Brian Dake

Peter Barca to Step Down as Assembly Minority Leader

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca is stepping down from his post leading the Democrats in his house after 6 1/2 years in that role. Olivia Hwang, a spokeswoman for the Kenosha lawmaker and former congressman, confirmed he would be leaving his leadership post on Sept. 30 but remain in the Legislature.

Assembly Democrats have been increasingly concerned about the lack of effectiveness of their caucus, with many feeling the group often failed to have a unified strategy in floor debates.

Some members were upset with Barca’s prominent role in getting approval for an incentive package to bring a Foxconn Technology Group display screen plant to southeastern Wisconsin. Most Democrats oppose the package because of its $3 billion cost and provisions that exempt the company from some environmental rules.

Many of Barca’s colleagues were comfortable with his support for the package, but bothered by how closely he had worked with Republican leaders on the issue, said one person familiar with Thursday’s meeting. That person and others spoke on the condition they not be named because of the sensitivity of the meeting.

Those familiar with the discussions named Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) as one possible candidate to replace Barca. It was not immediately clear who else might run.

Wisconsin Budget Committee Approves Partial Repeal of Personal Property Tax

Owners of small businesses in Wisconsin would no longer pay property taxes on machinery, tools and patterns not used for manufacturing under a tax package approved Wednesday by the Legislature’s budget-writing committee.

Lawmakers on the Republican-led Joint Finance Committee voted on party lines to eliminate a portion of the personal property tax, which applies, in general, to furniture, equipment, machinery and watercraft owned by businesses. The state would make payments to local taxing jurisdictions to replace the revenue lost from the tax — an estimated $74.4 million per year.

The co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee said the partial repeal of the tax took precedence over two proposals included in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget: a $203 million income tax cut and a $17 million back-to-school sales tax holiday.

Co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, told reporters the proposed income tax cut “wasn’t significant enough.”

“While we want to continue cutting taxes, especially for the middle class, at this point we felt that a lot of middle class people are small business people,” Darling said. “By reducing that personal property tax, we’re really helping small business as well as middle class families.”

The Republican-led committee voted last month to approve the governor’s proposal to eliminate the state’s portion of the property tax. Ending the forestry mill tax will amount to a reduction of about $180 million over the two-year budget period.

Despite its delayed passage, both Darling and Nygren praised the 2017-19 spending plan, 40 percent of which Darling said is directed toward property tax relief.

 

Wisconsin Budget Panel Approves Road-Funding Plan

The Legislature’s budget-writing committee Tuesday night approved a road-funding plan that would borrow about $400 million, raise fees on electric and hybrid vehicles, further study toll roads for interstates in Wisconsin but not increase the gas tax.

Committee co-chairs Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling both expressed disappointment that they failed to reach a longer-term solution for transportation funding, a perennial problem caused by deteriorating roads and not enough incoming fuel tax to pay for planned projects. Republican Gov. Scott Walker refused to sign-off on a gas tax increase to solve the problem, and instead called for delaying road work and borrowing more.

“This is one that’s left unsolved,” Nygren said, while defending the plan for making progress.

The transportation deal would borrow roughly $402 million for roads, including $250 million included in a separate bill to complete rebuilding of Interstate 94 from Milwaukee south to the Illinois border. That is about $100 million less in borrowing than Walker called for.There would be no new money for two massive interstate projects in the Milwaukee area, on I-94 between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges and north of the Zoo. There could be other delays on road projects, but there were no immediate details. There would be $144 million to expand I-94 to six lanes along 7.5 miles in St. Croix County in western Wisconsin on a trucking route into the Twin Cities.

Darling said she was “very disappointed” with the delay in finishing that work around Milwaukee, calling it short-sighted.

“We’re going to have orange buckets up all over the place for years,” she said.

The budget plan would include a new $100 fee on electric vehicles and $75 for hybrid vehicles. That’s on top of the usual $75 fee for vehicles now. The argument is the electric and hybrid vehicle owners pay less of their share in gas taxes but still use the same roads that depend on money from the gas tax to be maintained. It would generate about $8.4 million over the next two years.The state would spend $2.5 million studying the possibility of interstate tolling, with a report due to the Legislature in 2019. Tolling would require federal approval. Republicans were also calling for limiting local government oversight of quarries primarily used for public works or private construction projects. It would not apply to frack sand mines.

The GOP proposal would also repeal a minimum salary requirement, known as the prevailing wage, for state building or highway projects. The Legislature eliminated the prevailing wage for local projects in 2015. The committee also voted to cut 200 positions at the state Department of Transportation.

The full Legislature must pass the budget, and Walker has to sign it, before it takes effect.

Repeal the Obamacare Health Insurance Tax

If Congress does not change the part of Obamacare that taxes health insurance premiums, the Health Insurance Tax will cause the cost of those premiums to go up $944 million in Wisconsin in 2018.

Wisconsin companies will see health insurance premiums increase by $552 for family coverage. Seniors in the Medicare Advantage program could see their premiums go up $474 per couple. Individual consumers could see their premiums jump $182.

The tax increase will hit the state’s BadgerCare Plus program, too, for $34 million.

Obviously, nobody wants this to occur. But if Congress does nothing, then Wisconsin and the rest of the country will see even higher health insurance costs and state budgets will take a hit, too, from increased Medicaid costs. Repealing and replacing Obamacare may be stalled, but Congress can still act to repeal this tax – and they should.

Wisconsin Receives $66 million from Feds to Help Ease its Transportation Budget

Wisconsin is getting $66 million in additional federal funding for roads, lending a small bit of good news for Republican lawmakers as they try to write the state’s transportation budget next week.

The state is receiving nearly twice what it normally gets in what is known as redistribution aid, but far less than the $341 million in aid that it sought.

The $66 million in additional aid could help the Legislature’s budget committee as it seeks to reach a compromise between Senate Republicans and Assembly Republicans. The GOP controls both houses, but have differed on how to fund roads and help close a $1 billion gap between the state’s road building plans and the amount of money it is expected to have available for transportation over the next two years.

The Joint Finance Committee could take up transportation funding as soon as Tuesday.

Differences among Republicans remain significant. Asked Thursday if the additional money made it easier to reach a transportation deal, state Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) said, “Not really.” “In the grand scheme of things, $66 million is not going to do it,” said Nygren, the co-chairman of the budget committee.

Wisconsin has received $34 million annually on average through that program in the past five years, according to the Legislature’s nonpartisan budget office. The most the state has ever gotten since 2012 is $40 million.

Gov. Scott Walker’s administration this year sought to dramatically increase how much it gets through the program and asked for $341 million.

While it fell well short of that amount, the $66.4 million it received was the largest amount the state has ever received, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

 “We could not be more pleased with this historic amount of funding that is being received,” Transportation Secretary Dave Ross said in a statement.

It was not immediately clear which projects the money would go toward.

Wisconsin Exports up 8.2% in First Half of 2017

Wisconsin businesses exported $11.2 billion in goods and services worldwide in the first half of 2017, an 8.2 percent increase over the first six months of 2016, Governor Scott Walker announced today.

State agricultural exports in the first half rose by 8.8 percent over last year, with $1.8 billion in products shipped to 134 countries.

“Our solid first-half export numbers, which outpaced the U.S. increase in exports, is yet another indication of the overall strength of Wisconsin’s economy,” Governor Walker said. “We are seeing more companies of all sizes and industries gain access to new markets and new customers through exporting. This is outstanding news for the state business and farmers.”

Wisconsin’s export growth in the first half was generated by significant increases in shipments to Mexico and China. Exports to Mexico, the state’s second largest export destination, jumped by 17 percent to $1.6 billion, primarily because of an increase in the export of electrical machinery and oil seeds (primarily soybeans). Exports to China, Wisconsin’s No. 3 export destination, were up 19 percent to $825 million, due primarily to an increase in exports of industrial machinery. State companies exported $3.4 billion in goods to Canada, a 2 percent increase to the state’s top export destination.

State shipments to Saudi Arabia more than doubled to $476 million because of an increase in military vehicle exports.  That country jumped from 10th to fourth on the list of export destinations.

Overall, Wisconsin saw first-half increases in numerous key product categories, including electrical machinery (up 15 percent to $1.1 billion); vehicles and vehicle parts (up 36 percent to $1 billion); aircraft, spacecraft and parts (up 30 percent to $410 million); iron and steel products (up 10.5 percent to $211 million); oil seeds, miscellaneous grain, seed and fruit (up 220 percent to $182 million), dairy, eggs and honey products (up 26 percent to $152 million); and wood and wood products (up 9 percent to $125 million).

Industrial machinery continues to be the Wisconsin’s top export product category at $2.6 billion in the first half of the year, accounting for 24 percent of all state exports.  The second-largest product category is medical and scientific instruments, which accounts for 10 percent of all state exports at $1.1 billion.

“In addition to the overall growth in the first half of the year, what’s most encouraging about the numbers is that Wisconsin saw increases in every one of its top 10 export categories,” Governor Walker said. “It’s not just one or two industries driving the increases; we’re seeing success across the board.”

The numbers released today are based on U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).

 

Lawmakers Propose more Limits to State Agency Regulatory Power

Under a new proposal at the state Capitol, state agencies’ administrative rules would expire every seven years, and lawmakers would have more power to block their renewal. Right now, administrative rules don’t have expiration dates.

Under the new plan, rules would go up for review one year before their expiration date. If no lawmaker objects, they would be renewed automatically.

If a lawmaker objects, the rule — and others related to it — could be blocked.

Supporters of the proposal say it will cut down on unnecessary and burdensome regulations in the state

“We’ll find a lot of duplication, a lot of outdated and a lot of unnecessary regulations that will be taken off the books, because we’ve not reviewed some of the rules ever,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Independent Businesses, the Wisconsin Realtors Association and the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association have all registered support for the bill.

Environmental groups oppose the bill, arguing it could have unintended consequences.

“If somebody had an issue with the walleye bag limit, and they objected, they have to object to that entire section, so they’re knocking out every bag limit for every fish species in the state,” said Bill Davis, director of Wisconsin’s chapter of the Sierra Club.

Disability Rights Wisconsin, the Sierra Club, Clean Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign are opposed.

The proposal comes after Gov. Scott Walker signed the REINS Act earlier this summer, which requires legislative approval for any agency rule that would cost businesses or taxpayers more than $10 million.

 

Wisconsin Budget Committee Approves $639 million Boost for K-12 Schools

Lawmakers on the Wisconsin Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted Monday to approve the largest funding boost to Wisconsin’s K-12 schools since before Gov. Scott Walker took office.

Walker’s budget proposal included $649 million in new education spending, including an increase in per-pupil aid of $200 in the 2017-18 school year and $204 in the following year. The measure Republican lawmakers approved on a party-line vote brings that boost down to $639 million, by spending less than what Walker proposed on rural schools and high-performing Milwaukee schools.

Under the plan approved on Monday, school districts that spend less than most others could gradually raise their revenue limits from $9,100 per pupil up to $9,800 per pupil over the course of several years.

The committee also voted to raise the income limits for the statewide private voucher program — which operates outside of the programs in Milwaukee and Racine — from 185 percent of the federal poverty level to 220 percent. Under the new requirements, a family of four making $53,826 per year could receive a voucher. The Milwaukee and Racine programs will continue to operate at their current limit of 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

Also included in the lawmakers’ K-12 package are two efforts designed to alleviate shortages of teachers and administrators throughout the state.

One measure would allow people to take online classes to earn teacher certification in high-need subjects like technology, math, engineering and science. Another would offer loans for people seeking additional education and training to become principals or other education administrators.

Lawmakers also approved a measure proposed in Walker’s budget to eliminate expiration dates for teachers’ licenses following a three-year provisional period.

Also under the plan, districts could only hold referendums during already-scheduled election days or on the second Tuesday of November in odd-numbered years, with allowances made for special circumstances, such as increased costs resulting from a natural disaster.

“Thanks to the members of the Joint Finance Committee for supporting the education portion of my budget,” Walker said in a statement. “Once signed, this budget will include more actual dollars for K-12 education than ever before in our history.”

 

Physicians, WMC Clash over Worker’s Compensation Proposal

Physicians and a key business group are clashing over a new workers’ compensation proposal that would significantly change how doctors are paid.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce says companies get overcharged by providers and hospitals for medical expenses to treat their injured employees — and that adding a fee schedule for medical procedures like most other states would keep costs down.

“It’s something that employers have long sought, to bring some relief to the equation when it comes to medical bills within workers’ comp,” said Chris Reader, WMC’s director of health and human resources policy.

But the Wisconsin Medical Society says the current system leads to better patient outcomes and satisfaction, improved access to doctors, lower rates of lawsuits and injured workers getting back to their companies sooner.

“There’s no evidence that such a scheme is necessary in the first place,” said Mark Grapentine, the senior vice president of government and legal affairs at the Wisconsin Medical Society. “By just about every metric that folks care about, the Wisconsin workers’ comp system is one of the best in the country.”

The fight isn’t new. The two sides battled over the issue two sessions ago, when WMC’s effort to add a fee schedule to the system failed.

The venue — until now — has been the Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council, made up of five labor representatives, five management representatives, three non-voting insurance representatives and one representative from the Department of Workforce Development. The health care community also has four liaisons who advise the council.

The council on Wednesday, after two days of meetings, reached an agreement between labor and management that would, among other things, add the fee schedule that WMC supports and meet a key labor priority of boosting disability benefit rates.

That agreement is now being drafted as a bill and will head to the Legislature, which in 2014 rejected a proposal from the council for the first time in decades, largely over the fee schedule provision.

Reader, of WMC, predicted that lawmakers would approve the measure this session because they have more time to review it and there aren’t other controversial elements of the bill.

But Grapentine, of the Medical Society, said lawmakers rejected the idea last time because “all of the facts and data” show that Wisconsin’s system is working. Eric Borgerding, the president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, made a similar pitch.

“Here we are, once again, talking about fee schedules and price setting; outdated solutions looking for a problem,” he said in a statement. “It’s really time to move on.”

Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said in a statement the union backs the “agreed-upon bill that was arrived at through the long-established” process of the council.

Wisconsin Budget Committee Votes to End Forestry Mill Tax

The state’s portion of Wisconsin’s property tax revenue would be eliminated under a measure approved Thursday by the state’s budget-writing committee.

The Republican-led Joint Finance Committee voted to sunset the forestry mill tax, which would amount to a reduction of about $180 million over the two-year budget period. Under the proposal, the forestry account would receive funding from the state’s general fund rather than the specified tax. But critics argue that puts the forestry fund in competition with other areas funded by general purpose revenue, like schools and health care.

While most property taxes are levied by local governments and school districts, the state’s portion — up to 20 cents per $1,000 of property value, but currently set at about 17 cents — goes to fund the acquisition, preservation and development of forests in the state.

The estimated savings for the owner of a median-valued home would be between $25 and $30, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.