Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Friday, April 1, 2011

Probst helps legislators analyze natural resources issues

Erin Probst

Wisconsin has increased public access to outdoor recreational opportunities thanks in part to Erin (Rushmer) Probst's work with the Department of Natural Resource's stewardship program.

As an analyst with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Probst is charged with many of the bureau's activities related to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Probst analyzes bills with fiscal components and helps the Joint Committee on Finance make decisions regarding them. The governor's proposal for the biennial state budget is a primary focus for Probst and her colleagues as they evaluate the fiscal implications of proposed legislation.

"Each budget, my position involves reviewing the status of the segregated Conservation Fund, where the DNR's revenues from hunting and fishing licenses, registrations fees for snowmobiles, boats, and all-terrain vehicles, as well as park and forest admission and camping fees are deposited," Probst says. "If there is not enough revenue in the fund to cover the authorized expenditures, then typically our office would raise this in an issue paper written for the Joint Committee on Finance. The paper would present facts regarding revenues and expenditures and suggest alternatives for addressing the issue — perhaps increasing license fees or eliminating expenditures."

The Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship Program is a major initiative that Probst analyzes. Through it, the DNR acquires land and provides grants to local governments and non-profit organizations for land acquisition and property development. Since the program's creation in 1989, Wisconsin has added to its state forests and parks, expanded trail systems, helped local governments create outdoor recreation sites, and partnered with nonprofit agencies to restore wildlife habitat. "The program was reauthorized through June 2020 by the 2007 biennial budget act, and I am proud to have worked on the reauthorization, helping the Joint Committee on Finance make decisions on the amount of funding and how the funding should be allocated within the program," Probst says, adding that she gained hands-on experience working with the Legislative Reference Bureau to draft the changes to the statutes authorizing the program.

The 2006 alum came to La Follette to earn a Master of Public Affairs degree through its accelerated program. University of Wisconsin–Madison seniors accepted into the program can begin taking core public affairs courses and finish their graduate degrees with one additional year as full-time graduate students. While working on her undergraduate majors in journalism and political science Probst was not sure whether to pursue a career in print journalism or in government. "In the end, I decided that though I loved print journalism and newspaper writing in particular, the medium was dying, and it would probably not be a good time to find a job in that area," she says. "So, I went the government route."

Probst initially thought she would go into education policy. "I spent the summer between my first and second years at La Follette with AmeriCorps teaching kindergarten readiness to underprivileged 4-year-olds in Madison," she says. Probst also worked with professor John Witte on a project that looked at charter schools in Arizona. "It was a valuable experience in terms of honing my research and analytical skills," Probst says.

Natural resources became an interest during the public affairs workshop she took in her final year at La Follette, an experience she believes helped her get the position with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. She and her co-authors (all La Follette classmates) produced Evaluating Green Tier: A Practical Guide for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for senator Neal Kedzie of Wisconsin's 11th District, and Mark McDermid, director of the DNR's Bureau of Cooperative Environmental Assistance. The Green Tier program is a collaboration between DNR and Wisconsin businesses to streamline environmental requirements and encourage private-sector environmental innovation. 

In addition to familiarizing her with the DNR, Probst's experience at the La Follette School gave her a good grounding in analysis. "Just being able to think of the right questions to ask is something I learned while at La Follette," she says. "I learned how to approach a policy issue, or in the case of my current position, a budget issue, from a variety of angles, making sure not to leave anything out."

She adds that her training in journalism has been helpful. "It bears repeating that communicating effectively is important in any job," she says.

"The hands-on experience I received through the cost-benefit analysis course and the capstone public affairs workshop, where we went out and worked in the field with real policymakers and government employees, provided me with the most valuable knowledge and experience for my future career," Probst says. "Like anything, the program is what you make of it. I believe it's important to work with your professors and advisors to get the most out of what La Follette has to offer."

Probst appreciated the diversity of courses outside the La Follette School that could be incorporated into the public affairs degree. "Being part of a world-renowned university like the University of Wisconsin–Madison gives you an opportunity for a lot of flexibility to pursue different interests," she says.

That diversity carries over to the career options La Follette grads have, she says. "La Follette provides students with a program that is broad enough to give a taste of many different policy areas, yet specific enough to offer a set of skills that would be useful in any government career."