Saturday, May 13, 2017

Stewardship/UW scholarship scheme doesn't add up

Earlier this week, State Sen. Steve Nass, State Rep. Tyler August and State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk released an idea on how to help students afford tuition at UW campuses, through a new program called the Wisconsin Merit Scholarship.

The scholarships would be “merit-based” using test scores and high school GPA, and would give out $5,000 apiece to 1,000 students. And taxpayers allegedly wouldn’t have to pay for it. How?
The funding for the scholarship bill comes from the sale of Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL) lands to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Constitutionally, the BCPL is tasked with selling all lands given to it by the federal government at statehood. The BCPL has already sold 98% of the land and this bill would sell the remaining 2% of land to the DNR. The land, almost entirely located in northern Wisconsin, is estimated to be worth around $80 million dollars. Specifically, the bill directs $10 million per year from the Stewardship Program to be transferred to the Normal School Fund (NSF) at the BCPL to purchase the land over 8 years. The NSF is constitutionally required to distribute any earnings from the fund to the UW System.

“As a commissioner of the BCPL, this plan finally allows us to fulfill our constitutional duty to sell our lands to benefit the UW System” said Adamczyk. “This is a no-brainer as we create a $5 million annual scholarship not only by selling our lands as constitutionally required, but also by doing so without making the taxpayers pay for it.”

When fully implemented, the NSF would have over $100 million dollars in it. Assuming a conservative 5% rate of return on the fund, there would be $5 million available annually for scholarships to be awarded by the UW System. In comparison, the NSF is only returning $300,000 to the UW System – this would grow that amount 15 times larger. With scholarships set at $5,000 it [is] estimated that over 1,000 students will be able to take advantage of these scholarships.
So basically, the plan orders $10 million in Stewardship funds (money used by the DNR to preserve land throughout the state) to be used to buy up the remaining BCPL lands, and then the BCPL invests the money, using the returns to pay for the scholarships.

That seems sketchy, and not just because we shouldn’t be gambling stewardship money in the stock market. But there’s a bigger reason to not buy into this “no-brainer”, and those who care about the state’s natural beauty caught it immediately.
Conservation groups blasted their plan, which would immediately divert one-third of stewardship funding and spend it on land already owned by the state that nobody else has been willing to buy.

“What this bill does is to reduce the funds available for grants that are used to increase public access and land conservation,” Mike Carlson, executive director of Gathering Waters, a nonprofit alliance of Wisconsin conservation land trusts.

“This bill is not in the best interests of the people of Wisconsin,” Carlson said. “It is fiscally imprudent, it literally is using money that is allocated for land acquisition grants to counties and nonprofit conservation organizations to buy land that is already state-owned.”

Why would we sell this back to ourselves?

I’m also skeptical that this move would work out in reality. It’s bad enough that funding for Stewardship purchases has been cut from $86 million to $33.25 million during Scott Walker’s 6 years in office, but now $10 million of that $33.25 million is going to this scheme to get land the state already owns.

And the fact that it’s coming from anti-UW and anti-environment regressives like nASS, August and Matt (“I tried to silence Tia Nelson on climate change”) Adamczyk should make you all the more skeptical.

If we want to come up with a way to help students pay for college, there are much better ways than having the scholarships not be related to financial need and selling off the people’s lands to do it.

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