Wisconsin Senate to vote on firing agriculture secretary

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin's Republican-controlled Senate prepared Tuesday to fire the state agriculture secretary appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, the latest in a series of skirmishes between the governor and the GOP that comes as Wisconsin is losing dairy farmers at a record pace.

Republicans and Evers have been fighting since before Evers even took office. Republicans convened a lame-duck session to pass laws weakening Evers' power in December. This summer, Evers used his expansive veto to reshape the GOP-passed state budget, resulting in attempts in court and through a constitutional amendment to weaken his veto authority. And on Thursday, Evers wants to force the Legislature to take up gun control bills in a special session, but Republicans plan to gavel in and out without debate.

But rejecting a Cabinet secretary is a new move not seen since at least before 1987, the earliest records available from the Legislative Reference Bureau.

The Evers administration, state and federal Democratic office holders and a variety of agriculture industry groups urged Republicans to back off and allow Brad Pfaff to continue to serve in the position he's held since January. Republicans who control the Senate with a 19-14 majority showed no signs of budging.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald last week said Pfaff's confirmation was in jeopardy and asked Evers to withdraw his nomination. Evers refused.

Fitzgerald said Tuesday he thought all 19 Republican senators would vote to fire Pfaff. At least three Republicans would have to flip in order for Pfaff to keep his job.

"There are more concerns now than there were a couple weeks ago," Fitzgerald said ahead of the debate on confirmation. He declined to detail what the issues were before debate began.

Fitzgerald previously cited clashes Pfaff has had with Republicans as justification for his nomination facing rejection.

Pfaff angered some Republicans when he criticized them for not more quickly releasing $200,000 to fund farmer mental health and suicide prevention efforts. Pfaff also upset Republicans and powerful agriculture industry groups when he moved forward with new siting rules, first started under Republican Gov. Scott Walker's administration, designed to protect farmers' neighbors from the stench of manure.

Opponents insist the agriculture department didn't consult farmers on the setbacks and the restrictions are so tough no one will be able to expand their operations. They also fear that local governments that oppose factory farms will use the restrictions to block new operations.

Pfaff on Friday, hours after Fitzgerald said he didn't have the votes to stay on the job, put the proposal on hold.

Pfaff's supporters, including groups representing cheesemakers, dairy farmers and corn growers, say ousting him now will only create more instability for farmers who are struggling to deal with low milk prices and an ongoing trade war. Wisconsin lost nearly 700 dairy farms last year alone, the highest number of closures since 2011.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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