Assembly Republicans have provided additional details on their plan for a farm assistance package that they say is bigger and bolder than what was proposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, but the full cost of the bills remains unknown.
Speaking to reporters Monday, GOP lawmakers said the package of five bills would include an estimated $9 million in health insurance deductions for farmers and a three-year targeted tax credit for the state’s smallest farms, as well as amendments to two of the bills proposed earlier this year by Evers. Republicans also signaled a likely rejection of Evers’ proposal to add staffing to state departments aimed at assisting farmers.
“We built on some of his proposals, but some of his proposals do take us in the wrong direction with simply just adding a bunch of government employees,” said Rep. Tyler August, R- Lake Geneva. “They need actual help; they don’t need more government bureaucrats.”
The full cost of the package of bills was not available Monday, and it’s uncertain whether the Senate will approve the package. The Assembly Committee on Agriculture will take up discussion of the bills on Tuesday.
“We’re really encouraged to see Republicans follow the governor’s lead in investing in agriculture in rural communities,” Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said Monday.
Facing a struggling agriculture industry, hundreds of Wisconsin farms shuttered last year. Wisconsin farmers received more than $432 million in federal aid between September 2018 and November 2019, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Farmers would be able to apply the tax credit to up to 66% of property taxes on farm buildings. The credit would be capped at $7,500, and claimants would have to make at least $35,000 in annual farm income to be eligible.
Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, said the intention is to make the credit available as soon as possible.
“Our farmers are feeling pain and need help right now,” Tranel said.
The GOP proposal also would direct UW-Madison to compile a report on ways to best serve the state’s farmers and conduct research on technology specific to agriculture.
Another bill would require the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to work with the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to increase state exports of farm products including milk, meat and crop produce. Under the bill, up to $5 million would be allocated to expanding exports — amended up from the $1 million proposed by Evers.
Republicans also amended Evers’ bill to award grants to dairy processing plants only if they produce no more than 50 million pounds of processed product per year. The grant would provide $1.2 million — split over two years — to eligible plants.
Evers initially proposed increasing dairy export spending in his 2019-21 budget, but the item was stripped by Republicans.
With the Assembly expected to adjourn this month and the Senate likely closing out the session next month, the bills have little time to reach Evers, who has final say over whether they become law.
Republicans last week announced their plan to unveil an agriculture package to eclipse the $8.5 million proposal made by Evers last month in his State of the State address.
Evers’ bills would expand grant opportunities for small dairy processing plants, assist farmers seeking to expand or diversify their operations and establish five regional positions across the state to provide farmers with mental health support. The bills would also create 20 county-based positions with UW-Extension to provide farmers with free research and technical assistance.
At Evers’ request, the Republican-led Senate and Assembly opened special sessions on the package but have not formally discussed the bills. Republican lawmakers have said they’re not interested in adding positions to government departments.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said last week Senate Republicans were “all ears when it comes to plans that help farmers.”
Last week, Evers said he would be happy to consider a spending increase proposed by Republicans.