Let business be business

Original Reporting | By Diana Jean Schemo |
A Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) in Wisconsin.

November 23, 2010 — The night that Republican Scott Walker swept to victory in the race to become Wisconsin’s governor, one refrain ran through his promises to deliver on his campaign pledges: “Wisconsin is open for business again,” Walker repeated to crowds of jubilant campaign workers and supporters.

To highlight his seriousness, Walker vowed to convene the legislature within hours of his inauguration in January, declare an economic emergency, and enact a series of tax cuts and other measures to lessen what he described as the burden state government placed on small businesses.

While Walker’s campaign featured sweeping rhetoric on these themes, it offered few details about just which laws and regulations he would seek to change, and how these demands got in the way of business. It said nothing about the origins of these laws, why Wisconsin’s citizens at some point thought them necessary and why, now, they were no longer needed. Nor did it lay out for the public what the resulting deregulated landscape would look like.

not just in wisconsin

Governor-elect Walker, who will be the first Republican governor in Wisconsin in 72 years to have the opportunity to carry out his program with both houses of the Legislature also in Republican hands, is one of several new state chief executives who campaigned on the platform of reducing a variety of regulatory obligations on the business sector.

The extent to which each of these governor-elects will carry out their campaign promises may differ, but the content and consequences of their programs deserve to be be taken seriously. Just this year, after all, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took the political and media establishment in the New York metropolitan area by surprise when he actually made good on his critique of a long-planned high-speed rail link and killed the project.

Long-time political observers were more than a little perplexed trying to figure out just what changes the governor-elect had in mind. “We haven’t been anti-business [in Wisconsin] for a long time,” said John F. Witte, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “We’ve been grubbing for business. It hasn’t really mattered which party was in power.”


Ending the “gotcha” mentality?

A clearer picture of the governor-elect’s specific targets does emerge from examining campaign materials and interviews he has given — some to small regional papers — and from following his appearances and speeches both before and after his election.

Wisconsin’s Commerce Department currently insures that businesses meet the regulatory standards the state sets before issuing them a permit to do business in the state. Walker would transfer the regulatory functions of the state Commerce Department to the relevant state agencies for the specific industry — the norm, actually, before former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson incorporated many regulatory functions into the Commerce Department’s granting of permits.

But the Commerce Department wouldn’t be stepping out of the process. It would be changing hats. Walker would reconfigure the Department as an advocate for private industry in negotiating the regulatory demands of state agencies. Instead of the Commerce Department acting as a gatekeeper — protecting the public interest in, say, workplace safety — before issuing permits to do business, the new agency would advocate for the business, becoming, potentially, the adversary of state agencies seeking to insure compliance with government standards.

“I will demand that state employees end their ‘gotcha’ mentality,” reads Walker’s “Brown Bag Guide to Government,” “and instead focus on helping job creators comply and get their applications approved.”


Presumptive Approval

At the same time, Walker plans to upend the procedure for granting companies permits to operate in Wisconsin. In a bid to “[Make] Government Accountable to Farmers,” Walker has pledged to “require state agencies to review permit applications within 60 days of receipt and approve or deny them within 180 days or else they will be presumed approved.”

“These reforms will put the government’s focus back on encouraging job growth instead of stifling it,” Walker says in his campaign literature.

Though Walker spoke constantly on the campaign trail of the need to shore up small farmers, and to free farmers from the burdens of the permit process — “He would say ‘small business’ or ‘small farms’ 14 times in a half hour,” Professor Witte noted — the changes he is proposing actually relate to the large industrial farms known as CAFOs, short for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. It is CAFOs that are subject to environmental regulations controlling potential contamination of nearby rivers, streams, and groundwater supplies.

Walker’s proposal does appear to correspond to a proposal from the state’s powerful Dairy Business Association.

These mega-operations account for only 2 percent of Wisconsin’s farms, but 50 percent of its output from animal-based agriculture. CAFOs typically crowd hundreds or thousands of animals into relatively small areas. They produce millions of gallons of waste, typically as much as a small city, along with pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. The state issues permits to minimize contamination of ground and surface water.

Would “presumptive approval” mean that if an industrial farm submitted an application to the state Department of Natural Resources to expand its operations, the failure of the department to act in six months would give the farm a permanent green light to, for example, dramatically increasing the amount of manure it would spread over soil? Would state reviewers ever have an opportunity to “rescind” presumptive approval after it had been awarded? If so, how hard would the new rules make it for state regulators to act? And how would the new system protect the public against increased pollution and resulting harm?

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