By Laurel White, Wisconsin Public Radio
A bill loosening regulations on high-capacity wells is headed to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature.
The state Assembly approved the legislation on Tuesday. The state Senate passed the bill last month, after the measure drew a large crowd to the Capitol for a public hearing.
The measure would allow well owners to repair, replace or transfer ownership of an existing well without applying for a new permit from the state. It also calls for a study of watersheds in the state’s Central Sands region, where groundwater is scarce.
"This vote says whether you stand with the farmers of this state or not," said Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, during debate. "We can have a lot of rhetoric and a lot of hyperbole, but at the end of the day are we going to tell farmers in Wisconsin, 'Please keep producing the food for the world and we will stand with you.'"
High-capacity wells, which can pump more than 70 gallons of water per minute and more than 100,000 gallons in a day, are often used by agricultural businesses, including large-scale vegetable and dairy farms.
Proponents of the bill argue it would provide stability to those businesses, supports landowners’ rights and preserve property values.
The Dairy Business Association, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and various agriculture interest groups have voiced their support for the measure.
During debate, opponents argued the changes would amount to licenses being issued in perpetuity and ultimately lead to depletion of Wisconsin’s groundwater.
Democrat Katrina Shankland represents the Central Sands region, where agriculture groups and conservationists have clashed over the bill.
"To the people of the Central Sands, I heard you – I’m so sorry we can't find a solution that works for all of us today," Shankland said during an emotional speech on the Assembly floor.
Other critics expressed concern depleted groundwater could hurt Wisconsin’s tourism industry.
The measure passed with a 62-35 vote.
Walker said Tuesday he will review the bill.
"The governor believes it’s important to ensure farmers are able to grow some of the best produce in the world," said Walker spokesman Tom Evenson.
Every Student Succeeds Act
The state Assembly also approved a bill on Tuesday that would give lawmakers more oversight over a state plan to implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
The state plan, released by the Department of Public Instruction last week, outlines how Wisconsin plans to identify and turn around low-performing schools. It includes a goal to cut racial and economic gaps in test scores and graduation rates by half over the next six years.
Under the proposed legislation, state lawmakers would be able to raise objections to the plan and require a response from the Department of Public Instruction.
"The bill is simply a passive vehicle to achieve meaningful consultation and include our legislators in an important plan that I suspect our founding fathers would have wanted us to take part in," said Rep. Ron Tusler, R-Harrison, the bill’s sponsor.
Opponents argued the legislation is unnecessary.
"It’s toothless, it’s pointless, it’s spending taxpayer dollars for no good reason," said Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Mount Horeb.
The bill has yet to be heard in the state Senate.
Other Assembly Action
- Approved a bill that would eliminate a requirement that 16 and 17-year-olds must obtain a work permit to be employed in Wisconsin. "If parents are unable or unwilling to raise their own kids and provide them with what they need or provide them with the support that they need, they should be able to do that for themselves. This bill is a small step in that direction,” said Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, during debate. Loudenbeck sponsored the bill.
- Approved four bills aimed at combating homelessness in Wisconsin. The bills would create an interagency council for state departments to collaborate on services for the homeless, create a pilot program that would prioritize providing housing to the chronically homeless, create a pilot program that would provide funds to municipalities interested in launching work programs for homeless individuals and change funding requirements to allow state money to be used on a greater variety of housing models.
- Approved two bills in a special session aimed at fighting Wisconsin’s opioid epidemic. The Senate sent nine opioid bills to the governor's desk on Tuesday.