Wisconsin Lawmakers Roll Out Bills to Help Farmers

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature unveiled a package of seven bills Monday providing relief to the state’s struggling farmers in the form of tax breaks, a boost to agricultural exports and an enhanced partnership with the University of Wisconsin system.

While acknowledging they did not know what the cost structure of the proposed legislation would look like, Republicans from the State Assembly pitched the legislative package as an improvement on agricultural aid initiatives undertaken by Democratic Governor Tony Evers in recent weeks, including his announcement of a special legislative session in January to take on his $8.5 million plan to help out the state’s farmers. That special session is concurrent with a separate regular session of the Legislature as of Monday.

Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Tyler August, R- Lake Geneva, echoed state lawmakers’ popular refrain emphasizing the importance of Wisconsin’s $100 billion per year agricultural industry, which employs about 12% of the Badger State’s workforce.

He stated that the members of the GOP caucus “really appreciate that the governor is finally paying attention to rural Wisconsin and these issues after being in office for a year and focusing seemingly only on the Madison and Milwaukee areas.”

August pitched the agricultural aid package as an improvement on Evers’ proposals, some of which he said “take the state in the wrong direction with simply adding more government employees.” He claimed that farmers statewide and others working in the agricultural industry told GOP lawmakers that “they need actual help, they don’t need more government bureaucrats.”

Fueled by changing market tastes, a global surplus of milk driving down prices, growing economies of scale, and costly tariffs and trade wars, Wisconsin’s flagship dairy industry lost about one-third of its dairy farms between 2011 and 2018, with farms shuttering at a rate of more than 500 per year since 2015. The state also leads the nation in farm foreclosure and has seen a troublingly steady rise in farmers dying by suicide in recent years.

Perhaps the most noteworthy of the GOP’s proposals is short-term tax relief to farmers in the form of property tax credits and changes to how the state taxes self-employed farmers.

Representative Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, discussed the tax credits Monday, saying that the legislation, of which he is a lead sponsor, would allow farmers with a minimum of $35,000 in annual income to claim a credit of up to 66% of property taxes paid on buildings used exclusively for farming, which would be capped at $7,500 per farming entity. Tranel said the credit has been sunset at three years in hopes that the state’s agricultural economy will have turned around by then.

Further addressing farmers’ taxes, Representative Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, discussed a roughly $9 million plan that would broaden acceptable tax deductions for self-employed farmers by allowing them to deduct from earnings that include money they make off the farm in addition to what they make on the farm. Under current Wisconsin law, farmers are only allowed such deductions for net earnings on their farm.

Representative Jon Plumer, R-Lodi, stressed the need to boost the state’s dairy exports, to which Evers’ proposal promised $1 million. The GOP legislators have built on that initiative with their own $5 million agricultural exports proposal, which would create new positions at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation as one effort to strengthen ties between small dairy farmers, the public-private hybrid jobs agency and the state’s Department of Agriculture.

The Republicans’ legislative package also calls on the University of Wisconsin system, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in particular, to further study agricultural programs to address the myriad financial and technical problems plaguing Wisconsin farmers.

Evers’ office could not be reached Monday for reaction to the GOP legislators’ proposals, but any relief for farmers would have to pass his desk after going through both chambers of the Legislature. Given the prevailing atmosphere of distrust and bickering between the Republican-controlled Legislature and the governor’s office, the shape and fate of any agricultural aid package remains to be seen.

The Assembly’s legislative package proceeds to its agricultural committee on Tuesday, which will hold a public hearing and an executive session regarding the bills.

Melissa Baldauff, a spokesperson with Evers’ office, said Monday that “we are happy to see that Republicans in the legislature are following the governor’s lead when it comes to investing in agriculture and our rural communities.”

Baldauff called out GOP legislators’ inaction on farmer aid, saying “it’s unfortunate that they didn’t support some of these ideas when the governor first proposed them in the budget a year ago but it’s good news that they’re ready to work together on these issues now.”

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