Wisconsin Republicans ignore governor’s call to spend $125M to combat ‘forever chemicals’

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MADISON, Wis . (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans on Tuesday ignored the latest call from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to spend $125 million to combat so-called forever chemicals, leading Evers to say he might sue over the issue.

The moves are the latest twist in the ongoing stalemate between Evers and the Legislature over the best way to combat PFAS chemicals that have polluted groundwater in communities across the state. Evers and Republicans have both said that fighting the chemicals is a priority, but they haven’t been able to come together on what to do about it.

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Evers invoked a rarely used power and called a meeting of the Republican-led Legislature’s budget committee, urging it to release the funding that was previously approved in the state budget. But Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee did not show up, with the GOP co-chairs calling Evers’ move “blatant political game-playing.”

Although no Republicans came, Evers made a previously unannounced appearance in the Capitol hearing room and joined three Democratic lawmakers in blasting the GOP inaction.

“The Republicans are missing in action on this,” Evers said. “This is one they whiffed on, big time.”

Evers said he is considering filing a lawsuit, perhaps with the Wisconsin Supreme Court, to force the committee to take action. The court is hearing arguments on Wednesday in a similar case brought by Evers against the Legislature that is related to the budget committee blocking funding for a state conservation program.

Evers said it was more important that ever for Republicans to release the funding to help communities meet the new limits on certain common types of PFAS chemicals in drinking water announced by the Environmental Protection Agency. It is the first time a nationwide limit on the chemicals has been imposed on water providers.

“This makes it very, very difficult on our local officials,” Evers said.

Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Mark Born, the Republican committee co-chairs, said in a letter delivered to Evers on Friday that although the governor can call a meeting of the budget committee, he can’t actually require it to meet or take action. The committee will not meet, they said.

“We are disappointed in your disregard for a co-equal branch of government, as well as the legislative process,” Born and Marklein wrote to Evers.

Republican Sen. Eric Wimberger, a member of the budget committee, accused Democrats of staging a “publicity stunt.”

He said in a statement Tuesday that if Democrats were serious about helping PFAS victims, they would vote to overturn Evers’ veto of a Republican-backed bill that established a grant program for distributing the money.

Evers said in his veto message that he objected to the bill because it would limit the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ authority to hold polluters liable. But Wimberger, the bill’s sponsor, said Evers wants to create a “slush fund” for the DNR and not protect landowners not responsible for pollution from possible costly enforcement actions.

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals that don’t easily break down in nature. They are found in a wide range of products, including cookware and stain-resistant clothing, and previously were often used in aviation fire-suppression foam. The chemicals, which are commonly referred to as forever chemicals because some don’t degrade naturally, have been linked to health problems, including low birth weight, cancer, and liver disease, and have been shown to make vaccines less effective.

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Municipalities across Wisconsin are struggling with PFAS contamination in groundwater, including Marinette, Madison, Wausau and the town of Campbell on French Island. The waters of Green Bay also are contaminated.

Evers also wanted the budget committee to approve the spending of $15 million in crisis-response funding for needed hospital services in western Wisconsin in the wake of hospital closures in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls. Evers signed a bill into law allowing for the spending, but the budget committee has yet to approve it.

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