State Budget an Opportunity to Organize on Rural Issues
by Bobbi Wilson, WFU Policy & Special Projects Coordinator
Most of us are ready to put the chaos and uncertainty of 2020 behind us. A global pandemic, economic crisis, and heated election will long remain in our memory, and we will surely feel the impacts of the tumultuous past year in 2021 and beyond. This is especially true with regards to the state budget, which is projected to see a significant shortfall.
As we face a tighter budget and competing priorities, it is critical for the rural people of Wisconsin and the organizations who represent them to voice support for the issues that matter most to family farmers and rural communities. The Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) budget priorities are based on policy adopted by WFU members at our convention and on the unforeseen challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Priorities WFU advocates for include:
Perhaps the most important lesson of 2020 is that healthcare is a public and not a private issue. WFU has long supported a national policy of universal healthcare and expanded public health insurance at the state level. Expanding BadgerCare in the next budget will provide coverage to those who need it most while building support for broader healthcare reform. And importantly, accepting federal funds to expand BadgerCare will alleviate some of the strain on the budget. Had Wisconsin accepted federal Medicaid expansion funds in the last budget cycle, we would have covered an additional 80 million people while saving over $300 million. Both the public health and fiscal impacts are even more critical today.
Rural Broadband Expansion
WFU was pleased to see Governor Evers declare 2021 as the Year of Broadband Access in his State of the State Address and propose a $200 million investment in broadband over the biennium. With the pandemic leading to more people working and learning from home, access to the internet is a necessity. WFU is advocating for broadband expansion grants and targeted pandemic relief funds to expand rural broadband access across the state. We support directing funds toward small telecommunications companies and cooperatives as a way of promoting economic competition and supporting businesses that are rooted in their communities.
Meat Processing Infrastructure
WFU members expressed the need for expanded meat processing infrastructure even before the pandemic caused supply chain disruptions. WFU is advocating for loans and grants for new meat processors and existing small plants to fund facility upgrades, cutting equipment, and cold storage to increase processing capacity, as well as additional state meat inspectors as needed to accommodate growth in processing infrastructure. We are urging the State to direct future pandemic relief funds to expanding meat processing to deal with the immediate bottleneck and to meet increasing consumer demand for locally raised meat.
Ongoing environmental crises like climate change and water pollution must not be ignored as we address the immediate public health and economic crises. WFU is continuing to advocate for increased funding for county conservation staffing grants, DNR monitoring and oversight of CAFOs, statewide groundwater testing and mapping, farmland preservation, and producer-led watershed grants. We are also calling for a new statewide grazing program and incentives for practices like cover crops, reduced tillage, and diverse crop rotation which help combat climate change.
Consolidation in agriculture remains a major threat to family farmers and breaking up monopoly power is a priority for WFU. The state can play a major role in promoting economic competition and preventing further consolidation by stepping up antitrust enforcement at the Wisconsin Department of Justice. WFU is advocating for additional staffing at the Consumer Protection and Antitrust Unit of the Wisconsin DOJ to carry out investigations in anticompetitive business behavior.
WFU has long supported a fair and nonpartisan process for drawing legislative districts. We support Governor Evers’ proposal to require a transparent redistricting process within the state budget and we support the work of the People’s Maps Commission.
Your voice matters
These budget priorities are dynamic, and new priorities may emerge during the 2021 WFU Annual Convention, coming up January 30-31, and we will continue to voice support for the issues that matter most to our members. Visit www.wisconsinfarmersunion.com/policy to learn more about these issues and find how you can lend your voice to speaking up for rural Wisconsin.
Now that 2020 is (thankfully) in the rearview mirror, let’s set our sights on the opportunity to emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient than we were before.
Bobbi Wilson is Policy & Special Projects Coordinator for Wisconsin Farmers Union, a member-driven organization committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities, and all people through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors, and civic engagement. Wilson can be reached at email@example.com.