Many aspects of Gov. Scott Walker’s 2015-’17 budget have come under heavy criticism, but this headline on a state Democratic Party news release really caught our attention:
"Scott Walker's Iowa Caucus Budget Would Sell Off Wisconsin's State Parks."
The Iowa part didn’t surprise us -- it’s just the party’s latest dig at Walker for spending more time out of state as he weighs a potential 2016 presidential bid. That includes Iowa, home to the first voting in that contest.
But would Walker’s budget "sell off Wisconsin’s state parks"? As in, to private bidders?
No. It wouldn’t.
When we asked Democratic Party spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff for evidence to support the claim, it became evident that there was some false advertising in the news release.
"We are referring to the proposals by Walker administration officials at the DNR to sell off naming rights to the state parks to offset his budget cuts to the state park system," Baldauff wrote in an email, adding "the people who do live here aren't likely to want to see our richest natural resources sold off to corporations and campaign donors."
OK. But selling naming rights is far, far different than selling any of Wisconsin’s 64 state parks, forests and recreational areas. And even that is not in the budget itself. Rather, naming rights is an idea that came up in questioning during a March 3, 2015, hearing of the Joint Finance Committee.
Under Walker’s budget, state parks would have to sustain themselves through higher admission and camping fees. That stirred questions from lawmakers when Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp, a Walker appointee, testified.
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, quizzed Stepp about her plans for keeping the state parks in business.
A video of the meeting shows that Stepp said there was sufficient money to run the parks for the next two years, and said officials would use the time to consider ways to best fund parks beyond that.
Said Stepp: "We also are going to be engaged in conversations with external partners and opportunities for us to be able to leverage -- I guess for lack of a better word -- more support within our state parks."
The senator asked whether that meant Stepp was considering selling state parks.
"Well, we’re not talking about that," Stepp responded.
Despite her answer, Erpenbach pressed on and asked if sale of parks had been discussed within the agency.
"We have not discussed that at this point...it’s very premature. I don’t anticipate that’s going to be a problem," she said. "We’re talking about engaging with external partners for opportunities for, say, concessions, sponsorships, while still maintaining the integrity and the unique state park experience for our users."
Stepp declined Erpenbach’s invitation to say what the state might be willing to accept for, say, a sponsorship of Devil’s Lake, the most-visited state park.
When we reached out to the department, assistant deputy secretary Michael Bruhn said in an email that Stepp was drawn into the selling of parks discussion by the questions.
"Cathy’s testimony did NOT say anything about selling state parks. Senator Erpenbach made the claim," he wrote. "We are NOT considering selling state parks."
The state Democratic Party of Wisconsin said Walker’s budget "would sell off Wisconsin’s state parks."
But that is not included in the budget, and Stepp said during testimony it was not under consideration. At best, what is up for discussion is the potential sale of naming rights as a way to derive extra revenue for the parks.
We rate the claim False.