News of the Day

Fed Extends Main Street Lending Program

The Federal Reserve announced on Tuesday that it has extended the termination date of Main Street Lending Program facilities to January 8, 2021.

The extension will allow the Fed more time to review fund loans that were submitted to the Main Street lender portal by December 14, the Fed said in a press release.

The lending program first announced in April is meant to help facilitate lending to small- and medium-sized U.S. businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic.

DWD Seeks Public Input on Initial and Weekly UI Applications

The Department of Workforce Development (DWD) today announced plans to make it easier for Wisconsinites to file for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits by updating the language for both its initial and weekly UI claim applications.

DWD is currently seeking public input on the updated draft application questions online at https://dwd.wisconsin.gov/uiapplicationsfeedback/.

To improve the UI application process, DWD has updated the questions to feature “plain language” as much as possible. “Plain language” is meant to be understandable to all individuals who are likely to use the UI application process, regardless of educational background or regional/cultural language differences. Further, it is to ensure all those who are filling out either an initial or weekly UI claim can understand the questions as quickly and easily as possible.

The deadline to submit public comment on the draft questions is January 8, 2021. DWD job centers will also host virtual focus groups with selected volunteers from around the state to collect additional feedback on the application process. The Department will review and incorporate all feedback before it begins the necessary IT programming in February and plans to post the updated web applications in March.

President Trump Signs Coronavirus Relief Bill

With the clock ticking toward a potential U.S. government shutdown, President Donald Trump Sunday signed a $2.3 trillion funding measure that includes $900 billion for coronavirus relief and $1.4 trillion for government funding  through next September.

President Trump said in announcing his signature that he was also insisting on changes to the funding legislation to remove what he called “wasteful items.”  Those demands amount to suggestions to Congress and will not necessarily result in any changes to the bill.

His main objections to the funding package were what he said were insufficient $600 per person coronavirus relief payments, as well as funding for multiple government programs such as foreign aid and scientific research.

“As President, I have told Congress that I want far less wasteful spending and more money going to the American people in the form of $2,000 checks per adult and $600 per child,” Trump said in a statement.

“I am signing this bill to restore unemployment benefits, stop evictions, provide rental assistance, add money for PPP, return our airline workers back to work, add substantially more money for vaccine distribution, and much more,” Trump added.

State to Provide At-Home COVID Tests

Gov. Tony Evers announced Tuesday that his administration has partnered with a medical testing company to provide at-home COVID-19 tests.

The governor said his administration has struck a deal with Vault Medical Services to provide free at-home COVID-19 saliva tests. Anyone can order a test through the state Department of Health Services website starting immediately.

After a testing kit arrives, users must collect a sample as a Vault testing supervisor looks on via a Zoom connection. Users will then mail the sample back to a Vault lab using a prepaid label that comes with the kit. Results will take between two and three days.

Evers’ administration did not include the cost of the program in the announcement. Vault’s website indicates people can order a test for themselves for $119 per kit. DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said during a teleconference with reporters that a requester’s health insurance provider will be billed. If the provider won’t cover the test or a requester lacks health insurance the state will pay for it, she said.

Minnesota officials have reached a similar deal with Vault on at-home tests.

 

Shrinking Labor Force Helps cut Wisconsin Unemployment Rate to 5%

There is good news in the latest monthly jobs report for Wisconsin. The unemployment rate dropped from 6% in October to 5% in November.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the numbers are not quite as encouraging.

The state’s labor force lost 23,100 people over the month and the labor force participation rate dropped by a half-point to 66.9%. Unemployment was down by 33,000, but employment was up just 9,900, according to place of residence data released by the Department of Workforce Development.

Private sector employment was also down by 1,000, according to a separate survey of businesses used to track job growth.

Wisconsin’s participation rate had dropped from 66.9% at the start of 2020 to a low of 65% in July. It had rebounded since then before dropping in November.

Longer-term, the state’s labor force has been trending down since the mid-1990s. The rate averaged 74.5% in 1997. The average has increased year-over-year only three times since then.

Congress Reaches Deal on $900 Billion Covid-19 Relief Package

After months of stalemate, Congress struck a deal on nearly $900 billion in Covid-19 relief, including a new round of direct payments and help for jobless Americans, families and businesses struggling in the pandemic.

The agreement includes stimulus checks of up to $600 per person for individuals earning $75,000 per year and $600 for their children – the same requirements as the first round of stimulus checks.

It provides relief for the jobless, including an extension of unemployment insurance and a federal unemployment insurance bonus of $300 per week, over $284 billion more in loans for businesses struggling to pay rent and workers, $69 billion in testing and vaccine distribution funds and $82 billion in funding for colleges and schools.

It also includes the Democrats’ priority of $25 billion in rental assistance and a one-month extension of the eviction moratorium. More than $13 billion in food assistance is also in the bill.

The package excludes the Republican priority of liability protection from Covid-19-related lawsuits for businesses, universities and health care centers. It also doesn’t include hundreds of billions of dollars for states and localities for Medicare and for teachers and first responders who have come under financial distress during the pandemic.

Lawmakers are expected to vote on the package beginning Monday.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Hears Challenge To Evers Administration Order Limiting Bar, Restaurant Capacity

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday in another case that could reframe the power of state government to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, reviving a debate that began when justices struck down the state’s “Safer at Home” order in May.

The latest dispute stems from an order restricting bar and restaurant capacity that expired more than a month ago, but it raises issues the court left ambiguous in its “Safer at Home” ruling.

Gov. Tony Evers’ administration issued the order on Oct. 6 through powers invoked by state Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm to respond to public health emergencies.

Palm’s order restricted the size of crowds at indoor businesses like restaurants and bars. Under the order, those businesses were limited to 25 percent of their usual capacity. For example, a restaurant that could normally hold up to 200 people would be limited to a crowd of 50.

The Evers administration argues there’s a key difference in this case.

When the court struck down “Safer at Home,” it carved out an exception, stating without explanation in two footnotes in the majority opinion that it was not striking down the state’s powers to close schools.

The law that spells out the power to close schools states that DHS “may close schools and forbid public gatherings in schools, churches, and other places to control outbreaks and epidemics.” The Evers administration argues that Palm’s latest order did just that.

Critics of Palm’s order argue it should be struck down because it relies on part of the same law that the Supreme Court addressed when it struck down “Safer at Home.”

“We have the same agency here. We have the same pandemic. They are repackaging these same exact arguments they made the last time,” said attorney Misha Tseytlin arguing on behalf of the Mix Up, Inc., an Amery bar and grill challenging Palm’s order. “I understand the composition of this court has changed since, but the law hasn’t changed.”

Federal Reserve Bank Keeps Interest Rate at Record Low

The Federal Reserve kept its benchmark interest rate at a record low near zero Thursday and signaled its readiness to do more if needed to support an economy under threat from a worsening coronavirus pandemic.

The central bank’s policy statement Thursday was approved on a 10-0 vote. Robert Kaplan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, who had dissented at the previous meeting, voted with the majority this time. Another dissenter in September, Neel Kashkari, head of the Minneapolis Fed, was absent, with his alternate, Mary Daly of the San Francisco Fed, approving the statement.

The statement was nearly identical to the one the Fed issued in September. At that meeting, it adopted a policy goal change it had made in August to keep rates low for some period of time even after inflation hits its 2% annual target. The reason was to allow the Fed to supply a longer boost to the economy and for unemployment to fall further before the policymakers begin to worry about inflation.

 

Congress Closes in on COVID-19 Relief, Funding Deal

Congressional leaders said Tuesday night they are making progress on a sweeping deal to fund the government and provide coronavirus relief but hadn’t yet clinched an agreement.

The top four congressional leaders met twice Tuesday as they race the clock to try to fund the government by Friday and break a months-long stalemate to provide more coronavirus aid.

The bipartisan package was split into two different bills. One $748 billion piece includes another round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) assistance for small businesses, an unemployment benefit and more money for schools, vaccine distribution and other widely agreed upon items.

The second, $160 billion piece ties together the two most controversial elements of the coronavirus negotiations: more money for state and local governments and protections from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Electors Meeting to Formally Choose Next President

Presidential electors are meeting across the United States on Monday to formally choose Joe Biden as the nation’s next president.

Monday is the day set by law for the meeting of the Electoral College. In reality, electors meet in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to cast their ballots. In 32 states and the District of Columbia, laws require electors to vote for the popular-vote winner. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld this arrangement in July.

The voting is decidedly low tech, by paper ballot. Electors cast one vote each for president and vice president.

The Electoral College was the product of compromise during the drafting of the Constitution between those who favored electing the president by popular vote and those who opposed giving the people the power to choose their leader.

Each state gets a number of electors equal to their total number of seats in Congress: two senators plus however many members the state has in the House of Representatives. Washington, D.C., has three votes, under a constitutional amendment that was ratified in 1961. With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, states award all their Electoral College votes to the winner of the popular vote in their state.