News of the Day

Senate Republican Leader: No Legal Marijuana, but Tax Cuts Possible

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu on Thursday closed the door to legalizing medical or recreational marijuana in Wisconsin in the foreseeable future, but said Republicans will seek to hold the line, or possibly cut taxes, during the upcoming state budget negotiations.

LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said Senate Republicans do not have the votes to pass any marijuana legislation on their own, driving a stake through another one of Gov. Tony Evers’ signature policy goals for the state budget process.

“We have some societal concerns,” LeMahieu said. “We don’t have support from the caucus. We don’t have 17 votes” — which would be a majority of the Senate where Republicans hold a 21-12 advantage.

LeMahieu said the discussion around medicinal marijuana needs to start at the federal level because the drug is still on the list of federally controlled substances. He said he’s not comfortable with Wisconsin becoming a “rogue state,” legalizing it beforehand without federal blessing. Seventeen states, including neighboring Michigan and Illinois, have legalized recreational marijuana.

LeMahieu said Republicans are still interested in holding the line on tax levels and potentially even cutting taxes, specifically through reductions in income tax or eliminating personal property taxes for small businesses.

Justice Annette Ziegler Elected Next Chief Justice of Wisconsin Supreme Court

Yesterday, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler was elected by her fellow justices as the state’s next chief justice, effective May 1, 2021. Ziegler will take over from the current Chief Justice Patience Drake Roggensack, who did not seek re-election to the post.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is the administrative head of the judicial system and exercises administrative authority pursuant to procedures adopted by the Supreme Court. In this role, the Chief Justice works with fellow justices, the director of state courts, chief judges and other administrators to ensure the courts operate smoothly and efficiently.

Justice Ziegler was first elected to the Supreme Court in 2007 and re-elected in 2017. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Justice Ziegler received her bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and Business Administration from Hope College in Holland, Michigan in 1986. She earned her law degree from Marquette University in 1989.

Wisconsin DHS Pauses Administration of Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) is instructing Wisconsin vaccine providers to stop administering the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine due to a federal review of adverse side effects reported. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement (link is external)saying six cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis have been reported in the U.S. out of 6.8 million Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses given.

“We are pausing administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine out of an abundance of caution. At this time, these adverse events appear to be extremely rare,” said DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake. “Vaccine providers should not administer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at this time, and should hold on to the vaccine until federal review has been completed.”

“There is still a lot to learn about how the vaccine might cause the problems that occurred in the six patients, which included blood clots around the brain and low platelets, but they do appear to be very rare,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer for DHS. “For residents who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, be in contact with your health care provider if you have a severe headache or new vision problems during the first two weeks after receiving the vaccine.”

People who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should monitor for the following symptoms three weeks after their vaccination: severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath. Symptoms associated with these severe events have occurred six to 13 days after vaccine receipt. Contact your health care provider and use the v-safe program(link is external) to report your symptoms.

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines continue to remain extremely safe vaccines. DHS encourages everyone eligible to get the vaccine to continue with their vaccination, especially in light of variants. Wisconsin continues to have a good supply of these vaccines; 96% of the doses administered in the state have been Pfizer and Moderna.

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IRS Provides Guidance on Tax Relief for Deductions for Food or Beverages from Restaurants

The Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service has issued Notice 2021-25 PDF providing guidance under the Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Relief Act of 2020. The Act added a temporary exception to the 50% limit on the amount that businesses may deduct for food or beverages. The temporary exception allows a 100% deduction for food or beverages from restaurants.

Beginning January 1, 2021, through December 31, 2022, businesses can claim 100% of their food or beverage expenses paid to restaurants as long as the business owner (or an employee of the business) is present when food or beverages are provided and the expense is not lavish or extravagant under the circumstances.

Where can businesses get food and beverages and claim 100%?

Under the temporary provision, restaurants include businesses that prepare and sell food or beverages to retail customers for immediate on-premises and/or off-premises consumption. However, restaurants do not include businesses that primarily sell pre-packaged goods not for immediate consumption, such as grocery stores and convenience stores.

Additionally, an employer may not treat certain employer-operated eating facilities as restaurants, even if these facilities are operated by a third party under contract with the employer.

Federal Funding Expected to Help Ease Wisconsin’s Road Repair Needs

An influx of pandemic-related federal aid to state and local governments is helping clear a backlog of needed road improvement projects in Wisconsin.

The state Department of Transportation recently announced a COVID-19 relief plan passed by Congress in late 2020 will allow the state to complete 42 highway projects valued at nearly $150 million in the next two years. Most of the 42 projects involve replacing or repairing bridges or resurfacing state highways.

“The funding was able to fill in for the lost revenues we had (in 2020) because of gas tax revenues being lower than usual due to decreased traffic,” said DOT Secretary Craig Thompson. “It allowed us to not only not have to cut back on projects, but to advance 42 projects earlier than was previously anticipated.”

Thompson said the state is still assessing if aid from the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act can be used on road improvements.

“We’re never in a situation where we’re going to feel it’s all fixed, but between the last (state) budget, where we had the biggest increase in transportation in a generation that’s allowed us to stop the decline in conditions, both on our state system and getting the locals more money for their system,” Thompson said.

JFC to Hear, Vote On Responsible Stimulus Plan Legislation

State Representative Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) and Senator Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) Co-Chairs of the Joint Committee on Finance(JFC), released the following statement regarding the committee’s plan to hold a public hearing and executive session on 11 bills related to the legislature’s plan to re-invest one-time, Federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to state priorities:

“We are on the starting line of the legislature’s work on the state budget, but we do not know how – or when – the Governor will allocate the massive amount of Federal funding available to Wisconsin in the most recent stimulus plan,” Sen. Marklein said. “Our legislation provides specific plans based on the real priorities of citizens statewide. We need to dedicate these funds in a meaningful way that will support the people of our state who are working to recover and move forward after the last unprecedented year.”

“We cannot ask state taxpayers to foot the bill if there is Federal cash available to us that could pay for our priorities. These are all tax dollars, paid for by tax payers. We need to spend them wisely,” Sen. Marklein said. “The Responsible Stimulus plan does that. It invests in people. It pays for infrastructure like local roads and broadband to help us recover. It will boost our economy.”

“The people of Wisconsin deserve to have their voices heard through their elected Representatives and Senators on how all of this federal money is spent,” said Rep. Born. “As I’ve said before, this money should not be unilaterally allocated by one person. Republicans in the legislature have put together a package of bills that truly reflect the priorities of the people of Wisconsin and the Governor should work with us to make these bills a reality.”

 

Governor Announces More Than $46 Million in Support to Small Businesses

Yesterday, Governor Tony Evers announced more than $46 million to support an estimated 9,300 small businesses across Wisconsin which will receive a $5,000 grant through the successful ‘We’re All In’ grant program.

More than $240 million in ‘We’re All In’ grants were awarded to Wisconsin small businesses in three phases throughout the first year of the pandemic. Both Phase 1 and Phase 2 grants were aimed at businesses with less than $1 million in annual revenue, regardless of industry. Phase 1 distributed $65 million to more than 26,000 businesses around the state with each business receiving a $2,500 grant. Phase 2 grants were targeted toward industries hit hardest by the pandemic, as well as diverse businesses and businesses that had not received Phase 1 grants, providing $130 million to more than 26,000 businesses each receiving $5,000 awards. Phase 3 ‘We’re All In’ was targeted specifically for restaurants and food, beverage, and amusement businesses with annual revenues between $1 million and $7 million, with each qualified business receiving $20,000. More than 2,000 received these grants for a combined total of more than $40 million.

Demand for the ‘We’re All In’ program has exceeded available funding in some phases. The $46 million in new grants announced will be distributed to adversely impacted small businesses that applied for pandemic relief through the ‘We’re All In’ Phase 2 program last year but for which additional funds were not available.

 

Wisconsin Appeals Court Sides Against Business Group in Effort to Block Release of COVID-19 Data

A Wisconsin appeals court panel on Monday reversed a lower court order blocking the release of state health department data on businesses linked to COVID-19 cases, siding against a powerful Wisconsin business association.

The Madison-based 4th District Court of Appeals sent the lawsuit, brought by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce against Gov. Tony Evers’ administration, back to circuit court with orders to dismiss it.

According to the state Department of Justice, the state can release the records in question once the court-imposed injunction is lifted, a process which involves a 30-day lag to give WMC and other business groups the chance to appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which they have vowed to do. The Wisconsin Supreme Court could prevent the release of the records if it takes up the case.

The state Department of Health Services since last summer had planned to release the names of more than 1,000 businesses with more than 25 employees where at least two workers have tested positive for COVID-19. That prompted an outcry from Wisconsin businesses, which said releasing such information to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other media outlets that requested the information, including the Wisconsin State Journal, would have severe impacts on companies already struggling through the pandemic.

Gov. Tony Evers’ administration briefly reversed course, but the governor in the fall told reporters the administration planned to release the information in the near future, prompting legal action.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business organization, along with the Muskego Area Chamber of Commerce and New Berlin Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, filed a lawsuit in Waukesha County Circuit Court against Evers, then-Health Secretary Andrea Palm and Administration Secretary Joel Brennan, seeking to block the release of business names. The business groups allege the information they want blocked is derived from diagnostic test results and the records of contact tracers, and that such information constitutes patient health care records that must be kept confidential.

CDC Announces New Travel Guidance for Fully Vaccinated Americans

On Friday, The Centers for Disease Control announced some welcome news for the travel industry.

Fully vaccinated Americans who are wanting to travel – as long as they continue to mask up and follow social distancing guidelines – can proceed with caution.

“For domestic travel, fully vaccinated people do not need to get a COVID-19 test before or after travel, and do not need to self-quarantine after travel,” said CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

“We in the travel industry are applauding the CDC for moving forward,” said Rose Gray of Fox World Travel. “Truthfully, as excited as we are about the news, we’re hoping to see more of this.”

Gray doesn’t think it’ll have too much of an impact on people who are comfortable traveling despite their vaccination status.

“The CDC never required that you do that quarantining, and truthfully, I don’t know how many people did that quarantining,” Gray said. “I would hazard to guess, and say few.”

International travel restrictions on Americans haven’t been changed. Neither have restrictions for Americans traveling to some states like Hawaii, which requires a negative COVID-19 test or a 10-day quarantine before entering.

DWD Sees Surge in UI Benefit Fraudulent Activity

The Department of Workforce Development (DWD) is warning Wisconsinites about a significant increase in fraudulent activity related to unemployment insurance benefits.

Yesterday, DWD received reports of an email phishing attack coming from a fake account called the “Wisconsin Department of Workforce.” The email requests unemployment insurance information and includes a link to a document where the recipient is asked to fill in personal information. It’s important to remember that while unemployment insurance claims specialists and adjudicators can send secure messages through the UI claims portal, they will never request information through email.

Scammers are also trying to access information through social media. This morning, the department worked with Facebook to take down a fake DWD page that popped up overnight. Scammers were using the fake account to interact with people commenting on DWD’s legitimate Facebook page. The fraudulent account was shut down quickly and it does not appear that anyone gave out personal information. DWD’s real Facebook page has a blue checkmark that indicates it is a verified account. The department has also reported several accounts to Twitter that were phishing for information from posters on that platform.

DWD has also been receiving an unusually high number calls to its IT Helpdesk for password resets or authorizations. The callers appear to be mostly impersonators attempting to gain access to unemployment insurance accounts. DWD’s UI Fraud Investigations Unit is verifying whether calls are legitimate before any action is taken to change account information.

If you receive a request for information and are unsure if it came from Wisconsin Unemployment Insurance, contact a claims specialist at (414) 435-7069, or toll free at (844) 910-3661.

For more information about how to protect yourself from unemployment fraud and scams visit: dwd.wisconsin.gov/ui/fraud/.

If you think you’ve been a victim of identity theft, contact the Consumer Protection Hotline at (800) 422-7128 or DATCPHotline@Wisconsin.gov.