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State Supreme Court ruling failed Wisconsin residents

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has once again put politics ahead of good public policy.

The state’s high court last week ruled that terms of office for state boards don’t mean anything provided the governor with the right initial behind their name appointed you.

Specifically, the court was weighing in on the case of Fred Prehn, a Wausau dentist, who was appointed to a six year term on the state’s influential Natural Resources Board in 2015 under former Gov. Scott Walker. Walker is a Republican and lost to Democrat Tony Evers in 2020.

Prehn’s six year term on the board expired in April 2021.

To any reasonable person, having a set term implies that at the end of that term you are either reappointed or you step aside and let the person who has been appointed to replace you do their job.

Prehn decided instead to take the unreasonable approach and argue that he can continue to serve on the board until the state senate gets around to approving Gov. Tony Evers’ appointment to fill the spot. To quote state supreme court justice Rebecca Dallet this argument is “absurd.”

In a deeply purple state such as Wisconsin it is not uncommon to see statewide offices switch between parties every term or two. This is democracy at work. The problem is that the members of the state legislature adopted an obstructionist and do-nothing game plan following Evers’ election. Despite having years to do so, the state senate has failed to bring many appointments, including Prehn’s replacement, to a vote. This represents a gross dereliction of the fundamental duties of being an elected official.

A plain reading of the law establishing the terms of office for that and other state board positions is to reduce the disruptive nature of politics on agency policies by having appointments extend beyond the term of the governor making the appointment. The senate’s intentional inaction and the Supreme Court’s blessing of this travesty of an interpretation undermines the intent of the law and casts serious doubts on the legitimacy of decisions from the Natural Resources Board and the other boards in which appointees have continued to serve long after their terms have expired. This is an unfortunate legacy to leave, obscuring and undermining any good works these individuals and boards have done in the past.

Since got-you-last gamesmanship transcends party lines, it is a sure bet that when the tide turns and the party positions are switched the same sort of poor government will take place.

Rather than holding good public policy hostage to political stupidity, voters must demand that legislators reform the system to establish a 90-day deadline for the senate to act on appointments. Such a reform would give ample time for an appointee to be scrutinized and for objections to be voiced if there were any. As voters head to the primary election in August and to the general election in November they must call on candidates to pledge an end to these party games and to govern for the good of the entire state.

Members of The Star News editorial board include Publisher Carol O’Leary, General Manager Kris O’Leary and News Editor Brian Wilson.