MADISON – The state Senate is moving forward with the confirmation of Gov. Tony Evers’ pick to lead the state transportation agency more than two years after the governor made the appointment.
Craig Thompson has led the state Department of Transportation since January 2019 but has not been confirmed by the Senate as secretary amid an ongoing standoff between Republicans who control the Legislature and the Democratic governor.
Republicans in the Senate have held off on confirming a handful of Evers’ appointments, in some cases creating political leverage because once cabinet secretaries are confirmed they cannot be removed by the Legislature. At one point, Republican senators fired Evers’ pick for agriculture secretary on the governor’s birthday.
That ousted ag secretary, now Sen. Brad Pfaff, was on hand for Thompson’s new confirmation hearing Wednesday. It’s Thompson’s second because the first committee vote to approve the confirmation essentially expired with the conclusion of the last legislative session.
“I am supportive of Secretary Thompson and I think the testimony that was given today really defined all these people lining up to support him because of the job he has done over the last two years,” Sen. Jerry Petrowski, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Local Government, said in an interview after the hearing.
More than two dozen lobbying groups and businesses urged Petrowski’s committee to again support the confirmation of Thompson. The committee unanimously backed Thompson in 2019 but a floor vote was never scheduled by the former Senate leader.
Republicans have reservations
But some Republican senators may still have concerns over Thompson, who previously worked as a lobbyist on transportation issues and advocated for an increase in the state’s tax on gasoline.
Former Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said at the time of Thompson’s appointment that Evers “would be better served by nominating someone who worked in a less controversial role during previous policy debates.”
Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, said in 2018 the appointment looked like “political payback” because Thompson’s lobbying organization created a “Just Fix It” campaign that advocated during the 2018 election cycle for more revenue for roads, which was perceived by some as campaigning against former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
On Wednesday, Stroebel said he continues to have “serious reservations about Craig Thompson’s suitability for the job of DOT Secretary.”
Criticism did not materialize before the committee on Wednesday, however. Steve Loehr, vice president of Kwik Trip, told the committee on Wednesday that Thompson is one the most approachable DOT secretaries he’s ever dealt with.
Ten agriculture lobbying groups in a letter to the committee said “as Secretary Designee for the last two years, Thompson has shown that he is up for the challenge of the job.”
“He pushed the agency to develop efficiencies and cost savings. And he managed the COVID pandemic so well that there was barely any slow down in road construction and maintenance projects,” the groups wrote.
Mark O’Connell of the Wisconsin Counties Association said Thompson “is among the most capable, visionary, and pragmatic agency heads in the country” in a letter to the committee.
Petrowski, R-Marathon, said Wednesday the next step would be to hold a committee vote and if his confirmation is approved, the full Senate Republican caucus will discuss. He noted while last session’s committee supported Thompson, the panel has new members.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu did not respond to whether the Senate planned to take up Thompson’s confirmation this year.
Among the Evers appointees who have not yet been confirmed by the Senate are Department of Safety and Professional Services Secretary Dawn Crim, who was appointed in January 2019, and Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. chief executive officer Melissa Hughes, who was appointed in September 2019.
Former Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm was also not confirmed in the two years of leading the health agency and left in recent weeks to join the Biden administration. Former Department of Tourism Secretary Sara Meaney also left the job without being confirmed.
Crim has not advanced through committee after drawing concern from committee members over a 2005 child abuse charge, which was later dismissed.