MADISON - Opposition grew today to the governor's budget proposal to borrow $1.3 billion dollars for highway projects, instead of raising taxes-and-fees for them.
Speaking to a meeting of the Wisconsin Counties Association, state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) repeated his concerns about building up the state's debt. Still, Vos said new money has to be found to pay for necessary roads -- and he's open to increasing vehicle registration fees according to how many miles people drive. State Senator Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) said the transportation funding plan by his fellow Republican in the executive branch gives him the "biggest heartburn" of anything in the two-year, $68-billion dollar budget. Earlier today, a coalition of a dozen groups of road builders, local governments, and labor unions criticized the increased bonding. They said it's unsustainable over the long term -- and if it's approved, 25-percent of transportation fund revenues would be used to pay for debt service. The coalition called that "astounding."
One member of the state Natural Resources Board says she's left speechless by Governor Scott Walker's budget plan to strip the board of its policy-making powers. Walker wants to turn the board into an advisory panel for the DNR secretary -- who would get full control of the agency which oversees the environment and the outdoors. Board member Jane Wiley said the move would be an incredible mistake. She also questioned whether it would reduce or eliminate input from the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, an advisory group of sporting enthusiasts. Board member Christine Thomas said Walker's proposal would eliminate chances for the general public to take part in what she called a transparent policy-making process. A DNR spokesman said Secretary Cathy Stepp would still respect the board's advice.
As Governor Walker travels around the state today to promote his budget package, lawmakers and lobbyists back in Madison are raising questions. Even a school choice advocate wonders about the Walker's plan to end enrollment limits for low-income students getting tax-funded vouchers to attend private schools. A pro-rated tax subsidy would come from the state aid of the public schools which lose the students. Jim Bender of School Choice Wisconsin fears that the new payments could end up lower than the current voucher payments. Democrats and educators are also against the measure, saying it reduces public school aid that would be flat under Walker's budget. Students from public schools could enter the voucher program at any time, but those in other private schools could only enter at kindergarten, first grade, or ninth grade. Lawmakers of both parties have also expressed opposition to borrowing $1.3 billion dollars for road projects, and cutting $300-million in state funding to the UW System in exchange for future autonomy.
The state's largest employees' union raises safety concerns about the governor's budget proposal to eliminate tower guards overnight at Wisconsin prisons. Gov. Walker's proposed two-year budget would cut 60 jobs in the Corrections Department, and about 400 jobs throughout state government. Walker recommended technology and ground patrolling to secure prisons during the third shift. State Employees' Union director Marty Beil tells WLUK-TV in Green Bay that several inmates have tried escaping during the third shift, and were stopped by guards keeping watch from the towers. The Corrections' agency told the TV station it's confident that its staff will implement the plan without risk to either the public or internal safety. Officials said the idea has been brought up since the mid-1990's -- and it's being looked at by others nationwide. Corrections' officials called it a "question of modern technology innovations related to prison design, versus historical precedence." It said towers were included in nearly every prison design from the 1800's through the late 1900's.
The century-old Wisconsin Idea could disappear under Governor Scott Walker's proposed state budget. Walker removed language requiring the UW to have a public service mission that extends beyond its 26 campuses. Instead, he listed the state's "workforce needs" as a core mission. The Center for Media-and-Democracy dug up the language in "Section 1000111" of Walker's massive budget proposal. It also found that Walker struck language ensuring that the university's mission is to "extend training and public service designed to educate people, and improve the human condition." Walker also took out the line, "Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth." For decades, the UW declared that the Wisconsin Idea means that the "boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state." Former UW president Charles Van Hise once said he would never be content until the university's beneficient influence "reaches every family in the state." UW-Milwaukee professor Mark Schwartz told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "The budget cuts are one thing. This aims at the heart of the Wisconsin Idea and smashes it." Walker's budget would cut state funding to the UW by $300-million over the next two years, in exchange for giving the university autonomy for operations and setting tuition.
Governor Walker's budget proposal to borrow $220-million for a new Milwaukee Bucks' arena has "zero chance" of passing in its current form. That's what state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) told Wisconsin county officials in Madison today. However, if the city and county of Milwaukee join in to help with the up-front money, Vos said its chances of approval rise to 80-percent. Walker recently said he anticipated that the city and county would be included in the final financing package. Under the governor's plan, the bonds would be paid back with higher income taxes from an projected increase in NBA player salaries tied to a new league television package for showing its games. State Senate Republican Tom Tiffany of Hazelhurst said the state's commitment should be less than half of what Walker suggested. He says it should be more like $100-million dollars. The governor said taxpayers would not left on the hook, and it's the players who will eventually foot the bill. Critics say that's not a guarantee -- because things like a strike or an owners' lockout could wreck Walker's plan. Present and former owners of the Bucks have put up $250-million for an arena to replace the 27-year-old Bradley Center.
The Menominee Indian tribe paid $60,000 this week as a last-ditch effort to build a new casino and resort in Kenosha. Tribal gaming authority chairman Gary Besaw confirmed today that the tribe renewed its option to buy land at the former Dairyland Greyhound Park. That's where a Hard Rock Casino and Hotel was planned before Governor Scott Walker rejected it late last month. Besaw admits to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that the tribe's chances of building an off-reservation casino in the state are slim. He did say the Menominee is still considering legal options for challenging Walker's rejection, as well as ways to sweeten its offer to try and change Walker's mind. A billion dollars in payments to the state over 25 years was not enough. That's what the tribe pledged in the final days before the governor's rejection. Walker has said the Kenosha casino opens the risk of having to refund millions of dollars in present-and-past state payments from the Potawatomi tribe, due to language in its most recent gaming compact. Besaw says the Menominee won't give up until February 19th, which was the federal government's deadline for Walker's final decision.
Governor Walker will attend the Iowa Agriculture Summit on March 7th, as he continues campaigning for his possible presidential bid. There was speculation earlier this week on whether the Republican Walker would attend, because it would most likely force him to take a stand on ethanol. Today, the Des Moines Register said GOP insiders and contenders' aides have confirmed that Walker and fellow possible White House hopefuls Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Perry would be there. The paper said all the potential candidates would most likely be pressed on whether they support expanding the Renewable Fuel Standard, to require gasoline to have a larger percentage of ethanol. Walker walks a fine line on the issue in Wisconsin, where corn farmers would benefit from the increased ethanol requirement while makers of small engines say it could wreck the units that power things like lawn-mowers.
Wisconsin's only major harbor on Lake Superior would get more federal money under President Obama's 2016 budget package. The Duluth-Superior harbor is in line to get an extra $6.6 million dollars for operating and maintenance costs. Most of the increase would be devoted to dredging and recreation projects. The Obama budget totals almost four and three-quarter billion dollars in discretionary funds for the Army Corps of Engineers' civil works program.
If you're convicted of drunk driving in another state, and Wisconsin authorities don't catch it, you do not have to confess to it. That's what a state appeals court ruled, when it threw out a criminal OWI case against 38-year-old Benjamin Strohman of Suamico. He was convicted of driving drunk in Illinois in 1999. But when he was arrested in Green Bay for OWI in 2005, a municipal court treated him as a first offender. He pleaded no contest and paid a fine. In 2013, Strohman tried getting the municipal conviction dropped, saying he should have been charged with a second offense instead. The conviction was vacated, but he was later charged with two criminal misdemeanors for second-time OWI. Strohman said the charges were not valid, because a three-year statute-of-limitations had long expired from his 2005 case. But a judge didn't buy it, siding with prosecutors who said Strohman had an obligation to tell the municipal court about his Illinois conviction -- and that took the statute-of-limitations clock back to the beginning. The Third District Appellate Court in Wausau disagreed, saying Strohman was under no obligation to come clean about any offenses the state didn't know about. That dismissal could help him in a pending case in Portage County, where Strohman was charged January 16th with third-time OWI. He's due in court for that February 16th. He could face a lesser penalty now that one of his two convictions is wiped out.
The Wisconsin-based Kohl's Department Stores had their best holiday shopping season in four years. The Menomonee Falls retailer said today that same-store sales from October through December were 3.7 percent higher than a year ago. The recent holiday season was among the strongest in years for U.S. retailers, as shoppers benefited from lower gas prices and an improved economy. Kohl's was among those expanding its hours and promotions in December, to boost sales at its brick-and-mortar locations. Stores were open for more than 100 straight hours through Christmas Eve. Kohl's issued its holiday sales report in advance of its quarterly earnings summary that's due out February 26th. The company announced an improved earnings outlook for its last fiscal year. It now expects earnings to be $4.20-to-$4.22 per share, after estimating it would be on the low-end of a $4.05-to-$4.45 scale.
Wisconsin made more cheese during the holidays, but at a slower pace than the nation as a whole. The USDA said cheese factories in the Badger State produced 251-million pounds in December. That's up by one-point-three percent from the same time a year ago, but it was only about half the national increase of two-and-a-half percent. Wisconsin continues to be the nation's No. 1 cheese producer, making just over a quarter of all cheeses produced in America. Second-place California matched the national hike of two-and-a-half percent for December. Wisconsin's cheddar output was over nine-percent larger than the previous year. American cheeses were up seven-percent, and Italian cheeses up two-percent. For 2014 as a whole, U.S. cheese production totaled 11.4 billion pounds, an increase of two-point-eight percent from the previous year.