- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s budget would prohibit the state Department of Natural Resources from purchasing any land through its stewardship program until at least 2028 - if the program still exists then.

The budget the governor released Tuesday would place a moratorium on stewardship land acquisitions. It would last until the DNR’s debt service on purchases that already have been made drops to $1 for every $8 spent since the program’s inception in 1989. The program won’t reach that ratio until 2028. The moratorium is expected to save the state $13 million in debt by then, according to Walker’s budget.

The stewardship program is set to expire in mid-2020. Legislators could vote to renew it, but the program still couldn’t buy any land until it meets that debt ratio.

The stewardship program authorizes the DNR to borrow money for land purchases, boat landing repair, developing DNR property and grants to conservancy organizations and local governments for land acquisition. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau has estimated the DNR has spent $84.7 million on stewardship land purchases from mid-2000 to mid-2014. The state spent $87 million paying off stewardship program debt in fiscal year 2013-14 alone, with $73.5 million of that coming from tax dollars, according to the fiscal bureau.

Republicans have long criticized the program, arguing it removes land from the tax rolls, closes off too much land to hunting and fishing and has run up massive debt.

The budget Walker signed in 2013 reduced stewardship borrowing authority from $60 million annually to $47.5 million in that budget’s first year. The spending plan set the limit at $54.5 million in the second year and the $50 million in each after that through mid-2020. That budget also capped the amount of stewardship land the DNR can own directly at 1.9 million acres, prohibited the DNR from buying land outside existing project boundaries without approval from the Legislature’s budget committee and directed the DNR to sell 10,000 acres by mid-2017.

Walker’s new budget would allow the stewardship program to continue to fund development on DNR property, boat landing repairs and renovations at the Kettle Moraine Fish Hatchery. It’s unclear what effects the budget might have on stewardship grants for the “immediate future,” according to a summary of the budget item the governor’s office provided. It did not elaborate on the duration of that funding and said nothing about the fate of the grants to local governments and conservancies.

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email that the governor made the proposal because nearly 70 percent of the tax dollars going to the DNR in the current budget is covering debt service.

Sen. Lena Taylor, a Milwaukee Democrat, called the proposal “a travesty.”

“(Stewardship) has been an extremely successful program for the state of Wisconsin,” she said.

The budget is far from a done a deal. The Legislature’s budget committee will spend months revising the spending plan before the full Assembly and Senate vote on it.

The stewardship plan met with a lukewarm reaction from Republican legislative leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Juneau Republican, said he thinks many members of his caucus would say they have to keep the program in check given the amount of borrowing tied to it. But Rep. John Nygren, a Marinette Republican who serves as co-chairman of the budget committee, said the GOP has done a good job of rolling the program back already and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Rochester Republican, said the plan goes too far.

“To say for 10 years we’re not going to buy any more land,” Vos said, trailing off, “there should be a way to do it.”

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Associated Press writer Dana Ferguson contributed to this report.

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