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Lawmakers advance bills to help agribusinesses, meat processing facilities

CHEYENNE — Lawmakers advanced legislation Friday aiming to boost the state’s meat processing facilities and provide more financial relief to agriculture industries.

But the ultimate call on whether to stand up such programs will be left to Gov. Mark Gordon.

The bills approved Friday by the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee would appropriate $80 million of the state’s federal stimulus money – which must be spent by the end of the year – specifically for farming and ranching businesses across the state.

The proposals would also provide an additional $20 million to develop Wyoming’s meat processing facilities, which have been impacted by shrinking global markets during the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, the governor’s office has allocated nearly $800 million of Wyoming’s $1.25 billion share in federal CARES Act funds – though that number only reflects earmarking, rather than money that has made it out the door.

Committee co-chair Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said he had spoken with Gordon earlier this week, and he was hopeful something would be finalized soon for the state’s farmers and ranchers.

“Short of having a special session, we are kind of at the executive branch’s mercy to encourage them to move forward and do the right thing,” Boner said.

The senator also noted agriculture-related businesses can apply for the state’s existing business relief stipend programs, which were set up during the Legislature’s special session in May.

“The governor has been very good about reserving some funds for businesses like agriculture that are going to realize those losses basically right now in the fall and late summer, so they have been doing a good job, as far as I’m concerned, in that regard,” Boner said.

The committee seemed more concerned about taking action on the second bill, a proposal that would provide individual grants of up to $1 million for the development or renovation of meat processing facilities in Wyoming.

There was some uncertainty among the committee on whether developing the state’s meat processing capacity was allowed under federal spending guidelines, but Boner pointed to a document from the U.S. Treasury that permits the spending “if a state determines that expanding meat processing capacity ... is a necessary expense incurred due to the public health emergency.”

“I would argue that it clearly is a COVID-related expense, and the timeline is also important to consider,” Boner said. “We’re not going to go out and build a 500-head-a-day processing plant. It’s going to be relatively small, and things we can do before the end of the year.”

Even if the bill goes nowhere without a special session, it could still prove useful moving forward. Virus outbreaks at other meatpacking plants across the country have complicated the supply chain for Wyoming beef, and Rep. Stan Blake, D-Green River, hoped the approved bill would encourage a more localized system.

“The big meatpackers, they have a monopoly, and I think we need to look into more local plants, more local state inspectors,” Blake said. “I went to go buy some beef at my local grocery store – I won’t say the name of the store – but the selection was horrible, and the guy (at the store) says, ‘We just can’t get the meat we want right now.’ So I think this is something we need to really look forward to in the future.”

There could also be movement in Congress to promote local markets, as U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., has introduced a bill allowing state-inspected meat to be traded across state lines. Currently, federal inspectors must approve any facility before it can sell meat to vendors outside of Wyoming.

While the stipend program for ag-related businesses would be run by the Wyoming Business Council, the one for meat processing facilities would be coordinated by the state’s Department of Agriculture.

It remains unclear whether Gordon will act on the committee’s recommendations.