Historic legislative session pretty good for agriculture
A historic legislative session during which partisan politics was at an "all-time high" turned out pretty well for those with agricultural interests.
That was the assessment of Paul Zimmerman, Wisconsin Farm Bureau's top lobbyist. "There were a dozen bills that were relevant to agriculture."
A state tax deduction for health savings accounts and an extension of the dairy and livestock facility tax credit to 2017 were two of the first that came to mind as he held a roundtable for farm reporters at the end of the legislative session.
Zimmerman also said it was important that the legislature passed four bills last fall that dealt with road limits and transportation issues. One that has become law now allows state businesses shipping goods into international trade to fill their containers full.
Previously, because of road limits, those shipping containers were only partially full, meaning that they had to be re-loaded before they could go onto other forms of transportation, like ships.
The change, said Zimmerman, makes them more efficient and provides a bigger impact for state businesses.
Lawmakers also passed a bill to allow loads of hay in the state to be higher and wider to make hauling hay and straw for livestock producers more efficient, he added.
These kinds of bills passed on a bi-partisan vote with no opposition, even in a politically divided Legislature and a politically charged atmosphere, Zimmerman said.
More recently lawmakers passed a wetland reform bill, which was seen as important for farmers who want to build new facilities or add to their existing set of buildings, he said.
That measure, which passed on a party line vote, allows mitigation for wetlands that are filled in and makes adding farm buildings more efficient and common-sense, he said.
Before passage of this measure, a permit might be granted but farmers might be asked to move their proposed building to the other side of the driveway or at the other end of their land.
Farmers were asked by permitting authorities to find a "practical alternative" to filling a wetland to build their new building. In some cases that alternative was a directive to buy a neighbor's land and put it there or move a driveway a half mile away, he said.
The overall concept up until now, has been that "all wetlands are more valuable than cropland," he added.
Another important piece of legislation that passed toward the end of the session was one that exempts state livestock facilities from Department of Natural Resources air permits.
Zimmerman said there's no science to back up any permitting process at this point. He and other ag lobbyists considered it an important win for agriculture.
Shortly before they adjourned the session, lawmaker also passed a bill that would increase road limits for manure hauling by 15 percent for the crucial time after harvest and before winter. That was an effort to mitigate some problems farmers and commercial manure haulers have had with citations from local and state police.
WOLF HUNTING SEASON
Zimmerman was also happy that lawmakers passed a bill that would establish a hunting season for wolves in the state, now that they are no longer a federal "endangered species" and are under state DNR management.
"This was a big one for our northern members and was also an important one for Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association members."
The DNR has had a plan in place to manage wolf numbers since 1999, but they were prevented from following through because of court cases that repeatedly put the gray wolf back under federal protections.
The DNR would like to see Wisconsin's wolf population at 350 wolves and it is currently estimated at 800. "That's a conservative estimate. You might double that if you talk to producers in the north. This bill is welcomed there," Zimmerman said.
Lawmakers also passed a measure that will keep the state's livestock premises registration program alive for the next year by taking money from conversion fees that are put into a state fund under the Working Lands Initiative program for farmland preservation.
That state funding source was needed because federal funds that have kept that program going have dried up.
The state action will fund the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium through June 2013. The WLIC is the contractor that does the work of premises registration for the state.
Zimmerman said if that program were moved to a state agency, all the information in it would be subject to the state's open records law, which makes some people uncomfortable.
Another alternative would have been to roll the state program into a federal one, but some of the state's information would have been lost. "I could easily make a pitch that money for this program should be GPR" he said, referring to general purpose revenue or tax dollars.
But he said the state has "got to find an appropriate funding source" for the program going forward. It was a legislative battle to raid money designated for one program and use it for another.
"It was a difficult budget and money is going to continue to be tight going forward," Zimmerman said. Programs that were not funded included Discovery Farms, Buy Local and grant programs for agricultural diversification and farmland preservation. Land conservation program funding was reduced.
"The money's not there for all the programs we want to do."
In the University of Wisconsin-Madison's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, they were looking to fill 15 to 16 positions and will maybe have the money for six or seven of them, he said.
"It isn't going to get any easier in the next budget."