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More trouble for Tony’s Tourism secretary

Empower Wisconsin | Nov. 8, 2019

By M.D. Kittle 

MADISON — The state’s tourism director could be out of a job next year amid Senate Republicans’ growing concerns about her handling of the agency.

Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) – Chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Local Government, Small Business, Tourism and Workforce Development — tells Empower Wisconsin that Department of Tourism Secretary-designee Sara Meaney’s chances of being confirmed in the Senate are dwindling. 

“I think there is a great deal of concern. Many members of my caucus have had or now have reservations. I would say her confirmation is in jeopardy,” Jacque said. 

Senate Republicans expressed concerns following reports that Meaney attempted to push out a longtime and widely respected member of the Governor’s Council on Tourism. The department is also in hot water for apparently violating Wisconsin’s open records laws, an all-too-common charge lodged against the Evers administration.  

In a recent letter to Meaney, Jacque said he is concerned that Meaney’s criteria for future council appointees “are primarily weighted toward ethnic and cultural diversity, especially as tourism stakeholders outside of Madison and Milwaukee have repeatedly indicated anxiety that tourism investments will increasingly shift to those two largest urban areas of our state.” 

“The job of the Department of Tourism is to promote the State of Wisconsin, not to promote a political agenda — checking a racially-based box should not come before qualifications,” Jacque wrote. 

Perhaps more troubling, the senator noted, is Meaney’s “unprecedented” lobbying of individuals, business owners, and organizations around the state to support her confirmation. In one instance, Meaney “made an explicit request” for letters of support during a statewide conference call with tourism stakeholders.

“Several of these officials have expressed to us (Senate committee members)  that such a request came during their very first direct conversation with you and that these requests are unprecedented for tourism secretary designees, at least going back through the last 5 administrations,” Jacque wrote in the letter. 

Given the amount of grant funding and promotional support the the tourism agency provides, Jacque asserts that some of the individuals contacted were “fearful of repercussions” for not publicly supporting Meaney’s confirmation. 

“It is now much more difficult for you to reassure me, or anyone on the council, that there are no significant consequences if a Tourism Council member is asked and refuses to ‘voluntarily’ resign ahead of the completion of their term,” Jacque wrote. 

Tourism officials have not returned Empower Wisconsin’s requests for comments. 

Meaney has said the allegation that she attempted to force out the tourism council member was a “gross mischaracterization.” As of Thursday, she had not responded to some of the other complaints about her leadership and the agency, including that she plans to cut Green Bay Packers legend Donald Driver as spokesman for Wisconsin tourism, as first reported by Empower Wisconsin. 

The Republican-controlled Senate earlier this week rejected agriculture Secretary-designee Brad Pfaff, an Evers appointee with a long record of liberal partisan politics. Pfaff got the boot after lambasting the GOP-led Joint Finance Committee for pausing before releasing mental health funding for farmers. The committee, as it has done with other agencies, had sought answers from Pfaff’s department and assurances that the funding would go to its intended purpose. 

The 19-14 vote marked the first time in more than 30 years the Senate did not confirm a governor’s nominee. 

Meaney could become the second secretary-designee to be removed.  

Jacque said there remain many unanswered questions surrounding the actions of the Department of Tourism under Meaney. 

“It’s something where a lot more information still needs t come forward,” the senator said. 

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