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State News: March 27 – April 3

Farmers Brace for Coronavirus Impact

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across Wisconsin, the state’s farmers are bracing for how the pandemic will affect the agricultural industry.

Darin Von Ruden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said many farm operators are old enough to be considered part of the high-risk population for the virus. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 census found the average age of all Wisconsin producers is 56 years.

But Von Ruden said farm families do have the advantage of being more isolated in rural areas and less likely to be in close contact with other people.

“The number one thing that I’m hearing is just the concern of what the future is going to hold,” Von Ruden said. 

Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he doesn’t think the agriculture industry has seen the full impact of the pandemic yet.

“We know, for example, that farm milk prices are going to be taking a real nosedive,” Stephenson said. “We also expect that there are going to be some slowdowns or problems with just supply chains and things that farmers may normally be picking up on.”

Milk prices typically decline during the spring as production naturally increases during more mild weather, a phenomenon called the “spring flush.” But Stephenson said most dairy economists are expecting a much bigger decline than normal as the pandemic causes a major slowdown in international and domestic demand.

State Election Officials Spar over Possible Election Postponement

Members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission disagreed on whether the state’s April 7 election should be postponed. A number of other states, including Ohio, Georgia and Maryland, have delayed their spring elections because of the spread of COVID-19 across the country.

The commission does not have the power to postpone the election; that would take action from the state Legislature, courts or Gov. Tony Evers because the election date is written into state law.

“At this time, we believe it still should happen,” Evers told Wisconsin Public Radio. 

He noted that a number of local offices are on the ballot on April 7, including county executive and mayoral races. He raised concerns about the ramifications of those elections not taking place as scheduled because winners take office soon after the election.

Elections Commission Chair Dean Knudson agreed. 

“It’s important to maintain continuity in local government … That’s why it’s so vitally important [to hold the election],” Knudson said. “We’re going to have an election, and it’s already underway.”

Commissioner Ann Jacobs argued in favor of postponing the election.

“I no longer believe that we are able to fairly and properly administer this election without delay or postponement,” she said. “I believe we’re putting people at risk.”

Report: Wisconsin Is Better Positioned to Face Economic Turmoil Than in 2007

Wisconsin is on stronger footing to face the upcoming economic turmoil created by the COVID-19 outbreak than it was ahead of the Great Recession, according to a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Although fiscal hardships will be severe and will last for an unknown period, the state does have systems in place that weren’t present 12 years ago, including a relatively strong unemployment-insurance fund and reserve fund, according to the nonpartisan forum. 

Those reserves will be essential because the economic slowdown will both diminish state tax collections and increase spending on jobless benefits, social services and emergency needs, the report found.

“While policymakers have debated options for using those growing balances, our organization has repeatedly stressed the value of maintaining them as a cushion against unexpected economic shocks,” said Jason Stein, research director at the Wisconsin Policy Forum, which authored the report.

“If you were not taking in taxes, and you were spending at the average daily rate, you’ve got about five weeks,” Stein said. In contrast, he said, there was enough in state reserves to cover about five days during the Great Recession. 

The state spends an average of about $48 million per day.