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Legislative trick that slowed the Pelican River Forest project in the Northwoods ruled improper

Pelican River area in Wisconsin.
Jay Brittain
The Conservation Fund
Pelican River area in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Legislature's Republican-controlled budget committee can't legally block conservation projects initiated by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' administration, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The decision marks a victory for Evers, whose relationship with Republican lawmakers has deteriorated since he took office in 2019, as well as environmentalists across the state.

“I’ve spent years working against near-constant Republican obstruction, and this historic decision rightfully resets constitutional checks and balances and restores separation of powers," the governor said in a statement. "This decision is a victory for the people of Wisconsin, who expect and deserve their government to work — and work for them, not against them.”

The Legislature’s attorney, Misha Tseytlin, didn’t immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment Friday morning.

The court ruled 6-1 that provisions that require the Joint Finance Committee to unilaterally block projects and land acquisitions funded with money from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program violate the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.

The Legislature gave the executive branch the power to distribute stewardship money when it established the program, Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote in the majority opinion. Once that power was conferred, lawmakers lacked authority to reject decisions on how to spend the money short of rewriting spending laws, she wrote.

The Legislature created the stewardship program in 1989. The state Department of Natural Resources uses money from the program to fund grants to local governments and nongovernmental organizations for environmental projects. The gubernatorial cabinet agency also uses money from the program to acquire land for conservation and public use. The Legislature has currently authorized the agency to spend up to $33.2 million in each fiscal year through 2025-26 for land acquisition, according to court documents.

Republicans have long criticized the program, saying it prevents land from being developed and takes parcels off local tax rolls. The finance committee in April 2023 blocked the DNR's plan to spend $15.5 million from the program to acquire a conservation easement on 56,000 acres (22,662 hectares) of forest, which would have been the largest land conservation effort in Wisconsin history, the Pelican River Forest. Evers ended up going around the committee this past January by securing federal money for the purchase to protect the Pelican River Forest area.

The governor sued in October, arguing that legislative committees controlled by a handful of Republicans have overstepped their constitutional authority.

He argued that the committees improperly withheld pre-approved raises for University of Wisconsin employees, blocked updates to commercial building and ethics standards, and blocked funding for stewardship programs. The raises eventually went through, but the governor insisted that Republicans were effectively attempting to change state law without passing a bill and sending it to him for approval or a veto.

Evers asked the liberal-leaning court to take the case directly without waiting for rulings from any lower court. The justices agreed in February, but said they would consider only whether the finance committee improperly blocked stewardship efforts.

Chief Justice Annette Ziegler was the lone dissenting justice. She wrote that the justices should have allowed the case to work its way through lower courts. She also said the court's liberal majority “handpicked” the stewardship question.

“What’s the rush?” Ziegler wrote. “There is absolutely no good reason to have handpicked this case and this one issue, ahead of all the other cases, taking it out of turn, and placing it to the front of the line.”

Evan Feinauer, an attorney with conservation group Clean Wisconsin, said the ruling will help preserve public lands for future generations.

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