In just three weeks, a state board that’s spent 27 years managing grants for environmental education will go away.
That’s why two lawmakers of different parties, both members of the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board, are making a last-ditch effort to save the board and the grants it gives out. The two say WEEB’s work has touched nearly every corner of the state, helping schools, museums, nature centers and the like teach their communities about the environment and Wisconsin’s forests.
The Joint Finance Committee already rejected one effort to ensure WEEB remains in place, though that was part of a broader Democratic motion on the UW System that failed on a party-line vote.
Now, Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, and Rep. Jeffrey Mursau, R-Crivitz, hope they can convince JFC members of the board’s value as they debate the budget for the Department of Natural Resources.
“We’ve got another kick of the can here trying to get it put in, and I’m hopeful that it does because I think it does a lot of good,” Mursau said.
WEEB was created in 1990 under a law signed by former Gov. Tommy Thompson and became part of the UW System in 1997. Since then, the board has awarded about $8.6 million in grants to 466 entities, which have gotten matching funds of around $10 million.
The board’s members include representatives from agriculture, forestry, labor, the energy industry, environmental educators and conservation groups. Or as Debra Weitzel, a retired Middleton high school science teacher said, it’s not “just a bunch of tree huggers on the board.”
A provision in the 2015-17 budget is doing away with the grants WEEB gives out and removes references to the board in state statutes on July 1. Some members are considering keeping WEEB’s work going, even if under a different name, though the state grants would no longer be there.
A spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker didn’t respond to a request for comment on why his 2015-17 budget eliminated WEEB and the grants — or whether he’d support efforts to bring them back.
The board might go away anyway — at least temporarily — as Republicans appear unlikely to finalize the state budget by June 30. But Mursau is pushing a proposal to reinstate the board if that’s the case.
Shankland is a member of the Joint Finance Committee and had tried reinstating WEEB through the Dems’ motion on the UW System. She said WEEB is an “excellent way” to enhance workforce development efforts by teaching people about things like fishing, forests or sustainable agriculture.
Mursau, meanwhile, isn’t on the Joint Finance Committee, but his “budget buddy” is Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton.
Loudenbeck said her job is to be an advocate for Mursau and bring her fellow Joint Finance members more information and “see if we can get their support.” But she said she’s not too optimistic her colleagues will go along with those efforts.
Still, she noted, several other groups and programs provide environmental education, listing as one example the LEAF forestry program managed by the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education at UW-Stevens Point.
“We do want to remember that there is this other piece that will remain even if WEEB goes away,” she said.
WEEB’s annual grant funding comes from two sources: about $130,000 from the state’s environmental fund and $200,000 from the forestry account of the conservation fund, which comes largely from the forestry mill tax. Walker is looking to eliminate the latter tax as part of his efforts to lower property taxes.
Weitzel, the retired teacher, joined the board years after getting a $5,000 grant from WEEB as an AP environmental science teacher at Middleton High School.
The grant helped fund a system that tracked how much lighting was used in classrooms, boosting the school district’s efforts to become more green. She said her students’ experiment changed behavior from some teachers who learned “you don’t need the lights on at full blast.”
WEEB, she said, funded similar projects throughout the state and helped “determine the direction of environmental education in Wisconsin.”
“I think we accomplished amazing things in the years that we were in existence,” she said. “And I think it’s too bad and very shortsighted that the state government has decided to end our contribution.”