Month: January 2020

State’s College Readiness Slips

Recent Wisconsin Policy Forum research has shown the state’s working age population is shrinking while many growing occupations require higher levels of education. In a new analysis of recently released data from the state, we now find areas of concern with regard to Wisconsin’s performance on an important education metric related to this challenge.

According to data from the state Department of Public Instruction, the share of high school students statewide whose ACT subject test scores indicate they are prepared for college courses in English, math, and science declined between 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Wisconsin’s state average composite score was 19.6 for 2018-19, which is a slight decline from the state average of 19.8 the year before. This modest decrease, however, is masking potentially significant declines within each subject area that are relevant to students’ “college readiness.”

The ACT establishes college readiness benchmarks in each of four subject areas, which indicate that a student has a “50% chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher” in the corresponding first-year college course.

Those benchmarks are a score of 18 (out of a possible 36) on the English section; 22 on the math section; 22 on the reading section; and 23 on the science section. There is no benchmark for the composite score.

Governor Evers Creates Task Force on Student Debt

Yesterday, Governor Tony Evers,  joined by Department of Financial Institutions Secretary Kathy Blumenfeld, signed Executive Order #67 creating the Governor’s Task Force on Student Debt.

This task force will be chaired by Secretary Blumenfeld and will be tasked with assessing student debt in Wisconsin and providing long-term strategies to reduce education-related debt, prevent abusive practices by loan companies, and improve financial literacy education.

“For too many Wisconsinites additional education or job training is out of reach. We need to address college affordability and ensure that a great education doesn’t come at the cost of decades of crippling debt,” said Gov. Evers.

“Student debt is preventing folks from buying a car, starting a business, saving for retirement, and starting a family, and that is ultimately holding back our state and our economy. Student debt isn’t going away any time soon, but this task force will be a meaningful first step in addressing this issue in our state.”

Wisconsin Lawmaker Proposes Heavy Regulations on Private Data Collection

Companies could pay a high penalty for disobeying orders to halt the collection and distribution of personal data under a package of bills being proposed by a Wisconsin lawmaker.

State Rep. Shannon Zimmerman said he’ll begin circulating the proposed Wisconsin Data Privacy Act, which could fine companies up to $20 million — or assess a portion of their annual revenue — if they don’t abide rules established in three bills. The River Falls Republican plans to formally unveil the package Wednesday, Jan. 29.

Zimmerman said the legislation represents the first of its kind in the United States to hold companies accountable for sharing personal data without users’ consent. He said the practice of collecting private user information and then distributing it has become prolific.

“However bad you think it is, it’s worse,” Zimmerman said. “It’s unnerving, it’s a violation of privacy.”

The first bill would allow Wisconsin residents to learn what data businesses have collected. He said those companies could range from tech giants such as Google or Facebook to any entity that collects user data. With some limitations, businesses would be required to release a record of what they’ve collected and what they intend to do with it, according to the legislation.

The second bill would give Wisconsinites the right to demand a company stop collecting the data and to delete it.

The third bill prohibits — with some exceptions — companies from collecting or selling personal data. That data includes biometric, health and genetic data that could be gathered by genealogy firms. Information made available from federal, state or local government records would not be subject to regulations under the bill.

Wisconsin Department of Revenue Kicks Off Tax Season

Wisconsin’s tax season, like the federal tax season, officially began on January 27. Filing activity will be brisk, particularly the first few weeks and the last few weeks of the season.

This year’s individual income tax filing deadline is Wednesday, April 15. DOR reminds taxpayers not to file until they have all their tax documents. Having to file an amended return later will significantly delay a refund.

“Of the more than three million individual income tax returns the department received last year, just under 88 percent were filed electronically,” says Wisconsin Department of Revenue Secretary Peter Barca. “We would love to see that number at 100 percent because electronic filing is more secure, accurate and almost always results in a faster refund.”

People may use the free and accurate Wisconsin e-file online tool to file their state income taxes, or they may choose to use third-party software from an approved vendor. Like other online tools, Wisconsin e-file does the required math to prevent errors and allows direct deposit or withdrawal from a bank account.

Taxpayers will find helpful resources available on DOR’s website at including:

• a list of free tax help sites across Wisconsin
• an online application that checks your refund status
• a free mobile app available through Apple and Android app stores
• DOR’s video center, with information on e-filing, free tax help and tax credits

As in previous years, DOR cannot issue refunds until March 1, if it cannot verify wage and withholding information from employers.

State Officials Tour Rural Businesses to Address Workforce Development

Several state officials toured rural businesses across Wisconsin on Friday.

This comes after Governor Tony Evers announced he was making a push to support and enhance rural communities and the rural workforce.

“Wisconsin only does well only when all of Wisconsin does well,” said Joel Brennan, Wisconsin Department of Administration Secretary. “Our competition isn’t amongst one part of the state versus another or necessarily amongst our region, we’re competing globally. We need to do what we can as a state to ensure that they can be as successful as possible.”

The state secretaries gained valuable insight and perspective from rural businesses to come up with possible solutions in the future to address issues faced.

“Some are having trouble finding growth because of a lack of workforce, we’re finding challenges because we need new housing and better healthcare, so all around the state we’re seeing a repetition of issues,” said Missy Hughes, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation Secretary.

To help support and expand the rural workforce, the Office of Rural Propsperity will be created under the WEDC.

“The idea is to have a one stop shop for communities to come to us and say we’re looking at this project, or we’ve got this idea,” Hughes said. “Then we can bring in the force of the rest of the departments of the whole state government and figure out how to make that idea come to fruition.”

Listening sessions will take place throughout the spring and summer, with hopes of having a plan of action set in stone by the fall.

Wisconsin Tax Collections up $818 Million above Projections

Wisconsin tax collections are expected to come in more than $818 million above projections made last summer, an increase reported Thursday that will fuel the push to make an election year tax cut.

Any tax cut that the Legislature approves would have to be signed by Evers before becoming law. The state budget Republicans passed and Evers signed into law last year cut personal income taxes on middle income earners by 10%.

The forecast is an estimate of how much money the state will collect through the current two-year budget cycle, which runs through the end of June 2021. The net increase to the state’s bottom line is $452 million above what was projected when the budget passed in July, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported in a memo to lawmakers. That leaves the state with a projected net balance of $620 million by the middle of 2021.

That surplus could grow even higher. The state budget passed last year assumed that Foxconn Technology Group would qualify for $212 million in state tax credits for job creation and capital expenditures at the plant it’s building in southeast Wisconsin. However, progress has been slower than anticipated and the Fiscal Bureau estimates Foxconn will only qualify for between $50 million and $75 million in credits for 2019.

The state’s rainy day fund, akin to a savings account, is also slated to grow to its highest levels ever, topping $1 billion by July 2021

Governor Evers Announces Major Farming, Redistricting Initiatives in State of the State Address

Farming and nonpartisan redistricting initiatives took center stage at Democrat Governor Tony Ever’s second annual State of the State address on Wednesday night, a speech that also touched on climate change, criminal justice reform, education, and the launch of a task force tackling student debt.

After about 800 dairy farms closed their doors in Wisconsin in 2019, and one-third of the state’s farms closed between 2011 and 2018, Evers announced a three-pronged approach to address the state’s most notable industry and help struggling small and mid-sized family farms.

Calling a special session of the legislature next week to take up farming legislation, Evers noted, “We’ve heard people who’ve said there’s no place for small farms anymore—they ought to go big or bust.”

“Well, they’re wrong. They don’t know Wisconsin,” Evers said, to cheers from lawmakers.

The plan includes legislation to create the Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports to increase the total exports of dairy products to the United States to 20% of the milk supply by 2024. Evers also announced expansion of the Farm Center, added staffing to UW-Extension, and creating the Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity that would include industry experts from around the state to plan long-term solutions for the state’s Dairyland.

State Senate ‘Tinkers Around the Edges’ of Dark Store Loophole

The Wisconsin state Senate has passed a bill dealing with – but not closing – the dark store loophole. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) says the measure – making the tax assessment appeal process easier – was one of three bills to come out of a study committee.

“This is a complicated, tedious issue,” Fitzgerald said.

The loophole allows big-box retailers to have their property assessments based on those of vacant competitors. Democrats like Dave Hansen of Green Bay are impatient.

“How many sessions is it going to take to get this passed, before we start looking out for the residential taxpayers of this state?”

Senator Janis Ringhand, (D-Evansville) who served on that study committee, said none of the bills that came out of it, including the one passed on Tuesday, actually close the loophole.

State Lawmakers to Take up Proposal on Workforce Housing, Lead Removal

Both the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly plan to meet in floor sessions on Tuesday — one of only a handful of days the state Legislature is expected to be in session in 2020.

Several bills before the Senate and Assembly could lead to work for contractors. Among them are proposals to encourage the construction of affordable housing in Wisconsin, rid child-care centers of lead and let architects keep their professional credentials after retirement.

One proposal before the state Assembly would set aside $10 million to encourage the construction of affordable housing in rural areas.

So-called workforce housing is one source of construction demand that’s still struggling to recover from the recession more than a decade ago. The lack of these sorts of developments has caused frustration for employers in rural places and been blamed for the fact that rent prices have risen at a faster pace than wages in recent years.

The legislation, Assembly Bill 544, would direct the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority to establish a $10 million fund to support affordable housing projects in rural Wisconsin.

The state Senate will separately take up legislation passed out of committee earlier this month to require child-care centers to rid themselves of water sources tainted with lead.

It’s part of a pair of bills called the SCHOOL Acts — an acronym standing for  Supporting Children’s Health Ousting Outdated Lead. The proposals would require school districts and private child-care centers to identify and remove lead pipes and similar infrastructure. The bills come after lawmakers have been grappling for months with how to deal with widespread lead contamination.


Wisconsin Regulators Approve Superior Natural Gas Plant

In a 2-1 vote, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin OK’d the Nemadji Trail Energy Center’s certificate of public convenience and necessity.

The approval moves Duluth-based Minnesota Power’s plan to build the plant with La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative forward on a plot of land between Enbridge Energy’s Superior terminal and the Nemadji River. The power plant will be capable of producing between 525 and 625 megawatts of power.

“This is very significant for the (Nemadji Trail Energy Center) project in Superior,” Julie Pierce, Minnesota Power’s vice president of strategy and planning, told the News Tribune. “We received the approval from the Public Services Commission that this is the right site and it’s in the public interest for having it in Superior, Wisconsin.”

The companies argue the plant, which burns natural gas, would supplement more solar and wind power “when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing,” and that the plant is “renewable enabling.”

The project still needs to obtain permits from the city of Superior, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Army Corps of engineers.

Across the state border, the project faces further scrutiny from Minnesota regulators. Last month, the Minnesota Court of Appeals said the state’s Public Utilities Commission erred when it declined to consider potential impacts the Nemadji Trail Energy Center could have on air, water, land and other natural resources. The court reversed the agency’s October 2018 approval of the project and sent it back to the commission for further review.

Although the project is located in Wisconsin, it also had to move through Minnesota regulators because the power it would generate will be delivered to Minnesota Power’s customers in Minnesota.