News of the Day

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.”

 

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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 my.unemployment.wisconsin.gov 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.

House Passes ObamaCare Repeal

House Republicans on Thursday narrowly approved their sweeping health care bill aimed at fulfilling a campaign promise to upend ObamaCare, after resuscitating legislation that had flatlined on the floor not six weeks earlier.

The revised American Health Care Act passed on a 217-213 vote.

“We’re going to get this finished,” President Trump declared in a celebratory Rose Garden event, surrounded by Republican congressional allies shortly after the vote. He vowed premiums and deductibles will be “coming down” and the Affordable Care Act is “essentially dead.”

The bill would eliminate tax penalties in Obama’s law which clamped down on people who don’t buy coverage and it erases tax increases in the Affordable Care Act on higher-earning people and the health industry. It cuts the Medicaid program for low-income people and lets states impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients. It transforms Obama’s subsidies for millions buying insurance — largely based on people’s incomes and premium costs — into tax credits that rise with consumers’ ages.

The measure would retain Obama’s requirement that family policies cover grown children until age 26.

But states could get federal waivers freeing insurers from other Obama coverage requirements. With waivers, insurers could charge people with pre-existing illnesses far higher rates than healthy customers, boost prices for older consumers to whatever they wish and ignore the mandate that they cover specified services like pregnancy care.

 

GOP Bills Target ‘Dark Store’ Big-Box Tax Strategy

Republican state lawmakers have unveiled a pair of bills they say would prevent owners of big-box retail stores from lowering their property tax bills while shifting local tax burdens to small businesses and homeowners.

Rep. Rob Brooks, R-Saukville, and Sens. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, and Roger Roth, R-Appleton, announced the legislation at a Capitol news conference Wednesday. At least one Democrat, Oshkosh Rep. Gordon Hintz, also supports the measures.

Opponents of the bills fault “activist assessors” for creating the problems the bills are meant to address: the so-called “dark store” strategy.

In recent years, owners of big-box retail stores have used that strategy — stemming from a court ruling about a Madison Walgreens store — to lower their assessments to reflect the value of other stores that are “dark,” or vacant. The ruling was in 2008, when the state Supreme Court found Madison city assessors had overvalued a Walgreens store.

The bills’ opponents, which include Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s powerful business lobby, say they amount to a tax increase on businesses.

But Roth said the current standard — which owners of huge commercial properties are using to appeal to lower their tax bills — shifts the cost of paying for city services to other property owners.

“We do not want to see that cost shift go to our residential property taxpayers,” Roth said. “That, fundamentally, is why I support this bill.”

One of the bills would overturn the 2008 court ruling, writing in law that “property be assessed at its highest and best use,” according to a summary prepared by the bill’s authors.

It also would clarify that, for property tax purposes, real property includes any leases, rights and privileges pertaining to the property.

The other bill would require assessors to value property based on comparable properties “within the same market segment and similar to the property being assessed with regard to age, condition, use, type of construction, location, design, and economic characteristics,” according to the summary. Vacant stores could not be used as comparable properties for valuing open stores under the bill.

Gov. Scott Walker has not taken a position on the bills, according to a spokesman, Jack Jablonski.

Assembly GOP Transportation Plan Cuts Gas Tax, Applies Sales Tax to Gas

A sweeping Republican proposal to fund transportation and cut taxes would flatten income tax rates, lower the gas tax and raise new funding for roads by applying the sales tax to gasoline.

The goal of the plan, which is subject to change, is to hold gas prices steady by lowering the state’s 9.18 percent minimum markup on gas prices, according to Rep. John Macco, R-Ledgeview, chairman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

That means more money for the transportation fund could come from the bottom lines of companies that benefit from higher retail gas prices under the minimum markup law — both large national retailers and locally owned stores. Critics, however, say the money could also end up coming from consumers at the pump.

“If we do it right, the price at the pump will be exactly the same,” Macco said.

One of the goals of the proposal is to cut borrowing in Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-19 budget plan from $500 million to $200 million.

In addition to the transportation funding changes, the plan also includes the first steps in eventually creating a 4 percent flat income tax over the next 11 years, Macco said. He declined to offer specifics.

Under the current thinking, the gas tax would be reduced by 4 to 7 cents per gallon, Macco said. It is currently 30.9 cents per gallon. Also the minimum markup on gasoline — currently 9.18 percent — would be reduced so as to bring gas prices down another 7 cents, Macco said.

The Depression-era Unfair Sales Act prohibits retailers from selling merchandise at less than cost and also sets a minimum price for tobacco, alcohol and gasoline.

The gas price reductions would be offset by applying the 5 percent state sales tax and any local sales tax to gasoline, which currently costs $2.26 in Madison.

Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, said the proposal is a commentary on how far Assembly Republicans have to go to persuade Walker to support increased revenue for roads, especially when he previously said he would support a gas tax increase if there was an offsetting tax cut.

“It is truly amazing and amusing the number of hoops they have to jump through to effectively raise the gas tax and index it,” Berry said. “You can’t fault them for the creativity or the cleverness of it.”

New Bill Would Require Voter OK on Wheel Taxes

A newly introduced state bill would require local governments to poll voters before passing a so-called wheel tax, a measure more cities have explored in recent years to meet transportation costs.

A bill authored by Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, requires municipalities to put plans for a wheel tax up for a binding voter referendum instead of simply passing such measures through city council or county boards. The tax is a charge tacked on to the $75 yearly car registration. Schraa is looking for sponsors for the measure and hopes the Legislature will consider the bill before budget deliberations, he said.

“We’re not saying that you can’t have a wheel tax,” Schraa said. “To me, if I was on a city council, I’d want as much public input as possible.”

More communities have turned to a wheel tax to fund transportation projects in recent years to offset shrinking state funding. USA TODAY NETWork-Wisconsin reported that 13 of the 16 cities and counties in the state that levy a wheel tax passed them in the last two years. Nearly all of the communities that employ wheel taxes passed the rule without a referendum.

Milwaukee County voters in April rejected a wheel tax totaling $60. Voters in Wausau scrubbed a $20 wheel tax in a referendum by a 14-percentage-point margin in November.

Legislators Introduce Legislation to Reform Administrative Rules

Representative Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) and Senators Nass (R-Whitewater) and Darling (R-River Hills) introduced legislation to provide additional legislative oversight on the administrative rulemaking process and reform the procedures for repealing outdated and burdensome rules.

This proposal is an evolution of the Assembly’s Red Tape Review project and initiatives by the Governor to clean up outdated and burdensome rules. The proposed bill allows better legislative checks on state agencies and the administrative rulemaking process, and creates a process to continually review agency rules.

“Speaker Vos tasked me with the Red Tape Review project to see that the nearly 1800 chapters of administrative code are reviewed by the Assembly Standing Committees. This proposal will make the review of administrative code an ongoing process and in some cases, vastly simplify the rules process,” said Ballweg.

Five procedures are created under this bill: (1) an expedited procedure for agencies to repeal unauthorized rules; (2) a process for agencies to regularly review rules; (3) a process for agencies to regularly review new enactments to determine how they affect current rules; (4) a process for the Legislative Reference Bureau to biennially report to the legislature on rules in need of revision; (5) a process for the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules to request a retrospective economic impact analysis on existing rules.

Under current law, to repeal an administrative rule the agency must go through the promulgation process which can take a year or more and is resource and time intensive. There is also nothing that requires agencies to continually review their rules or new enactments, so the process will vary from agency to agency or not happen at all.

“Right now, it’s difficult for small business owners to know which rules apply to them and which are outdated,” Darling said, “This bill eliminates outdated rules from the books and gives our rules a thorough check-up to make sure they are accurate, fair, and clear.”