Brian Dake

President Signs Orders Cracking Down on Federal Workers’ Unions

President Donald Trump signed executive orders restricting the activities of unions that represent many of the U.S. government’s 2.1 million employees, the White House said.

One of the three orders signed on Friday limits the amount of official time federal employees can spend on union duties to no more than 25 percent. It also requires the federal government to start charging union members rent for using space in federal buildings, to stop paying employees for the cost of lobbying the federal government, and to more aggressively negotiate union contracts.

Since entering office, Trump has made high-profile overtures to private-sector union leaders and members. He’s shown less interest in winning over their public-sector counterparts. One notable exception is the union representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff.

Among Trump’s most consequential moves for the future of organized labor was his appointment to the Supreme Court of Justice Neil Gorsuch, who is expected to vote with the court’s conservative majority next month to ban public sector union fees, making the entire public sector “right-to-work.”

Another of the executive orders Trump signed instructs the Office of Personnel Management to update regulations to shorten the length of performance improvement periods, during which a problem worker cannot be fired, to 30 days across all agencies.

Such periods, which allow workers an opportunity to improve their performance and keep their jobs, currently last from 60 to 120 days, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters ahead of the announcement.

“These executive orders will make it easier for agencies to remove poor-performing employees, and ensure that taxpayer dollars are more efficiently used,” White House Domestic Policy Council Director Andrew Bremberg told reporters on a conference call.

MGE to Buy Part of 2 Major Solar Farms Planned in Wisconsin

Madison Gas & Electric and Wisconsin Public Service, of Green Bay, say they will be partners in purchasing two solar energy projects that would be the biggest solar installations not only in Wisconsin, but throughout the Midwest.

The Badger Hollow Solar Farm will be massive — with as many as 1.2 million solar panels over 3,500 acres, according to developer Invenergy. It will be in Iowa County, between the villages of Montfort and Cobb, about 60 miles west of Madison, and it could produce as much as 300 megawatts of electricity when the sun is shining.

The Two Creeks solar project, proposed by NextEra Energy Resources, will be in northeastern Wisconsin in the town of Two Creeks and will generate up to 150 megawatts.

MGE plans to buy 50 megawatts of each of the installations; WPS will buy 100 megawatts of each. Total cost for the two utilities will be about $390 million. MGE’s share of the cost will be $130 million.

Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a Madison nonprofit that advocates for renewable energy, said Badger Hollow would be the biggest solar farm in the Midwest, topping the 100-megawatt North Star solar farm north of Minneapolis.

“It’s a landmark day for solar energy in Wisconsin,” Huebner said. “The costs have come down dramatically; homeowners and businesses have seen that. We’re very excited that our power companies are also making this investment to create renewable energy here in Wisconsin.”

Huebner said 300 megawatts of solar energy is comparable to the amount used by 67,000 homes and will provide about 1 percent of Wisconsin’s annual electricity production.

 

U.S. Allies Hit Back as President Trump Revokes Steel Tariff Reprieve

America’s closest allies plan to slap billions of dollars in tit-for-tat tariffs on U.S. goods after the Trump administration announced it’s imposing steel and aluminum duties on them.

The reaction was swift after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced the U.S. on Friday will levy new metals duties on imports from the European Union, Mexico and Canada on national security grounds, ending their temporary exemptions.

The EU said it would take immediate steps to retaliate, while Mexico vowed to impose duties on everything from U.S. flat steel to cheese. Canada’s government announced it will impose tariffs on as much as C$16.6 billion ($12.8 billion) of U.S. steel, aluminum and other products from July 1.

Ross said there wasn’t enough progress in discussions with the EU over trade concessions and Canada and Mexico on rewriting the North American Free Trade Agreement to give them permanent exemptions from the metals tariffs. The EU, Canada and Mexico together account for about 40 percent of U.S. steel imports.

The commerce secretary said he’s looking forward to “continued negotiations” with Canada, Mexico and the EU to resolve their issues. There’s potential “flexibility” in the future because the president has the power to increase or cut tariffs, remove them, or enact quotas, he said.

“We continue to be quite willing and eager to have further discussions with all of those parties,” Ross told reporters on Thursday. “We are awaiting their reaction.”

Justice Shirley Abrahamson Won’t Seek Re-Election in 2019

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the first woman to serve on the state’s highest court, said Wednesday she will not seek re-election next year.

“It is a difficult decision,” Abrahamson said. “But in that regard, it is like many of the decisions in cases I have helped decide over four decades on the court — most often, good arguments on both sides, difficult choices, important questions.”

Abrahamson, 84, who was appointed to the court in 1976 by Gov. Patrick Lucey, won four 10-year terms between 1979 and 2009, each time by double-digit margins. She served as chief justice from 1996 until 2015, when a system for selecting chief justices based on seniority was replaced with a majority vote of the court.

Abrahamson said her intention is to serve out the remainder of her term, which ends July 31, 2019. At that point she will have served for 43 years on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, longer than any of the 77 justices who have held the position.

“Until then, and as I have done for my entire judicial career, I will continue to express my point of view,” she said. “I will do so on the bench. And, if principles and values integral to the great state of Wisconsin and its courts continue to be challenged, I will also express my views off the bench, if necessary and as appropriate.”

Wisconsin Farmers and Truckers Face New Bridge Restrictions

Wisconsin farmers and truckers are being forced to take long detours and haul half-filled loads to get their products to market as new weight restrictions were imposed on nearly 200 bridges.

The restrictions were placed primarily on rural roads in the western part of the state, the La Crosse Tribune reported . Highway engineers are trying to account for the strain from newer trucks that use tightly-spaced axles to carry more weight in a smaller frame.

“None posed an immediate safety concern, but each recommendation was made in the best interest of preserving the infrastructure and limiting unnecessary maintenance in the future,” David Hunt, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. “Many of these bridges were designed years ago without anticipating the multiple combinations of axles on today’s (special haul vehicles.)”

State Department of Transportation officials have been re-evaluating more than 2,000 bridges over the past several years in order to meet a 2018 Federal Highway Administration deadline. Much of the focus has been on short-span bridges with timber and steel frame designs.

“This is a very serious concern for us. We want to make sure farmers can get to and from their fields,” said Rob Richard, senior director of governmental relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau. “If they can’t make the quickest, most efficient route they’re just adding wear and tear to other roads. . Then it becomes a larger issue.”

U.S. Adds 15,000 Visas for Seasonal Non-Farm Workers

The Trump administration will make available an additional 15,000 H-2B visas, meant for temporary non-agricultural workers, this fiscal year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said on Friday.

The increase would help relieve U.S. businesses that depend on seasonal labor during the busy summer tourist season. Many of them had complained that a visa shortage was pushing them toward economic ruin.

The U.S. government had issued 66,000 such visas this year, through a lottery for the first time, versus the usual first-come, first-served basis. Businesses which usually receive enough visas for temporary workers reported this year that many of their applications had been denied.

U.S. law caps the number of H-2B visas at 66,000 per year, divided into the summer and winter seasons, but in this year’s omnibus spending bill, Congress allowed for an increase.

Net Income, Lending Show Healthy Gains at State-Chartered Banks in 1st Quarter

Net income rose 23.3% and net lending grew by 8.8% at Wisconsin’s state-chartered
banks in the first quarter of 2018 compared to the same period in 2017, according to data released today by the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions (DFI).

Compared to the first quarter of 2017, Wisconsin’s 160 state-chartered banks:

• Increased net loans to $39.0 billion, up from $35.8 billion.
• Posted a net income of $158.7 million, up from $128.7 million.
• Reduced their past-due loan ratio to 1.22%, down from 1.23%.
• Posted a solid capital ratio of 11.48%, down from 11.64%.

“The performance of our state-chartered banks is yet another sign of a prosperous and growing
Wisconsin economy,” said DFI Secretary Jay Risch. “Our community banks help fuel the economy by providing their business customers and consumers with the products and services they need and want.”

In the first quarter, more than 75% of all state-chartered banks posted earnings gains compared to the prior year.

Supreme Court: Employers can Enforce Arbitration Agreements with Workers

In a case involving Verona health software giant Epic Systems, a divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that businesses can prohibit their workers from banding together in disputes over pay and conditions in the workplace.

The decision has ramifications far beyond Epic, affecting an estimated 25 million non-unionized employees. While the complaints in Monday’s decision involved pay, the outcome also might extend to workplace discrimination and other disputes if employee contracts specify that they must be dealt with in one-on-one arbitration.

Lawyers representing management said the decision protects businesses from endless, costly litigation. The ruling reflected a years-long pattern at the Supreme Court of limiting class actions and favoring employer-favored arbitration over lawsuits in the courts, generally preferred by workers.

The high court’s task was to reconcile federal laws that seemed to point in different directions. On the one hand, New Deal labor laws explicitly give workers the right to band together. On the other, the older Federal Arbitration Act encourages the use of arbitration, instead of the courts.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, said the contracts are valid under the arbitration law. “As a matter of policy these questions are surely debatable. But as a matter of law the answer is clear,” Gorsuch wrote. “In many cases over many years, this court has heard and rejected efforts to conjure conflicts between the Arbitration Act and other federal statutes. In fact, this court has rejected every such effort to date (save one temporary exception since overruled).”

Wisconsin’s Record-Low Unemployment Rate of 2.8% Ranks 5th Nationally

Department of Workforce Development (DWD) Secretary Ray Allen released the following statement on today’s release by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics  showing that Wisconsin’s record-low unemployment rate of 2.8 percent in April was the 5th lowest rate among all states, and tied with Iowa for the lowest rate among Midwestern states.

Additionally, Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate of 68.9 percent ranked 5th highest nationally, and the state’s year-over-year addition of 13,700 manufacturing jobs ranked 2nd nationally.

“Wisconsin’s robust manufacturing industry is growing, we have more people employed today than ever before and the number of unemployed Wisconsinites is approaching record lows as our unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country,” Secretary Allen said. “At the DWD, we will continue to work in collaboration with state and local partners on strategies to retain and attract more talent to Wisconsin by showcasing the tremendous opportunities that our state offers for career and personal fulfilment.”

Highlights of today’s state-by-state rankings by BLS include:

  • Wisconsin ranked 3rd nationally in the number of manufacturing jobs added in 2018.
  • Wisconsin’s addition of 13,700 manufacturing jobs from April 2017 to April 2018 ranked 2nd nationally.
  • Wisconsin’s 0.2 percent labor force participation rate increase in April ranked tied for 2nd nationally.
  • Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate of 68.9 percent in April ranked 5th nationally.
  • Wisconsin’s record-low unemployment rate of 2.8 percent in April ranks 5th nationally and tied for 1st in the Midwest.

Governor Announces Launch of ChildTaxRebate.wi.gov

Yesterday, Governor Scott Walker announced the launch of ChildTaxRebate.wi.gov, the website where eligible Wisconsinites can claim their $100-Per-Child Tax Rebate. The rebate can be claimed at ChildTaxRebate.wi.gov from May 15 through July 2, 2018.

“The state has a larger than expected budget surplus, and we’re returning it to Wisconsin’s hardworking families,” said Governor Walker. “As parents, Tonette and I know that every little bit helps, and this $100-per-child tax rebate can go toward school supplies, activity fees, or a co-pay at the doctor or dentist. We urge everyone with children under the age of 18 as of December 31, 2017 to claim their credit on ChildTaxRebate.wi.gov from today through July 2.”

Wisconsin families who claim the rebate will receive $100 for each child living at home under the age of 18 as of December 31, 2017. Eligible parents must apply for their $100-Per-Child Tax Rebate online between May 15 and July 2, so they can receive the money before school starts this fall. Direct deposits or mailed checks will be delivered by September 1, 2018 in time for the new school year.