Tag Archives: fees

Position cuts, mission shift lead to scaled-back DNR under Walker

Gov. Scott Walker promised to transform the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. And he has — cutting scientists, shrinking its budget and pushing the agency to be more receptive to industry.

And even more changes could be in store. Walker and Republican lawmakers, who hold their largest majorities in decades, are pondering whether to eliminate the agency and spread its duties across state government as well as charge people more to get into state parks and to hunt. It all adds up to a picture of a struggling agency no one recognizes any more, critics say.

“They want this chamber of commerce mentality,” said Scott Hassett, who served as DNR secretary under former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. “That’s a different image than protector of natural resources. It’s sad.”

Agency officials and the Walker administration counter that the DNR is doing fine, carrying out its mission to protect the environment and enhance resources while becoming more customer-friendly.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the DNR has become “more efficient, effective, transparent, and accountable” since Walker took office.

Republicans have long criticized the DNR, saying its pollution and hunting regulations are too strict, making it difficult for businesses to expand and draining the fun from outdoor sports.

Walker’s three state budgets cut $59 million from the DNR and eliminated nearly 200 positions, including half of its science researchers.

Last month DNR officials announced a major reorganization to deal with staffing cuts, including allowing large livestock farm operators to use consultants to help write permit applications so DNR staff won’t have to spend so much time on them.

The budgets also have scaled back the stewardship program and removed support for state parks, leaving them to survive on fees.

That’s created a $1.4 million deficit in the parks account, and Walker’s now mulling raising access fees.

In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited 75 deficiencies in how the DNR handles water regulation. Two environmental groups sued the DNR in 2014 to force the agency to adopt federal air pollution standards that were published a year earlier. The agency finally adopted them late last year.

This past June, state auditors found the agency wasn’t following its own policies for policing pollution from large livestock farms and wastewater treatment plants.

The audit also found a permit backlog for large farms, with DNR employees not having enough time to closely monitor the farms’ operations.

Last fall federal regulators visited the DNR to investigate claims that the agency is failing to enforce water pollution laws and regulations. The EPA hasn’t released any findings yet. And last month the agency removed language from its website that stated human activities are causing climate change, saying instead that the cause is debatable even though most scientists agree burning fossil fuels causes global warming.

What’s more, waning interest in hunting has resulted in fewer license purchases, creating a $4 million gap between revenue and spending authority for habitat management projects. The DNR has suggested Walker make up the difference by raising hunting and fishing license fees.

“So many changes and roadblocks have tied DNR’s hands so dramatically that they’re really not able to do the job the public expects them to be doing,” said Amber Meyer Smith, a lobbyist for environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin, a plaintiff in the air lawsuit.

Scott Manley, a lobbyist for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group and a key Republican constituency, said the DNR has become friendlier to businesses and is still doing its job despite the staffing cuts.

DNR spokesman James Dick cited a list of accomplishments. They included improved air quality — a DNR report released in September found air pollution has dropped statewide over the last decade — efforts to recruit hunters and the purchase of a conservation easement on 67,000 acres in northern Wisconsin, the largest conservation purchase in state history.

He also pointed out the agency is working to correct the EPA-identified deficiencies, walleye stocking has expanded and the agency has made strides in building a customer service image.

“There will always be critics who vocally disagree with what we’re doing but we prefer to note the accomplishments we’ve made over the last five years,” Dick said. “Since the start of this DNR administration, we have always believed it is possible to protect the environment, wildlife habitat and other natural resources without impeding the economic growth and development of our state.”

The agency still isn’t getting any love from GOP lawmakers. Rep. Adam Jarchow has resurrected a proposal to split the DNR into two new departments that would handle wildlife and pollution and spread the rest of the agency’s duties across three existing agencies. He has said the DNR doesn’t function in its current form.

Republicans have tried to break up the agency before but have failed in the face of opposition from outdoor clubs and environmental groups. Still, Walker has said the plan is worth pursuing. Five former DNR secretaries who served under both Democrats and Republicans, including Hassett and George Meyer, now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, sent Walker a letter last week urging him to keep the agency intact.

Meyer, who served under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, said in a telephone interview that Walker is building a “negative” environmental legacy.

“His idea of customer service,” Meyer said, “is really just a business customer service.”

No repairs for state’s roads, which are among nation’s worst

Data released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Transportation found the condition of Wisconsin’s roads to be fourth worst in the nation. According to DOT, 71 percent of the state’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

But Wisconsin’s transportation chief said he wouldn’t ask for any major tax or fee increases, acknowledging that such a move would delay road expansion work and upkeep on all but the state’s most-traveled highways.

Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb told the Wisconsin State Journal that his budget due in September will focus on maintaining the state’s bridges and highways, instead of expanding the well-traveled roads and preserving those lesser traveled.

In contrast to the budget proposal he submitted two years ago, it wouldn’t outline ways to increase funding for Wisconsin roads, Gottlieb said.

“The decision about whether or not that’s enough investment in transportation — or whether additional revenues should be raised to make more investments — is a decision that the Legislature and the governor will make,” he said.

Gov. Scott Walker told reporters that he stands by his commitment not to add a gas tax or raise vehicle registration fees unless there’s a corresponding decrease in state taxes.

“I’m not going to add to the overall tax burden on the hardworking people of the state,” Walker said.

Walker has initiated massive tax cuts for corporations and the state’s wealthiest citizens, but virtually increased taxes on the poorest and hurt the middle class.

In the 2015–2017 budget, Gottlieb asked for about $750 million in new taxes and fees, including those on fuel sales and new-vehicle purchases. But the Republican-controlled Legislature rejected those proposals, fearing it make them politically vulnerable after promising not to raise taxes.

The Legislature has slashed funding to the University of Wisconsin system and public schools in order to pay for tax cuts to the wealthy

If his latest budget request is adopted, Gottlieb said it would delay highway projects throughout the state, but it’s too early to tell which projects would be delayed and for how long. Many projects that are well underway could be halted, prolonging massive traffic jams and driver safety.

Walker said his priority would be maintaining existing infrastructure and addressing safety concerns.

“There will probably not be any whole new wave of major projects,” Walker said. “For the ones we’ve talked about, we’ll have to figure out ways we can continue those, but we won’t be adding huge new projects on top of it.”

Republican state Rep. Keith Ripp of Lodi said rural districts like his own “have already been hit hard by delays” in funding in the current budget.

“We really need to be looking at long-term funding solutions before our infrastructure starts negatively affecting Wisconsin’s economic growth,” he said.

Gottlieb said maintaining bridges and U.S. interstates and highways will be a priority. But he acknowledged that would come at the expense of maintaining other roads.

“That non-backbone system, which is about 90 percent of the state highway system, is going to continue to deteriorate in condition,” Gottlieb said.

 

 

Wisconsin state park fees to go up

It’s going to cost more to get into Wisconsin state parks in the new year.

State budget provisions raising park admission and trail fees go into effect on Jan. 1. Wisconsin residents will have to pay $28 for an annual park pass, up from $25, and $8 for daily admission, up from $7. Annual trail passes will increase from $10 to $25 and daily trail passes will go from $4 to $5. 

Other laws that go into effect on Jan. 1 include:

• provisions creating a sales tax exemption on construction materials for government buildings.

• allowing researchers access to data on Milwaukee’s voucher school program participants.

• transferring oversight of community-based juvenile justice programs from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Children and Families.

Fact checking the first Republican debate

The 10 Republican presidential hopefuls who took to the stage for their first debate in Cleveland faced a daunting task in distinguishing themselves among a sprawling field of candidates. Along the way, they puffed up their own records in office and public life and veered occasionally from the truth.

A look at some of the claims in the debate and how they compare with the facts:

DONALD TRUMP on illegal immigration: “The Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning. And they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them.”

THE FACTS: Illegal immigration from Mexico has steeply declined since 2000, when Border Patrol agents arrested roughly 1.6 million. Last year, agents at the border apprehended about 230,000 Mexican nationals.

For the first time last year, the apprehension of immigrants from other countries outpaced those from Mexico. An increasing number have come from Central American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, spurred by poor economic conditions and high levels of violence in those countries.

MARCO RUBIO, on allowing abortions for rape or incest: “I have never said that. And I have never advocated that.”

THE FACTS: He’s parsing his words. It may be true that Rubio has never said that publicly, but he’s supported legislation that included such exceptions.

In 2013, Rubio was one of 40 senators to co-sponsor a bill called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would have banned abortions after 20 weeks and set up a likely confrontation with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade.

That bill contained a number of exceptions, including cases of rape or incest that have been reported to law enforcement or where the mother’s life is at risk. Rubio’s support for the overall bill, which never received a vote in the Democratic-run Senate of 2013, was widely perceived as support for rape and incest exceptions.

JEB BUSH, on his goal of 4 percent economic growth: “We can do this.”

THE FACTS: Most economists say the U.S. under any president is unlikely to grow consistently at even close to 4 percent, largely due to the difficulty of overcoming decades-long trends.

Current forecasts put growth averaging half the rate of Bush’s goal. To grow the economy faster, the country must either add more workers or increase their efficiency so their time on the job generates more income. The retirement of the baby boom generation will shrink the number of workers in the economy, making a huge increase of new employees unlikely.

Only four of the 16 presidential terms since World War II have experienced annual economic growth averaging more than 4 percent after inflation, according to research published last year by Princeton University economists Alan Blinder and Mark Watson.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: “We brought the budget into balance with no tax increases.”

THE FACTS: Not exactly.

As New Jersey’s governor, Christie in his first term cut the earned income tax credit, which largely benefits low-income workers, from 25 percent of the federal credit to 20 percent. He surprised Democrats this summer by proposing to bring it up to 30 percent. Democrats quickly approved the change.

Christie also repeatedly delayed implementing the Homestead credit program, which grants property tax relief, even as he capped property tax increases overall. He also extended the sales tax on online purchases to out-of-state retailers and pushed for higher taxes on e-cigarettes, but failed.

So while Christie indeed vetoed a number of proposed tax increases, his record isn’t free of hikes in taxes or their close cousin: fees.

TRUMP: “If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigration.”

THE FACTS: Republicans have been talking about immigration for at least 30 years, including former President George W. Bush and the Republican field in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. In 2013, an immigration overhaul seeking to address illegal immigration passed the Senate with strong Republican support, although the House never took it up. And Republican debate about immigration has only intensified in the wake of President Barack Obama’s sweeping executive action shielding from deportation millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

BUSH: “You get rid of Obamacare and replace it with something that doesn’t suppress wages and kill jobs.”

THE FACTS: According to the Labor Department, the unemployment rate was 9.9 percent in March 2010, when Obama signed the Affordable Care Act. In June of this year, it had fallen to 5.3 percent. The economy has added more than 12 million jobs since March 2010.

While the health care law doesn’t seem to have had a major impact on jobs, some lesser consequences are likely. The Congressional Budget Office projected that having government subsidized health insurance will prompt some people to leave the labor market, since they can get coverage without a job.

And although Republicans may be able to repeal Obama’s law, it’s unclear if and how they would replace it. The party has yet to rally behind a plan of its own, partly because of internal ideological differences. Some Republicans say it would be the 2016 presidential nominee’s job to forge a consensus.

BUSH: “During my eight years in office, 1.3 million jobs were created, and we left the state better off.”

FACT CHECK: Yes, but by December 2009, 900,000 of those 1.3 million jobs had been eliminated.

During Bush’s tenure as governor, the state benefited from a huge housing bubble that then burst just as he left the governor’s mansion. Home prices jumped 160 percent in Florida from 1999 through 2006 _ more than double the national increase of 74 percent — according to real estate data provider Zillow.

That growth fueled a 50 percent jump in construction jobs, and the boost to home values made many Floridians feel wealthier, leading them to spend more. Home prices started to fall in 2006, Bush’s last year in office.

TRUMP: “I built a net worth of more than $10 billion.”

THE FACTS: Trump’s precise net worth has long been a moving target.

Documents filed with the Federal Election Commission put Trump’s wealth at $8.7 billion. But the form requires disclosures of value ranges, not precise sums. The FEC also doesn’t specify how to value real estate, leaving Trump free to assess many of his proprieties in the highest bracket _ over $50 million.

Trump argues many of his properties are worth even more, a claim that cannot be verified without access to his private documents. He’s valued his personal brand and marketing deals at $3.3 billion.

Yet other assessments put his wealth at far less. Forbes Magazine valued his brand at just $125 million, and last month, Bloomberg News estimated his total worth at $2.9 billion.

Associated Press writers Alicia A. Caldwell, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Deb Riechmann, Christopher S. Rugaber, Lisa Lerer and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.


GOP would increase sales taxes to fix potholes while borrowing $1.3 billion for unneeded highway projects

Do the potholes in your neighborhood look like they belong in Syria?

No surprise. The conditions of Wisconsin’s roads rank third worst in the nation, according to a recent study commissioned by the Local Government of Wisconsin Institute.

The low ratings mark a dramatic decline for the state, which ranked 22nd in the country just 11 years ago. Fewer than half of Wisconsin’s roads rated as “good” or better, the report found.

According to the study’s researchers, the poor condition of our roads affects almost every industry and motorist in the state.

But now Republican lawmakers might give locals a new mechanism to maintain their roads — with a new tax. State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Halzehurst, and state Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, have proposed giving voters the ability to increase their local sales tax by one-half cent to pay for road upkeep. That means people in localities that adopt the sales tax would then be paying four separate tax streams for road and highway upkeep.

Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which advocates for responsible land use, says the plan is highway robbery.

Most Wisconsinites believe the fees they’re charged for license plates, coupled with the gas taxes they pay when filling up their tanks, go toward keeping their roads in order. Those fees and taxes are collected into the state Transportation Fund. The original plan was to have the fund reimburse up to 80 percent of the costs of local road repairs to the communities where they were raised.

But times change. Today only about 20 percent of the money is returned to the localities where it’s paid. Instead, most of the money in the Transportation Fund pays for state highway projects, which, of course, do nothing to patch up the potholes that throw your car out of alignment.

Nor do they do much to relieve traffic, since many of the massive new highway projects are located on highway corridors where traffic use is declining. That’s because projects are based on obsolete WisDOT traffic projections.

Automobile use has dramatically declined as the state’s population is graying, car ownership among young people is falling and gas prices are volatile. Between 1981 and 1991, the number of miles driven in Wisconsin grew by a rate of 35 percent. In contrast, the growth rate from 2003 to 2013 was zero.

Researchers hired by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin compared the WisDOT traffic projections used for planning 11 upcoming major highway projects with today’s actual vehicle use of those highway stretches. They found that traffic counts on all of the projects are unlikely to come close to WisDOT’s outdated projections.

For example, the area of expansion on I–94 between Milwaukee and Kenosha is experiencing an annual traffic-rate reduction of 0.88 percent, far lower than the 0.75 percent increase projected by WisDOT. At the same time, the expansion work has caused horrendous traffic delays and accidents.

“WisDOT is projecting a 23-percent increase in traffic on I–94 near (Miller Park) by 2040,” said Hiniker. “However, actual traffic counts show that traffic has actually decreased by 8 percent along that stretch of highway. Present trends show that the WisDOT projections will never be achieved.” 

Despite these facts, Gov. Scott Walker wants to issue $1.3 billion in bonds to cover the projects already planned. The plan would leave the state that much more in debt, even as it faces a current budget deficit. The $1.3 billion is in addition to the money that’s already available in the Transportation Fund.

GOP lawmakers have balked at Walker’s highway borrowing plan, with most seeking to reduce its size at the least. Several have instead proposed to increase licensing fees and gas taxes, including Walker’s transportation secretary Mark Gottlieb last November.

But Walker has rejected that strategy, saying that fees are virtually taxes and he will not raise taxes.

Still, legislative Republicans are not on board, with even Walker’s most ardent supporters saying the state needs to find a sustainable solution for maintaining its transportation infrastructure. GOP state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who has overwhelmingly supported Walker’s policies in the past, complained that the bonding plan amounts to kicking the can down the road, a charge that Democratic supervisors on the Milwaukee County Board frequently leveled at Walker. The former Milwaukee County executive, Walker left the county with more obligations in debt repayment than money to spend on services, according to current County Executive Chris Abele.

Politics appear to prevent Walker from either endorsing the new taxes or cutting back on highway spending. Conventional wisdom is if Walker approved a tax increase, it would kill his chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination. At the same time, road builders are among the most generous and dependable campaign contributors, and Walker could have his sights set on their financial support for his presidential aspirations.

So he’d rather borrow and, according to his critics, leave someone else in charge when the bill comes due.

But back to those potholes. In the past, property taxes filled in the growing funding gap between Transportation Fund disbursement to local governments and the cost of local road maintenance. But Walker froze property taxes in his first two budgets, leaving local lawmakers with no way to raise the money.

Now, faced with the choice of halting expensive highway projects, raising road-related fees or property taxes, the Legislature has floated the proposal of allowing local citizens to vote themselves a one-half cent sales tax increase. Ostensibly, Walker could then claim that he didn’t raise taxes — the people raised their own.

“It’s a hold-up,” Hiniker says. “The people are already paying taxes to maintain local roads, but their money is being used to build highways in other parts of the state. It’s unreal.”

Walker budget raises taxes and fees by $43 million

An analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau finds that Gov. Scott Walker’s budget would raise taxes and fees by $48 million.

The report released Monday also determines that Walker proposals to bolster tax collection would bring in nearly $125 million in additional revenue over the next two years.

Walker faces a budget shortfall of at least $2.2 billion. Although he’s greatly reduced education expenditures and other government services since taking office, he’s offset the resulting budget gains with massive tax cuts to the very wealthy and giveaways to his corporate backers. The red ink looks bad for Walker, who is a leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

The bulk of the tax increase, $22 million, is Walker’s proposal to delay implementation of a law that expanded when retailers could claim certain sales tax reductions for bad debt.

That law is set to begin in July 2015 but Walker is calling for it not to take effect until 2017.

Walker’s budget would also increase annual state park vehicle admission fees by $3 and nightly camping fees by $2, raising $1.9 million annually.

U.S. Conference of Mayors backs minimizing barriers to naturalization

The U.S. Conference of Mayors has voted this week to overwhelmingly pass a resolution urging U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and U.S. Department of Homeland Security to make policy changes that will increase the number of U.S. citizens from the pool of eligible lawful permanent residents.

The resolution emphasizes that it is in the interest of the federal government, especially USCIS, to minimize barriers to naturalization by reducing fees for citizenship applicants and “offering alternatives like a sliding-scale income based approach or family unit fee.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti introduced the resolution, which was co-sponsored by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay.

The measure passed with the support of Wisconsin mayors Tom Barrett and John Dickert.

“Our country has always been a country of immigrants,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “I stand with other mayors in support of this resolution which urges the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and U.S. Department of Homeland Security to make policy changes that will increase the number of U.S. Citizens in our cities. It is important to Milwaukee families, in particular to Hispanic Families, and respectful of people who contribute to our economy.”

Racine Mayor John Dickert said, “It’s time we set aside the rhetoric and pass immigration reform.

The National Partnership for New Americans, of which Milwaukee-based Voces de la Frontera is a member, applauded the resolution and has been calling for the reduction in the cost of U.S. citizenship for millions of eligible New Americans for over three years.

“Wisconsin has 90,000 lawful permanent residents, and we should ensure that each of them have full opportunity to achieve their dreams of citizenship,” said Freya Neumann-Ortiz, citizenship coordinator for Voces de la Frontera. “This resolution is a great step forward in recognizing the hopes and needs of these New Americans.”

Since January 2012, NPNA has helped 29,560 immigrants across the country become U.S. citizens, saving $36,240,320 in legal fees and fee waivers. Each N‐400 application fee is $680 and legal fees, on average, cost each applicant $1,000.

A 2013 report released by NPNA and the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration found that high naturalization fees have priced out hardworking immigrants who wish to become citizens. The report shows that the citizenship fee has nearly tripled from $225 in 1999 to $680 in 2008. As fees have risen, applicants with less than a high school diploma have plummeted by more than half while there are 40 percent fewer Mexican immigrants applying for citizenship. In both cases, over half of these declines have occurred since a huge fee increase in 2007.