News of the Day

Top Court Asked to Decide Far-Reaching Cases on Regulation of State Waters

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has been asked to settle a series of longstanding legal disputes over natural resources, a decision that could shape the power of state regulators to protect public waters from pollution and overuse for years to come.

Supreme Court rulings in the lawsuits between conservationists and businesses will put an imprint on every service of state government, a state court of appeals panel said Wednesday as it asked the top court to take the cases.

A key question is whether a state law or a previous Supreme Court decision should take precedence.The 2011 law states that state agencies can’t take actions that haven’t been explicitly authorized in law or rules approved by elected officials.

In asking the Supreme Court to decide the cases, the Waukesha-based appeals court panel said it agreed with parties on both sides about one thing.

“We agree with the State and Clean Wisconsin that the court’s determination regarding the scope and breadth of (the 2011 state law) will have implications far beyond the permitting process for high capacity wells and pollution discharge elimination systems,” the three appeals court judges said in their decision. “(It) will touch every state agency within Wisconsin.”

Governor, GOP Lawmakers Seek Common Ground but Rifts Remain

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Republican lawmakers vowed Tuesday to find common ground at the Capitol during a meeting that included GOP members from both the state Senate and Assembly.

The governor, a Democrat, championed accepting the federal Medicaid expansion during his campaign, arguing it would decrease health care costs across the state. Republicans have opposed the expansion for years, arguing it could come with unexpected and burdensome expenses for the state.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, however, remained opposed to expanding Medicaid, known as BadgerCare in Wisconsin, and said he urged Evers to find areas of agreement instead.

Eers and Republican lawmakers have spoken about finding possible compromise on an income tax cut for middle-income families and a potential gas tax increase to fund Wisconsin road projects. However, Tuesday’s meeting also outlined a difference in tax policy plans. Evers has considered limiting the scope of the state’s GOP-backed manufacturing and agriculture tax credit.

“When I asked the question about whether or not we would agree that we could not raise taxes on income or sales, (the governor) said, well it depends on how you define that,” Vos said. “I think most of us agree that taking away a credit which makes somebody’s taxes go up is a tax increase.”

While differences remained clear, there were some areas where the two sides seemed to align more closely, as when Fitzgerald lauded Evers for stepping away from his previous statements about shuttering the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

“He made the commitment that he would not touch WEDC in this budget,” Fitzgerald said. “I think that’s a huge victory.”

Bucking Trend, Wisconsin Utilities Burned More Coal in 2017

Coal-fired generation, which accounted for 55 percent of all electricity produced in Wisconsin, was up about 7.5 percent from the previous year, according to numbers released last week by the federal Energy Information Administration. Coal use declined 2.2 percent in Illinois and 1.8 percent in Minnesota, while it was up about 1 percent in Iowa. Nationwide it was down about 2.7 percent.

While the data are from 2017, the report comes as utilities across the country are retiring coal-fired units at a record pace and replacing them with increasingly cheap natural gas, as well as wind and solar, generation.

Since 2015, Wisconsin utilities have retired some 2,300 megawatts of coal-fired capacity, including WE Energies’ Pleasant Prairie plant in Kenosha and Alliant Energy plants in Sheboygan and Cassville.

Meanwhile, Alliant Energy is adding 725 megawatts of capacity to its Riverside natural gas plant in Beloit, and Dairyland Power Cooperative has plans to build a 625-megawatt gas plant in Superior. Each project is estimated to cost about $700 million.

Business Leaders to Governor: Lett’s Find Common Ground on Repealing Personal Property Tax

The Coalition to Repeal Wisconsin’s Personal Property Tax is responding to Governor Evers remarks to find common ground on issues and believes that repeal of the personal property tax is an issue that benefits everyone in the State of Wisconsin.

The coalition, consisting of 51 statewide organizations that represent nearly every business in Wisconsin and more than a million employees, is urging Governor Evers to make small, Main Street businesses a priority in his first budget by including repeal of the personal property tax with full  reimbursement to municipalities for lost revenue.

The personal property tax has existed in Wisconsin longer than we have been a state, and even prior to Wisconsin becoming a territory in 1836.  Since then, dozens of exemptions to the tax have been implemented, resulting in non-uniformity with certain businesses taxed and others not as well as specific equipment taxed in one municipality, but not in another.

Repealing the personal property tax is not a partisan issue. If municipalities are held harmless, repeal would be welcomed by local governments and businesses alike. Municipalities would benefit by not having to assess businesses, businesses would benefit by not having to pay the tax, and citizens in Wisconsin would benefit from the additional revenue that businesses would put into their employees, their businesses or their communities.

Main Street businesses in Wisconsin are struggling to compete in today’s hyper-competitive environment. All of the surrounding midwestern states have repealed the onerous personal property tax, and it’s time for Wisconsin to focus on Main Street small businesses by making repeal of the personal property tax a priority this session.    

Wisconsin Assembly Republicans Outline Priorities to Evers

Wisconsin Assembly Republicans delivered what they called a “gesture of our goodwill” to the newly installed Democratic governor on Thursday, outlining some areas where they think they might find common ground.

In a letter delivered to Gov. Tony Evers, the GOP lawmakers said they were trying to be helpful in detailing such areas, including an income tax cut, a school funding increase and a reduction in borrowing to pay for roadwork.

Evers has many of the priorities outlined by the Republicans but supports different approaches to reaching those goals. For example, he wants to cut income taxes by 10 percent but wants to compensate for it by reducing a tax break for corporations by $300 million, a move Vos said would amount to a “massive tax increase.”

The Republican letter did not put a dollar amount on how large of an income tax cut they would support or how it would be paid for.

Some of the other Republican priorities include:

— Enhancing high-speed internet access.

— Expanding the SeniorCare prescription drug program to cover flu shots.

— Working to reduce homelessness.

— Providing more options to reduce the cost of child care for working parents.

— Increasing access to clean water.

— Investing more in state-owned properties.

— Doing more to attract and retain highly qualified state employees.

Governor Evers Shares Plans for Wisconsin Economy

Governor Tony Evers continued his call for state leaders to compromise on Wednesday, speaking at the Wisconsin Bankers Association’s Economic Forecast Luncheon.

He hopes to find common ground with the legislature on issues of healthcare, transportation and education. These three priorities are important to keep a healthy economy, he said.

Evers emphasized that a strong education system creates a good workforce for employers across the state.

“We’ve been working actually with institutions all across the state to build these multiple career pathways so that young people can see where the on-ramps and off-ramps of those are to make sure that they are doing the right things to be good citizens in our society but also good workers to create good products and a good economy in the state of Wisconsin,” he said.

One of Evers’ top priorities is to restore funding to higher education.

“We also need a strong investment in the UW system. I think over the past few years, that has not happened, and I believe the UW system and our vocational technical college systems are the 2 main drivers of making sure that we have a strong economy in this state,” he said.

Evers also emphasized the importance of creating more jobs with higher wages, to help those who are still struggling.

“I know we have a strong economy in this state, I get it. I know we only have 3 percent unemployment in the state, I get it. But when a nonprofit…shows that we have 870,000 families, that’s a bunch of people that are still struggling in this economy,” he said.

U.S. Economy Showing Signs of Weakening

The U.S. economy is showing signs of weakening, with momentum slowing, fiscal stimulus decreasing and interest rates rising, according to a fourth quarter market review from Madison-based First Business Financial Services Inc.

Among the concerns for 2019 are the U.S.-China relationship, particularly when it comes to tariffs; the partial government shutdown; increasing market volatility; and falling consumer confidence.

In addition, manufacturers’ confidence is at its lowest point since October 2016 and manufacturing growth has been slowing, with the national reading from the Institute for Supply Management at 54.1 in December.

In the near term, though, First Business expects the economy will continue expanding. Consumers upped their discretionary spending and real consumption in the fourth quarter, spending more than $1 trillion during the holiday season. Inflation remains in check, at 2.2 percent year-over-year as of November. And employers added 312,000 jobs in December and increased average hourly earnings by 3.2 percent in 2018, which were positive signs.

The dollar continues to be strong, which is an indication of a strong U.S. economy and tight monetary policy, but First Business Bank doesn’t expect that to last long.

“The economic expansion will likely continue into 2019 at a slow and steady pace,” the report says. “At almost 10 years old, this is the second-longest expansion since 1900. Although growth accelerated meaningfully in 2018 on the wings of fiscal stimulus and an improving trade deficit, moving forward growth will moderate as weak productivity, labor force dynamics, waning trade numbers, fading trade stimulus, and higher interests rates slow it to 2 percent or less in 2019 and beyond.”

Speaker Vos: These Next 2 Years will Bring New Challenges and Opportunities

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos used his first speech of the new legislative session to emphasize lawmakers are the most important branch of government.

Vos told the Assembly following inaugurations Monday, Jan. 7 that the Wisconsin Constitution lists the Legislature first among the three branches of government. He said some may want the Legislature to “veer into the left lane” since Evers is now the governor but Republicans won’t let government expand at the expense of the people’s freedoms and compromise doesn’t mean compromising your ideas.

In a statement, Vos said: “Today we celebrate Wisconsin and our representative democracy. These next two years will bring new challenges and opportunities. I’m honored to once again serve Racine County and Wisconsin in this capacity. I’m excited to get to work. We can’t allow the state to reverse course and undo the progress that we have made over the last eight years. We have reduced the size of government, invested in education, created a welcoming business climate and we were still able to cut taxes by more than $8 billion.”

Evers Set to Be Sworn in as Wisconsin’s 46th Governor

Democrat Tony Evers is set to take the oath of office and replace Gov. Scott Walker during a noon ceremony Monday at the state Capitol, ending eight years of Republican dominance in Wisconsin.

It marks the first time since 2006, when Democrat Jim Doyle was governor, that the entire Legislature is controlled by the opposite party of the governor.

In addition to Evers, all other constitutional officers elected in November will be sworn into office. They are all Democrats, marking the first time since 1983 that all offices will be held by Democrats. Those being sworn in are Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Attorney General Josh Kaul, Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Secretary of State Doug La Follette. La Follette is the only incumbent.

Newly elected members of the Legislature will also take office. In the Assembly, 63 Republicans and 36 Democrats will be seated. Of them, eight Republicans and seven Democrats are new. In the Senate, 11 Republicans and six Democrats are taking office. Of them, three Republicans and one Democrat are new. Republicans will hold a 19-14 majority.

Governor-elect Evers Picks Obama official, Two State Lawmakers and Two Aides for his Cabinet

 Gov.-elect Tony Evers filled out most of his cabinet Thursday by picking a former Obama administration official, two Democratic state lawmakers and two aides who serve him as the state schools superintendent.

Evers, a Democrat who will be sworn in as governor Monday, announced at his transition office that Andrea Palm would serve as his health secretary. Palm was a senior counselor to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2017. Before that, she worked five years as a health policy adviser to then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Also Thursday, Evers selected state Rep. Peter Barca of Kenosha as revenue secretary and state Sen. Caleb Frostman of Sturgeon Bay as workforce development secretary.

He named Emilie Amundson as secretary of the Department of Children and Families. Amundson is now chief of staff at the Department of Public Instruction, which is headed by Evers as the state schools superintendent. Evers is turning the job of schools superintendent over to longtime Madison educator Carolyn Stanford Taylor once he becomes governor.

For his secretary of the Department of Safety and Professional Services, Evers chose Dawn Crim. She now assists Evers as assistant state superintendent for student and school success. Previously, Crim worked for two decades at the University of Wisconsin System in various rules, including assistant coach for women’s basketball and director of community relations for UW-Madison.

Evers is expected to name a director of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority soon.