After the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that a Republican-appointed member of the state’s Natural Resources Policy Board, Fred Prehn, can stay on even though his term has expired, two other board members directors will not say what they will do when their term expires next year.
Peter Cameron is editor of The Badger Project, a non-profit, non-partisan, citizen-supported journalism organization based in Madison.
Prehn, a dentist and owner of a gun shop in Wausau, is the fourth and decisive right-winger on the seven-member council. Remaining on the board after his appointment, which officially ended in May 2021, allows Republicans to retain control of the body and make decisions on environmental issues, such as wolf hunting quotas and regulation of pollutants.
The ruling is the latest twist in Wisconsin’s ongoing political fight between a Republican-dominated state legislature, a right-wing state Supreme Court and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
The precedent of non-compliance with expiring terms has caused much concern.
“I hope that the other three board members whose term ends in 2023 will not follow (Prehn’s) example,” said Paul Heinen, spokesperson for Wisconsin green lighta conservation group that called on Prehn to step down.
Those board members, all appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, are Greg Kazmierski, Bill Bruins and Terry Hilgenberg.
Reached by phone, Kazmierski said he hoped to be reappointed but did not commit when asked if he would step down if his term ended without renewal, a likely situation if Evers is re-elected this year.
“I’m not going to say one way or the other,” he said. “I will look at the circumstances at that time.”
Also reached by phone, the Bruins would also not agree to retire at the end of their term.
“It’s a guess and I’m not ready to answer that,” Bruins said. “My best answer is that if you want something to change, it should be changed at the legislative level. That’s how I really feel about it.
Hilgenberg did not respond to several messages.
“In my 40-plus years of following Wisconsin politics, I cannot recall a similar situation,” John Witte, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin, wrote in an email. . “I see absolutely no democratic value in such actions. The heart of a democracy is the peaceful and legal replacement of leaders when the votes are against them. The refusal to give way to the majority of voters is characteristic of false democracies.
In an email, Prehn said it was legal for him to stay after his term expired.
“For purely political reasons, the Attorney General (Josh Kaul) and (Evers) have decided to pursue this action against me,” he wrote. “What many don’t seem to understand is that this process requires a nomination by the governor and confirmation by the (state) Senate. This is true for many gubernatorial appointments, but not all. He knows this and has always refused to appoint anyone who could be approved by the (state) Senate.
Evers attempted to place her pick for Prehn’s successor, Sandra Dee Naas, on the board. But the Republican-controlled state Senate has refused to confirm many of Evers’ nominations, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) said in January that he would not confirm again for the remainder of 2022.
The emails show Prehn corresponded with LeMahieu about staying on the board after his term, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report.
Regardless of what happens in the state Senate, Prehn could resign, but the state Supreme Court’s decision severely limits the governor’s ability to force him out, despite Prehn’s term expiration.
“Until his successor is appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the (State) Senate … Prehn may only be removed by the Governor for cause,” Chief Justice Annette Ziegler wrote in his majority opinion. “This finding is consistent with the plain language of the Wisconsin Statutes and does not raise constitutional issues.”
Democrats are unlikely to win back the state Senate, which Republicans have controlled since 2011, anytime soon, experts say. Earlier this year, the right-wing majority on the state Supreme Court allowed Republicans to draw and implement political district maps that tilted heavily in their favor.
The state Supreme Court’s decision on Prehn, released last week, also followed the same ideological lines. The four right-wing justices voted to allow him to stay. The three judges on the left disagreed.
“The absurd majority turnout allows Prehn’s six-year term on the Natural Resources Council – which expired more than a year ago – to last as long as Prehn wants, as long as he refuses to leave and that the (State) Senate does not confirm a Governor-appointed successor,” Judge Rebecca Dallet wrote in his dissent.
The Wisconsin Natural Resources Council sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources and exercises authority and responsibility in accordance with state laws, according to its website.
Prehn noted in his email that he is not the only Walker appointee to refuse to vacate a seat at the end of term.
Three Republican-appointed members of the 13 seats Wisconsin Technical College Board – Becky Levzow, Kelly Tourdot and Mary Williams – have also refused to leave their posts despite their terms ending last year.