Month: July 2018

Wisconsin Sales Tax Holiday on School Supplies Starts Wednesday

Back-to-school shopping is in full swing, and shoppers in Wisconsin can get many school supply items tax free starting Wednesday.

It’s part of the state’s first ever sales tax holiday that runs from August 1-5. The tax exemption is part of a bill Governor Scott Walker signed into law in April.

Tax free items will include items such as binders, notebooks and glue. Clothing less than $75 is also on the list.

Electronics, such as desktop computers and tablets are on the list as long as the item is $750 or less.

For a more comprehensive list of items included in the sales tax holiday, click here.


Governor’s $200 million Plan to Lower Obamacare Costs Gets OK from Trump Administration

President Donald Trump’s administration signed off Sunday on Gov. Scott Walker’s $200 million plan to lower Affordable Care Act premiums.

Under Walker’s plan, consumer costs are expected to go down by 3.5 percent on average next year for individuals getting insurance through the marketplaces established by the act.

Wisconsin taxpayers will spend $34 million on Walker’s plan. The remaining $166 million will come from federal taxpayers.

Walker and lawmakers approved their plan in February but needed permission from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services because the federal government would fund the bulk of it.

They received the federal approval Sunday, and within hours Walker put his signature on it during his stop here. The plan will take effect Jan. 1.

Under the plan, the number of people getting insurance on the Obamacare marketplace would dip in 2019 to an estimated 184,700.

The program — dubbed the Health Care Stability Plan — is targeted at consumers who buy individual health insurance through the Affordable Care Act but who make too much money to qualify for federal subsidies to lower their premiums. Those consumers saw their premiums go up by 44 percent in 2018 in Wisconsin.

Walker’s plan will help insurers cover the cost of patients with claims of $50,000 to $250,000. With the Walker plan covering half those costs, insurers will be able to charge lower premiums.

Under the plan, premiums on average will drop by 3.5 percent from current levels and will be 11 percent lower than they would have been in 2019 without the plan, according to his administration. Walker noted not everyone will see a reduction in their premiums.

U.S. Economy Accelerates to 4.1% Rate in Second Quarter

Consumers and government spending powered the economy to a 4.1% rate of gross domestic product growth in the second quarter, the fastest pace in almost four years. Growth was revised up in the first quarter to 2.2% from 2%.

Activity boomed in the second quarter and the growth does not seem to be due to one-off factors, as some economists had feared.

Over the past year, the economy has expanded at a 2.8% annual pace, up from a 2.6% annual rate in the first quarter. Economists say this is strong enough to keep putting downward pressure on the unemployment rate.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has said that strong growth is one reason the central bank should keep raising interest rates. With inflation moderate, the Fed is expected to stay on the pace of a quarter-percentage point rate hike every three months.

Many analysts think growth should stay strong, helped by stimulative fiscal policies, such as tax cuts. There is concern reported in various business surveys that trade disputes could slow activity, but so far there is little evidence of any disruption in the economic data.

President Trump and EU agree to Work Toward ‘Zero Tariffs’

President Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday announced that they have reached a deal to begin resolving a dispute over tariffs and avoid a trade war.

“We agreed today first of all to work together towards zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers and zero subsidies for the non-auto industrial goods,” Trump announced in a joint statement with Juncker in the White House Rose Garden.

The EU has agreed to increase U.S. soybean imports, lower industrial tariffs with the aim of dropping them to zero and work more closely together on regulations and energy, including buying more more liquified natural gas (LNG).

USDA Assists Farmers Impacted by Unjustified Retaliation

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will take several actions to assist farmers in response to trade damage from unjustified retaliation.

President Trump directed Secretary Perdue to craft a short-term relief strategy to protect agricultural producers while the Administration works on free, fair, and reciprocal trade deals to open more markets in the long run to help American farmers compete globally. Specifically, USDA will authorize up to $12 billion in programs, which is in line with the estimated $11 billion impact of the unjustified retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agricultural goods. These programs will assist agricultural producers to meet the costs of disrupted markets.

“This is a short-term solution to allow President Trump time to work on long-term trade deals to benefit agriculture and the entire U.S. economy,” Secretary Perdue said. “The President promised to have the back of every American farmer and rancher, and he knows the importance of keeping our rural economy strong.

Unfortunately, America’s hard-working agricultural producers have been treated unfairly by China’s illegal trading practices and have taken a disproportionate hit when it comes illegal retaliatory tariffs. USDA will not stand by while our hard-working agricultural producers bear the brunt of unfriendly tariffs enacted by foreign nations. The programs we are announcing today help ensure our nation’s agriculture continues to feed the world and innovate to meet the demand.”

Wage Growth in Wisconsin Outpacing U.S.

While the lack of available talent has been a common complaint amongst businesses over the past several years, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest average wages for private sector employees in Wisconsin have increased faster than the United States as a whole over roughly the past two years.

In May, for example, the average weekly private sector wage in Wisconsin increased 6.4 percent from the same time in 2017, to $869.66. Nationwide, the increase was 3.1 percent, to $923.98. Account for inflation, and Wisconsin’s average wage was up $29.36 per week while the country’s was up just $2.27 per week.

Wage gains outpacing the national average are not a one-month phenomena for the state, either. Wisconsin averaged a year-over-year increase of 5.7 percent in the first five months of 2018, compared to 2.7 percent for the U.S. For all of 2017, the state averaged an increase of 3.6 percent, while the country averaged 2.8 percent.

The wage growth roughly coincides with when the state’s unemployment rate dipped below 4.5 percent. It has continued to trend downward, reaching a seasonally-adjusted 2.8 percent in April and May.

The largest increase statewide has been in financial activities, up an average of 8.1 percent. Professional and business activities wages increased an average of 3.8 percent, education and health services averaged a 3.1 percent increase, leisure and hospitality improved 2.1 percent, and construction averaged just a 1.9 percent increase.

Statewide, wages in the manufacturing sector increased an average of 4.7 percent, but pay for production workers was up just 2.9 percent.


Governor Requests Federal Disaster Aid for Northwestern Wisconsin

On Friday, Governor Walker  sent a letter to President Donald Trump requesting a federal disaster declaration for six northwestern Wisconsin counties that sustained flood damage in June. The request is for federal assistance to help local governments recover from the disaster in Ashland, Bayfield, Burnett, Clark, Douglas and Iron counties.

“Federal damage assessments showed more than $13.1 million in damage to public infrastructure in northwestern Wisconsin. This is an area that is still recovering from major flooding that occurred in 2016,” said Governor Walker. “We are hopeful that officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will understand how important it is for our state and these communities to receive federal disaster assistance to help recover from this disaster.”

Earlier this week, FEMA, Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Wisconsin Emergency Management conducted damage assessments across the impacted area with local officials. They viewed damaged roads, bridges and washed out culverts. FEMA estimated $13.1 million in debris clearance, emergency protective measures and damage to roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

If approved, FEMA’s Public Assistance Program would help communities recover some of the costs incurred through responding to the floods, protecting citizens, removing debris, and repairing roads and other infrastructure. FEMA provides 75 percent of eligible costs. The State of Wisconsin and local communities impacted share the remaining 25 percent.

The program is not for businesses or homeowners as the level of damage in these areas, unfortunately, does not currently meet requirements for federal relief. Those with personal property or businesses that were damaged due to the flooding, should contact 2-1-1 for possible resources.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Seek Public Input on Proposed Reforms to Improve & Modernize Implementation of the Endangered Species Act

Continuing efforts to improve how the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is implemented, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries today proposed revisions to certain regulations to ensure clarity and consistency. The changes incorporate public input, best science and best practices to improve reliability, regulatory efficiency and environmental stewardship.

First, the agencies propose to revise the procedures for designating critical habitat by reinstating the requirement that they will first evaluate areas currently occupied by the species before considering unoccupied areas. Second, the agencies propose to clarify when they may determine unoccupied areas are essential to the conservation of the species.

While the agencies recognize the value of critical habitat as a conservation tool, in some cases, designation of critical habitat is not prudent. Accordingly, they are proposing a non-exhaustive list of circumstances where they may find that designation for a particular species would not be prudent. The agencies anticipate that such not-prudent determinations will continue to be rare and expect to designate critical habitat in most cases.

The ESA defines a threatened species as one that is likely to become in danger of extinction within the “foreseeable future.” For the first time, the agencies are proposing an interpretation of “foreseeable future” to make it clear that it extends only as far as they can reasonably determine that both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are probable.

The agencies are also clarifying that decisions to delist a species are made using the same standard as decisions to list species. In both cases, that standard is whether a species meets the established ESA definition of an endangered species or threatened species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is separately proposing to rescind its blanket rule under section 4(d) of the ESA, which automatically conveyed the same protections for threatened species as for endangered species unless otherwise specified. This brings its regulatory approach to threatened species protections in line with NOAA Fisheries, which has not employed such a blanket rule.

Under section 7 of the ESA, other federal agencies consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries to ensure their actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species or result in “destruction or adverse modification” of critical habitat. The proposed rule simplifies and clarifies the definition of “destruction or adverse modification” by removing redundant and confusing language.

Additional proposed revisions to the consultation regulations will clarify whether and how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries consider proposed measures to avoid, minimize or offset adverse effects to listed species or their critical habitat when conducting interagency consultations and will improve the consultation process by clarifying how biological opinions and interagency submissions should be formulated.


Wisconsin Elections Commission Moves Forward With Plans For Election Security

The Wisconsin Elections Commission is moving ahead with plans to use a $7 million federal grant to update its security software, fill six new technology positions and train clerks throughout the state about best security practices during elections.

Approved by the Department of Administration in June, the commission’s plans call for software upgrades that will allow the commission to monitor the elections system, which has come under scrutiny recently after news surfaced that Russia had meddled in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

The state aid is part of $380 million that Congress approved in March under the Help America Vote Act, which in part will help improve election security.

Reid Magney, a public information officer for the Elections Commission, said it’s not clear yet how all the money will be spent in Wisconsin, but the commission will seek advice from election officials and the public about other ideas to ensure security with the primary election less than a month away.

An estimated maximum of $2.4 million will be spent on six information technology positions with contracts through 2022.

Technical upgrades will make it harder for malicious or inadvertent activity the sabotage the system, Magney said. One of these upgrades is multi-factor authentication, which means clerks need to use more than a username and password to log into the system.

Oftentimes that comes in the form of a code that users have to punch in to log on, but Magney said the commission is exploring other options because not all clerks have cell phones.

Magney said the funds also will attempt to train about 3,000 election officials and their staff members who use the WisVote system, which is the software for election administration. Another effort will allow the state Division of Enterprise Technology to get advanced spam email protection, a service which is already available to commission staff.

What is ‘Milk’? FDA Intends to Remove the Word from Nondairy Products

Dairy farmers who want the terms “soy milk” and “almond milk” banished from our lexicon may soon get their way as a federal agency plans to enforce the definition of “milk” as something that comes from a cow, not a plant.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Tuesday that he intends to implement the change over the next year or so.  The agency has long had a definition of milk as being an animal-based product, but it hasn’t been enforced.

“This has been a little bit of a bugaboo to the dairy industry,” Gottlieb said during a Politico event in Washington, D.C. “But we do have a standard of identity, and I intend to enforce that,” he said.

Before the FDA can implement the change, Gottlieb said, there will have to be public hearings to gather comments.

“It will probably take close to a year to go through that process. But that’s what we intend to do,” he said.

Gottlieb’s comments Tuesday were similar to testimony he presented this spring to the Senate, when he acknowledged the FDA has “exercised enforcement discretion” in not holding food marketers to federal standards limiting the use of standardized food terms.

Sales of milk as a beverage have been in decline for many years, while sales of plant-based beverages are up more than 60 percent during the past five years, according to industry figures.