The Legislature’s budget committee voted Friday to slow down conservation land purchases and eliminate half of the state Department of Natural Resources senior science staff as part of an overall reduction of 80 DNR positions.
With their plan to reduce annual borrowing for purchases of natural areas, Republican lawmakers bucked Gov. Scott Walker, who wanted a 13-year moratorium to reduce debt payments that ballooned in 2012 because the state postponed payments during the recession.
Joint Finance Committee leaders announced they would propose cutting stewardship land borrowing to $33 million a year from the $50 million authorized under existing law.
They also said they would follow Walker’s proposal for the 2015-17 state budget to continue a historic reduction in DNR staff.
The committee backed both plans on a party-line vote, with Republicans voting for and Democrats against. If the full Legislature approves the proposal to cut staff, the DNR will have been reduced by 15 percent under both Democratic and Republican administrations since the 2000-2001 budget.
Walker has said he wants to focus the DNR on its core mission, but he hasn’t specified what should be discarded from its current workload. Opponents of the cuts say costly environmental damage will be done with less scientific research to guide decisions.
Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, one of four Democrats on the committee, decried the cuts that are to be recommended to the full Legislature.
“Our environment — it’s the reason people come to Wisconsin. It’s God’s country, as we like to say. We should make sure we’re protecting our environment,” Taylor said.
She called proposed cuts to the DNR’s science and education bureaus “completely, completely unacceptable.”
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, accused the GOP of retaliating against the bureau because it has presented inconvenient facts.
“You’re shooting the messenger here,” Erpenbach said. “They are just doing their jobs.”
Over the last four years the science services bureau conducted 109 research projects requested by DNR wildlife, fishery and forest managers, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. It has been a lightning rod because managers cite the research when explaining policies such as limits on hunting and fishing.
The science bureau ran afoul of some conservatives last year when it compiled scientific literature on mining while a controversial iron mine was being developed.
“Some have argued that the Department should not focus on controversial science projects, such as the study of climate change or mining impacts,” fiscal bureau analysts said.
Sen. Thomas Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, a critic of the science bureau, said Democrats were exaggerating.
“We have heard so much hyperbole around this issue, that science is going to end and that’s just not true,” Tiffany said.
Finance committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, acknowledged people feel passionate about natural resources, but he said it’s not true that lawmakers like himself who live in northern Wisconsin don’t care about the environment.
“It’s our way of life,” Nygren said.
DNR spokesman Bill Cosh said if the staffing cuts were enacted, agency leaders would need to make choices about how to use remaining staff in the science and research area.
“What these cuts require us to do is to better prioritize the research that our scientists are engaged in to help inform management decisions,” Cosh said, adding that final decisions haven’t been made on all 80 positions to be eliminated.
When Walker announced his planned moratorium on land purchases earlier this year, conservationists, hunters and others were alarmed, saying that certain valuable lands only become available once in a generation.
The stewardship program has preserved parcels of wild land for parks, hunting and hiking, as well as timber operations since 1990.
Nygren and finance committee member Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, issued a statement saying the panel’s proposal would reduce debt by about $140 million over the next 20 years.
“Hunting, fishing, and other outdoor sports are an important piece of our state’s economy,” Nygren said. “It’s essential that we continue this program for the benefit of Wisconsin’s sporting tradition.”
Loudenbeck said the state would buy the “best of the best” land and easements, but Democrats weren’t persuaded.
“How is this budget for the environment? I’ll have to award you zero stars,” said Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.
Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, defended the stewardship spending, saying roughly one out of every five acres in Wisconsin is already publicly owned and DNR spends $1.7 million a week just paying the debt.
“This has been a credit card that’s been used over and over,” Schraa said. “Let’s just be fiscally responsible.”
Gathering Waters, a group of land trusts, praised the plan to retain the “bulk” of stewardship land funding.
“The Stewardship Program costs each resident in Wisconsin less per year than a fishing license or a state park sticker,” said Mike Strigel, executive director of Gathering Waters.
The committee also passed a provision invalidating local ordinances that prohibit urban bow-hunting.
Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, accused Republicans of being “sneaky” with a proposed budget provision aimed at stripping counties of their ability to enact standards for local waterways that exceed state standards.
“This would take away our ability … to make sure our waters are clean,” Taylor said, noting the efforts that Dane County and its communities have made to clean up Madison-area lakes. “People don’t want to have dirtier water.”
The committee proposed a change to state law so the DNR wouldn’t be required to lay off dozens of temporary workers before permanent positions were cut.
State Journal reporter Molly Beck contributed to this report.