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Wisconsin lawmaker proposes conservation corps program

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Students would be able to earn money for college by building trails, shoring up stream banks and restoring prairies under a bipartisan bill winding its way through the Wisconsin Legislature.

Republican Rep. Jeff Mursau’s proposal would re-establish the Wisconsin Conservation Corps, which operated from 1983 until 2003.

Then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and GOP lawmakers eliminated the program that year in the face of a $3.2 billion deficit.

“As millennials struggle to find meaningful, family-sustaining employment, reestablishing (sic) the Wisconsin Conservation Corps is more important than ever,” Mursau and Rep. Cory Mason wrote in a memo to their colleagues seeking co-sponsors.

Under the bill, the state Department of Administration would be allowed to shift up to $400,000 from other state agencies into a fund that would provide grants to organizations looking to complete conservation projects. Examples of possible projects include the construction or improvement of trails, stabilization of stream banks, restoration of prairies, maintenance of recreational sites and installation of rain gardens, among others, according to the bill.

The organizations initiating the projects could apply for grants ranging in value from $25,000 and $75,000. They would have to match at least 50 percent of the grant and employ workers between the ages of 16 and 25. Half the workers would have to be high school students and come from families that are making no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level on the day they’re hired.

Project workers could receive money through the federal AmeriCorps program to pay for student loans or help pay for college, graduate school or vocational training.

Bill Davis, the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter director, welcomed the proposal to bring back the corps. He said the corps could help maintain state parks.

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said his group supports the bill. The corps is an excellent program that provides a workforce for accomplishing environmental improvements, as well as helps prepare young people for jobs, he said.

The proposal has Republican and Democratic co-sponsors and the Senate’s Natural Resources and Energy Committee has scheduled a public hearing for Thursday on it. Still, the bill’s fate looks uncertain.

Aides to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald didn’t reply to an email Tuesday asking whether they support the bill.

Vos is expected to end the legislative session in early spring so lawmakers can devote their time to campaigning. Mursau introduced the bill a few days before Christmas. No groups have officially registered in support or opposition, signaling it isn’t a high priority and could get lost as lawmakers push for bigger proposals before the clock runs out.

If the bill does become law, the Legislature’s finance committee would have to sign off on letting hte DOA pull money from other agencies to set up the grants fund. Spokesmen for the panel’s co-chairs, Reps. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling, didn’t immediately reply to an email asking if Nygren and Darling would support such transfers.

The Wisconsin National and Community Service Board, which administers the AmeriCorps programs, would first have to approve the conservation corps as an AmeriCorps program before workers could get money for their education. Federal AmeriCorps administrators also would have to sign off.

Jeanne Duffy, the state board’s executive director, said the corps would most likely be approved as an AmeriCorps program. She noted the Racine-based Great Lakes Community Conservation Corps and WisCorps in La Crosse already run similar conservation project programs through AmeriCorps.

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