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The Natural Resource
Accountability Project
Research Report #6
June, 1999

1999-2001 Wisconsin State Biennial Budget


"Follow the money" is valuable advice if you care about protecting public health and public resources, like clean air, safe drinking water, clean rivers and fish, and parks for recreation.  This special DNR Watch report highlights key state budget decisions being debated right now in the State Capitol.  Knowing how money and policy decisions impact protection of our natural resources empowers us to influence these decisions.

The Budget Process

Funding for state government, including grants and aids to local units of government, is approved through a biennial budget process.  The state fiscal year runs from July 1 thru June 30.  In odd numbered years, the Governor initiates the budget process with the Executive Budget Proposal, usually released in February, and sent to the State Legislature for approval.

The Joint Finance Committee (JFC), a powerful budget writing committee, consists of equal numbers of state Assembly representatives and state Senators, totaling 16 members.  JFC is assisted in their analysis by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB).  JFC completed its work on the Budget on 6/10/99.  The Assembly and Senate are now proposing further budget amendments.

After floor action in each house, Assembly and Senate budget versions go to Conference Committee.  While no appointments have yet been made, odds are that at least the following will be at that table: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, Senate JFC Co-Chair Brian Burke, Assembly Majority Leader Scott Jensen and Assembly JFC Co-Chair John Gard. The Conference Committee version of the budget goes to both Legislative houses for a simple up or down vote, no amendments, and then to the Governorís desk in early July.  The Governor has enormous powers to veto parts of the budget.  The Governor might take a month to complete the budget.  Vetoes are subject to legislative override.

Your Tools to Influence the Budget

Following budget negotiations has always seemed like an insiders game.  However, the public has new tools to keep track of issues of concern.  The Governorís budget is available at the State Budget Office website.  LFB papers on the budget and actions by JFC are available on the Internet.  The Internet also provides a convenient way to communicate your concerns to your elected representatives via email.  And you can also reach them by telephone toll-free at (800) 362-9472 weekdays.  Always remember to give your full name and address when contacting legislators.

The Issues

Metallic Mining

 JFC adopted an amendment which would allow either party to a local agreement for a proposed mine to open up and renegotiate the agreement if the mining company made significant changes to their proposal to mine. DNR is required to deny a mining permit if the applicant for the mine fails to negotiate with the local government.  This proposal is supported by the Wisconsin Towns Association, the Town of Nashville, and many environmental groups.  In the Republican Assembly caucus on 6/18, this provision was removed from the Budget.

State Stewardship Fund Reauthorization and
Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program

The Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson State Stewardship Fund has been the stateís main land acquisition program for the past decade at the level of $23.1 million per year bonding.  It permanently protects conservation and recreation lands for Wisconsin residents and tourists, leverages dollars from local governments and non-profit organizations (over $45 million to date) which stretch the stateís investment dollars further, and positions the state financially to acquire unique lands when large landholders want to sell.

The Governor proposed reauthorizing the Stewardship Fund at a bonding level of $345 million over 10 years of which $40 million would match US Dept. of Agriculture funding ($170 million) for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) to retire farmland for water quality and wildlife habitat benefits.

JFC adopted a motion which provides $40.4 million a year for parks, natural area preservation and wildlife habitat enhancement.  Conservation groups sought $60 million a year.  JFC included most of the land acquisition categories and strengthened partnerships with non-profit land trusts that conservation groups sought.  JFC removed the bonding and provided $2.5 million in tax dollars for CREP.  JFC failed to adopt new CREP provisions.

In the Republican Assembly caucus on 6/18, JFCís Stewardship Fund was cut by $80 million over ten years, including an outright cut of $54 million and a set aside of another $26 million in bonding for CREP as a short term agricultural land retirement program to be run without the public access and permanence of other Stewardship Fund projects.  The Assembly Republican caucus also required local governments use the lowest assessments from the last 3 years that nonprofit land trusts can pay to buy land.

Fish and Wildlife Account Funding

The Governor provided $2 million annually from tribal gaming revenues to the fish and wildlife account. JFC added an additional half million dollars annually.  Previously fish and wildlife programs were funded largely by hunting and fishing  license fees and stamps (72%) and other sources but not general purpose tax revenues.  In the Assembly Republican caucus on 6/18, a motion was adopted to prohibit DNR from expending more than 10% of funding from the fish and wildlife account in any fiscal year for administrative purposes.

In recent years, funding for conservation programs has stagnated while the needs have grown dramatically.  A 1998 Legislative Audit Bureau report was critical of the DNRís use of the Fish and Wildlife Account.  Concern over the funding shortfall has resulted in several reports on Alternative Funding Options, stressing new sources of funding and including additional beneficiaries.  DNR recently released an Annual Report on the State Fish and Wildlife Account showing the following categories: Fish (27.8%), Wildlife (27.4%), Enforcement (17.1%), Facilities & Lands (9.9%), Licenses (4.9%), Regional Management (3.7%) and Administration (9.2%).

Shoreland Use and Zoning

JFC authorized public use of the exposed land between the ordinary high-water mark and the edge of a navigable stream for water-related recreational activities.  The public must enter this area from the stream, from a point of public access or with permission of the owner.

JFC severely weakened the 1967 shoreland zoning law by requiring counties to grant special zoning permission for the construction of small structures between 35 feet and the current 75 feet setback, provided owners implement plans to preserve or establish a vegetative buffer on at least 70% of the waterward half of the shoreland setback area.  Rep. Gard proposed this to bring closure to "gazebo" controversies.

Rivers and Stream Protection

JFC unanimously approved funding to develop a statewide rivers program.  The Wis. Rivers and Streams Protection Grants Program is a public/private initiative designed to help clean up rivers, better manage river corridors and protect future river health through an investment in community-based watershed stewardship.

The $1.2 million package for the biennial includes provisions to: Give increased responsibility for river health to those most affected by river health Ñ local communities and interests; Create a Local Stewardship Competitive Grants Program to help local governments and nonprofit groups to finance river restoration and management projects. Support a Rivers Coordinator staff position in DNR.  Currently no one in DNR is working full-time on river issues - a critical gap in a state with 40,000 miles of rivers and streams; Create a small Watershed Center at UW-Stevens Point.  Modeled after a very successful Lakes program currently at UW-Stevens Point.  This two-person Center will leverage already existing staff resources there and provide technical assistance for local governments and nonprofits working on river and watershed projects; Establish a small pool of funds for a nonprofit entity to provide organizational and technical support to local river and watershed groups.  The funding will come from the water resources account in the DNR budget.  It will not require any new taxes or general purpose revenues.

The Governor proposed a Wis. Waters Initiative with 7 new DNR staff to provide water-related site information electronically and to improve permit processing and technical assistance to local governments on water regulation and zoning.  This was a high priority initiative by DNR.

Other Issues of Concern

Contaminated Groundwater Clean-Up

Clean up of groundwater and soils contaminated by leaking tanks at gasoline stations has been funded through the Petroleum Environmental Cleanup Fund Award (PECFA) program established in 1987.  Owners who do the cleanup are reimbursed the majority of their costs from a fund based on an inspection fee of $0.03 per gallon on imported petroleum products.  Because requests for reimbursements exceeded the revenues collected, the Legislature directed the Dept. of Commerce (DOC) to adopt cost containment policies and the DNR to adopt more flexibility in site closure options.

JFC adopted a proposal which transferred the authority for clean up of approximately 60% of all sites defined as low and medium risk sites, including clay soil sites, to DOC.  DNR retained high-risk sites but can have no more than 35% of the total PECFA sites at one time.  This means that even high-risk sites may go to DOC on a fast tract for close out which could jeopardize groundwater.

Smart Growth

JFC adopted an amendment linking state investments in roads, sewers and buildings to locally designated compact "Smart Growth Areas."   The Assembly Republican caucus removed the Smart Growth Initiative on 6/21.

Supporting the Smart Growth initiative is an unprecedented coalition including the entire Wisconsin environmental community, the Wis. Towns Association, Alliance of Cities, Wis. Counties Association, Wis. Association of Planners, Realtors Association, Builders Association, Wis. Road Builders, and the association representing regional planning commissions.

The Smart Growth Initiative: Set state goals which discourage sprawl and encourage redevelopment of existing communities and protection of natural resources;  provided state funding for 75% of local land use planning costs starting next year; rewarded communities which keep growth in check with a "Smart Growth Dividend" by 2005; required planning as the basis for most municipal actions like subdivision regulations, zoning and annexations by 2010; and required communities to adopt a model ordinance for traditional neighborhood developments.  This is the most significant improvement in growth management in Wisconsin in a generation.  For the first time, we will have a set of clearly stated land use goals, every community will have a comprehensive land use plan and communities which restrain sprawl will be rewarded with higher state aid.


The Governorís budget proposed major highway bonding of $113.2 million in the first year and $114.4 million in the second year of the biennium.  JFC adopted changes to improve the local share with increases for local roads (6% first year, 1% second year), maintaining mass transit (7.5% annually) and elderly/disabled transportation (7% annually).  JFC increased funding for state highways to $440 million for the biennium or 50% more than requested by the Governor in each budget year.  This increase is in addition to a huge 13% increase provided for in 1998 when JFC decided to use most of the stateís $200 million in new, flexible federal funding only for highways.  JFC provided $1 million for a Bong Air Museum in Superior and bypassed the Transportation Projects Commission and standard public participation procedures to enumerate $73 million for the expansion of USH 41 north of Green Bay.

JFC deleted funds for extending Metra commuter rail service but kept the Governorís funding for Hiawatha Milwaukee-Chicago Amtrak service.  JFC supported using federal funds for rail crossing improvements for the Midwest High Speed Rail corridor and increased funding for rail crossing improvements statewide.  On the environmental side, JFC established a new Scenic Byways Program, making Wisconsin eligible for 80% federal funding, provided $1 million for transportation planning grants to local governments and increased funds for storm water management, $873,500.  The Assembly Republican caucus votes on this issue after this report goes to press.


Continued funding for the 1990 mandatory program to recycle recoverable materials remained controversial, despite the 98% household participation rate, nearly 1 million tons of garbage annually recovered and an estimated 2,000 new jobs created.  Budget options included: extending the business surcharge (which currently funds the recycling grants and market development programs), increase the state fees for landfilling solid wastes (tipping fees) which would include out-of-state waste, adding a sales tax to solid waste services or raising local property taxes by vote of local government.  The debate also included whether or not to cancel the ban on landfilling or incinerating recoverable materials.

The Governorís budget ended new revenues, phased out a majority of state staff and programs and fully spent the remaining Recycling Fund on grants within two years.  JFC failed to change this proposal when two very different proposals, one to continue state funding at a slightly reduced level and the other to end the statewide requirements to recycle certain materials in addition to cutting state funding, each failed on 8 to 8 partisan votes.  The Assembly Republican caucus on 6/18 voted to end the recycling mandate in two years, require the Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR) to prepare a model recycling ordinance and increased the amount of recycling grants to a total of $42 million for the biennium, without addressing the issue of long term funding.

Clean Air

The Governor proposed fee changes to fully fund staff for the DNR air program.  JFC approved only half this amount.  The funding is needed to address a growing backlog of permit requests, a lack of adequate permit enforcement and delegation of programs such as reducing smog in eastern Wisconsin.  The DNRís Air Management Program has lost 27 full time staff positions since 1995.

Polluted Runoff

The Governor provided funding for two regional wastewater engineer positions to regulate animal waste discharge of large livestock operations.  He also provided bonding for Non point grants to implement cost-sharing for agricultural performance standards adopted in the previous budget.  JFC approved a sweeping motion to redesign the Non point (polluted runoff) program.  It included substantial increases in bond money for Non point programs, consolidated in DNR and funded all urban Non point programs, funded competitive DNR grants and transferred the NR 243 enforcement program to DNR.  It moved virtually all baseline funding to DATCP, making DNR dependent on less certain bonding in the future.  The action also left DNR with little oversight of county non-point plans and no requirement that those plans be developed on a watershed basis.


The Governor funded a feasibility study for a pesticide database system (PDS) to track pesticide use in urban, suburban and rural areas.  JFC instead created a pilot test for the data base, housed in the Dept. of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and funded by a one-time $400,000 allocation from the agencyís Ag Chemical Fund which currently has a surplus of four million dollars.  The JFC amendment was removed in the Assembly Republican caucus on 6/18, retaining the Governorís proposed study.

Clean Energy and Electric Reliability

JFC failed on a party line vote to adopt the Governorís Reliability 2000 proposal which included the creation of a "Public Benefits Fund" of $134 million per year.  This Fund consisted of investments in low income weatherization ($50 million), other energy efficiency ($80 million), infrastructure for renewable resources ($3.5 million) and research on acid rain, mercury and other environmental impacts of electricity generation ($1.2 million).  The proposal also provided  $55 million/yr for bill payment assistance and other low-income support.   Renewable energy, currently about 3% of generation, would reach about 6% by year 2010.  While the Governorís proposal would not bring the funding of these programs back to what they had been as recently as 1993, it would increase investments by $47 million over what they are today.  Several Republicans suggested they would likely vote for it later in the budget process.

Campaign Finance Reform

The Governor proposed and JFC approved (12-4 bipartisan vote) including $750,000 in General Purpose Revenue for public financing for legislative candidates.  Currently, in return for curbing spending, legislative candidates are eligible for public financing grants.  Up to now, public grants came solely from the voluntary state income tax form check-off which has produced inadequate revenues and thus smaller, pro-rated grants.

Public concern about the record spending in last yearís elections and the recommendations of the 1997 Governorís Blue Ribbon Commission on Campaign Finance Reform provided initial momentum for campaign finance reform.  Serious Campaign Finance Reform proposals have come from: Sen. Mike Ellis (SB 113, enforceable spending limits and a mechanism to reduce the influence of outside special interests through independent spending and phony issue ads); Sen. Brian Burke and Rep. Stephen Freese (SB 111, 50% public funding); Sen. George and Rep. Bock (SB 181 Impartial Justice, grants for candidates for justice of the Wis. Supreme Court), the Kettl Commission Report (LRB-3055/1), to name just a few. Only a bi-partisan effort has any chance of success, but the Assembly Republican caucus removed the Governorís funding.

Money affects our election process and the way legislative policy and state budgets are written.  But 2/10 of 1% of the public provide 40% of the funding for state elections. The DNR Watch series are in-depth reports on money and influence.  Around every conservation issue, big money contributors  (paper companies, road builders, realtors, cranberry growers) receive special treatment at the expense of the environment.

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