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WI Supreme Court Ruling Curtails Legislative Interference in Conservation Funding Decisions

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Today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an important ruling in a case called Evers v. Marklein. The court ruled that the legislature’s ability to block funding for conservation projects under the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program is unconstitutional. The decision curtails the power of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance (JFC) to block how the executive branch implements laws that authorize the expenditure of funds.

The lawsuit was initiated by the Governor and other executive branch officials. Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of two groups that advocate for environmental protection, Save Our Water (S.O.H2O) and Wisconsin Conservation Voters.

In our amicus brief, we argued that the ability of the Joint Committee on Finance to interfere in conservation funding decisions is unconstitutional under the separation of powers provisions of the state constitution. We also urged the court to address other instances of unlawful legislative committee interference, especially vetoes of administrative rules that set standards for environmental protection.

Our amicus brief describes the real-world impact of committee vetoes. It recounts how, in 2020, a legislative committee met on the Friday before Christmas to act on an industry request to weaken PFAS monitoring requirements. The committee’s action was significant for the Marinette and Peshtigo communities because it effectively allowed Tyco/Johnson Controls to discharge PFAS from firefighting foam to Marinette’s wastewater treatment facility. As a result, these highly toxic substances continue to accumulate in local surface waters.

The court limited its ruling today to JFC vetoes of funding decisions and did not rule on committee vetoes of administrative rules. However, the court announced in a separate order today that it will consider taking up the matter. The parties involved in the lawsuit have until July 26 to file legal briefs on whether the court should do so.

MEA Executive Director Tony Wilkin Gibart had this to say about the decision: 

“Today’s ruling is an important step toward restoring the balance of power in Wisconsin. At the same time, we have a lot more work to do, especially when it comes to reigning in the power of legislative committees to veto administrative rules. Committee vetoes make state government less accountable to the voters. They allow small groups of legislators to prevent environmental and public health laws from being implemented as written. That’s inconsistent with our state constitution and incompatible with a healthy democracy.

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