It’s starting to look like the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee (JFC) of the legislature is the place where conservation projects of high value go to die.
The JFC of 16 legislators (currently 12 Republicans and four Democrats) has the final say over land and (therefore water) preservation in the state. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conducts the initial vetting of proposals across the state to make sure that only the best projects get money from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund. Up to one half of the costs of acquisitions and improvements can be funded from that source.
That process has worked admirably for 33 years since 1989 when Gov. Tommy Thompson and the Wisconsin Legislature created the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program to “preserve valuable natural areas and wildlife habitat, protect water quality and fisheries and expand opportunities for outdoor recreation.”
Similar processes worked well under the predecessor for Stewardship after 1961 when Govs. Knowles and Nelson collaborated in a highly bipartisan way on the Outdoor Recreation Land Program (ORAP). There was little controversy during most of the six decades under the two programs.
Proposals for funding from the ground level can range from conservation land purchases along river banks, lake fronts, wetlands, forests and recreational assets in municipal and state parks.
For the most part, the DNR approval process has worked intelligently and productively. Until now. Lately, rigid fiscal ideology during JFC review sabotaged DNR-approved projects across the state.
The proposed preservation covers 131 acres of bluffs, forests and three-quarters of a mile of Lake Michigan shoreline.
The bluffs fall within the Senate District of Senator Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg. Even though Sen. Stroebel is a major JFC voice, the Republicans slashed the DNR recommendation of $2.3 million for the $5 million project to $1.6 million.
Stroebel says he supports the bluffs preservation as do Ozaukee County, the City of Port Washington, Town of Grafton, and the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (OWLT) that raised donations from private citizens and provided expertise and leadership.
It gets worse in terms of clandestine government. After a lobbying effort from a secretive private interest, the committee has in effect “pocket vetoed” the whole deal. Their tactic is not moving it forward prior to the legislative recess this spring. That opens the door for the private party who might buy the Cedar Gorge land out from under the community.
Would you believe that a single JFC member can stall a grant request with an anonymous demand for full committee review? (DNR recommendations up to $250,000 go forward without JFC review) I have always thought Wisconsin led the way on open government. How does that secret blackball pass the smell test?
Sen. Stroebel is in the cut, cut, cut wing of the GOP. He is consistent in his stance on fiscal conservatism, but sometimes smart politicians have to be pragmatic, listen to their constituents and bring home the bacon to their district. Sometimes they have to invest in the future. This is one of those times. Lip service is not good enough.
Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, also a fiscal conservative, used to say about his strategic initiatives, “I am not a spender; I am an investor.” (Hope he runs for a fifth term.)
Three more observations:
- In an unusual moment in state history, Wisconsin government is flush with cash. It is sitting on top of a $2.8 billion surplus, even after a bipartisan income tax cut $2 billion to all but the richest taxpayers. This is not the time for penny-pinching on compelling investments that move the state forward.
- Private donations have supplied about $1 million to the project.
- Local government has stepped up for more than $200,000.
- Legitimate questions: Who is this private buyer who is trying to derail the public private partnership? Did he hire the lobbyist to play politics in opposing the grant?
Public-private partnerships mean that many funders and local leaders – not one secret opponent – have concurred on the wisdom of their mutual investments. All parties are putting their money where their beliefs are.
Final question: Does the GOP-run JFC have superior wisdom to all those local decision-makers?
The solution for cleaning up this messy business is for JFC to reconvene and commit the full grant amount, approved by DNR, of $2.3 million to this stunning conservation endeavor.