Members of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee voted last week to restore funding for staff at county Soil and Water Conservation Departments, reversing cuts that had been proposed in the budget plan sent to lawmakers by Gov. Scott Walker.
On May 21, lawmakers voted to restore the $998,600 that Walker had proposed cutting. Conservation groups praised the action of the committee to restore the funding.
The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters called the proposed cuts to county conservation staff "devastating" and praised the action of the lawmakers to reverse those cuts.
"Our lakes, rivers, and streams can't protect themselves. Every day, County Conservationists are on the front lines working to prevent the runoff that leads to polluted water and stinky lakes," said Anne Sayers, program director of Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.
Soil and Water Conservation Departments help implement critical programs that prevent manure, fertilizer, sediment, and other chemicals from entering our waterways, she added.
Sayers said the state's goal, by statute, for funding an average of three positions in each county conservation department, is that the state pays 100 percent of the first position, 70 percent of the second and 50 percent of each subsequent position.
The state's share of this commitment has never been realized and has actually continued to decrease over recent budgets; at the same time, state-mandated responsibilities for County Conservation staff have continued to grow, she added.
"Wisconsin's waters still face many challenges in the state budget, but we are grateful to the members of the Joint Finance Committee who stood up for Wisconsin's County Conservationists," Sayers added.
Jim VandenBrook, executive director of the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association (WLWCA) said he was pleased that lawmakers saw fit to restore funding to support Land and Water Conservation offices.
Singling out Senators Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) and Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and Rep. Dan LeMahieu (R-Cascade) who took the lead on the proposal, VandenBrook said the committee's action "takes us one step closer to providing predictable levels of funding" so that local conservationists can work with farmers and other landowners to get conservation practices on the land.
The legislators' support for local land and water conservation programs "reflects the importance of resource conservation to the people of Wisconsin," VandenBrook said.
The restored funding will allow more farmers to work with county Land Conservation Departments to improve nutrient management, stabilize stream and lake shores, handle manure safely, prevent erosion and meet the conservation requirements of both the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) he added.
In addition to providing technical assistance in their own right, county conservationists help farmers access $32 million in state and federal cost-sharing funds and about $17 million in tax deductions that are part of the state's farmland preservation programs, he added.
"The restoration of county staff funding means greater soil conservation, cleaner water in lakes and streams and less contamination in our groundwater.
"County conservationists know how to work with farmers and other landowners to conserve the land and improve our water."
The Joint Finance Committee has been holding hearings and working its way through a variety of decisions related to the state budget.
Once the committee finishes its deliberations, the entire Assembly and Senate must agree to the budget plan and then it goes to Walker for any vetoes and his signature.
Another recent decision in the finance committee restored funding for the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin grant program.
Committee members voted unanimously May 15 to put back into the budget the $200,000 for the grant program, which is administered by DATCP. The program only began a couple of years ago and is intended to build on the infrastructure for the growing local food economy in Wisconsin.
"The Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program has a proven track record when it comes to job creation and economic development," said Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden, who said he was happy with the committee's unanimous decision to restore the funding.
"Every dollar invested in this program generates six dollars of economic activity in the state of Wisconsin, much of it in rural areas. We thank the Joint Finance Committee for recognizing that Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin was a program we simply couldn't afford to lose."
The committee restored funding for the program to previous funding levels, but it also voted 13-3 to change the design of the program from a straightforward grant program to a matching grant program.
Under the changes adopted by the committee, grant recipients would now need to pitch in half of the total cost of the project. "We'll have to see what effect that might have on who applies for and receives Buy Local grants, and whether that changes the types of projects that receive funding," Von Ruden said.
"Having 'skin in the game' might increase participants' commitment level, but it also might exclude some otherwise worthy projects."
Von Ruden said he hopes the full legislature also sees the value in the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program, and will preserve it as part of the final budget package.