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State Government and Political Roundup: Taxpayers to pay back a large debt in unemployment fund

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news Ellsworth, 54011

Ellsworth Wisconsin 126 S. Chestnut St. 54011

MADISON - Wisconsin taxpayers would help employers pay back a large debt in the state's unemployment benefit fund, under a budget measure endorsed yesterday.

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The Joint Finance Committee endorsed $26-million din general taxes - plus increases for employers and new limits on benefits - to help cover a $475-million debt to the federal government. The feds loaned one-and-a-half billion dollars to the state to keep jobless benefits flowing during the Great Recession. Higher employer taxes and previous benefit changes have helped pay back most of that debt. Now, the finance panel is ordering construction outfits to pay more in taxes, as well as other firms that have frequent layoffs. The most controversial change would allow more fired workers to be denied benefits, by expanding the types of misconduct which would make them ineligible. Majority Republicans say it would reduce fraud. Democrats warned that the budget language is so vague, that some who are entitled to benefits would not be able to get them. All 12 Republicans on the panel endorsed the changes. The four Democrats voted no.

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Wisconsin would reconsider its involvement in at least part of a national set of new public school standards, under a measure placed into the next state budget yesterday. The Joint Finance Committee voted 13-to-3 to halt the state's implementation of the Common Core State Standards until more hearings are held, and new findings are reviewed. Wisconsin joined 44 other states, Washington D.C., four U.S. territories, and Defense Department schools in adopting the Common Core standards three years ago. The goal was help kids get better-prepared for college or careers by the end of their high school years. State officials said the Common Core standards were only adopted for math-and-reading - and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau said those standards that have been adopted could stay in place. Under the budget measure, the Department of Public Instruction would have to hold three public hearings on those standards not in place - and the agency would have to give new recommendations. A legislative study panel could also make its own study and give its own suggestions. In other states, officials have raised concerns about federal powers as part of the new standards. Hudson Assembly Republican Dean Knudson said it's a good time to put the system on hold. The committee's vote was 13-3. Racine Assembly Democrat Cory Mason joined all 12 Republicans in voting yes.

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Two state Assembly committees are scheduled to vote today on more bills that get tougher on domestic abusers in Wisconsin. The Public Safety and Homeland Security panel will decide whether to endorse a bill from De Pere Republican Andre Jacque that would force police officers to document their actions at all domestic abuse scenes. If they don't make arrests, they would have explain why to their local district attorneys. The bill seeks to prevent a repeat of what happened in Brown Deer - where police never arrested Radcliffe Haughton in almost two dozen domestic abuse complaints before he killed his estranged wife, two other women, and himself at a Brookfield spa last fall. Also, the Assembly's Criminal Justice Committee will take testimony and make a vote on another of Jacque's bills. This one would let more evidence be used in domestic abuse investigations. Earlier, lawmakers agreed to let judges try their own systems to monitor domestic abuse suspects who are placed under restraining orders to stay away from their victims. The same panel had rejected a statewide policy to require GPS monitoring of those under restraining orders.

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A Stevens Point company that threatens to leave Wisconsin if it doesn't win an appeal of a state computer contract award might not be leaving after all. The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee voted 14-to-2 yesterday to withdraw state funds for a single company to provide a statewide database of school students. The budget measure allows more than one firm to provide the database - thus allowing Skyward of Stevens Point to continue its present service to Wisconsin schools. Skyward and Infinite Campus of Minnesota both provide student data-bases to local districts. Infinite Campus was earlier awarded the sole contract for the statewide database. Skyward claimed that state officials ignored factors which would make them the better vendor. The state's education agency rejected Skyward's appeal of the Minnesota firm's award. The Walker administration is now considering it. The finance committee's action would make an end-run around the appeal process, thus letting both firms be in the project. Infinite Campus called the finance panel's action "outrageous." It accused Skyward of using quote, "strong-arm political tactics to get its way." Skyward says it's excited about its future. It promises to add hundreds of Wisconsin employees if it wins part of the statewide project. A Walker administration official would not say if the governor would approve of the finance panel's action. Tom Evenson says Walker will review the entire budget before making individual decisions.

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Lawmakers will decide today whether the state can afford a proposed new headquarters facility for the state Transportation Department. The Joint Finance Committee will consider Governor Scott Walker's request to borrow $196-million for a structure to replace the 56-year-old Hill Farms office building in Madison. It would also house the state Department of Employee Trust Funds. Some of Walker's fellow Republicans in the Legislature hesitate to approve all the borrowing in the governor's proposed budget - nearly a billion dollars for transportation projects over the next two years. Walker's people argue that both interest rates and building costs are low right now - and they could cost a lot more in the future. Officials say an alternative is to renovate the DOT building for $142-million, but it would not provide additional space like a new structure would do.

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The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee has voted to require a closer look at implementing Common Core Standards in Wisconsin schools. The requirement was tacked on to the state budget and it will still need approval from the Senate, the Assembly and Governor Scott Walker before those academic standards would go into effect. This would have no effect on work already done by the Department of Public Instruction on reading and math standards adopted three years ago. Wisconsin is one of 45 states putting those in place - or, already having adopted them.

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Wisconsin lawmakers got an earful today at a hastily-called public hearing on two new bills to restrict abortions. Assembly Republican Andre Jacque of De Pere, one of the most vocal opponents of abortion in the Legislature, introduced both measures just last week. One would impose penalties for doctors who perform abortions only because the mother didn't want the baby's gender. The other bill bans public money to pay for abortions in public employee health insurance, while exempting religious groups and employers from having to provide coverage for contraceptives. Jacque says taxpayers should not have to subsidize quote "elective abortions, which I don't consider to be health care." Assembly Democrat Chris Taylor of Madison, a former Planned Parenthood official, said Jacque's bills would prevent certain women from getting abortions even if it's a threat to their health. Jacque disagreed, saying he'd offer exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the mother's life. Nicole Safar of Planned Parenthood said most women use birth control, including Catholics. Jacque retorted that women should pay for it with their own money. Whitefish Bay Democrat Sandy Pasch disagreed, saying birth control can easily run beyond a women's means. She criticized how rapidly Jacque's bills are going through the Legislature. Pasch called it a distraction from the GOP's quote, "abysmal record on jobs and wages." The Assembly Health Committee held yesterday's hearing.

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Two state lawmakers announced a revised effort to provide $25-million tax dollars in venture capital funds. Republicans proposed the funding to help a variety of new businesses get off the ground - but the measure stalled a few weeks ago, because the embattled Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation would have administered the funds. The WEDC has been called on the carpet for its reported lack of accountability, after a scathing audit released a few weeks ago. Now, Assembly Republican Mike Kuglitsch of New Berlin and Sauk City Democrat Fred Clark proposed a measure that lets the state Administration Department handle the funds, instead of the WEDC. Two other Democrats still oppose the revised measure. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha and Stevens Point Senator Julie Lassa say the bill still leaves medical bio-tech firms out of the program. Lassa said the measure quote, "still picks winners and losers." Tom Still of the Wisconsin Technology Council said he'd like a larger venture capital, but said the newly-revised measure is worth passing.

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Republican leaders will get more time to hammer out a compromise on giving state-funded vouchers to kids in under-performing public schools, so they can go to private schools instead. The Joint Finance Committee delayed a vote scheduled for today on Governor Scott Walker's plan to expand the 20-year-old voucher program to nine districts outside the Milwaukee area. GOP leaders almost immediately balked at the governor's plan when it was first introduced in February. They sought a compromise, but there's no deal yet. Assembly Finance co-chair John Nygren (R-Marinette) says negotiators are closer to an agreement than a week ago but quote, "We're not there yet." Meanwhile, Walker's plan to create a statewide board for charter schools was taken out of the budget this morning. Senate finance panel co-chair Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) said the issue will be considered as a separate bill later on, when it can get a higher profile. A similar plan for a state charter school board was defeated in the last session. The finance panel did not say no to everything this morning. It did agree to budget $13-million on an effort to make fishing more attractive in Wisconsin, by vastly increasing the numbers of walleye.

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If you're on unemployment, a new Republican bill would let the state government snoop into your bank account to see if you were overpaid any benefits. And if it's the government's fault that you're overpaid, the state could ask a judge to freeze your account until the matter's resolved. Assembly Republican Dan Knodl of Germantown is a co-sponsor of the bill that was quietly introduced last Friday - and rapidly moved toward public hearings today in the Assembly Labor Committee and the Senate Workforce Development panel. Knodl said his bill has two main goals - to help pay down the half-million dollars the state owes the federal government to keep jobless benefits flowing during the recession, and to protect workers if there are state administrative errors or computer breakdowns. The bill would also increase the maximum weekly jobless benefit by nine-dollars, to $370. There would no longer be benefit extensions for unemployed workers in school. Those who are denied benefits after refusing job offers would be ineligible for benefits until getting a job that pays six times the person's benefit. Current law requires an increase of four times the benefit. Knodl says the measure is about all protecting both employers and workers, and getting the state's benefit fund back to solvency.

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Veterans could go to the front-of-the-line to register for classes at all UW and tech schools, under a bill endorsed this morning at the State Capitol. The state Assembly Colleges Committee voted unanimously to give priority registration to those who've served in the military. Lawmakers of both parties are co-sponsoring the bill, which seeks to improve a veteran's chances of graduating before his or her federal GI benefits expire - thus making it possible for the state to save money. The federal program gives benefits to vets enrolled in classes for 36 months, or four regular academic years. If needed, the state provides G-I benefits for another eight semesters or 128 credit hours, whichever is longer. U-W Oshkosh already includes veterans in its early registration program. Various campuses have different programs which give priorities to groups like student-athletes and the disabled.

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