News of the Day

I-94 Shoulders Could Become Lanes for Self-Driving Trucks

Highway officials are considering building up the shoulders along I-94 south from Milwaukee and using them as traffic lanes for self-driving trucks to serve the Foxconn Technology Group factory to be built in Mount Pleasant.

The idea is part of a process that is in its “really, really early” stages, but is among possibilities being contemplated as Wisconsin undertakes the $500 million expansion of I-94, State Transportation Secretary Dave Ross said this week.

Wisconsin is seeking funding to test a route for autonomous trucks as part of the state’s application for $246 million in federal grant money to help pay for the overall I-94 project. The route would run from Mitchell International Airport and along the freeway south to the Racine County area where Foxconn plans to build a massive manufacturing campus to produce high-resolution flat screens.

Ross spoke this week at the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Policy Forum and in an interview afterward.

Self-driving vehicles are being tested elsewhere, but mostly in warm-weather states, Ross said in the interview. “Part of the grant is that this is going to be an all-weather testing route, which is very unique in the nation,” he said.

Ross said other states have been using highway shoulders as traffic lanes at some times. That is a possibility for bringing self-driving trucks onto I-94, he indicated.

They potentially could run in the dedicated lane, which would receive additional paving, at all times or only during certain hours, “say nine o’clock at night to six in the morning,” Ross said.

Wisconsin Job Growth Slows in Latest Detailed Employment Numbers

Job creation slowed in Wisconsin during the 12-month period ending in September of last year, according to the latest “gold standard” employment numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The numbers come from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, which economists regard as the most accurate job metric.

They show that from September 2016 until September 2017, Wisconsin added 17,670 private sector jobs. That’s considerably less than in previous years. For example, Wisconsin added 27,289 private sector jobs during the same period a year ago and 34,551 the year before that.

Thursday’s numbers, coupled with Wisconsin’s historically low 3 percent unemployment rate, show that while the state’s private sector economy is not expanding quickly, most residents who want a job have one.

The latest numbers also show Wisconsin added 4,616 private sector manufacturing jobs from September 2016 through September 2017. That’s an improvement from the same period a year ago when Wisconsin lost manufacturing jobs.

“Netflix for Healthcare”: Local Doctor says Direct Primary Care Cuts Out Insurance Costs

Dr. Timothy Murray runs Solstice Health in Oconomowoc. He says the current primary care system is too expensive because of insurance companies and administrative salaries.

“I shouldn’t be able to charge $400 for an MRI when the hospital charges $3,000. I mean you can just do the math right there and see the markup.”

Direct primary care cuts a lot of those costs, and Murray says 40 percent of his overhead is removed. For a monthly fee, you get unlimited visits to doctors and non-emergency services.

“There’s no thought process anymore of should I go, or should I not go. My kids got a cold, or maybe he’s got an ear infection. I’m really not sure, but my deductible is $2,000, and I know I’m going to have to foot that whole bill.”

But there is no emergency room at Solstice, so Murray says he also reccomends catostrophic health insurance both for safety, and to meet Affordable Care Act requirements. Murray says to think of it like car insurance.

“Your car insurance doesn’t pay for your wiper blades. It doesn’t pay for your tire rotations and all these other day to day things that we do for our vehicles. That is the essence of primary care. When you have an accident, or you have something catastrophic, that’s when the insurance kicks in.”

A group of Republican lawmakers, including state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, are putting laws on the books to define and regulate direct care, to help get it off the ground.”

“As time goes on, you’re going to see this focus going away from our legacy system, where it relies on insurance companies as the key, to this primary care model, where the patient is the king.”

The bill on primary care has already passed the state Assembly, and is up for a vote in the Senate.

Governor Walker Says He Was Surprised By President’s Tariff Proposal

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says he was surprised when President Donald Trump announced plans to impose new tariffs on imported aluminum and steel, saying up until last week he thought “we were in a good place.”

Walker on Tuesday urged Trump to back off on the tariffs, visiting a plastics manufacturer and food distributor the governor says would be hurt under Trump’s plan.

Walker said he had been talking with Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross since last summer about how tariffs would hurt Wisconsin. Walker said he is scheduled to talk again with Ross on Wednesday, and possibly also Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

Walker said if Trump won’t back off the tariffs in total, he hopes the president will make an exception for tinplate steel and ultra-thin aluminum. Those are used by Bemis Industrial Products and Seneca Foods, the two businesses he visited Tuesday in Oshkosh and Janesville.

Seneca Foods is a food processor and distributor with nine plants in the state.

The Janesville location is in the congressional district of House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has joined with other congressional Republicans in saying the tariffs could lead to a trade war.

Walker has been outspoken against Trump’s idea, saying it would likely raise steel and aluminum prices in the United States and hurt Wisconsin manufacturers.

Wisconsin is the 5th Best State for Women

In honor of Women’s History Month, WalletHub released a report of 2018’s Best & Worst States for Women. Wisconsin ranked as the 5th best state on the list.

The states were ranked in two categories; Women’s Economic & Social Well-Being and Women’s Health & Safety. The Badger State ranked 2nd in Women’s Economic & Social Well-Being and ranked 15th in Women’s Health & Safety, landing the state 5th overall.

The two categories considered numerous factors such as earnings for female workers, unemployment rates, friendliness toward working moms, female homicide rates, share of physically active women, and more.

Wisconsin’s high percentage of women graduating high school and percentage of women who voted in the 2016 presidential election, significantly impacted the overall ranking. Wisconsin ranked 1st for women graduating high school and 3rd for women voting.

A few of the key rankings for Wisconsin:

  • 1st- High School Graduation Rate for Women
  • 3rd- Share of Women Who Voted in 2016 Presidential Election
  • 6th- Women’s Preventive Health Care
  • 7th- Female Uninsured Rate
  • 11th- Unemployment Rate for Women
  • 15th- Quality of Women’s Hospitals
  • 17th- Median Earnings for Female Workers
  • 18th- Women’s Life Expectancy at Birth
  • 19th- Share of Women in Poverty

Wisconsin has Eighth-Lowest Auto Insurance Costs in United States

Wisconsin is among states with the least expensive auto insurance rates, but premiums in the metro Milwaukee area are rising faster than the national average, a new report says.

A study by the online auto insurance search engine and research firm The Zebra found Wisconsin had an average annual premium of $1,040 for car insurance, which was lower than all but seven states in the United States.

In the survey, Michigan had the highest annual average premium, at $2,610. North Carolina had the lowest, at $865. Overall, the report said, car insurance rates are higher than they’ve ever been, with a national average annual premium of $1,427, or 20% higher than in 2011.

Wisconsin historically has had among the lowest auto insurance rates in the U.S., and part of the reason is many insurance companies want to do business in the state, Franken said. According to the most recent report from the Office of the Insurance Commissioner, in 2016 there were about 175 companies offering private passenger car insurance in Wisconsin.

“We’re pretty proud of that history, and we hope it continues,” Franken said. “I think it’s the positive regulatory climate, positive litigation climate and a lot of credit to the state drivers.”

The study said insurance companies are penalizing distracted drivers for the first time since the advent of cellphones, though still not nearly as much as other dangerous traffic violations.

To compile the survey, The Zebra said, it conducted a comprehensive auto insurance pricing analysis between September and December using its proprietary quote engine, using data from insurance rating platforms and public rate filings. The Zebra said it examined nearly 53 million rates to explore trends for specific auto insurance rating factors across all U.S. zip codes, averaged by state, including Washington, D.C.

Trump Expected to Announce Stiff Steel, Aluminum Tariffs

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Lower Corporate Tax Rate Projected to Save Wisconsin Utility Customers more than $275 Million

Customers of Wisconsin utilities are projected to save more than $275 million from the new lower rate for federal corporate taxes, based on estimates compiled by the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group.

The corporate tax rate was lowered to 21% from 35% as part of the recent tax reform and tax cut legislation. Projected taxes are included as an expense when setting utility rates and the cost is passed onto customers.

The state’s utilities were required to file their projected tax savings with the Public Service Commission last month. Matthew Spencer, a spokesman for Public Service Commission, said the commission is expected to decide this year on how to apply the savings to customers’ bills.

Based on the PSC filings, the initial annual savings from the lower tax rates are:

  • We Energies electric customer – $97 million
  • We Energies natural gas customers — $20 million.
  • WPS electric customers — $41 million.
  • WPS natural gas customers — $7 million.
  • Madison Gas & Electric — $6 million to $9 million for electric customers and $2 million to $3 million for natural gas customers (1.2% to 1.9% average reduction).
  • Alliant electric customers — $40 million to $50 million
  • Xcel electric customers — $25 million to $30 million.

The projected savings range roughly from 1% to 4% of customers’ bills, depending on the utility.

 

Wisconsin Attorney General Leading Federal Lawsuit Against ACA

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel is leading a multi-state legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act.

Schimel and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed the lawsuit Monday in a federal court in northern Texas. The lawsuit represents 20 states, including Wisconsin.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the health care law in 2012, ruling the penalty on individuals without health coverage was a tax and allowed under the Constitution.

But Schimel said that legal foundation no longer applies.

“In the tax relief bill, the Congress eliminated the tax penalty,” he said. “So that left the individual mandate hanging out there all by itself.”

The lawsuit argues the entire law should now be struck down.

“The Obama administration lawyers argued during the course of the case in 2012 in the Supreme Court that without the individual mandate, the rest of it doesn’t stand,” Schimel said. “Now that the tax penalty’s gone, the individual mandate can’t stand, which means the rest of it can’t stand.”

Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Walker authorized the lawsuit “because it questions the constitutionality of Obamacare.”

But she added that “as long as (the ACA) remains, Wisconsin will work within the confines of that law to help Wisconsin families.”

Critics said overturning the law would hurt Wisconsin residents.

Protect Our Care Campaign Director Brad Woodhouse said in a statement that, if successful, the lawsuit “could take health insurance away from 416,600 Wisconsinites, raise premiums, and end the Medicaid expansion, which has been critical for combating the opioid epidemic and keeping rural hospitals afloat.”

State Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments on Lawsuit Challenging TIF Districts

The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard oral arguments Friday in a lawsuit challenging a common tool cities use to spur development.

A group of taxpayers is challenging Eau Claire’s use of tax incremental financing (TIF) districts to provide a cash payment to the developer of a $45 million public-private downtown redevelopment known as the Confluence Project. They argue the $1.5 million cash payment to the developer violates the state constitution’s uniformity clause, which requires all property within a taxing jurisdiction to be treated the same.

Attorney General Brad Schimel is backing the city in the case, saying if the challenge is successful it could affect the $10 billion Foxconn project in Racine County where the village of Mount Pleasant has approved a $764 million TIF district for the Taiwanese manufacturer.

TIF districts are typically blighted, industrial or mixed commercial/residential areas designated by a municipality as undevelopable without some form of public assistance. The municipality issues bonds to pay for infrastructure or part of the development. The bonds are repaid over a set number of years with property taxes generated by the increased value of the property.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has previously upheld the constitutionality of TIF districts. The circuit court and court of appeals both upheld Eau Claire’s decision.

The Supreme Court could decide to uphold the constitutionality of cash payments, but still send the case back to a lower court to review whether the city followed state law in determining that the area was blighted.

Eau Claire assistant city attorney Doug Hoffer said he was confident the law was on the city’s side heading into the oral arguments, but was even more confident afterward.