Farmers gather for Ag Day at the Capitol

Legislators, lobbyists discuss political updates affecting agriculture 

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MADISON, Wis. — More than 275 farmers and agriculturists gathered Jan. 31 at the Monona Terrace in Madison for Ag Day at the Capitol. The day started with updates on legislation and concluded with attendees walking to the Capitol to meet with legislators from their respective areas.

Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Brad Olson welcomed the group before turning the floor over to Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Randy Romanski.

“Whether it’s your first time or your 100th time speaking to a legislator, your voice matters,” Romanski said. “Think of ways you can interact with people in Washington, D.C., as well. There’s still time to get things done.”

The Wisconsin Realtors Association’s director of political and governmental affairs, Joe Murray, provided an update on the political landscape in the state.

“We’re in a very historically unique moment in Wisconsin politically, and everybody is going to be impacted one way or the other,” Murray said.

Murray pointed to the April 4, 2023, Wisconsin Supreme Court election as the source of this political significance. After 15 years of center-right control, the court shifted to center-left control, and with it came orders for new state legislative maps.

Murray said that in a 4-3 ruling, the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided Dec. 22, 2023, that the state’s legislative maps violate the Wisconsin Constitution because they include districts that are not contiguous. They must be redrawn for the 2024 elections.

“Some legislators might be in, and some might be out,” Murray said. “In other cases, people will be paired. Districts will be far more competitive, which will alter the political landscape and affect my industry and yours.”

This redistricting process is scheduled to be completed by March 15. With maps in place for the 2024 elections, Murray said there could be many new faces in the next session of the Wisconsin Legislature.

“Republicans will lose seats when these maps change,” Murray said. “There will be fewer Republicans and more Democrats in Legislature, and all of us who do what we do for a living will have to be cognizant of it. However, agriculture is one of those industries that has more bipartisan support than a lot of others.”

Murray said the makeup of this Legislature will impact issues like property taxes, private property rights, landlord-tenant regulations, building and development issues and more.

“For example, over 20 landlord bills have been introduced since December that will significantly change tenant-landlord law as we know it, and they’re not good for landlords,” Murray said. “That April 4 election will have more to say about the next 6-10 years than just about any election we’ve had in this state in the last 30 years.”

During issue briefings, Jason Mugnaini, executive director of governmental relations at WFBF, discussed the Farm Bureau health plan bill, which would provide affordable comprehensive health coverage to members. Passing this bill is the organization’s legislative priority. The bill would create an exemption to allow WFBF to offer medically underwritten health plans. In the seven states in which they are operating, these plans have provided savings of 30%-60% compared to unsubsidized Affordable Care Act plans.

With the legislative session coming to an end, the bureau wants representatives and senators to put these bills up for a vote and then send them to the governor’s desk.

Tim Fiocchi, of WFBF, spoke about the $150 million Agricultural Road Improvement Program.

“Make sure your local officials hear about which roads in your area need to be fixed to help you do your job every day,” Fiocchi said. “The application and first round of grants will be announced soon. Don’t wait to apply.”

During a legislative panel, Sens. Patrick Testin, Brad Pfaff and Joan Ballweg and Reps. Tony Kurtz, Dave Considine and Travis Tranel shared their thoughts on legislation being considered and opportunities to help farmers.

Before the current session ends, Ballweg is hoping to see Assembly Bill 440, which relates to permits for the overweight transport of certain fluid milk products, passed. She said this would help cheese production in Wisconsin. 

The passing of a transparent and open carbon calculator is also on Ballweg’s wish list. This bill would mandate a service that gives Wisconsin farmers access to a website that helps them obtain a carbon score and learn how to improve that score through a transparent process.

Ballweg has also seen support for a grazing bill that would provide grant money and technical assistance to farmers who want to establish a managed grazing system.

Pfaff wants to see lower healthcare costs and has legislation in process to cap the price of insulin. Considine said a bill introduced that day would offer a significant tax credit for beginning farmers.

Improving farmers’ access to healthcare services was also mentioned as a need. Tranel said that the week before Ag Day at the Capitol, both houses passed legislation that require two emergency medical service volunteers to serve on the state board. Tranel said this can enhance emergency medical services in rural areas which volunteers often perform.

Workforce shortages were also discussed, and Ballweg assured the audience they were not alone in this issue.

“No matter what industry you’re in, there is a workforce shortage,” she said. “We need to do more to incentivize folks to work in Wisconsin. We need a tax package to keep people and draw people here.”

Testin agreed.

“There is no question that the labor shortage is one of the biggest issues we face as a state,” he said. “One of the best things we can do is talent attraction, and one of the best ways to do that is through tax cuts.”

Testin said Texas, Florida, Tennessee and South Dakota have the biggest influx of people because they are low-tax states.

“Your dollar stretches further in those places than it does in California, New York, Illinois or Wisconsin,” Testin said. “It’s unfortunate that 95% of the tax cuts we sent to the governor were vetoed, but we have more working their way through Legislature right now to provide significant tax relief. If we want to be competitive, we need to have a tax environment that reflects that.”

Testin also addressed migrant workforce issues and said they have been working with the Wisconsin Ag Coalition on proposals.

“We rely on a migrant workforce in Wisconsin and across this country, and we need to have a safe and legal pathway for individuals to come here and help fill the workforce void we’re facing,” Testin said.

The moderator’s final question to the legislators was: “How can farmers stay engaged with policymakers to ensure the interests of agriculture are prioritized?” Every legislator emphasized how important this is.

“When you get to the Capitol today, it doesn’t matter if they have a D or an R behind their name, you let them know what’s important to you and you start that relationship with them,” Kurtz said.

Testin told the crowd to share their stories. Pfaff told farmers to invite legislators to their farms and stay in touch with them within their districts. Considine echoed this thought.

“Every year, I do tours of farms, and I take my Democratic members to farms also,” Considine said. “They need to be on farms too. Get them out to see what you’re doing because that will help us understand.”

Ballweg said to invite legislators to farm meetings and breakfasts as well. Tranel stressed how important it will be to stay on top of what is going on in the political world.

“In addition to feeding the country and the world, you also have to start paying attention to politics because it’s going to get very important,” Tranel said.

He encouraged farmers to influence their friends and neighbors.

“We are fortunate that the last 10 years we have had policymakers in place with a good pulse on rural Wisconsin,” Tranel said. “That’s in more jeopardy than it’s ever been in the last 14 years. Double down on your efforts because it is going to matter.”

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