Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has called on the Republican-led Legislature to convene next Tuesday to take up a roughly $8.5 million package of eight bills aimed at addressing the state’s struggling agriculture industry.
Evers described the bills, which have been met with some interest from Republicans in the Assembly and Senate, as a “three-pronged approach” to reinvest in Wisconsin farmers. Evers first announced the package of bills during his Wednesday State of the State address.
The proposed funding would be distributed over the 2019-21 biennium, he added.
“It is anything but a handout,” Evers told reporters Thursday. “An investment in farming in Wisconsin is going to help all of Wisconsin.”
One of the proposed bills would create the Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports and set a goal of increasing Wisconsin’s dairy exports to 20% of the U.S. milk supply by 2024 through boosting efficiency in small and medium farms and building up the state’s dairy brand. The state currently exports about 14% of the nation’s milk supply.
Additional bills would expand grant opportunities for small dairy processing plants, assist farmers seeking to expand or diversify their operations, establish five regional positions across the state to provide farmers with mental health support, and create 20 county-based positions with the Division of Extension of UW-Madison to provide farmers with free research and technical assistance.
To continue his focus on farmers and rural issues, Evers also said he’ll create the Office of Rural Prosperity within the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to help people access programs addressing rural needs.
Evers said that could entail connecting farming operations with financial incentive opportunities.
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“We hear a lot about Foxconn, but the fact of the matter is (WEDC has) opportunities for our rural people in our rural communities as well,” Evers said.
Both Evers and Randy Romanski, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said they feel good about the package of bills, which they said should be able to garner bipartisan support.
“Agriculture is not a partisan issue,” Romanski said. “I think everybody supports investing in our rural economic structure and our farmers and supporting their dedication and commitment to the rural economy. I think we look at this as an opportunity to work together.”
While some Republican lawmakers criticized Evers following his State of the State speech for not collaborating with GOP lawmakers before unveiling the bills, Evers argued many of the issues should be familiar to state lawmakers.
“The fact is, many of these items we’re talking about today and last night were in my budget, so there should be no surprises,” Evers said. “We’re past the point of pointing fingers. We just need to get work done.”
With the Assembly likely to adjourn in February and the Senate possibly staying in session into March, there isn’t much time for Evers’ bills to come to fruition.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement that Evers’ bills will be referred to committee for hearings, but the Assembly will not be on the floor next week.
“We’re currently reviewing the legislation and gathering input from farmers, including farmers from our own caucus,” Vos said in a statement. “It’s important that we continue to listen to Wisconsinites who live in our rural communities before moving forward on anything.”
Following Evers’ Wednesday speech, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he was interested to see what the bills entail. He added it’s uncertain if all the bills can be passed before the Senate adjourns.
“The governor is right, we’re losing two dairy farms a day and we’re all ears when it comes to what he’s going to propose and whether or not it’s something we can get bills drafted on and through the full Legislature,” Fitzgerald said Wednesday. “Before the end of this session, that’s pretty aggressive so we’ll see how it works out.”