Brian Dake

Wisconsin Motorists to Spend More for Gas This Summer

Wisconsin summer travel plans aren’t expected to slow despite predictions that motorists in the state will be spending more for gasoline this summer, according to AAA Wisconsin.

Wisconsin motorists are expected to spend an average of $65 more a month for gasoline this summer compared to last year, the Wisconsin State Journal reported . That could add up to $250 for the whole summer.

About 4 percent of Wisconsin gas stations have gas at or above $3 a gallon this month, compared to no gas stations above that amount in June 2017.

The increase in prices likely won’t reduce the number of summer trips, said Nick Jarmusz, the AAA Wisconsin director of public affairs. Instead, families may take shorter trips or choose to participate in free activities.

Gas prices could continue to increase if demand remains high all summer, according to AAA. Gas prices could also be affected by OPEC production, hurricanes that could potentially shut down refineries and how much gasoline the U.S. exports to Mexico.

Legislature’s Budget Committee Approves Federal Funding For I-94, Local Roads

The Legislature’s budget committee has approved splitting $67 million in new federal transportation money between a stretch of interstate near the site of Wisconsin’s Foxconn plant and other Wisconsin bridges and highways.

Under the plan approved Thursday, the state Department of Transportation will spend about $22 million of the new federal funding on the reconstruction of I-94 North-South in Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee counties.

A state fund for highway and local bridge improvements would get about $38.6 million, while another $6.7 million would go to other state highway projects.

Construction on the I-94 expansion, which began in 2009, involves rebuilding existing lanes and adding a fourth lane in each direction from Milwaukee County to the Illinois state line.

In addition to the funding approved Thursday, Walker recently announced the state had won an additional $160 million in federal highway money for I-94 North-South.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said the project would still need additional state funding to be completed by 2021, the year discussed when the Foxconn bill was passed.

How much Health Insurance Costs for a Family of Four

Health insurance costs have been increasing at the lowest rate in the past two decades.

The result?

The total costs for a typical family of four insured by the most common health plan offered by employers will average $28,166 this year, according to the annual Milliman Medical Index. That’s up from 2010, when the cost crossed $20,000. Just two years ago, it topped $25,000.

The estimate includes the average cost of health insurance paid by employers and employees, as well as deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses.

The Milliman Medical Index is great because it gives you a snapshot of what people covered by employer-sponsored insurance get and what that coverage costs,” said Melinda Beeuwkes Buntin, a professor and chair of the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The index also estimates deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses. The largest share of the total cost is the health insurance premium paid by employers.

Last year, the premium for the most popular health plan offered by employers — what is known as a preferred provider organization  — for family coverage was $19,481, according to the annual survey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust. Employers paid $13,430 and employees paid $6,050 of the premium on average.

This year, the Milliman Medical Index increased 4.5%. That was only slightly higher than the 4.3% increase last year, the lowest increase in the 18 years that Milliman has compiled the index.

Eau Claire County to Lose its Living Wage Law

State lawmakers have taken away Eau Claire County’s ability to require companies to pay their workers more than minimum wage for contracts performed on behalf of the county.

The county’s Administration Committee is scheduled during its 2:30 p.m. Thursday meeting at the courthouse to discuss a proposal to repeal the county’s “living wage” ordinance.

That local law, which was approved in July 2016 by the County Board and went into effect on Jan. 1, 2017, required contractors to pay workers a salary equal or greater to the federal poverty level for a family of four. For 2017, that meant $11.68 an hour, compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Contracts impacted by the ordinance primarily perform work on behalf of the county’s Human Services Department.

Act 327, which was approved in March by the state Legislature and signed April 17 by Gov. Scott Walker, eliminated the state statute that allowed local governments to set a minimum wage for their contracts that are performed by companies.

A memo from county attorney Keith Zehms stated that the state’s action won’t change contracts signed while the local living wage ordinance has been in effect, but the county cannot enter new contracts with the living wage requirement.

Also in his memo, Zehms said the fiscal impact of repealing the living wage ordinance is unknown as businesses have been increasing pay anyway to remain competitive in the local job market.

After the Administration Committee makes its recommendation on repealing the local living wage ordinance, the County Board would then have the final vote.

Wisconsin Receives $227.4 Million in Additional Federal Funding for Roads and Bridges

Governor Walker announced Wisconsin will receive $227.4 million in new federal funding for our state’s roads and bridges in FY2018, a significant boost that will be used to advance more transportation projects across the entire state. The new federal funds include Wisconsin receiving the largest Infrastructure For Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant or its predecessor FASTLANE in state history and other supplemental federal funding.

“Our plan is to invest in more highway projects, nearly 50 more local bridge projects, and complete the I-94 North-South project years ahead of schedule with this funding,” Governor Walker said. “This is great news for Wisconsin. Not only are we keeping projects on time, we’re actually going to be able to do more projects across the state and get them done faster.”

The additional funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) includes:

  • $160 million in federal INFRA grant funds for the I-94 North-South project. This is the largest INFRA/FASTLANE grant ever received by Wisconsin and the second-largest awarded by the USDOT this year.

The record-setting federal grant for Wisconsin will open all lanes to traffic by Memorial Day weekend of 2020 with full completion by 2021, 11 years ahead of schedule. The I-94 North-South expansion project began in 2008 and stretches 36 miles from the city of Milwaukee past the Wisconsin/Illinois state line. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation applied for this grant in October 2017.

  • $67.4 million in supplemental highway funds and redistribution funds, $30 million of which is planned by WisDOT to fund 49 more local bridge projects throughout the state.

Governor Announces Creation of Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0

Governor Scott Walker announced  that the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the University of Wisconsin System (UW System) will create Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0 that will enable stakeholders to come together to make recommendations on actions needed to maintain a viable and profitable dairy industry in our state. Governor Walker directed DATCP Secretary Sheila Harsdorf and UW System President Ray Cross to appoint the task force.

“We need to work together to develop a strategy to maintain our state’s legacy as the Dairy State,” said Governor Walker. “Dairy farmers are facing challenges due to an extended period of low milk prices and market uncertainty. By creating this task force, industry experts can work together to create real solutions that can help our farmers, processors, and allied organizations, and to ensure that our dairy industry is not only our past, but our future.”

In 1985, the UW System and DATCP Secretary appointed a Wisconsin Dairy Task Force comprised of 31 individuals including dairy farmers, milk processors and allied organizations. The Task Force met numerous times over the course of 14 months, and at its conclusion, unanimously approved an 82-page report that included findings and 75 recommendations for the industry. Many of the recommendations have been implemented over time to retain Wisconsin’s recognition as a dairy leader.

“I look forward to partnering with the UW System to create a Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0 and working with farmers, processors, industry organizations and others to address the challenges facing the dairy industry,” said DATCP Secretary Harsdorf. “I thank the Governor for recognizing the importance of the dairy industry to our state’s economy, and I am pleased to be involved as the industry works together to maintain Wisconsin’s status as a leading dairy state.”

“The University plays a critical role in the development and growth of Wisconsin’s dairy industry, both as a source of research and as a partner for our farmers,” added UW System President Cross.  “This task force is an opportunity for the UW System, the state, and the industry to find new ways to advance Wisconsin’s leadership role as the Dairy State.”

The Task Force will be chaired by Mark Stephenson. Stephenson is the Director of Dairy Policy Analysis at UW-Madison where he is involved in research and outreach in the dairy industry.

“The Wisconsin dairy industry feels as though it is at another turning point, like the one faced in the 1980s—different reasons, but significant challenges and new opportunities,” said Mark Stephenson. “We need to be sure that we chart our direction to change what we can and accommodate what we can’t. The agronomic resources of the state have always been ideally suited to milk production and that is a foundation from which we can build a vibrant future.”

The Task Force will seek to gain consensus on issues facing the dairy industry and release recommendations for the industry going forward. Additional information about the Task Force’s membership and upcoming meetings will be released in the near future.

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.”