. And they haven’t done so for at least 130 of Governor Evers’ nominees to boards and five cabinet appointees. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu told WisPolitics early this year that the body would not confirm any more appointees.
Several state agencies have also not had their secretaries confirmed, leaving state senators the power to fire members of Governor Evers’ cabinet. That happened in 2019 to former secretary-designee Brad Pfaff, who was fired by the legislature from his post at the state’s agricultural department. The move was unprecedented – it was the first time the legislature had fired a member of the governor’s cabinet for at least three decades.
Additionally, the court ruled that Governor Tony Evers cannot fire Prehn without just cause.
Attorney General Josh Kaul slammed the legislature at a press conference earlier today.
“We do not have a representative democracy in the legislature right now, and now we are again seeing this with the Prehn decision. What this is doing is allowing a legislature, which does not represent the people of Wisconsin, to expand its authority and control an executive branch agency,” Kaul says.
In the dissenting opinion written by Justice Rebecca Dallett, the justice called the ruling absurd, and warned that the ruling, quote, “steers our state’s government directly into disorder and chaos, threatening the fragile separation of powers central to its functions,” end quote.
Senator Melissa Agard of Madison likened today’s ruling to the behavior currently being discussed at the January 6th hearings in Washington.
“Seeing the fact that Fred Prehn is continuing to hold his space on the Natural Resources Board is, frankly, a symptom of a larger anti-democratic disease we are suffering from as a nation. The fact that our Wisconsin Supreme Court is siding with the majority party instead of with the best interests of democracy and the people of our state is frankly very disappointing and concerning for me,” Agard says.
Fred Prehn did not respond to WORT’s request for comment by airtime. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu told WORT that Wisconsin is better off without Evers’ nominees, and that Prehn will protect Wisconsin from overbearing DNR regulations.
The ruling comes amid a broader Republican push to diminish the power of administrative offices, especially in environmental regulation. The United States Supreme Court is expected to release an opinion tomorrow that will determine whether the Environmental Protection Agency has the power to regulate power plant emissions, or if that role belongs to Congress. If the nation’s high court decides against the EPA, the agency’s ability to regulate environmental policy or take action on climate change could be severely curtailed.
Photo courtesy: Steven Kamenar / UNSPLASH