Brian Dake

State Ends Fiscal Year with $588.5 Million Balance

Wisconsin ended the most recent state fiscal year with a positive balance of $588.5 million and grew the state Budget Stabilization Fund to a record-high $320.1 million, according to the new Annual Fiscal Report released today by the state Department of Administration (DOA).

“The tough, prudent financial decisions and common-sense reforms that have supported job creation and led to record-low unemployment in Wisconsin, have also contributed to our state’s budget ending the most recent fiscal year in excellent shape,” DOA Secretary Ellen Nowak said. “The balance is over $41 million higher than was recently estimated, and this is in part due to higher-than-expected state revenues, which is great news as we look ahead to the next budget cycle.”

Highlights from the state’s Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Fiscal Report include:

  • The undesignated general fund balance at the close of fiscal 2018 (June 30, 2018) was $588.5 million, slightly higher than the previous fiscal year’s balance of $579 million.  The balance is $41.2 million more than was estimated when the 2017-19 legislative session ended.
  • The state deposited $33.1 million into the state Budget Stabilization Fund.  The balance is now $320.1 million.  This is the largest balance in state history and 190 times larger than the balance in fiscal year 2010.
  • General fund tax collections were $18.4 million above estimates.  The growth was $626 million or 4 percent over last year.  Individual income taxes were $99.2 million higher than estimated.
  • State expenditures were $174 million less than budgeted in 2018.

Sears, Once a Retail Titan, Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

Sears Holdings Corp filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday with a plan to close 142 more stores, throwing into doubt the future of the century-old retailer that once dominated U.S. malls but has withered in the age of internet shopping.

The company listed $6.9 billion in assets and $11.3 billion in liabilities in documents filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of New York.

Sears said it will sell assets and begin closing 142 unprofitable stores by year-end with the aim of reorganizing around a smaller platform of around 700 of its best stores.

Meanwhile, Sears and Kmart stores are open for business. The company said it is continuing to pay employees’ wages and benefits and is working with its vendors to ensure its shelves remain stocked.

“The company believes that a successful reorganization will save the company and the jobs of tens of thousands of store associates,” Sears said in a statement.

The retailer employed about 89,000 workers in the United States as of February, compared with 246,000 people five years ago.

Sears said it has received a $300 million financing package to fund its operations during the bankruptcy proceedings and was negotiating an additional $300 million.


Walker: Private Market Insurance Rates to Drop 4.2%

Gov. Scott Walker says health insurance rates for plans sold in the private market under the Affordable Care Act will drop next year by more than 4 percent.

The reduction is attributed to a new reinsurance program Walker signed into law this year that takes effect in 2019. It’s a $200 million program that’s part of Walker’s plan to lower health insurance costs in Wisconsin.

Walker on Thursday said the 4.2 percent reduction estimate was based on based on rate filings received by the Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance and a report completed by Wakely Consulting Group.

Under the program, the government will provide money to health insurance providers to pay about 50 percent of medical claims costing between $50,000 and $200,000 starting next year.

IRS: Small Business Owners Should Plan Now for New Changes

With just a few months left in tax year 2018, the Internal Revenue Service today urges small business owners to learn about how the new tax law changes may affect them.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, passed in December 2017, made tax law changes that will affect virtually every business and individual in 2018 and the years ahead. Among other things, the new law may change their tax rates and impact the quarterly estimated tax payments they are required to make during the year.

For many passthrough businesses, the law changes created a new 20-percent qualified business income deduction. Other deductions and credits have been changed as well, including revised depreciation methods and expanded options for expensing business property. There are also new rules for like-kind exchanges and fringe benefits. In addition, small business employers who provide paid family and medical leave to their employees during tax years 2018 and 2019 may qualify for a new business credit.

Business owners are encouraged to check the Tax Reform page for the latest guidance on the tax law provisions that may affect them. Partner groups are also encouraged to share this important information with their members.

In Boon for Farmers, Trump Administration Lifts Restrictions on Ethanol

The Trump administration is moving to allow year-round sales of gasoline with higher blends of ethanol, a boon for Iowa and other farm states that have pushed for greater sales of the corn-based fuel.

The White House said the Environmental Protection Agency will publish a rule to allow high-ethanol blends as part of a package of proposed changes to the ethanol mandate.

Gasoline typically contains 10 percent ethanol. The EPA currently bans the high-ethanol blend, called E15, during the summer because of concerns that it contributes to smog on hot days, a claim ethanol industry advocates say is unfounded.

The White House said the proposed rule intends to allow E15 sales next summer. Current regulations prevent retailers in much of the country from offering E15 from June 1 to Sept. 15.

Lifting the summer ban is expected to be coupled with new restrictions on trading biofuel credits that underpin the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, commonly known as the ethanol mandate. The law sets out how much corn-based ethanol and other renewable fuels refiners must blend into gasoline each year.

Memo: Local Levies Drive up Wisconsin Property Taxes

A new memo shows property taxes went up $24 on the median-valued home last year thanks to local increases.

A Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo prepared for Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling shows the net tax bill on the median-valued home rose from $2,852 in 2016 to $2,876 in 2017.

Under the state budget Republicans approved in early 2017, property taxes would have declined by $3. The memo attributes the increase to school, municipal and county levies.

Shilling issued a statement blaming Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators for not investing more in schools over the last seven years.

Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg said property taxes are still lower than when Walker took office in 2011. According to the LFB, property taxes on the median-valued home in 2010 were $2,963.

Judge Kavanaugh Wins Confirmation to the Supreme Court

Judge Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as the 114th Supreme Court justice in a private ceremony Saturday just hours after the Senate voted to confirm him, solidifying conservative control of the highest court in the land for years to come and ending a bitter battle over his nomination.

The final Senate vote was 50-48. Sen. Joe Manchin was the only Democrat to break ranks and vote in favor of him.

President Trump congratulated Kavanaugh on Twitter and called him a “great nominee.” He signed Kavanaugh’s commission to the Supreme Court aboard Air Force One so he could get to work immediately on the court.

He will hear his first cases next week.

Governor Walker Requests Federal Disaster Declaration

According to FEMA’s damage assessments following August and September’s severe flooding across the state, over $37 million in damage was done, prompting a request for a federal disaster declaration from Gov. Scott Walker.

Walker sent a letter to President Donald Trump Thursday for Wisconsin counties damaged by flooding.

The request includes Adams, Crawford, Dane, Dodge, Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Juneau, La Crosse, Marquette, Monroe, Ozaukee, Richland, Sauk, and Vernon counties for both public assistance and individual assistance. He requested public assistance only for Iron County and individual assistance only for Columbia, Jefferson and Washington counties.

Last week, FEMA conducted damage assessments in the impacted areas, finding the cost of local government response and estimated damage totaling over $37.2 million. The review also found that 370 private homes were destroyed or suffered major damage, and 925 received minor damage.

If President Trump allows the federal disaster declaration, Wisconsin will become eligible for FEMA funds.

Legislature to call Extraordinary Session on Kimberly-Clark bill after November Election

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald announced Tuesday morning the Legislature will call an extraordinary session Nov. 12 for a public hearing in the Senate on an incentive package for Kimberly-Clark with plans for a floor vote later next month.

The package, which includes Foxconn-like incentives that would help keep open a plant in the Fox Valley, cleared the Assembly in February. But it has bogged down in the Senate amid concerns over the cost to taxpayers, as well as the precedent it would set to offer such significant incentives to retain jobs.

Senator Roger called the planned extraordinary session “great news,” while Gov. Scott Walker, who backs the package, called the development a “major step forward” in keeping the plant open.

“My message to Kimberly-Clark employees is simple: we are fighting for you. We are working together to keep your jobs in Wisconsin,” Walker said.

Kimberly-Clark officials had set a Sept. 30 deadline for lawmakers to act on the package as the company weighed a final decision on whether to keep open a plant in the Fox Valley. But state and company officials continued to meet through the weekend as some backers of the package urged the company to give lawmakers until after the Nov. 6 election to act.

The bill the Assembly passed included a boost in tax credits for job retention to 17 percent, up from the current 7 percent. Kimberly-Clark would also get refundable tax credits for 15 percent of capital expenditures, up from the typical 10 percent, over a five-year period. The company would also get a five-year sales tax exemption on those expenditures.

Fitzgerald’s office said the plan is to proceed on the bill in its current form.


Unpaid Medical Bills in Wisconsin are Climbing Again after Decline

Uncompensated care is on the rise as hospitals in Wisconsin and around the country are seeing an increase in unpaid medical bills. In Wisconsin, it’s topped a billion dollars.

In 2017, 150 hospitals in Wisconsin had $1.1 billion of uncompensated health care services, this includes both charity care and bad debt. It’s an increase from 14 percent from 2016. Hospitals in Milwaukee County alone accounted for nearly 30 percent of the overall total, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association report.

Nationally, uncompensated care at hospitals around the United States was more than $38 billion in 2016.

The report on Wisconsin hospitals doesn’t give an explanation for the rise in unpaid medical bills and WHA officials weren’t available for comment. But those who advocate for more access to health coverage note uncompensated care levels haven’t exceeded a billion dollars since 2014, when key elements of the Affordable Care Act took effect.