Ag Day at the Capitol: Advocates call for broadband funding, mislabeling legislation
Although the annual Ag Day at the Capitol event went virtual this year, members of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and other lobbyists still made their demands loud and clear to Gov. Evers and the Wisconsin Legislature.
A lot of topics were on the agenda – everything from watershed grants to nitrogen legislation – with some of the big-ticket sections being broadband funding in rural Wisconsin and mislabeling legislation against companies calling their non-dairy products milk, cheese and other terms.
Chad Zuleger, associate director of government affairs at the Dairy Business Association, explained that three bills (AB 73, AB 74 and AB 75) were on the table one year ago when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing the state legislature to stop meeting. The bills haven't seen the table again since then, especially with legislature activity dropping to low levels throughout 2020. But Zuleger said those bills are being brought back to consideration.
"This session, the bills have all been heard. In the Senate Agriculture Committee, new chairman Joan Ballweg has both heard and sent all three bills out, so they are ready for scheduling in the Senate," Zuleger said. "In the Assembly, agriculture chairman Gary Tauchen has held a public hearing. (He) has yet to vote on the bills to move them forward but we have every confidence he'll be doing that as soon as possible."
Overall, the three bills address concerns from the dairy industry that non-dairy products co-opting the terms milk, cheese and others could be confusing consumers about their nutritional value, Zuleger said. He added that these bills have seen bipartisan support as they seek to force dairy alternative companies to rename their products to something else. He called the labels misleading.
"The milk checkoff dollars, paid by farmers, go to promote and advertise these nutritious, delicious and healthy products," Zuleger said. "You have other products coming along, slapping the term milk or cheese on them, that don't contain the same nutritious value as our dairy products, creating false labeling and misleading customers."
Those same concerns are also being addressed with regard to the meat processing industry. There are also worries there that plant-based meat products, like Beyond Meat, are confusing consumers about their contents and origin, Zuleger said. He said legislators are seeking to join a federal initiative to address the issue with the Food and Drug Administration so they can also implement a rule to change labeling.
Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, represented WFBF in talking about broadband funding. Esbeck said the WSTA, which operates 70 local internet service providers, is committed to serving Wisconsin's rural communities.
"Collectively, we are telecommunications providers cooperatively enhancing Wisconsin's quality of life and economic opportunities through improved infrastructure and services," Esbeck said. "So, in 2021, what that translates to is filling in the gaps in broadband, particularly in rural Wisconsin."
COVID-19 exacerbated many existing issues with lack of access to high-speed broadband, Esbeck said, adding that he hopes the gaps will be filled this year where ISPs were unable to do so in 2020. He said the governor is looking to form a task force called the Wisconsin Broadband Coalition, made up of several stakeholders like ISPs, ag groups, educators, local government representatives and tech companies. The coalition hopes for an official launch in April.
Currently, the coalition's highest priorities are increasing grant program funding, future-proofing grant investments and creating low-income programs. Esbeck said they also want to revise existing grant programs to reach unserved demographic groups.
"You could have a situation where if one provider had fiber to the home connectivity, that would still be a grant-eligible area, perhaps at the expense of another area that really did not have good service at all," Esbeck said. "The priority here is focusing the grant program on those truly unserved areas."
Esbeck said they also want to start a line extension program that would help customers in hard-to-reach areas get connected using government funding. For these people, he said fiber optic cable could cost $30,000 a mile, which is often unsustainable for rural residents to pay on their own if they live in an area where ISPs are uninterested in building the infrastructure due to lack of customers. He said the program would only serve primary residents, not owners of second homes.
"There may be situations in very, very rural areas where the ... fiber investment really is impossible to make the business case work in those situations," Esbeck said. "An effort could be made to at least provide a 100 megabit by 20 megabit service, which is still a very robust broadband offering, but make sure that those areas have the opportunity to be served through the grant program."
Gov. Evers' budget proposal, which was revealed on Feb. 16, includes $150 million in funding for various broadband initiatives through the next biennium.