Stewardship Saved, UW Tamed At Joint Finance

MacIver Institute Budget Blog | May 29, 2015

[Madison, Wisc…] The Joint Committee on Finance (JFC) prevented the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program from being temporarily frozen Friday by granting just over $33 million in borrowing authority each year until 2020. The program, which contributes to land purchases for conservation throughout the state, would have been allowed bonding authority of $54.5 million next year and $50 million in fiscal year (FY) 2017.

Gov. Scott Walker had proposed freezing stewardship bonding until General Purpose Revenue (GPR) expenditures for debt service is brought down to an annual level of $54.3 million, a point that might not have been reached until 2028 even after the freeze. However, that plan was removed by JFC.

Debt service alone for the Stewardship program eats up nearly 70 percent of GPR appropriations to the Department of Natural Resources and recently reached $90 million in FY15. Over 644,000 acres have been purchased in Stewardship’s 25-year existence, which is nearly the size of the entire state of Rhode Island. If you count all government owned land from federal all the way down to local municipalities, one out of every five acres in Wisconsin is owned by the public.

For Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh), the question is when will the land purchases ever be enough. During Friday’s session, Schraa recalled a town hall meeting conversation with a man from Door County on the subject of Stewardship. When Schraa asked him how much land was enough, the resident said he wanted the entire peninsula to be bought up and protected by the government. That is unfortunately the sentiment of too many in this debate.

One innovative change that was adopted for stewardship was a provision that directs half of proceeds from the sale of less desirable stewardship land to pay off debt and the other half to create a segregated fund for future purchases. This is a good first step to a more self-sustaining program while addressing the debt.

Members also found ways to slide in a number of pork items into the Stewardship appropriation. There will be $1.6 million in state bonding made available to Menasha and Neenah for pedestrian bridges along a local trail. Grants to non-profit conservation organizations totaling $1.45 million over the biennium will be restored for nine organizations after Walker attempted to delete them.

Then came the UW System, which drew six disrupting moments from UW-Madison’s Teacher’s Assistant union during debate. JFC approved a number of items in the UW omnibus motion.

Members reduced the original $300 million two-year cut to the system to $250 million and granted greater budget flexibilities for the Board of Regents.

Republicans believe that more leeway in university purchasing, procurement and leasing, as well as the ability to introduce merit pay will help the system deal with a couple percent decrease in funding.

Parents and students will be happy to know that the tuition freeze for in-state undergraduates is extended for another two years under the JFC plan. The first tuition freeze was signed into law during the last budget – putting the freeze in place for four straight years.

To help get a hold on finances at the UW System, the JFC plan will also require an independent audit to be conducted each year of the budget. This is a welcome sign after years of distrust brought on by the discovery of a billion dollar “slush fund” mostly the result of steep tuition increases. However, the audit is only required in FY16 and FY17.

In addition to the audit, the JFC plan requires the Board of Regents to come up with accountability measures on financial and administrative management, educational performance and research and economic development.

Last but certainly not least; the UW System would be commissioned to create an authorizer of independent charter schools. But that’s not all. The Waukesha County Executive, Wisconsin’s tribal colleges and the Gateway Technical College District Board will also be allowed to authorize charter schools in their local areas.

This is a great move for students across the state. It will give them access to these successful public charter schools that routinely outperform their traditional public school counterparts in Milwaukee – the only place they are currently authorized to operate in Wisconsin.

While JFC originally expected to complete work on the budget this week, the committee will be coming back on Tuesday to take up a few more items. The Department of Transportation, funding for a new Bucks arena and a few smaller things are expected to be debated that day.

That plan is dependent upon legislators coming up with a deal on each issue, which may not be done by Tuesday.

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