The Legislature's budget committee has freed up $200,000 to support mental health initiatives for farmers across Wisconsin, a state that leads the nation in family farm bankruptcies.
The funding, released under a unanimous vote, has been a source of contention this summer after the Joint Finance Committee in July declined to release it to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection after Democrats requested the committee do so. The Republican members then sought additional information from the agency before doing so.
The decision sparked a spat between Gov. Tony Evers' pick to lead DATCP, Brad Pfaff, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. Pfaff at the time argued in a press release that GOP lawmakers "have chosen to leave farmers behind." But Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, countered the remarks were "offensive and unproductive."
The debate was rekindled when committee members convened to take up the issue Wednesday.
Committee Co-chair John Nygren, referencing Pfaff's earlier statement, said that rhetoric "didn't match the man" he had been dealing with. He suggested the language may have been driven by the Evers administration.
"I do believe somebody was playing politics with farmers, and that’s really unfortunate," the Marinette Republican said.
But Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, countered that the committee's need to meet to release the funding is "because of politics."
"(Republicans) want to fight over $200,000 going to small farmers in desperate crisis," she said.
The 2019-21 budget Evers signed earlier this summer sets aside $100,000 in general purpose revenue each year of the biennium to provide mental health assistance to farmers and their families. But before the funding can be doled out, the GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee has to give its approval.
Members Wednesday ultimately voted 16-0 to release the dollars for the next two years, a move that comes as dairy operations face depressed milk prices and ongoing federal trade policies impact farming communities.
Democrats on the panel, who sought to pass a motion to ensure the $100,000 in annual funding would be an ongoing appropriation to DATCP, knocked the GOP-backed motion for only transferring the funding on a one-time basis this biennium.
The Republican language also moved an additional $100,000 in GPR from a Department of Health Services program to the JFC supplemental appropriations fund. The money, when members vote to release it later on, would be provided for suicide prevention programs.
Of the $200,000 in funding members released to DATCP, $25,000 each year would go to support the department's ability to provide vouchers to farmers — if they meet certain eligibility requirements — that cover the cost of one-hour counseling sessions. The additional funding would support 250 vouchers each year of the biennium.
From 2009 to July 30, 2019, 406 of those vouchers have been redeemed, at a total cost of $32,375. In all, over that period, the department issued 896 vouchers, meaning the redemption rate was 45 percent, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Farmers may choose not to use the vouchers because of the stigma associated with addressing mental health issues, per DATCP.
The voucher program began two decades ago, LFB officials said.
"We would like to be able to do more to provide assistance," Pfaff told committee members. "We definitely want to partner (with other groups) in order to build the kind of network that we think we need in this state. Wisconsin is going through a transition in agriculture."
Of the remaining funding, $50,000 in the first year of the biennium would go toward workshops on stress management, coping and grieving, financial planning and more for farmers and their families; and the remaining $25,000 would be put toward workshops with mental health providers and nonprofits to share best practices and educate providers on the unique challenges facing farmers.
Pfaff told committee members he's hopeful that the funding allocated toward workshops would mean the agency wouldn't have to fund "as many vouchers."
Meanwhile, the Legislature in March also convened a Suicide Prevention Task Force aimed at considering ways to bolster suicide prevention efforts, including improving treatment and support services, among other things. Pfaff said he's been working with Chair Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, on those efforts.
Wednesday's vote followed the release of three bills pushed by Democrats on the Assembly Agriculture Committee that would: create two UW-Extension farm-succession planning positions, target beginning farmers with a student loan assistance program and dole out grants to small farms.