News of the Day

Governor Thompson Resigning as UW System Interim President in March

Interim UW System President Tommy Thompson will resign his post in March, writing to Regents President Edmund Manydeeds on Friday that doing so will allow the university to put its full attention on his successor.

Thompson, the longest serving governor in Wisconsin history, was brought in to lead the system on an interim basis on July 1, 2020, after a failed search to find a permanent replacement for the retiring Ray Cross.

In his letter, Thompson wrote he agreed to accept knowing two things: “that I was needed, and that it would be temporary.”

The three-page letter opens with the line, “I love Wisconsin.” It then ticks off a series of accomplishments, including leading the system during the COVID-19 pandemic and working with the Legislature and guv to restore authority to the Board of Regents to set tuition after a decade-long freeze for in-state undergraduates.

“While I firmly believe that the pursuit of excellence never ends, I am satisfied that I have accomplished what has been asked of me and what the people of this state have sought,” Thompson wrote.

Thompson noted the regents will soon identify a candidate to become the full-time president, writing “the onboarding process will require the full attention of System staff, chancellors, faculty, and the many remarkable people that carry out the business of the System every day.”

The committee overseeing the search for a new president was to meet in closed session today to select finalists for the job. The finalists won’t be announced until a later date.

“Until the end, I will work to accomplish all that is needed before allowing staff the ability to prepare for the transition,” Thompson wrote.


Federal Vax Mandate on Trial Friday

The U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on the federal vaccine mandate Friday, which could affect employers nationwide as well as tens of millions of U.S. workers.

Today, the Justices will hear arguments on the constitutionality of President Biden’s emergency executive order forcing private businesses with 100 or more employees to submit to mandatory vaccinations or face weekly testing.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) first announced how it would enforce the mandate in November, which was immediately challenged in the court. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals froze the mandate. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the stay in December.

If the court finds that the mandate should be stayed, clients opposed would find protection. That decision would send the case back to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals which is overseeing all consolidated legal challenges to vaccine mandates.

If the mandate is reinstated, businesses not following the rules could face fines of more than $13,000 per violation. The ADF senior counsel said Feb. 9 will be the deadline for full compliance with testing requirements.

The high court will also weigh in on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services case, demanding roughly 17 million healthcare workers also get vaccinated or submit to testing.

Elimination of “White Bagging” to Result in Higher Health Care Costs for Employers, Employees

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) – the combined state chamber and manufacturers’ association – joined a coalition of fifty-three business groups, including WIB, and employers on Tuesday opposing AB 718/SB 753. The legislation would eliminate what is commonly known as “white-bagging,” a process that delivers clinically administered drugs directly to providers. With ever-rising health care costs, this is a necessary tool to address significant hospital mark-ups and keep medications reasonably affordable.

recent study prepared for PhRMA found that on average hospitals charge 479% of their cost for drugs nationwide. Eighty-three percent of hospitals charge patients and insurers more than double their acquisition cost for medicine, marking-up the medicines 200% or more.

“The trend of increasing hospital mark-ups on medication is unsustainable, especially when health care prices in Wisconsin are already some of the highest in the nation,” said WMC Director of Workforce, Education & Employment Policy Rachel Ver Velde. “This legislation would take away an important tool that employers use to maintain a high quality of care and reduce the costs for their employees. We urge policymakers to oppose this bill.”

In a letter to legislators, WMC and the coalition explain that employers and employees are bearing the brunt of significantly inflated prices for clinically administered drugs. “This translates into lower wages, fewer jobs and businesses looking elsewhere to grow their companies. Wisconsin businesses are committed to providing quality healthcare, but ninety percent of plan sponsors said high drug prices could jeopardize the affordability of employer-provided health care coverage for employees and their families,” the letter reads.

Read the full letter here.

Great Lakes Ports See Shipping Rebound in 2021

Great Lakes ports are reporting a rebound in cargo shipments this year after the region’s largest port witnessed historic lows during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

The Port of Duluth-Superior bounced back this year after cargo shipments dropped to their lowest level in 2020 since 1938 with a total of 25.8 million tons moving through the lakes’ largest port. As of the end of November, the port had handled around 29 million tons of cargo, marking a 30 percent increase from the same time last year.

The Port of Green Bay reported that cargo shipments were up 9 percent from the same time last year through November, handling a total of roughly 1.8 million tons. Last year, the port moved around 1.9 million tons — down more than 15 percent from 2019.

Port Milwaukee declined to comment on the 2021 shipping season as port officials await final numbers.

Other Great Lakes ports like Cleveland said overall cargo shipped was up by more than 50 percent while the Port of Toledo saw overall tonnage increase 22 percent as of the end of November, according to the Chamber of Marine Commerce.

“U.S. Great Lakes ports have roared back this year — recovering from major 2020 declines in traditional cargoes like iron ore and steel but also developing new business and seizing on opportunities for infrastructure investment,” said Bruce Burrows, president and CEO of the Chamber of Marine Commerce in a statement.

The St. Lawrence Seaway, which serves as a gateway between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast, saw iron ore shipments rise 17 percent while general cargo shipments increased 71 percent through November.

Senate Democrats Hit Pause on Biden’s Build Back Better Bill

Senate Democrats are putting President Biden’s climate and social spending plan on the back burner as they plan to debate voting rights legislation this month and hold a vote on changing the Senate’s filibuster rule.

Democratic aides say the Build Back Better bill won’t be ready for floor action any time soon and predict the wide-ranging legislation that the White House has negotiated with centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) may have to be completely overhauled.

Democratic aides warn that means Build Back Better probably won’t be ready to come to the floor until March or later. And whatever version of the bill comes up for a vote will be markedly different from the $1.75 trillion framework that Manchin resoundingly rejected during a “Fox News Sunday” interview on December 19, aides say.

European Union Drafts Plan to Label Natural Gas and Nuclear Investments as Green

The European Union has drawn up plans to label some natural gas and nuclear energy projects as “green” investments after a year-long battle between governments over which investments are truly climate-friendly.

A draft of the Commission’s proposal, seen by Reuters, would label nuclear power plant investments as green if the project has a plan, funds and a site to safely dispose of radioactive waste. To be deemed green, new nuclear plants must receive construction permits before 2045.

Investments in natural gas power plants would also be deemed green if they produce emissions below 270g of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour (kWh), replace a more polluting fossil fuel plant, receive a construction permit by December 31, 2030 and plan to switch to low-carbon gases by the end of 2035.

Gas and nuclear power generation would be labelled green on the grounds that they are “transitional” activities – defined as those that are not fully sustainable, but which have emissions below industry average and do not lock in polluting assets.

“Taking account of scientific advice and current technological progress as well as varying transition challenges across member states, the Commission considers there is a role for natural gas and nuclear as a means to facilitate the transition towards a predominantly renewable-based future,” the European Commission said in a statement.

To help states with varying energy backgrounds to transition, “under certain conditions, solutions can make sense that do not look exactly ‘green’ at first glance,” a Commission source told Reuters, adding that gas and nuclear investments would face “strict conditions”.

EU countries and a panel of experts will scrutinze the draft proposal, which could change before it is due to be published later in January. Once published, it could be vetoed by a majority of EU countries or the European Parliament.

U.S. Trade Deficit in Goods Jumps 17.5% as Imports Surge

The trade deficit in goods surged by 17.5% in November to set an all-time high, largely reflecting faster improvement in the U.S. economy compared to most other countries.

An early or advanced look at the trade gap in goods showed that it increased to $97.8 billion in November from $83.2 billion in October, the U.S. Census Bureau said. The U.S. is on track in 2021 to post its biggest annual shortfall on record.

An advanced estimate of wholesale inventories, meanwhile, revealed a 1.2% increase in November. And retail inventories jumped 2%, according to an early estimate.

U.S. imports of goods rose 4.7% to $252.4 billion in November. Imports of industrial supplies, autos, consumer goods and food all rose sharply. Americans have snapped up huge quantities of imports since the U.S. economy fully reopened earlier this year. Federal stimulus money, rising wages and a fast-recovering economy have given consumers the financial means and confidence to spend.

The trade deficit is likely to subside eventually as other economies rebound, but U.S. trade deficits have been high for years and are likely to remain that way. A higher deficit subtracts from gross domestic product, the official scorecard for the U.S. economy.

U.S. Home Prices Surged 18.4% in October

U.S. home prices surged again in October as the housing market continues to boom in the wake of last year’s coronavirus recession.

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller 20-city home price index, out Tuesday, climbed 18.4% in October from a year earlier. The gain marked a slight deceleration from a 19.1% year-over-year increase in September but was about in line with what economists had been expecting.

All 20 cities posted double-digit annual gains. The hottest markets were Phoenix (up 32.3%), Tampa (28.1%) and Miami (25.7%). Minneapolis and Chicago posted the smallest increases, 11.5% each.

Last week, mortgage rates fell — to 3.05% for the benchmark 30-year, fixed-rate and 2.66% for the 15-year fixed-rate home loan. The persistently low rates signal that credit markets appear more concerned about the omicron variant depressing economic growth than about the highest inflation rates in nearly 40 years.

The National Association of Realtors reported last week that sales of previously occupied homes rose for the third straight month in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.46 million.

CDC Cuts Recommended Isolation and Quarantine Periods for COVID-19 Infections

People who test positive for the coronavirus need to isolate themselves for only five days if they don’t show symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. This cuts in half the earlier recommendation of 10 days of isolation.

Data shows that the majority of coronavirus transmission “occurs early in the course of illness,” the CDC explained — generally in the one or two days before symptoms begin and two or three days after.

“Therefore, people who test positive should isolate for 5 days and, if asymptomatic at that time, they may leave isolation if they can continue to mask for 5 days to minimize the risk of infecting others,” the CDC said in a statement.

The CDC has also updated its recommended quarantine period for people exposed to the virus. It says unvaccinated people should quarantine for five days, followed by five days of “strict mask use.” Exposed people who are more than six months past their second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, or two months out from a Johnson & Johnson vaccine, should also quarantine for five days.

People who have gotten their booster shot don’t need to quarantine after exposure but should wear a mask for the next 10 days.

Holiday Sales Rise 8.5 Percent

Sales over this year’s holiday season grew at the fastest pace in 17 years and increased by 8.5 percent since last year. Additionally, holidays sales were up 10.7 percent from the 2019 holiday season, Mastercard Spending Pulse found.

The spending measure, which tracked consumer spending from Nov. 1 to Dec. 24, found that clothing and jewelry saw the largest increases. Clothing sales spiked 47 percent, followed by jewelry, which saw 32 percent growth from the year prior.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, online sales during the holiday season have increased 61 percent.

The record-setting sales are notable as several factors, including product shortages and the COVID-19 omicron variant, threatened retail success.