An empty feedlot at a farm in Manitowoc County where dairy cattle were sold off due to poor market conditions. (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)
An empty feedlot at a farm in Manitowoc County where dairy cattle were sold off due to poor market conditions. (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)

Credit for the self-employed may benefit many others

Assembly Republicans unveiled their response to Gov. Tony Evers’ call for aid to the state’s struggling farming industry by introducing five bills Monday they claim will put money in the hands of farmers faster than the governor’s proposal. 

While the five Republican lawmakers from rural districts praised the governor for focusing on the plight of farmers during his State of the State address, they claimed Evers’ solutions offered too many long-term rather than short-term solutions. 

Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, said a bill he co-authored would allow farmers to claim 66 percent of property taxes paid on agriculture buildings on their property for a tax credit of up to $7,500. To qualify, the farmer would have to earn at least $35,000 a year.

Tranel called the bill the “most direct benefit of the entire package.”

“Obviously agriculture is going through a really challenging time,” he said. “We are losing two dairy farms a day and income is down 50 percent since 2013.” 

Rep. Amy Loundenbeck, R-Clinton, said a separate proposal would alter how the state taxes health care for self-employed individuals. 

Loudenbeck was not able to say how the state would differentiate between self-employed farmers and other self-employed individuals when determining who would qualify. She estimates the proposal would bring $9 million in tax relief. 

Another bill would require the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents to have system officials study and submit a report on the status of the farming industry in Wisconsin and how the college system would more adequately educate, train and support current and future farmers. 

The Assembly Agriculture Committee will hold a public hearing on the bills at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. 

The quick speed at which the bills could move through the process comes as the Assembly plans to end its legislative session by Feb. 20. If approved by the Assembly, they would still need Senate approval. 

At his State of the State address in January, Evers called for a special session to address the plight of farmers, introducing a package of bills that included an $8.5 million investment in the $110 billion industry.

The state’s agricultural industry accounts for 11 percent of the state’s workforce.  And while Wisconsin still leads the nation in cheese production and produces 14 percent of the nation’s milk, Wisconsin lost about one-third of its dairy farms between 2011 and 2018. Last year, it led the nation in farm bankruptcies. 

Last week, the same Assembly committee that will hold a public hearing Tuesday held a public hearing on three bills proposed by Evers. One, Assembly Bill 790, would restore baseline state funding to the counties to employ three conservation officers.

Under current law, the state Department of Trade and Consumer Protection is supposed to fund three conservation staffers per county. The first should be 100 percent funded by the state, the second should be 70 percent funded by the state and the third should be 50 percent funded by the state.

Over the last 10 years, the state has only fully funded one position. Over the past 20 years, staffing is down by 40 percent. 

Republicans did not mention this bill during the press conference Monday and have routinely said increasing the size of state government is not the solution to the farming crisis. 

Two of Evers’ proposals that Republicans are building on include his effort to increase dairy exports to 20 percent of the national supply by 2024. Evers’ initiative would be overseen by DATCP.

Republicans are suggesting $5 million, rather than the $1 million Evers proposed, goes toward the effort. This includes a new DATCP position.

Evers also wants to give grant priority to small dairy processing plants. His proposal, however, did not define small, which the GOP amendment plans to do.