Wisconsin gas tax dollars provided significant financial support to a liberal Wisconsin environmental group from 1998 to 2015, documents obtained by Media Trackers show. The documents show that the non-profit organization named “Wisconsin Lakes” (formerly the Wisconsin Association of Lakes) received $200,000 a year through the DNR’s Lake Protection Grant Program. Wisconsin Lakes received this money from the Water Resources account of the Conservation Fund.
According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau information paper, the main source of revenue to the Water Resources account is an annual transfer of motorboat fuel tax revenue into the account. The amount of the transfer each fiscal year is calculated by multiplying the motor fuel tax on 50 gallons of gasoline on April 1 of the previous fiscal year by the number of motorboats registered as of January 1 of the previous fiscal year, and then multiplying this result by 1.4.
The LFB report said the DNR was expecting $12,883,500 to be transferred to the Water Resources account under this formula for 2014-15. That number may or may not reflect the actual use of gasoline by boaters. From the LFB report:
Lake protection grants may be awarded from the Water Resources Account for a variety of purposes, including management projects that will improve or protect the quality of water in lakes, flowages, or natural lake ecosystems. A grant for a lake management project may be made for up to 75% of the cost of the project, up to $200,000 per grant. Since fiscal year 1998-99, this has primarily included one contract for $200,000 awarded annually to Wisconsin Lakes.
So, what is Wisconsin Lakes? Past affiliations and behavior paint the picture of an organization with a very liberal agenda. Wisconsin Lakes joined several other groups in an effort to raise concerns about what the EPA will look like under a Donald Trump presidency. One of the groups involved in that effort was Citizen Action Wisconsin, which has a very liberal pedigree. And for at least a three-year period, the lake protection grant was the source for nearly two-thirds of Wisconsin Lakes funding (see attached IRS 990 forms)
While Wisconsin Lakes no longer receives $200,000 annually from DNR, the fact remains that they received money from the state for their environmental activism for years, and that money came from the gas tax, raising questions about the legitimate use of the gas tax to fund non-road related projects. This is particularly relevant as an intra-party squabble among Republican legislative leaders and Governor Scott Walker plays out over increasing the state’s gas tax to pay for transportation projects.
Wisconsin Lakes has been listed as a registered lobbying principle on the Wisconsin Ethics Commission’s “Eye on Lobbying” website. Their efforts include opposition to AB 582, a private property rights protection bill, in the 2015-2016 legislative session.
Millions of dollars in gas tax revenues are being sent to the DNR every year, and for many years that money has funded, among other things, a liberal group that has used taxpayer dollars to advance its political agenda. Wisconsin Lakes no longer receives the annual grant but other non-profit groups still do. The Wisconsin Lakes story is a cautionary tale for Republican lawmakers who support raising the Wisconsin gas tax and other fees to help pay for roads. It would be instructive to first determine how all that money is now being spent.