Why Walker Signed High-Cap Well Bill

When Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed into law on Thursday a GOP bill that loosens state rules and oversight on controversial high-capacity wells, it was a thank you note to the special interests that support him. Why Walker Signed High-Cap Well Bill

June 2, 2017

Dried Up Soil

The measure, Senate Bill 76, eliminates state reviews of existing permits for any high-capacity wells when they are repaired, replaced, or sold in a real estate transaction. High-capacity wells allow users, which include large farms, food processors, and frac-sand operations, to pump at least 100,000 gallons of water a day out of the watershed.

Environmentalists, tourism interests, outdoor enthusiasts and property owners who live near high-capacity wells say the wells have caused some rivers, lakes, and streams around the state to shrink or even dry up during the summer, damaging fish, wildlife, and their habitat.

But, the proposal was backed by a host of powerful special interest business and agriculture groups, including the Dairy Business Association, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, and the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association.

The dozen-plus influential special interests represented by WMC, including business, manufacturing, real estate and construction, contributed $33.2 million between January 2011 and December 2016 to Walker. In addition to direct special interest contributions, WMC has spent an estimated $9.5 million on mostly undisclosed, outside electioneering activities to support Walker’s successful 2010, 2012 and 2014 runs for governor.

The powerful agriculture industry, which is the chief beneficiary of the new law, contributed about $1.8 million to Walker between January 2011 and December 2016. Many of Walker’s largest contributors in the agriculture industry are owners of factory farms and large vegetable farms, which sought the looser regulations, including:

Brothers Steve, Ron, and Dave Buholzer, and their wives, of Monroe, owners of Klondike Cheese Factory, $57,500. Klondike is a key sponsor of the Dairy Business Association;

James and Annette Ostrom, of De Pere, co-owners of Milk Source, $47,500;

John and Keri Vosters, of Freedom, co-owners of Milk Source, $43,500;

Todd Willer and Megan O’Harrow, of Freedom, co-owners of Milk Source, $41,500;

Richard Pavelski, of Naples, Fla., chief executive officer of Heartland Farms in Hancock, Wis., $13,500;

Gordon and Cathy Speirs, of Greenleaf, owners of Shiloh Dairy, $11,250. Gordon Speirs is a past president and current board member of the Dairy Business Association.

In 2015, Milk Source’s Richfield Dairy in Adams County won a legal challenge in which a state administrative law judge blasted the Department of Natural Resources for using narrow guidelines to assess and grant permits for high-capacity wells.

In addition to their contributions to Walker, several large vegetable growers and other mega farms sharply increased their contributions to GOP legislative fundraising committees during the second half of 2016 and shortly before SB76 was introduced in February and considered by the GOP-controlled legislature. Large potato and vegetable growers doled out more than $136,000 in individual and corporate campaign contributions in 2016 to current legislators, including about $126,300 to Republicans and $10,250 to Democratic lawmakers.