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Study claims prevailing wage repeal could be costly for Wisconsin

Photo: WisDOT

A new report argues repealing Wisconsin’s prevailing wage could lower worker’s wages and put a heavier burden on taxpayers.

The study by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute claims a full repeal of the prevailing wage would cost taxpayer $336 million-dollars annually, due to lost wages shifting more workers to social safety net programs. Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) says that should have Republicans re-thinking plans to remove the requirement from state-funded government construction projects.

“This should be a game change for Republicans,” Barca said, during a news conference at the Capitol Tuesday. “I’ve heard my colleagues across the aisle say repeatedly that they want to give people a hand up not a handout. Repealing prevailing wage does the exact opposite of that as it actually assures more workers will need government assistance.”

The state’s prevailing wage requirement sets basic salary requirements that must be paid for those working on government-funded projects. GOP lawmakers previously repealed its use on the local level, and a proposal being considered this session would extend the change to state-funded projects. Supporters argue the move will lower the cost of government-funded projects, while allowing non-union companies to more easily compete for that work.

Finance committee rejects Scott Walker’s self-insurance plan

Lawmakers at the Capitol reject a provision of Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal. The governor’s proposed switch to a self-insurance plan for state employees received a unanimous thumbs-down by the legislature’s 16 member budget-writing committee. Joint

“We think our track record has been so solid . . . we don’t think that there’s any reason to start making major shifts, said Joint Finance Committee co-chair, Senator Alberta Darling.

The budget panel met Thursday for the first time in two weeks, and there is still no consensus between Assembly and Senate Republicans on the key issues of funding for education and transportation. “I think we’re closer together on education than we are on transportation,” said committee co-chair, Representative John Nygren. “I agree,” said Darling.

State Senate approves tougher carjacking penalties

The Wisconsin state Senate has passed a bill doubling carjacking penalties. It’s largely in response to carjackings by young men in Milwaukee, but Milwaukee Senator Lena Taylor urged Senate colleagues to innovate, just incarcerate “misguided” youth and others. “Put them on a pathway to a career in industry that can transform their lives and our community.”

While Milwaukee Senator LaTonya Johnson shared Taylor’s concerns about incarceration rates in Wisconsin, she also said that “these children stick guns in the faces of individuals, to take their cars. That is not the time for us to try to give them a job.”

Johnson was one of six Democrats to join majority Republicans in a bipartisan vote to pass the bill, now ready for consideration by the Assembly. The bill increases the penalty for carjacking from up to 6 years in prison to up to 15. Repeat offenders could face 12 and a half years in prison rather than the current six.

The Senate also passed Assembly legislation aimed at assisting people with opiate addictions. One measure would protect addicts from prosecution when they receive assistance from police or other first responders in overdose situations, provided that they seek drug treatment. The second would extend the state’s voluntary and involuntary commitment programs for alcoholics to drug addicts. Both bills are now ready for Governor Walker’s signature.

The Senate also approved a fast-tracked measure to make some changes top the state’s voucher schools program. Voucher schools would be required to conduct background checks before hiring staff, and would no longer need to meet some academic standards.

The Senate also passed – on a voice vote and with no debate – a bill that would allow home bakers to sell “face-to-face” without a state license. Bakers would be required to register with state consumer protection officials and sell less than $25,000 a year.

The Senate also approved making Veterans Day a state holiday. State employees currently get a floating holiday, which would be replaced by the paid day off on November 11th.

Wisconsin Assembly calls for constitutional convention

The Wisconsin state Capitol.

Wisconsin is a step closer to joining the list of states calling for a constitutional convention to take up a balanced budget amendment.

The state Assembly on Wednesday passed a resolution that could make Wisconsin the 28th state to request a convention – out of the 34 required. State Representative Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) argued the move is needed to help get federal spending under control, since members of Congress have proven unwilling to act on the issue. “$20 Trillion is our federal debt at this time,” Knodl noted. “My constituents are concerned about this.”

Critics warn the convention could have unintended consequences though, and argued during debate in the Assembly that the rules could easily be changed to go beyond balancing the budget. Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) said it could become a runaway convention. “It can repeal the Bill of Rights, it can repeal the 5th Amendment, it can repeal the 2nd Amendment, if you want it,” he warned.

Republicans dismissed those claims, saying the state’s delegation would be charged with focusing only on the balanced budget amendment.

The Assembly also passed bills aimed at establishing the state’s delegation, if enough states join the call for a convention to take place. The proposals now head to the state Senate, where their future is uncertain. Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) has previously raised doubts about whether Wisconsin should get involved in the issue.

Lawmaker wants life jackets optional on stand-up paddle boards

Photo: Andrew BeckettA state lawmaker wants to make life jackets optional for adults using stand-up paddle boards.

The water craft have exploded in popularity in recent years, as have the number of people cited for not wearing or having a personal flotation device available while using one. State Representative Paul Tittl (R-Manitowoc) says it’s unreasonable for hundreds of people to receive tickets in those situations.

Tittl argues wearing a life jacket should be optional for paddle boards, which are typically used on calmer bodies of water. He’s introduced legislation that would allow users age 18 and older to go without one, although they would need to have a tether attaching them to the board. He says that would make it so “if you would fall in the water, you could basically pull back on that little tether rope, and have your flotation device right there.”

The change would not apply to bodies of water in the state that are under federal jurisdiction, such as the Great Lakes and Mississippi River.

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a public hearing at the Capitol.

Lawmakers still ‘far apart’ on key budget areas

JFC co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling & Rep. John Nygren

As a stalemate continues over a new state budget, Senate Republicans met behind closed doors Thursday to discuss where they stand on key points that remain under negotiation.

Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), who co-chairs the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee said after the meeting that they are making progress. However, she said the Assembly still needs to come to the table on issues such as transportation and K-12 education funding, along with what impact those areas will have on property taxes. “We want to stick with the governor’s priority, which is to hold the line on property taxes and hold them to the 2014 level…and that’s where we have a difference on the meeting of the minds,” she said.

Assembly Republicans have outlined plans on both areas. They have called for less borrowing to fund roads and lower increases in classroom funding than what Governor Scott Walker initially proposed in his budget.

While they have some differences with the governor’s plan, Darling said the Senate GOP is sticking with the governor’s call for a $200 per pupil increase in the first year, and a $204 increase in the second year of the biennium. On transportation funding, Darling said the two sides remain “far apart” on bonding and taxes.

The conflict has led to some speculation the two chambers could start working on their own budget plans. During a stop in Merrill Thursday, Assembly JFC co-chair John Nygren (R-Marinette) said the disagreements are not unusual. “If folks expect that when the Governor puts out his budget, we in the Legislature all come in and salute and go home, then we shouldn’t have a Legislature,” he said. “The Legislature represents constituencies throughout the state that bring different perspectives to the table, and this is just a normal part of the process.”

Darling also maintained optimism that the two sides can come together before the state’s fiscal year ends on June 30th. “I think it’s realistic if people sit down and start talking about alternatives and compromises,” she said.

The budget-writing committee has not met for over a week and, while Nygren said it will convene next Thursday, the panel is expected to mainly focus on a proposal from the governor to move state employees to a self-insurance model for health care. Lawmakers have indicated they plan to reject the move, despite claims by the Walker administration that it will save the state money.

Senate committee advances ‘cookie bill’

The Wisconsin state Capitol.

A state Senate committee has approved legislation that would allow home-bakers to sell their products without having to get a license or open a commercial kitchen.

State Senator Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls), a co-sponsor of the measure, says it’s aimed at helping small producers who want to sell their products at places, such as farmers markets.

Nick Levendofsky with the Wisconsin Farmers Union says current regulations are too costly for those bakers who are just starting out, and are not sure if there business is viable yet. “This is a deal breaker for most people,” he told lawmakers during a public hearing on Wednesday. “The cookie bill would help start small businesses here in Wisconsin.”

A similar measure passed the Senate last session with bipartisan support, but died in the Assembly where Speaker Robin Vos remains an opponent. He has argued the move could harm small businesses that already follow state regulations, and recently introduced legislation that would deregulate the entire baking industry.

A Lafayette County judge ruled last month that Wisconsin’s ban on selling home-baked goods is unconstitutional.