By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Two Republican legislators are looking to restrict state land purchases beyond the limits that Gov. Scott Walker has proposed, circulating a bill that would allow local government officials to veto stewardship acquisition deals.
Reps. Joe Sanfelippo and David Craig’s bill would bar the Department of Natural Resources from making payments to local leaders to compensate them for property taxes lost on land that enters stewardship after June 30. The locals would be allowed to veto any stewardship purchase. Without the compensation payments, land buys would look much less attractive to local officials.
Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, said he believes the government has taken too much land out of private hands and the acquisitions are too costly. The bill gives the locals more control, he said.
“My personal opinion is I think we own enough land,” he said. “(The bill) just brings more local control into the process. They’re no longer forced to have land in this program.”
The proposal comes with conservationists already reeling from a plan in Walker’s budget to block stewardship purchases through 2028.
“(The bill) would put the final nail in what is clearly an attempt to hamper, if not outright stop, stewardship,” said Todd Holschbach, a lobbyist for The Nature Conservancy, which works to preserve land and water and has used stewardship funding to help buy land.
Wisconsin Counties Association lobbyist Kyle Christianson said the organization hadn’t developed a position on the bill yet.
The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, named for former Wisconsin Govs. Warren Knowles and Gaylord Nelson, both staunch conservationists, is the DNR’s chief mechanism for buying and preserving land. The program gives the agency the authority to borrow money to buy land outright and to assist local governments and nonprofit groups such as The Nature Conservancy with their land purchases.
Republicans have long criticized the program, saying it has removed too much land from the tax rolls and has costs that are spiraling out of control. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the DNR has used stewardship to buy about 627,000 acres from 1990 through mid-2014. The agency bought most of that land — 416,500 acres — between mid-2000 and mid-2014 for nearly $485 million, including $402.5 million in stewardship dollars and $82.2 million from federal grants and other sources.
The state’s payments to local governments in lieu of lost property taxes has been growing over the last decade, from $6.1 million in fiscal year 2004-05 to $13.5 million in 2013-14.
The measure also would block the Board of Commissioners of Public Land from buying more land. The board is only about 1,000 acres under its 77,845-acre ownership cap, leading the board’s executive secretary, Tia Nelson — Gaylord Nelson’s daughter — to question why Sanfelippo is bothering with the agency. Sanfelippo said the board was originally created to sell land, not buy it.
Sanfelippo and Craig, R-Big Bend, sent a memo out to their colleagues on Tuesday giving them until Feb. 19 to sign on as co-sponsors. Sanfelippo said Wednesday that he didn’t know how many Republicans have signed on so far. Craig didn’t immediately respond to an interview request.
A spokeswoman for Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, didn’t immediately return a message Wednesday inquiring about the bill’s chances. The GOP’s legislative agenda, however, calls for maintaining stewardship funding and notes the program contributes to tourism. Vos also has said Walker’s plan goes too far.