News from the Capitol and around Wisconsin
We hope you had a great weekend, and that you were able to find some time to relax.
This week, we'll talk about the emergency declaration from Governor Walker for part of the state after torrential rainfall last week, we'll share also Governor Walker's request for aid for northern Wisconsin farmers impacted by July's floods. We'll also go over our survey results from last week, and share some news regarding unfunded pension liabilities in Wisconsin.
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Have a great week,
Governor declares state of emergency in 13 western Wisconsin counties
Along with last week's warm weather came some pretty heavy rainfall, causing yet another disaster area in our state, and leaving residents and localities scrambling to clean up the aftermath.
About ten inches of rain fell in the 13 Wisconsin counties, washing away some roads, causing mudslides, and damage to public and private property alike. Classes were canceled for many students in the areas due to impassable roads and flooding.
It was also reported that one person was killed in Vernon County when a mudslide caused their home to slide down a hill.
Governor Walker declared the disaster on Thursday and includes the counties of Buffalo, Chippewa, Clark, Columbia, Crawford, Eau Claire, Jackson, La Crosse, Monroe, Richland, Sauk, Trempealeau, and Vernon.
The governor also visited the region over the weekend and urged people to document damages and share them with county emergency management personnel. The governor also made it sound like he'd seek a presidential disaster declaration, and hopefully receive aide for local assistance as well.
Gov. Walker requests federal aid for northern Wisconsin farmers
Governor Walker last week contacted USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and formally requested a USDA Secretarial DIsaster Designation to help farmers in Ashland, Bayfield, and Iron counties that suffered crop losses as a result of heavy rains and flooding in July.
The governor asked Secretary Vilsack to declare Ashland, Bayfield, and Iron counties as agriculture disaster areas, as these areas lost over 30 percent of their alfalfa, barley, corn, oat, and wheat crops.
In his letter, Governor Walker said "Wisconsin producers are in need of assistance from USDA to help them deal with their losses. I ask that you respond quickly with the designation, so the affected producers may obtain relief."
If the agriculture disaster declaration is granted, those areas
Disaster Assistance for Homeowners and Businesses
Late last week, Governor Walker announced that the U.S. Small Business Administration approved his request for federal low-interest disaster loans for individuals and businesses impacted by flash flooding last month.
Beginning tomorrow, the SBA will open a Disaster Loan Outreach Center at the Buffalo County Courthouse in Alma. Individuals and businesses will be able to obtain and information and loan applications.
The loans range up to $200,000, and are available to homeowners for repairs or replacement of damaged homes. Homeowners and renters are eligible for up to $40,000 to repair or replace damaged or destroyed personal property. Low interest loans up to $2 million are available to businesses for physical damage or economic loss due to flooding.
An SBA fact sheet is available here.
Wisconsin taxpayers on the hook for $6.5 billion in unfunded retirement benefit payments
According to a watchdog report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin taxpayers are going to be paying out nearly $7 billion in unfunded retirement pledges made by local units of government. $4.7 of that comes from Milwaukee County alone.
The article goes on to outline various communities such as Racine, whose city, county, and schools have unfunded liabilities nearing $700 million.
As far as state workers go, the State of Wisconsin has the best funded pension system in the United States.
The full watchdog column from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is available here.
Survey results: DOT budget request
Last week, we shared the Department of Transportation (WisDOT) proposal for the upcoming budget. Their plan is to borrow $500 million, increase local road aids, delay some major projects, and not increase tax.
As always, this is our chance to get your thoughts. Below are the responses, including comments that were submitted, unedited (except for some typos!)
Let's take a look:
The DOT funding plan has finally arrived. What do you think?
A vast majority want to wait and see. Understandable, and probably smart, since this process won't wrap up until around July 2017.
Let's take a look at some comments:
They need to fix the Zoo Interchange - not smart to delay the state's busiest. Would Chicago do this?
It's just going to kick the can down the road and cost more in road work and auto repairs. Raise the gas tax. It's most fair.
Raise gas tax and not borrow.
What do you think of $500 million more in debt/borrowing for roads?
About 2/3rds of responses didn't like the idea of borrowing $500 million more.
Need to do a wheel tax or registration increase for electric cars.
We can't keep borrowing. We may need to raise the gas tax a bit.
Prefer not to borrow. I'd like to see what cost can be wrung from the bloated state government.
How is it going to get paid for?
The gas tax has the users pay. It's most fair.
No, unnecessary. I think this money can be raised elsewhere without hurting the population.
Wish it wasn't necessary, but unfortunately it is.
Put off today what you can do tomorrow is wrong.
Senator Janet Bewley proposes repealing the manufacturers and agriculture tax credit, and instead give $100 million to counties for local road aid. Yes or no?
This one was close. 54% said it's a bad idea. 46% like it.
No. Time to quit picking winners and losers. (e.g. Solyndra at the fed level) and reduce the state's reach into everything. That is not the roll of government.
Why should we make it even harder for ag?
She is targeting individuals but has no idea how many others it will affect directly!
I wouldn't like anything she proposes.
Do you think this budget proposal will put a halt to local referendums and wheel tax proposals for road maintenance?
Out my front window! Love living in farm country!
The entire state!
Back porch with a beer!
Northern Door County
My Farm in northern Dodge County.
The northern counties.
Right here at home in Chippewa County.
Any rural area with plenty of woods will do!
Bayfield, Washburn area!
The Mississippi River Valley
Senate leader won't break from Walker on road funding
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said last week that he won't go up against Governor Walker's plan for transportation funding.
Senator Fitzgerald said that Senate Republicans won't likely pass a gas tax increase or a vehicle registration increase, unless they call for an equal tax cut.
Last week, the DOT released its budget request for the upcoming biennium. There was about a $400 million reduction in highway programs, delaying massive projects in Milwaukee, and $500 million in new borrowing, which represents the lowest level of transportation bonding in a decade.
Regardless of the DOT plan, with the state grappling with a $900 million shortfall, some republicans would like to see a more sustainable approach to road and transportation funding in Wisconsin, and have said they believe raising the gas tax should be kept on the table.
Others, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, have said another option would be to pass a transportation budget separate from the state budget. Fitzgerald didn't favor that idea, either.
This difference in opinion on transportation funding will likely cause a rift between GOP leaders in the upcoming budget battle about to unfold in Madison.
Starting October 1st, handheld devices illegal in work zones
Beginning Saturday, if you're driving through a work zone and are holding your phone for any reason, you could face a $40 fine, and $100 every subsequent time, according to DOT officials.
You can still talk on your phone using Bluetooth and hands free devices, and you may use your hands to start and stop calls, as well.
According to transportation officials, the new law is part of an ongoing effort to keep workers safe on the roads. And while DOT concedes the law may be hard for law enforcement to monitor, they believe most drivers will "police themselves" and eliminate distractions on the road.
Wisconsin is second in the nation for number of organic farms
Other than California, nobody has more certified organic farms than Wisconsin.
In fact, the Badger State is home to 1,205 organic farms, which was a slight decrease from the last study in 2015.
In the entire country, there was about a 9 percent decline in numbers of organic farms, while acres actually used for organic farms increased nearly 20 percent.
Wisconsin had the most organic dairy farms last year. There were 439 farms producing more than 370 million pounds of milk. And Wisconsin farmers sold over $220 million in produce last year, which was an 11 percent increase from the prior year.