News of the Day

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.

Department of Safety and Professional Services Announces Regulatory Changes

The leader of the state Department of Safety and Professional Services has announced changes to how the department handles regulation of commercial building construction following criticism from lawmakers and industry groups over delays.

One of DSPS’s responsibilities is to review commercial construction plans to ensure they comply with Wisconsin laws and regulations. Contractors pay a fee to the department for such plans to be reviewed.

Contractors have complained they have experienced delays of up to 10 to 12 weeks for their construction plans to be reviewed. They had been accustomed to six to eight weeks.

Crim announced changes to speed up the plan review process, including encouraging contractors to submit their construction plans early and with payment to have the opportunity to have their plan be reviewed earlier than scheduled.

Crim also plans to prohibit duplicate appointments for plan review and require contractors to pay the department before its reviews a construction plan.

“Our goal is to shorten the amount of time it takes for our customers to have their plans reviewed by our staff,” Crim said in a statement. “We collaborated with industry partners to align our solutions with the way our customers conduct business. We recognize our important role in the construction process and economic development. These changes will enable us to better facilitate both.”

Additional changes are being considered — such as making fees paid by contractors for plan review nonrefundable — but would need legislative approval.

Senate to vote on USMCA on Thursday

The Senate will vote on the new North American trade pact on Thursday. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is expected to pass with overwhelming bipartisan support. Senators began formal consideration of the pact on Wednesday afternoon.

Once the Senate passes USMCA, the deal will be sent to President Trump’s desk for his signature. President  Trump said Wednesday he will sign the deal next week.

But the deal will not fully enter into force until Canada ratifies the USMCA. Mexico has already passed the revised deal, and Canada is expected to hold a vote in the House of Commons once it reconvenes in late January.

“All eyes will be on Canada to get the job done quickly so we can all work together to implement this agreement,” Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley said on the Senate floor.

United States and China Set to Sign Phase One Deal

The U.S.-China trade war is set to enter a new, quieter phase on Wednesday as U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He sign an initial trade deal that aims to vastly increase Chinese purchases of U.S. manufactured products, agricultural goods, energy and services.

The centerpiece of the deal is a pledge by China to purchase an additional $200 billion worth of U.S. goods over two years to cut a bilateral U.S. trade deficit that peaked at $420 billion in 2018.

The Phase 1 deal, reached in December, canceled planned U.S. tariffs on Chinese-made cell phones, toys and laptop computers and halved the tariff rate to 7.5% on about $120 billion worth of other Chinese goods, including flat panel televisions, Bluetooth headphones and footwear. But it will leave in place 25% tariffs on a vast, $250 billion array of Chinese industrial goods and components used by U.S. manufacturers.

The deal includes pledges by China to forbid the forced transfer of American technology to Chinese firms as well as to increase protections for U.S. intellectual property.

But it stops well short of addressing the core U.S. complaints about China’s trade and intellectual property practices that prompted the Trump administration to pressure Beijing for changes in early 2017.

Mnuchin and Lighthizer said these issues are key U.S. priorities for Phase 2 negotiations with China.

Commissioner Huebsch Announces Retirement from the PSC

Today, Commissioner Mike Huebsch announced his retirement from the Public  Service Commission (PSC) of Wisconsin effective February 3, 2020.

The retirement caps off 25 years of distinguished service to the state. He was appointed to a six-year term at the Public Service commission by Governor Scott Walker on March 1, 2015.

“I want to humbly thank the people of the state of Wisconsin for allowing me to serve. I have been truly blessed for the opportunities and trust afforded to me by the people of this great state. I thank you,” said Huebsch.

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin is composed of three full-time Commissioners who decide the cases brought to the PSC for changes in utility operations, rates and for construction projects after a complete and thorough review of all the records compiled in the case, including public comments.

Commissioners are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the State Senate for staggered, six-year terms.