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SKOL: GOP lawmakers’ priorities are off

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Dave Skoloda

Dave Skoloda is an award-winning journalist and former owner/editor of the Onalaska Community Life and Holmen Courier.

The La Crosse Tribune ran some useful articles Sunday about Wisconsin’s wonderful state parks — useful for several reasons.

For one thing, the stories demonstrated the value of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the nonprofit organization that the Republican-controlled Legislature seems bent on ousting from its offices on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison.

The center collaborated with a UW journalism class to produce the articles that told us, among other things, that some of the state parks make a profit, including, for local interest, the Great River State Trail, while most of them lose money. And some of them are so cash-strapped that they have to rely on the support of volunteer groups to maintain some of their programs.

A steady decrease in state funding for the parks has forced park management to rely more on earned income and donations from friends groups as well as cut staff and natural resources projects to focus on visitor services and infrastructure, according to the young reporters.

The center that facilitated this reporting receives no funding from the university, according to the center’s website. Private foundations, individuals and news organizations support the four-member professional staff and four UW interns who occupy two small offices on campus under an agreement with the university that requires the center to provide paid internships, classroom collaborations, guest lectures and other services.

Why this arrangement is so offensive to the legislative majority is a bit puzzling, unless the state’s ruling politicos don’t want any trained investigative reporters mucking around raising questions about how the state is being run. Such as why, in a state failing to create jobs, parks are understaffed and struggling to keep up on maintenance.

That brings us to another reason the stories were useful — the news that the Great River State Trail actually operated at a surplus yet the trail is badly in need of maintenance, as I pointed out in a column several weeks ago.

So is that surplus being diverted to support other parks rather than meeting the needs of the trail? And why is it in a state that relies so heavily on tourism and the appeal of its natural features that the funds to properly manage our lands continue to decline, as reported by the students?

And then there was the column Sunday by Rick Kyte about the need to pay attention to protection for the state’s waters. He was right on the money in pointing out the absurdity of writing into the state budget a prohibition on the Department of Natural Resources from considering the cumulative effect of high capacity wells being sunk by huge dairy operations on the groundwater in the Central Sands and elsewhere.

This is just one of some 94 nonfiscal policy items that have been inserted into the state budget. He likened it to “saying that 1 teaspoon of water will not affect the water level in a bathtub, so if 10,000 teaspoons of water are removed, that won’t affect the water level either.”

What would we do without independent reporters bringing to public attention these nonsensical acts that are being performed in our name in the state Legislature?

We need more, not less, support for training investigative reporters.

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