Gubernatorial candidates share views on rural issues

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

Do you know where your candidate for governor stands on issues impacting constituents making a living in the ag industry?

Ahead of the Nov. 6 election, we've asked incumbent Gov. Scott Walker and his opponent, Tony Evers, superintendent of the state Department of Public Instruction to share their views on issues concerning rural advocacy, commodity markets, healthcare, and the tax burden faced by farmers.

Gov. Scott Walker, 50, a Republican, began his political career in 1993 serving in the State Assembly. In 2010, he was elected as the 45th Governor of Wisconsin. He won a recall election in 2012 and was re-elected for his second term as governor in 2014. 

Tony Evers, 66, is a former school teacher and high school principal who also served as a superintendent in the Oakfield and Verona School District. He is currently leading the Departmetn of Public Instruction, a post he has held since 2009.

Gov. Scott Walker (right) and challenger Tony Evers meet on stage for introductions and photos before they debate Friday at the Zelazo Center on the UW-Milwaukee campus.

More now than ever, farmers are looking to state leaders for help in this challenging economy. As governor, how will you best serve as an advocate for rural communities and farmers?

WALKER: With prices down across the country and around the world, we need to help our farmers sell more product. A big part of that is opening up more markets. In 2010 we exported $2.4 billion in agricultural products. By last year, that was up to $3.5 billion and those products went to 147 countries around the world.

The recent trade deal with Canada was a bit of good news – particularly for dairy farmers. I first started talking to President Trump about problems with Canada and dairy early in his term and thankfully he listened and held out for our farmers. We now need to level the playing field for our farmers and open up other markets around the world. I will continue to work with the president, vice president, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Commerce Secretary Ross and White House staff to help farmers in Wisconsin.

Gov. Scott Walker pledges that in Wisconsin, people with pre-existing conditions are covered today and they always will be as long as he is Governor.

We have an aggressive program to expand markets around the world. As governor, I’ve traveled to Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, South Korea, Great Britain, Germany, France and Spain to advocate for our Wisconsin agricultural economy. Over the next four years, I hope to expand our trips to reach more markets.

Most importantly, I will advocate for our farm families. My mother was raised on a farm and I grew up in a small town where many of my friends grew up on farms. I understand that farming is more than just a job, it is a way of life. With that in mind, I will always be an advocate for our farm families – through lower property and farm taxes, through help with health care costs, through assistance for our rural schools, through expanding rural broadband as well as reasonable regulations and ending frivolous lawsuits.

EVERS: Gov. Walker’s corporate subsidies have left behind most of Wisconsin’s agriculture industry and rural communities. Wisconsin’s dairy farmers are exiting the industry at an unprecedented rate following years of low milk prices and industry consolidation. Wisconsin is losing hundreds of dairy farms every year, while in western Wisconsin we have led the nation in farm bankruptcies. Our farm families and rural communities are struggling under this crisis.

Wisconsin must expand access to innovative farming, dairy and cheese making techniques, explore a greater investment in biofuels, support beginning farmers, continue building a local and regional food system, and protect our natural resources to ensure healthy soil, water and air.

Additionally, deteriorating roads threaten Wisconsin dairy farmers, who transport milk for processing and heavy farming equipment to grow and maintain crops. Walker found $4.5 billion for Foxconn, but is spending less and borrowing more for rural roads. Our road quality ranks 44th in the country, and some towns and villages are even returning to gravel roads. Fixing Wisconsin’s transportation crisis is a day one priority for me.

Our hard-working Wisconsin farmers face many challenges, including a shortage of workers. Federal restrictions on migrant and agricultural guest workers has exacerbated this problem. As Governor, I will work with state and federal leaders in both parties to streamline and expand the H-2A worker program and pass comprehensive immigration reform so our farms can attract and retain workers.

I will also strengthen our University of Wisconsin Extension system to offer support and market assistance to help farmers navigate brutal commodity markets. UW-Extension was key to building up agriculture in Wisconsin – they need to again be a part of finding solutions.

Finally, I will work with governors and farm leaders in neighboring states to find regional solutions, led by farmers, to maintain a strong dairy economy.

What is your plan in keeping the farm economy strong, especially in light of depressed commodity markets? And is there anything the state can do to keep farms viable now and for future generations?

WALKER: One main issue is the cost of farming. It is why we lowered property taxes and all but wiped out the state tax on agriculture. Sadly, my opponent wants to raise taxes on farmers. That would be devastating in this farm economy.

Another part is cutting through the red tape of excessive regulations and frivolous lawsuits. We continue to improve the climate on both issues for farmers in Wisconsin.

Many farm families purchase health care on the individual market. Premiums under Obamacare went up 44 percent so we created the Wisconsin Healthcare Stability Plan and passed it with bipartisan support. Starting in January, premiums will go down by more than 4 percent on average from this year and by 10 percent from where they were headed without our plan – a savings of nearly $1,000.

We will also cover people with pre-existing conditions. In Wisconsin, people with pre-existing conditions are covered today and – as long as I am governor, they always will be.

Living in rural communities can be a challenge so we increased funding for rural schools and we made a major investment in broadband access grants to connect every part of Wisconsin to high-speed Internet service.

Just this year, we launched the Dairy Task Force 2.0 to partner with industry experts and create real solutions to the challenges faced by the dairy industry. We also launched the Governor’s Dairy Scholars Program, which provides financial assistance to students who have been involved in the dairy industry and plan to return upon graduation.

EVERS: Wisconsin’s farms are a tremendous asset with more than 68,000 farms occupying 14.3 million acres of farmland. To keep our farm economy strong, Wisconsin needs to re-invest in diversified agriculture, value added farm products and food processing, and farm product marketing.

To keep our farm economy strong,  Tony Evers says Wisconsin needs to re-invest in diversified agriculture, value added farm products and food processing, and farm product marketing.

As Governor, I will:  Convene a Blue-Ribbon Commission to advance agriculture and economic opportunities in rural Wisconsin; Re-orient our economic development agencies to increase incentives to support rural and urban agriculture and businesses through training, labor attraction, market development and business support; Provide additional support for business investment in value- added and on-farm processing for farm products; Ensure that our farm marketing labels support Wisconsin-grown farm products (For example: “Something Special from Wisconsin”); Promote local and regional food systems by expanding farm-to-school, farm-to-cafeteria, and farm-to-table promotions and programs. Invest in the next generation of family farms by building on apprenticeship and agricultural education programs, expanding borrowing for first time farm purchases supporting succession and farm transfer planning, and refinancing student loan debt.

I am also wholeheartedly opposed to the trade wars started in Washington. This has created instability in our markets and left many farmers waiting for a government check to offset their substantial losses. Our farms can’t do business that way. I will vocally and aggressively lobby Washington to return to rational, common-sense approach to international trade.

Despite working in one of the most hazardous occupations, many farm families have long opted for catastrophic health insurance. How will the state make healthcare insurance affordable for all, including those with pre-existing conditions?

WALKER: When Obamacare premiums went up and Washington failed to act, we led in Wisconsin. Our Health Care Stability Plan was passed by both Democrats and Republicans. Instead of talk, we provided leadership to get our plan passed and signed into law. It will lower premium and increase choices (particularly in rural areas).

The latest report shows that premiums will go down by 4.2 percent from this year on average and by 10 percent from where they were headed without our plan - that’s a savings of nearly $1,000 in premiums.

In Wisconsin, people with pre-existing conditions are covered today and they always will be as long as I am Governor.

Like many families, this issue is personal to me. My wife is a diabetic, my mother is a cancer survivor and my brother has a heart condition. We can protect people with pre-existing conditions without protecting the failure that is Obamacare.

Our opponent wants to expand Obamacare, but when Minnesota did that years ago – premiums went up. On October 12, 2016, Gov. Mark Dayton (D-MN) said that the “Affordable Care Act is no longer affordable” after Obamacare premiums went up 50 to 67 percent. We don’t want anyone to do to Wisconsin what they did to Minnesota. 

Our plan is better: it lowers premiums, increases choices and improves healthcare. And we can do it all while still protecting people with pre-existing conditions.

EVERS: I believe too few people have access to affordable health insurance and the cost of healthcare in Wisconsin continues to be too high. I am adamantly opposed to Scott Walker’s lawsuit against the federal government to remove pre-existing condition protections for our citizens. I won’t let that happen as governor and will immediately withdraw from the lawsuit the day I take office. Affordable, accessible health insurance coverage is particularly vital when two out of three farmers have pre-existing conditions.

As Governor, I will: Extend protections for Wisconsinites with pre-existing health conditions. It is estimated that half of Wisconsinites have some kind of pre-existing health condition like cancer, diabetes, a heart condition, obesity, or depression; Take immediate action to accept the federal Medicaid expansion dollars which would insure thousands more Wisconsinites - including many farmers - who are struggling to find affordable health insurance; Do everything in my power to stabilize health insurance markets and bring down costs – including prescription drug prices; and Invest in preventive health programs that have been defunded over the last seven years. 

We simply cannot afford to return to the days where health insurance companies held all the power and could cut off patients who simply cost them too much money.

How will you work to reduce the tax burden on farmers?

WALKER: The decade before we took office, property taxes skyrocketed 27 percent. Now, they are lower than they were in 2010 and we eliminated the state portion of the property tax. Additionally, the Manufacturing and Agriculture Tax Credit, which our opponent would significantly roll back, has reduced the tax burden on farmers.

Our opponent wants to raise income taxes on farmers and manufacturers, raise property taxes and raise the gas tax by as much as a $1 a gallon. That will cost us jobs. More spending and higher taxes is a recipe for a return to a recession. 

Overall, we have reduced the tax burden on the hard-working people of Wisconsin by more than $8 billion. It is why property and income taxes are lower today than they were in 2010. We will continue to lower the burden on family farmers, other small business owners, working families and senior citizens. Our plans will lead to more jobs and higher wages and that will keep Wisconsin working for generations to come!

EVERS: Small family farmers have struggled immensely under Scott Walker. Over 500 dairy farms shut down operations last year alone. Scott Walker’s policies have disproportionately benefited large corporate donors and factory farms over the family farms that have served as community bedrocks for generations.

I have proposed limiting the Manufacturer and Agriculture Tax Credit to the first $300,000 of income, protecting small and mid-sized farmers. In 2017, the credit cost Wisconsinites $275 million, nearly double the original estimate. Eleven multi-millionaires collected over $22 million in credits, while less than 2 percent of the credit went to those with incomes under $100,000 per year.

Under this system, a large factory owner earning $2.5 million per year will pay less state income tax than a fast food employee. That’s just not right and it’s led to a system where large factory farms have been able to push out family farmers through overproduction and unsustainably low prices.

Additionally, a large percentage of farm families have a spouse who works outside of the farm.  My tax plan will provide an across-the-board 10% tax cut for middle class families. So many family farms will benefit substantially by the tax cut as well.