News from the Capitol and around Wisconsin
Whether you were cheering for the Patriots or the Falcons last night, we can all agree that it was one heck of an ending! Welcome to another WPT Capitol Report. We hope your week is off to a great start.
This week, we'll touch on a few recent news topics; Governor Walker's proposed boost in rural school aid, his plan to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), more news on inflated transportation estimates, a push for an earlier start date for Wisconsin's schools, an introduction to Wisconsin new Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and more.
We would also like to remind members that our Capitol Reports, Newsletters, and helpful resources are available on our website at www.WPTonline.org under the Current Members tab. Just enter the member password wpt2016 and enjoy all of the latest news and information in one easy spot.
As always, we hope you find the Capitol Report to be interesting and informative. If there are any topics you would like to share, or if you have any questions or comments, never hesitate to reach out to us directly at email@example.com.
Have a great week,
Last week at WPT
By: John Jacobson
Let me start by saying; the best part of my week came at the very end, when I had the chance on Friday to meet a WPT employee in Waupaca, and spend some of the day visiting small business owners.
It's always refreshing to get out of Madison and to sit down with our members and have discussions about the direction of the state, and which issues matter most. As you can guess, the repeal of the PPT was mentioned, but many other issues were also discussed. I had a conversation in Waupaca about school funding, and a few talks about property taxes and a referenda in Amherst, where I saw signs on businesses' doors regarding a campaign contribution referendum on the spring ballot.
Driving from one businesses to the next, I also spent some talking with Kathy Bean, our Business Representative Manager for the region. She spends all day, every day, having conversations with owners, employees, and property owners alike. She's a great asset to our organization, and takes a lot of time transcribing conversations she has around the state, and sending them to me to see if WPT can take action or assist.
While my field trip was fun, it was also eye-opening to the hardships that many small businesses face each and every day, sometimes just to keep their doors open at the end of the month. It's one thing to speak with members over the phone each day, but to sit down and have a conversation face-to-face makes me appreciate my work even more. Thank you to both Kathy, and all of the people I spoke with on Friday.
Between Monday and Thursday, my conversations had a bit of an agriculture focus. Our organization has a history of advocating on behalf of Wisconsin's farm and agriculture community. I met with Kara O'Connor, the legislative director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union to discuss opportunities where we might work together regarding incentives for young people to start careers in agriculture, and where we might be able to help aging farmers sell their farms to young people, whenever they're ready for retirement.
As many of you are aware, WPT has worked on several initiatives that would help move this process along. One thing I hear repeatedly from farmers is; "My land is my 401K." But the capital gains tax can create a nightmare situation when it comes time to sell. We will be working throughout the legislative session to address some of these concerns. I have also submitted a budget request to Governor Walker, that he reinstate the Beginning Farmer and Farm Asset Owner tax credits in the upcoming state budget. While it won't fix the larger problems, small tools like these tax credits can help ease the burden.
Many people do not realize that the average age of Wisconsin's farmers is on the rise, at a high rate, while the total number of dairy farms in the state is at a historic low, somewhere around 9,000. We can and will act, sometimes in concert with other organizations, to reverse this trend.
Additionally, last week, I worked with some of our organization's agriculture representatives on a plan to get more of Wisconsin's farmers in contact with their members of Congress, regarding several issues, including the Dairy Margin Protection Program, Check-Off Reform Bill, Voluntary Check-Off Bill, and others. It's critical that Wisconsin farmers express support for several of these initiatives, that will hold Washington DC special interest groups accountable, and put money back in the hands of Wisconsin's farm families.
I hope you have a great remainder of the week. If you wish to reach out to discuss anything you've read, or just to say hello, please don't hesitate to reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rural schools to get a boost under Governor's proposal
Governor Walker last week introduced a proposal that would give quite the boost to rural schools.
Under the plan, schools in sparsely populated districts will receive an additional $20 million. These communities would also receive $10 million more in high-cost transportation aids, and more than $22 million in increases for the technology grant.
The move was applauded by current State Superintendent Tony Evers, who released a statement shortly thereafter, saying; "I applaud the Governor's proposal to provide much-needed resources to our rural schools. For more than a decade, I have been working with leaders of rural schools and their communities to find ways the state can help them address the issues they face."
Evers was not the only elected official happy with the plan. Some Republicans recently began urging Governor Walker to prioritize rural schools, however those calls quickly turned to thanks as soon as the announcement was made.
"I am very pleased to see the Governor has made rural schools a priority in this upcoming budget," said Rep. Joel Kitchens, a Republican representing the Door County area.
Representative Mary Felzkowski (formerly Czaja) of Irma also applauded the plan, and said she could not be more excited, particularly for the increased investment in the Fabrication Laboratories Grant Program.
"Fab Labs use innovative teaching techniques that truly help students with a broad spectrum of learning abilities," Felzkowski said. "This increased funding will take great steps towards expanding that impact statewide."
While, for the most part, elected officials seemed pleased with the announcement, others took a different approach.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, who won her re-election bid in November by just 58 votes, accused Governor Walker and Republicans of prioritizing the wealthy over Wisconsin's students.
"Students are being denied a quality education and Wisconsin schools are falling further behind," she said, "Because Gov. Walker continues to prioritize tax breaks for the wealthy."
Her statement went on to say that Democrats are committed to restoring state funding, and lowering property taxes. Noticeably but not surprisingly absent from her remarks were any specific solutions or proposals from Democrats.
Make sure to share your thoughts in the weekly member poll below.
Here's a breakdown of the plan:
Increase Sparsity Aid by $20 million, bringing total Sparsity Aid to $55.4 million over the biennium.
Increase per pupil reimbursement rates for school which previously qualified for Sparsity Aid to $400 per pupil.
Create a new $100 per pupil tier in Sparsity Aid for districts with 746-1000 pupils.
Provide 100% reimbursement for rural school districts in the High Cost Transportation Aid with $25.4 million over the biennium.
Provide $92,000 over the biennium for pupil transportation and increase reimbursement rates for pupil transportation for $365 for 12+ miles, $10 for 2-5 miles in summer school, and $20 for 5+ miles in summer school.
Increase funding for Teacher Training Grants through Technology for Educational Achievement (TEACH) by $22.5 million. This allows schools to apply for grants for allowable costs under the Infrastructure Grant Program.
The Teacher Training Grant Program will continue to be funded at $3 million over the biennium. This allows school districts to apply for grants for allowable costs of training teachers to use educational technology.
Allow school districts to apply for TEACH grants for mobile hot spots on buses and mobile hot spots for students to take home.
Increase the Broadband Expansion Grant Program by $13 million.
Opportunity to Recruit and Retain Teachers.
Include a provision that requires the UW Flex Option to develop a program to train paraprofessional currently working in schools.
Wisconsin Fast Forward grant funding may be available for school districts to apply for grants for help pay tuition for paraprofessionals getting training.
Clarify stat law to permit a district to compensate student teachers.
Flexibility Through School District Shared Services.
Allow school districts to enter into agreement to share or jointly provide: Reading Specialist, Bilingual-Bicultural Education Programs, Lifesaving Skill Instruction, Emergency Nursing Services, Attendance Officer, Guidance and Counseling, Technical Preparation Programs, and Services for Gifted and Talented Pupils.
Investment for Fabrication Laboratories (FAB LABS).
Major DOT project estimate increases by $140 million
If you've traveled through Madison recently, you know that portions of the massive beltline are under construction.
An updated cost estimate, released by the new DOT Secretary Dave Ross, said that estimates to rebuild the Dane County interchange have increased by $140 million, from $410 million to $550 million.
Ross has vowed to find ways to save on these projects, are estimates are updated. "I am directing staff to completely re-evaluate the design to gain efficiencies," he wrote.
A cost adjustment for inflation has also unveiled that eight other major highway projects around the state will cost an additional $104 million by 2023. If lawmakers decide to delay funding for those projects, those inflation costs would increase.
With rising costs continuing to come out of the woodwork, it has added enormous pressure on lawmakers and Governor Walker to find a sustainable funding solution for roads. While many are taking these inflated costs and underestimations as fuel for raising the gas taxes, Governor Walker said he remains opposed.
Proposal introduced that would change school start dates
In 2000, Wisconsin enacted a law that prohibits public schools from starting their academic years earlier than the month of September.
It was a move that was largely pushed by the tourism industry in our state, but schools and administrators are now pushing back, with some help from Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Representative Jim Ott (R-Mequon), who have circulated a bill that turns the decision on when to start the school year back into the hands of local school officials.
When the change was first made, the tourism industry argued that it hurts their bottom line if school started in August, which is one of the most profitable months for that industry all across the state. Schools and administrators on the other hand, want the ability to align the school year with sports practices and other activities, that often begin before classes do.
The proposal would not change the number of days in a school year, and would not require schools to begin classes before September 1st, but merely give them the option again.
"School districts that choose an earlier start date would be able to dismiss earlier for summer vacation," according to the co-sponsorship memo from Rep. Ott's office. "In past years, some schools have been holding commencement as late as June 18th. LRB-1378 would return scheduling control back to school districts which are strongly supported by our local school superintendents," it read.
Gov. Walker proposes increase to Earned Income Tax Credit
Governor Walker last week announced his plan to increase the state's EITC.
The Wisconsin Earned Income Tax Credit is a tax cut that benefits low to middle income working people in the state. The Wisconsin credit is an extension of the Federal Earned Income Tax Credit which is based on a number of factors, including income, marital status, and the number of qualifying children that the filer has.
Nearly 400,000 people received the federal credit in tax year 2015, which amounted to the credit being worth around $2,200 per person. Wisconsin is one of 26 states that have their own version of EITC, and our state is the only that does not offer the credit to workers without children.
Under the Governor's proposal, about $20 million would be used to increase the credit for 130,000 Wisconsin families, benefiting mostly parents with one child, and newly-married couples. Lower-income parents with one child would see their benefit increase from $135 to $371.
In his statement, Governor Walker said, "too often public assistance programs penalize people for making the decision to form the environment that is best for their children. Wherever we can, we will seek to reduce the barriers that public assistance programs put in the way of marriage and increase the reward to work."
Democrats responded by attacking Governor Walker and Republicans on the issue, while again offering no changes or solutions of their own.
"Republicans think people won't remember that they put Wisconsin families on the chopping block to save money mere years ago," State Representative Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) said. "Republicans would rather give backdoor tax breaks to their rich friends," her statement also said.
WPT Weekly Member Poll Results:
Manufacturing & Agriculture Tax Credit, legislative redistricting ruling, WisDOT audit, Fond du Lac lead mandate, and more
Last week, we shared the some information on the Wisconsin Manufacturing and Agriculture Tax Credit, and the most recent numbers associated with that credit. We also talked about the federal court's ruling for new maps, the DOT audit that uncovered over $3 billion in underestimations on projects, and the plan from the Fond du Lac council to mandate lead replacements for homeowners.
As always, we wanted your thoughts.
According to the nonpartisan legislative fiscal bureau, the manufacturing and income tax credit will have provided $1.4 billion in tax relief to manufacturers and some agriculture industry by 2019. Some would like to see this credit repealed, and the $1.4 billion spent elsewhere. Others argue that the credit has helped save jobs, and makes Wisconsin competitive. What do you think?
About 65 percent of respondents believe we should keep the credit, and that manufacturers and agriculture need the help.
"We are a high tax. We have to lower that some how."
"Sometimes making changes for the sake of making changes leads to bigger problems elsewhere. I think we need more information on this before a final decision can be made."
"Our co-op passes the tax deduction onto their members. In this case, it is a creamery."
"This tax credit was GOP politicians paying their corporate donors back. Never should have been enacted, and should be repealed YESTERDAY."
"Keep the jobs in Wisconsin."
A federal court has unanimously ordered Governor Walker and the legislature to redraw the maps by the Fall 2018 elections, in order to make the districts more competitive, and not skewed so heavily towards one party. How do you feel about this decision?
About 44 percent of respondents support the court's decision, while about 40 do not. 15 percent aren't sure.
"The court says it's wrong. Fix it."
"With extreme gerrymandering...Sometimes a few people in a given ward are in different representative districts. This requires separate ballots for just a few people (Could be onl ONE person)"
"Draw the districts once and then leave them along. Gerrymandering is part of the problem. How can you have fair elections when the lines get re-drawn to favor one or the other, and re-drawn as the side needing it to skew to them can find a way to do it? Stop messing with it!"
"To the winner go the spoils."
"It would be good for the public if we had more competitive elections."
"Voters should pick their politicians, not the other way around. There is an inherent unfairness in Wisconsin's gerrymandering. Want power? Rely on having a better message and convince voters you can execute the best. Gaming the system is for cowards."
"How often are you going to change?"
An audit of WisDOT has uncovered $3 billion in underestimated costs on highway projects in Wisconsin. Assembly Republicans are now requesting a "full review" of cost estimates in ongoing mega and major highway projects planned or bugeted, and a review of all projects not yet enumerated, and a comprehensive report on all projects since 2010 documenting estimated and actual costs. Do you believe more oversight is needed for future DOT estimates?
Nearly 90 percent of respondents believe DOT should have more oversight with its cost estimations for major highway projects.
"How about some speedy execution."
"To go back 28 years and then conclude. The DOT has underestimated costs by $3 billion is meaningless analysis and irresponsible reporting. If the DOT missed by $3 Billion over 10, 20, or 30 years on estimates, and never spent the money in the end, why does it matter. Reporting the facts on DOT in an accurate and meaningful manner would be appreciated by everyone."
"Get better information and move on. Each study means that much less blacktop!"
"Don't understand why the past projects were not completed when budgeted and planned. What happened to the dollars that were budgeted?"
"In my business, we have to do our work as we bid it, period. If there is a cost overrun, I usually have to eat it. We are now finding that most companies just issue a change order and add on, add on, add on... They see "government job" and think "oooh time to make big big big money here!" It's time to tell contractors that if you bid the job for x amount, you are ONLY getting X AMOUNT."
"Engineers are way over paid. And have no motivation to keep the cost of a project down. Prevailing wages have hurt too."
"What these Contractors do is get the Road Contract and then sit on it til they are finally ready to do the work. Maybe penalize their deliberate delay of the start and slow performance."
"This is a media headline about nothing, and just a smokescreen for political forces to confuse the subject. STOP THE PRESSES. Estimates get old and need to be updated to reflect inflation."
Fond du Lac might mandate that property owners replace their service pipes if they contain lead. It could cost an average of $3,000, with some assistance available for the city. Do you agree or disagree with this potential mandate?
About 35 percent agree that it should be mandated, and nearly 50 percent believe it should be voluntary.
"If analysis determines unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water, then the problem needs to be corrected."
"Not everyone can afford the $1,800 that would come out of their pocket to do this. Perhaps a no interest loan to the property owner."
"Yes, I replaced the lead service line to my property. It was in the estimated ball park. I'm glad I did it."
"But it should be public record of which home do the replacement so future owners will know."
"Normally, I'd say private infrastructure should be the domain of each individual. Except when homeowners don't fix their lead pipes, and their families end up impaired. Society pays a large cost."
"Low interest loans would be helpful."
A clipper system will drop 2-3" of snow across much of Wisconsin today and tonight. Are you counting down the days until spring yet?
It's a tie! And how about your energy costs? They predicted above average fuel costs this winter.
"Normal to below normal"
"Electric rates have increased."
"Enjoy each season. But a week in Mexico helps break up the winter."
"About the same"
"You know, back in the 70s, there was an issue about not having enough heating fuel for the city of Gary Indiana- and it was mandated to have enough on hand for an outage. I kind of feel like the consumer is getting hijacked, financially, on a regular basis. It's time to tell these service providers that they have to keep prices stable, and quit jacking the prices around."
"Our energy cost is pretty normal, as we have electric heat."
"Below normal...very mild winter."
"Hope the roads are safe for travel tomorrow. Waiting for spring."
Daniel Zimmerman appointed as head of Dept. of Veterans Affairs
Retired lieutenant colonel and military intelligence officer Daniel Zimmerman has been appointed by Governor Walker to serve as Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, effective immediately.
"Dan's career is defined by public service," Governor Walker said. "Wisconsin's veterans deserve the best care and services possible, and with Dan's experience in the military and government, I know he will serve as a tireless advocate for Wisconsin's veterans."
First on the agenda, Governor Walker has directed Zimmerman to immediately conduct a thorough assessment of the operations at Wisconsin's veterans home and to schedule regular discussions with the County Veterans Service Officer Association and veterans service organizations.
"We service some of our most vulnerable veterans at our veterans' homes, and I expect nothing short of the best when it comes to the care of these patriots," Governor Walker said. "Improving communication between the WDVA and veterans service organizations and officers will also be a priority for Dan."
Zimmerman is a decorated combat veteran, having received the Bronze Star Medal twice, and the Meritorious Service Medal five times. He holds a masters degree in Homeland Security from American Military University in West Virginia, and received his bachelors degree from UW-La Crosse.
Recently, Zimmerman has worked as a training consultant for the US National Guard Bureau, and as an exercize officer and threat planner at the Wisconsin Emergency Management, Wisconsin DVA. He is also VP of the Ripon Area School District Board of Education, chairman of Big Hills Lake Management District, and services as president of two non-profit charitable organizations.
Zimmerman, his wife, and four children, reside in Ripon.
After 26 months, Wisconsin's cheese production streak ends
Wisconsin's dairy and cheese plants in December produced 271.2 million pounds of cheese, but it wasn't enough to continue the streak, which lasted for more than two years, and exceeded all expectations.
The number was down 0.7 percent than in December of 2015, but was an increase of 1.8 percent over November.
Dairy officials are assuring people that this doesn't mean production is dropping or that there has been a change in demand, but might have more to do with the holiday season, and factories closing down for several days.