News of the Day

Wisconsin Supreme Court Upholds GOP’s Lame-Duck Laws

Wisconsin’s conservative-controlled Supreme Court on Friday upheld lame-duck laws limiting the powers of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, handing Republican lawmakers a resounding victory.

A group of liberal-leaning organizations led by the League of Women Voters sued in January alleging the laws are invalid because legislators convened illegally to pass them in December. The groups maintained the Legislature’s session had ended months earlier and that the lame-duck floor session wasn’t part of the Legislature’s regular schedule.

But the Supreme Court, in a 4-3 ruling, declared that the Wisconsin Constitution gives lawmakers the authority to decide when to meet.

“The terminology the Legislature chooses to accomplish the legislative process is squarely the prerogative of the Legislature,” the conservative majority wrote. Three liberal justices dissented, saying the Legislature went beyond what is constitutionally allowable when it convened the lame-duck session.

The legal fight over the lame-duck laws isn’t over. A group of unions has filed a separate lawsuit in state court arguing the laws steal authority from the governor and attorney general in violation of the separation of powers doctrine. That challenge is pending before the Supreme Court.

The state Democratic Party has filed a federal lawsuit contending the laws are meant to punish Evers’ supporters in violation of free speech and equal protection guarantees.

 

EPA Finalizes Affordable Clean Energy Rule

Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the final affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule – replacing the prior administration’s overreaching Clean Power Plan (CPP) with a rule that restores the rule of law and empowers states to continue to reduce emissions while providing affordable and reliable energy for all Americans.

“Today, we are delivering on one of President Trump’s core priorities: ensuring the American public has access to affordable, reliable energy in a manner that continues our nation’s environmental progress,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “Unlike the Clean Power Plan, ACE adheres to the Clean Air Act and gives states the regulatory certainty they need to continue to reduce emissions and provide a dependable, diverse supply of electricity that all Americans can afford. When ACE is fully implemented, we expect to see U.S. power sector CO2 emissions fall by as much as 35 percent below 2005 levels.”

The ACE rule establishes emissions guidelines for states to use when developing plans to limit carbon dioxide (CO2) at their coal-fired power plants. Specifically, ACE identifies heat rate improvements as the best system of emission reduction (BSER) for CO2 from coal-fired power plants, and these improvements can be made at individual facilities. States will have 3 years to submit plans, which is in line with other planning timelines under the Clean Air Act.

EPA projects that ACE will result in annual net benefits of $120 million to $730 million, including costs, domestic climate benefits, and health co-benefits.

Speaker Vos Announces Rainy Day Fund to Nearly Double

Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) released a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo that shows that the Budget Stabilization Fund balance is expected to nearly double with a projected transfer of $291 million.

“Thanks to a great economy and good budgeting, we can continue to put money into the rainy day fund,” said Speaker Vos. “The WISCONSIN budget approved by the Joint Committee on Finance allows for the largest investment into the Budget Stabilization Fund in state history.”

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the Budget Stabilization Fund now sits at $326 million and is projected to grow to a record high of $617 million by the end of the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

“It’s important that the state saves money in case there’s a downturn in the economy,” said Speaker Vos. “This was a priority we heard about from our constituents and we delivered on it during the budget process. The JFC-approved budget also invests in our top priorities of education, health care, and transportation, and we’re still able to cut taxes on the middle class.”

The Wisconsin State Assembly will vote on the budget next week.

Wisconsin Home Sales Rise in May

Wisconsin home sales rose in May, following several months of declines.

The latest report from the Wisconsin Realtors Association found 8,589 sales of existing homes last month, up 3.2 percent from May 2018.

Economist David Clark of Marquette University said while supply continues to hamper sales, new listings in May were only down slightly from the previous year.

“If we continue to see new listings at or near where they were last year, or even higher than last year, that ought to help with sales, and it should help to moderate, at least slightly, the median prices,” he said.

High demand and limited inventory pushed Wisconsin’s median home price up 9.1 percent in May to $203,000.

Sales for all of 2019 still trail last year by about 4 percent.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Temporarily Restores Most Lame-Duck Laws

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has temporarily restored nearly all of the laws Republicans passed in December’s lame-duck session, including one that makes it harder for Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul to leave or settle federal lawsuits.

In a 4-3 ruling, the court’s conservatives acknowledged their stay might delay the attorney general’s ability to settle cases where funds are distributed to the public.

“On the other hand … the public as a whole suffers irreparable injury of the first magnitude where a statute enacted by its elected representatives is declared unenforceable and enjoined before any appellate review can occur,” justices wrote.

The case was filed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and others in organized labor. It argued the laws Republicans passed in December’s extraordinary session violated the state constitution’s separation of powers protections.

Dane County Judge Frank Remington issued a ruling in March that struck down several of the laws, including the one that limited the power of Kaul.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is also handling the appeal in the lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin among other groups. That case contends the entire lame-duck session was unlawful because the Wisconsin Constitution does not explicitly allow for “extraordinary” sessions of the Legislature. The Supreme Court heard arguments in that case last month.

Finance Committee Passes $536 Million Tax Cut Package, Finishing Its Work on 2019-21 Budget

Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) voted to cut taxes by more than $530 million Thursday, finishing their work on the 2019-21 budget and passing the document out of committee. The vote follows more than a month of JFC meetings on Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal.

Under the Republican package, the average tax filer will see more than $200 in tax relief in the next two years, with the bulk of the tax relief coming through income tax rate reductions. The second income tax bracket, currently at 5.84 percent, will fall to 4.93 percent in 2020. The bottom-most bracket will fall from 4.0 percent to 3.76 percent in 2020.

Immediately after the budget vote, JFC passed a separate bill authored by Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek). Assembly Bill 251 (AB 251) sends new revenue from remote sales tax collections (out-of-state online sales) into income tax reductions for the bottom-most rate. The budget motion and AB 251 together bring tax relief over the biennium to more than $530 million.

The Assembly and the Senate are expected to take up the budget in its entirety during the last week in June.

Governor Evers Weighing Options on Budget

The Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate plan to square off with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers as the Joint Finance Committee wraps up its recommendations for the proposed 2019-21 biennial budget.

The question of when the budget will be signed is anyone’s guess.

The budget needs to pass both the Assembly and Senate before it gets to Evers, who is armed with one of the most powerful gubernatorial veto pens in the nation. Wisconsin law allows the governor to veto not just entire items but also individual words in the text of bills.

On vetoing all or parts of the budget, Evers said it is too early to say what he plans to do.

“I have the option to veto the entire budget or just parts of it or none of it — unlikely, but we’ll see,” Evers said. “It’s still too early, but we are prepared for any possibility. We’re not waiting until the end to figure this out.”

Wisconsin Budget Committee Approves $1.9 billion for Building Projects

Republicans on the Wisconsin Legislature’s budget committee voted to spend $1.9 billion on building projects across the state, with the bulk of the funding tied to UW System initiatives.

The overall proposal is $600 million less than the $2.5 billion Gov. Tony Evers initially sought in his capital budget request, though the approximately $1 billion in funding for campus building projects is largely similar among both.

Members on a 12-4 party-line vote also approved freeing up $5 million to take initial steps to replace the Green Bay Correctional Institution and $100 million for a new Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison. But the motion didn’t include $98.5 million for a new state office building in Milwaukee or funding for an Alliant Energy Center expansion in Dane County.

Evers’ $2.5 billion overall capital budget request included nearly $2 billion in proposed new bonding. In all, the ask was more than three times what former Gov. Scott Walker requested in his final budget for building projects, which totaled nearly $804 million.

Legislative Republicans Eyeing $400 million Middle-Class Tax Cut

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said today cutting taxes for the middle class continues to be a priority for his caucus. But he says that can be accomplished without raising taxes on others.

“Because of our good budgeting and the great economy, we can cut taxes without raising taxes on anyone else,” the Rochester Republican said. “We look forward to working with the Senate to enact a middle class tax cut, and hopefully this time Governor Evers won’t veto this bipartisan goal.”

That followed Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald saying his caucus is looking at a $400 million middle-class tax cut for the budget.

The Juneau Republican told the Wisconsin State Journal that Assembly and Senate Republicans hadn’t agreed on a final number, though he said it would be similar to the tax cut the Legislature approved in January.

Evers was critical of the proposal for using one-time money from a projected surplus to cover an ongoing cost.

Evers’ version of the cut would have saved filers $833.6 million over the biennium. But he wanted to raise taxes, including those on manufacturers, to cover the costs. Republican leaders have balked at that approach.

 

FCC Votes to Allow Phone Carriers to Block Robocalls by Default

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on Thursday to allow phone carriers to block suspicious calls by default in an effort to bolster industry efforts to filter out robocalls and scammers.

The proposal would also let phone companies offer their customers the option of blocking any numbers that are not pre-approved, a service that could help protect elderly consumers from scams and telemarketers.

“We expect phone companies will move quickly to use this tool and help consumers block unwanted robocalls,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in USA Today. “Among other things, default call-blocking will reduce the costs of handling the robocalls that flood their networks and save them grief by limiting customer complaints.”

The rate of robocalls has steadily increased. According to YouMail’s robocall index4.7 billion calls were placed in the U.S. in May, up from about 4.1 billion in June 2018.

The issue has gotten increased attention from lawmakers, many of whom are hearing from angry constituents. Last month, the Senate passed a bill 97-1 that would give regulators the ability to fine scammers up to $10,000 per illegal call.

The FCC said that under the proposed rules companies like Verizon and AT&T would be able to use analytics to determine which calls are “spoofed” — meaning that they use a fake number — and filter them out before they reach the recipient.