Gov. Tony Evers announced in his second State of the State on Wednesday a three-pronged approach to addressing the challenges facing Wisconsin farmers, starting with a special session next week to invest in agriculture and rural communities.
He also promised executive orders to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission to draw what he called “The People’s Maps” for the Legislature to consider next year as it tries to redraw Wisconsin’s political boundaries. Another executive order he unveiled addresses student loan debt.
GOP legislative leaders said they would listen to the guv’s suggestions on helping rural Wisconsin, but they were quick to reject his redistricting executive order, which Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called a “fake, phony, partisan process.”
“Whatever Gov. Evers wants to do, he has one part in this role to play: he has the ability to sign or veto a map. He doesn’t get to draw them. That’s not in the constitution,” the Rochester Republican said.
The package of farm bills Evers announced includes an effort to increase the state’s dairy exports to 20 percent of the nation’s milk supply for 2024. Other bills include improving access to mental health services for farmers and creating a program to help connect them and the food they produce with universities, hospitals and local businesses across Wisconsin.
The second prong creates the Office of Rural Prosperity in the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to help navigate state programs and resources for those in smaller communities. The final piece is a blue-ribbon commission to promote agriculture and rural economic prosperity.
Evers noted some of the proposals were in his state budget but GOP lawmakers pulled them from the document. He argued there is a renewed urgency to take them up now that the state is losing two farms a day and “for each day we delay, the challenges will get harder and harder.”
Evers also took a swipe at comments USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue made during a stop in Wisconsin this past summer that “the big get bigger and the small go out.” Many saw that as dismissive of the small dairy farms that have been part of Wisconsin’s identity.
Evers said those who think that are “wrong” and don’t know Wisconsin.
“We have leaned on farmers and their families, we have depended on their dedication, and we have relied on their resilience,” Evers said. “We have not forgotten those who have shared the harvest and bounty, feeding our families, our communities, and our state, and our country for more than a century. And tonight, we say that we are ready to be a partner in the promise of posterity.”
The guv’s office said the price tag for the package of legislation will be released on Thursday when the bills are rolled out. The initiatives include:
*creating the Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports to promote the state’s dairy brand and help increase exports.
*expanding the Farm Center, which is housed at DATCP and provides information and support to farmers and their families to grow the ag economy.
*increasing staffing at UW Extension to support farmers and agricultural industries.
*bolstering the Farm-to-School program, which brings local or regionally produced foods into school cafeterias and classrooms, and creating the Farm-to-Fork program. The latter would help connect farmers with universities, technical colleges, hospitals and local businesses to market their products.
*creating a new program to improve farmers’ access to mental health services. That includes coordinating local and regional peer support programming and providing one-on-one counseling.
Vos said that the focus on the rural areas showed Evers “has ignored that part of the state for most of last year since he was elected governor.”
“If he is a newfound convert that rural Wisconsin has problems, of course we’re going to listen,” he said before knocking Evers for involving no Republicans in his proposals and offering no details.
“It’s really just an awful lot of empty rhetoric tonight.”
He also said the Assembly would not meet in special session next week.
Evers acknowledged what he is proposing won’t be “the silver bullet” to fix what ails an industry that has been knocked by trade wars and low prices.
He also faces a time crunch for his proposals. Senate Majority Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, on Tuesday said his chamber will be on the floor Feb. 19 and likely one day in March before adjourning. Meanwhile, the Assembly is expected to finish its work for the year by the end of February.
Still, two of Evers’ initiatives won’t require legislative action.
The executive order on redistricting will create a commission of citizens who are “not elected officials, not lobbyists, not high-paid consultants” to visit each congressional district for public testimony and then “draw fair, impartial maps for the Legislature to take up next year,” the guv said.
Evers pushed a series of proposals over the past year that have been stymied by GOP legislators despite being popular in the Marquette University Law School Poll. Evers noted that public backing in his push for the commission. He said when elected officials can ignore widespread support for medical marijuana, universal background checks, red-flag laws and expanding Medicaid “without consequence, folks, something’s wrong.”
“The people who work in this building, who sit in these seats, and who drive the policies in the state, should not be able to ignore the people who sent us here,” Evers said. “The will of the people is the law of the land, and by golly, the people should not take no for an answer.”
The Wisconsin Constitution vests lawmakers with the power to draw the political boundaries for the Legislature and the state’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, though the courts have often stepped in when legislators and the guv couldn’t reach an agreement.
Fitzgerald said the commission could present its proposal, just like anyone else, but “at the end of the day, it’s the Legislature’s responsibility to draw the maps.”
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz fired back that the largest ovation of the night came when Evers announced the redistricting commission.
“It’s pretty obvious that you’ve got a Legislature that’s insulated from accountability,” the Oshkosh Dem said. “I think the governor put forward a plan to put the people in charge of their politicians, not the other way around. And hopefully, we’ll see the tide change.”
In his speech, Evers announced he’s signing an executive order to create a Task Force on Student Debt in Wisconsin that will be led by Department of Financial Institutions Secretary Kathy Blumenfeld. He offered no other details.
“We have to address the fact that student debt is preventing folks from buying a car, starting a business, saving for retirement and starting a family,” Evers said.
Evers also challenged lawmakers to address a series of issues before they adjourn from the session, including capping the cost of insulin, getting PFAS “out of our water,” addressing youth vaping and closing the so-called “dark store loophole.”
But several of those have been nonstarters with the GOP-controlled state Legislature. Republican leaders have rebuffed attempts to bring the dark-store bills to the floor in either house, though there is some support in each GOP caucus for the bills. Vos earlier this week knocked Evers on his call to address youth vaping, saying the guv had failed to reach out to GOP lawmakers ahead of his announcement over the weekend of new initiatives.
“There’s no rest for the elected, folks, and we’ve got a lot to get done before anyone takes a vacation,” Evers said.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, challenged her GOP colleagues to take up issues that resonate with the state’s residents.
“The longer Republicans refuse to do their job, the longer these challenges facing our communities will persist,” she said.
See Evers’ prepared remarks.