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Republicans promise 'bigger and bolder' rural Wisconsin plan

Associated Press
GOP lawmakers are considering proposals to cut property taxes and insurance costs for farmers as part of a package to help rural Wisconsin.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Republican lawmakers are considering proposals to cut property taxes and insurance costs for farmers as part of a package to help rural Wisconsin that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on Tuesday promised would be "bigger and bolder" than what Democratic Gov. Tony Evers put forward.

Evers called a special session of the Legislature to take up his $8.5 million package, which included a $1 million effort to increase dairy exports and the hiring of more people at the state agriculture department and University of Wisconsin-Madison extension division to work with farmers.

Assembly Republicans don't yet have a total for what their agriculture package would cost, but Vos said at a Capitol news conference it would be "significantly bigger" than what Evers had proposed. He hoped to announce the bills by the end of the week.

One proposal Assembly Republicans are working on would allow farmers and other sole proprietors to deduct the cost of health insurance from their income taxes. That would be around $9 million, but it's not known how much of that would directly benefit farmers, Vos said. Another bill would extend a tax credit to farmers for some portion of their property taxes. But how much the credit would be, in total and for the average farmer, remained in flux, Vos said. 

The Dairy Business Association, Wisconsin’s largest dairy lobbying group, applauded Republican lawmakers plan to address the short- and long-term needs of agriculture in the state.

Tom Crave, president of the Dairy Business Association.

“Our dairy farmers, who are the foundation of the state’s economy and rural communities, continue to experience a host of challenges, from commodity prices and customer trends to extreme weather," said DBA Board President Tom Crave. “We appreciate that Republican leaders in the Legislature understand the importance of addressing this adversity, supporting key existing legislation and putting forth new proposals to strengthen agriculture at this critical time."

Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Republicans who control the Legislature will consider the governor's ideas while also looking at others. 

"We're going to try and take the best ideas he offered, the best ones we came up with and move them through the process," Vos said. He has been critical of Evers not working together with Republicans, including his agriculture package, most of which was earlier proposed as part of the state budget last year.

Vos said he intended to talk with Evers about the Republican ideas before he releases them publicly. 

Evers called for action to help rural Wisconsin during his State of the State speech two weeks ago. Wisconsin is struggling with the loss of one-third of its dairy farms since 2011. The state loses an average of two dairy farms a day as farmers suffer under low milk prices.

In a statement issued by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, the group said state lawmakers have proven their clear commitment to seeing Wisconsin’s dairy industry through the challenges of trade volatility, a severe labor shortage, poor weather, and a drop in milk consumption.

John Umhoefer

"Today, we applaud Assembly Republicans who are doubling down for dairy, targeting state investments in export initiatives and processor grants,” said John Umhoefer, WCMA Executive Director. “As we increase specialty cheese sales and sales of all dairy products overseas, we will build markets and business relationships that will support hardworking dairy farm families.”

Crave and Umhoefer said they were both encouraged to see bipartisan support of moving the state's signature industry forward.

“Action by Assembly Republicans and the Governor is legislative leadership defined, and we have great hope that, in the final weeks of session, Republicans and Democrats will work together to boost Wisconsin’s crucial dairy industry,” said Umhoefer.

Colleen Kottke of the Wisconsin State Farmer contributed to this report