News of the Day

Penalties in Environmental Cases Handled by Wisconsin Justice Department Increased in 2017

Financial penalties involving state environmental enforcement cases totaled $1.45 million in 2017 — the highest in Attorney General Brad Schimel’s first three years in office.

Under Schimel, penalties totaled $734,127 in 2015 and $449,253 in 2016. In 2017, the agency handled 49 environmental enforcement cases totaling $1,450,026.

In a series of emails, Justice Department spokesman Johnny Koremenos said its case load is dictated by the volume and types of cases referred to the agency from the DNR and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

For 2016, the DNR referred 25 cases to the Justice Department — down 36% from the 39 cases referred to the attorney general in 2015, according to records provided to the Journal Sentinel.

In addition, the agency reported that the state was part of settlements in federal Superfund pollution cases in 2017 totaling $242.3 million. That included a $200 million settlement by NCR Corp. for the longstanding cleanup of toxic chemicals from paper companies in the Fox River in the Green Bay area.



U.S. Department of Labor Announces Proposal to Expand Access to Health Care through Small Business Health Plans

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to expand the opportunity to offer employment-based health insurance to small businesses through Small Business Health Plans, also known as Association Health Plans.

Up to 11 million Americans working for small businesses/sole proprietors and their families lack employer-sponsored insurance. These 11 million Americans could find coverage under this proposal. Many small employers struggle to offer insurance because it is currently too expensive and cumbersome. These employees – and their families – would have an additional alternative through Small Business Health Plans (Association Health Plans). These plans would close the gap of uninsured without eliminating options available in the healthcare marketplace.

Under the proposal, small businesses and sole proprietors would have more freedom to band together to provide affordable, quality health insurance for employees.

The proposed rule, which applies only to employer-sponsored health insurance, would allow employers to join together as a single group to purchase insurance in the large group market.

These improvements stand to open health insurance coverage for millions of Americans and their families by making it more affordable for thousands of small businesses and sole proprietors. By joining together, employers may reduce administrative costs through economies of scale, strengthen their bargaining position to obtain more favorable deals, enhance their ability to self-insure, and offer a wider array of insurance options.

As proposed, the rule would:

  • Allow employers to form a Small Business Health Plan on the basis of geography or industry. A plan could serve employers in a state, city, county, or a multi-state metro area, or it could serve all the businesses in a particular industry nationwide;
  • Allow sole proprietors to join Small Business Health Plans, clearing a path to access health insurance for the millions of uninsured Americans who are sole proprietors or the family of sole proprietors.

The proposed rule includes important protections for Americans. Small Business Health Plans (Association Health Plans) cannot charge individuals higher premiums based on health factors or refuse to admit employees to a plan because of health factors. The Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration will closely monitor these plans to protect consumers.

The NPRM will be published in the Federal Register on January 5, 2018, and be available for public comment for 60 days.  The Department encourages interested parties to submit comments on the proposed rule. The NPRM, along with the procedures for submitting comments, can be found at the Federal Register website.

Nearly 90% of Wisconsin Construction Firms Expect to Hire in 2018

Eighty-eight percent of Wisconsin construction firms expect to expand their payrolls in 2018, although many companies are worried about workforce shortages, according to the latest survey from the Associated General Contractors of America.

Contractors are optimistic that economic conditions will remain strong as tax rates and regulatory burdens fall, according to survey results.

“Construction firms appear to be very optimistic about 2018 as they expect demand for all types of construction services to continue to expand,” said Stephen Sandherr, the association’s chief executive officer. “This optimism is likely based on current economic conditions, an increasingly business-friendly regulatory environment and expectations the Trump administration will boost infrastructure investments.”

In Wisconsin, 44 percent of respondents said they expect to increase their headcount between one and 10 people; 33 percent of respondents said they plan to add 11 to 25 people and 11 percent of respondents said they plan to add 25 or more people to their company in 2018.

Nationwide, 75 percent of construction firms plan to expand their workforce in 2018, up slightly from 73 percent in 2017. Most of the hiring will only expand headcounts by a slight percentage (10 percent or less) per firm, however.

Broken down by market segment, contractors nationwide are most optimistic about the private office market segment. This is followed by the other transportation and retail, warehouse and lodging.

With Candidate Field Set, State Supreme Court Race Ramps Up

The race for an open seat on the state Supreme Court will accelerate after a Tuesday deadline passed with three candidates filing to run: Madison attorney Tim Burns, Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet and Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock.

Two of the three candidates will emerge from a primary election Feb. 20 to face off in the April 3 general election.

Burns, a partner at the Perkins Coie firm who specializes in insurance law, has explicitly touted his liberal views, saying he’ll uphold them if elected to the court.

“I’m a progressive,” Burns said in a statement. “I’m not going to apologize for those beliefs, and I’ll be talking about them as I travel Wisconsin these next three months.”

Dallet has vowed to be an independent voice on the court and has said that justices taking political stances harms the court’s integrity. In a statement, spokeswoman Jessica Lovejoy touted Dallet’s 23 years spent working as a prosecutor and judge.

Screnock is a judicial appointee of Gov. Scott Walker who once worked on a team of lawyers to defend Walker’s collective bargaining law, Act 10, against lawsuits.

Property Taxes Estimated to Rise 1.8% Statewide This Year

Property taxes in Wisconsin are projected to rise 1.8% statewide this year, according to the
Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WISTAX), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization devoted to public policy research and citizen education. After roughly $1.1 billion in state credits are applied, net property taxes will rise an estimated 1.1%, to $9.9 billion statewide.

K-12 school taxes, which comprise 45% of the tax bill statewide, increased 1.8%, more than the 0.1% increase in 2016-17, but less than the 2.0% increase in 2015-16.

Counties, which make up another 20% of the tax bill, raised levies by 3.0%, up from 2.2% last year. The increase is the highest since 3.2% in 2010.

Municipal levies are still being compiled by the state, but WISTAX estimates they likely increased an average of 3.5%, up slightly from last year’s increase of 3.1%. The total tax levy for all cities, villages, and towns would be almost $2.85 billion, or about 25% of the entire bill.

Taxes for technical colleges, which account for only about 4% of the bill, rose 3.0%, to $446.6 million. Technical college levies have declined by nearly 50% since 2015, when the state provided $406 million to “buy them down” and imposed revenue limits on districts. From 1990 to 2010, “tech college” property tax increases averaged 6.4% annually, more than any other type of local government in Wisconsin.

Missing from this year’s property tax bill is the state forestry tax. The 2017-19 state budget eliminated it, at a cost of about $90 million annually; forestry programs will be funded from state income and sales taxes in the future.

Lower Corporate Taxes Could Yield Utility Bill Savings

Lower corporate taxes could yield utility bill savings

Among other changes, the new federal tax code set to take effect next week could result in lower utility bills for some ratepayers.

The bill reduces the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent in 2018, which will result in millions of dollars in cost savings for investor-owned utilities.

Because the electric and gas rates set by state regulators are based on estimated expenses, those savings should be passed on to consumers, said Tom Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, which represents residential and small commercial ratepayers.

“This is customer money,” he said. “Taxes should flow right back.”

Content said Wisconsin’s investor-owned utilities could see savings of tens of millions of dollars.

PSC staff will be talking with utilities next week and directing them to calculate the change in their expected tax bills and to defer the savings “until the commission directs how the savings are applied in the ratepayer’s best interest,” said PSC spokesman Matthew Spencer.


Ending the Individual Mandate Penalty May Have Less Effect than Projected

The penalty for not having health insurance — the most controversial and unpopular part of the Affordable Care Act — is dead. But it may no longer matter.

“From a practical matter, it won’t have much of an impact,” said Marty Anderson, chief marketing officer for Security Health Plan, an affiliate of Marshfield Clinic.

The penalty was repealed as part of the tax reform and tax cut that was signed into law Friday by President Donald Trump. The change goes into effect in 2019.

The fine is a minimum of $695 for an adult or 2.5% of income, above the federal tax filing threshold of roughly $10,650 for one person.

It was considered too small by many policy analysts and was far less effective than projected.

“Certainly I would prefer to keep it in place,” said Cathy Mahaffey, chief executive officer of Common Ground Healthcare Cooperative in Brookfield. “But I really do think the impact of repealing the penalty will be minimal.”

The mandate to have health insurance or pay a penalty is tied to one of the most popular provisions: requiring health insurers to cover people with pre-existing health problems.

The penalty was designed to prod healthy people to buy health insurance to help offset the cost of covering people with health problems and to discourage people from waiting until they were sick before buying health insurance.

But if people were going to be required to buy health insurance, the cost would need to be subsidized for people with low incomes who could not afford insurance on their own.

That was the underlying idea, and it didn’t work as well it was intended.


Scammers Using State Consumer Protection Agency Name to Target People

State consumer protection officials are warning the public about a rash of scam emails that are using their agency to try and trick people.

The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection says scam emails are making the rounds that are claiming to be from DATCP officials, and telling people that they have an invoice due. The mail then claims that the recipient needs to click a link and pay that invoice.

Spokesperson Jerad Albrecht says this is something that happens to their agency every so often. “We talk about imposter scams a lot, where scammers will use the name or contact information from a major company or government agency to add legitimacy to their ploy.”

Versions of the email currently circulating will claim to be from agency officials, but the email address actually sending those mails will be from some random website not affiliated with the state. “And if they’re getting any kind of email that claims to come from our agency, especially if they’re mentioning an invoice and offering you a link to click, we don’t want you to do that,” says Albrecht. Those links simply open you up to losing your personal information or installing malware on your computer.

“If we are going to contact you, it’s going to be by mail, not by email.”

If you get one of these emails, Albrecht says you should simply delete it and move on. If you have concerns, you can always contact the state’s consumer protection help line at (800) 422-7128.

Governor Walker: Health Insurance Costs to be Top Issue in 2018

Gov. Scott Walker said he plans to address the rising cost of health insurance in 2018.

Walker said Thursday in La Crosse that he plans to lay out his agenda for next year’s session in January. Along with workforce and education, Walker said addressing the rising cost of health insurance will be a top issue.

“In light of the inaction in Washington when it comes to health care, there’s more that we can do to help people in the state of Wisconsin, particularly help to try and take a bite out of high premium costs,” Walker said.

State insurance officials have said they’re considering applying for a federal waiver to set up an alternative insurance system in the state. The waiver could help cover patients with high-cost conditions through a reinsurance program or a program similar to a high-risk pool.

Walker said he’s also been talking with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, about expanding support for public schools in the next session.

“(Vos) was very interested in the things that we’d like to do to continue, particularly for rural schools and low-revenue schools to give them support,” Walker said.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos Gives Grim Assessment for Several Hot-Button Bills

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in an Associated Press interview Wednesday shot down the chances of passing several bills backed by fellow Republicans on hot-button issues.

The Legislature is set to return to work sometime in January but probably will only meet a handful of days. That gives lawmakers little time to act on bills left over from 2017 or any new proposals.

He also said a bill designed to force mega-retailers such as Menards, Lowe’s and ShopKo to pay more in property taxes is unlikely to pass.

Vos said he had “serious concerns” with the measure that’s won bipartisan support and the backing of communities across the state. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state chamber of commerce, has been against the measure, saying it will hurt the economy by unfairly raising taxes on businesses.

The bill is designed to close the so-called “dark store” loophole and increase how much mega-retailers pay local communities in property taxes.

A string of court rulings in Wisconsin and across the Midwest have helped the retail giants lower the value placed on their stores for levying property taxes. The retailers have successfully challenged their tax assessments by arguing they are overtaxed and should pay the same rate as a store that is closed and vacant.

Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said he had hoped the bill would pass and cited it in a separate interview as one where Democrats and Republicans could work together.

But Vos said it appeared doomed.

“I worry about raising taxes on anybody, if they’re a business owner or a homeowner,” Vos said.

Another measure Vos said was going nowhere was a bill that would add a fee schedule for medical care to Wisconsin’s workers compensation law. Including a fee schedule has been a divisive issue, pitting the state’s business community that support it against health care groups including the Wisconsin Medical Society and Hospital Association that oppose it.

“Until we have some kind of a consensus, or there’s an outcry from every day business people, it just seems the issue languishes,” Vos said.