GOP questions rate of land purchases
By Todd Richmond
Madison — Republicans on the Wisconsin Legislature budget committee are hinting it might be time to slow state land purchases and concentrate on paying down debt.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ stewardship program is the agency’s main mechanism to buy land for conservation. The program long has been a sore spot for Republicans, who cringe at the government removing property from tax rolls by buying up land in lieu of private parties.
The stewardship program authorizes the DNR to borrow money for land purchases, boat landing repair, property development and grants to conservancy organizations. The 2011-13 state budget authorized the DNR to borrow as much as $60 million a year through 2020 for those purposes.
Gov. Scott Walker’s 2013-15 executive budget continues that overall authority, but scales back borrowing authority for land acquisition by $21 million. He would move $14 million to fish hatchery development and $7 million to various infrastructure improvements on state property, including signs, parking areas and state park upgrades.
Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday asked DNR Budget Director Joe Polasek to walk them through how much debt the stewardship program has accumulated over the years and how much land the program has consumed.
Polasek told them the state has used $931 million of stewardship bonding authority since fiscal year 1991, when the program was created. The state has repaid $425 million, including about $246 million in interest.
The DNR expects to spend about $83 million on stewardship debt payments and $13 million to local governments to offset property taxes lost because the state acquired land in each of the next two fiscal years, he said. Rep. Dan LeMahieu, R-Cascade, pointed out the DNR pays more on its debt and in property tax compensation in a year than what it is authorized to bond.
“I think we have to decide at some point, at what rate are we buying land? When times are tough, do we take a time out? I don’t think we can sustain land purchases at this rate,” LeMahieu said after Tuesday’s hearing.
Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, one of the committee’s two co-chairs, asked where Wisconsin ranks among its four neighboring states in government-owned land. Polasek told her the state ranks third with 18.5 percent of its land owned by counties, the state or the federal government. Minnesota was first at 25.2 percent. Michigan ranked second at 21.85 percent, he said. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed a bill last summer that caps state land purchases.
“My guess is no one’s going to be happy until we’re No. 1 in our region,” LeMahieu said.
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp defended the program, saying it balances land acquisition with property maintenance. She said limiting the program would be up to the Legislature, not the agency.
At some point a decision will have to be made about the program, LeMahieu said. He didn’t elaborate and his fellow Republicans didn’t reveal what changes they might be pondering during the hearing.
Casey Eggleston, a lobbyist for the Nature Conservancy, said he’s not worried the committee might cap land purchases such as Michigan. He said Walker’s administration understands how important the program is and budget committee members’ constituents will reiterate that over the next few months.
“[The committee] is doing what they’re doing on all parts of the budget. They have to look closely at all the money they’re spending each session,” Eggleston said. “Stewardship is a very small amount of the bonding the state uses. … When you really start getting into the individual projects, all of them have really good merits. The return we’re getting … is an incredible asset to the state.”
The budget is far from finished. The finance committee will spend most of the next two months revising the spending plan before forwarding it on to the full Senate and Assembly. Approval in both houses will send the budget back to Walker, who can use his extensive veto powers to rework the document before signing it into law. The process likely will wrap up in late June.