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Top Senate Republican says appointees can return to work

MADISON — The Wisconsin Senate’s top Republican told more than a dozen GOP appointees whom Democratic Gov. Tony Evers fired to return to work Friday, contending that an appeals court ruling this week wiped out the governor’s actions.

Senate Republicans confirmed 82 of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s appointees during a December lame-duck session. Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess ruled last week that the session was illegal and nullified all actions legislators took during it. Evers used the opening to rescind all 82 appointments.

But the 3rd District Court of Appeals stayed Niess’ ruling on Wednesday pending the GOP’s full appeal. That order has created confusion about whether the appointees can return to their jobs. Former Public Service Commission member Ellen Nowak tried to go back to her job Thursday morning but Evers’ administration wouldn’t let her in the building.

Hours later Evers handed 67 of the appointees their jobs back with no explanation. Most of them returned to spots on little-known boards and commissions. But Evers chose to keep 15 higher-profile positions open, including Nowak’s PSC spot and two University of Wisconsin System regent positions.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald sent the appointees a letter on Friday telling them that the Legislature’s attorneys believe that given the stay they can continue to serve.

“We are confident that the higher court will eventually overturn the Dane County judge entirely and make this decision permanent,” Fitzgerald wrote. “We know for some of you this has been a frustrating and confusing situation.”

Fitzgerald also sent a letter to Evers on Friday telling him he was rejecting the 67 appointments the governor made because those people still have their jobs thanks to the appeals court’s stay.

Evers said Friday at a business conference in Madison that he has said some of the fired appointees could end up back in their positions. He added that the positions he filled were “relatively low-profile” and “we are having trouble finding people to serve.”

It wasn’t clear if the governor meant it was difficult to find anyone to work for the government in general or for his administration specifically. He didn’t take follow-up questions.

He said he hadn’t seen the letter Fitzgerald sent, but dismissed it as part of Republican “huffing and puffing.”

The GOP took a number of other actions during the lame-duck session to weaken Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul before they took office, including passing laws that prohibit Evers from withdrawing the state from lawsuits and forcing Kaul to get legislative approval before settling lawsuits.

The moves outraged Democrats and have sparked multiple lawsuits. Niess’ decision to invalidate the entire lame-duck session stems from a challenge brought by liberal-leaning groups that allege the session was illegal because it wasn’t scheduled at the beginning of the 2017-19 biennium.

Despite the appeals court’s stay, most of the laws remain blocked. Another Dane County judge ruled in a separate case Tuesday that key portions of the statues violate the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.

Rolling into spring

UW-Eau Claire students Sophie Grupe, left, and Evan Hong enjoyed the mild temperatures, rollerblading and long boarding Friday in Phoenix Park in Eau Claire. Temperatures are likely to be cooler today with a high of 37 degrees. View more photos at

Trump backtracks on call to gut $300M Great Lakes program

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — President Donald Trump tried repeatedly to gut funding for a wide-ranging Great Lakes cleanup, only to be stymied by Congress. Suddenly, he did an about-face.

It happened Thursday during a campaign-style speech in the battleground state of Michigan. For years, the program the Obama administration established in 2010 enjoyed bipartisan support, and Trump — who proposed a 90 percent cut just three weeks ago — toyed with the crowd before revealing his belated advocacy.

“We have some breaking news,” Trump told cheering supporters in Grand Rapids. “You ready? I don’t know. Can you handle it? I don’t think you can handle it.

“I support the Great Lakes. Always have. They are beautiful. They are big, very deep, record deepness, right? And I’m going to get, in honor of my friends, full funding of $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.”

Trump’s apparent change of heart occurred the same day he reversed his budget’s call to slash $17.6 million in funding for the Special Olympics, roughly 10 percent of the organization’s revenue, in the face of withering criticism on Capitol Hill.

The moves illustrate that, even as his annual spending plans seek draconian reductions in many areas, Trump is uncomfortable as a budget cutter and readily backtracks when popular programs are at stake. Such concessions might annoy fiscal conservatives, but they deprive the president’s foes of ammunition as he gears up for his re-election bid.

Democrats and environmentalists in the Great Lakes region, which includes fiercely contested states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that Trump carried in 2016, were skeptical that his conversion on the restoration initiative was more than a momentary gesture to draw applause at his rally.

“President Trump’s actions need to speak louder than words,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who co-chairs the Senate Great Lakes Task Force. “I call on him to work across the aisle to restore every penny of funding he proposed to cut.”

The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the reasons for Trump’s new-found support of the program, which has paid for thousands of projects to clean up toxic pollution, fight invasive species, prevent harmful algae blooms and restore wetlands and other wildlife habitat.

But as he prepared to announce his backing for the funds during the speech, Trump called the names of the GOP lawmakers who had lobbied for the program during a roughly 20-minute car ride with Trump from the Grand Rapids airport to the rally: Reps. Bill Huizenga, John Moolenaar and Jack Bergman of Michigan.

In a phone interview Friday, Huizenga told The Associated Press the trio had pushed hard.

“It was a good, old-fashioned ganging up on,” Huizenga said. “People who aren’t from the Great Lakes don’t have an understanding of what the entire system is about. It can be hard to get them to wrap their heads around it. We sort of laid out the case, both the economy and the ecology of it.”

Trump asked questions about some of the projects, including a battle to prevent invasive Asian carp from reaching the lakes. Huizenga said he pitched the program as in keeping with the president’s desire to restore U.S. manufacturing and the Midwestern economy.

At one point, Bergman said, “Mr. President, if you want to make news, this is one of the ways to make news in Michigan,” according to Huizenga.

He said Trump made no commitment during the ride. But the message obviously had gotten through.

Does this mean the Great Lakes program is no longer in danger?

“I think you take it year by year,” Huizenga said. “But it certainly makes it harder for them to go back and remove it out of the budget in future years.”

The Great Lakes initiative is the biggest of nearly a dozen regional water restorations that Trump has sought to strip of funding. Among them are programs benefiting Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay.

Decision 2019: Eau Claire school board candidates have differing ideas to tackle teacher shortage

Each of the candidates seeking a seat on the Eau Claire school board agree that attracting and retaining quality teachers is crucial to the district amid a looming shortage in the teaching profession.

But incumbents Aaron Harder and Eric Torres and challengers Tim Nordin and Erica Zerr all have different perspectives and ideas on the issue.

The four candidates are vying for three at-large seats on the school board in Tuesday’s general election. Incumbent Chris Hambuch-Boyle is not seeking re-election.

Harder, who currently serves as vice president and has been on the board for nearly three years, said the school district is currently attracting and retaining teachers with actions such as the board’s decision two years ago to implement a pay scale schedule as well as current programs the district offers to students who wish to someday become a teacher.

But Harder, a graduate of Eau Claire schools who owns a software business, also acknowledged that amid continued budget shortfalls in the district, he’s not sure how feasible the pay scales will remain.

“We need to work through those questions. I hope we find it will be sustainable and we can continue to be competitive in terms of salary,” Harder said at a school board candidate forum March 14. “We need to continue to raise ECASD’s profile as a destination district.”

Nordin, a former high school science teacher who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the school board last spring, agreed that part of drawing quality teachers to the district and keeping them in Eau Claire is offering competitive wages, but contended teachers need support in other ways.

When Nordin had his first teaching job in southeastern Iowa, he assigned a 20-hour community service project to his students. Near the end of the year, a parent complained to the school board about the project, Nordin said, and the board shut it down although many students had already completed the project. Nordin said he sees teachers’ creativity similarly being squashed in the Eau Claire school district.

“To take that away from students was one of the first things that broke my heart as a teacher,” Nordin said at the March 14 forum. “Why would I as a teacher want to use the unlimited creativity that I wanted to bring to the field in a place where it’s going to be hampered?”

In his 25 years of teaching, Torres, a board member of about two years and assistant professor of education and Latin American studies at UW-Eau Claire, said he’s found that teachers often leave the profession due to salary and compensation in relation to how much it costs to obtain licensure.

In addition, Torres said the district should change hiring and managing processes, and in addition give teachers the tools they need to “do their work in the best way possible.”

“We need to put in place an effective induction and support process so that (teachers) are successful and smile at the end of the day,” Torres said at the forum. “We also need to improve working conditions including school leadership styles, professional collaboration opportunities, shared decision making process and accountability systems.”

Zerr, an early childhood educator at a private Montessori school in Eau Claire and first-time board candidate, said teachers have had “a hard go of it” in the last eight years and agreed that compensation is a large part of why many do not pursue the profession.

But if teachers know the district’s environment allows them to be creative leaders, they won’t have a problem, Zerr said.

“If teachers know that Eau Claire is a place where they can be creative and be leaders, where they can even maybe have a teacher-led program or a teacher-led school, where they can collaborate with their colleagues and they can work together to improve the lives of kids,” Zerr said March 14, “we’re going to retain teachers, we’re going to attract teachers and we’re going to be competitive across this state.”

Candidates elected April 2 will serve three-year terms on the board starting this spring.