This is the third in a series of blogs intended to give our readers a deeper background in the state budget issues that impact cycling.
In earlier blogs we tackled the Complete Streets program and Transportation Alternatives Program funding. The governor would repeal Complete Streets altogether and cut TAP by $2 million or about 14%. Today, we’ll get into the Stewardship Fund, which the governor would essentially freeze for the next 13 years with dire consequences for state trail development.
To understand the origins of the program we have to go back to the early 1960’s. In those boom years the growing American middle class and all those young Baby Boomer families were eager for opportunities to get outdoors. But park development had not kept pace. To answer the problem Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson proposed a new program to buy land for the purposes of all sorts of outdoor public recreation. It was called the Outdoor Recreation Act Program (ORAP) and it paid for new and expanded state parks, campgrounds, beaches, trails, wildlife areas and more. The program was funded through a tax on cigarettes for no particular reason except that Nelson knew he could get that through the legislature. And, I suppose, there’s some connection between polluting your environment on the one hand and paying for access to cleaner air on the other.
Nelson, a Democrat, went on to the U.S. Senate and became best known as the father of Earth Day. He was replaced as governor by Warren Knowles, a Republican, who built on Nelson’s legacy.
Over the years ORAP fell into disuse, but it was reignited in 1990 just as all those Baby Boomer kids were producing a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts. The new program was called the Stewardship Fund and it was eventually named for Nelson and Knowles as a way of emphasizing its bipartisan roots.
It began at $25 million a year in funding, but eventually it reached a high of $86 million. When the political winds shifted with the 2010 elections, Stewardship fell into less favor and its funding was cut back to $50 million a year while more restrictions were placed on the program.
Still, $50 million a year can support about 200 or so land purchases a year and it remains a program that would rival similar efforts in most states.
And yet the amount of land in public conservation ownership isn’t overwhelming. Overall, the state now owns about 1.5 million acres or just 4.3% of the 35 million acres in Wisconsin. Total public conservation ownership, including DNR, federal and locally owned land, accounts for about 17% of the total land area of the state. That makes Wisconsin only the 18th highest state in the nation for public land ownership. In the Midwest, Minnesota is almost exactly the same while we trail Michigan where about 22% of the land is in public hands. Illinois and Iowa lag us quite a bit, ranking 46th and 49th, respectively. In each state less than 2.5% of land is publicly held. Ever wonder why all those Illinois residents head north on summer weekends?
Under Governor Walker’s proposed state budget he would stop all purchases until the ratio between the total amount expended from that program and debt service reaches a ratio of $8 of cumulative expenditures for every $1 of debt service. The projection on when that would occur is 2028.
Essentially, the governor would freeze new purchases while the accumulated debt gets paid down to an arbitrary ratio he has set only for this program. His rule would apply nowhere else in state government.
In fact, in the very same budget the governor would borrow $220 million for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks and he would increase borrowing for road building by 30% to $1.3 billion, a move that is so reckless that even the road building lobby opposes it.
Also, remember that land often becomes available only once in a generation when there is a generational transfer. Once an opportunity is missed it may not come again for quite awhile if ever. And if the land is developed it is almost certainly lost forever.
Also, keep in mind that in all these cases the state pays the bonding back over 20 years.
I can guarantee you that in 20 years the land purchased with Stewardship Fund dollars will still be there providing enjoyment to Wisconsinites and our visitors. But roads don’t generally last more than a couple decades before they need to be repaired or replaced and sports palaces have an alarmingly short life span. The BMO/Bradley Center in Milwaukee has been deemed obsolete for years and yet it is only 27 years old.
The governor’s cut is not likely to stand as is. Even Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said that he thinks that is too severe. So, it’s likely that the fund will not be frozen, but some cuts are possible.
That’s why we need you to contact your legislators to ask that they vote to keep Stewardship as is and to reject the governor’s cuts. Also, it would be a good idea to contact Speaker Vos and reinforce his support for Stewardship.
To close, here is a list of trail projects that have been funded in part through Stewardship since 1990. Imagine what won’t get done if the program is frozen for over a decade.
» Ahnapee State Trail
» Badger Trail
» Bearskin-Hiawatha State Trail
» Buffalo River State Trail
» Burlington to Kansasville Trail
» Chippewa River Trail
» Drumlin State Trail
» Elroy-Sparta Trail
» Flambeau Mine Trail
» 400 State Trail
» Fox River Trail
» Friendship Trail
» Gandy Dancer Trail
» Glacial Drumlin State Trail
» Great River State Trail
» Green Bay Recreational Trail
» Green Circle Trail
» Hank Aaron State Trail
» La Crosse River State Trail
» Lake Butt Des Mortes Breakwater Trail
» Military Ridge State Trail
» Mountain Bay State Trail
» Old Abe State Trail
» Pecatonica State Trail
» Polk County Trails
» Red Cedar Trail
» Root River Multi-purpose Trail
» Sugar River Trail
» Tuscobia Trail
To learn more you can read the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s excellent and detailed paper on the Stewardship Fund by clicking here.