News of the Day

States Win Bid to Freeze Biden Administration’s Interim Social Cost of Carbon Regulation

A federal judge in Louisiana on Friday shot down President Biden’s interim estimates on the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions, dealing another judicial blow to the administration’s climate agenda.

A 2021 executive order directed agencies to use an interim metric that estimated costs to society that would come from burning carbon in environmental permitting and regulatory decisions. But Louisiana, Alabama, and eight other states “sufficiently identified the kinds of harms” needed to block the metric’s use, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana ruled.

“The Court agrees that the public interest and balance of equities weigh heavily in favor” of ordering the administration to disregard the calculations Judge James D. Cain Jr. wrote in the opinion.

States challenged the temporary cost, claiming Biden didn’t have the authority to issue such a significant decision without notice-and-comment rulemaking. They also claimed that its use in decisions would hamper their economies through higher costs and more stringent standards.

The Justice Department unsuccessfully tried to argue that the states’ claims were premature until the metric was actually used in a decision. The DOJ said it’s “reviewing the decision” and declined to comment further.

The court did make it clear that it was ruling on whether Biden had flown against administrative procedures with his interim metric and not on “the scientific issues regarding greenhouse gas emissions, their effects on the environment, or whether they contribute to global warming.”

IRS Suspends Mailing of Automated Collection Notices

On Wednesday, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced the suspension of more than a dozen additional letters, including the mailing of automated collection notices normally issued when a taxpayer owes additional tax, and the IRS has no record of a taxpayer filing a tax return. These mailings include balance due notices and unfiled tax return notices.

The IRS entered the 2021 tax filing season with several million original and amended returns filed by individuals and businesses that have not been processed. The IRS will continue to assess the inventory of prior year returns to determine the appropriate time to resume the notices.

Some taxpayers and tax professionals may still receive these notices during the next few weeks. Generally, there is no need to call or respond to the notice as the IRS continues to process prior year tax returns as quickly as possible.

However, if a taxpayer or tax professional believes a notice is accurate, they should act to rectify the situation for the well-being of the taxpayer. For example, the IRS cautions people with a balance due that interest and penalties can continue to accrue. In addition, IRS employees may in select circumstances issue notices to taxpayers to resolve specific compliance issues.

The IRS does not have the authority to stop all notices as many are legally required to be issued within a certain timeframe. The IRS encourages those who have a filing requirement and have yet to file a prior year tax return or to pay any tax due to promptly do so as interest and penalties will continue to accrue.


Annual Inflation in the United States Reaches 7.5%

Consumer prices rose 7.5 percent annually by the end of January, according to data released Thursday by the Labor Department, the fastest rate since February 1982. Consumer prices also rose 0.6 percent in January, the same rate as in December, after falling for three consecutive months.

Price hikes for food, electricity, and shelter contributed the most to January’s inflation jump, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Thursday. Food prices rose 0.9 percent in January, nearly twice December’s gain of 0.5 percent, and energy prices also rose 0.9 percent as higher electricity rates offset declines in gasoline and natural gas prices.

Food prices are 7 percent higher, gas prices are 40 percent higher, and energy prices in general are 27 percent higher than in January 2021, according to the Labor Department.

The Fed has also laid the groundwork to raise interest rates several times this year as inflation rises well above their annual average target of 2 percent. The bank all but formally confirmed it would raise interest rates in March from the current baseline, which was set near zero due to the ongoing pandemic.

Most Republican lawmakers and an array of economists had urged the Fed to begin hiking interest rates last year, though Fed officials resisted over concerns it would limit the return of workers to the labor force. The Fed, however, pivoted sharply in December as inflation continued to spike and pose potential threats to future job gains.

Proposed Legislation would Limit Spending by Local Governments that Enact Transportation Utility Fees

A group of Republican lawmakers is hoping to block local governments from using a relatively new approach to fund road maintenance through what are known as transportation utility fees.

On Wednesday, Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, and Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, introduced bills that would punish local governments that enact transportation user fees by forcing them to lower the amount they can collect from property taxes by however much they raise from the new transportation fees.

A statement from Stroebel’s office said lawmakers have worked to ensure a favorable tax climate and have increased local transportation aids in recent state budgets.

“A municipality must not be allowed to circumvent the popular levy limit law through the creation of a transportation utility to extract more money from taxpayers,” Stroebel said. “The option of a referendum is always available if the people actually want higher taxes.”

At the same time, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is arguing in Outagamie County Circuit Court that transportation utility fees are unlawful taxes. The firm is suing the Town of Buchanan for adopting a transportation utility district and corresponding fees in 2019.

A 2020 legal opinion written by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities states that local governments have “broad statutory and/or constitutional home rule powers to create a transportation utility and charge property owners transportation utility fees.”


State of Wisconsin Still has $1.8B in Federal Pandemic Relief Funding to Spend

Wisconsin spent or made plans for some $2.8 billion in federal pandemic aid funding through the end of 2021, and the state has more than $1.8 billion in federal funds that have yet to be spent.

Gov. Tony Evers this week issued an update on how the state has spent the COVID-19 relief funding it received as a result of federal aid bills passed in 2020 and 2021. The data show the state has spent or allocated the great majority of aid intended for businesses, schools and local governments. What remains of the $4.6 billion the state was granted include major investments in broadband expansion, health care and neighborhood infrastructure. Some of the new grants are set to be announced this month.

According to data released by the governor’s office, some of the federal funds yet to be allocated in Wisconsin include:

  • $205 million in Neighborhood Investment Fund grants, which could go to the creation of new buildings or other infrastructure aimed at “help(ing) neighborhoods recover from negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
  • $125 million in workforce innovation grants aimed at addressing worker shortages.
  • $83.9 million for broadband access expansion. The state has spent or allocated $21 million of a total $113.7 million in funds.
  • $75 million for health care infrastructure, especially in areas disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
  • $59 million in public safety grants, including grants to fund victim services and violence prevention initiatives.

The data release comes as Republicans in the Legislature are proposing a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature greater oversight on the spending of federal funds. In Wisconsin, the governor has authority to allocate federal funding. Given the large amounts of aid that have come from federal pandemic relief, this has meant an unusually large amount of spending in the last two years was overseen by Evers rather than allocated through the state’s budget process.

The constitutional amendment proposal passed the state Senate and may pass the Republican-controlled Assembly as well. But in order to change the state constitution, it would have to pass two consecutive sessions of the Legislature and win a statewide popular vote. That process would necessarily take years.

Short of amending the constitution, some lawmakers are calling for more information about how funds have been spent. On Tuesday, a legislative committee considered a proposal to have the state’s Legislative Audit Bureau review the state’s use of COVID-19 funding. That audit proposal, which appeared to have bipartisan support, would be aimed at assessing whether funds were used appropriately.

DHS Launches Cyber Safety Review Board

Last Thursday, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the establishment of the Cyber Safety Review Board (CSRB), as directed in President Biden’s Executive Order 14028 on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity.

The CSRB will review and assess significant cybersecurity events so that government, industry, and the broader security community can better protect our nation’s networks and infrastructure. The CSRB’s first review will focus on the vulnerabilities discovered in late 2021 in the widely used log4j software library.

The CSRB’s first report, which will be delivered this summer, will include the following:

  • a review and assessment of vulnerabilities associated with the Log4j software library, to include associated threat activity and known impacts, as well as actions taken by both the government and the private sector to mitigate the impact of such vulnerabilities;
  • recommendations for addressing any ongoing vulnerabilities and threat activity; and,
  • recommendations for improving cybersecurity and incident response practices and policy based on lessons learned from the Log4j vulnerability.

To the greatest extent possible, the CSRB will share a public version of the report with appropriate redactions for privacy and to preserve confidential information.

The CSRB is committed to transparency and will conduct its review in the public interest. Board meetings are limited to members, staff, and invited subject matter experts. Whenever possible, the CSRB’s advice, information, or recommendations will be made publicly available, with any appropriate redactions, consistent with applicable law and the need to protect sensitive information from disclosure. The CSRB does not have regulatory powers and is not an enforcement authority. Instead, its purpose is to identify and share lessons learned to enable advances in national cybersecurity.

Line 5 Pipeline Supporters Submit Thousands of Comments to Wisconsin DNR

A diverse coalition consisting of union workers, farmers, small business owners and forest products companies is showing strong support for a pipeline project in northern Wisconsin that was the subject of a public hearing being held by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on February 2.

The coalition, known as the Wisconsin Jobs and Energy Coalition, announced that supporters of the Enbridge Line 5 relocation project have already submitted over 3,800 comments to the Wisconsin DNR in favor of approving the necessary permits to move the project forward.

The Wisconsin DNR released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Enbridge’s proposed Line 5 relocation on December 16th, beginning the public comment period. Initiated at the request of a Wisconsin tribe, the $450 million, 41-mile long pipeline project seeks to continue the operation of this vital energy corridor. Moving about 540,000 barrels of crude oil and natural gas liquids a day, Line 5 is a critical part of the Upper Midwest’s gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and propane infrastructure.

In addition to being part of the state’s critical energy infrastructure, an independent economic impact study estimated the Line 5 relocation project would add $135 million to Wisconsin’s economic output, increase state tax revenues by millions and support more than 1,000 jobs in the State of Wisconsin. Enbridge has signed a letter of intent with Wisconsin-based Michels Pipeline, Inc. as the mainline contractor for the project.

Organizations planning to participate in the public hearing to support the project include: Wisconsin Propane Gas Association, APEX, Futurewood, Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association, Johnson Timber, North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, UA Local 11, Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Independent Businesses, Wisconsin Paper Council, Hawk Industries, Wisconsin Building Trades Council, Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council, Michels, Wisconsin Pipe Trades, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Operating Engineers Local 139, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Midwest Food Processors Association and Construction Business Group.

Department of Labor Announces Plan to Hire 100 Investigators to Support Wage and Hour Compliance Efforts

On Tuesday, the United States Department of Labor announced that its Wage and Hour Division is seeking to add 100 investigators to its team to support its enforcement efforts including the protection of workers’ wages, migrant and seasonal workers, rights to family and medical leave and prevailing wage requirements for workers on federal contracts.

Investigator responsibilities include the following:

  • Conducting investigations to determine if employers are paying workers and affording them their rights as the law requires.
  • Helping ensure that law-abiding employers are not undercut by employers who violate the law.
  • Promoting compliance through outreach and public education initiatives.
  • Supporting efforts to combat worker retaliation and worker misclassification as independent contractors.

In fiscal year 2021, the Wage and Hour Division collected $230 million in wages owed to 190,000 workers. Division representatives also conducted 4,700 outreach events to educate employers and workers alike about their workplace rights and responsibilities.

DHS Urges Vaccination as the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine Gains Full FDA Approval

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted its full approval of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine will now be marketed under the name Spikevax for the prevention of COVID-19 in people 18 years of age and older.

“The FDA fully approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine last August for those 16 and older and now has done the same with the Moderna vaccine for those 18 and older. These approvals are further confirmation that these vaccines are effective and safe,” said DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake. “We urge those folks that have waited to get vaccinated to do so now and join their nearly 3.7 million fellow Wisconsinites who have received their COVID-19 vaccine.”

This is the same vaccine people have been getting for months. In order to grant full approval, the FDA required extensive data on safety and effectiveness, inspection of manufacturing facilities, and a comprehensive review of all clinical and real-world use. The full approval means that even more data were gathered and analyzed following the grant of emergency use authorization in December 2020 to further confirm that this vaccine works and is safe. All of the COVID-19 vaccines are extremely effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death – including from the Delta and Omicron variants.

The Moderna vaccine was the second COVID-19 vaccine to receive emergency use authorization (EUA) in the U.S. This authorization came after the Moderna product underwent rigorous clinical trials and an expedited review process to ensure the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. FDA granted the application for full approval through a priority review designation, and reviewed updated data from the clinical trial which supported the EUA and included a longer duration of follow-up in a larger clinical trial population.


Gas Prices Climb for Fifth Straight Week

The average price for a gallon of gasoline in the United States rose slightly for the fifth week in a row, climbing 2.9 cents from a week ago, according to an industry expert.

Currently, the national average is sitting at $3.34 per gallon, according to GasBuddy, which compiled price reports covering over 150,000 gas stations across the country. The current figure reflects a nearly 76-cent increase per gallon compared to a month ago and a nearly 93-cent increase per gallon compared to a year ago.

Patrick De Haan, the head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy, said in a blog post Monday that the continued uptick at the pump is because oil prices are being “pushed into territory unseen in over seven years.”

By June, GasBuddy estimated that the national average price for a gallon of gasoline could climb to a high of $4.13.