Madison — A controversial $500,000 grant for promoting hunting and fishing was awarded Thursday by Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp despite tough questions from the public and a committee meeting earlier in the day.
The United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation, a group with close ties to GOP politicians and other conservative organizations but a scant track record, was the only applicant for the award.
Stepp awarded it to United Sportsmen late Thursday afternoon after the Sporting Heritage Committee that morning voted 4-1 in favor of the grant. The vote came after the group took public testimony that was entirely opposed to it.
In announcing her decision, Stepp released a finding by her legal counsel that United Sportsmen of Wisconsin met the criteria in state law for the grant and said in a statement that she had to award the money to United Sportsmen under a budget provision written by Republican lawmakers.
"I will be inserting clear and specific language within the grant contract to ensure that desired outcomes are met in an efficient and transparent manner with ample opportunity for public scrutiny. We will work to incorporate many of the concerns and ideas we heard during today's hearing into the grant contract," Stepp said.
United Sportsmen has been active in elections and lobbying over the past two years on behalf of conservative causes. But it has no history of doing the kind of training called for in the grant, though its board members have done so as part of other groups.
The grant was quickly approved in May in a session of the Joint Finance Committee on a motion written by Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) and Rep. Dan LeMahieu (R-Cascade). The DNR posted the grant on an agency web page but did not put out a news release on it.
Its language prevented most established conservation groups, including the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and state chapters of Pheasants Forever, National Wild Turkey Federation and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, from applying for the grant.
Lone no vote
Mark LaBarbera of Hazel Green, the sole member of the committee to vote against United Sportsmen, asked the group's president questions about its finances, structure and qualifications, stressing that "people around here think this just doesn't smell right." Afterward, he said he wasn't satisfied with the answers as given.
"I didn't think we had a clear enough answer that I could vote yes so I had to vote no," LaBarbera said.
LaBarbera asked United Sportsmen president Andy Pantzlaff if he could provide a copy of United Sportsmen's letter from the federal Internal Revenue Service showing it had received tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status.Pantzlaff, who called into the meeting , said he could provide that with enough time.
As of Thursday, there was no entry on the popular website, GuideStar, that United Sportsmen had filed the annual reports that federally recognized tax-exempt groups are supposed to file with the IRS, though sometimes those reports can lag in being filed or posted to GuideStar. Pantzlaff didn't respond to a reporter's phone messages and email request for this information.
The drafting file for the budget bill shows that a lawmaker asked for a specific change to the grant motion so the group receiving the grant would not have to be recognized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
In the legal memo released by Stepp, her chief legal counsel Tim Andryk noted that, "(United Sportsmen is) not required by the statute to be tax exempt or be a sec. 501(c)(3) organization as inquired about at today's hearing, and thus a letter from IRS is not needed."
In his statements to the committee by phone, Pantzlaff said his group would try to triple the grant amount by seeking private matching funds; not paying its board members; doing a national search for a full-time executive director; and hiring a full-time director of operations and part-time staffer to work on public policy.
The group would seek to train people who could serve as long-term mentors for people wanting to learn to hunt and fish, he said. The group also would bring programs such as the National Rifle Association's Eddie Eagle gun safety program into schools to get youths interested in shooting sports.
"Failure is not an option," Pantzlaff said. "We have to try something new and innovative.
The grant will provide $200,000 this year and $300,000 in 2014. Thereafter, it will provide $450,000 in each two-year budget. The grantee will have to provide $150,000 of its own funds in matching dollars in each future two-year budget.
The state budget includes no requirement that the grant be put out to competitive bid in the future, but Gunderson said the DNR could do that and likely would.
Gunderson said conservation groups such as the Gathering Waters and River Alliance of Wisconsin also received grants from the DNR for specialized purposes with little or no competition.
Most of those testifying praised the purpose of the grant but questioned why more of the state's many hunting and fishing groups weren't able to apply. Ray Anderson, a retired DNR grants employee who now teaches hunter safety, said he was concerned by the process of the grant and the fact it excluded the National Wild Turkey Federation, a group that he belongs to.
"It would be prudent for the Legislature and the DNR to hit pause on this," Anderson said.
The five-member Sporting Heritage Committee is composed of Gunderson; Rep. Al Ott (R-Forest Junction); LaBarbera; Sen. Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn) and Bill Torhorst of Oregon. Ott, the first committee member called upon to vote, initially passed, voting yes after all the other committee members had voted and he was called on a second time.
Though its foundation was legally established in January, United Sportsmen of Wisconsin was formed about two years ago and has been lobbying lawmakers in favor of sporting legislation such as the creation of a wolf hunt as well as bills to ease the way for a controversial open-pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin and to better enable development in wetlands.
The group also sponsored the Sportsmen Freedom Fest and Concert in Lake Delton with Americans for Prosperity and the National Rifle Association in October 2012, just ahead of the presidential election. In 2011, the group Citizens for a Stronger America reported in its tax filing giving $235,000 to United Sportsmen along with large donations to two social conservative groups: Wisconsin Right to Life and Wisconsin Family Action