The Legislature’s budget committee on Wednesday voted to reduce the popular Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine to four issues a year but didn’t go along with Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to end publication.
Leaders of the Joint Finance Committee said the panel’s Republican majority would accept Walker’s controversial proposal to eliminate the forestry tax and his plan to allow another round of higher state park fees.
The committee began meeting at mid-afternoon to vote on a raft of Walker’s budget proposals, including several related to the Department of Natural Resources.
Committee leaders Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, told reporters before the session started that their caucus would reject Walker’s plan to end the popular, subscriber-supported magazine.
In a party-line vote with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats against, the magazine was reduced by two issues per year and the DNR communications director was designated as magazine editor.
Democratic members pointed out that the director was a political appointee of the governor, and they suggested the magazine’s content could become tinged by politics.
Democrats noted that a former magazine editor reported being pressured to soften coverage related to climate change and endangered species after Walker took office in 2011.
“It’s too bad this magazine got in the crossfire between science and certain politicians,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton.
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, said reducing the number of issues would help DNR employees who sometimes write for the magazine to focus on more important matters.
“We don’t want the magazine’s publication to be a distraction from the core mission of the DNR,” Loudenbeck said.
Subscriptions increased after Walker’s proposal was announced and lawmakers from both parties have said they have heard opposition from their constituents.
The magazine currently publishes six times a year. It operates without direct tax funding or advertising. It’s revenue comes from about 85,000 subscribers and occasional paid informational inserts from state DNR programs.
Parks fees would rise
The committee majority voted to cut 10 parks positions, allow DNR to increase nightly camping fees by $10 and daily parks admissions by $5 while maintaining current annual fee levels. The nightly fee for electrical hookup in a campsite would increase to $15 from the current $10 at five popular parks.
Walker proposed allowing the DNR to set higher state parks admission and camping fees for the most popular parks. Walker’s plan called for up to $10 more for admission and $10 per night.
The increase would come on top of 2015 admissions increases of $5 at some parks and camping fee increases as high as $10 per night at popular sites with electrical service.
Two years ago, Walker and the Legislature withdrew tax support and raised fees, leaving a $1.4 million annual budget hole. DNR officials said last year parks revenue exceeded spending as attendance rose.
Democrats warned that low gas prices and good weather contributed to recent high attendance, but if those factors change the park system could be in trouble, especially in its efforts to renovate and repair aging buildings, trails and equipment.
Continued fee increases could eventually price families out and undermine a park system that helps drive the state’s tourism industry, Democratic committee members said.
The committee voted to raise the statutory cap on electrified campsites in the park system. Currently, 30 percent are allowed to have electricity. Under the committee plan the proportion would reach 35 percent.
Forestry tax cut
The panel postponed a vote on Walker’s controversial plan to eliminate the forestry tax Wednesday but Nygren and Darling said Republicans would approve the governor’s proposal despite complaints from conservationists and forestry interests. The committee plans to consider several tax issues together at a later date, Nygren said.
Democrats said they would oppose the plan to eliminate the portion of state property tax that pays to preserve forests.
The tax nets about 17 cents per $1,000 of property value for about $83 million in state revenue annually, which helps acquire and preserve state forestland. Walker wants to simplify property tax bills and fund state forestry programs with general fund tax dollars.
Conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity have been mobilizing public support for eliminating the tax, but opponents worry that it would mean forestry programs would need to compete against schools, roads and other budget areas funded by general purpose tax revenue.
Conservationists and lumber industry representatives appointed by the governor to the state Council on Forestry issued a statement last week opposing the move.
“Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law Program is the envy of landowners and forest product consumers throughout the nation,” the council said. “This funding gives Wisconsin the opportunity to support forestry without creating a shortfall elsewhere in the budget.”
The forestry tax would cost the owner of a $160,000 median-valued home $55 over the next two years.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin applauded the decision.
“Governor Walker and Republican leaders in the Legislature are fighting to put taxpayers first and let hard-working Wisconsin families keep more of their own money,” said party executive director Mark Morgan said in a statement.
In other action the committee voted 12-4 to transfer responsibility for cleaning up dead deer along highways from the DNR to the Department of Transportation. The DNR contracted for about $550,000 to remove about 18,000 carcasses in 2016.
The Joint Finance Committee will send its revised version of Walker’s budget bill to the Assembly and Senate. The spending and taxation plan covers the two-year period that begins July 1.