News of the Day

Department of Safety and Professional Services Announces Regulatory Changes

The leader of the state Department of Safety and Professional Services has announced changes to how the department handles regulation of commercial building construction following criticism from lawmakers and industry groups over delays.

One of DSPS’s responsibilities is to review commercial construction plans to ensure they comply with Wisconsin laws and regulations. Contractors pay a fee to the department for such plans to be reviewed.

Contractors have complained they have experienced delays of up to 10 to 12 weeks for their construction plans to be reviewed. They had been accustomed to six to eight weeks.

Crim announced changes to speed up the plan review process, including encouraging contractors to submit their construction plans early and with payment to have the opportunity to have their plan be reviewed earlier than scheduled.

Crim also plans to prohibit duplicate appointments for plan review and require contractors to pay the department before its reviews a construction plan.

“Our goal is to shorten the amount of time it takes for our customers to have their plans reviewed by our staff,” Crim said in a statement. “We collaborated with industry partners to align our solutions with the way our customers conduct business. We recognize our important role in the construction process and economic development. These changes will enable us to better facilitate both.”

Additional changes are being considered — such as making fees paid by contractors for plan review nonrefundable — but would need legislative approval.

Senate to vote on USMCA on Thursday

The Senate will vote on the new North American trade pact on Thursday. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is expected to pass with overwhelming bipartisan support. Senators began formal consideration of the pact on Wednesday afternoon.

Once the Senate passes USMCA, the deal will be sent to President Trump’s desk for his signature. President  Trump said Wednesday he will sign the deal next week.

But the deal will not fully enter into force until Canada ratifies the USMCA. Mexico has already passed the revised deal, and Canada is expected to hold a vote in the House of Commons once it reconvenes in late January.

“All eyes will be on Canada to get the job done quickly so we can all work together to implement this agreement,” Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley said on the Senate floor.

United States and China Set to Sign Phase One Deal

The U.S.-China trade war is set to enter a new, quieter phase on Wednesday as U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He sign an initial trade deal that aims to vastly increase Chinese purchases of U.S. manufactured products, agricultural goods, energy and services.

The centerpiece of the deal is a pledge by China to purchase an additional $200 billion worth of U.S. goods over two years to cut a bilateral U.S. trade deficit that peaked at $420 billion in 2018.

The Phase 1 deal, reached in December, canceled planned U.S. tariffs on Chinese-made cell phones, toys and laptop computers and halved the tariff rate to 7.5% on about $120 billion worth of other Chinese goods, including flat panel televisions, Bluetooth headphones and footwear. But it will leave in place 25% tariffs on a vast, $250 billion array of Chinese industrial goods and components used by U.S. manufacturers.

The deal includes pledges by China to forbid the forced transfer of American technology to Chinese firms as well as to increase protections for U.S. intellectual property.

But it stops well short of addressing the core U.S. complaints about China’s trade and intellectual property practices that prompted the Trump administration to pressure Beijing for changes in early 2017.

Mnuchin and Lighthizer said these issues are key U.S. priorities for Phase 2 negotiations with China.

Commissioner Huebsch Announces Retirement from the PSC

Today, Commissioner Mike Huebsch announced his retirement from the Public  Service Commission (PSC) of Wisconsin effective February 3, 2020.

The retirement caps off 25 years of distinguished service to the state. He was appointed to a six-year term at the Public Service commission by Governor Scott Walker on March 1, 2015.

“I want to humbly thank the people of the state of Wisconsin for allowing me to serve. I have been truly blessed for the opportunities and trust afforded to me by the people of this great state. I thank you,” said Huebsch.

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin is composed of three full-time Commissioners who decide the cases brought to the PSC for changes in utility operations, rates and for construction projects after a complete and thorough review of all the records compiled in the case, including public comments.

Commissioners are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the State Senate for staggered, six-year terms.

Applications for $75 million in Transportation Grants Exceed $1.4 Billion

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation has received nearly 1,600 eligible applications — totaling more than $1.4 billion in total value — for an available $75 million in one-time grant funds.

Wisconsin DOT Secretary Craig Thompson said the number and scope of applications for the Multimodal Local Supplement program underscores a statewide need for infrastructure upgrades.

The $75 million grant program was included in the 2019-21 budget and funds can go to road, bridge, harbor, transit, bicycle accommodation and railroad projects. Under the program, local projects can receive up to 90% of project costs, with local entities fronting the final 10%. Individual grants are capped at $3.5 million per project and eligible projects must include a six-year completion schedule.

Of the applications received; 105 came from counties, totaling $225 million in value; 461 were received from cities and villages, totaling $674 million in value; and 1,030 came from towns, with a total project value of $568 million.

The $75 million in available funds is to be split three ways, $27 million for counties, $19 million for cities and villages and $29 million for towns.

Project applications will be scored by three committees, with higher ratings offered to projects that demonstrate economic impact, enhance connectivity or those that are the most cost-effective.

Award amounts and recipients are expected to be announced in late February.

Governor Evers lays out 2020 Legislative Plan

Gov. Tony Evers laid out his legislative priorities for the new year during a stop in Eau Claire Thursday.

The governor said he wants to continue to move forward on bipartisan issues. In a letter sent to both Democrats and Republicans, Evers pushed for the passage of, what he calls, key pieces of legislation before the session wraps up in the spring.

Among them are bills to address clean water, sex trafficking, homelessness, lowering property taxes and reimbursing local governments for unexpected special elections.

Evers said he’s been frustrated that many key items keep getting swept under the rug in the legislature.

“My frustration is that we all, you know, whether it’s in a small way or a big way, represent the people of Wisconsin,” Evers said. “Let’s have a vote. If people vote it down, that’s good. Whatever! It doesn’t matter. We have a democracy, and I think it’s important for the people of Wisconsin to be heard, and let’s have a vote on these things.”

Evers added he picked these pieces of legislature because they have bipartisan support and are important to the majority of Wisconsinites.

Lawmaker Task Force Urges $10M for Clean Water Initiatives

A bipartisan water pollution task force proposed more than a dozen bills Wednesday designed to curb contamination across Wisconsin, capping a year’s worth of research and discussion.

The package released Wednesday calls for the state to spend $10 million on a range of initiatives including: creating a new water policy office; bumping up state funding for county conservation workers; increasing grants for rebuilding or replacing wells contaminated with manure and fertilizer; and grants for farmers who grow crops that require less fertilizer.

“It’s clear we can’t just throw money at these issues, thinking they’ll immediately go away,” Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who created the task force, said in a statement. “Wisconsin needs a long-term strategy to protect, preserve and promote clean water. These bills are a first step toward that goal.”

The bills must pass the Assembly and Senate and be signed by Evers before becoming law.

Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, said in a statement that the governor was glad to see lawmakers following his lead on water pollution.

Three Candidates Set to Compete in State Supreme Court Primary

Three candidates are set to compete for a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a February primary ahead of April’s general election.

Conservative-backed incumbent Justice Daniel Kelly, liberal-backed Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky and liberal-supported Marquette Law School professor Ed Fallone turned in nominating signatures to get their names on the ballot. The deadline to submit signatures was 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Barring any substantiated challenges that would cause the number of a candidate’s valid signatures to fall below 2,000, Kelly, Karofsky and Fallone will be cleared to participate in the Feb. 18 primary. The deadline for submitting challenges to nomination papers is Friday. The Elections Commission will certify candidate signatures on Jan. 14.

State Supreme Court races are technically nonpartisan, meaning candidates don’t run with a party affiliation. Still, partisan groups spend heavily to support their preferred candidates.

The result of the April election will determine whether Kelly, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker to the court in 2016, will get to serve for a full term.

Borden Becomes Second Big U.S. Milk Producer to File for Bankruptcy

Borden Dairy Co. filed for bankruptcy, becoming the second major U.S. milk seller to do so in two months as competitive pressures, declining consumption and falling profits made its debt load unsustainable.

Known for its mascot Elsie the Cow, the Dallas-based company listed assets and liabilities of between $100 million and $500 million in its Chapter 11 filing in Delaware. The company, founded more than 160 years ago, said in a statement that normal operations will continue while it works out a recovery plan.

A boom in dairy alternatives like soy, rice and nut milk, along with rising prices for raw milk have put the squeeze on Borden, Chief Financial Officer Jason Monaco said in court papers. Added pressure came from retailers investing in their own low-cost dairy products.

“While milk remains a household item in the United States, people are simply drinking less of it,” Monaco said. “In parallel, since the turn of the century, the number of U.S. dairy farms has rapidly declined.”

Wisconsin Lacks Adequate Funds to Weather Moderate Recession

Wisconsin would lack adequate revenues to manage a moderate economic downturn without raising taxes or cutting services, according to a new analysis from Moody’s Analytics.

If a moderate recession were to strike, Wisconsin would face a shortfall equaling 4.8 percent of its total 2019 revenues, the analysis says. That’s the 11th worst outcome among the 50 states, according to Moody’s Analytics.

That state’s current rainy-day balance represents 1.9 percent of its 2019 revenues, the study found. The severity of the fiscal shock the state would face in a moderate recession equals 10.9 percent of the 2019 funds, according to the study.

Twenty-eight states were found to have adequate revenues to weather such a downturn in the future, the study said. But 10 states would have significantly less money on hand than they would need.

The stress test numbers show that states on average would need funds equaling 11.3% of their general fund revenues to weather the recession without tax hikes or service cuts, according to Moody’s Analytics.