State Government and Political Roundup: Gov. Walker likely to veto taxing on minerals taken by mining companies
MADISON - The governor's office has indicated that Scott Walker would veto a proposed tax on minerals taken by mining companies.
Spokesman Cullen Werwie remains opposed to tax hikes. But according to state Senate Democrat Tim Cullen of Janesville, Wisconsin mines would still get a better tax deal than similar sites in neighboring Minnesota - even with the so-called "tonnage tax." The tax was part of Cullen's alternative mining bill, which he introduced after he objected to the package introduced by majority Republicans. State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) told a business conference in Madison yesterday that some of his fellow Republicans have supported the tonnage tax - but he's against it, and he's sure that Walker would veto it. The GOP package would tax mining companies on their income, as opposed to starting a brand new tax on what's taken out of the ground. Cullen said Republicans are ignoring the law they passed a year ago, in which miners and other companies will have no corporate income tax liability by 2015. Meanwhile, the Americans for Tax Reform sent an e-mail to Walker and certain legislators, saying the tonnage tax would violate their pledge not to raise any taxes. The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee will be the next to consider the mining package. No date has been set for that.
Five central Wisconsin legislators have asked their colleagues to do a flip-flop, and let more than one company provide software for a statewide database of public school students. The five are going to bat for Skyward of Stevens Point, which lost out on a $15-million contract and is appealing the state's decision to give it to a Minnesota firm. Both firms already provide student data software to individual Wisconsin schools - and those which use Skyward say they'll have to spend up to a half-million dollars to convert to the other company's system. Assembly Democrats Amy Sue Vruwink of Milladore and freshman Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point are sponsoring the bill to allow multiple vendors - along with Assembly Republicans Scott Krug of Nekoosa and Marshfield freshman John Spiros. Stevens Point Democrat Sen. Julie Lassa is sponsoring a similar bill on the Senate side.
The governor and Legislature voted in the last session to allow a single vendor for the statewide system, which will let schools get information about things like grades and health records for every public and charter school student in Wisconsin. State Superintendent Tony Evers defended the single-vendor system this week, saying it's more efficient and economical. The lawmakers said schools should be able to choose the software that's best for their districts, and Spiros says it's important to promote local firms. Skyward said the state's evaluation system was flawed in picking the Minnesota vendor of Infinite Campus. And Skyward says it will have to leave Wisconsin if it doesn't win its appeal.
A Wisconsin Senate committee is open to giving the UW System more flexibility to manage their budgets and set tuition. But at a hearing yesterday, the lawmakers made it clear that the public university must remain accountable to state officials and taxpayers. The Senate's Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges discussed recommendations from a task force on giving UW campuses more flexibility, so they can do more with less money. Panel members said the Legislature will tread carefully, after learning that the university's new centralized Human Resource computer system overpaid 34-million dollars in benefits to a number of its 79,000 employees. Board of Regents' vice president Michael Falbo told lawmakers it should never have happened, and the UW is doing everything it can to fix it. The task force urged legislators to consider a number of flexibility proposals. They include a change in the system's governance to give campus advisory boards more of a say, and moving employees to new UW personnel systems. The task force said the Board of Regents should give lawmakers a comprehensive plan on the setting of tuition. It also recommended merit pay for top employees, but without extra funding from taxpayers.
Wisconsin lawmakers will hear more today about accusations that a Middleton foster care agency overcharged taxpayers by over six-million-dollars. The Senate Health-and-Human Services Committee will hold a hearing on a recent state audit of Community Care Resources. It accused owner Dan Simon of taking state foster care reimbursements for inflated salaries, lavish trips, and maintaining fleets of personal vehicles and boats. State officials said the firm exploited weaknesses in the government's financial oversight. The Department of Children-and-Families has revoked Community Care's license, and it's seeking repayment of the overcharges - which reportedly totaled one-dollar for every three tax dollars the firm received. Simon defended the reimbursements, saying the owners were grossly underpaid.
State Supreme Court Justice Pat Roggensack was put on the defensive yesterday, as fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley renewed concerns about her safety less than a week before Roggensack stands for re-election. Bradley submitted a court filing which said she was given added police security over two months before Justice David Prosser put her in a choke-hold in a June 2011 altercation. Prosser was not charged in the incident. But Bradley said that to this day, she and Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson lock themselves in their offices when working after hours because they remain concerned about Prosser's behavior. Roggensack's been trying to downplay the court's internal strife in her campaign, calling it "gossip at its worst." She said yesterday that the court has had no major outbursts since the 2011 blowup. Roggensack said she also works nights and weekends without locking her door - and if there's a security plan, she wants to know more about it. Her campaign consultant, Brandon Scholz, said the timing of the liberal Bradley's court filing was political. If Roggensack loses in Tuesday's primary, the Supreme Court would lose its conservative majority.
Bradley denied trying to sway voters, while both of Roggensack's primary opponents expressed new criticisms. Vince Megna said Bradley quote, "confirms the sickness of our court." Ed Fallone said Roggensack should retract her comments that everything's fine, and apologize to Bradley. In her court ruling, Bradley withdrew from a possible ethics ruling against Prosser, saying she was a direct witness to the behavior in question. A majority of the justices have now withdrawn - and it does not leave enough to rule on a complaint against Prosser from the state's Judicial Commission.
Governor Scott Walker says he knows he'll be accused of not caring about people in his Medicaid reform strategy under the Obama health reform law. But Walker told the state's largest business group yesterday that it's just the opposite. He said he wants to empower people to control their own destiny, and make fewer people dependent on the government. The Republican Walker confirmed that his budget would reduce income limits for Badger Care and other Medicaid programs to exclude those above the poverty line. It would remove limits on childless adults in Badger Care, and it would move those not in poverty to the federal government's insurance exchanges. State Health Secretary Dennis Smith clarified late yesterday that the changes would not affect the elderly and disabled in Medicaid programs - and it would only affect income-based recipients. He said 87-thousand people would be dropped from Medicaid, but 82-thousand others would get in for the first time - so the net drop would be five-thousand-dollars. Still, Smith said the state would have to spend an extra 650-million dollars on Medicaid in the next two years due to rising costs. Walker rejected a full expansion of Medicaid - one of the options in the Obama health package - and he turned down millions in federal money to pay for it. Democrats blasted the move, and some said Walker was putting politics before people. But Senate Joint Finance chair Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) says the federal money could be taken away down the line.
For the second time in a year, U.S. Senate Republican Ron Johnson of Oshkosh has voted against re-authorizing the popular Violence Against Women Act. Yesterday's vote was 78-22 in favor of renewing programs that prevent-and-respond to domestic and sexual abuse. Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Madison voted with the majority, while Johnson called the measure unconstitutional. The 19-year-old package lapsed in 2011, after getting routine bi-partisan renewals. But it got caught up in partisan wrangling since then. Johnson voted no last April to reauthorizing the act, and he accused Democrats of politicizing the issue. He said it should have included an interstate DNA database to catch sex offenders who cross state lines - and more analysts were needed to reduce backlogs of DNA evidence in rape cases. This time, Johnson objected to letting tribal courts prosecute non-Indian men who are arrested for abusing tribal women on reservations. He called it an unconstitutional expansion of tribal authority. The Oshkosh lawmaker also questioned the costs of the domestic abuse act. Some analysts said it would add two-billion dollars to the federal deficit - and Johnson said he was stymied to find out the real costs. Johnson said he supported an alternative package which does not include what he called "serious flaws." Maggie Brickerman, the director of the State Democratic Party, called Johnson's vote quote, "blind extremism."
There's an interesting development in the case of a State Capitol protestor who has almost 25 citations for not getting state permits for his demonstrations. 28-year-old Brandon Barwick was scheduled to go on trial two weeks from today on five of his citations. But the Dane County judge hearing the case - Nicholas McNamara - said he, too, was arrested for protesting nuclear arms in the 1980's. And he offered to withdraw from the Capitol protest case at the request of either party. Neither side asked for it, but McNamara still had to provide time to file any objections. So Barwick's trial has been pushed off - and he's still waiting to find out when it will be. Barwick tells the Madison Capital Times that trials are being scheduled in May and June - and he hopes he doesn't have to wait that long. Most of Barwick's citations were for leading the Solidarity Singers in their protest sing-alongs against Republican policies. Other protestors have had their tickets dropped, after another judge ruled that the language of the state's permit policy applies only to organizers, and not to those just joining in. The ACLU sued the state this week, claiming it's unconstitutional to require government permits for demonstrators. State officials say they're needed to maintain order at the statehouse - and other states have them with no problems.