Republican leaders of the Legislature’s budget committee voted Thursday to increase state park fees for visitors to levels higher than the increases proposed by Gov. Scott Walker.
Joint Finance Committee leaders said they would also diverge from Walker’s spending plan by adding state Department of Justice personnel for investigations of police shootings.
Walker proposed park fee increases of $2 to $3 and the withdrawal of all tax support for state parks. Lawmakers left the parks without tax revenue, but approved even higher fees.
Under the committee proposal, the cost of electricity at a campsite would double to $10 a night, base campsite fees would increase to a maximum of $20 from $15 for state residents, while nonresidents would pay a maximum of $25, up from $17.
An additional $3 fee currently can be charged for most sites, because they are considered “high demand.” However, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the Department of Natural Resources initially would add the $3 fee only for sites with a view of water when the new fees take effect Jan. 1. The $9.70 reservation fee would not change.
Annual trail passes would rise to $25 from $20 and daily entrance fees would increase by $1.
Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said other states that have tried to run parks on fees alone have failed. Taylor said working families won’t be happy about the burden of increased costs.
But other states are raising fees, and it is appropriate for users to pay for services, said Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst.
Rep. John Nygren, who co-chairs the budget-writing committee, said lawmakers will ensure that park roads are improved so that visitors see enhancements as fees rise.
The independent Friends of the Wisconsin State Parks said Walker’s proposed immediate withdrawal of tax revenues to run the parks, along with his proposed elimination of most park naturalists and freeze on conservation land-buying would devastate the parks system.
Walker’s proposal would eliminate general tax revenue support for 45 state parks positions. Under the governor’s higher revenue projections for fees, the operations budget for state parks would decline by $1.1 million to $15.6 million next year.
The higher fees supported by the committee would fill that gap by increasing revenue above the level in the governor’s proposal by $1.7 million in 2015-16 and $1.8 million the following year, the fiscal bureau estimated.
Tax revenue currently makes up $4.7 million — nearly 28 percent of the current $16.7 million budget. Tax dollars for state parks have dropped since 1995, when the Legislature stopped requiring park operations be funded equally by fees and the general fund.
Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp told the committee on March 3 that her staff would seek partnerships and sponsorships, and consider the sale of naming rights to state parks to raise money.
Committee Republicans on Thursday said they doubted any park would be renamed for a corporation, but they voted down a proposal by Taylor to forbid the sale of naming rights to a for-profit corporation.
The state park system includes 46 state parks, 14 state trails, four recreational areas and two national scenic trails. Eight state forests are funded separately but included in the state park system.
The GOP leaders also said they will add four state Department of Justice positions to conduct legally mandated investigations of deaths involving local police. The state Department of Justice requested five positions for independent investigations that are taking place under a new state law.
State Attorney General Brad Schimel can ask for more positions later if four isn’t enough, Nygren said.
The Department of Justice sought $738,600 for three special agents and two policy and program analysts in the Division of Criminal Investigation for the investigations, but Walker left those out of his budget proposal. In March, Walker’s office said he was open to adding staff.
A law requiring independent probes of officer-involved deaths was passed with bipartisan support in the Legislature last year.
The committee also approved creating a solicitor general’s office within the Department of Justice to help deal with appellate litigation.
The finance committee is making recommendations to the full Legislature on which portions of the governor’s proposal should be changed and which should remain intact.
The committee also rejected a Walker proposal to rework grants earmarked to keep kids out of gangs, pay police officers and help facilities that aid sexually abused children.
Walker’s budget would have removed the earmarks and cut the total funding for the grants by about $1 million. He would have put the remaining $1.8 million into a new justice assistance grant program and ordered the Department of Justice to establish new criteria for recipients.
The budget committee voted 12-4 to delete the provisions from the budget and restore the earmarks but kept Walker’s plan to cut the gang grants by $321,000 annually.
Walker mulls aid food limits
Walker, meanwhile, spoke at a trade conference in Milwaukee on Thursday and afterward discussed several budget-related matters with reporters.
He said he:
Is still considering a proposal to limit food choices for Wisconsinites receiving federal food assistance. An estimate from the fiscal bureau said such a policy could cost the state millions of dollars. Assembly Bill 177 would require recipients to spend at least two-thirds of their benefit on foods listed under the Women, Infant and Children’s program plus specified meats and potatoes.
Plans to push ahead with drug testing for some individuals receiving public benefits, such as unemployment insurance. The initiative could cost additional money for testing and treatment. Walker said his proposal aims to make people ready for the workforce and reduce dependence on the government.
Opposes raising the $75 annual vehicle registration fee, as proposed by Republican legislative leaders. Walker said raising the fee is tantamount to a tax increase, which he has vowed not to do. Republicans are looking for ways to reduce the $1.3 billion worth of borrowing Walker proposes in his budget for transportation projects.
State Journal reporter Dee J. Hall and the Associated Press contributed to this report.