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Rep. Mark Spreitzer is introducing a bill to help new farmers pay off their student loans. The bill was introduced in the 2015-16 session as AB-913, and is modeled after a program in New York. Spreitzer has made some changes to last session’s bill after working with stakeholders, including more inclusion of technical colleges. (It is expected the cosponsorship memo and LRB will be circulated today).
According to the co-sponsorship memo, Wisconsin’s farming population is aging and in order for Wisconsin to continue to be a leader in the agriculture industry the state must take action to help recruit and retain new farmers. The bill creates a program to provide reimbursement for student debt for individuals dedicated to operating a small or medium-sized farm in Wisconsin for a minimum of five years. Farmers accepted into the program would be reimbursed for up to $30,000 worth of higher education debt. The debt can be for associate’s or bachelor’s degree, technical certificates, or Farm & Industry Short Course (FISC) program. The bill provides that a maximum of 30% of the available funding in each year could be used for those with technical certificates or FISC, with the remaining funds for associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. The degrees can be from any accredited public or non-profit institution. The $30,000 is paid over a period of five years, and individuals are required to show proof they are making payments on student loans to continue to receive funds. The bill requires the individual to be a state resident whose primary occupation is operating a small farm, which is defined as between $35,000 and $500,000 in gross annual sales. The individual must apply within five years of obtaining the degree or certificate. Additionally, the bill requires the Legislative Audit Bureau to audit the program after seven years, and every ten years thereafter. The bill, if passed, would be a sum sufficient appropriation which could not exceed the designated amounts, distributed through HEAB.
In an interview with The Wheeler Report, Spreitzer said he wanted to be as inclusive and consistent as possible so they used the definition of farmer as defined in state statutes. Spreitzer was clear that a famer must produce the item, but a processor could be on premises. However, a processor alone would not qualify for the program. In addition, Spreitzer said they made sure to include farms that would be producing and selling products, and are not hobby farmers. Spreitzer said individuals could, “be running their own farm, going back to take over a family farm, or working in a paid capacity for someone who owns a farm, as long as their primary occupation is farming and the farm they work on meets the qualification for the program, the individual would qualify.” Spreitzer highlighted that one individual who spoke with him regarding the bill is a manager on a farm for another couple that owns the farm. Spreitzer said that individual would qualify for the program. Spreitzer said he believes there would be between 20-40 individuals who could receive funding for the program depending on the amounts of their student debt.
Spreitzer said New York successfully introduced a similar program in 2015, which his bill is modeled after. Although Spreitzer said they have made changes to the NY model. Spreitzer said Montana and New Jersey are both looking to introduce a similar bill.
When asked what he believes will be the biggest concern about the bill, Spreitzer said, “That it spends GPR. Any bill that has a price tag and doesn’t have a dedicated funding source faces that challenge. I think there are a lot of people that like the idea, but are waiting to commit to see what the overall budget situation looks like. We aren’t asking for a lot of money, but anything that has a price tag has that hurdle.” Spreitzer explained that he included the audit because he wanted to address concerns about whether or not the program worked and whether it helped people farm who might not otherwise be able to farm. Spreitzer said he chose to be all encompassing instead of trying a pilot program for two reasons: 1.) to build support for the bill he needed to include all the different kinds of agriculture, and 2.) there are young people who have student debt who are choosing all different types of agriculture. Spreitzer didn’t want to pick one type of agriculture over another.
Spreitzer said last session’s bill was a bipartisan bill and he is hopeful Republicans will support the bill again this session. Spreitzer highlighted that the bill was referred to the Assembly Agriculture Committee last session.