Public lands serve Wisconsin taxpayersName the state agency that operates without a single taxpayer dollar; generates all of the state’s financial aid to public elementary, middle and high school libraries; is a reliable source for financing community projects including economic development; and is a small, but committed, player in the fight to keep Wisconsin forests available for sustainable timber production and public recreation.
By: Doug La Follette, Kurt Schuller and J.B. Van Hollen, Superior Telegram
Name the state agency that operates without a single taxpayer dollar; generates all of the state’s financial aid to public elementary, middle and high school libraries; is a reliable source for financing community projects including economic development; and is a small, but committed, player in the fight to keep Wisconsin forests available for sustainable timber production and public recreation.
If you guessed the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, Wisconsin’s oldest state agency, you guessed right.
More than 165 years ago, when our state’s founders were drafting a constitution, they couldn’t agree on much. Among the issues being debated were a woman’s right to own property, African-Americans’ and immigrants’ right to vote and the right of privately owned banks to operate in the state.
The Constitutional Convention of 1846 dissolved in chaos with agreement on only one thing: the concept of putting the attorney general, the secretary of state and the state treasurer in charge of accepting federal land grants and managing a sizable portion of the land sale proceeds in trust as a stable source of support for public schools and libraries. This idea became part of Article X of our constitution, which was ratified two years later at the time of statehood.
The three of us have a constitutional duty to carry on that mission. It is a responsibility we take very seriously.
The Common School Fund continues to have a significant impact on education today because our forefathers had the vision to grow that fund through the addition of fines, fees and forfeitures that accrue to the state, including unclaimed property. School Trust Funds managed by the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands now total more than $925 million.
Through good times and bad, the board has managed these trust funds for the benefit of public education by making investments in Wisconsin communities. This money is primarily invested in loans to municipalities and school districts through the board’s State Trust Fund Loan Program. The board has financed countless road and sewer projects, building repairs and renovations, fire truck and squad car purchases and other local projects throughout the state. Wisconsin communities have been great customers, and the board has not experienced a single loan default in 150 years.
Over the past five years alone, we have lent $725 million for local projects, including nearly $90 million in funding for economic development. For example, Oneida County borrowed $3.4 million to develop a manufacturing plant leased to a local start-up that has grown to more than 50 employees, and the city of Superior just borrowed $750,000 to fund incentives for expansion of a manufacturing facility. The Whitefish Bay School District borrowed $12 million in 2010 to renovate school facilities. The Mayville School District was just approved for $225,000 to install fiber optic technology, and the town of Jackson in Washington County received approval for $300,000 to complete 2013 road projects.
It is our job to provide a stable, substantial and sustainable source of funds for public school libraries. Through the programs we manage, Wisconsin’s public school libraries are provided money annually for the purchase of books, newspapers and periodicals, web-based resources, computer hardware and software and other library assets. We have generated enough money from our investments to put a book in the hand of every child in Wisconsin. This year alone, Milwaukee Public Schools received more than $3.6 million in library aid, while Germantown received $150,327 and Green Bay got $927,385.
The bottom line is that the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands is invested in every corner of Wisconsin and helps reduce local property taxes by providing funds to your public school district. Our website, bcpl.wisconsin.gov, contains a list of 2013 school aid distributions — please look up your district; you might be surprised.
The structure of the board has served the trust funds well over the past 165 years. We maintain a long-term view focused on the prudent management of the trust assets without the consideration or influence of partisan politics.
Today, we manage nearly $930 million in financial assets, more than 77,000 acres of remaining School Trust Lands for sustainable timber harvests and public recreation, and maintain the original state land records; and we do it all with a staff of nine full-time employees and not a single penny of taxpayer money. In doing so, the board carries on a mission conceived with foresight by our founders more than 165 years ago.
It is a legacy and a sacred trust that has well served every citizen of this great state, one which we believe should be preserved for future generations.
Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette, Treasurer Kurt Schuller and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen are members of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands.