Businesses expect friendlier DNR under Walker

Business interests are hopeful that Governor-elect Scott Walker will make changes to the state’s environmental policies that will make Wisconsin more business-friendly.

The Walker administration is likely to pursue several changes to Wisconsin’s environmental policies as they relate to manufacturing and business, and it will almost certainly make changes to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), political observers say.

Such changes would reflect Walker’s mantra that Wisconsin is “open for business.”

“The main thing is changing the tone in our regulatory agencies from an adversarial relationship to a partnering relationship,” said Steve Baas, director of governmental affairs with the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC). “Businesses should not be assumed guilty until proven innocent in regulatory matters.”

The MMAC and the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) hope Walker will put a high priority on changing the culture at the DNR because of the regulatory powers that agency has over manufacturing, which is one of the state’s largest employment sectors.

“The DNR must not view environmental protection and economic growth as mutually exclusive goals,” Baas said. “More than any individual piece of legislation, making a change in tone (at the DNR) will set the table for whether the governor-elect is able to deliver on his goal of making Wisconsin open for business.”

The MMAC and the WMC also expect the Walker administration to speed up the DNR’s permit approval process.

“Time certainty is a huge thing, as is responsiveness,” Baas said. “It speaks to our competitiveness. (Currently) our regulators, without explicitly rejecting an application, can kill one by tying it up in red tape so that businesses will say it’s not worth doing business in Wisconsin.”

Scott Manley, environmental policy director with the WMC, agreed and said the Walker administration should focus on making sure Wisconsin’s policies match up with federal standards and those in place in neighboring states.

“If we can align ourselves with neighboring states and the EPA and get some streamlining done without sacrificing environmental quality (that will be a good thing),” Manley said. “Permit streamlining is a great place to start. They should look at air permitting and water permitting.”

The new Walker administration may not need to introduce radical rule changes at the DNR and other state agencies, Manley said. Instead, it could encourage use of existing rules that are not being enforced now.

“(Wisconsin) enacted some comprehensive regulation reform in 2004, and I think many of those reforms haven’t been fully implemented,” Manley said. “Many of the tools that were given to the DNR to streamline (the permit) process haven’t been fully taken advantage of. In many respects, Walker’s administration has the ability to take those tools and make the regulatory process better and more efficient in Wisconsin.”

Walker will be able to appoint a new DNR secretary when he takes office in January. Next year, the new governor also will be able to appoint two new members to the state’s Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the DNR.

“Even though the majority of the board won’t be his appointees right away, via the secretary position, the governor can set the tone and make significant changes to the board,” Baas said. “The accountability (of the Natural Resources Board and DNR) and the ability to make changes in the way they do business lands in the governor’s lap.”

State Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), who is also the new Assembly Republican leader, said Assembly Republicans also will put a high priority on changing the culture at the DNR.

“We’ve seen the DNR as an adversary of businesses in the state, and that’s something the Walker administration and Republicans in charge would like to see changed,” Fitzgerald said. “(We need to) get a (DNR) secretary that understands jobs and the economy and will do what it takes to get businesses in Wisconsin.”

Fitzgerald predicts that the Walker administration and Republicans in the state Assembly will work on job-creating and state deficit reducing measures, beginning in January. The Assembly may take up issues relating to emissions permitting and other environmental regulations, he said, but there are no specific pieces of legislation he or other Republicans are planning to introduce at this point.

“The first half (of the session) will be devoted to getting people back to work and our state on fiscal track, which will help the overall business environment,” Fitzgerald said.

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