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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wisconsin's Premier Conservation Program—The Stewardship Fund—Receives Cuts

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Last week, members of the powerful budget-writing Joint Finance Committee (JFC) voted to cut 30% of the bonding authority for the popular Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which purchases land and sets it aside for conservation or public use. The program, which has enjoyed bipartisan support, is named for former Republican Gov. Warren Knowles and former Democratic Gov. and U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson. The original legislation was passed by a Democratic-led Legislature and signed by a Republican governor.

The JFC voted 13-3 to provide the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) with $52 million in bonding authority in each year of the next budget and $60 million annually going forward. That's less than what Gov. Scott Walker had proposed in his budget, $86 million annually, its current funding level.

The JFC's cut doesn't stop there, though.

According to the JFC's motion, if the state does not purchase the maximum amount of land each year, it cannot roll over the unused money into the next year.

In addition, at least $6 million of that funding would have to be set aside for dam safety grants to counties, not land acquisition.

The JFC also required that it would have to approve any purchase over $250,000, a move that conservationists say would slow down the grant application process. Currently, the JFC must approve any purchase over $750,000; grants already can take more than 54 weeks to complete, and this provision could add to that time frame.

All Republicans on the committee voted for the changes, along with one Democrat—state Rep. Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse, because it included funds for dam repair. The full Legislature and Walker will have a chance to review and approve the changes as part of the larger budget package.

Although the committee's changes weaken the purchasing power of the program, the JFC removed the poison pills that Walker had inserted into his proposed budget that could have entirely killed off the program even though it appeared to be fully funded.

Walker had eliminated the state's payments in lieu of taxes to municipalities for the land purchased for the stewardship program. That would have made it difficult for local governments to support land acquisition, since they would no longer be compensated for the loss to their property tax rolls.

Walker had also included language that would have changed easement requirements, making it much more difficult to preserve land for the program.

Fortunately for the program, the JFC deleted Walker's items.

What Would Knowles and Nelson Think?

The stewardship program has protected more than 600,000 acres of land since 1990, and has been supported by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and conservationists, hunters and fishers and the tourist industry.

During last week's committee hearing, state Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) ripped into the Republicans' lack of support for the program, saying that Knowles and Nelson would be "ashamed of this Legislature" and "embarrassed by this proposal."

Jauch said that both Walker's proposal and the JFC's motion were harmful.

"Republicans have long lusted for weakening the stewardship program and today Republicans are succeeding in gutting the program," Jauch said.

But state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), the JFC co-chair, defended the committee's vote, saying that the state couldn't afford to borrow more money for public land conservation.

"I bet Gaylord Nelson and Warren Knowles would agree with us," Darling said. "Because many areas of our state are saying, 'You know what? We better make sure we use these lands.'"