Anonymous GOP lawmaker who canceled park funding is a coward

A coward sits on the Legislature’s budget committee. A GOP senator or representative killed funding for a land conservation project and doesn’t have the backbone to own that decision. It’s a sad day for democracy when elected public officials hide their official acts from the people.

At issue are 131 acres of stunning, undeveloped land along the shores of Lake Michigan known as the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs. It’s close to Port Washington, about 80 miles northeast of Madison. The site boasts towering bluffs from which anyone can view amazing sunrises before a shaded hike in Cedar Gorge.

Anyone could, that is, if conservationists get their way. As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust wants to buy the land and protect it as a park for Wisconsinites. The land trust stepped up after multiple development proposals had fallen through.

Lakefront acreage is expensive, and the land trust has through September to come up with $5 million to buy the land. It has about $4 million so far.

The state Department of Natural Resources had approved a $2 million Knowles-Nelson Stewardship grant for the purchase when fundraising wasn’t as far along. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee had to sign off on the grant, but a member of the committee anonymously blocked it.

No one is saying who stymied the money. The four Democrats on the committee insist they didn’t do it. The 12 Republicans are mum. The identity of the lawmaker remains a mystery.

It’s bad enough that one lawmaker can blow up funding for a worthwhile conservation project. That the lawmaker can do it secretly is outrageous. It’s called a public office because it’s supposed to be accountable and transparent to the public.

Maybe voters will agree that the project didn’t deserve the money. Maybe they won’t. Whichever side one falls on, there’s now no opportunity to punish or reward the lawmaker responsible, no opportunity to lobby for a change of mind or to stand strong.

Whichever lawmaker is responsible should come clean and explain why. Without that transparency, the public can only speculate about why this happened. Does the lawmaker have a conflict of interest? Does the lawmaker simply hate parks? No one knows.

Culpability goes beyond a single anonymous Republican lawmaker. Some members of the committee must know who it was. Certainly at least one of the co-chairs — Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, and Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green — knows.

Their silence perpetuates an unwritten system that serves only lawmakers afraid to take a tough stand. The cost is their constituents’ right to know and government accountability. But, hey, they might want their colleagues to have their back someday when they anonymously block funding for something. Best not to make waves.

The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust still needs to raise $1 million. If it doesn’t, an anonymous buyer is reportedly waiting to swoop in, buy the property and develop it.

The state created stewardship grants for exactly this sort of project, but one anonymous coward decided he or she knows better. Now it’s up to the goodwill of donors and even children selling lemonade to raise money. If they fail, what could have become a gem of Wisconsin open spaces is likely to become just one more upscale housing enclave on the lake.