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Speaker’s message to Evers
Vos hopes Evers avoids 'poison pills' with his state budget plan

RACINE — With just over two weeks left until Gov. Tony Evers has to present the 2020-21 biennial budget, Republican leaders are hoping to avoid any “poison pills.”

“The first move in the chess match is really Tony Evers,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said on Monday. “Because if he puts in a billion-dollar tax increase, that means the entire budget is built on quicksand.”

Evers’ deadline to present the proposed budget is Feb. 28.

Vos, along with other Racine County and Kenosha County Republican elected officials, met with The Journal Times Editorial Board on Monday to discuss several issues, the budget in particular.

A majority of Assembly Republicans have not served under a Democratic governor and they are finding that the negotiation process will be different.

Vos, R-Rochester, said it was easier to pass legislation under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

“You could literally go from idea to signed bill within a month,” Vos said. “Now, I think the process is going to be dramatically different.”

Vos said he knows certain topics are “poison pills” that won’t pass into law such as: increasing income taxes or expanding welfare on the Republican side; or decreasing school spending on the Democrat side.

In an attempt to avoid getting into certain legislative battles, Vos said he and other Republicans met with Evers after he defeated Walker in the Nov. 6 election to discuss which areas to avoid.

“He just looked at me blankly and didn’t make any commitments,” Vos said. “And now I think he’s proceeding down that path of offering the things that in many ways are never going to happen on our side of the aisle.”

Making proposals

Although Evers’ proposed budget has not been made public, Vos said the governor’s office is “telegraphing” to Republicans that Evers might include certain provisions in his budget with which they will have a conflict.

“They are going to put in a big income tax increase on manufacturers, they’re going to put in a big expansion of welfare with more people on BadgerCare,” Vos said. “Those two are non-starters with us. So they’re never going to happen.”

In an op-ed piece provided to The Journal Times, Evers said he plans to make good on a campaign promise by cutting taxes by 10 percent for single taxpayers making less than $80,000 per year or families making less than $150,000 per year.

Evers said he wants to make sure “we have a plan to pay for (the tax cut) in the long run.”

“This year, 21 millionaires in Wisconsin who make more than $30 million a year are projected to receive $38.9 million in tax breaks without having to create or retain any jobs in Wisconsin to get it. That’s just not right,” Evers said adding he plans to roll back “handouts to millionaires while protecting farms and small businesses.”

Evers goes on to write that he hoped to have bipartisan support, “but instead of working together to cut taxes for middle-class families, Republicans in the Legislature have introduced a competing proposal.”

“Not only will you not see the tax cut on your taxes next year, they also don’t have a plan to pay for it. Republicans are protecting these million-dollar handouts to millionaires, which means taxpayers in Wisconsin will be forced to foot the bill,” Evers said. “That’s just fiscally irresponsible.”

Assembly Republicans have presented Evers with a list of ideas, based off things he said he was in favor of during the campaign, that they hope will be in the proposed budget.

Some of those ideas include increasing funding for public schools to the two-thirds threshold that existed under Gov. Tommy Thompson, expanding SeniorCare to cover flu shots, preventing homelessness and investing in infrastructure.

Vos said the Assembly is already moving forward with a tax cut for lower-class and middle-class individuals by doubling the standard deduction, and plans that to be paid for with a $340 million budget surplus.

But Vos is wary of the direction Evers wants to go.

“If you build your budget off of phony revenue numbers because you think you’re going to have all of these tax increases, that means you can promise the world to a whole lot of people,” Vos said. “I’m trying to be optimistic that maybe he will change his mind, but I’m becoming less optimistic as we go.”

Vos said the state will have roughly $1.8 billion in new revenue, “which is a lot of new money that we get to spend without changing a single tax rate.”

“(Evers is) proposing $1.4 billion for education. That’s a nice number, but if you hear our revenue is $1.8 billion, that means there’s no way you can continue to pay for Medicaid, the university system or raises for public employees, all of the other things that he wants to do.”

Paying for roads

One of the major areas legislators will have to wrestle with ideas is on transportation and paying for road projects.

“He has to make the first move in that area, too,” Vos said. “I think we need to find a long-term, sustainable funding mechanism that actually can meet the needs of where we are.”

As more cars are being built with better gas mileage and more drivers are switching to hybrid or electric cars, Vos said the gasoline tax is not a sustainable way to fund road projects.

“If you don’t have a user-fee-based system, you are never going to be able to make this work,” Vos said. “If it were up to me, I think that tolling is the better answer, because you’re going to pay per mile.”

If tolling were to become reality on Wisconsin roads, Vos said it would be placed under the umbrella of the state Department of Transportation, and that the system would be similar to the toll system in Florida.

Vos said there is a “basic philosophical difference” at hand in these discussions.

“I respect the fact that many of my Democrat colleagues believe the way you grow the economy is to give more money to the government to be able to spend on programs that help people,” Vos said. “That is a part of economic growth. If you don’t have good schools, you can’t have a good economy … all of that is true.”

But, Vos said, if taxes are raised to a level that “makes it impossible for you to live here” and it becomes difficult to pay employees or make ends meet, “then you become Illinois.”

“We’ve been able to find the appropriate balance,” Vos said. “The last budget alone included a $636 million increase to public schools, and we were able to eliminate half of the personal property tax.”

“Not only will you not see the tax cut on your taxes next year, they also don’t have a plan to pay for it. Republicans are protecting these million-dollar handouts to millionaires, which means taxpayers in Wisconsin will be forced to foot the bill. That’s just fiscally irresponsible.” Gov. Tony Evers

“If you build your budget off of phony revenue numbers because you think you’re going to have all of these tax increases, that means you can promise the world to a whole lot of people. I’m trying to be optimistic that maybe (Gov. Tony Evers) will change his mind, but I’m becoming less optimistic as we go.” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester


Evers


Local
Power plant discharge permit
Standing room only at Oak Creek power plant public hearing

OAK CREEK — It was standing room only with spillover into the hallway for a Monday public hearing over We Energies’ Oak Creek Power Plant’s water discharge permit.

Jason Knutson, the state Department of Natural Resources wastewater chief, gave a presentation on the permit, variance and plan for the power plant to be brought into compliance. The draft permit, which has been available on the DNR’s website since December, grants a variance for the amount of mercury and arsenic the plant is allowed to dump with its wastewater.

That would mean that the power plant could discharge those chemicals at a rate higher than the regulation standard into Lake Michigan. The deadline to be in compliance with the standard would be 2023.

We Energies spokesperson Brendan Conway spoke with reporters before the public hearing at the Oak Creek Community Center and after a news conference held by the Clean Power Coalition, an environmental group promoting renewable energy.

“We are not asking to be treated differently than anyone else along the lake,” Conway later told The Journal Times. “This variance is allowed by the EPA and DNR.”

Conway pointed out that other entities, including Jones Island — a heavily industrialized area at the Port of Milwaukee — have higher variances.

“What I can tell you that our numbers show we are below the max of 4.1 (parts per trillion) 99 percent of the time,” Conway added. “Further, as part of the permit, we are committing to continue to work to lower the mercury level.”

Conway attended the public hearing but did not speak.

Public testimony

The public hearing lasted more than an hour and included testimony from environmentalists, health professionals, residents and one elected official.

State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, whose district includes Oak Creek, cited Wisconsin’s history of environmentalism and conservation and said that while We Energies and the plant are “moving in the right direction” by changing their system to reduce mercury output, he took objection to the timeline.

“We Energies is immensely profitable, they pay their executives very, very well — they can afford to do the right thing by us,” said Larson. “Coal corporations can no longer hide the insidious poisons that burning coal puts in our air and water, nor can they deny the harm these toxins to do our well-being.”

Medical professionals, parents and educators spoke about their concerns that any increased mercury output would have on brain development in utero and in growing children.

David Paluch cited research from a New York Times report on the effects of arsenic on health, and from the World Health Organization and Harvard Magazine on mercury. Tom Rutkowski, chair of Southeast Gateway group of the Sierra Club, cited a study in Texas that found that “for each 1,000 pounds of environmentally released mercury, there was a 43 percent increase in the rate of special education services and a 61 percent increase in the rate of autism.”

Troy Skwor, assistant professor with the College of Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said that in his recent research, mercury levels in Lake Michigan trout and whitefish have gone up over the past 20 years.

“So how this translates: Wisconsin residents have a higher mercury blood level compared to the whole general population of the United States,” said Skwor. “Especially in people who eat more fish and are higher in age — the older you get, the more mercury you accrue. It doesn’t go away.”

The DNR is still accepting comment on the proposed permit through Feb. 18. Those who are interested can contact Knutson at Jason.Knutson@wisconsin.gov.


Local
Update
City has spent $118,000 on still unreleased, mayor-ordered police study

RACINE — The city has released the cost, to date, of the study Mayor Cory Mason ordered after allegations of racism, sexism and low morale were revealed by a survey of the Racine Police Department.

The total so far: $118,088.73. That’s how much the city has paid to Milwaukee-based MWH Law Group between May 2018 and the present. City Administrator James Palenick said he expects that number to grow, although he isn’t sure by how much, as the city awaits at least one more billing from MWH.

The study is almost done, Palenick said Monday. He expects the completed study to be presented at a meeting of the Police and Fire Commission in March, although no meeting has yet been scheduled, according to the city’s official calendar.

The amount spent thus far was revealed Monday after The Journal Times received a response from the city regarding an open records request. The figure was also discussed at a Finance and Personnel Committee meeting Monday evening.

Sixth District Alderman Sandy Weidner said she has been requesting this information for months from the Office of the Mayor, but claimed that the mayor has been ignoring her emailed questions.

She said that her inquiries have been running into “an iron curtain.”

“It shouldn’t be this hard for an alderman to get information,” she said, referring to her communication to the City Council last week, which led to Monday’s discussion within the Finance and Personnel Committee.

Almost there

While Palenick said that the vast majority of the work on the study is done, the city is presently conducting a “fact check” of MWH Law Group’s findings, in order to ensure that everything detailed within the to-be-published study is entirely factual. This is especially important and worth the waiting for, Palenick said, because of potentially sensitive personnel matters encompassed by the study.

“There are some very serious issues involved here,” Palenick said.

The city administrator is confident the study would not be postponed further. Palenick added that he, Mason and City Attorney Scott Letteney are frustrated by how long it’s already taken to get to this point.

Why no bids?

Weidner believes that the decision-making process to identify who would carry out the study should have come before the City Council and included a bidding process, not been solely approved by Mason and given to MWH.

Last June, the bidding process for a separate study of management of the Police Department was waived by the City Council at the request of Police Chief Art Howell, Weidner said, and she wants to know why that didn’t occur with the study conducted by MWH.

Letteney pushed back against this viewpoint during Monday’s meeting, pointing out how the allotment was legally allowed via city ordinance.

Usually when it comes to the “procurement of professional services,” City Council approval is needed if the cost of the professional services exceeds $50,000 in a given year. However, since MWH Law Group was paid via hourly rate for its attorneys and not a predetermined fee, then council approval wasn’t necessary, Letteney said.

Weidner claimed that this explanation was merely “a spin” executed by Letteney and the mayor to keep the City Council out of decision-making.

“Just because it doesn’t have to go to the council, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t,” she said.

Attorney’s fees for a police study

Weidner also argued that the funds used to pay for the study have been misused. The $118,088.73 spent so far came out of the City Attorney’s Office’s budget, which is set by the City Council. Weidner said the allotted money is supposed to be used when the city faces litigation and needs additional legal aid, not to be used for paying for studies of the Police Department.


GREGORY SHAVER, For The Journal Times 

Burlington's Zach Weiler tries to pin South Milwaukee's Jake Skattebo during the 132-pound championship match Saturday afternoon during the WIAA Division 1 Park Sectional at Park High School. Weiler rallied from an 8-2 deficit and pinned Skattebo in 3:52 for the championship.


Local
Hayden Halter Case
Referees, WIAA fear wrestling court ruling will have problematic statewide implications

RACINE — The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association and National Association of Sports Officials share a fear that any or all of their referees decisions may end up being legally challenged in court, reversing what had been an unchanging precedent of leaving calls and penalties on the field.

This fear was incited last Friday, when a Racine County Circuit Court judge issued a restraining order, temporarily blocking an athlete’s suspension after a wrestler’s father hired an attorney to challenge two unsportsmanlike conduct calls.

The wrestler, Waterford High School sophomore Hayden Halter, was suspended after winning the Southern Lakes Conference championship on Feb. 2. After Friday’s last-minute court hearing, Judge Michael J. Piontek found that Halter’s actions during the match were not worthy of suspension after reviewing video of the match and WIAA rules.

The WIAA’s attorneys unsuccessfully argued that a deluge of complaints and legal challenges could be on the horizon if Piontek ruled against them on Friday, which he ended up doing anyway.

An appeal of the restraining order issued by Piontek may still be filed.

Thanks to the restraining order, Halter — who won state last year as a freshman with Burlington High School — was allowed to wrestle (and win) Saturday at a regional tournament in Pewaukee. Next Saturday, Halter is scheduled to compete at the Division 1 sectional meet at Horlick High School, one step away from the state tournament.

Attorney Brent Jacobson, representing the WIAA, said in a pair of emails Monday: “At this point in time, all we can say is that our client (the WIAA) is weighing its alternative courses of action … an appeal is one option. If that option were pursued, given the stage of the proceeding at this time, I cannot say when that would occur.”

Judge overrules WIAA, Halter gets to wrestle

RACINE — Against the wishes of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, Waterford High School sophomore Hayden Halter will get a chance to defend his state wrestling championship.

The ref’s call

Barry Mano, the president of the National Association of Sports Officials, wrote a commentary titled “Calling a foul on the bench,” which is published on Page A5 of today’s Journal Times.

“Judge Piontek played armchair referee and the consequences, if left unchecked and unchallenged, will bring uncertainty and loss of belief in the outcomes of high school contests,” Mano argued.

This was a concern Piontek addressed in his decision on Friday. He told the WIAA’s attorneys and leaders that the possibility of litigation may just have to be something that the nonprofit is going to have to contend with going forward, if parents, fans or schools are willing to go through the legal process to plead their case.

Piontek added that he felt he had to reverse the referee’s decision in Halter’s case, in spite of the WIAA’s precedent, because what he saw on the recording and learned through testimony proved to him that Halter didn’t deserve to be suspended.

The implications of this decision could be damaging to Wisconsin high school athletics, according to Mano.

“Imagine how many aggrieved parents/fans will now consider using the court system to challenge a referee’s judgment call,” he wrote. “What will be coming our way will be this: often quite ordinary and mundane calls by sports officials will be subject to litigation brought by upset fans/parents.”

Non-instant replay

The WIAA doesn’t allow its referees to use video reviews in any sport in any situation, citing rules from the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Few Wisconsin high school competitions are reliably filmed. The video that was entered as evidence in Halter’s case was shot from the bleachers by Halter’s mother, Brynn.

“In effect,” Mano wrote, “Judge Piontek became the replay official, where replay is not permitted, and chose to override the decision of the official on the mat.”

Referee shortage

Mano added that this kind of criticism will make it even tougher to recruit new referees — and they’re often understaffed as is.

The Janesville’s Gazette reported in April 2018 that “veteran high school officials are retiring faster than new officials can be recruited.”

On Jan. 10, the WIAA issued a letter stating that parents who engage in “verbally criticizing game officials or coaches … (are) the primary reason Wisconsin has an alarming shortage of high school officials.”

The letter stated that 80 percent of officials quit after two years, much shorter than what had been the norm.

“Judge Piontek played armchair referee and the consequences, if left unchecked and unchallenged, will bring uncertainty and loss of belief in the outcomes of high school contests.” Barry Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials