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Evers' pick for Transportation head comes under GOP fire

Posted at 4:49 PM, Dec 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-21 17:49:05-05

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin's Republican state senators have "serious concerns" about Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers' pick of a roads lobbyist to head the Department of Transportation, putting his confirmation in peril, the Senate's leader said Friday.

Evers on Friday named four Cabinet members, including Craig Thompson to head the agency in charge of maintaining and building the state's roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Thompson is well known in the Capitol for his work lobbying lawmakers as executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin since 2007. The group, founded in 1971, represents more than 400 businesses, unions, citizen groups, local units of government and individuals. It has been a strong advocate for raising taxes and fees to improve the condition of Wisconsin's roads.

His selection drew widespread praise from a wide array of groups representing Wisconsin counties, towns and municipalities, businesses and economic development groups and road builders. Even former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who is no relation, said Thompson was a good choice.

But none of them have a vote on his confirmation.

One who does, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, called Thompson "a provocative figure" and a "long-time advocate for special interests."

"Governor-elect Evers would be better served by nominating someone who worked in a less controversial role during previous policy debates," Fitzgerald said in a statement.

Republican Sen. Duey Stroebel said it was "deeply worrying" to have Thompson in charge of awarding transportation contracts because of his current work representing road builders.

"I want to ensure the public can rely on a fair and transparent system free of favoritism," Stroebel said.

Neither senator said how they would vote on confirmation.

Evers' spokeswoman, Carrie Lynch, declined immediate comment.

Republicans will hold a 19-14 majority next year, meaning three of them could block any single appointee from getting the 17 votes needed to be confirmed.

Transportation funding has stymied the Legislature in recent years, with Assembly Republicans proposing a gas tax hike in 2017 only to be blocked by Senate Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker. The budget signed by Walker, passed three months late, increased borrowing to pay for roads instead of raising taxes.

When he announced Thompson's appointment, Evers reiterated that he's open to all options to find a permanent road-funding solution. But he has yet to outline a plan, instead saying he wants to talk with interested parties to come up with a proposal.

"We're not going to predetermine anything," Evers said.

When asked what the maximum reasonable gas tax increase would be, Thompson declined to give a number. But his organization, supported raising the gas tax or increasing license plate registration fees to pay for roads.

Some Republicans have groused that the majority of Evers appointments so far have been from Milwaukee, but not until Thompson did their concerns appear to actually threaten confirmation. Evers has announced eight Cabinet secretaries with nine more to be named.

Other appointees announced Friday were:

-- Mark Afable, insurance commissioner. Afable has worked for American Family Insurance in Madison since 1994 and currently serves as its chief legal officer.

-- Rebecca Cameron Valcq, chairwoman of the Public Service Commission. Valcq is a partner at the Quarles & Brady law firm in Milwaukee, where she specializes in regulator law. She previously spent 15 years as a regulatory attorney for We Energies, the state's largest energy company.

-- Brad Pfaff, Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Pfaff has worked as deputy chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat from La Crosse, since 2017. Pfaff was born and raised on a dairy farm in La Crosse County. He previously worked under President Barack Obama's administration as executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency.

Earlier this week, Evers made four other appointments : Joel Brennan, chief executive officer of Milwaukee's Discovery World museum as Department of Administration secretary; Preston Cole, a member of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board as Department of Natural Resources Secretary; U.S. Marshal Kevin Carr as Department of Corrections secretary; and Sara Meaney, chief marketing officer for Milwaukee Film, as Department of Tourism secretary.