A bipartisan package of bills aimed at helping struggling farmers has passed the Assembly, but it’s uncertain if the entire package will have full support in the Senate.
During what is expected to be the Assembly’s final session of the year, lawmakers also passed bills that would provide pay increases for State Patrol troopers, institute restrictions on labeling some food products and mandate cursive writing in Wisconsin schools. Leaders in both chambers also signaled the end of a separate GOP-led bill that would have created a new committee — with a majority consisting of farm interest groups — with the power to craft rules for large farms.
The farm bill package, which GOP lawmakers brought forward in response to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ call for action last month, includes a three-year, $27 million annual tax credit for farmers.
Farmers would be able to apply the tax credit to up to 66% of property taxes on buildings “exclusively used for farming.” 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 for the credit.
Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, described the tax-credit legislation, which passed unanimously, as the “biggest and most important bill” in the package in terms of short-term relief for farmers.
“We have to do something to show farmers we understand the struggle they are going through,” Tranel said.
The Senate is expected to take up the bills next month in its final session of the year. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said his caucus is looking over the package of agriculture bills, but didn’t commit to passing all of them.
“We’re kind of picking and choosing what we think will get support,” Fitzgerald said. “I think we’re trying to do what we think is best for the ag community.”
The package also includes an estimated $9 million in annual health insurance deductions for sole proprietors such as farmers and amended versions of two of Evers’ bills, including spending $5 million on expanding Wisconsin agricultural exports.
About $2.5 million of the health insurance deductions would apply to farmers, with the remainder going to other self-employed small businesses.
Several of the items brought forward by Republicans were included in Evers’ 2019-21 budget, including similar health insurance deductions for self-employed individuals. However, they were removed by the Republican-led Legislature.
Assembly Republicans on Thursday failed in another attempt to override one of Evers’ budget vetoes.
The proposed override targeted Evers’ veto in the budget of an allocation of $1 million over the biennium in grants for “fab-labs,” or fabrication laboratories and workshops with high-tech tools and hands-on learning.
Evers has argued the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. has the ability to allocate those funds on its own and Democratic lawmakers on Thursday, who noted that WEDC already has allocated $750,000 to fabrication laboratories this fiscal year, criticized the override attempt as political posturing by Republicans.
A veto override requires at least 66 votes to pass. The attempt failed Thursday along party lines, 63-36.
State Patrol contracts
The Assembly also approved new Wisconsin State Patrol contracts that would retroactively raise trooper salaries by 9.9%.
The deal covering 370 troopers would boost starting salaries by $6,000 a year and adjust the pay scale for all troopers based on their years of service as part of a move to boost recruitment and retention. The deal is retroactive to the two-year period that ended in July 2019. Troopers would receive a lump sum payment.
The agreement was reached after a previous deal, costing about twice as much, was rejected by Republican legislative leaders. Under that rejected plan, starting salaries would have increased as much as 20%. Under the new deal, all troopers would get a 2% raise. It also would reduce when a trooper is eligible for top-scale pay from 10 years to seven.
The contract heads to Evers’ desk for final approval.
Assembly Republicans also passed a bill to institute mandatory cursive education for Wisconsin students.
Some Democratic lawmakers have criticized the bill for lacking any attached funding to cover the cost of added curriculum. Opponents have said they’d rather let school boards decide when to teach cursive writing.
Republicans have argued cursive stimulates students’ minds and trains them to think creatively.
The state Department of Public Instruction has estimated the bill to cost $1.7 million to $6 annually in materials, as well as another $250,000 to $1.6 million to train teachers.
Evers, a former educator, has not weighed in on the bill.
A trio of bills that would add restrictions to the labeling of meat, milk and dairy products also passed the Assembly Thursday.
The bills prohibit labeling or selling: a product as meat unless it includes animal flesh; and a beverage as milk unless it comes from cows or certain other animals. It also prohibits labeling a product as cream, yogurt or cheese unless it includes dairy.
The meat bill would take effect immediately if signed into law, while 10 other Midwest states must approve the milk and dairy rules by 2031 before those bills can take effect.
The bills need to pass the Senate before going to Evers’ desk.
The Assembly also approved a bill to give owners of waterfront property the right to build docks and other structures on other people’s land.
The bill follows a 2018 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that found riparian rights do not necessarily apply on certain man-made water bodies known as “flowages,” such as Lake Wisconsin. Under the legislation, the owner of land abutting a navigable waterway would be presumed to be a riparian owner entitled to the same rights – as long as those rights are not specifically prohibited.
Supporters say the bill corrects a bad Supreme Court ruling and restores rights in place for more than a century, but opponents say it unconstitutionally strips lake bed owners of their rights with no compensation.
The bill heads to the Senate next month.
Leaders in the Assembly and Senate say they will not take up a GOP-led bill that would have revamped the state’s process for crafting siting rules for large farms.
Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the bill, which was introduced and fast-tracked in the waning days of the session, will not reach a vote before the Assembly adjourns Thursday and the Senate concludes its session next month. Both chambers had originally scheduled the bill for vote this week.
“I don’t see it coming back at this point,” Fitzgerald told reporters Thursday.
Vos told reporters he supports the concept of the bill, but added it likely needs more time.
“Our original proposal was a good bill that gave farmers certainty and predictability while maintaining local control,” bill co-author Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said in a statement. “This was my goal from the beginning of the process.”
The bill followed criticism by agricultural groups that previous Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection committees tasked with reviewing and recommending changes to the state’s farm-siting rules failed to include enough input from farmers.
Under the bill, changes to existing farm-siting rules would be considered and recommended to DATCP by a nine-member board. Five of those members would represent farm organizations.
The bill also would have eliminated a current state rule that requires DATCP to review the state’s now 14-year-old livestock-facility siting rule every four years. Proposed updates to setbacks from property lines; management plans; odor, nutrient and runoff management; and manure storage facilities, have never been passed.
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