The Legislature’s budget committee on Wednesday approved $200,000 in mental health funding for farmers shouldering the burden of some of the most challenging economic conditions in years.
The unanimous approval from the committee comes as Wisconsin farmers are facing the highest bankruptcy rate in the nation and possibly experiencing a surge in suicides.
The committee approved $100,000 to be released annually for two years. The funding was set aside in the state budget and requires committee approval for its release. Committee members also unanimously approved $100,000 in one-time funding to be used for suicide prevention programs.
Each year, $50,000 will go toward workshops on stress management, coping and grieving, financial planning, farm succession planning and other services through the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s Farm Center.
Another $25,000 will go toward counseling vouchers, providing about 250 to farmers annually. The remaining $25,000 will be directed to DATCP to coordinate with mental health providers and nonprofits to educate providers on the challenges facing farmers.
Committee members of both parties approved release of the funding despite a dispute earlier this summer between Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and DATCP Secretary Brad Pfaff, a Democrat, over comments Pfaff made about farmer mental health.
Fitzgerald had slammed Pfaff for making “offensive and unproductive” comments when Pfaff criticized the budget committee for failing to immediately release the funding for vouchers.
“As of today, DATCP has funding to provide just five more counseling vouchers to farmers in need of mental health care,” Pfaff had said. “If the Joint Finance Committee doesn’t want to move this funding forward immediately, then they have a choice to make: which five farmers will (get mental health care)?”
Budget committee Republicans on Wednesday accused Pfaff of playing politics with farmer mental health, arguing the committee could have used its general operations funding to meet immediate need.
As of mid-August, funding was available for about 10 farmer vouchers. Republicans said they didn’t immediately release funding because they wanted to ensure the funding was targeted appropriately.
Farmers over the past several years have suffered from a slump in milk prices. Their struggles have only been compounded after President Donald Trump entered the U.S. into a global trade war by imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum, prompting retaliatory tariffs on American cheese, among other things. Since then, tariffs between the U.S. and China have spiraled upward, affecting more agricultural commodities.
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Committee members on Wednesday also voted, 12-4, along party lines to allocate about $1.5 million over two years for the Department of Tourism to spend more on marketing efforts in additional media markets in the Midwest and across the country.
No progress on lawsuits
Committee leaders Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, abruptly canceled a meeting scheduled for Wednesday afternoon to take up a number of lawsuits the state Department of Justice claimed were stalled due to committee inaction.
The cancellation, following a week of squabbling between budget committee Republicans and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, indicates officials have made little progress toward establishing a procedure to approve settlements under laws increasing the Legislature’s oversight of DOJ business.
Under Republican laws passed during a lame-duck session in December — after former Republican Gov. Scott Walker lost his re-election bid but before Democratic Gov. Tony Evers took office — Kaul is required to seek the budget committee’s approval to reach settlement agreements in certain cases.
Kaul in a statement slammed Republicans for the lack of progress and called on them to repeal parts of the lame-duck laws if they are unable to guarantee confidentiality in reviewing lawsuits.
“The extraordinary session legislation has proven to be an unmitigated disaster,” Kaul said. “Republicans in the Legislature gave themselves power over certain case resolutions last December, and JFC needs to take on the responsibility that comes with that authority.”
Nygren said he canceled the meeting because the DOJ did not provide committee members with enough information on the lawsuits.
“Making an educated decision without all the information is irresponsible,” Nygren said. “So we’re going to again ask for it and hope that he can get it to us so we can meet on these settlements.”
Before the meeting was canceled, the DOJ publicly rejected the committee’s plan for guaranteeing confidentiality when discussing and approving lawsuits.
Kaul wanted each committee member to sign a confidentiality agreement, but all members objected. As a compromise, Republicans proposed hiring a taxpayer-funded attorney to sign a confidentiality agreement binding each member of the committee.
The plan was met by stiff opposition from committee Democrats, and a nonpartisan state agency said it likely wouldn’t commit individual committee members to secrecy.
The committee was slated to take up seven minor lawsuits needing DOJ approval. More than a dozen lawsuits, some of which could award the state millions of dollars, are essentially on hold until officials can determine a process for approving them.
It’s unclear when lawmakers will find a remedy in order to approve the settlements.