The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's banner story today was about Gov. Scott Walker's breathtaking effort to gain unilateral power to sell state buildings and other public property. You can read this well-reported story yourself at the link below. Walker wants the power to sell state-owned power plants, unused lands -- even University of Wisconsin campus buildings that were paid for with dedicated private donations or student fees. Bye-bye, Kohl Center, maybe, or perhaps UW-Madison's student union. They'd fetch a fine price, dontcha know.
The story documents how some state property sales might make bad economic policy. Sure, the sales would bring in some quick cash to help the governor balance his budget. But in the long run, operating costs to the state might very well increase. Worse, the governor wants power to arrange sole-buyer deals without first seeking public bids.
We've heard this story before when, in his first budget proposal, Walker proposed selling off state-owned power plants, many of them situated on University of Wisconsin campuses. That deal was set aside by lawmakers but now it's back, and expanded to a general principle that the governor can hold a state garage sale anytime he likes. And he'd actually might be selling the garage itself.
The rumor the first time Walker's proposal came up was that the notorious Koch brothers wanted the power plants. Now, according to the Journal Sentinel, state power utilities are salviating over them. Whatever that case, it's obvious Walker still wants to shrink state government holdings for short-term (i.e., his political) gain. And he's kicking things up a notch. Again he hides his attempted power grab in the state budget, widening his own power in ways that are quickly turning the governorship of this state into a one-man autocracy.
So kudos to the Journal Sentinel for today reporting much of this in detail and with great prominence. Then again, it appears the paper's editors haven't quite fully grasped the issue. Nor, yet, has the public. Because in the very same issue of the newspaper that features this new Walker power grab, another story trumpets the apparently good news that the Department of Natural Resources is close to buying 140 acres of pristine private land along the Oconomowoc River near the Kettle Moraine State Forest in the Town of Erin.
The private owners told the newspaper they want to preserve the forest and wetlands on the property. They think selling it to the DNR will ensure that. Whoops! Back on the front page, the governor is revealed as seeking blanket power to sell state-owned properties including "unused" lands.
We already knew that to the governor and his team, wetlands and forests are mostly just economic development opportunities. Wisconsin is Open for Business, ya know. After all, the governor and legislature right now are also busy gutting the state's previously bipartisan Stewardship Program, which sets aside public dollars to buy and set aside precious, pristine lands for the benefit of all. And recall Walker's move in his first budget to allow a specific big-box discount store to build on wetlands in the Green Bay area. The measure passed, but the retailer was spooked by widespread public criticism and pulled out of the deal.
And if you think any deed restrictions would stop this sort of opportunism in the case of the Oconomowoc River Valley land the DNR is looking to scoop up, think again. Here in Milwaukee, we're still shaking our heads at how the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Milwaukee County are busy trampling historic buildings and butterfly habitat to erect an "innovation" center on county grounds in Wauwatosa. Walker's fingerprints are all over that, too, both as governor and when he served (I use the verb advisedly) as Milwaukee County executive. Clearly, this is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Years before that fiasco, despite seemingly solid deed restrictions, UWM cut deeply into the Downer Woods on its main campus to expand an athletic facility, even though the private land donor had stipulated -- and the university had agreed -- never to touch the woods. Apparently clear-cut contract language meant UWM could clear-cut the woods as needed. Lawyers seemingly can find all sorts of ways around what is supposed to be iron-clad. Restoration of the woods is UWM's official policy today, but restoring developed acreage doesn't seem within those plans. It wanted some of that space for other purposes, and took it.
Which is why I'd counsel that caring couple in the Town of Erin to think twice about selling their beautiful property to the state. Instead consider giving it to the Nature Conservancy or some other private environmental organization that is more likely to honor the land than rip it up for cash and political profit the moment our backs are turned.
Meanwhile, just think of Walker as the governor who paved paradise and put up a parking lot. The guy seems to care a lot all about concrete and highways and the huge sums of money associated with them. But little else.