News of the Day

Finance Committee OKs Republican Road-Funding Plan

Wisconsin Republicans scrapped Gov. Tony Evers’ transportation budget Thursday and replaced it with a plan that would fund road work through a combination of title and registration fee increases, an infusion of general tax dollars and new borrowing.

Evers’ budget would have pumped nearly $624 million in new revenue into road projects over the 2019-2021 state budget. The centerpiece of his proposal was raising the gas tax by 8 cents per gallon and increasing it annually to account for inflation. The governor also called for raising heavy truck fees by 27 percent and for borrowing an additional $338 million.

They came up with a plan that spends an additional $483.7 million on roads and scraps the gas tax increase and heavy truck registration fee hikes. Republicans instead would raise title fees by $95 to $164; increase the $75 registration fee most car owners pay to $85; and standardize fees for sport utility vehicles and minivans at $100.

The plan also amends the definition of hybrid vehicles so the Department of Transportation can impose a new $75 fee on them. The current state budget imposed the fee but the DOT has struggled to implement it because the budget didn’t provide a full definition of hybrids.

The plan calls for a one-time transfer of $90 million from the state’s general fund, as well as an additional $326 million in borrowing.

“This motion fixes more damn roads than his does,” Republican Rep. Mark Born said, mocking Evers’ catchphrase “fix the damn roads.”

Committee Democrats argued that the gas tax increase is the fairest way to raise money for road work because it gets money from out-of-state drivers. They likened the fee increases to taxes and warned they’ll hurt low-income people’s ability to buy cars and get to work.

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said in a statement that Republicans still can’t find a sustainable way to fund roads.

“Raiding our state coffers and making Wisconsinites foot the bill for the rest instead of making out-of-state drivers pay their fair share isn’t the long-term solution Wisconsinites are asking for,” Baldauff said.

Senate Republicans Float $10 Registration Fee Increase to Fund Transportation Budget

Senate Republicans are floating a $10 increase on registration fees to help pay for the state’s roads as signs suggest GOP members in both houses of the Legislature are still far from agreement on a final transportation budget.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, informed reporters Wednesday of the potential fee increase, which would bump annual vehicle registration fees to $85. The news comes as the state’s budget writing committee is poised to vote on a transportation budget at its meeting Thursday.

Republicans in the Senate and Assembly have not yet agreed on a transportation funding plan, and discussions among GOP lawmakers are continuing on the total transportation revenue increase and which projects should be funded.

Republicans in both chambers have ruled out the gas tax increase Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed, and are now looking at fee increases. Fitzgerald said tolling is still on the table, and added lawmakers are considering a mix of new revenue, cash and bonding to pay for the transportation budget.

Fitzgerald disclosed the potential registration fee increase after a group of Senate Republicans earlier Wednesday introduced a $134 million transportation funding proposal that would direct funds toward local roads, but it was clear the plan lacked support from some Republicans in the Senate. Leaders of both chambers said they are interested in pursuing the plan separately from the transportation budget up for a vote Thursday.

The plan introduced by six Senate GOP members of the Joint Finance Committee, among others, would use one-time surplus funds to direct about $72 million to counties and $62 million to towns. Each county would get $1 million to use for maintenance and construction projects to improve local road conditions. The proposal lacks support from the entire Senate caucus, and it’s unclear whether GOP members in the state Assembly or finance committee would endorse the plan.

A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Republicans in his caucus continue to support a long-term transportation funding solution, and that Vos is interested in pursuing the proposal outside of the larger transportation budget.

Republican Lawmakers Approve $588M Increase In Medicaid, Health Care Spending

Republican state lawmakers on Tuesday moved forward with their own spending plan for Medicaid in Wisconsin after rejecting Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to expand it.

The GOP-backed plan increases state spending by about $588 million on Medicaid and related health care programs, but spends about $187 million less than the governor called for.

Republicans zeroed out funding for an early intervention program for children with developmental disabilities and a program aimed at curbing tobacco use, among others.

They also decreased spending from Evers’ plan by about $26 million for county mental health crisis intervention services and $39 million for dental care for low-income individuals.

However, Republicans did find some areas of agreement with the governor.

Their plan includes increases larger than those requested by Evers for Medicaid reimbursements for nursing homes and personal care workers.

Committee co-chair Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said lawmakers heard a lot about the state’s low payment rate for personal care workers, as well as the number of nursing homes closing across the state, at public budget committee hearings earlier this year.

“This is a budget that we really listened to the people,” Darling said to reporters before the vote. “People told us we need to save our nursing homes, we need to invest in our personal care workers.”

The spending plan increases the hourly rate for personal care workers from  $16.73 to $18.24 an hour starting July 1, 2019.

The GOP plan also increases funding for nursing homes by $37 million, bumping reimbursement rates by about 6 percent over the next two years.

“There’s nothing more threatening than thinking that the nursing home where your parents are is thinking about closing, or the fact that you want to keep your parents in the home and can’t get personal care workers there because there’s not enough payment for those,” Darling said. “This is very personal stuff.”

Republicans also voted to approve the governor’s recommendation to fund intake, application and screening costs for children’s long-term care services. That would allow the state to eliminate a waiting list for a program that serves children with disabilities.

Governor and DOT Secretary Open to Republicans Proposals to Fund Roads

Governor Tony Evers says he is keeping an open mind when it comes to how to pay for roads without a gas tax increase. This comes after Republican leaders said they won’t consider his proposal to raise the gas tax by 8 cents a gallon.

The Governor said he’s open to listening to Republicans ideas to help fund transportation infrastructure improvements and repairs but voiced some doubts their proposals might not raise enough money.

“If Republican leadership has ideas on how we can “magically” do that without raising the gas tax will certainly be looking for that, but it has to be a sustainable future around this issue to finding money to fix our damn roads,” said Evers.

Republicans said last week they are looking at raising a variety of other fees for drivers but didn’t specify how much.

Evers didn’t say if he would support or oppose a transportation plan without a gas hike but expressed he won’t make a decision until Republicans sent him a budget.

Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation Secretary-designee Craig Thompson also doubted GOP leaderships idea reject a gas tax increase.

“The gas tax is the fairest and most affordable solution because it applies to everyone using the highway system — including visitors,” said Thompson in a statement to 27 News.

Thompson said he’s looking forward to what Republicans have in mind. The Republican controlled budget-writing committee will put forth their plan to pay for roads Thursday.

Wisconsin Lags In Attracting Educated Workers, Study Finds

Wisconsin is lagging behind neighboring states in attracting highly-educated workers.

In the new study “Wisconsin’s Brain Drain Problem,” the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum analyzed federal data from 2017 that found over 20 percent of native Wisconsinites ages 31 to 40 who moved away were classified as “highly educated,” meaning they were in the top third of educational attainment.

The percentage of highly educated people born elsewhere who moved into Wisconsin was under 10 percent.

Wisconsin’s gap was the eighth highest in the country and second only to Iowa in the Midwest. Meanwhile, Illinois and Minnesota saw net gains of highly educated workers in the same age group.

Wisconsin Policy Forum senior researcher Joe Peterangelo said the need for more skilled workers is only going to grow.

“Those higher-wage occupations and the ones that require more education are also going to be opening up, and we need to attract some of those people from elsewhere,” he said.

Wisconsin officials have repeatedly pointed toward a workforce shortage that may grow larger over time.

Last summer, the state launched a $6.8 million marketing campaign focused on drawing younger workers from Chicago and other Midwestern cities, but critics have called it ineffective and its future isn’t certain.

State officials have also proposed incentives to convince more Wisconsin students to stay in the state after graduation.

On that count, Peterangelo said, the state is doing better.

“Relative to other states, Wisconsin’s pretty strong at retaining people, but doesn’t attract people into the state that have college degrees, for example,” he said.

42% Increase in Taxpayer-Funded Work Awarded to Out-of-State Contractors

Yesterday, Wisconsin Independent Businesses (WIB) released startling data on municipal public works projects. The data shows a disturbing trend of increased taxpayer-funded work being awarded to out-of-state contractors.

In 2015, out-of-state contractors were awarded only $72,600,000 in municipal work. That number grew to $146,000,000 in 2018. While the total value of municipal public works projects was up from 2015 to 2018, there was a 42% increase in the share of these municipal public works projects being awarded to out-of-state contractors.

“WIB members, Wisconsin-based contractors, and the local workforces they employ, who are key to the success of our State’s economic strength, are deeply troubled by this trend,” said John Gard, President of WIB. “Not only has there been a sharp uptick in contractors from neighboring states taking Wisconsin work, but contractors from states as far away as Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina and Kentucky are working on our local projects. We know that many of these out-of-state contractors are bringing their own workforce with them, rather than employing local hardworking Wisconsinites. Wisconsin contractors and construction workers are being hurt.”

Studies show that for every dollar of construction value that is completed by an out-of-state contractor, $2.26 in economic value is lost in Wisconsin. In 2018, Wisconsin lost over $329,000,000 in economic activity by having out-of-state contractors perform these local taxpayer-funded projects.

“Wisconsin taxpayer-funded projects should benefit Wisconsin, not Kentucky or Louisiana. We need stronger measures in place to keep Wisconsin projects with Wisconsin employers,” said Gard.

State Lawmakers Pushing Bill Targeting Phone Scams

Two state lawmakers want to strengthen Wisconsin’s laws dealing with phone scams.

Republican Assemblyman Rob Hutton (R) wrote the bill targeting white collar crimes; things like phone ransom scams and money laundering.

“I think most criminals are cowards at heart and going to prey on those that are least able to defend themselves,” Hutton said. “In many cases, those are the seniors in our communities.”

Under the new bill, any scam topping $10,000 could mean up to 10 years in prison. Anything over $100,000 means up to 12 1/2 years.

Republicans OK Two More Years of UW Tuition Freeze, Reduce Funding Increase

The Republican-controlled state budget-writing committee extended a tuition freeze for undergraduate residents attending University of Wisconsin campuses over the next two academic years.

But the Joint Finance Committee again declined to “fund the freeze” and provide the UW System with state money to offset what campuses would have received from inflation-level tuition hikes.  Evers proposed extending the tuition freeze two more years, but called for campuses to receive $50 million to recoup part of what’s been lost in the six years the freeze has been in place. Republicans rejected that part of his proposal.

The committee, in a 12-4 party-line vote Tuesday, approved a roughly $58 million increase to the System’s total budget over the next two fiscal years, about a fourth of which will go toward standard budget adjustments or debt service. The $45 million that campuses may gain is less than half of what Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and System officials requested.

The $45 million allocation approved by Republicans is aimed at allowing campuses to expand academic programming in high-demand fields, such as business and technology.

Wisconsin Election Audits Confirm Results

Expanded post-election audits in 2018 confirmed that voting equipment in Wisconsin accurately counted the state’s votes, according to a recent report to the Wisconsin
Elections Commission.

“The 2018 post-election voting equipment audit was the largest audit of its kind undertaken in the State of Wisconsin,” Administrator Meagan Wolfe reported to the WEC. “Over the course of three weeks, more than 135,000 ballots were hand counted by dutiful and diligent local election officials. As with prior audits, the expanded audit and random selection process effectively confirmed the accuracy of voting equipment used in Wisconsin during the 2018 General Election.”

The audit results indicated there were no identifiable bugs, errors, or failures of the tabulation voting equipment. While there were discrepancies identified during the audit, they were the result of human error that occurred as part of the process of conducting the audit. Additionally, the results of the audit did not identify any programming errors that impacted how the audited voting equipment counted votes, Wolfe noted.

State law requires the Commission to conduct audits after each general election to determine the error rate of each type of electronic voting equipment used in Wisconsin. The Commission determined each system approved for use in Wisconsin tabulated votes in accordance with certification standards during the 2018 General Election. Under federal standards, an error rate of 1 ballot in 500,000 is permitted.

In 2018, the Commission significantly expanded the scope of post-election audits to ensure the integrity of voting systems, requiring audits of voting equipment in 5 percent of the state’s wards, including at least one in each of the 72 counties, and requiring completion of the audits before the Commission certifies the final results.

Budget Panel Approves $500M more for Wisconsin schools

Wisconsin’s K-12 schools would receive $500 million over the next two years, including nearly $100 million more for special education, under a Republican funding plan approved Thursday by the Legislature’s budget committee.

The deal puts the Republican-controlled Legislature at odds with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers who decried it as inadequate compared to his $1.4 billion proposal but stopped short of promising a veto. The funding plan now becomes part of the state budget the Joint Finance Committee is writing and will send to the full Legislature likely in June.

Republican leaders said Evers would be wise to accept the proposal, even though it’s $900 million less than he wanted, because the GOP offer is not going to substantially improve. Rep. John Nygren, the committee co-chair, said Evers and school officials knew his original $1.4 billion proposal wasn’t realistic and they are happy with what Republicans put forward.

Under the Republican deal, special education funding would increase by $97 million, or less than one-sixth of what Evers wanted. That would increase the state’s reimbursement rate to 26% in the first year and 30% in the second, said committee vice chair Sen. Luther Olsen. It would be the first increase in more than a decade and addresses complaints from schools about a lack of funding that requires them to tap general aid money to pay for more expensive special needs students.

The Republican plan would increase per-pupil funding by $200 the first year and $204 the second, paid for with a mixture of categorical aids and revenue limits. Olsen said the goal was to keep property tax increases at no more than 1% each year. Under the Evers budget, property taxes were projected to go up about 2% each year.

The GOP plan also increases funding for mental health services and revenue limits for low-spending districts.