News of the Day

Port of Milwaukee Getting $31.3M Agriculture-Export Operation

Port Milwaukee and the agricultural company DeLong plan to build a $31.3 million export center on Jones Island using a federal grant to cover half of the project’s cost.

The so-called Agricultural Maritime Export Facility would be the first and only “bulk agricultural transload” center on the Great Lakes to supply soybeans and dry distillers grain, an animal feed supplement derived from ethanol production. Supplies would be sent primarily by truck and rail to ships at port.

The project calls for demolishing abandoned structures that now sit at the site and building an operation to store products for shipping. Clinton-based DeLong, a food and grain supplier, would pay for part of the development and lease space there.

“To the best of my knowledge, today’s $31 million project announcement is the largest single investment in the history of the port, especially since it opened to international shipping in 1959,” said Adam Schlicht, port director.

It could still take about two years before construction on the project gets underway, Schlicht said. Port officials plan to begin negotiating a lease agreement with DeLong, and it could take a year or so before the federal government signs off on the release of grant money for the project.

Once operational, the project could initially deal with $40 million in shipments of dry distillers grain. It could also eventually be used for shipments of other goods, such as corn and wheat. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said increased commerce will bring more revenue to the Port.

“The more economic activity we have here, the more money is generated by the port and ultimately by the city,” Barrett said.

Under the deal, Port Milwaukee will pay $4.3 million for rail work and the demolition of existing properties, including a former boiler plant that has been vacant for more than a decade, Schlicht said. DeLong will pay $6.2 million in development costs. And the Wisconsin Department of Transportation will provide a $4.9 million Harbor Assistance Grant.

Port Milwaukee’s money for the project is coming from a $15.9 million Port Infrastructure Development Program grant from the U.S. Maritime Administration. That grant program also awarded a $10.5 million grant this week to the Duluth Seaway Port Authority to pay for half the cost of a $20.3 million project for a rail-connected warehouse.

 

U.S. Deficit Surges 25% in Fiscal 2020

The sea of red ink is getting deeper and deeper in Washington, with the federal government already racking up a budget deficit that is averaging close to $100 billion a month.

Treasury Department data released Wednesday show the shortfall at $389.2 billion in the first four months of fiscal 2020. That’s a 25% gain over the same period last year and already about 40% of the total deficit for fiscal 2019.

Over the past 12 months, the government has spent $1.06 trillion more than it has taken in. All the red ink has bought the total national debt to $23.3 trillion.

Receipts actually are on the rise comparatively, coming in at $1.18 trillion through January compared with $1.1 trillion a year earlier.

However, the rate of spending is adding to the shortfall, with outlays coming in at $1.57 trillion vs. $1.42 trillion for the first four months in fiscal 2019. That’s a 9.6% spending increase.

State Assembly Passes Bipartisan Bill to Protect Consumers from Caller ID Scammers

State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, State Rep. Jason Fields, D-Milwaukee, and State Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, authored legislation that would give consumers additional recourse when receiving unwanted telemarketing calls.

Assembly Bill 147 incorporates federal law into state statute by prohibiting the intentional falsification of information that is transmitted to a caller ID display if it is done with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value. This portion of the legislation will help to address scam phone calls that use spoofing to disguise their numbers to look like they are coming from a local number.

“Most people have received unwanted phone calls from numbers that they think may be a friend or family member. As a matter of fact, the Wisconsin Department of Consumer Protection indicated that the number one consumer complaint is from people receiving unwanted telemarketing calls. Our bill will help ensure the Department of Consumer Protection has the ability to investigate and take action against criminals trying to scam  citizens throughout Wisconsin,” Sanfelippo said.

The bill also states a telecommunications provider may block calls so that they do not reach the called party if the origination number is not valid, is not allocated to a provider, or is confirmed by the provider to unused; or if the person who owns the phone number has asked that outgoing calls claiming to be from that number be blocked. Assembly Bill 147 includes a provision that prohibits telephone solicitors from spoofing for any purpose.

GOP Lawmakers Release Details of Plan to Support Wisconsin Farmers

Assembly Republicans have released a plan focused on helping Wisconsin farmers that they say will take a “bigger and bolder” approach than the governor’s special session on agriculture.

The package includes amendments to two bills brought forward by Evers for the special session.

One would create a new initiative to increase Wisconsin dairy exports to 20 percent of the nation’s milk supply by 2024. While Evers proposed creating the program under the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Assembly Republicans want DATCP to create a partnership with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and change the focus to include exports of meat products and crop products. The lawmakers also proposed increasing the program’s funding to $5 million instead of the $1 million proposed by Evers.

Assembly Republicans also introduced four new bills, including one that would create a tax credit to offset property taxes on farm buildings and improvements.

Kurtz said the measure would be an immediate benefit to farmers struggling after five years of low commodity prices.  “If they’ve got a milk parlor or, like I have grain bins on my farm, you know, those are taxed at a certain rate. And so we can get that reduced to like an ag-based or an ag value tax and get that money right back into the farmer’s hands,” Kurtz said.

Another proposed bill would let self-employed individuals deduct the cost of health insurance from their income tax.

The package also includes two bills aimed at the University of Wisconsin System. One would require the UW System to study the current problems facing farmers and evaluate how the university is helping support farmers through curriculum and staffing of agricultural programs. The other bill would require the UW System to develop an agricultural science and technology program.

 

Wisconsin Wage Growth had a Strong Finish to 2019

A slow start to the year held down Wisconsin’s average wage growth in 2019, but the state finished the year by averaging more than 3% growth during the fourth quarter in most industries.

Wisconsin averaged year-over-year wage growth of 1.9% for all of 2019, a figure that ranks 43rd in the country. In the fourth quarter, however, Wisconsin averaged 3.6% wage growth, good enough to rank 14th in the country.

The wage gains come amidst sluggish job growth for the state. Private sector employment increased just 0.33% from December 2018 to December 2019, according to BLS data. The state also had a strong year of wage growth in 2018, averaging 4.9% growth for the year.

 

Governor Feuds with Republican Lawmakers over State Surplus

Wisconsin looks to be headed for a showdown over how to spend some of the state’s expected $620 million budget surplus.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday proposed spending $252 million of that surplus on public schools in the state.

The governor wants to earmark nearly $80 million for special education reimbursement, then promise to cover 100 percent of special ed costs beyond that. He’s also proposing $130 million equalization aid. 

The governor also wants to spend more on school mental health and wellness programs as well as hire more school counselors, psychologists and nurses. 

Top Republican lawmakers in Madison aren’t so sure bipartisan support exists for the governor’s proposal. 

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, took to Twitter after the governor’s announcement to say it looks like Gov. Evers is interested in adding more people to school payrolls as much as anything. 

“Senate Republicans have been focused since late last year on using our surplus for a tax cut for hard-working families, and the governor knows that. I don’t see us budging off that position,” Fitzgerald tweeted. “It appears that the teachers’ unions are the ones calling all the shots in the East Wing.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester echoed the same thought. 

Both Vos and Fitzgerald say they would rather return any extra money to taxpayers. 

Wisconsin Exports End 2019 Down More Than $1 Billion

A 10% decline in December left Wisconsin’s exports down by more than $1 billion last year compared to 2018 totals as companies dealt with global trade uncertainty and economic slowdowns in Europe and China, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

For the year, Wisconsin ranked 33rd in the country in terms of export growth and the state dropped from 19th to 22nd in terms of total exports. Across the Midwest, Wisconsin had the fifth best year for exports.

Wisconsin’s imports of goods also declined in 2019, dropping 8% or $2.48 billion for the year. The majority of the decrease came in imports from China, which decreased $1.77 billion or 34.4%. European imports were also down 14.4% or $318.8 million, Canadian imports dropped 9% or $467.1 million and Mexican imports dropped $46.8 million or 1.6%.

Some of the biggest declines in Wisconsin exports, in dollar terms, for December included a $70.2 million drop in civilian aircraft parts, a $15.4 million drop in battery waste and machine parts, a $15.1 million drop in wheat and meslin, a $13.8 million decline in self-propelled bulldozers, graders and scrapers and an $11.3 million drop in automatic data processing machines and magnetic readers.

 

Republicans Promise ‘Bigger and Bolder’ Rural Wisconsin Plan

Republican lawmakers are considering proposals to cut property taxes and insurance costs for farmers as part of a package to help rural Wisconsin that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on Tuesday promised would be “bigger and bolder” than what Democratic Gov. Tony Evers put forward.

Evers called a special session of the Legislature to take up his $8.5 million package, which included a $1 million effort to increase dairy exports and the hiring of more people at the state agriculture department and University of Wisconsin-Madison extension division to work with farmers.

One proposal Assembly Republicans are working on would allow farmers and other sole proprietors to deduct the cost of health insurance from their income taxes. That would be around $9 million, but it’s not known how much of that would directly benefit farmers, Vos said. Another bill would extend a tax credit to farmers for some portion of their property taxes. But how much the credit would be, in total and for the average farmer, remained in flux, Vos said.

Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Republicans who control the Legislature will consider the governor’s ideas while also looking at others.

 

WisDOT Announces 2019 Excellence in Construction Awards

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) announced seven Excellence in Construction Awards for 2019 during the annual Contractor-Engineer Conference held recently in Madison.

  • Excellence in Airport Construction – Honors went to Vinton Construction Co. of Manitowoc for work on the Sheboygan County Memorial Airport. The project upgraded the southeast portion of the aircraft parking ramp allowing it to serve a higher number of businesses using the airport. The project also reconstructed two taxiways and improved drainage in the hangar area.
  • Excellence in Grading – Honors went to Mashuda Contractors Inc. of Princeton for work on the US 151/County ID interchange in Iowa County, a safety enhancement that included a new overpass and realigned roads. The contractor crushed rock on site and used multiple traffic stages to help reduce costs and minimize user delay.
  • Excellence in Asphalt Paving – Honors went to Pitlik & Wick, Inc. of Eagle River for resurfacing a portion of US 45 (Pine Street) nine days ahead of schedule to minimize travel impacts for the annual Cranberry Fest. The contractor worked with subcontractors and traffic staging to expedite scheduling and reduce cost while delivering a quality improvement focused on safety.
  • Excellence in Concrete Paving – Honors went to Chippewa Concrete Services Inc. of Chippewa Falls for reconstruction of US 2 (Belknap Street) in Superior. The contractor modified traffic staging to help maximize construction operation while delivering a quality project on time.
  • Excellence in Small Structures – Honors went Kraemer North America of Plain for construction of the US 10 bridge over Plum Creek in Pierce County. The project involved a sixty-foot temporary bridge to avoid detours for the traveling public. The contractor delivered on time and under budget amid a tight timeline and working restrictions near the stream.
  • Excellence in Large Structures – Honors went to Lunda Construction Company of Black River Falls for construction of the WIS 116 (Main Street) bridge over the Wolf River, in Winneconne. The contractor completed a complex project early and on budget. The new structure replaces a bridge dating back to 1934 while adding additional amenities such as fishing piers and a wider sidewalk to accommodate snowmobiles. Construction was staged adjacent to the old bridge to avoid a 25-mile detour.
  • Large Contract – Honors went to Michels Corporation for work on the south and central segments of the I-94 North/South project in Racine and Kenosha counties. The project reconstructed and expanded 11 miles of roadway to provide eight lanes with full concrete shoulders. The project involved many different components including four new interchanges and 18 new bridges. The contractor worked closely with WisDOT and surrounding communities to construct the project in a condensed 17-month time window while still maintaining traffic volumes of 98,000 vehicles per day.

Wisconsin Supreme Court to Hear Challenges to Partial Budget Vetoes

With one challenge pending to some of Gov. Tony Evers’ partial vetoes in the most recent budget, the state Supreme Court has agreed to hear a separate suit seeking to overturn two vetoes issued by former Gov. Scott Walker.

Those partial vetoes Walker issued in the 2017-19 budget include one that’s been dubbed the “thousand-year veto.” That’s because Walker used his partial veto authority to turn a legislative deadline of Dec. 31, 2018, into December 3018.

The lawsuit, filed by Wisconsin Small Businesses United Inc. and five citizens, asked the state Supreme Court to directly take its suit and weigh in on the constitutionality of Walker’s moves. The court agreed earlier this month to hear the case and announced its decision yesterday afternoon.

The plaintiffs argue the Supreme Court has found that governors can strike individual digits in monetary figures included in appropriation bills. But it hasn’t said they may strike digits in dates, creating new ones beyond what the Legislature had intended, the suit argues.

One of the vetoes deals with an exemption to school district levy limits for energy efficiency projects. The Legislature intended a one-year moratorium on the exemption that would’ve made it unavailable for 2018. Instead, Walker pushed it back to 3018.

The second dealt with a 2013 law to allow retailers to claim a deduction or earn a refund of sales taxes on some bad debts. It was originally to take effect in 2015, but was pushed back in the 2015-17 budget. The 2017-19 budget then included another delay, this time until July 1, 2018. Walker’s veto pushed it back an additional 60 years.

In October, the court agreed to take original jurisdiction in a challenge the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed over four of Evers’ budget vetoes. That includes one that changed registration fees for heavy trucks and eliminated a grant program for school buses, instead directing the money to electric vehicle charging stations.