- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Democratic legislators took the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources leader to task Tuesday, saying budget proposals that would halt state land purchases, strip the agency board’s powers and slash tax support for state parks would hurt conservation and tourism and reduce the public’s opportunity to influence environmental policy.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s 2015-17 budget proposal calls for a moratorium on state land purchases until 2028. The spending plan also would strip the Natural Resources Board’s policy-making powers and turn the panel into an advisory body as well as erase all tax dollars for state parks while raising admission and camping fees.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, a Walker appointee, told the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday that the agency currently spends $1.6 million a week servicing the debt on state land purchases, an amount she described as “crushing.”

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, grilled Stepp over the proposed moratorium, saying it makes no sense when tourists flock to Wisconsin to enjoy its natural resources. Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, called the move short-sighted.

“Where’s the long-term perspective?” Hintz said.

Stepp held her ground, insisting the move is designed to get debt under control so the state can purchase land in the future. Republicans who control the finance committee backed her up. Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, noted that 18 percent of the land in Wisconsin is under government control, compared with 2 percent in Illinois and Iowa.

“The question comes in, at what point do we take a pause and get our fiscal house in shape?” Stepp said.

The plan to strip the Natural Resources Board of its powers didn’t appear to go over well with committee members from either party. The board, which is made up of gubernatorial appointees, sets DNR policy, approves administrative rules that enact statutes affecting the agency and takes public input on environmental issues.

Stepp said the board isn’t necessary and making it advisory would eliminate bureaucratic red tape. She also said the governor feels that since administrative rules - the legal language that enact statutes - are so akin to state law they should be written by officials with more accountability to the public.

Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, noted that the board has been around for years and questioned what’s wrong with it. Democrats were more forceful; Hintz challenged Stepp to explain why the governor wants to consolidate more power in his cabinet. Stepp stuck to her explanation that the governor wants rules written by officials accountable to the public.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, asked Stepp if the DNR was considering selling state parks. Stepp said that wasn’t on the table, but she’s considering selling naming rights in an effort to generate more financial support for parks. Erpenbach seemed taken aback, asking how much naming rights to Devil’s Lake State Park would cost. Devil’s Lake is one of the most popular parks in the state.

Stepp said it was premature to talk about prices and no corporations have approached the DNR about purchasing the naming rights for any park. She said she’d like to gather input from lawmakers over the next two years about the idea.

The finance committee began questioning state agency heads on Monday as it prepares to make revisions to Walker’s budget before sending it on to the full Legislature for votes later this spring. University of Wisconsin System and Department of Workforce Development officials were due to appear before the committee later Tuesday.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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