Evers’ budget veto gives DNR ability to use unspent bonding authority under stewardship program

Gov. Tony Evers used his partial veto power to give the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) access to roughly $20 million in unused borrowing authority through the state’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. 

Because of the Legislature’s Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee’s (JFC) regular delays and denials of projects through the program — meant to fund land acquisitions for conservation purposes — millions of dollars of borrowing capacity have gone unused. In his partial veto earlier this month, Evers cut out a provision that would have provided $2.5 million in unobligated bonding authority under the stewardship program to fund improvements to two northern Wisconsin fish hatcheries. 

The veto, part of dozens of partial vetoes Evers included when he signed the biennial budget, deletes specific references to funding amounts and specific projects. It also gives the DNR a longer time limit to use its borrowing authority, according to an analysis by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. 

“This veto will allow the Department of Natural Resources to access all unobligated stewardship bonding authority to invest in critical projects that will protect, preserve, and provide access to Wisconsin’s natural resources,” Evers wrote in his veto message.

According to the fiscal bureau analysis, the budget now requires the DNR to use any bonding authority that had lapsed in previous years for land acquisition, property development and local assistance and recreational boating aids. Additionally, the agency can use those funds for property development projects that include drilling wells, facility maintenance and new building construction. 

At the end of June 2022, the state had $20.3 million in unused bonding authority under the stewardship program. The program is funded through 2026 at around $33 million, with $25 million of that through bonding. The Evers veto allows any unused bonding to be used through 2026. 

The stewardship program has become a regular source of contention within Wisconsin’s divided government as the Republicans on JFC have regularly used their power to place anonymous holds on requests to use the funding. Any stewardship land acquisitions funded through the program that exceed $250,000 or are located north of Highway 64 are subject to the committee’s 14 day passive review process, which allows a single legislator to halt a project. 

Earlier this year, Republicans blocked a major land acquisition east of Rhinelander in the Pelican River State Forest. The agency had requested to use $4 million in stewardship funds to purchase 70,000 acres of land in the forest. The acquisition would have been the state’s largest ever conservation effort, yet Republicans complained that it would block development in the area. 

In his veto message, Evers called out legislators’ ability to anonymously block stewardship projects. 

“Many valuable Stewardship projects have been delayed or denied leaving unused and unobligated bonding authority at the end of each year,” Evers wrote. “It is my sincere desire that we work together to fix this broken system for approval of beneficial conservation projects.”

Yet Republicans have often countered that the system isn’t broken, claiming that Democrats are complaining about simple oversight. 

“This is not broken,” JFC co-chair Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said after the committee blocked the Pelican River funds. “You just wish it was because you don’t like the oversight.”

The DNR told Wisconsin Public Radio that it is still assessing how the veto will affect its stewardship budget.



originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F07%2F12%2Fevers-budget-veto-gives-dnr-ability-to-use-unspent-bonding-authority-under-stewardship-program%2F by Henry Redman

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