State Budget comes up short on Trout Priorities

As we head into the peak of Summer, activity at our State Capitol is beginning to wind down for the session.  Our biennial State Budget is mostly written and at this moment does not include either of our top 2 priorities – a ten year extension of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and a $5 increase in the Trout Stamps.

 

We’re disappointed that the budget as drafted by the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) does not prioritize the needed investments in Wisconsin’s outdoor recreation economy.  We maintain our belief that a long term re-authorization of the Stewardship program and an increase in the amount of Trout Stamp funding available for restoration work is in the best interest of trout enthusiasts across Wisconsin.

 

The JFC rejected a ten year Stewardship re-authorization proposal (at current funding levels) on a 12-4 party line vote.  The Committee then approved a two year extension at current funding levels ($33 mil. per year) on the same party line vote.

 

We expect the JFC budget to be approved by both houses of the legislature and sent to Governor Evers’ desk.  The Governor can take out language (through the line-item veto process) but cannot add anything.

 

Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program

 

Wisconsin Trout Unlimited is proud to be a part of “Team Knowles-Nelson” – a consortium of over 50 different groups advocating for a 10 year re-authorization of Wisconsin’s iconic public lands initiative at current funding levels.  Team partners range from hunting, fishing, and conservation organizations, to business advocates and local government groups.

 

Opponents argue that the 30 year old program has run its course, is costing too much in debt service, and that we have more than enough public lands to satisfy Wisconsinites.  We respectfully disagree.

 

The Stewardship program was established in 1989 with a spending commitment of $25 mil. per year for 10 years.  It was re-authorized in 10 year increments in 1999 (at $60 mil. per year) and 2009 (at $86 mil. per year).  Since 2009, funding for the program has been reduced to approx. $33 mil. per year.

 

The State borrows money in the form of bonds to cover the costs of the program in much the same way that a homeowner takes out a mortgage to purchase a property.  Bonds are re-paid at a low interest rate over the course of 20 years, spreading out the cost of purchases to both current and future beneficiaries of the program.

 

The program has been right-sized in recent years with overall spending cuts, more oversight, and the prioritization of conservation and public access easements.  The high interest generating years of the early 2000’s will be paid off over the coming decade, greatly reducing the overall debt service required to maintain the current program.  This will put Stewardship on sound financial footing and allow for smart investments moving forward.

 

Ideally, a “Stewardship for the Future” plan will include a 10 year commitment to funding public access and land conservation opportunities as they arise.  It should maintain or slightly increase current funding levels and continue to provide legislative oversight of large purchases.

 

The Stewardship Program can play a vital role in creating a more sustainable Wisconsin.  Conservation easements can build flood and natural disaster resiliency into our local communities and increasing public access to will continue to ensure our outdoor recreation economy is healthy and vibrant.

 

According to the DNR’s website: “The program has been an outstanding success.  Perhaps we can provide no greater gift to the citizens of the 21st Century – for the places we save today will be a permanent and lasting investment in their future.”

 

Trout Stamp Fees

 

Wisconsin TU continues to advocate for a $5 increase in both the Inland and Great Lakes Trout Stamps.  This funding gets segregated into their own accounts and is used specifically for trout stream restoration (Inland) and fisheries management (Great Lakes).

 

Both stamps have been at $10 since 2006, meanwhile projects costs continue to rise and neighboring States like Iowa ($14.50) have already adjusted.

 

In April, at the Wisconsin Conservation Congress Spring Hearings, over 7,500 Wisconsinites weighed in on outdoor resource management questions.  Participants were asked their opinion on the proposed $5 Stamp increases.  Over 70% supported the Inland increase and over 75% supported the Great Lakes increase.

 

Recent audits of the Trout Stamp programs have shown in recent years expenditures are meeting or exceeding revenues in both the Inland and Great Lakes accounts.  The Inland account maintains a small balance to cover the costs of ongoing projects in case something changes during the budget process.  The Great Lakes account is currently showing a surplus, but those funds are going to be put towards an upgrade in the Kettle Moraine Spring Hatchery. 

 

Recent flooding, a backlog of project maintenance issues, and continued degradation of our cold water resources shows there is a need to put more funding into trout stream restoration projects.  For an additional $5 per anger (about the cost of a new spinner or a couple of flies) we could greatly increase the amount of work being done on the ground.

 

Wisconsin TU, along with our partners in the sporting community, will continue to educate legislators about the benefits of the proposed stamp increases.  

 

We would like to thank those of you who actively engaged with your legislators on behalf of Wisconsin Trout Unlimited’s Advocacy Priorities in recent years.  While we don’t have clear victories to celebrate, we continue to build our reputation in and around the Capitol as a well-respected and thoughtful group of conservationists.  We hope you will continue to work with us in advocating for cold, clean, fishable water in Wisconsin.

 

Much Respect,

Mike Kuhr

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