A bill to create a new taxpayer-funded college scholarship for Wisconsin’s brightest students would have another big outcome — decimating a popular program that uses tax dollars to buy natural areas for public use.
When the bill’s GOP authors announced the bill Tuesday, they didn’t highlight its effect on the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, which expands outdoor recreation opportunities and protects environmentally sensitive places.
After three years, the bill would leave the fund unable to purchase any of the high-value land it currently targets.
It’s no secret that I despise the way Wisconsin manages the Stewardship Fund. Essentially, here’s how it works today… the DNR is authorized to borrow million of dollars every budget for the purpose of buying land, and then the taxpayers pay off the debt. Note that the entire program is driven by the mandate to spend the money. It is not based on the need to buy specific land parcels or conserve particular ecosystems. The DNR has a pile of money that they must spend to buy land.
It is a horrible program for a few reasons. First, it is not based on actual needs. The DNR will buy the land because it needs to spend the money. This leads to all sorts of bad consequences including overpaying for lands, likely corruption and sweetheart deals, and sloppy management.
Second, every piece of land the government buys is another acre that some private owner is not paying property taxes on. The more land the government owns, the more concentrated the tax burden becomes in the people who continue to own property. This makes it difficult to fund local governments and schools – particularly in rural areas where the population density is low.
Second, the program is not designed to achieve any specific goal. Essentially, how much land should the government own to achieve the goal of “conservation?” According to Communists, the government should own all of the land and private ownership would be outlawed. As designed, that’s where the Stewardship Fund is headed since there isn’t a goal or cap on government ownership. I don’t think that’s the goal, but then what is it? Right now, the governments at various levels own about 17% of all of the land in Wisconsin. Is that the right number? 20%? 12%? Until we know the goal, we are just spending money to spend money.
A properly run stewardship program would allocate money to acquire land on an ad hoc basis after a thorough review by a legislative body of the need and local economic impact of the acquisition. And there would be a target of the maximum allowable amount of land the state should own in each county to be agreed upon with local elected officials.
I would prefer that the legislature just scrap the Stewardship Fund as it exists and make a more sensible program, but starving it to pay for kids’ educations is not the worst thing in the world.