News of the Day

We Energies Kenosha County Coal Plant Shuttered

One of Wisconsin’s largest coal power plants has permanently closed.

We Energies says the Pleasant Prairie facility in Kenosha County was taken off line this week. The utility company previously announced it would be closing the coal-fired plant because of changing energy economics. More utilities are using natural gas and renewable energy sources.

 

Trade Dispute Escalates as President Threatens $100 billion More in China Tariffs

President Donald Trump on Thursday directed U.S. trade officials to identify tariffs on $100 billion more Chinese imports, upping the ante in an already high-stakes trade confrontation between the world’s two largest economies.

The further tariffs were being considered “in light of China’s unfair retaliation” against earlier U.S. trade actions, which included a proposed $50 billion of tariffs on Chinese goods, Trump said in a White House statement.

Chinese state media slammed Trump’s threat of more trade action against China as “ridiculous.”

On Tuesday, USTR proposed 25 percent tariffs on more than 1,300 Chinese industrial and other products from flat-panel televisions to electronic components. China shot back 11 hours later with a list of proposed duties on $50 billion of American imports, including soybeans, aircraft, cars, beef and chemicals.

“Rather than remedy its misconduct, China has chosen to harm our farmers and manufacturers,” the Republican president said.

Republican lawmakers from Western and Midwestern states have voiced worries about a big hit to U.S. farming exporters.

Major Highway Projects Reporting Bill Signed

Changes to state law aimed at improving the way the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) budgets and reports major highway project costs were enacted by Governor Walker.

The legislation was prompted by the findings in a Legislative Audit Bureau audit of the State Highway Program and was introduced by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee which is chaired by Representative Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem Lakes) and Senator Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay). The audit report showed that DOT consistently underestimated the true costs of projects, including disregarding inflationary increases due to delays.

2017 Wisconsin Act 247:

Clarifies that when providing major project cost estimates to the Transportation Projects Commission (TPC), the estimate must include all costs associated with the project, including; design engineering and construction engineering costs; the costs of environmental studies; costs of the project that are paid by another DOT program; the expected date of completion; an estimate of the effects of construction cost inflation; and unexpected costs on the cost of the project.

Requires DOT’s semi-annual status report to the TPC to include the full project cost estimate of each project as of the date of the TPC’s approval of the project. This is in addition to the current required information (for each major highway project, the actual and estimated project costs as of the date of the preparation of the report, itemized by major cost categories, on both a cumulative basis from the project’s inception and on an updated basis for the period since the last six-month report.)

Requires DOT to consider and document the results of the uniform cost benefit analysis (required under current law for proposed engagements involving an estimate expenditure of more than $300,000) before determining whether to undertake a proposed engagement for
engineering, consulting, surveying, or other specialized services.

 

Dallet Defeats Screnock, State Treasurer Office Saved in Referendum

In another election underscoring the enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican voters, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Rebecca Dallet handily defeated her conservative opponent Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock in the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court.

With 96 percent of the vote in, Dallet had 56 percent of the vote to Screnock’s 44 percent. Her victory came largely on the strength of the Democratic vote in Dane County which voted an astounding 80 percent for the liberal candidate.

Meanwhile, Screnock underperformed in the critical WOW counties for Republicans: Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington. While turnout in those counties kept up with Dane County, the conservative percentage of the vote did not keep up.

The other statewide result from Tuesday’s election was the defeat of a referendum to eliminate the office of the state treasurer. The constitutional amendment to eliminate the largely powerless elected office failed 61 percent to 39 percent.

 

Wisconsin Growers, Producers Weigh Impact of Chinese Tariffs

Growers and producers are concerned about what the tariffs may mean for their industries.

China slapped a 25 percent tariff on United States pork products, including everything from hind legs to chops. More than $1 billion in U.S. pork was shipped to China last year. Wisconsin produced 305,000 hogs in 2017, according to national statistics. Vaassen hopes the tariffs will be short-lived.

Tammy Vaassen, Wisconsin Pork Association executive vice president, said Wisconsin producers exported about a quarter of the pork produced in the U.S. to overseas partners. Of that amount, China was the third largest market last year.

“They’re very dependent on our export opportunities,” she said. “If we take away some of those opportunities, we certainly need to add to that or we’re going to lose farmers based on the financial implications that will occur.”

China has also placed a 15 percent tariff on cranberries. Tom Lochner, Wisconsin Cranberry Growers Association executive director, said they’ve been trying to grow markets in China due to an oversupply of cranberries driving down prices.

“The Chinese market and India have been identified as important new markets for cranberries in North America, so we just started our efforts in China to grow that market there,” he said. “We have a small footprint there and we’re trying to grow that. Things that make our products uncompetitive or more expensive in China are obviously going to have an impact on those efforts.”

President Donald Trump is preparing to impose around $50 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods.

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Trump: Infrastructure Overhaul Will Likely Come After Midterms

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Governor Signs Unemployment Insurance Fraud Bill

Yesterday, Governor Walker signed Assembly Bill 710, a bill authored by Representative Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem Lakes) that creates criminal penalties for Unemployment Insurance (UI) fraud.

“What started with constituents calling for assistance because they were having trouble filing their UI claims, progressed into an audit of the initial claims processing for Unemployment Insurance benefits,” said Rep. Samantha Kerkman who co-chairs the committee that assigned the audit. “What we did not anticipate discovering was that there are a small percentage of individuals who account for the majority of overpayments, collectively defrauding the system of
millions of dollars annually.”

Now 2017 Wisconsin Act 147, the legislation targets the worst offenders by increasing the penalty based on the amount of the fraud, using the same scale currently in statute for other types of theft. Prior to Act 147, penalties were substantially lower and carried little risk of prosecution.

“I am happy to have worked with the Department of Workforce Development and stakeholders in creating another tool to help deter fraud and aid in recovery of overpayments. Reducing fraud protects the integrity of the UI fund and helps ensure that the unemployment program remains a safety net for those who are out of work,” said Rep. Kerkman.

Unemployment Insurance benefits are funded through payroll taxes paid by Wisconsin employers. The integrity of the Unemployment Insurance program and trust fund contributes to a stable economy and is important to Wisconsin workers who may one day need the safety net the fund provides and to Wisconsin employers who feel the effects of program fraud through higher tax rates.

Facebook Unveils Privacy and Security Tool

Facebook said on Wednesday that it is rolling out a new tool to centralize user privacy and security settings following the outcry over its data collection practices.

The company said that users will be able to make changes from a single page instead of having options spread across nearly two dozen screens on different parts of platform. Facebook plans to roll out the change in the coming weeks.

Facebook users will be able to adjust an array of privacy settings on the page for the information that they’ve given the platform, like their interests, and their activity on Facebook, such liking photos and commenting on friends’ statuses.

Users will also be able to more easily see what data can and can’t be shared with apps.

Wisconsin Plans to Upgrade 911 System to Accept Texts

Wisconsin is in the procurement stage of rolling out the NextGen 911 system, which will allow all dispatch centers to get more data from people in an emergency.

NextGen 911 offers more bandwidth to pinpoint almost exactly where the caller is and connects Wisconsin dispatch centers through a shared network.  It will be offered to all of the 109 dispatch centers, but not required. The centers that opt in will be charged monthly, in addition to the initial cost of equipment.

The most recent state budget included $6.7 million for planning the NextGen 911 upgrade. The state is currently waiting on bids from vendors who can create the system. That cost will be included in the 2019 biennium budget.