By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans moved a bill that would overhaul Wisconsin’s managed forest land program to the brink of passage in the Senate on Thursday, passing the measure out of committee despite opponents’ concerns that the measure is a gift to the timber industry and wealthy landowners.
The Senate’s forestry committee approved the bill 3-2, clearing the way for a full vote on the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s spokeswoman said the chamber may take up the bill as early as Wednesday, but a final decision hasn’t been made.
Landowners who enroll in the managed forest program get property tax breaks if they keep their land open to the public for recreation and abide by a timber management plan. Participants can close their property but get a smaller tax credit and must pay a fee. According to the state Department of Natural Resources, about 3.3 million acres are currently enrolled in the program. About two-thirds of that land is closed to the public.
Participants have complained about being forced to open their land up to anyone who could ruin it in order to get the larger tax break. They’ve also complained about not being able to lease enrolled land for recreation.
The bill would lift the 160-acre cap on closed land for non-industrial landowners, allowing them to close off as much land as they want while still enjoying the larger tax break on those acres.
The proposal would eliminate local taxes on timber harvested from managed forest land but allow local governments to keep 80 percent of closed acreage fees. Right now 100 percent of those fees go to the DNR’s forestry account; according to DNR officials, the bill would create a $6.8 million deficit in the account in fiscal year 2017 and a $12.6 million deficit in the account by 2019.
The bill also would reduce the fee for withdrawing early from the program and allow landowners to drop out without penalty if legislators make changes to the program they don’t like.
The bill initially got a lukewarm response from program participants because it didn’t allow them to lease their land. The committee amended the bill Thursday to give them leasing rights as well as require owners with more than 1,000 acres to pay more than smaller owners in back taxes if they withdraw land.
Doug Duren, president of the Wisconsin Alliance of Forest Owners, said his group was pleased with the bill since it now includes leasing rights.
Both Democrats on the panel, Kathleen Vinehout of Alma and Robert Wirch of Kenosha, voted against the bill. Vinehout said she was concerned about the DNR losing money. She added that she couldn’t defend a bill that grants timber companies and wealthy landowners an even bigger tax break while her constituents are paying higher taxes through referendums to keep their local schools afloat.
The bill’s author and committee chairman, Sen. Tom Tiffany, a Hazelhurst Republican, told Vinehout that despite dire financial predictions every session about the state of the forestry account it always seems to end up in the black. He stressed, too, that anyone who wants to remove their land from the program will have to pay back taxes. If they choose to stay in the program, he said, they’ll have to follow the program’s rules.
Wirch did not attend the meeting and voted by phone. He didn’t immediately return a telephone message left at his Capitol office.