This barn in Manitowoc County sits empty after hosting four generations of a family that milked 72 cows twice a day. (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)
This barn in Manitowoc County sits empty after hosting four generations of a family that milked 72 cows twice a day. (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)

Farmers would only get one-fourth of a proposed benefit

The Republicans running the State Assembly’s Agriculture Committee, in keeping up the fast pace at which farm-related bills are moving through the Legislature, approved seven bills Tuesday, although 75 percent of one of the GOP-sponsored tax breaks would go to non-farmers. 

The two tax breaks total roughly $30 million in relief to farmers, with $7 million of that amount going to other self-employed business owners. 

The move comes less than a month after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers called for a special session to address the record number of farm bankruptcies in Wisconsin, with the state losing 800 small dairy farms in 2019, and an increase in farmer suicides.

Evers put forth a $8.5 million package of bills last month to address challenges in the agriculture industry. Since then, Assembly Republicans have said they wanted to go “bigger and bolder” on the state’s investment toward agriculture.

The committee on Tuesday held a public hearing on the seven bills — five of which originated in the Assembly and two proposed by Evers but amended by Republicans —  and then voted to pass them on to the full Assembly immediately afterward. 

“This is the first time I have ever been required to have an executive session (to vote on bills) the same day as a public hearing. Hopefully, I’ll never have to do it again,” said Rep. Gary Tauchen, R-Bonduel, the committee chair. “But the governor has made this a priority, and we recognize what the industry has been through the past few years.”

Assembly Bill 873 would provide $27 million over three years in property tax relief to qualified farmers who could get a credit on taxes that would otherwise be paid on buildings associated with production.  The amount would be capped at $7,500 per year. To qualify, a farmer would have to earn a minimum of $35,000 a year.

Rep.Travis Trandel, R-Cuba City, said he has not yet spoken with the state Department of Revenue, but estimates the first round of checks should be in the hands of farmers by late spring to early summer. The credit would sunset after three years. 

“To me, when you are talking about a $100 billion industry, a $27 million investment seems very appropriate,” Trandel said. “We want to kick this money out the door as quickly as possible.”

Under another bill, farmers would be able to deduct the cost of their health insurance from their taxes, and so would other self-employed business owners. 

Bill co-sponsor, Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, said the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated this proposal would amount to a $9 million tax break, with $2.5 million going to farmers. The other $7 million would go self-employed business owners not associated with farming. 

Loudenbeck also co-sponsored a bill that would require the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents to commission a study that looks at funding and staff levels, curriculum and solutions to mitigating problems that farmers in the state are currently experiencing. 

Another bill called for building on the tradition of agriculture at the university by developing a new program that would be known as the agricultural science and technology program. While some committee members questioned if this was too big an expenditure, Loudenbeck and Trandel agreed that farmers need long-term solutions, and this is one of them. 

One of the special session bills proposed by Evers was amended by the Assembly committee to specify that only small dairy processing plants –defined as producing less than 50 million pounds of finished product annually– would qualify for$600,000 in grants included in the bill. 

An Evers proposal that would increase dairy exports to 20 percent by 2024 was changed to include meat and specialty crops. And the Wisconsin Economic Development Commission would be part of that effort, not only the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.