Livestock siting bill opens door for future discussions

Debi Towns
Debi Towns

The last week of a legislative session is always intense. When leadership announces the last day the Assembly and Senate will be on the floor, all of a sudden it becomes very real that many bills part way through the process are not going to make it to the Governor’s desk. Bills that are not in final form will be dropped from the schedule. 

During the last week of the current session, a collaborative bill that had been developing for months and was offered by Senator Marklein and Representative Tranel, suffered that fate. Since last autumn, a-number-of livestock groups and local government groups representing the towns and counties met and worked through an updating of Wisconsin’s livestock siting law.

The livestock siting law had worked well over the past 15 years, but local governments as well as livestock producers believed there could be some modernizations to the law which would clarify and smooth out the process. Sen. Marklein and Rep. Tranel spent many hours working with this collaborative group in an effort to find a compromise which worked for all.  

Both legislators were very clear that the collaborative changes must satisfy the needs of both local governments as well as livestock producers. It was also the goal of the group to make the law work better for smaller and mid-sized farms in Wisconsin. Most of the dairy farms in Wisconsin are family owned. Finding a path for these producers to continue their family business but grow to a size that would produce a profit while affording them the lifestyle advantages that attract the next generation is critical.

There was give and take from all stakeholders. Local governments no longer wanted to approve livestock siting permits. They wished to transfer that responsibility to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) while retaining their full authority for zoning.

This would relieve local governments of the expensive and time-consuming task of reviewing applications for which they did not have expertise. This could also provide more predictability and uniformity for producers seeking new permits.

Livestock producers need predictability in expectations when planning a new site or expanding an existing one. Lenders need to know the cost and timeline expectations when making decisions to finance the project.

The current application fee is stated in regulation, not statute. A recent legal opinion has suggested that DATCP does not have statutory authority to set a fee in the regulation. So, rather than wait for a court challenge, another updating change was to set the application fees in statute. This was brought forth by the livestock producers. 

Another update that was brought by the livestock groups was defining a clear timeline for the application process, including how many days each entity is allowed to review and respond when presented with an application for a new siting or the expansion of an existing one. This included DATCP, the local government as well as the applicant. This was an effort to avoid some of the long, drawn-out approvals at the expense of the applicant.

Other updates included requiring DATCP to include livestock producers in the rule-making process – something that had been ignored in the previous rule-writing cycle. The bill would also have explicitly prevented local governments from mandating expensive bonding requirements costing some farmers tens of thousands of dollars every year.

The compromise was drafted into a bill which was heard by both houses’ ag committees. It passed out of committee by clear majority and was on to be scheduled for a floor vote. Before it could be scheduled, however, one of the ag stakeholders who had supported the bill in the hearing changed their mind. Upon additional review after the hearing, they believed the bill created an imbalance in favor of the local government. They withdrew their support for the bill.  With the shortness of time, there was no path to rework a compromise.

Senator Marklein and Representative Tranel were not willing to bring forth a bill that did not have the unanimous support of the stakeholders. The bill died before coming to the floor. The process was valuable, however. It revealed the importance of considering all stakeholders’ needs as well as the value that livestock farming brings to the Wisconsin economy. 

We greatly appreciate the leadership of Sen. Marklein and Rep. Tranel as well as other key legislators serving on the ag committees. Even though the bill is not moving forward this session, it has opened a door for discussion on continuing to encourage and improve the livestock industries in Wisconsin.

Former Assemblywoman Debi Towns who owns a dairy farm with her husband near Janesville, serves as Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s senior director of governmental relations.