Gov. Tony Evers
Press Release

Gov. Evers Calls Joint Finance Committee into Special Meeting to Release Critical Funds to Fight PFAS Statewide, Stabilize Healthcare Access in Western Wisconsin

 

By - Apr 9th, 2024 01:41 pm

Governor moves to press Republican-controlled JFC to release $140 million in already-approved investments to fight PFAS statewide and stabilize healthcare access in Western Wisconsin in the wake of recent HSHS and Prevea health system closures

Governor also today vetoed Senate Bill 312, which contains “poison pill” provisions that could functionally give polluters a free pass from cleaning up their own spills and contamination

MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers today announced he is calling the Republican-controlled Joint Committee on Finance (JFC) into a special meeting set to occur on April 16, 2024, at 9:30 a.m., to press Republican legislators to expeditiously release $140 million in already-approved funding to fight PFAS statewide and stabilize healthcare access in Western Wisconsin after HSHS and Prevea Health’s decision to close several locations in the region, respectively. The governor is calling the special meeting pursuant to his authority under Wis. Stat. 13.10(1).

“It’s been 279 days since I signed the biennial budget and approved a $125 million investment to fight PFAS—the first real, meaningful investment Republicans have sent to my desk to address and prevent PFAS contamination statewide,” said Gov. Evers. “And it’s now been more than 40 days since I signed a bill to secure $15 million in crisis response resources that would help ensure folks in Western Wisconsin have access to the healthcare services they need when and where they need it, including OB-GYN services, mental health and substance use treatment, urgent care, and so much more.

“That’s $140 million in already-approved and agreed-upon investments to address urgent, pressing issues facing our state, but these funds are sitting unspent in Madison because the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee has refused to release even one cent—and that’s just wrong,” continued Gov. Evers. “PFAS are affecting communities across our state, and Western Wisconsin is facing serious challenges due to recently announced hospital closures—there is no reason Wisconsinites should have to wait any longer than they already have for these funds to be released. This is about doing the right thing for our kids, our families, and our communities, and it should’ve been done a long time ago. This must get done.”

The $140 million investment includes $125 million to combat PFAS contamination across the state that was made available through the 2023-25 biennial budget passed by the Wisconsin State Legislature and enacted by Gov. Evers last July. The PFAS funding has languished unspent in Madison for more than nine months—279 days.

The remaining $15 million of the $140 million awaiting the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee’s action is crisis response resources to help stabilize the healthcare industry and healthcare access in Western Wisconsin. Over a month ago now—41 days ago—Gov Evers signed 2023 Wisconsin Act 97 to secure $15 million in crisis response resources to support healthcare access in Western Wisconsin. Gov. Evers approved Act 97 with improvements through line-item vetoes that provide additional flexibility for the $15 million crisis response investment, enabling the resources to be used to fund any hospital services meeting the area’s pressing healthcare needs, including urgent care services, OB-GYN services, inpatient psychiatry services, and mental health substance use services, among others. Without the governor’s vetoes, these services would not have been eligible under the legislation. JFC continues to let these funds sit idle in Madison, even as HSHS closed HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls on March 22, 2024—approximately a month earlier than had previously been announced—underscoring the urgent need for these funds to be released and distributed to partners in the community working to offset the burden of these closures.

Gov. Evers today also vetoed Senate Bill (SB) 312, a GOP-backed bill containing controversial provisions the governor has argued are designed to benefit and protect polluters, limiting the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) authority to respond to contamination—provisions the governor has made clear in conversations with Republican bill authors, stakeholders, and local community leaders would result in the bill being vetoed.

SB 312 neither appropriated new funding to fight PFAS nor released any portion of the $125 million previously secured through the biennial budget process. As passed by Republicans in the Legislature, SB 312 provided no actual or immediate financial assistance to communities impacted by PFAS and, further, provided no guarantee the $125 million investment available through the biennial budget would be distributed to communities affected by PFAS contaminants to help protect and clean up local water supplies.

Importantly, the governor’s veto of SB 312 has no effect on the $125 million already approved through the biennial budget or whether the $125 million to combat PFAS remains available or will be released by the Republican-controlled JFC. Notwithstanding the governor’s veto today, Republican members of the JFC may release the $125 million secured through the biennial budget to fight PFAS statewide at any time, as has been the case for the last 279 days.

Further, SB 312 contained “poison pill” provisions designed to benefit polluters that could functionally give polluters a free pass from cleaning up their own spills and contamination. Under Wisconsin’s existing environmental protection laws, any party causing, possessing, or controlling a hazardous substance that has been released into the environment is required to clean it up. SB 312 specifically prohibited the DNR from taking enforcement action against polluters and contaminators so long as the polluter allowed the DNR to remediate the site at the DNR’s own expense. That is, under SB 312, as passed by Republicans, so long as a polluter allowed the DNR to clean up the contamination using Wisconsin taxpayer dollars, the DNR could not take enforcement action against the polluter.

Gov Evers’ veto message for SB 312 is available here.

ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND ON GOV EVERS’ CALL TO RELEASE ALREADY-APPROVED FUNDS TO FIGHT PFAS STATEWIDE
The 2023-25 biennial budget that was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Evers in July 2023 included a $125 million investment to address and prevent PFAS contamination statewide—the first real and substantive Republican effort to address PFAS after years of inaction. Now, nearly 280 days later, Republican legislators have refused to release the funding and have ignored repeated requests from Gov. Evers to do so.

Most recently, Gov. Evers urged Republican lawmakers to support a compromise proposal aimed at expeditiously releasing the $125 million investment to fight PFAS contaminants statewide, asking the Republican-controlled JFC to release funds to combat PFAS without controversial provisions to benefit polluters contained in SB 312. The governor’s compromise proposal is functionally identical to SB 312, largely retaining most of the bill’s key provisions except Republican-backed “poison pills.”

SB 312 contained “poison pill” provisions designed to benefit polluters that could functionally give polluters a free pass from cleaning up their own spills and contamination. Under Wisconsin’s existing environmental protection laws, any party causing, possessing, or controlling a hazardous substance that has been released into the environment is required to clean it up. SB 312 specifically prohibited the DNR from taking enforcement action against polluters and contaminators so long as the polluter allowed the DNR to remediate the site at the DNR’s own expense. That is, under SB 312, as passed by Republicans, so long as a polluter allowed the DNR to clean up the contamination using Wisconsin taxpayer dollars, the DNR could not take enforcement action against the polluter.

Residents of communities affected by PFAS, conservationists, clean water advocates, and Gov. Evers have repeatedly raised concerns about the provision designed to benefit polluters at taxpayers’ expense over the course of months of negotiations with Sens. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay) and Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay), co-authors of SB 312. The “poison pill” provision drew specific ire and criticism from Gov. Evers, who has spent years working to hold three Wisconsin manufacturers and 15 other defendants accountable for conduct leading directly to PFAS contamination of Wisconsin’s natural resources and trying to prevent Wisconsinites from having to foot the bill to clean up polluters’ contamination.

ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND ON HSHS AND PREVEA HEALTH CLOSURES
Gov. Tony Evers, over 40 days ago, approved SB 1015, now 2023 Wisconsin Act 97, securing $15 million in crisis response resources to support healthcare access in Western Wisconsin in the wake of the recent announcement of HSHS and Prevea Health’s decision to close several locations. Gov. Evers approved Act 97 with improvements through line-item vetoes to provide additional flexibility for the $15 million in crisis response resources, enabling the investments to be used to fund any hospital services meeting the area’s pressing healthcare needs, including urgent care services, OB-GYN services, inpatient psychiatry services, and mental health substance use services, among others. Without the governor’s vetoes, these services would not have been eligible under SB 1015.

SB 1015, as passed by the Legislature, included unnecessary restrictions on the $15 million crisis response funding, limiting the funds to be used only for hospital emergency department services exclusively. The governor’s partial vetoes improved the bill significantly, broadening the scope of the grants available under the bill and allowing the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) to make the crisis response funds available for any hospital services that meet the needs of the region.

In addition to severely impacting healthcare access in the area, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, the closures have been estimated to impact approximately 1,400 workers, among others, in the surrounding region. At the time he signed the bill, Gov. Evers directed DHS to submit an official request to the JFC to immediately release the $15 million provided for under Act 97. A copy of the request submitted by DHS to JFC is available here.

In March, nearly three weeks after signing Act 97, Gov. Evers visited healthcare providers in Western Wisconsin to, again, call on Republicans to release the funds and blasting the committee members for their continued delays in releasing these funds. The governor’s visit came on the heels of HSHS announcing its plans to close HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls approximately a month earlier than had previously been announced.

Today, over a month after Gov. Evers secured the $15 million in crisis response resources to stabilize the healthcare industry in Western Wisconsin, Republican members of the JFC are still refusing to release the funds.

More information on the governor’s veto message for SB 1015, now 2023 Wisconsin Act 97, and the Evers Administration’s ongoing rapid response efforts to the HSHS and Prevea health systems closures is available here.

An online version of this release is available here.

NOTE: This press release was submitted to Urban Milwaukee and was not written by an Urban Milwaukee writer. It has not been verified for its accuracy or completeness.

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