May 22, 2015

Wisconsin home sales continued climb in April

Wisconsin’s housing market continued to improve in April.

A new report from the Wisconsin Realtors Association shows there was a 17 percent jump in existing home sales in April, compared to the same month in 2014. The group said 6,355 homes were sold last month, up from just over 5,400 last year.

The WRA says sellers also saw a nice increase in the prices homes were selling for, with a median of $154,900. The figure is up almost 11 percent from April of last year.

WRA economist Dave Clark says it was a strong month for sales, which is a good sign as the housing market moves into its busiest months of the year.


Wisconsin Democrats want federal WEDC probe

Sen. Lassa, Rep. Barca (WRN photo)

Sen. Lassa, Rep. Barca (WRN photo)

Democrats in the Wisconsin legislature want an outside probe of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. They’re calling for a federal investigation, in the wake of a Wisconsin State Journal report that the owner of a Milwaukee construction firm received a half-million dollar business loan that Governor Walker’s top aides had pushed for. The 2011 loan’s recipient was a donor to the campaign of Governor Scott Walker, and the loan is now in default.

“At first, the loan that they were after was for $4.3 million,” noted state Senator Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point), who noted that Paul Jadin, then serving as CEO of WEDC, raised concerns about the loan, which was made to Building Committee Inc.

Lassa serves on the WEDC board, along with Representative Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), who said an outside investigation is warranted. “We’ve passed the Rubicon,” Barca said during a press conference with Lassa at the Capitol on Monday. “We’ve passed the point in which believe that we can handle this internally within the board.”

In a statement, Walker spokeswoman Laural Patrick said the lawmakers have access to WEDC reports and staff, and that the call for an investigation is “political gamesmanship.” Walker on Friday asked lawmakers to end the loan program.

“Governor Walker once again proposed completely upending the state’s job creation programs, simply as a way of deflecting attention from the fact that his aides apparently used their influence to swing a WEDC loan to one of his campaign contributors,” Lassa said.

A WEDC spokesman said the agency is continuing to pursue all methods possible of collecting the BCI loan.

“From the time the loan was issued, WEDC diligently monitored and tracked this loan, and when it became clear BCI was unable to secure funding to repay the loan, WEDC aggressively pursued repayment, declared the loan to be in default, and ultimately secured a legal judgment against the company. We are continuing our efforts to have that judgment enforced,” said Mark Maley, WEDC Public Information Manager. “The decision to write off the BCI loan was included in a report that was presented to the full WEDC Board on October 21, 2014.”

Wisconsin Senate committee will take up prevailing wage repeal

Right-to-work protest at Capitol

Right-to-work protest at Capitol

A Wisconsin state Senate committee is set to act next week on a bill to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law, potentially setting the stage for Capitol protests by organized labor.

Labor committee chairman, Senator Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) has scheduled a public hearing for Tuesday, and a committee vote on Thursday.

“The big thing is, it’s going to diminish quality of work on projects that are done by communities across our state,” said Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee). “You’re not going to have the same high standards that folks are used to.”

Under the prevailing wage law, workers on publicly financed projects must be paid the same hourly wage, benefits and overtime as other workers, based on a complex formula and wage surveys around the state.

Republican proponents of repealing the decades-old law claim it would save taxpayers money, pointing to a study by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, which found that state and local governments would have saved $200 to $300 million in 2014 by paying “market-based” wages on taxpayer financed construction projects. The study was commissioned by the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin.

While Nass forges ahead  with repeal in his Senate committee, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos indicated this week that he doesn’t have the votes for that, and will try instead for adjustments to the law within the state budget.

“This may just be an Assembly versus Senate Republican kind of thing, where the right hand doesn’t know what the far right hand is doing, or they’re just trying to compete for how far they can go, and take our state over the edge,” Larson said.

Opponents of the measure claim it will decrease wages for all workers. “They’re not hiding the ball anymore,” said Larson. “This is it. They’re trying to reduce wages, so I encourage everyone to show up and make sure there voices are heard on this.”

Debate on Republican authored right to work legislation earlier this year saw hundreds of union members and supporters converge on the Capitol for days of protests.

Drug screening for benefits bills get hearings in Madison

Healthy foods (WRN photo)

Healthy foods (WRN photo)

Some public benefits recipients would need to pass drug screenings under terms of bills getting public hearings at the Capitol on Thursday. State Representative Mike Rohrkaste (R-Neenah) would require people receiving food stamps and unemployment benefits – including some job training programs – pass drug screenings.

“These bills require that individuals who are receiving state assistance and unemployment assistance be screened for potential substance abuse,” Rohrkaste said. “That screening can include a drug test in order to keep receiving these benefits.”

“Most employers in Wisconsin require a pre-employment drug test, and far too many times people fail such tests, and are never hired by that particular employer,” said Rohrkaste, whose bills mirror language contained in Governor Scott Walker’s state budget. “I thought the governor’s ideas were good, and I thought it was important to build on those and add a little bit more structure.”

In addition to Rohrkaste’s drug screening bills, a second bill that would impact Wisconsin resident receiving food stamp benefits also received public hearing.

The measure from state Representative Robert Brooks (R-Saukville) would require participants in Wisconsin’s FoodShare program to spend two-thirds of their monthly allotment on nutritional foods. Brooks claimed that’s not always happening now. “I’ve gotten numerous calls, I’ve done interviews with numerous clerks that work at grocery stores, and have heard tons of stories of reported abuses,” Brooks said.

His legislation would also strike items like lobster and crab legs from the list of allowed foods. “My intent is not to stigmatize, is not shame people – although that’s been the accusation out there – into not using the program,” Brooks said. “It’s just to better align it with it’s intended purpose to be a supplemental nutritional assistance program.”

“It is seeking to legislate the urban myths in our society,” said state Representative Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee). “It’s the fear that somebody on food stamps is buying steak and lobster and champagne, and it’s just not true.”

All three bills were heard by the Assembly Committee on Public Benefits Reform, established by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos at the start of the legislative session. “We will work to provide fair and helpful programs to Wisconsin citizens in their time of need, and to provide maximum accountability to the taxpayers who provide significant investments in these programs,” said committee chairman, Representative Mark Born. (R-Beaver Dam).

Proposal would target firms that outsource Wisconsin jobs

Senator Dave Hansen

Senator Dave Hansen

A Wisconsin state legislator wants to withhold state funding from firms that outsource jobs. State Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) said it may not be possible to end outsourcing – but it may be possible to prevent subsidies to those that do. He’s proposing legislation that would prohibit companies from applying for or receiving taxpayer assistance for five years if they are found to have outsourced jobs from Wisconsin after receiving state aid.

“We may not be able to stop outsourcing altogether, but we can and should make sure that the hard-earned dollars of Wisconsin taxpayers don’t pay for it.”

Hansen said he decided to introduce the bill after news accounts of Eaton Corporation’s decision to outsource 93 jobs from Watertown – after receiving approximately $370,000 in tax credits from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. Eaton, an international firm based in Ireland, reported quarterly net income of $466 million.

“They always talk about holding people accountable for welfare fraud, we would like to do the same with businesses that are applying for corporate welfare, and I would say fraudulently accepting money and sending our jobs overseas,” Hansen said.