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Legislative leaders recommend removing provision on foreign ownership of state land from budget bill

May 2, 2013 | 0 comments

Last week co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Finance recommended the removal of several non-budget policy items from the $68 billion bill that determines how the state government will spend taxpayer money over the next two years.

Among them was one that would have lifted the state's limit on foreign ownership of farmland.

Since 1887 Wisconsin has had a law that restricts foreign persons or corporations from ownership of more than 640 acres in the state. That law was tested and upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1976.

In his budget proposal, Gov. Scott Walker included a non-budget policy provision that would have lifted that restriction, allowing foreign ownership of unlimited amounts of land.

At the time the Walker budget proposal was submitted, the governor's spokesman had said that the Wisconsin law setting a limit on foreign ownership was in conflict with international trade and tariff agreements.

Lawyers familiar with the issues said that no court has ever determined that Wisconsin's limits on foreign ownership are in conflict with international treaty agreements.

In the 1976 case, Wisconsin's Supreme Court found that the law did not violate a treaty with West Germany.

Both Republicans and Democrats have been critical of the policy item that would lift the limits on foreign ownership of Wisconsin's working lands.

Now, the Republicans in control of the Finance Committee, which has control of the first steps of the budget process, have recommended removing the policy item from the budget plan, along with 11 others.

The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau had analyzed the Walker budget proposal and found 58 items that were considered "policy" items not related to the budget.

The co-chairs of the finance committee said they were removing 12 of those items - including the one on foreign ownership of state land. Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) one of the co-chairs, said that the individual policy items should be introduced as their own piece of legislation so they could be debated on their own.

Democrats on the committee countered that all of the items should be removed.

Generally - in Washington and Madison - lawmakers slip some of these items into a huge bill like the budget because it will be easier to pass there than if it is introduced as stand-alone legislation.

The items removed by the budget committee were largely considered uncontroversial by most observers.

Wisconsin Farmers Union greeted the co-chair's decision with appreciation, especially the one on foreign ownership of state land.

"We thank the co-chairs for their recommendation to remove this policy item from the budget," said WFU President Darin Von Ruden. "We will continue to monitor the budget process, and we are hopeful that JFC members and the full legislature will agree with the co-chairs' recommendation."

Von Ruden also expressed appreciation for all of the members of the legislature who voiced concerns about this proposal. Opposition for the measure removing foreign ownership limits had come from both sides of the aisle.

"Selling off Wisconsin farms and forest lands to the highest bidder, without regard to long-term impacts, is the wrong way to go," said Von Ruden. "A strong and resilient economy is built on re-investment.

"The owners of Wisconsin's working lands should be doing business with other local businesses, sending their kids to Wisconsin schools, serving their communities, and starting new enterprises."

Among the policy items left in the budget by the Finance Committee leaders were a measure that would free rent-to-own businesses from Wisconsin's consumer protection law; one that would require DNA sampling from anyone who is arrested on suspicion of a felony count and an item that would ban wolf hunting at night.

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