Byline: Jason Stein Business reporter
Gov. Jim Doyle and Republican lawmakers hit a note of bipartisan harmony Monday, calling for the creation of a pilot program that would give Wisconsin farmers a chance to buy health insurance through a cooperative.
Doyle and Republican legislators found several points of agreement as they pushed their respective agendas for promoting Wisconsin's $40 billion agricultural industry in separate news conferences. The shared proposals included offering tax credits for modernizing dairy farms and creating a rural finance authority to coordinate state loans to farms and other agricultural businesses.
'Right now we're singing on the same page of the hymnal,' said Rep. David Ward, R-Fort Atkinson, at a news conference in the Capitol.
Bipartisan efforts might lead to quicker action on what Bill Oemichen, president and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives, called farmers' 'number one' concern -- the costs and difficulties of buying their own health insurance.
Speaking beside Ward and the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Agriculture, Rep. Al Ott, R-Forest Junction, Oemichen said two bills in the Legislature (AB 447 and SB 204) might soon provide an alternative. They would authorize the state insurance commissioner to create a pilot program of five cooperatives around the state through which farmers and other small business owners could purchase health insurance.
'We have the expectation that we will get health care cooperatives up and running by the end of the year,' predicted Oemichen, who said he had asked Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, a former state governor, for federal money for the initiative.
During visits to farms in western Wisconsin, Doyle came out in favor of the proposal. 'This legislation is based on a model that worked well in Minnesota and will help lower health-care costs. I urge the Legislature to send it to my desk as quickly as possible,' Doyle said in a written statement.
Doyle and Ott both called for the creation of a rural finance authority, which would coordinate farm loans already being awarded by the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority and the Department of Commerce as well as seek new federal money. Doyle also has endorsed a bill introduced by Ott and other lawmakers (AB 283) to give farmers who choose to modernize their dairy a tax credit worth ten percent of the cost.
Ott said the tax credits, which are capped at $50,000, would help older Wisconsin dairies become more competitive with modern farms in other states, at a cost of $5 to $6 million in lost tax revenue.
On other points, Doyle and Republican lawmakers diverged. Doyle visited an organic farm in Chaseburg, saying he wanted to make the state an international leader in organic production by encouraging the adoption of organic farming and the creation of new processing and marketing capacity in Wisconsin through state and federal grants.
Ott spoke in favor of a bill (AB 437) that would authorize towns to use tax incremental financing to draw agribusiness ventures such as ethanol plants.
The real test of Monday's bipartisan spirit, said Ward, is whether it will extend beyond the current agreements to the concrete proposals that will follow.
'The devil might be in some of the details,' he said.