News of the Day

IRS Increases Optional Standard Mileage Rate Effective July 1, 2022

Last Thursday, the Internal Revenue Service announced an increase in the optional standard mileage rate for the final 6 months of 2022. Taxpayers may use the optional standard mileage rates to calculate the deductible costs of operating an automobile for business and certain other purposes.

For the final 6 months of 2022, the standard mileage rate for business travel will be 62.5 cents per mile, up 4 cents from the rate effective at the start of the year. The new rate for deductible medical or moving expenses (available for active-duty members of the military) will be 22 cents for the remainder of 2022, up 4 cents from the rate effective at the start of 2022. These new rates become effective July 1, 2022.

The optional business standard mileage rate is used to compute the deductible costs of operating an automobile for business use in lieu of tracking actual costs. This rate is also used as a benchmark by the federal government and many businesses to reimburse their employees for mileage.

Taxpayers always have the option of calculating the actual costs of using their vehicle rather than using the standard mileage rates.

Midyear increases in the optional mileage rates are rare, the last time the IRS made such an increase was in 2011.

Wisconsin GOP Lawmakers ask EPA to Lift Fuel Blending Requirement to Save Drivers Money

Dozens of GOP lawmakers are asking federal environmental regulators to lift a requirement for Wisconsin drivers to use reformulated gasoline to save people money. The request comes as gas prices have surged to record highs.

A letter sent Tuesday and spearheaded by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to consider waiving the federal regulation for reformulated gasoline. Reformulated gasoline is gas that’s blended to burn cleaner to reduce vehicle emissions that can form smog or ozone pollution. The requirement is part of changes that Congress made to the Clean Air Act in 1990.

In Wisconsin, reformulated gas is required in areas of southeastern Wisconsin that aren’t meeting federal smog regulations. They include the cities of Milwaukee and Racine in addition to Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Waukesha, Racine, Sheboygan and Kenosha counties.

“The thing that’s most immediate to an awful lot of folks that I talk to is the price of gas,” Vos told Wisconsin Public Radio on Thursday. “If there’s something that, by the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, could reduce the price of gasoline by up to 40 cents a gallon, I don’t know why that wouldn’t be the first thing that we do, to try to help give some real relief to Wisconsin consumers.”

The American Automobile Association said the average price for a gallon of gas in Wisconsin was $4.91 on Thursday — up 30 cents from last week and 80 cents from one month ago.

The EPA can waive the fuel blending regulation if the agency’s administrator finds extreme and unusual fuel supply constraints exist, according to the letter. The agency can also issue a waiver if those constraints were the result of a natural disaster or a similar unforeseen event, and it is in the public interest.

“With the pandemic, swelling prices due to inflation, the war in Ukraine, and President Biden’s Executive Orders impacting the oil and gas industries, we feel all three exceptions have been met, giving the EPA the ability to authorize a waiver of the (reformulated gasoline) requirements,” wrote lawmakers in the letter.

The EPA said in a statement that it’s reviewing the letter from lawmakers.

GAO Designates Unemployment Insurance System as “High Risk”

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has added the Unemployment Insurance (UI) system to its list of federal areas at “High Risk” for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement, or in need of broad-based transformation. GAO is adding the system to the list now, in advance of a regular update scheduled for next year, to bring greater attention to the challenges facing UI and to help spur needed changes. GAO’s concerns are outlined in a new report being issued today, which describes critical weaknesses in how UI carries out its mission and also includes options panelists suggested for transforming the system.

The UI system’s persistent difficulties in balancing effective service delivery and mitigating financial loss made it more difficult to successfully launch temporary programs to help unemployed workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented demand for assistance and the need to get the programs up and running quickly resulted in serious challenges for states and a greater risk of improper payments, including those due to fraud.

GAO and others have cited weaknesses in UI administration that have undermined states’ ability to effectively meet the needs of unemployed workers, including during economic downturns such as the one associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Current program design and variation in how states run UI have contributed to a shrinking portion of unemployed workers receiving benefits and disparities in benefit distribution. During the pandemic, problems with customer service, timely claims processing, and the implementation of new programs became evident. GAO and the Department of Labor (DOL) Office of Inspector General have also noted the need to modernize state IT systems.

Over the years, DOL regularly reported billions of dollars in annual UI improper payments. The problem intensified during the pandemic, with estimated improper payments rising from approximately $8.0 billion in fiscal year 2020 (a 9.2 percent rate) to about $78.1 billion in fiscal year 2021 (an 18.9 percent rate). The total amount of UI improper payments is unknown due to incomplete reporting by DOL and the states, but fraud is a growing problem. The main cause for the increase in fraud during the pandemic was identity theft, according to DOL. From March 2020 through January 2022, hundreds of individuals either pled guilty to defrauding UI programs or had federal charges pending against them.

Workplace COVID-19 Data Can Be Released After Wisconsin Supreme Court Ruling

State health officials are free to release data that would identify which employers have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

In an opinion issued Tuesday morning, the state’s highest court stated that three business lobbying groups had no basis to block release of the data, which was prompted by a news media open records request.

The justices, in a 4-3 opinion written by Justice Rebecca Dallet, concluded that a 2003 revision to the state open records law “makes clear that no one has a right to block the release of a public record unless otherwise specified” under very narrow circumstances. Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Brian Hagedorn and Jill Karofsky joined in the majority.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel filed an open records request asking DHS for the names of all Wisconsin businesses with more than 25 employees and where at least two people had tested positive for COVID-19 or were identified through contact tracing as “close case contacts” of COVID-19 patients.

The request was made at a time when workplace outbreaks of COVID-19, particularly in industries such as meatpacking where large numbers of people work in close quarters, had raised concerns about worker safety in the pandemic.

The newspaper’s request did not seek information identifying individual patients. At the rest of DHS, the request excluded employers with 25 or fewer employees, because in smaller work groups it would be easy to narrow down the data to individuals.

Elizabeth Goodsitt, a communications specialist for DHS, said Tuesday that the department must await further action by the circuit court before releasing any records.

“DHS remains temporarily enjoined from releasing any information relating to businesses whose employees have tested positive for COVID-19 or who contract tracing has shown close connections,” Goodsitt told the Wisconsin Examiner. “The Supreme Court did not order the release of records and instead remanded the case to circuit court. Procedurally, the case is not concluded until the circuit court so orders. DHS welcomes today’s decision, and it will continue its work to provide the public with timely, accurate information about COVID-19.”

Franchise Group Enters Exclusive Talks over Kohl’s Sale

Kohl’s Corporation has entered exclusive negotiations with retail store operator Franchise Group, Inc. over a potential sale of the department store chain, valuing it at nearly $8 billion, the companies said late on Monday. The bid of $60 per share constitutes a premium to Kohl’s closing price of $42.12 on Monday, giving it a market value of about $5.4 billion.

Franchise Group, owner and operator of retail stores such as The Vitamin Shoppe and Buddy’s Home Furnishings, said the companies have entered into a three-week-long exclusive discussion.

“The purpose of the exclusive period is to allow FRG and its financing partners to finalize due diligence and financing arrangements and for the parties to complete the negotiation of binding documentation,” Kohl’s said.

Kohl’s said the deal is subject to board approval and provided no assurance that an agreement would be finalized.

The Wisconsin-based department store chain was under pressure after activist investors Macellum Advisors GP LLC and Engine Capital LP called on Kohl’s earlier this year to sell itself.

Record U.S. Natural Gas Demand this Winter Led to Largest Storage Withdrawal in Four Years

Net withdrawals of natural gas from U.S. storage totaled 2,264 billion cubic feet (Bcf) this winter (November through March). This amount is the most natural gas withdrawn from storage since the winter of 2017–18 and 10% more than the previous five-year (2016–17 to 2021–22) average. Typically more natural gas is withdrawn from storage in the United States than is injected during the winter heating season as demand (including consumption and exports) exceeds supply (including production and imports). During the heating season, natural gas must be drawn from storage to meet this excess of demand over supply.

On average, demand for natural gas in the United States exceeded supply by 14.9 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) this past winter. Average U.S. supply and demand of natural gas both set record highs this past winter with supply at 104.3 Bcf/d and demand at 119.2 Bcf/d. U.S. natural gas supply and demand had been further out of balance during the winter of 2017–18, resulting in more natural gas withdrawn from storage that winter.

Production of dry natural gas increased in the United States last winter compared with the one before, averaging 95.6 Bcf/d, or close to the 2019–20 winter record of 96.0 Bcf/d. U.S. production has been generally increasing since 2020, after declining because of lower prices and reduced natural gas demand, but natural gas production during the winter did not reach its pre-COVID-19 pandemic level. Imports of natural gas also increased last winter compared with the one before, averaging 8.7 Bcf/d.

 

Go-Broke Dates Pushed Back for Social Security, Medicare

The time frame for Social Security and Medicare to go-broke has been pushed back, helped by a stronger-than-expected economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

The annual Social Security and Medicare trustees report says the Social Security trust fund will be unable to pay full benefits beginning in 2035, instead of last year’s estimate of 2034. The projected depletion date for Medicare’s trust fund for inpatient hospital care moved back two years to 2028 from last year’s forecast of 2026.

According to the report, “Economic recovery from the 2020 recession has been stronger and faster than assumed in last year’s reports, with positive effects on the projected actuarial status of the trust funds in these reports.”

Social Security pays benefits to more than 65 million Americans, mainly retirees as well as disabled people and survivors of deceased workers. Medicare covers roughly 64 million older and disabled people.

A main source of financing for the programs is payroll taxes on earnings paid by employees and employers. About 183 million people paid those taxes in 2021.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Rejects Business Insurance Coverage for COVID Losses

Wisconsin’s highest court on Wednesday became the third state top court in a row to rule that businesses are not entitled to insurance coverage for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and government-imposed restrictions on gatherings.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that neither indoor dining restrictions nor the presence of the virus within restaurants like Colectivo Coffee Roasters triggered coverage under property insurance policies issued by Society Insurance.

The unanimous decision reversed a February 2021 ruling by a Milwaukee judge who allowed Colectivo to proceed with a proposed class action on behalf of businesses insured by Society seeking coverage for financial losses under several clauses of the policies, including for business-income interruption.

But Justice Rebecca Frank Dallet, writing for the 7-0 court, said Milwaukee-based Colectivo, which operates a chain of cafes, had failed to allege that the presence of COVID-19 particles or the loss of the use of its properties created a “tangible harm” necessary to trigger coverage.

Citing the “overwhelming majority” of courts that have ruled in similar cases, Dallet said the presence of COVID-19 cannot constitute a physical loss of property or damage to it because the virus does not alter a property’s appearance or structure.

She said emergency orders the Wisconsin Department of Health Services issued starting in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic that prohibited in-person dining to slow the spread of the coronavirus likewise did not qualify under Society’s policy as a physical loss of property.

The ruling followed a string of similar decisions by courts nationwide rejecting efforts by businesses to force insurers to cover the billions of dollars in losses they suffered following lockdowns and other restrictions prompted by the pandemic.

Most rulings came from federal courts interpreting state insurance laws, and lawyers for businesses have urged state supreme courts to turn the tide and rule for them.

But in April, the top courts of Massachusetts and Iowa reached the same conclusion as the Wisconsin Supreme Court in interpreting property insurance policies by other insurers.

Op-Ed: Next-Gen Nuclear Power can Augment Renewable Energy Sources

Brent Ridge worked for years just a few hundred yards from a nuclear waste storage site at the Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Wash. Because he was vice-chairman of the Nuclear Safety Review Board for Columbia, Ridge was confident he wasn’t putting his health in danger by working that close to radioactive material.

Today, as the chairman and chief executive officer for Wisconsin’s Dairyland Power Cooperative, Ridge is convinced the far bigger health danger facing him, his utility customers and the world is climate change – and he thinks more nuclear generation of electricity can help avoid irreversible damage.

“The bottom line is: If we are for a less-carbon future, if you are against carbon, you need to be for nuclear. I don’t know a simpler way to put it,” Ridge said during a May 24 Wisconsin Technology Council luncheon in Madison. “If you want there to be less carbon, and you want a reliable, safe, economic grid that will keep together our economic 24/7 engine, nuclear is part of that future.”

The type of reactor envisioned by Dairyland isn’t your grandfather’s nuclear power plant – or Homer Simpson’s, for that matter. It would have independently operating modules that provide emissions-free energy as demand rises and falls, helping to smooth out the peaks and valleys of solar and wind power.

Rather than a replacement for solar, wind and other renewables, next-generation nuclear is being touted as a reliable supplement that can help meet peak demands in a transmission grid that must stop burning coal, sooner than later.

Will others Wisconsin utilities follow Dairyland’s lead? Jeff Keebler, the president and CEO of Madison Gas & Electric, told the May 24 group the utility will continue to track a mix of low-carbon sources. In a regional grid that covers much of the Midwest and part of Canada, he noted, electrons can and will come from various generation sources.

Nuclear energy need not compete with renewables, but it can augment them in a world that needs both climate remedies and reliable power.

President Biden lays out Plan to Fight Inflation

President Biden laid out a three-part plan on Tuesday for combating high inflation.

The first part of his plan was an acknowledgment that the Federal Reserve “has a primary responsibility to control inflation.”

The second part involved making goods more affordable for families with a focus on high gas prices. His administration has blamed Russia’s invasion into Ukraine for the high price of gas and Biden touted the release from global oil reserves and called on Congress to pass clean energy tax credits. Biden’s plan to make goods more affordable also includes fixing supply chains, improving infrastructure, “and cracking down on the exorbitant fees that foreign ocean freight companies charge to move products.”

The third part of the president’s plan involved reducing the federal deficit through “common-sense reforms to the tax code.” “We should level the international taxation playing field so companies no longer have an incentive to shift jobs and profits overseas. And we should end the outrageous unfairness in the tax code that allows a billionaire to pay lower rates than a teacher or firefighter,” he said.