News of the Day

Budget Committee wants Study of LIRC Decisions

Members of the Wisconsin Legislature’s budget-writing committee on Thursday rejected Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to axe the independent board that handles employment disputes in Wisconsin.

The Labor and Industry Review Commission dates back to 1911, when it was first formed as the State Industrial Commission. The independent agency resolves disputes over unemployment insurance, workers compensation and equal rights in the workplace, reviewing appeals of decisions from the state Department of Workforce Development and the state Department of Administration.

Under Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget, the agency’s functions would have been transferred to the governor’s administration. Walker argued eliminating the commission would “remove an unnecessary layer of government” and streamline the timeline for decisions.

The Joint Finance Committee’s Republican majority voted to preserve LIRC and eliminate 7.8 vacant positions. The committee also voted to request the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court conduct a review of the agency’s decisions to determine which statutes are cited in its opinions and whether its opinions are later modified by circuit courts.

Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said committee members have heard complaints that some LIRC decisions have been overturned by circuit court judges because they were not based on current law. The report requested from the Supreme Court seeks to find out whether those complaints are true, she said.

“We’re trying to find the balance here: Is LIRC a necessary function to preserve equal rights and safety, or is it an added layer of bureaucracy?” Darling said. “I think we need some information on that and if we look at the report and we decide we need to come back to this, we can.”

In 2016, 88 LIRC decisions, or 5 percent of the agency’s decisions, were appealed to circuit court, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee voted against the measure, although they support retaining the agency, because of the elimination of vacant positions. If unemployment insurance or workers compensation appeals increase in the 2017-19 budget period, LIRC would not be able to hire additional staff without approval and additional funding from the Joint Finance Committee.

Committee to Consider Eliminating Labor Review Panel

Wisconsin’s 106-year-old labor commission would vanish and Gov. Scott Walker’s administration would decide workplace disputes in its place under a budget proposal up for consideration Thursday in the Legislature’s finance committee.

Walker’s plan to eliminate the Labor and Industry Review Commission could create uncertainty in applying Wisconsin labor law, raising questions about whether the commission’s precedent-setting decisions would evaporate and whether his administration can fairly weigh cases.

The commission was formed in 1911 as the State Industrial Commission. The panel of three governor’s appointees considers appeals of administrative law judges’ rulings in fights over unemployment benefits, worker’s compensation and equal rights in the workplace.

The finance committee is a key testing ground for the budget. Its changes to Walker’s two-year, $76 billion proposal are the blueprint for what the Senate and Assembly will vote on, and though the full Legislature often makes changes, they typically don’t stray far from the committee’s recommendations.

Walker’s budget would eliminate the commission and its 26.5 positions in January to save an estimated $5.1 million. Its work would be handled by the Department of Workforce Development and the Department of Administration’s Division of Hearings and Appeals — both Walker cabinet agencies.

The governor’s administration justified the move by noting the number of appeals has dropped nearly 60 percent between 2011 and 2016. DWD Secretary Ray Allen said eliminating the commission would speed up appeals.

Parties can appeal the commission’s decisions to circuit and state appellate courts. Those courts have given great deference to the commission, lending certainty to labor disputes. Parties in disputes could end up going to court more often if it’s eliminated, leading to more expensive disputes. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates about 1,000 additional cases could end up in court annually if the commission disappears. Only 88 commission cases went to court in 2016.

OCI Commissioner Nickel Op-Ed: Health Insurance Reforms like Wisconsin’s HIRSP Offer Way Forward

Obamacare is falling apart. One third of US counties have only one health insurer offering coverage on the federal exchange. Last year, Tennessee indicated its market was very near collapse, and it hasn’t gotten any better. Currently, no health insurers in Iowa will be participating on the exchange. Minnesota is planning on spending $800 million tax dollars just this year to shore up its individual market. Alaska is spending its entire premium tax to keep their one health insurer in the market.

Tragically, Wisconsin isn’t immune from the harmful effects of Obamacare. We have seen insurers leave the exchange, significantly reduce service areas, and leave the individual market altogether.

There has been a lot of talk about what would happen to people with preexisting conditions if Obamacare was repealed and replaced. Thankfully, Wisconsin can provide a map for the road ahead.

Prior to Obamacare, Wisconsin consumers could choose from over 20 individual insurance companies offering coverage in our state. There were a variety of plan options to meet a range of coverage needs. If a person was denied insurance due to a preexisting condition, they would receive coverage from Wisconsin’s high-risk pool known as the Health Insurance Risk-Sharing Plan (HIRSP).

For more than 30 years, HIRSP provided Wisconsin consumers with peace of mind by providing high-quality, comprehensive coverage to over 20,000 of our friends and neighbors. This plan is widely regarded as a national model for providing coverage to individuals who did not have access to coverage through an employer or the government.

Unlike the current Obamacare market where most people must wait until open enrollment to purchase coverage, consumers could enroll in HIRSP at any time. There were no preexisting condition limits for people signing up for coverage if they had prior coverage. If consumers had no prior coverage, they would receive coverage for most conditions, but had to wait 6 months for preexisting conditions. In contrast, with Obamacare you may have to wait up to 11 months for any coverage if you miss open enrollment.

Once enrolled in HIRSP, consumers chose from a variety of benefit plans including both high- and low-deductible plans. While Obamacare plans are criticized for having narrow networks, there were no network limitations for HIRSP; members were able to visit any medical provider in our state and receive coverage when traveling outside of Wisconsin. Subsidies were also available to offset premiums, deductibles, and prescription drug out-of-pocket maximums for low-income members.

HIRSP benefit and administrative costs were funded by member premiums and contributions from insurers and providers. No state dollars were needed to support this program. Obamacare did away with HIRSP, and premiums for individuals who were formally covered by HIRSP increased.

The bill that recently passed the House, known as the American Health Care Act (AHCA), provides a strong starting point for implementing a HIRSP 2.0. It utilizes federal dollars to ensure affordable and accessible coverage for all individuals with preexisting conditions.

Critics of AHCA are quick to claim the bill will provide no coverage for any preexisting conditions. This isn’t true. AHCA specifically states, “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as permitting health insurance issuers to limit access to health coverage for individuals with preexisting conditions.”

ACA is in trouble, but with AHCA help is on the way to stabilize insurance markets and return access to affordable health insurance choices for consumers. It is the failure of Obamacare which is going to leave people without coverage. This failure created an individual market not viable either in the short term or long term.

Reforms like Wisconsin’s HIRSP offer a way forward.


U.S. Nuclear Capacity and Generation Expected to Decline

Nuclear power currently accounts for about 20% of electricity generation in the United States, playing an important role in electricity markets. EIA’s 2017 Annual Energy Outlook (AEO2017) Reference case assumes that about 25% of the nuclear capacity now operating that does not have announced retirement plans will be removed from service by 2050.

Nearly all nuclear plants now in use began operation between 1970 and 1990. These plants would require a subsequent license renewal before 2050 to operate beyond the 60-year period covered by their original 40-year operating license and the 20-year license extension that nearly 90% of plants currently operating have either already received or have applied for. The AEO2017 Reference case projections do not envision a large amount of new nuclear capacity additions. By 2050, only four reactors currently under construction and some uprates at existing plants are projected to come online.

Except during maintenance or refueling cycles, nuclear plants operate around the clock as baseload generators, meaning nuclear plants make up a disproportionately large share of generation compared with their share of electricity generating capacity. Generating capacity using other fuels is typically dispatched at much lower rates than nuclear units. As more nuclear capacity is retired than built, and as other fuels such as natural gas and renewables gain market share, the nuclear share of the U.S. electricity generation mix declines from 20% in 2016 to 11% in 2050 in EIA’s Reference case projections.

New commercial nuclear power plants are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for 40 years. Because many nuclear plants were built more than 40 years ago, nearly 90% of currently operating nuclear plants are currently operating under or have applied for 20-year license renewals. Plant operators may apply for subsequent license renewals to continue operating for an additional 20 years (a total of 80 years).

The capital investment needed to extend the life of nuclear plants beyond 60 years is currently unknown and could vary significantly across the nuclear power fleet. Other areas of uncertainty include plant operators’ interest in obtaining subsequent license renewals and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s willingness to grant those license renewals for plants to operate beyond 60 years. Furthermore, policy or technology cost developments that might advantage or disadvantage existing nuclear plants relative to other generation technologies and the cost of natural gas are likely to play an important role in future retirement decisions.

Sunsetting Bill Shines Light on Red Tape

By sunsetting red tape rules, a new bill will bring sunlight to the bureaucratic process. State Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and State Representative Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) are introducing legislation which would sunset administrative code chapters every seven years. Senator Darling says red tape needs to keep up with the times.

“With how quickly technology and the marketplace change, we can’t keep doing things the same way just because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” Darling said, “Adding sunset clauses to entire chapters of rules will make sure they stay relevant with our fast-changing world.”

Currently, once it’s established, administrative code or red tape can exist forever – and often do, even when the rules don’t reflect the times. This bill would retire entire chapters of code every seven years.

One year before it expires, the agency can seek the chapter’s re-adoption by going to the Legislature. If the relevant standing committees object, then the code can be renewed by going through the rule making process all over again. The process will allow for more input from the public and lawmakers and regular opportunities to hold bureaucracies accountable.

“By returning some of the responsibility of rule-making back to elected officials, we’re creating an atmosphere of accountability,” said Steineke. “We need to ensure rules are serving the needs of Wisconsinites rather than the whims of individuals within state agencies.”

Fake We Energies Calls Targeting Small Businesses

This week, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) has seen a spike in contacts from Wisconsin businesses who received threatening phone calls about their utility accounts from imposters claiming to represent We Energies. Small businesses and consumers alike should be on the lookout for these phony calls.

Scammers are calling businesses and threatening them with disconnection of services unless an immediate payment is made. While the most recent reports to DATCP have been about contacts from fake We Energies representatives, this is a very common scam and con artists will claim to work for whatever utility company services the area they are targeting.

Regardless of your utility provider, if you receive a similar threatening call about your home or business utility account, hang up and do not engage the caller. Contact your utility provider directly using information from your billing statement to inquire about the status of your account and to report the call.

Avoid being tricked in a utility scam by remembering these simple guidelines:

  • Utility companies will contact you by mail if your account is overdue. They may also call you if your services are at risk of being terminated, but will NEVER demand immediate payment over the phone.
  • If a caller demands a utility payment by prepaid debit card or wire transfer, it is a scam.
  • Scammers can manipulate your caller ID display to show the local utility company’s name or number when they call.

Republicans no Closer to Road-Funding Deal

Republican legislative leaders appeared to be no closer to an agreement Wednesday over how to solve Wisconsin’s road-budget shortfall, with the Senate GOP leader discounting a sweeping tax-reform plan released  by the Assembly last week.

Gov. Scott Walker also opposes that proposal and is reiterating his opposition to any plan that would raise taxes. In the face of their own proposal’s likely rejection, Assembly leaders challenged Senate Republicans to come up with an alternative.

“Today we’re not in the same place,” budget committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren said. “We have to come up with a solution that addresses the problem.”

The intra-party squabbling came amid news that the state’s tax collections are holding steady, meaning there will be no more, and no less, revenue available in the state budget than had been expected in January.

The biggest question Republicans have in the budget concerns the state’s projected $1 billion roads shortfall. Walker proposed delaying projects and borrowing about half a billion dollars. Assembly Republicans offered a plan that would lower the borrowing to $200 million, move to a flat income tax over 12 years, cut the gas tax and apply the sales tax to fuel sales, among many other changes.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos guaranteed on Wednesday that the Legislature won’t pass a road budget that increases borrowing by $300 million or more.

“That is a non-starter for the Assembly,” Vos said. “We’re not going to continue to borrow and spend. And that unfortunately is what we have done for six years and I take part of the responsibility for that. We kept thinking we would find a long-term solution.”

Fitzgerald, just minutes later, told reporters he was open to additional borrowing and spending from the state’s main account, along with toll roads. He all-but said the Assembly approach was dead on arrival, saying “I don’t see the momentum for that plan ultimately being adopted and being part of this budget right now.”

Walker has said he’d be willing to look at more spending from the state’s main account — which also pays for K-12 schools, the University of Wisconsin, prisons, Medicaid and other government operations — to help pay for roads.

Budget Committee Leaders: Panel Will Reject Self-Insurance

The leaders of the Legislature’s powerful budget committee said Tuesday the panel will reject Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to move the state to a self-insurance model.

The Governor has included provisions in the state budget that shift the state to self-insurance. Under such a plan, the state pays for health insurance for about 250,000 state workers and family members directly rather than purchasing insurance for them through 15 HMOs. The state would assume the risk for medical claims.

The state Group Insurance Board estimates the change could save the state about $60 million over the two-year budget. Walker has built that savings into additional funding for education. Walker’s fellow Republicans have greeted the self-insurance proposal with skepticism, though. They’re not convinced the savings Walker has promised will materialize. They’ve been signaling for weeks the change won’t get through the Legislature.

The panel’s Republican co-chairs, Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling, told reporters on Tuesday that they anticipate an objection. Darling said she was objecting to the contracts right there on the spot.

She said a self-insurance model will lead to higher premiums, there’s too much national uncertainty about the future of former President Barack Obama’s health care reforms to make changes right now and moving thousands of state workers to a new system could hurt the state’s health insurance economy. “I just think there’s not convincing evidence we need to do that right now,” Darling said.

The co-chairs’ remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Walker, who tweeted “Wrong direction to dismiss $60 million worth of proven savings at a time when some are asking to spend more on transportation.”

Scott Neitzel, Walker’s administration secretary, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that he couldn’t believe Nygren and Darling’s stance, especially since Walker was counting on moving to self-insurance to free up the $60 million for public schools.

“We hope it’s not the end of the line,” Neitzel said. “I can’t begin to understand why we wouldn’t take advantage of this opportunity.”



DWD Retires Part of Automated Telephone System to File UI Claims May 24

Starting May 24, 2017, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development will retire part of a 1990’s-era automated telephone system to file Unemployment Insurance (UI) claims, shifting virtually all filing of initial UI claims online using a computer, tablet or smart phone. Claimants can call UI help center staff for guidance in using the online process or, if they are unable to use online services, staff will file the claim over the phone.

Weekly claims will still be accepted through the automated phone system until the weekly phone system is retired in a future phase. In 2017, approximately 81 percent of all initial and weekly claims already are filed online.

In addition to providing additional training to UI help center staff, DWD has cross-trained DWD staff who work in the state’s Job Centers and is communicating the upcoming changes to Wisconsin’s network of over 450 public library locations in communities across Wisconsin to help those without a personal computer or mobile device file their claims.

DWD began notifying claimants in late 2016 of plans to retire the 1990’s-era automated phone system with messages on the phone system, online and through direct mailings. In 2016, over 90 percent of all UI claimants had an active UI online account.

Secretary Allen noted the online claim filing services offer several advantages over the automated telephone system, such as:

  • The ability to save work and conveniently finish a claim at a later time.
  • Options to view information before submitting the claim to verify the accuracy of a claimant’s answers.
  • Work search and wage entry screens to entered required data online, preventing potential payment delays associated with sending the information by fax or mail.
  • Tips and answers to frequent questions during the filing process and how to videos to help claimants navigate the online system.

Additionally, customers can quickly access account information, such as:

  • Individual claim information, payment status and remaining benefit balance.
  • Printer-friendly documentation of payments received for housing or energy assistance.
  • 1099-G tax forms. to view and print
  • Personal information including the ability to update an address, tax withholding, payment method, and bank information.

To file an unemployment claim or seek answers to claims questions online, UI customers can log on to and create a username and password.

Governor Highlights Wisconsin Tourism’s $20 Billion Economy

Governor Scott Walker joined Tourism Secretary Stephanie Klett in traveling throughout the state to highlight Wisconsin’s tourism economy, which reached $20 billion in 2016. This marks a $700 million boost from $19.3 billion in 2015. The announcement comes as Governor Walker and Secretary Klett kick-off this year’s National Travel and Tourism Week, which runs May 7- May 13. Throughout the day, they will visit top tourist destinations in Madison, La Crosse, Appleton, and Minocqua.

“The travel and hospitality industry continues to be crucial to our state and is consistently a top performing sector of our economy,” Governor Walker said. “Investing in tourism promotion and marketing at the national, state, and local level is not only an effective way to attract visitors and grow the economy, it also enhances the image of Wisconsin as a great place to live and do business.”

Lower gas prices, consumer confidence, and spending increases in the lodging sector were all key factors in the 3.5 percent growth seen in 2016. The tourism industry continues to show stable, long-term growth according to recently-released economic impact figures.

“For six years in a row, Wisconsin’s tourism industry has had a positive impact on the economy and job growth,” said Secretary Klett. “The research shows that the increased investment in marketing our brand of fun continues to positively influence the way people think about Wisconsin as a great place to vacation, work, and live.”

Key Results

  • The total six-year growth of tourism activity in the state is $5.2 billion, a 35 percent increase according to Tourism Economics, the research firm for the Department of Tourism.
  • Visitor volume for the same period is up 15.2 million from 92.5 million to 107.7 million in 2016.
  • Additionally, international travel to Wisconsin was up $100 million.
  • Last year’s decline in gas prices resulted in lower transportation costs for visitors and increased spending on lodging, restaurants, and recreation.
    • Lodging, which makes up over 27 percent of visitor spending, showed the strongest growth at 5.8 percent.
    • Visitors spent over $3 billion on food and beverage, the second largest sector of the tourism economy.
    • Traveler spending on recreation had a growth of 4.2 percent.
  • Tourism directly and indirectly supported 193,500 jobs in Wisconsin’s labor market in 2016.
  • The growth of tourism over the last six years has helped add 21,500 jobs, a 12.4 percent increase.
  • Visitors generated $1.5 billion in state and local revenue, saving Wisconsin taxpayers $650 per household.