DNR magazine saved, Walker to get property tax cut
By SCOTT BAUER
Jun. 01, 2017
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Handing Gov. Scott Walker a victory as a prepares for a likely re-election bid next year, Republican leaders of the Legislature's budget-writing committee said Wednesday they will go along with his $180 million property tax cut proposal.
The Joint Finance Committee also voted Wednesday to continue publication of a popular outdoors magazine that Walker had wanted to end, a proposal that led to a loud public outcry among longtime readers who said the move was politically motivated.
Doing away with the property tax used to help preserve the state's forests was one of Walker's priorities. He threatened to take the unprecedented step of vetoing the entire $76 billion budget if property taxes increased. Some Republicans had wavered in their support, but GOP leaders said Wednesday the budget committee would vote to eliminate the tax.
The Joint Finance Committee was to vote on ending the property tax Wednesday but delayed it until it considered other tax issues. The committee is reworking Walker's two-year spending plan before sending its recommendation to the full Legislature for passage. Its changes are important because the Senate and Assembly are unlikely to make major breaks with what the committee proposes. Walker can make further revisions with his expansive veto authority.
Lovers of the Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine — which had 84,000 subscribers as of December — have been urging lawmakers to keep the print edition alive. Walker has argued that the state shouldn't be in the publishing business and that the DNR can get its message out through social media like Facebook and Twitter.
The pushback over ending the bi-monthly magazine has been strong, particularly among older subscribers who don't rely on the internet for news. Democrats and environmentalists worry that Walker's true motivation may be silencing a publication that promotes science and writes articles on controversial topics like climate change. Walker has retooled the DNR over the years to be more business-friendly, while also de-emphasizing the effects of global warming.
The magazine is paid for through subscriptions, but DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp has said it takes agency employees away from their core duties.
"It's too bad this magazine got in the middle of a political debate between science and some politicians," said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach.
The committee voted 12-4, with all Republicans in support and Democrats against, to scale back publication from six issues a year to four, cut one full time position and require that the DNR communications director serve as editor of the magazine. Democrats argued the magazine's publication should continue unchanged.
"We think it's a good compromise," said Republican committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling.
Democratic Rep. Gordon Hintz said Republicans missed a chance for a bipartisan win by allowing the magazine to continue publishing with no changes.
"The public didn't ask for a partial restoration with some tweaks," he said.
The property tax to be eliminated began in 1931 to protect forests after they were devastated by clear cutting. The roughly $90 million a year generated from the tax pays for more than 600 workers to manage 23 state forests and nurseries, including the prevention of forest fires.
The state property tax is relatively small and amounts to just $27 a year on a median-value $160,000 home. The vast majority of property taxes paid by homeowners are levied and collected locally by school districts, cities, counties and technical colleges.
Walker would replace about $180 million generated from the property tax over two years with money from the state's main account to support forests. Critics argue that puts state support for forests in jeopardy as funding would move from the dedicated property tax to the general fund where it would have to compete with education, health care, prisons, aids to local communities and all other state funding priorities.
Walker's own Council of Forestry, which works to support and promote forestry in the state, voted last week to oppose ending the property tax.
If the state property tax would be eliminated, taxes would drop just $21 over two years on a median-valued home, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
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