Stewardship bill bails out Evers’ broken promise

Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 15, 2020 

MADISON — After nearly a year of inaction from Gov. Tony Evers, a Republican lawmaker is introducing a bill to reauthorize Wisconsin’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program for eight years. 

State. Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) on Tuesday introduced the measure to fund the taxpayer-funded stewardship program, created 30 years ago to purchase and preserve natural areas and wildlife habitat. 

The 2019-21 budget, signed by Evers last summer, included a two-year authorization at current bonding levels of $33.25 million annually. In releasing his budget proposal in February, the governor pledged to name a task force of stakeholders and interested parties to come up with a long-term funding plan for the program. He has failed to do so. 

“As legislators, it is our responsibility to set both the policy and the appropriate spending level for any future KNSP reauthorization,” Loudenbeck said in a statement. “We recognize the path forward to the next KNSP reauthorization must include actionable steps to address legitimate concerns about the cost of existing and future principal payments and debt service obligations.”

While Loudenbeck’s bill cuts current annual bonding by about 30 percent and reduces overall spending by 7 percent, conservative critics such as Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) say it’s time to end the debt-heavy program. 

Tiffany told Wisconsin Public Radio in May that the stewardship fund may have been a well-intentioned program when it was signed into law in 1989, but since then it has amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in debt service. He said most people don’t realize that the conservation land acquisitions are paid for through bonding, with hefty taxpayer bills piling up on the state’s credit card. 

Tiffany and others also have raised concerns about state incursion into private land. About 20 percent of land in Wisconsin is now under public ownership, the senator said, with some northern counties in the state at 30 percent or more.  

In short, those who want to see the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program discontinued aren’t shedding any tears over Evers’ failure to get his task force act together. 

Loudenbeck said her bill begins to address the debt issues, allocating $10 million of the proposed $31 million of annual funding in targeted cash payments. That would trim the amount of bonding and future debt “dramatically,” Loudenbeck said, “without compromising the goals of the Stewardship program.” 

“I hope that Governor Evers, my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, along with the many stakeholder groups who have a vested interest in the future of the KNSP will take a serious look at this proposal. I believe it bridges a gap between being fiscally responsible and protecting Wisconsin’s conservation values,” she said. 

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