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In the News: Staff Columns

Lobbying in the time of COVID-19

Friday, May 1, 2020   (0 Comments)
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By John Holevoet, director of government affairs

Conference calls, Microsoft Teams meetings and Zoom gatherings are the new tools of our trade. It is not that we didn’t use technology before. We certainly did a good deal of our work by telephone or email, but at the end of the day the most effective lobbying usually involved face-to-face meetings and personal connections.

Adjusting to the new era of social distancing and safer-at-home orders has been a dramatic shift for our government affairs team.

This has also really changed the work lives of those we normally lobby on be-half of farmers. Just like those who work in food production, state employees have been deemed essential. However, as of this writing, the state Capitol was closed to the public and most state agency employees were working exclusively from home.

Still, we’ve seen a lot of government activity throughout this time. Much of it is related to the challenges caused by COVID-19, but some of it is a continuation of work from more normal times. For example, we are working with the Department of Natural Resources to expedite member farms’ CAFO permits. I also spent a morning on Zoom watching the technical advisory committee discuss potential changes to NR 151, the runoff management administrative rule.

The state Legislature passed one piece of COVID-19-specific legislation, which Gov. Tony Evers quickly signed. It was primarily geared toward optimizing the availability of federal aid for Wisconsinites. The bill also eliminated the one-week delay employees typical face before they can apply for unemployment. Many cheesemakers help-ed to push for that change. In addition, the bill delayed interest or penalties associated with the late payment of property taxes until the end of October. This could be a helpful tool as farmers and processors work to prioritize expenses during this difficult time.

The bill did not spend any state money on the crisis. There are three main reasons, despite lobbying by DBA and other ag groups for state help for farmers:

  1. A handful of ultra-conservative state senators are opposed to spending any money because they anticipate a very difficult budget for the coming biennium.
  2. Fiscal bills open themselves up to the possibility of line-item vetoes by Gov. Evers, and trust between the administration and the Legislature is almost non-existent.
  3. Several lawmakers thought monetary needs could be met by the federal funds the state is going to receive.

One component of the CARES Act passed by Congress is billions of dollars in aid for states. Wisconsin is in line to receive $1.9 billion, but this money had not been disbursed yet and the strings attached to it are not totally known because the Treasury Department has not issued official guidance on how it can be spent.

DBA and seven other commodity groups urged Gov. Evers to spend some of this money on direct aid to farmers. We are also working to ensure that the department greenlights this use of funds.

Like our farmer members, we are eager for Wisconsin to return to normal, or at least much closer to normal. This includes providing input to the governor’s office, administrative agencies and lawmakers as they work to reopen our economy through evolving and competing plans.

We are here to help you navigate this hard time, even if that help is offered by conference call, Microsoft Teams or Zoom.

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