MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans are trying to speed a bill through the Legislature in the final days of the session that would transfer the power to regulate factory farm siting and expansion from state officials to a new board controlled by agricultural groups.
The move comes after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration angered Republicans with moves 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 set 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 joint public hearing on the measure 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 would increase the minimum distance between manure storage facilities 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 implementing those restrictions amid the pushback. But Republican senators cited the unilateral approach as one of their justifications for firing Agriculture Secretary Brad Pfaff, an Evers appointee, in November.
The bill would create a new nine-member review board attached to the agriculture department. Five members would be selected from agricultural groups. The board would advise the department on regulations and the department would be prohibited from drafting any siting or expansion rules without approval from 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 rework how factory farmers would 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 on setbacks, odor management, pollution run-off and manure management, among other things.
Under the bill, farmers looking to open or expand operations would have to apply first to DATCP, which would review the applications to make sure they meet the state standards. After DATCP makes a decision local governments would review the application to ensure it conforms to local zoning and building code standards.
Marklein and Tranel said town boards and other local governmental bodies lack the expertise to decide whether an application meets the state standards, forcing them to hire outside experts. They 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 currently 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 focused counterattack as they raced to digest the bill. Most of their complaints focused on how quickly the bill materialized and that it would create a new layer of bureaucracy in the agriculture department.
Rep. David Considine of Baraboo, a former goat farmer, said outside the hearing that the make-up of the review board looks problematic. He said the board could block any regulatory changes.
Environmental group Clean Wisconsin was the only organization registered against the bill as of Thursday afternoon, according to state Ethics Commission records. The group’s water program director, Scott Laeser, said in an email that the organization has “significant concerns” about how much authority would shift from the department to the board and how much harder it would be to get needed regulatory changes past its members.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters that he wants to watch a recording of the public hearing to gather feedback on the bill but it’s feasible the measure could pass before the Assembly adjourns next week.
“I would like to be able to update the livestock siting rules,” he said.