Big news from Governor Evers’ office today. Wisconsin’s Attorney General, Josh Kaul, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Governor and several state agencies arguing that the Wisconsin Legislature is violating the state constitution by taking power from the executive branch and giving it to legislative committees. And Knowles-Nelson is a central part of the lawsuit.
Many of you are familiar with the story. In recent years, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance has increasingly weaponized its review of Knowles-Nelson projects. Individual legislators have been allowed to object to projects–often anonymously–and the committee has failed to hold timely public hearings or votes on grants submitted to it for review.
Since 2019, the committee has sat on Knowles-Nelson grant applications for an average of 291 days, holding up or sabotaging 27 projects that had already cleared the DNR’s comprehensive application process.
The committee’s practice of stalling Knowles-Nelson spending has been called a “secretive pocket veto.” This year, the legislature blocked funding for the Pelican River Forest, one of the largest conservation projects in state history. Before that it was the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs, a unique property along the shores of Lake Michigan.
Over and over again, the Joint Committee on Finance has blocked the DNR from spending Knowles-Nelson dollars that have already been approved by the full legislature during the state budget. The Governor’s lawsuit argues that this practice is unconstitutional. Once the legislature has approved the funding, state agencies are authorized to disburse that money and an anonymous legislator cannot step in and block the funding.
Gathering Waters and our Team Knowles Nelson partners have been arguing for nearly a year now that the Joint Finance Committee’s practice of anonymous objections and failure to hold timely hearings on Knowles-Nelson grants does not follow state law. Therefore, we have argued, the DNR has the authority to fund projects that were subject to illegitimate objections.
The Governor’s lawsuit goes much further. It challenges the constitutionality of the passive review practice altogether, arguing that the legislature cannot use a committee to block funding that the entire legislature has already approved.
The ramifications go beyond Knowles-Nelson. The lawsuit also cites pay raises for University of Wisconsin System employees that were approved in the 2023 state budget, but subsequently blocked by a legislative committee.
We applaud Governor Evers and Attorney General Kaul for filing this lawsuit and we look forward to supporting the administration in its efforts to rebalance state government, confront legislative overreach, and to get Knowles-Nelson back on track.
And we applaud your efforts! Knowles-Nelson is a high profile issue because of your letters, phone calls, and petition signatures. You have made it clear time and again that Wisconsin’s land and water must not be a casualty of partisan politics.
Now, Knowles-Nelson will have its day in court.
– Charlie Carlin and all your advocates at Team Knowles Nelson.
Featured image by Richard Hurd, 2012.