OPINION The Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance held June 2 an Executive Session on Agriculture, Natural Resources, Workforce Development, and Safety and Professional Services. The session included decisions related to agricultural industry-support programs, user-fee funding programs, workforce-development programs and several regulatory programs.
I represent one of the most ag-dependent Senate districts in Wisconsin. Throughout the past year I have been hearing from farmers and meat processors about the huge issues in our local meat supply chain. Most of our local meat processors are booked out to 2023 for slaughter. While business is good, it illustrates a need to increase inspectors, expand capacity and encourage new workers in this industry. In response we approved four new State Meat Inspector positions. We also created a Meat Processor Grant program – $400,000 during the biennium – for meat processors to apply for assistance to expand, equip, train, etc.
We also increased grants for Dairy Processors to $400,000 each year of the biennium to encourage continued growth in that industry. The Ag Export program outlined in Assembly Bill 314, authored by Wis. Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, is funded with about $2 million during the biennium to expand the export of Wisconsin agricultural products around the world. And we continue to prioritize the mental-health needs of our farmers by investing in the Farmer Mental Health program, which we increased by $100,000 per year.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources collects a lot of funding through user fees via hunting, fishing, ATV/UTV licensing and more. We made several changes to those items, at the requests of the organizations that represent those outdoorsmen and women so they can have a greater impact and expand programming. We increased the Waterfowl Stamp by $5, from $7 to $12, which will enable organizations like Ducks Unlimited to continue making strong investments in habitat recovery.
We also expanded the funds available from ATV/UTV registrations to $750,000 annually for local ATV and UTV trail and project aids. We are allowing user fees to be used for trail system, improved mapping, etc. We also increased funding for state ATV and UTV trail aids by $250,000 annually and provided an additional $200,000 annually for county snowmobile aids to fund leases for GIS tracking units. And we increased expenditure authority for boating aids by $380,600 annually to, again, apply user fees to enforcement and improvements. All of those funds are generated by those who purchased licenses, pay fees and participate in the sport.
Workforce development is essential to continue our recovery. We provided an additional $2 million for local youth-apprenticeship grants and increased the award amount from $900 to $1,100 per student. We changed requirements for the Hire Heroes program to make more veterans eligible and expanded the Youth Summer Jobs program to communities beyond the city of Milwaukee. And we provided $25,000 to Department of Workforce Development to conduct a study on Wisconsin’s unemployment-insurance system to find ways to bring more people back to work.
I’ve been working with local fire and EMS departments to improve recruitment and retention of volunteers. We made a strategic investment of $100,000 in the Youth Volunteer Firefighting/EMS program. That program is an investment in the future of firefighting and EMS. The grant program helps high school students become certified while in high school, to help with recruitment and retention.
Overall our budget action was thorough and strategic.