State News

Senate passes series of deregulatory bills

The state Senate voted Tuesday to approve a series of bills intended to give more freedom to those owning property near waterways.

Image By: Betsy Osterberger and Betsy Osterberger

The state Senate took another step in loosening environmental protections by voting Tuesday to approve bills to deregulate the state’s waterways and lift a ban on the construction of nuclear power plants.

The waterways bill aims to give developers more authority along rivers and lakefronts by weakening the power of local governments to designate areas of special natural interest as immune from certain types of development.

The bill comes on the heels of a provision in the state budget that limited the authority of municipalities to zone waterways.

Critics worry the bill will reverse decades of progress and degrade the state’s pristine waterways, which they say have only recently recovered from the rampant pollution generated by prominent Wisconsin industries like the pulp paper mills that dot the Fox and Wisconsin rivers and recklessly discharged wastewater until the 1972 Clean Water Act.

They worry that unfettered dredging and irresponsible development will damage wildlife populations and crush the tourism economy.

“We are very concerned that, despite an outpouring of opposition from thousands of Wisconsinites, including many who are directly impacted by loss of groundwater, legislators chose to listen to special interests rather than their constituents,” the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters said in a statement.

The bill’s supporters disagree, arguing that property rights and investment dollars trump environmental concerns. The Senate passed numerous amendments removing some of the most controversial provisions, including one that would make it easier to dredge waterways.

State Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Allouez, who authored the revised bill, said that some of the provisions were not “ready for prime time” but that the new measure was a way to bolster the rights of property owners.

In another win for deregulation, the Senate passed a bill lifting the state’s nuclear moratorium that has been in place for over 30 years.

The bill, authored by state Rep. Kevin Peterson, R-Waupaca, and state Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, is being touted as a way to create jobs and improve Wisconsin’s environmental security.

Four Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in voting for the bill.

Finally, the body approved a measure barring county executives from simultaneously serving in the state Legislature.

Democrats argue the bill is targeting Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, who is running for the state Senate seat being vacated by state Sen. Richard Gudex, R-Fond du Lac.

“People see this as petty, vindictive and wrong,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse.

The bill's author, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the proposal is not intended to target anyone and is instead designed to prevent a public servant from garnering two salaries at once.

The bill passed 18-15, with Cowles voting against the bill and state Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, voting for it. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has said his body will take up the measure before the end of session.

Andrew Bahl contributed to this report.

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