July 30, 2014

Federal trade agreements could impact Wisconsin agriculture

As work continues on new federal trade agreements, some farmers are raising concerns about the impact those deals could have on Wisconsin agriculture.

Close door negotiations have been underway on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Matt Urch, a farmer from Viroqua, says those deals could force changes to state ag programs and policies. He worries that requirements, such as country of origin labeling, or even local food purchasing programs, could be struck down as barriers to trade.

Urch recently traveled to Washington D.C. with the Food and Ag Justice Collaboration to lobby lawmakers on the future of the trade agreements. Both deals are expected to broaden markets for U.S. products in both Asian and European markets. However, Urch says there are also concerns that they could flood the North American market as well with new competition, which local producers may have a hard time competing with.

In addition to the possible impact of those deals, he says another concern is that the talks are being done largely in secret, with little input from the public or Congress. “Our concern is that, first of all, they are trying to get fast track authority for these agreements, which would mean Congress would have very limited input.”

Urch says the negotiations need to be more transparent, and include more input from key industry stakeholders.

Supreme Court decisions expected on Voter ID, Act 10, domestic partnership registry

The Wisconsin Supreme Court (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

The Wisconsin Supreme Court (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

The State Supreme Court is expected to rule Thursday on three major issues. Opinions are scheduled for release dealing with challenges to portions of Act 10, Governor Scott Walker’s controversial law that stripped most public employee unions of their ability to collectively bargain, a law requiring voters to show a state-issued photo ID card at the polls, and the Wisconsin’s domestic partnership registry.

The Act 10 case is based on a Dane County judge’s 2012 decision that it violates the constitutional rights of teachers in Madison and public workers union in Milwaukee to free assembly and equal protection under the law. A federal court has already upheld the law in its entirety.

The Supreme Court previously heard a challenge to Act 10 that was based on arguments that passage of the law violated the state’s open meetings laws, after lawmakers called a rushed committee hearing to advance the legislation during massive protests at the Capitol in the spring of 2011. Justices eventually ruled that the law was passed legally.

The impact of a decision on the voter ID requirement will likely be limited by the fact that a federal challenge remains active that has also blocked its enforcement. The high court heard two challenges to the law in February; one filed by the League of Women Voters and the other by the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP. The League claims the law is unconstitutional because it creates a new class of voter, those who lack a photo ID, while the NAACP argues it disenfranchises voters who may have difficulty obtaining a photo ID that qualifies under the law. The challenges resulted in an injunction being issued in early 2012, shortly after the voter ID requirement was in effect for just a single election.

The domestic partnership registry was created under the 2009 state budget, but was challenged by conservative groups who argue it violates the state’s 2006 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. A federal judge recently struck down the ban, although the ruling is being appealed.

Walker backs plan to keep aid from companies that outsource jobs

WRN file photo

WRN file photo

A proposal to keep state tax dollars from going to companies that outsource jobs picks up bipartisan support.

The plan, offered by Democratic state Representative Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) at Monday’s board meeting of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, would require businesses that receive state aid to sign a document indicating the assistance was necessary to keep the business open. It would also require those businesses to notify the state if they plan to outsource jobs or reduce their Wisconsin workforce. Companies that outsource jobs would then lose that economic assistance from WEDC.

The proposal comes in response to reports that multiple companies in the state received state tax credits through WEDC, and then sent jobs out of the country. Barca says the proposal would “help WEDC ensure that taxpayer assistance is never being used to support outsourcing.”

Governor Walker came out in support of the plan on Monday, saying “I don’t think any of us want taxpayers’ money going in any way to a company or organization that’s going to send jobs outside of the state.”

Walker asked WEDC staff to put the proposal on the board’s agenda for its September meeting.

There’s been a heavy focus on the issue of outsourcing in the campaign for governor, with Walker attacking likely Democratic opponent Mary Burke over jobs Trek Bicycle, her family-owned company, moved to China. Burke and Trek have argued she had no role in that decision, noting that Trek still employs a thousand people in the state.

Ryan offers plan to fight poverty

U.S Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)

U.S Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)

Despite spending $800 billion a year at the federal level to help the nation’s poor, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) says the U.S. faces the highest poverty rate in a generation. The House Budget Committee chairman outlined a series of proposals Thursday during a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington he says are aimed at improving the situation.

Part of Ryan’s plan would consolidate 11 national programs into a single funding stream, allowing states to test different ways of providing aid to those in need. He says the opportunity grant pilot program would allow states to voluntarily try out new methods for delivering the social safety net, which could then be tested and evaluated for broader implementation. The move is designed to allow those in poverty to visit just a single office to receive multiple critical services, rather than having to visit multiple agencies and deal with layers of red tape.

The Congressman’s plan, titled “Expanding Opportunity in America,” also calls for federal lawmakers to adopt a series of proposals offered by members on both sides of the political spectrum. Those include doubling the size of the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults, along with implementing reforms to the education system and in how the nation sets guidelines for rehabilitating non-violent criminal offenders.

Ryan says he hopes the proposals, developed with the help of stakeholders across the country, will help spark a national discussion about poverty and the fact that the nation “can do better” to address the problem.

State criticized over decision on contraceptive mandate

Representative Chris Taylor (File photo: WRN)

Representative Chris Taylor (File photo: WRN)

Advocates for access to birth control say Governor Scott Walker’s administration is improperly using a U.S. Supreme Court ruling as an excuse to not enforce aspects of a state law.

The state Office of the Commissioner of Insurance said this week it would stop enforcing portions of a 2009 state law that requires prescription drug plans to cover contraceptives, in the event an employer raises a religious objection. OCI claims it has no choice in the decision because of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in a case filed by Hobby Lobby, which argued the mandate to cover contraceptives included in the Affordable Care Act infringed on the company’s religious freedoms. The nation’s high court agreed that closely-held companies could not be forced to violate their religious beliefs by paying for the coverage.

State Representative Chris Taylor (D-Madison) argues the ruling in the Hobby Lobby case has no effect on Wisconsin’s law though. The Madison Democrat, a former official with Planned Parenthood, says “Hobby Lobby concerned the interpretation of federal law. It does not impact our state laws.” She says multiple legal experts have looked at the issue as well and have come to the same conclusion.

Taylor claims Governor Scott Walker is simply using the Hobby Lobby decision as an excuse to continue chipping away at the reproductive rights of women. “He had no authority to unilaterally decide that this administration is not going to enforce a law passed democratically through the Legislature.”

Taylor notes that the move comes after previous efforts by Walker to repeal the contraception requirement have failed in the Legislature.

UPDATE: This story was edited after publication to clarify the specific circumstances of OCI enforcement of the contraception mandate.