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Report: Finish reform bills to help struggling farmers

Empower Wisconsin | April 1, 2020

By M.D. Kittle  

MADISON — As the COVID-19 pandemic shuts down business and effectively locks down the American consumer, these are particularly stressful times in America’s Dairyland. 

A little more than a month after the Republican-led Assembly passed a package of bills to help the state’s struggling agriculture industry out of its painful economic malaise, the novel coronavirus has stalled markets, relief and profit for farmers. 

A new report by the Institute for Reforming Government lays out the rising challenges confronting Wisconsin farmers and calls on the Senate to finish the business of passing reform legislation that will help bring back prosperity to the Dairyland’s farms. 

“We cannot forget our farmers during this crisis,” said Rob McDonald, chairman of the Board fo the Institute for Reforming Government (IRG). “Ensuring a stable food supply and positive economic outlook is crucial.”

The report, “COVID-19: How Do We Support The Agriculture Industry?”, looks back at the tax relief and regulatory reforms put in place by former Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature. It notes the manufacturing and agriculture tax credit, which, nearly eliminates the tax liability for manufacturing and business activity, two of Wisconsin’s crucial sectors. Gov. Tony Evers’ first budget proposal sought to roll back the credit for many manufacturers, including food processes and other key ag industry partners. 

More so, farmers benefitted from sustained property tax relief in the Walker years, with property taxes, on average, lower in 2018 than when Walker first took office in 2011. 

In these days of the coronavirus outbreak, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension’s Farm Management has highlighted six potential impacts the pandemic could have on agriculture. Among the concerns, dwindling markets and farm prices. 

“A worldwide recession, like the one experienced in 2008-09, would push the previously expected milk price recovery off for at least another year,” the Division of Extension projects. Supply chain slowdowns and shortages, worker shortages caused by quarantines and shelter-at-home orders, and the health of farmers in general could take a serious toll. 

Ag’s impact is huge. The industry contributes an estimated $104.8 billion annually to Wisconsin’s economy through nearly 65,000 farms (although that number is shrinking at an alarming rate) on 14.3 million acres, the IRG policy paper states.  

The Assembly’s relief package, passed in February, includes funding for boosting dairy exports,  grants for dairy processing plants,  increased Extension services, and more income and property tax relief. 

The bills received overwhelming bipartisan support, but they still await Senate action. Another COVID-19 casualty. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) was forced to postpone the March 24 floor session as the virus outbreak shut down even the people’s business. 

“(W)hen the legislative session comes back in session, agricultural aid legislation should not be forgotten because we cannot forget that our farmers are securing our food stability especially during this crisis,” concludes the IRG policy paper.  

“Thanks to Governor Walker, a reform-minded legislature and bipartisan efforts to provide resources to our farmers during a crisis, we can help support an industry that means so much to this state. We implore Wisconsin’s leadership and other states to take further measures to protect farmers and the food supply during the crisis now and to prepare for future crises,” IRG’s McDonald said. 

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