DATCP Secretary-designee Randy Romanski speaks at Ag Day at the Capitol on Wednesday. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
More than 200 farmers, lobbyists and policymakers met at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison on Wednesday for Ag Day at the Capitol to advocate for what they see as the Wisconsin agriculture industry’s biggest legislative priorities in the 2023-25 state budget.
The largest of those priorities is a massive bill introduced by Rep. Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City) that would use $150 million of the state’s multi-billion dollar surplus to upgrade and improve rural roads across the state with posted weight limits to better facilitate the moving of agricultural goods. The bill would establish grant programs to cover 100% of the costs to local governments for taking on these projects.
“We’ve seen the state spend billions of dollars fixing the interstates, and we support that, our products run down those roads,” Wisconsin Farm Bureau lobbyist Tim Fiocchi said. “But first we need to get them out of the field or out of the barn.”
The Farm Bureau and its lobbyists were pushing the farmers in attendance who were set to meet with legislators in the nearby Capitol to name the bill as their No. 1 issue in this year’s budget process. That request was made, however, after Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), who sits on the powerful budget writing Joint Finance Committee, warned that the budget surplus isn’t as big as advertised.
The state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau has estimated the surplus is more than $7 billion, yet Republicans in control of the budget process have downplayed that number, saying that most of that money is from one-time federal dollars and not sustainable in the long term. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has proposed spending increases across the government to take advantage of the surplus.
Marklein, who is a co-sponsor on the agricultural roads bill, said during a legislative panel that he believes the surplus is more like $2.4 billion.
“So $2.4 billion is really what I consider to be the money upon which you can talk about funding schools, farmer mental health, any of these programs, right, because our schools don’t want one-time money, they want an ongoing source of revenue,” he said. “I think a lot of the challenges that I hear both out in the public and even with our colleagues is how do you spend all this money? And we have to kind of dampen their expectations a little bit because I don’t think any of us want to spend on ongoing programs with one-time money.”
At the event on Wednesday, during a lunch at which pitchers of milk were served, Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) Secretary-designee Randy Romanski touted the bipartisan bills that have passed under Evers and promoted a number of agriculture programs in Evers’ proposed budget.
“Events like Ag Day at the Capitol are great because we get to focus on those meaningful discussions to talk about common interests and find ways to get to yes,” he said. “And you know, the good news on that is that things do get done, and we should expect that they get done. Because there’s so much about agriculture that we all collectively agree on, and we have a lot of recent successes to show for that.”
Yet during the event’s legislative panel, there was less talk of bipartisanship from the four Republicans speaking, Marklein, Sen. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) and Reps. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) and Nancy Vandermeer (R-Tomah).
Marklein received a round of applause after complaining about government intrusion in farmers’ business. He later said that farmers across the state were being harmed because “for the last three years, government has been paying people not to work.” (Pandemic-era programs providing assistance to people out of work expired one year ago.)
Aside from the roads bill, Farm Bureau lobbyists told the gathered farmers their other priorities included increasing spending to DATCP programs that respond to animal health issues as a way to strengthen the state’s supply chains — after an outbreak of avian influenza last year resulted in the death of millions of chickens and other birds across the state.
The lobbyists also pushed for conservation and environmental practices that are “farmer-led.”
“We all know and the Legislature has agreed with us over the last couple of years that if you want conservation changes on Wisconsin farms, you ask farmers to make them,” lobbyist Jordan Lamb said, pointing to grant programs for watershed protection, stopping nitrogen from entering local water supplies and encouraging farmers to plant cover crops to protect the soil.
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