JFC Approves Walker's Rural Aid, Reinsurance Proposals

Bills Now Move To Full State Assembly, Senate

By Laurel White, Wisconsin Public Radio

The state budget committee signed off Tuesday on Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to funnel $50 million into rural economic development programs across Wisconsin.

The Joint Finance Committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the full state Assembly and Senate.

"I think it will make a huge difference to rural Wisconsin," said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, co-chair of the committee, of the plan. "I think that we need to invest in all parts of our state. We really need to work on innovation, and we should think of agriculture as one industry that can be very innovative."

Walker announced the plan last month.

The $50 million annual fund would be used for initiatives including low-interest loans to dairies and a new scholarship program for students who take agriculture classes at state colleges.

Grants would be disbursed through existing state programs, with the payouts overseen by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

Despite the unanimous vote, some Democrats criticized recent GOP-backed economic development incentives during the committee meeting. They argued Republicans have pushed more state spending on economic development in urban areas than rural parts of the state.

"This bill is $1 billion over 20 years, to put that in contrast, Foxconn will get payments of $3 billion — I believe it’s actually ballooned to $4.5 billion — over 10 years," said Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point. "I would hope in the future the Legislature and governor could make just as much, if not more of, a priority of rural Wisconsin that they have done for southeast Wisconsin."

Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, argued the $50 million will go a long way to spur job growth in rural communities. 

"I know that maybe there's larger economic development initiatives in larger areas, but 10 jobs, 50 jobs in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, is like 1,000 jobs to Madison," Felzkowski said.

The committee also voted 13-3 to approve the governor’s call for Wisconsin to join a number of states that offer reinsurance for Affordable Care Act insurers.

Shankland joined all Republicans on the committee in voting for the proposal.

The bill authorizes the state to apply for a federal waiver to provide reinsurance to insurers.

Reinsurance would help the companies cover the cost of their most expensive claims. Supporters say reinsurance will help keep insurance premiums affordable.

The bill now moves to the full Assembly and Senate.