Wisconsin Department of Health Services

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ pick to head the Wisconsin Department of Health Services won approval Wednesday from a Republican-controlled legislative committee, despite objections from one senator about the hiring of a former Planned Parenthood lobbyist as deputy of the agency.

The Senate’s health committee voted 4-1 Wednesday to recommend the confirmation of Andrea Palm to serve as secretary of the state health department. That agency oversees Wisconsin’s Badger Care Plus Medicaid program, SeniorCare and a host of other public benefits programs.

Palm’s nomination now goes to the full Senate which is expected to vote on whether to confirm her in October. Republicans hold a 19-14 majority.

Health committee member Sen. Andre Jacque, a Republican from DePere, voted against recommending confirmation, citing concerns about “conflicts of interest” and Palm’s hiring of former Planned Parenthood vice president Nicole Safar to be her top deputy. Jacque said he also had concerns about Palm’s support for Evers’ proposal to legalize medical marijuana, which the Legislature rejected.

Palm defended the hiring Safar during her confirmation hearing earlier this year, saying she was “absolutely my first choice.”

Jacque has said that Safar may undermine the state’s defense of a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood seeking the repeal of laws that made it more difficult for women to get abortions. Planned Parenthood wants to repeal laws that require only doctors, not qualified advanced practice nurses, to perform abortions, that require women seeking medicine-induced abortions to see the same doctor on two separate visits, and that require doctors to be physically present when dispensing abortion-causing drugs.

Safar, an attorney, supervised Planned Parenthood’s legal team and oversaw two successful lawsuits challenging state laws limiting access to abortions.

Palm told lawmakers that Safar would have no role with legal decisions made at the department.

Both Republican and Democratic senators on Wednesday praised Palm and said she needs to be given the latitude to hire whom she wishes.

Republican Sen. Dale Kooyenga, who like Jacque opposes abortion rights, said it was unreasonable to expect that only those who are against abortion will serve in state government. The vast majority of what the state health department does isn’t related to abortion or partisan issues, but “simply the blocking and tackling of getting things done,” he said.

If senators base their support of Cabinet secretaries on who is on their staff, “we’re looking for reasons to vote ‘no,’” Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said.

Erpenbach praised Palm, a former health department official in President Barack Obama’s administration, for putting together a budget proposal that would have brought the state $1.6 billion in additional federal money. That was tied to Wisconsin expanding Medicaid, a proposal Republicans rejected.

Lawmakers may not agree with Palm on the issues, but she’s qualified and has given no reason why she shouldn’t be appointed, said Republican committee chairman Sen. Patrick Testin, of Stevens Point.

“Even if we shot down Secretary Palm’s nomination, there’s no guarantee those deputy secretaries would be removed,” Testin said. “They would still be there.”

Palm and all of Evers’ other Cabinet secretaries have been working all year pending confirmation votes in the Senate, which have been held up by the Republican majority leader. If any Evers nominee is rejected by the Senate, they would lose their job. They can continue to serve, even without being confirmed, until they are voted out.