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Measure that would take Working Lands funds for livestock premises program draws criticism

March 1, 2012 | 0 comments

A measure that would fund the state's livestock premises registration program with money from a program designed to protect Wisconsin farmland is creating controversy.

An Assembly bill would take money from the Working Lands Initiative program to fund the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium (WLIC) a non-governmental group that does the work of registering the state's livestock premises.

That proposal was roundly criticized in a committee meeting last week by Democrats who opposed taking funds from the farmland protection program and using it for something else.

The federal money that supported the WLIC for years has now disappeared in the budget-cutting climate in Washington. Wisconsin has long been considered a pilot state for livestock premises registration programs as a way to combat potential livestock disease outbreaks.

But with the loss of federal money, the state is looking for at least $250,000 to run the premises registration program.

The federal money has been funneled through the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to the WLIC as a licensee to run the program.

A bill in the Legislature now seeks to replace that money so the program can continue. It also provides a tax credit for farmers who want to purchase radio-frequency livestock identification tags and readers for those tags.

But despite their support of the livestock premises registration program, opponents of the measure have sprung up because an amendment would take $125,000 in 2012-2013 from the Working Lands program that is designed to protect farmland.

That money is generated by conversion fees when land is taken out of farming for development. The Working Lands Initiative was created to help in the expansion and modernization of the state's farmland preservation program, to upgrade local farmland preservation plans and facilitate in development of a statewide Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements (PACE) program.

Individuals speak out

Kara Slaughter, with Wisconsin Farmers Union, said her organization is supportive of the premises registration program as an important assurance for containing livestock disease. But they are not happy that money designed for farmland preservation could be taken to support the premises registration program at WLIC.

The department has done an admirable job of avoiding raids on designated funds," she said, speaking to state ag board members last week.

Assembly Bill 489 and Senate Bill 396 seek a way to find funding so the department can continue funding the livestock premises registration program. But only the Assembly's substitute amendment would raid the Working Lands fund.

Democrat members of the Assembly Agriculture Committee voted against the measure when it came up in committee because of the fund raid.

Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, (D-Milladore) who is the ranking Democrat on the panel, said the move to raid the fund "sets a bad precedent for agriculture and for how our constituents perceive fair and open government.

"We all know how important the premises program has been, not just for the industry but for public health as well, but raiding the WLI fund is just wrong," she added.

The proposal passed the committee without the support of the Democrats, on a 9-4 vote.

"The Senate Bill didn't raid the Working Lands Fund, so why are the Majority members of this committee doing so? To meet the needs of livestock owners and protect public health, we should use GPR (general purpose revenues) or discretionary reserve funds of the Joint Finance Committee," said Rep. Louis Molepske, Jr. (D-Stevens Point) in voting against the measure.

Rep. Andy Jorgensen (D-Fort Atkinson) agreed. "The folks I represent are passionate about farmland preservation, and they will be outraged to hear some politicians are raiding working lands for other purposes. This wasn't the only option," he said.

Vruwink said she and her colleagues will continue to work with Secretary of Agriculture Ben Brancel, stakeholders and others to try to come up with a solid solution to fund both of these important programs for agriculture - "without losing the public's trust in the process."

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