MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers wants to make it harder for Wisconsin's Republican-controlled Legislature to stop conservationists and the state from buying land, proposing Wednesday to increase the thresholds for stopping stewardship projects.
Evers said his executive budget proposal will repeal the requirement that all projects north of Highway 64 be subject to legislative review and double the threshold of legislative review for grants and acquisitions under the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program from $250,000 to $500,000. The governor's budget also will require any member of the Legislature who objects to a purchase to be named publicly. Currently, lawmakers can object anonymously, delaying or even killing projects.
The proposal comes after Republicans on the Legislature's finance committee last month killed a state Department of Natural Resources plan to spend $15.5 million on an easement to preserve 56,000 acres of northern Wisconsin forest. About $11 million would have come from federal dollars with the remaining $4 million or so coming from the stewardship fund.
“The review process for these projects have been weaponized by members of the Legislature to indefinitely suspend critical projects from moving forward, leaving projects hanging in limbo,” Evers' office said in a statement Wednesday.
Evers is expected to release his full budget proposal on Feb. 15. The Legislature's finance committee will spend the next four months reworking the spending plan. The full Senate and Assembly will then vote on the Republican version of the budget and send that document to Evers, who can use his partial veto power to rework the plan to his liking.
The stewardship program provides money, mostly through bonding, to conservation groups to purchase blocks of land for preservation. The state Department of Natural Resources, which is controlled by the governor's administration, also uses the stewardship fund to buy land.
Republicans have been trying for years to scale back stewardship purchases, complaining that it takes too much land off the tax rolls, robs northern Wisconsin municipalities of revenue and drives up state debt. GOP lawmakers almost certainly will oppose any attempts to loosen legislative controls on the program.
Sen. Mary Felzkowski, an Irma Republican who sits on the finance committee, said she was one of the Republicans who anonymously objected to the $15.5 million forest purchase last month. She told Wisconsin Public Radio then that the state can't keep taking property off tax rolls because local governments need that revenue to provide services.
She said in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday morning that Evers' plan to loosen legislative oversight of the program amounts to stealing power from the finance committee.
"It's the task of this committee to ensure taxpayer dollars are used wisely, and be a check on the spending of the executive branch," Felzkowski said. “Governor Evers is asking us to surrender our duty to the people of Wisconsin and would rather provide the DNR with a rubber stamp for irresponsible spending on unnecessary acquisitions of public land — acquisitions that ultimately harm the local communities who are directly affected.”
A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos referred a request for comment to finance committee co-chairs Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Mark Born. They echoed Felzkowski in an email to the AP, saying committee oversight of stewardship purchases has worked for decades and it's disappointing that Evers wants to strip away legislative authority and undermine a process that saves tax dollars.
Michael Pyritz, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, declined comment, saying LeMahieu doesn’t plan to comment on individual budget proposals until Evers releases the entire spending plan next week.
Evers announced a number of other conservation-related budget proposals on Wednesday as well, including:
— $4.4 million to encourage planting trees and growing forests across the state.
— $2.7 million to combat invasive species that damage Wisconsin's forests, parks and other natural spaces.
— $6 million on clean energy and conservation-related job training.
Evers has called for 100% of all electricity used in Wisconsin to come from carbon-free sources by 2050. The statement from his office said the initiatives will help speed the state toward that goal.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison contributed to this report.