As I read about Scott Walker’s environmentally regressive budget message I was thinking of my old friend and Strib colleague Tom Hamburger. Tom tells a good story and can – thanks to schooling at Tulane and apprenticeship on a little paper in Arkansas – color a choice quotation with a sonorous Bubba accent.
It was Tom who first told me about the unofficial motto of Dixie’s political class. Whenever a headline revealed that Louisiana (or Alabama, or Georgia) had once again placed 49th in the nation on some ranking of economic health or social progress, he said, its Capitol corridors would ring with cries of joy and triumph for avoiding last place once again:
Thank God for Mississippi!
Those of us who care about environmental health and progress have long since grown accustomed to times of gridlock, more or less, where most of the progress is ever more incremental, rollbacks of hard-fought gains are a constant threat, budgets are always on the block.
But perhaps we can take some small comfort in looking to the governorship of Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and recognize that, without a doubt, things could always be worse.
In most coverage of the budget message that Walker delivered last week, the prime emphasis has been his shocking proposals to cut funds for higher education and even attempt a reshaping of its mission as laid down in state law. (That, and requiring drug tests of people on public assistance.)
The politics of resentment
Hostility to colleges and universities shouldn’t come as a surprise in a governor who didn’t finish his bachelor’s degree, who has few fans among the faculties or students or staffs, who has built his political foundation on tax-cutting, budget-slashing and appeals to the politics of resentment.
To say the least, Walker’s political agenda is relentlessly pro-business. It is of course possible to promote both business growth and environmental stewardship; earlier generations of Republican leaders did so as an article of faith, feeling that conservation was in fact conservative.
But it’s ever so much easier now to pit the former against the latter, whether the topic at hand be mining, renewable energy, groundwater conservation, public lands, climate protection ….
And so we have, again without real surprises, a Walker budget for the next biennium whose hallmarks include fresh assaults on environmental programs and the state agencies and employees who implement them.
Let’s start with his proposal to stop expanding public lands through acquisitions or easements under the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.
No more dough for public land
Named after former governors Warren Knowles (a Republican) and Gaylord Nelson (a Democrat), the fund’s investments have protected some 560,000 acres of land across Wisconsin in the past 24 years.
They have also supported conservation efforts by nonprofits and local governments, on a matching-funds basis, to make the lands available to the public for hiking, hunting and fishing, as well as for wetlands protection and flood control.
According to its website, the program’s annual budget took a deep cut with Walker’s 2011 “budget repair bill,” falling from $86 million to $60 million. Walker now proposes to suspend all new spending under Knowles-Nelson for purchases or easements through 2028.
As we’re reminded by James Rowen, the seasoned journalist who blogs on environmental matters for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Purple Wisconsin feature (and on his own site, The Political Environment), this gutting follows Walker’s order that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sell off 10,000 acres of public lands under its control.
Walker’s manhandling of established DNR policy through top-level appointees has been a continuing saga. The new budget advances those efforts by consolidating gubernatorial authority and shrinking the ranks of potential troublemakers.
Wisconsin has a citizen board of overseers with broad authority to tell the agency what to do, not unlike the citizen board at Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency.
Neutering a citizen board
Up until 1995, the board actually appointed the DNR chief; now the governor gets to do that. But to make the chief even freer to do his bidding, and his alone, Walker has proposed that Wisconsin Natural Resources Board’s powers be restricted to just giving advice.
This means, for example, that it could still suggest a comprehensive study of frac-sand mining’s environmental impacts. But it could no longer simply order one, as it did last month.
(Governing boards at the Departments of Agriculture and of Trade and Consumer Protection would also be downgraded to advisory roles.)
The Walker budget relieves the DNR of about 66 staff positions. By some accounts, that is more FTEs than any other state agency would be shedding for the next biennium (although the Department of Corrections comes close, at 60 guards, whose third-shift work covering prison towers turns out to be unnecessary).
At DNR, the layoffs are specifically focused on scientific staff. According to the Journal Sentinel’s analysis,
The employees include scientists and others with master’s and doctoral degrees who perform research for the DNR on environmental regulation and wildlife management policy.
Walker’s budget would cut 18.4 positions in the Bureau of Scientific Services. The bureau has a total of 59.4 budgeted positions, although 9.4 are currently vacant. That would be a 31% cut in total budgeted positions and a reduction of nearly 20% of the positions now filled in the bureau. [Little math error there, that last figure should be 36.8%.]
All told, Walker’s budget would cut 66 positions from the DNR. Of this, more than 25% would come from the science group.
Let’s get rid of the scientists
Other cuts are focused on the agency’s enforcement staff, which Wisconsin environmental groups interpret as an effort to make the DNR less muscular in its regulation of, say, the big new Gogebic Taconite mine taking shape in the Penokee Hills near Ashland. Or to reduce the role of sound science in framing policy on such touchy subjects as wildlife management, habitat protection and hunting seasons.
I looked in vain for insight on the prospects for Walker getting these proposals through his legislature untouched. The occasional Republican can be heard to join the chorus of Democrats decrying these moves against agencies and programs which, it must be noted, have not obstructed Walker and his party from any number of other actions that environmental progressives regard as clear steps backward for Wisconsin.
For now, the state is firmly in the grip of one-party governance, and there’s no doubting that much will be done in Walker’s second term to continue Wisconsin’s retreat from exemplary, progressive stewardship of natural resources.
No, there won’t be enough time for the state to plummet, Mississippi-like, to a last-place ranking on environmental measures. But it’s easy to imagine that Scott Walker would count cries of “Thank God for Wisconsin!” as the crowning accolades of his anti-environment governorship.