By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans are trying to speed a bill through the Legislature in its final session days to take authority to regulate factory-farm siting and expansion from state officials and give it to a new board controlled by agricultural groups.
The proposal comes after Gov. Tony Evers’ administration angered Republicans with attempts to enact tougher restrictions on such farms earlier this year.
There’s little time for the Legislature to act, and even if the bill were to pass, it’s unlikely that Evers would sign it into law. The Assembly is expected to meet for the last time on Feb. 20 and the Senate is scheduled to adjourn in March.
Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Travis Tranel, both Republicans, introduced the bill Tuesday. Both chambers’ agriculture committees held a hastily convened public hearing on the proposal Thursday. Democrats on the committees balked at the pace.
“The first I saw this bill was Monday,” said Rep. Mark Spreitzer, of Beloit. “Is it your intention to ram this through in the last week or is it more of a conversation starter?”
“I don’t introduce a bill unless I believe it can become law,” Marklein replied.
The bill would fundamentally change who gets to regulate factory farms.
Currently, the state agriculture department writes regulations that are subject to approval by the Legislature and governor. A department committee last year began drafting regulations that, if adopted, would have increased the minimum required distance between manure-storage centers and neighboring properties. Agricultural groups were outraged that the committee didn’t include any farmers and complained that the proposal was so draconian it would drive farmers out of Wisconsin.
The department stopped short of putting the restrictions in place. But Republican senators cited the attempt as one of their justifications for firing Agriculture Secretary Brad Pfaff, an Evers appointee, in November.
The new bill would set up a new nine-member review board attached to the agriculture department. Five members would be selected from agricultural groups. The department wouldn’t be able to draft any new farm-siting or expansion regulations without the approval of two-thirds of the board.
“That (2019) process was not productive for either side,” Jordan Lamb, an attorney for the Wisconsin Pork Association, said in written remarks to the committees. “This legislation … will ensure that farmers’ voices will be a part of any future administrative rule changes.”
The proposal also would revise the steps factory farmers must take to obtain approval to open a new operation or expand an existing one.
Currently, local governments that choose to permit factory farms must ensure that the operations abide by state standards concerning setbacks, odor management, pollution run-off and manure management, among other things.
Under the bill, farmers looking to open or expand operations would first have to apply to DATCP, which would review applications to make sure they met the state standards. After DATCP made a decision, local governments would review applications to ensure they conform to local zoning and building-code standards.
Marklein and Tranel said town boards and other local governmental bodies haven’t the expertise needed to decide whether an application meets state standards. That lack forces them to hire outside experts. Marklein and Tranel said the responsibility for enforcing state standards should lie with the state.
Mike Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, told the committees that only 8% of towns now regulate factory farms. Shifting the technical burden to the agriculture department would encourage more towns to exercise oversight, he said.
“This bill … shifts responsibility back to the state and preserves for us what’s in our wheelhouse, which is planning and zoning,” he said.
Democrats on the committees struggled to mount a counterattack as they raced to come to terms with the bill. Most of their complaints were about how quickly the bill had been put forward and that the proposal would set up a new layer of bureaucracy in the agriculture department.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters it’s still possible the proposal could be passed before the Assembly adjourns next week.
“I would like to be able to update the livestock siting rules,” he said.