I have been one of the few bloggers in this state critical of the state’s gobbling up land through the Knowles–Nelson Stewardship Fund.
Units of government already own 16 percent of land in this state. Every piece of land purchased through the stewardship fund — or, for that matter, purchased by any unit of government — extends the burden of paying for government services on the owners of the 84 percent of tax-paying land. (And Wisconsin already has the second highest property taxes per capita in the Midwest.)
If you read the news releases (which the DNR used to send to my former employer), land purchased under the Knowles–Nelson Stewardship Fund is restricted from use by those paying for it to “low-impact recreational activities.” Usually not fishing, not hunting, and never a recreational activity that involves internal combustion engines. (The horror.) Put another way, your tax dollars are paying for activities you can’t partake in unless the Department of Natural Resources approves.
The previous governor spent $86 million per year on buying land. Gov. Scott Walker reduced that to $30 million per year, which is $30 million higher than it should be. Walker’s budget proposes to increase that to $64 million over the two-year budget cycle.
WisPolitics reports the back-and-forth about simply reducing Stewardship Fund purchases:
Sen. Joe Leibham, R-Sheboygan, said the debt service on Stewardship purchases are now $1.6 million a week, adding that’s an unsustainable level. While he said he supports the aims of the program, he also said there is obviously a problem when the program has been bonding $60 million a year and the debt service on that borrowing is now $90 million annually.
“We should be proud as a state we’re maintaining a strong investment in the Stewardship Program, but we’re also ensuring this program doesn’t get further out of control,” Leibham said.
Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, said the GOP proposal amounts to a 22 percent cut in bonding for the program while seeking the sale of 10,000 acres of land. He also slammed the money set aside for the Bearskin State Trail, saying Republicans had found money for pork in a GOP district while everyone else was getting a cut.
“Even George Orwell couldn’t say that you’re saving the program. How in the world can you say that?” he said.
The committee voted 12-4 to reject a Dem amendment to keep bonding in the program at the current level of $60 million each year.
Others are starting to question government land purchases at all. From Media Trackers:
Two dozen conservative grassroots and tea party groups on Tuesday called on lawmakers to halt the Department of Natural Resource’s stewardship program. Under the proposed state budget, the Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship Program is slated to receive $64 million over the next two years to purchase more land for the state. The purchases are to be funded entirely by bonds, which will require the state to pay for the spending in the future, with interest.Payments for existing debts incurred in previous years by the stewardship program will total $84 million over the next two years.
“Citizens should be asking at least two serious questions of Wisconsin state legislators as the Joint Finance Committee heads into a decision this week on funding for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund,” the joint statement declared.
Those questions are, “How much land should the state of Wisconsin own? And how great a debt burden should the State of Wisconsin be allowed to impose on taxpayers in order to maintain an ever-longer list of public lands?” …
The groups signing on to the press release hail from across the state, and included leaders like Kim Simac, who ran for state senate in 2011 and now works as a coalition builder among grassroots conservatives.
The people spearheading this effort point out:
Since creating the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund in 1989, the Wisconsin State Legislature has authorized nearly a billion dollars in borrowing to pay for related land purchases and acquired nearly 600,000 acres of property. Today debt service alone on moneys borrowed to accommodate Stewardship purchases total over $80 million a year. Another $60 million is requested for each year in the governor’s proposed 2013-2015 biennial budget, for continued Stewardship purchases – not counting funds necessary to maintain property already owned. Yet, together, the State of Wisconsin and the U.S. Forest Service already own 3.2 million acres of this state’s land, amounting to a shocking 20 percent of total land area. …
We must now be frank as Wisconsinites: the Stewardship Fund is doing more harm than good to our state economy and job creation. A freeze in funding levels is simply not good enough. It is time that we cut the Stewardship Fund budget significantly, start paying down the debt it has created, and, wherever possible, return land to the private sector.
We call upon the Wisconsin Legislature to remove Stewardship funding from the 2013-2015 Biennial Budget. We also call upon the Wisconsin Legislature to take action that would begin restoring Stewardship lands to the private sector in order to begin to reduce the annual $80 million in debt service on Stewardship borrowing.
What has the Stewardship Fund purchased? Among other things, a golf course, reports Brian Sikma:
Wisconsin taxpayers bought a golf course for $11,134 an acre thanks to the Department of Natural Resource’s stewardship program. The program uses bonding – a form of debt financing – to purchase land that DNR bureaucrats believe should be set aside for conservation purposes. Around 5.17% of Wisconsin land is owned by the state, while nearby states like Iowa and Illinois only own respectively 0.64% and 1.14% of their state’s land.
The state purchase of the golf course land came in 2009 and was a topic of heated public debate. Two courses totaling 970 acres, including land and lakes, were purchased together for a total price of $10.8 million, or $11,134 per acre. Governor Scott Walker (R), early in his administration, sought to at least partially undo the golf course spending that happened under Governor Jim Doyle (D). …
Because the stewardship program uses bonds, which allow the DNR to spend money it doesn’t have, its total cost to taxpayers is significantly greater than the amount lawmakers have authorized it to spend. Buried in a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report on the program, its true cost to taxpayers is explained. “Debt service payments (principle repayment and interest) on the up to $1.43 billion authorized for the program could total approximately $2.2 billion” for the duration of the program’s bonds.
Bonds issued to pay for the land purchases generally run for 20 years, meaning that from 1989 (the start of the program) until 2020 (the scheduled end of the program) the bonds would run from 1989 until 2040.
The currently proposed state budget authorizes the DNR to spend $64 million on the stewardship program, or $32 million each year. But while lawmakers are mulling giving the green light to that new spending, the budget also spends $84 million just to pay off the debt from previous land purchase spending. The vast majority, $70.7 million, of that debt repayment comes from the state’s general fund, which comes from taxes.
That kind of debt financing comes out to $115,317 a day that Wisconsin taxpayers are spending just to pay off land state government already purchased. …
For comparison, the amount of money Wisconsin will spend paying for the stewardship debt is greater than the amount it will spend on some state agencies or parts of state government. The Supreme Court’s proposed budget, for example, is $63.2 million for the next two years, and the state Department of Tourism’s two-year budget was proposed at $35.7 million.
This chart shows the cumulative effect of debt for Stewardship Fund spending:
The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program assists with acquisition of land critical to outdoor recreation and tourism. Last time I looked tourism was a major industry in the state and brought in millions of dollars annually from outside the state. Is that a bad thing in your mind?
That’s right, readers. Before the DNR and the Department of Tourism came into existence, apparently no one was smart enough to figure out that Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, the Wisconsin River, the Mississippi River, the Driftless Area, the forested Great White North and most other areas of this state were worth driving to see. Road America? The Wisconsin Dells? The Packers? Who cares? If the state wasn’t making these “critical” land purchases totaling somewhere between $30 million and $86 million in land every year, the tourism industry would collapse.
On the one hand, I could suggest that people who think the government should be in the land business for what clearly is not a core function of government should declare which government spending should be cut — school funding? Health care? Transportation? Government employee salaries and benefits? — to fund land purchases. On the other hand, the government should not be in the business of buying land for something that is not a core function of government. The state is not buying land to build schools, or new roads, or fire stations. Nor is the state buying land for the purpose of future development, as cities and villages do with land within Tax Incremental Financing districts. At a time when the state budget is in nine-digit deficit by the correct measure, while the national economy (which means Wisconsin’s economy too) sucks, the state continues to buy land, even at Walker’s proposed lower level, because the environmentalist left continues to hold the state in thrall.
A couple years ago, the Tax Foundation created a Taxpayer Bill of Rights Calculator that showed how, between 1977 and 2009, state and local government spending would have increased under various spending and taxation limits — the rate of inflation, population growth, growth in personal income, etc — and how much government spending increased instead. Our lack of spending and tax controls means that state and local government spends twice as much — nearly $60 billion — per year than it would have had spending been limited to inflation and population growth. And what has that excess taxation gotten us? Debt of $84 million and growing to pay for unusable land, among other things.
The groups mentioned in this blog are correct. The correct level of Knowles–Nelson Stewardship Fund land purchases is zero.