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The top state Senate Republican on Wednesday blasted the state’s top agriculture official over comments he made earlier in the week about the mental health of farmers.

The squabble comes after Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Brad Pfaff in a statement Tuesday slammed the Legislature’s budget committee for failing to release funding provided under a new program aimed at mental health assistance to farmers and their families.

“As of today, DATCP has funding to provide just five more counseling vouchers to farmers in need of mental health care,” Pfaff 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)?”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, called the comments — which came after the Joint Finance Committee declined to release mental health funding for farmers, who may be facing increased risk for suicide as they battle tough economic conditions — “offensive and unproductive.”

“If you truly care about farmers’ well-being, I hope that you will strive to work with legislators on addressing mental health in Wisconsin rather than releasing inflammatory statements,” Fitzgerald said in a letter to Pfaff.

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The budget Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ signed earlier this month would direct $100,000 in funding over the two-year budget cycle to the Farm Center, which provides referrals and crisis response to farmers.

The GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee requires DATCP to seek its approval to receive the funding. DATCP requested such approval, but the Joint Finance Committee wants more questions answered before it releases the funding.

A spokesman for the committee’s co-chairman, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said the committee additionally wants DATCP to work with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ Task Force on Suicide Prevention to make sure the $100,000 is spent responsibly.

Pfaff argued the state must act more quickly to aid Wisconsin’s farmers, who may be experiencing a surge in suicides as they battle some of the worst economic conditions in years.

Pfaff responded to Fitzgerald’s letter later on Wednesday, emphasizing his department submitted a plan for the use of the mental health funds and adding that he hopes the Legislature “can share my sense of urgency on this issue.”

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Capitol reporter

Riley Vetterkind covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal. He can be reached at (608) 252-6135 or rvetterkind@madison.com.