Wisconsin DNR magazine survives; Gov. Walker to get property tax cut

Even before Wednesday’s vote on the fate of a publication that was regarded as being all but dead, stories suddenly were circulating that it could possibly be saved Wednesday by the Wisconsin Legislature’s budget-writing committee.

Up to that point, and for months before, it was thought that the popular outdoors magazine published by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources would surely be eliminated, as proposed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

But the pushback over ending the bi-monthly magazine has been strong, particularly among older subscribers who don’t rely on the internet for news.

Whether it was that pushback or not, the committee rejected Walker’s proposal to do away with the state’s outdoor magazine. It did, however, vote (by a 12-4 margin, 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.

The committee also said Wednesday it will go along with Walker’s $180 million property tax cut proposal. (For an in-depth story on Wednesday’s action, see the next issue of Wisconsin Outdoor News.)

Walker had been mostly mum on his call for eliminating the 98-year-old DNR magazine. Lovers of the publication, which had 84,000 subscribers as of December, have been urging lawmakers to keep the print edition alive. According to reports, 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 such as Facebook and Twitter, and DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp has said it takes agency employees away from their core duties.

It’s also been widely reported that Democrats and environmentalists had worried that Walker’s true motivation may have been to silence a publication that promotes science. Walker has retooled the DNR over the years to be more business-friendly, while also de-emphasizing the effects of global warming.

“It’s too bad this magazine got in the middle of a political debate between science and some politicians,” Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said.

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 the budget committee would vote to eliminate the tax.

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.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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