Brian Dake

Industry Clamors for Fixes to GOP Tax Law

Industry groups are pushing for lawmakers to include changes to the new tax law in the government funding package that is expected to pass this month.

Republicans enacted the tax overhaul at breakneck speed last year, turning it into law in less than two months. Since then, drafting errors in the law have emerged, while other provisions have come under scrutiny for their potential unintended consequences.

Stakeholders want to see changes to the law passed as soon as possible and view the funding omnibus as a prime opportunity. Among those pushing for action are groups in the agriculture and retail sectors.

A top issue with the tax law that stakeholders hope to see addressed involves a provision impacting the agriculture industry. This issue has become known as the “grain glitch.”

The law created a 20-percent deduction for the gross payments that farmers receive from cooperatives. Cooperatives are businesses owned by farmers that perform functions such as buying and marketing their members’ commodities.

The provision was added to the tax law in an effort to address the fact that under the old tax code, co-ops could claim the domestic production deduction, which was repealed under the new law. But the provision had the unintended consequence of creating an incentive for farmers to sell their commodities to cooperatives rather than to private companies.

Stakeholders and lawmakers identified the provision as an issue fairly quickly, and talks about a fix have been taking place among private companies, cooperatives and House and Senate tax writers since January.

The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) and the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) issued a joint statement Tuesday afternoon announcing a proposal that they expect to be included in the omnibus. The proposal, whose legislative language was developed by the congressional tax-writing committees, would be retroactive to Jan. 1 and is designed to replicate the benefits co-ops received under the domestic production deduction while also removing tax incentives for farmers to do businesses with companies just because they are co-ops.

Retailers, meanwhile, are hoping to see drafting errors in the tax law fixed.

Under the old tax code, improvements to retail stores and restaurant properties could be written off over 15 years. The authors of the new law intended for the full costs of those improvements to be written off immediately after they are made. But due to a drafting mistake, the law states that those property improvements instead have to be written off over 39 years.

Dave Koenig, vice president for tax at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said the drafting mistake poses a “cash flow issue” for retailers.

He said the tax bill “clearly was meant to encourage investment,” but until the provision is fixed, it would have the opposite effect.

Retailers also want to see a change made to the effective date of a provision largely barring businesses from carrying back net operating losses to prior years.

Lawmakers wrote in their conference report on the law that the provision applies for taxable years beginning after Dec. 31, 2017, but the actual text of the statute mistakenly said it applies for taxable years ending after Dec. 31, 2017.

Many retailers have fiscal years that end Jan. 31, so for them, the prohibition on net operating loss carry-backs would apply for their fiscal years that just ended. This is essentially a retroactive change, said Bernstein.

She added that the drafting error could be harmful for retailers in bankruptcy, who may have planned using net operating loss carry-backs to help finance their inventory.

The tax law passed Congress through a process called reconciliation that allowed the measure to clear the Senate with a simple majority. But technical changes to the law can’t be passed through reconciliation and instead would have to get 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans only have 51 seats.

Because the changes would need some Democratic votes to pass, stakeholders think it would be best to include them in must-pass legislation such as the government spending bill.


Wisconsin’s Fiscal Health Improving

A recovering economy, replenished unemployment fund, and recent decisions not to “raid”
segregated funds have all contributed to Wisconsin’s improving fiscal health since 2010, according to a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum (WPF).

In “A State Fiscal Checkup,” WPF researchers use information from the recently-released 2017 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) to examine the state’s overall fiscal condition. The CAFR is the state’s equivalent to a public company’s annual report; it details state finances using generally accepted accounting principles. The WPF analysis examines fiscal health from three perspectives: short-term, the fiscal year, and long-term.

Since 2009, liquid assets such as cash and investments more than doubled from $3.3 billion to $8.0 billion in 2017. About 29% of the gain was due to replenishing the state’s unemployment insurance fund, while another 29% was the result of rising balances within the U.W. System.

With liquid assets rising significantly and short-term liabilities nearly unchanged, three indicators of short-term fiscal health reached their highest levels since at least 2002.

The primary measure of fiscal year health compares total revenues and expenditures. CAFR figures show that during 2002-10, revenues exceeded expenditures in just four of nine years. Since 2010, the state has run a surplus in every year. In 2017, total revenues were 4% greater than expenditures.

Long-term fiscal health is driven largely by debt. The WPF report shows total state debt increasing 36.3% during 2004-13, from $10.1 billion to $13.7 billion. Since 2013, long-term debt has stabilized; it totaled $13.6 billion in 2017.

With total debt little changed in 2017 and assets rising, three measures of long-term fiscal health improved. Total long-term liabilities per capita declined from $2,802 in 2016 to $2,739 in 2017. Liabilities as a share of total state assets are also declining, from 41.2% in 2011 to 34.5% in 2017.

I-94 Shoulders Could Become Lanes for Self-Driving Trucks

Highway officials are considering building up the shoulders along I-94 south from Milwaukee and using them as traffic lanes for self-driving trucks to serve the Foxconn Technology Group factory to be built in Mount Pleasant.

The idea is part of a process that is in its “really, really early” stages, but is among possibilities being contemplated as Wisconsin undertakes the $500 million expansion of I-94, State Transportation Secretary Dave Ross said this week.

Wisconsin is seeking funding to test a route for autonomous trucks as part of the state’s application for $246 million in federal grant money to help pay for the overall I-94 project. The route would run from Mitchell International Airport and along the freeway south to the Racine County area where Foxconn plans to build a massive manufacturing campus to produce high-resolution flat screens.

Ross spoke this week at the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Policy Forum and in an interview afterward.

Self-driving vehicles are being tested elsewhere, but mostly in warm-weather states, Ross said in the interview. “Part of the grant is that this is going to be an all-weather testing route, which is very unique in the nation,” he said.

Ross said other states have been using highway shoulders as traffic lanes at some times. That is a possibility for bringing self-driving trucks onto I-94, he indicated.

They potentially could run in the dedicated lane, which would receive additional paving, at all times or only during certain hours, “say nine o’clock at night to six in the morning,” Ross said.

Wisconsin Job Growth Slows in Latest Detailed Employment Numbers

Job creation slowed in Wisconsin during the 12-month period ending in September of last year, according to the latest “gold standard” employment numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The numbers come from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, which economists regard as the most accurate job metric.

They show that from September 2016 until September 2017, Wisconsin added 17,670 private sector jobs. That’s considerably less than in previous years. For example, Wisconsin added 27,289 private sector jobs during the same period a year ago and 34,551 the year before that.

Thursday’s numbers, coupled with Wisconsin’s historically low 3 percent unemployment rate, show that while the state’s private sector economy is not expanding quickly, most residents who want a job have one.

The latest numbers also show Wisconsin added 4,616 private sector manufacturing jobs from September 2016 through September 2017. That’s an improvement from the same period a year ago when Wisconsin lost manufacturing jobs.

“Netflix for Healthcare”: Local Doctor says Direct Primary Care Cuts Out Insurance Costs

Dr. Timothy Murray runs Solstice Health in Oconomowoc. He says the current primary care system is too expensive because of insurance companies and administrative salaries.

“I shouldn’t be able to charge $400 for an MRI when the hospital charges $3,000. I mean you can just do the math right there and see the markup.”

Direct primary care cuts a lot of those costs, and Murray says 40 percent of his overhead is removed. For a monthly fee, you get unlimited visits to doctors and non-emergency services.

“There’s no thought process anymore of should I go, or should I not go. My kids got a cold, or maybe he’s got an ear infection. I’m really not sure, but my deductible is $2,000, and I know I’m going to have to foot that whole bill.”

But there is no emergency room at Solstice, so Murray says he also reccomends catostrophic health insurance both for safety, and to meet Affordable Care Act requirements. Murray says to think of it like car insurance.

“Your car insurance doesn’t pay for your wiper blades. It doesn’t pay for your tire rotations and all these other day to day things that we do for our vehicles. That is the essence of primary care. When you have an accident, or you have something catastrophic, that’s when the insurance kicks in.”

A group of Republican lawmakers, including state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, are putting laws on the books to define and regulate direct care, to help get it off the ground.”

“As time goes on, you’re going to see this focus going away from our legacy system, where it relies on insurance companies as the key, to this primary care model, where the patient is the king.”

The bill on primary care has already passed the state Assembly, and is up for a vote in the Senate.

Governor Walker Says He Was Surprised By President’s Tariff Proposal

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says he was surprised when President Donald Trump announced plans to impose new tariffs on imported aluminum and steel, saying up until last week he thought “we were in a good place.”

Walker on Tuesday urged Trump to back off on the tariffs, visiting a plastics manufacturer and food distributor the governor says would be hurt under Trump’s plan.

Walker said he had been talking with Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross since last summer about how tariffs would hurt Wisconsin. Walker said he is scheduled to talk again with Ross on Wednesday, and possibly also Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

Walker said if Trump won’t back off the tariffs in total, he hopes the president will make an exception for tinplate steel and ultra-thin aluminum. Those are used by Bemis Industrial Products and Seneca Foods, the two businesses he visited Tuesday in Oshkosh and Janesville.

Seneca Foods is a food processor and distributor with nine plants in the state.

The Janesville location is in the congressional district of House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has joined with other congressional Republicans in saying the tariffs could lead to a trade war.

Walker has been outspoken against Trump’s idea, saying it would likely raise steel and aluminum prices in the United States and hurt Wisconsin manufacturers.

Wisconsin is the 5th Best State for Women

In honor of Women’s History Month, WalletHub released a report of 2018’s Best & Worst States for Women. Wisconsin ranked as the 5th best state on the list.

The states were ranked in two categories; Women’s Economic & Social Well-Being and Women’s Health & Safety. The Badger State ranked 2nd in Women’s Economic & Social Well-Being and ranked 15th in Women’s Health & Safety, landing the state 5th overall.

The two categories considered numerous factors such as earnings for female workers, unemployment rates, friendliness toward working moms, female homicide rates, share of physically active women, and more.

Wisconsin’s high percentage of women graduating high school and percentage of women who voted in the 2016 presidential election, significantly impacted the overall ranking. Wisconsin ranked 1st for women graduating high school and 3rd for women voting.

A few of the key rankings for Wisconsin:

  • 1st- High School Graduation Rate for Women
  • 3rd- Share of Women Who Voted in 2016 Presidential Election
  • 6th- Women’s Preventive Health Care
  • 7th- Female Uninsured Rate
  • 11th- Unemployment Rate for Women
  • 15th- Quality of Women’s Hospitals
  • 17th- Median Earnings for Female Workers
  • 18th- Women’s Life Expectancy at Birth
  • 19th- Share of Women in Poverty

Wisconsin has Eighth-Lowest Auto Insurance Costs in United States

Wisconsin is among states with the least expensive auto insurance rates, but premiums in the metro Milwaukee area are rising faster than the national average, a new report says.

A study by the online auto insurance search engine and research firm The Zebra found Wisconsin had an average annual premium of $1,040 for car insurance, which was lower than all but seven states in the United States.

In the survey, Michigan had the highest annual average premium, at $2,610. North Carolina had the lowest, at $865. Overall, the report said, car insurance rates are higher than they’ve ever been, with a national average annual premium of $1,427, or 20% higher than in 2011.

Wisconsin historically has had among the lowest auto insurance rates in the U.S., and part of the reason is many insurance companies want to do business in the state, Franken said. According to the most recent report from the Office of the Insurance Commissioner, in 2016 there were about 175 companies offering private passenger car insurance in Wisconsin.

“We’re pretty proud of that history, and we hope it continues,” Franken said. “I think it’s the positive regulatory climate, positive litigation climate and a lot of credit to the state drivers.”

The study said insurance companies are penalizing distracted drivers for the first time since the advent of cellphones, though still not nearly as much as other dangerous traffic violations.

To compile the survey, The Zebra said, it conducted a comprehensive auto insurance pricing analysis between September and December using its proprietary quote engine, using data from insurance rating platforms and public rate filings. The Zebra said it examined nearly 53 million rates to explore trends for specific auto insurance rating factors across all U.S. zip codes, averaged by state, including Washington, D.C.

Trump Expected to Announce Stiff Steel, Aluminum Tariffs

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Lower Corporate Tax Rate Projected to Save Wisconsin Utility Customers more than $275 Million

Customers of Wisconsin utilities are projected to save more than $275 million from the new lower rate for federal corporate taxes, based on estimates compiled by the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group.

The corporate tax rate was lowered to 21% from 35% as part of the recent tax reform and tax cut legislation. Projected taxes are included as an expense when setting utility rates and the cost is passed onto customers.

The state’s utilities were required to file their projected tax savings with the Public Service Commission last month. Matthew Spencer, a spokesman for Public Service Commission, said the commission is expected to decide this year on how to apply the savings to customers’ bills.

Based on the PSC filings, the initial annual savings from the lower tax rates are:

  • We Energies electric customer – $97 million
  • We Energies natural gas customers — $20 million.
  • WPS electric customers — $41 million.
  • WPS natural gas customers — $7 million.
  • Madison Gas & Electric — $6 million to $9 million for electric customers and $2 million to $3 million for natural gas customers (1.2% to 1.9% average reduction).
  • Alliant electric customers — $40 million to $50 million
  • Xcel electric customers — $25 million to $30 million.

The projected savings range roughly from 1% to 4% of customers’ bills, depending on the utility.