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The Government Watchdog
Updated: 9 hours 19 min ago

Michigan community banks welcome deregulation

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 08:56

Michigan community banks that weathered a storm of federal red tape, mergers and consolidations now see smoother sailing ahead thanks to the prospect of federal regulatory reforms aimed at ramping up economic growth.

The House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday will review an updated draft of the Financial CHOICE Act, which would revise the landmark Dodd-Frank Act. The latter, passed in the wake of the 2008 recession, placed greater federal oversight on financial institutions.

Two Michigan Republican lawmakers – Reps. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, and Dave Trott, R-Birmingham – are members of the Financial Services Committee and have expressed support for reining in parts of Dodd-Frank that they see as onerous for small businesses.

President Donald Trump issued an executive order in January that requires the Treasury Department to analyze Dodd-Frank and come up with recommendations to ensure that banks have the latitude to make loans in order to boost job creation.

Rann Paynter, the president and CEO of the Michigan Bankers Association, said there’s no question that the number of community banks in the state has shrunk since Dodd-Frank was enacted, mostly through consolidations in the industry.

Indeed, according to Federal Reserve statistics, the number of chartered banks in Michigan has gone from 132 in 2009 to 93 in 2016.

“Dodd-Frank is a factor in the mergers and acquisitions,” Paynter told Illinois News Service. “The regulatory burden that has been placed on the banking industry has been tremendous.”

Paynter’s views on Dodd-Frank parallel those of the Independent Community Bankers of America, whose 2017 “Plan for Prosperity” calls on Congress to ensure that the banks can continue to service mortgage loans, reduce data reporting requirements, cut red tape on loans to small businesses and reform the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which grew out of the Dodd-Frank reforms

Unlike most federal agencies, which are run by commissions, the CFPB is run by a single director who can only be fired for cause. And as the CFPB has passed down rules, fines and regulations, financial institutions have faced greater burdens, Paynter said, though the intent has been to protect consumers.

“But more often than not, that is not the case,” he said.

The CFPB lacks accountability because it doesn’t have a full board to oversee its operations, Paynter said.

“The focus of the CFPB should be more on entities that are not banks” and do not have the kind of oversight that banks are subject to, he said.

Still, Michigan’s community banks have managed to earn steady revenues in recent years, Paynter said, though the profit levels vary from bank to bank.

“I think profitability continues to improve in spite of an additional cost they must incur because of the additional regulatory burden,” he said.

Another voice of support for community banks recently came from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. Responding to questions from Michigan Rep. Trott at a congressional hearing, Yellen noted that the banks have been facing pressures due to the current low-interest-rate environment.

“Regulatory burdens on community banks need to be reduced,” Yellen said. “I would be very pleased to see Congress take steps in that direction.”

Trott and nine of his colleagues on the Financial Services Commission penned a letter to Trump in February supporting the president’s executive order on Dodd-Frank, which reversed some regulations that came about as a result of the banking law.

“Dodd-Frank has inhibited the American dream for so many for too long,” the members said. “It’s time for relief. This critical first step will get small community banks and credit unions lending again, businesses hiring again, and restore homebuyers’ access to affordable financing options.”

Neither Trott nor Rep. Huizenga responded to requests for comment.

Thaya Brook Knight, associate director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, said that changing the way community banks are regulated should be a politically feasible task, especially since no one blames the smaller banks for causing financial crisis in 2008.

“Relief for small banks is going to be an easier sell than some of the other changes,” Knight told Illinois News Network.

The number of new bank charters plummeted after Dodd-Frank was passed in 2010, she said, as uncertainty about the financial landscape set in.

Although Knight couldn’t say whether the challenges facing community banks affected some parts of the nation more than others, she said areas with small populations – such as parts of the Midwest – tend to feel the greatest impact.

“Small businesses rely overwhelmingly on small banks for financing,” Knight said.

The CFPB’s role will inevitably change since Director Richard Cordray’s term will end in July of next year, she said, clearing the way for a GOP-appointed director. Under Cordray, the bureau interpreted its authority in an expansive, ideological manner, according to Knight.

“This has been an agency that has been working to exert its authority in a way that’s as broad as possible,” she said.

Knight stressed that Trump will have opportunities to make appointments to agencies that decide how to implement the policies outlined in Dodd-Frank, such as the Securities Exchange Commission.

“One thing that is important to note here is that even though Dodd-Frank is a massive law, it is massive because of its breadth, but not its specificity,” Knight said, adding that Congress left it up to the federal agencies to deal with many of the details.

“It gives the president a fairly broad policy role to change Dodd-Frank even without changing the underlying law,” she said

Florida in focus: State lawmakers end budget stalemate, but clash with governor looms

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 08:52

Tampa Bay Times: State lawmakers end budget stalemate, but clash with Rick Scott looms

State lawmakers reached a tentative deal on an $83 billion budget Tuesday that could end the session on time but could put them on a collision course with Gov. Rick Scott.

A day after a stalemate threatened to derail the legislative session, Republican leaders in the House and Senate privately hammered out the broad terms of a deal that ensures both sides can claim victory for their top priorities.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, confirmed that Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development agency, would likely survive with an operating budget — but no money for financial incentives to help Scott attract businesses to Florida.

Tallahassee Democrat: Senate medical marijuana bill prohibits smoking

The Senate’s medical marijuana bill is headed to the floor and then most likely to court. The Appropriations Committee cleared the measure, which implements the constitutional amendment voters approved in November. Medical marijuana advocates, however, complain both the Senate and House bills prohibits smoking of the plant, a delivery method amendment supporters say voters approved.

Patient advocates, however, still prefer the Senate plan because it is less restrictive than a House proposal.

Miami Herald: Judge blocks Trump from cutting off funds to sanctuary cities

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked President Donald Trump from cutting funds to local governments that provide “sanctuary” to immigration violators, citing Miami-Dade County as an example of a community responding to the financial threat.

The temporary injunction by a San Francisco judge prevents Trump from following through with a Jan. 25 order that threatened funding cuts but hasn’t delivered any.

The day after Trump’s order, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez overturned county policy and directed local jails to accept all detention requests from immigration authorities.

Orlando Sentinel: Rick Singh sues, accusing 2 political groups of libel in election ads

Orange County’s property appraiser sued two mysterious groups that spent millions of dollars on mailers and other ads against him during last year’s election, accusing them of libel.

Rick Singh filed the suit in Orange Circuit Court on Tuesday against Leadership for Florida’s Future and For a Better Orange County. The complaint contends the two campaign committees “acted maliciously with knowledge or reckless disregard” and spread “untrue [and] false” claims in a series of campaign ads leading up to Singh’s re-election in November.




Illinois takes a bigger piece of local businesses’ profits than all neighboring states

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 10:04

Illinois’ businesses are taxed higher than all of their neighbors. That’s according to a new report ranking states by their burdens on local companies.

Chicago-based Anderson Economics Group’s annual report on the level of tax burdens on businesses shows Illinois companies aren’t as taxed as much as they are in states such as New York and Hawaii. But the Land of Lincoln takes a higher share of business profits than neighboring states.

Indiana and Missouri took smaller pieces of their businesses’ profits than most other states at 7 percent each. Throughout the Midwest, Ohio (7.3), Michigan (8.0) and Wisconsin (8.7) all took a lower share than Illinois, which took 9.4 percent of its businesses’ profits in 2015. That was the year after income and corporate tax rates went back down from the tax increases passed in 2011. Minnesota took 9.7 percent.

“Illinois has the fourth-highest burden [in the nation] due to the corporate income taxes,” said Jason Horwitz, Senior Consultant at Anderson Economic Group. “Of all of the taxes levied on businesses, Illinois’ corporate income tax, which included the personal property replacement tax, is the highest among all the Midwest states.”

Illinois’ higher-than-their-neighbor tax burdens have companies looking for the exit, said Chicago-based Line Group’s president Al Panico.

“I can see of no reason to move to Illinois if I were looking to,” Panico said. “The fact of the matter is that the talent pool is equally rich in the neighboring states.”

The report is different from similar studies because it measures taxes as a share of companies’ profits. The largest portion of taxes paid by businesses is property taxes, to which Illinois has a higher rate than nearly any other state. But Horwitz said Illinois took about the same property tax portion of profits as other states, not including the personal property tax.

Illinois’ corporate income tax was close to being raised by another 33 percent when lawmakers included it in a proposal the state Senate called the “Grand Bargain.” Under their proposal, which is now stalled, corporate income taxes would have been raised to 7 percent.

Wisconsin in focus: Repeal of prevailing wage debated

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 09:13

Wisconsin State Journal: Debate over prevailing wage repeal

Critics of a proposal to fully repeal the state’s prevailing wage laws decried it Monday as an assault on the wages of blue-collar workers, while proponents framed the move as frugal stewardship of public funds.

A state Senate panel gave the proposal its first legislative hearing Monday.

If enacted, it would mark another crushing defeat for Wisconsin labor unions. They, along with legislative Democrats, are among the staunchest backers of a prevailing wage, a minimum wage requirement for workers on public construction projects.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Scott Walker open to shifting more money to roads

Gov. Scott Walker on Monday latched onto the possibility of funneling money from the state’s main account toward highways to try to help solve Wisconsin’s road funding woes.

Walker has vowed to veto any gas tax increase and on Monday downplayed the possibility of raising vehicle registration fees.

Instead, he told reporters he was working with his fellow Republicans in the Legislature to shift money from the state’s general fund to its transportation fund.

Beloit Daily News: Another school board spat opens on closed-session disclosures

The School District of Beloit Board of Education is scheduled to discuss board member Pam Charles alleged disclosure of confidential closed-session information to an attorney.

The item is posted on the agenda for the 4:30 p.m. Tuesday meeting at Kolak Education Center, 1633 Keeler Ave. The item is posted for discussion in open session and will include a determination of what action, if any, will be taken.

When first contacted by the Beloit Daily News, board president Lisa Anderson-Levy said it was agenda item to discuss alleged disclosure of closed session confidential information to an outside party, but declined further comment.

LaCrosse Tribune: Walker on President Trump’s first 100 days

Gov. Scott Walker on Monday offered a lukewarm assessment of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, an upcoming milestone pundits, politicians and historians use to gauge a president’s progress.

“Today actions speak louder than words,” Walker said. “What I look at is not what he says or even what he tweets, but really on what actions have been taking place.”

Walker said he appreciated that Trump had eased some regulations for manufacturers and farmers and praised him for putting in place “a top-notch Cabinet.” He also said he remains hopeful that Trump will repeal, replace and reform the Affordable Care Act and pass a tax cut package due out this week.


Florida in focus: Florida budget talks crash over spending dispute

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 09:13

Tampa Bay Times: As budget talks crash, Corcoran wants ‘continuation’ budget, no new spending

A bitter stalemate over spending forced the Legislature to suspend work on a budget Monday, stirring more bad blood among Republicans and putting an on-time adjournment in doubt.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, bargained privately by phone through last Friday and were making progress on issues such as public school spending and raises for state workers.

But problems began cropping up on the size of a cash reserve, total amounts for hometown spending and other areas, and ugly politics and seething animosity took over.

Miami Herald: Did Regaldo’s Airbnb email show bias for hotel industry? Judge said probably

Did Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado show “bias” when he forwarded an email from an Airbnb host to a hotel lobbyist? Judge Beatrice Butchko said probably in a hearing last week.

In a transcript from the emergency hearing Wednesday, the judge questioned the mayor’s relationship with hotel lobbyist Jorge Luis Lopez and issued a temporary restraining order blocking the city from going after local Airbnb renters.

During the hearing, the judge referenced public records showing that the mayor’s office forwarded an email from an Airbnb host in support of the platform to Lopez’s assistant on Feb. 14. “Mayor Regalado requested that I forward you this email for Jorge Luis Lopez,” the email read.


Sun-Sentinel: Florida’s U.S. 1 tops list of deadliest roads in nation

Another day, another study, another reminder of something most motorists may already know: We travel some of the most dangerous roads in America.

Four of the top five deadliest highways in the nation are in Florida, according to a study conducted by Geotab, a Canada-based global fleet management company.

U.S. 1 tops the list with 1,011 fatal crashes causing 1,079 deaths over the past decade. The highway runs nearly 530 miles through 13 counties along Florida’s east coast.

Tallahasse Democrat: Health, pension plans moving in state Senate

A Senate panel Monday turned state worker benefits into bargaining chips for the legislative session’s final two weeks. The Government Oversight and Accountability Committee voted to revamp workers’ health insurance and to steer new employees away from a traditional pension and into a 401 (k)-like investment plan.

Both ideas are House priorities that had yet to be heard in a Senate committee – usually a requirement for a proposal to be introduced on the floor. The Senate and House are expected to begin budget negotiations this week, a process that influences how the chambers resolve differences among competing bills.

Wisconsin community banks hopeful for Dodd-Frank rollback

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 12:25

The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act was sold as a way to rein in a freewheeling Wall Street, but Wisconsin bankers say the law has burdened community banks to the point of accelerating mergers and consolidation.

“2016 saw a significant jump in merger activity here in Wisconsin,” Rose Oswald Poels, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Bankers Association (WBA), told The number of announced mergers last year reached 22 in the state, compared with 12 in 2015, according to Poels’ numbers

The added red tape from Dodd-Frank has burdened community banks while also limiting borrowing options for small businesses and homeowners, thereby hamstringing economic activity in Wisconsin, she said.

But Poels and others in the industry see a silver lining this year as the House Financial Services Committee moves forward on reforming Dodd-Frank, which was enacted in the wake of the 2008 recession. The committee on Wednesday will take up a new draft of the Financial CHOICE Act, which would alter provisions of Dodd-Frank that Republican lawmakers say have been particularly onerous to small businesses.

President Donald Trump signaled his desire to rethink Dodd-Frank banking regulations by signing an executive order in January that urges the Treasury Department to look at ways banks can be given more freedom to make loans in ways that will advance economic growth.

The Wisconsin congressional delegation will have a degree of influence over how Dodd-Frank reforms evolve in the House. Two of its Congressional members, Reps. Sean Duffy (R-Wausau) and Gwen Moore (D- Milwaukee), both sit on the Financial Services Committee.

Neither lawmaker responded to requests for comment on reforming Dodd-Frank, but Duffy’s public statements leave no uncertainty about his position. In reaction to Trump’s signing of a House joint resolution that pulls back Dodd-Frank rules on energy producers, the congressman expressed a desire to lift federal red tape on businesses and families.

“President [Barack] Obama’s burdensome Dodd-Frank financial rules have held our economy back since the bill was passed,” Duffy said in a prepared statement.

Poels said that as a result of Dodd-Frank, consumers in Wisconsin can no longer get certain types of loans easily and quickly. Balloon notes, which do not fully pay down a loan over their term and require the repayment of what’s left of the principal balance, are more difficult for the banks to approve in the wake of Dodd-Frank, she said.

“Community banks in Wisconsin did a lot of portfolio lending in the form of balloon notes in the past,” Poels said.

Like other community banking associations, WBA wants to see changes in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Dodd-Frank assigned the power to issue far-reaching rules and fines. The banks see the bureau as lacking budget oversight because it gets its funding directly from the Federal Reserve, rather than having its budget overseen by Congress. The agency is also run by a single director rather than the traditional commission style of governance.

“You shouldn’t have a federal agency that doesn’t have any budget restrictions,” Poels said.

Despite the challenges of complying with federal regulations, she said Wisconsin’s banks are doing well financially.

“We do have an overwhelming number of banks in the state that are profitable,” Poels said.

But the cost of complying with regulation and the need for higher levels of cyber security mean there’s less money available for lending – and getting a higher return on investments, she said.

“When you look at comparative time frames from prior years, net profits have not increased as much as in past years,” Poels said.

Others also see Dodd-Frank as being ripe for reform this year in the Republican-controlled Congress. Thaya Brook Knight, associate director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, said Republican lawmakers are primed to get a record of accomplishments in place before the midterm elections in 2018.

“There is motivation among Republicans right now to get something done,” Knight said.

Reducing top-down federal rules on the smaller banks should be politically feasible because they were not seen as villains in the 2008 financial crisis, Knight said. But she added that altering the current rules on mortgage financing might be more difficult because housing issues are viewed as more political.

“Relief for small banks is going to be an easier sell than some of the other areas,” Knight said.

She could not say whether the banks’ challenges have affected some regions of the United States more than others, but Knight agreed that areas with small populations – such as large swaths of the Midwest – tend to have the greatest impact.

“Small businesses rely overwhelmingly on small banks for financing,” Knight said.

She also said that Trump will have the opportunity to rethink the way Dodd-Frank is administered by filling seats on the Securities Exchange Commission and by naming a new director of the CFPB in July 2018, when current Director Richard Cordray’s term ends.

“It gives the president a fairly broad policy role to change Dodd-Frank even without changing the underlying law,” she said.

Wisconsin in focus: Milk plants asked to save dairy farms

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 09:57

Milwaukee Journal Sentinal: Milk plants asked to save Wisconsin dairy farms

Mullins Cheese, which says it’s the largest family-owned and operated cheese factory in Wisconsin, has tossed a lifeline to eight dairy farms that were at risk of closing from a trade dispute with Canada.

“My field staff looked at them and said, ‘My gosh, these are great, wonderfully kept farms,’” said Bill Mullins, the Mosinee cheese company’s vice president. “I had an opportunity to help a few of them.”

But while Mullins has stepped up and signed contracts to buy the milk from eight family-owned dairy operations, dozens of others haven’t been as fortunate. They face a May 1 deadline for when they no longer have a milk processor and could be forced to shut down.

Wisconsin State Journal: Madison City Council member faces ethics complaint

The Madison Ethics Board this week will consider a complaint from an East Side resident alleging Ald. Sara Eskrich, 13th District, was improperly involved in the city’s awarding of a contract to a business group that includes her husband for a beer garden at Olbrich Park.

Eskrich, through her attorney, has filed a 12-page motion to dismiss the complaint, contending that the allegations are baseless and that her behavior has been above board, appropriate and in full compliance with the city’s Ethics Code.

Green Bay Press-Gazette: Housing market continues torrid pace

Jason LeSage is tired of the steps.

Two long flights of them up to the west-side apartment he and his son have called home for some time now. In February, he started poking around the housing market, working with a Realtor and looking at starter homes in Green Bay.

But LeSage, a first-time homebuyer who just had an offer accepted last week, quickly learned this is no time to just poke around.

“It seemed like every time I looked at something, there was already an accepted offer or someone would sneak in and buy it,” LeSage said. “It was actually pretty easy (to buy a house.) The actual looking for the house was pretty difficult, though.”

Opinion: Wisconsin Democrats look like an endangered species

…  It was a moment of clarity for the left in Wisconsin: In races that pit a conservative versus a liberal, voters prefer the conservative virtually every time — even badly damaged ones. In the most recent Supreme Court election, progressives couldn’t even muster a candidate against one-term incumbent conservative Justice Annette Ziegler.

Undoubtedly, much of the right’s success is due to the way conservatives have successfully framed Supreme Court races as “law and order” competitions, where the candidate on the right typically supports tough sentences for criminal behavior and the liberal candidate favors letting felons out on the street.


Wisconsin’s top headlines – April 21

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 08:45

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Ohio dairy sues Wisconsin over butter dispute

An Ohio-based dairy has sued the state of Wisconsin over its ban on the sale of ungraded butter.

In the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, for the Western District of Wisconsin, Minerva Dairy argues that the ban is an anti-competitive restriction that protects Wisconsin based dairies while blocking sales from other states.

Similar lawsuits have been filed before. Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection officials said they had not seen the Minerva lawsuit yet and could not comment on it.

BizTimes: Wisconsin unemployment rate down to 3.4 percent

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate dropped to 3.4 percent in March as employment grew by 16,400, according to figures released today by the state Department of Workforce Development.

The figures, compiled from a survey of 985 households, also showed unemployment declining by 10,300, to 107,100, and the state’s labor force participation rate ticking up 0.1 percentage point, to 68.4 percent.

Green Bay Press-Gazette: Council rejects ending its city health benefits

GREEN BAY – Members of the City Council rejected a proposal Tuesday night to end their access to city health insurance.

Eliminating health benefits for City Council members would have saved little, but it would have been an important symbolic gesture, Alderman Joe Moore said.

“Every time there’s a budget shortfall, we ask the constituents to do without or maybe delay a project, we ask the staff not to fill positions or do without,” Moore said. “We’re asking everybody else to make sacrifices. Let’s put skin in the game.”

Scott Walker open to private school tuition tax benefit

Gov. Scott Walker is open to amending a private school tuition tax benefit, two-thirds of which is going to families making more than $100,000 a year, though he isn’t seeking any particular changes himself.

In January the State Journal wrote about how the state is spending $8 million a year to subsidize private school tuition for families making more than $100,000.


AP: Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects campaign donor recusal rules

The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority threw out a petition to bar judges at all levels from hearing cases involving the largest donors to their election campaigns.

The court voted 5-2 on Thursday to reject a rule change suggested by 54 retired Wisconsin judges that would’ve required judges to recuse themselves if they have received campaign donations of certain sizes from any parties in a case. The suggested amounts ranged from $10,000 for state Supreme Court justices to $500 for municipal judges.


Florida residents pay 6th lowest state taxes; some say burden can be still be lowered

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 09:08

By Carrie Salls – contributor

TALLAHASSEE – Florida residents have the sixth lowest state tax burden in the U.S., according to a recent WalletHub report.

“Florida has the sixth lowest total tax burden at 6.79 percent mostly because the state has no income tax,” WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez said. “One of the advantages is that residents here pay the third lowest total taxes at $2.385 per capita, but there’s also a notion of ‘you get what you pay for’ in terms of government services, according to our taxpayer Return On Investment report.”

Florida TaxWatch president and chief executive officer Dominic M. Calabro said the low tax burden is a plus for Florida families and businesses.

“Florida’s tax climate makes it an attractive option for families and businesses alike to move to and flourish,” Calabro said. “A lower tax burden allows businesses to create more jobs and expand, while allowing taxpayers to have more money in their pockets that can then be spent and funneled back into the economy.”

Calabro said Florida still could do more to reduce the tax burden. His organization “also called for burdensome taxes to be cut to improve our tax climate further.”

The proposed changes include reducing or eliminating the state’s business rent tax and communication services tax.

According to a briefing published by Florida TaxWatch, “Florida subjects commercial lease and license payments to the state and local sales tax and it is the only state in the nation that does so.”

As a result, Florida TaxWatch said the state government mandated an increase of up to 8 percent in occupancy costs for all business that rent property, “a cost they would not incur in any other state.”

“Florida businesses pay more than $1.7 billion a year as a result of this tax,” the briefing said.

In addition, Florida TaxWatch said renters must pay local option sales taxes, increasing the tax burden for these businesses by an estimated $230 million.

In a separate briefing, Florida TaxWatch said, although the combined state and local tax rate in the state tops out at 7.5 percent, the purchase of cell phone and other taxable communications services drives the tax rate to more than 14 percent and even in excess of 16 percent.

“Florida has one of the highest tax rates on communications services in the nation,” the briefing said.

Richard C. Auxier of the Urban Institute/Tax Policy Center, said it’s important to understand what rankings like the ones reported by WalletHub “say and what they don’t say.”

Accordiing to Auxier, Urban Institute has found that “state tax cuts do not automatically lead to economic growth.”

Auxier said “politicians certainly care about rankings like WalletHub’s, but the study only analyzed property tax, individual income tax, sales tax and excise tax.

A business considering moving its operations to Florida would want to know about other taxes such as corporate income taxes, gross receipts taxes, fees and all the taxes levied at the city or county level, he said.

In addition, he said state residents are also affected by different taxes.

“For example, Florida does not tax income,” Auxier said. “That’s great if you’re earning a lot of money. But if you’re not earning much, Florida’s no income tax is not helpful and its high sales tax is harmful, and there are states with far better tax systems for you.”

Auxier said “businesses think about a lot of things other than taxes.” He said a 2016 study ranked highway access, availability of skilled labor and cost of labor as the most important business location factors, “with tax incentives and rates ranking fifth or lower.”

Meanwhile, Auxier said individuals consider schools, commute times and other issues when deciding whether to move to a specific state or area.

“All those things – roads, workforce, schools, parks, etc. – are affected by a lot of things governments do and spend on,” Auxier said.

Auxier said some independent state tax commissions use rankings like the ones reported by WalletHub to boost their argument for cutting income taxes or corporate taxes.

Enterprise Florida communications director Nathan Edwards feels that Florida’s low state tax burden and lack of government interference in spending decisions have benefits for the state’s residents and businesses.

“Business dollars go a lot farther in Florida given the state’s tax advantages, tax exemptions and no state personal income tax,” Edwards said. “Businesses and citizens know how to spend their money better than government. Florida’s leaders recognize this and keep government out of the way.”

Minnesotans pay fourth highest income tax in country

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 09:03

SAINT PAUL – Minnesota workers shoulder the fourth highest individual income tax burden in the country, according to a recent report from WalletHub report.

According to statistics provided by WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez, Minnesota’s individual income tax rate is 3.59 percent.

Gonzalez said that rate is not entirely bad news for the state because “Minnesota actually offers the best government services in the country, thus the taxes paid by residents are put to good use.” 

But NFIB Minnesota director Mike Hickey does not agree, saying the state’s taxes are too high.

“On all of these [tax] rankings, we compare badly” to other states, Hickey said.

Minnesotans have the 17th highest sales and excise tax burden, the 23rd highest property tax burden and pay the fifth highest in state taxes overall, according to WalletHub.

Hickey said a solution to the state’s tax burden would be “a new governor.”

Mark Dayton, a Democrat, has been Minnesota’s governor since 2011. The next election for Minnesota governor is next year, though Dayton has said he will not seek a third term.

Hickey said bills have been introduced in the Minnesota legislature that are designed to reduce the business/commercial tax rate in the state, as well as to address a high equipment purchase tax rate.

“That’s how difficult it is to try to get tax relief up here,” he said.

He said the state also has a high capital gains tax, meaning those who are successful in that area are “paying a lot.” Hickey said that is bad for Minnesota because “the most successful are getting the most jobs.”

“Look for a big battle in Minnesota,” Hickey said.

According to Hickey, Minnesota’s 9.85 percent individual tax rate affects businesses and farmers as well, as the state is “way out of conformity” with national averages.

Jeff Van Wychen, a Tax Policy fellow at North Star Policy Institute, said “state taxes alone are not a good standard by which to judge the relative taxes in a state.”

“Some states – such as Minnesota – rely more heavily on state tax revenues to fund public services and less heavily on local taxes; this is done in order to reduce dependence on regressive local property taxes and to equalize the ability of different regions of the state, which can vary significantly in terms of the size of their local tax base, to adequately fund public services,” Van Wychen said.

In addition, Van Wychen said taxes in high per capita income states, like Minnesota, tend to be higher than in low per capita income states because they receive less assistance from the federal government, have higher wage costs and a higher cost-of-living.

“In order to measure the relative size of government among the 50 states in a way that adjusts for differences in the level of federal assistance and wage costs, and that takes into account local taxes, it makes sense to look at total state and local general revenue as a percent of personal income,” Van Wychen said.

Using this measure, he said Minnesota ranks 25th in the nation based on 2014 state and local finance data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau and personal income data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

In addition, Van Wychen said “Minnesota’s relatively high tax level has enabled the state to invest more heavily in E-12 and higher education than many other states,” and “these investments in turn have contributed to robust economic growth over the last half century.”

Tax Foundation policy analyst Morgan Scarboro said her foundation’s most recent tax report in 2012 ranked Minnesota eighth, finding that “the average Minnesota taxpayer paid $5,185 in state and local taxes, amounting to 10.8 percent of state residents’ total income.”

However, Scarboro said Minnesota has the third highest individual and corporate income tax rates in the country at 9.85 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively.

“They also have a unique statewide business property tax that’s levied 95 percent on commercial and industrial property [businesses] and 5 percent on cabins,” Scarboro said. “There’s an automatic inflator that’s outpacing inflation, so the collections of that harmful tax are increasing faster than inflation every year.”

Scarboro also said Minnesota has “a needlessly complex property tax system with 52 property classifications,” while the average number of classifications is six.

“Ultimately, the state suffers from high marginal tax rates and an unnecessarily complex system,” Scarboro said.

Wisconsin’s top headlines: April 20

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 09:01

Green Bay Press-Gazette: County arena proposal concerns lawmakers

GREEN BAY – Some Brown County lawmakers are raising concerns about a multimillion-dollar proposal to replace the aging Veterans Memorial Arena and upgrade a neighboring exhibition hall.

A briefing about the proposal Wednesday lasted more than an hour as a half dozen lawmakers raised issues ranging from costs to the availability of parking.

At  issue is a consultant’s recommendation that the county replace the 60-year-old Veterans Memorial Arena and neighboring Shopko Hall with a modern exhibition facility. The AECOM study, funded by the county and the village of Ashwaubenon, recommends a 100,000- to 120,000-square-foot exhibition center.

Costs have been estimated at $70 million to $85 million, with an estimated annual economic impact of $13 million.

“It’s hard for me to swallow that this place would support itself,” said Dave Kaster, a Bellevue supervisor.

Fox TV: Wisconsin farmers hopeful over Canada milk dispute

Monica and Dave Roskopf say they are thankful but not more optimistic about their future as dairy farmers after President Donald Trump took their side in a dispute with Canada this week.

The Roskopfs, who own a family farm outside the small Dodge County community of Iron Ridge, own one of 75 affected farms. Their processor, Grassland Dairy, says Canada will no longer buy its products and, in turn, they will stop purchasing milk from dozens of Wisconsin farmers on May 1st.

Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee makes list of six U.S. cities to watch

Milwaukee made the Conde Nast Traveler list of “6 U.S. Cities to Watch in 2017,” thanks to its vibrant restaurant scene and “endless party” during the summer.

The magazine compares Milwaukee favorably to Chicago, Minneapolis and Madison and says “Milwaukee has many, if not all, of the same qualities that make these sister cities buzz — and then some.”

Wisconsin State Journal: Lawmakers open to ending U. of Wisconsin tuition freeze as cut faces opposition

The co-chairman of the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee says he is open to ending the freeze on University of Wisconsin System tuition in the next two years.

“We can’t freeze tuition forever,” Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, told the Wisconsin State Journal, making him the second member of the Joint Finance Committee to indicate interest in allowing limited UW tuition increases.

Virginia’s top headlines: April 20

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 08:54

The Virginian-Pilot: 2 Virginia Beach council members propose budget with no tax increases

Residents looking for relief from flooding without paying more in taxes have at least two champions on the City Council.

Council members John Moss and Jessica Abbott have come up with an alternative to City Manager Dave Hansen’s proposed budget, which calls for a real estate tax increase of 1.25 cents per $100 of assessed value to help pay for full-day kindergarten and a stormwater fee increase of 2.5 cents per day for five years to make a dent in $450 million in needed drainage infrastructure repairs and upgrades.

Richmond Times-Dispatch: Virginia Supreme Court takes first look at pipeline survey law

The issue is new to the Virginia Supreme Court, but not to landowners whose property already has been surveyed without their permission for two proposed interstate natural gas pipelines.

The court heard arguments on Wednesday in two cases testing the legality of a state law that allows gas companies onto private property without landowner consent to survey routes for pipelines, including an appeal by an 83-year-old widow whose Augusta County land already has been surveyed for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Northern Virginia Daily: Split board Oks tax increase

Warren County real estate owners can expect an increase in their next tax bills.

The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to adopt the fiscal 2018 budget that assumes an increase in the real estate tax rate from 62 cents to 65 cents per $100 of assessed value. The majority of the additional revenue from the tax increase will cover the cost to open and operate the new middle school for the first year.

The Virginian-Pilot: Norfolk treasurer heads to prison to begin serving 6-year sentence for corruption

Treasurer Anthony Burfoot surrendered to federal marshals Wednesday afternoon to begin his six-year prison sentence on public corruption and perjury convictions.

The city’s former vice mayor walked up to the U.S. District courthouse about a half-hour before a 2 p.m. deadline imposed by the court.

Speaking with reporters on the steps, he maintained his innocence and professed his love for Norfolk.


Obamacare repeal-and-replace efforts revived

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 08:50

Efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare are gaining new momentum in Washington D.C. weeks after House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., pulled a replacement bill from the floor after it failed to gain enough Republican support.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, said he has been asked by the White House to revive plans to change the nation’s health care law.

“Keeping the status quo is unacceptable,” Davis said. “If we do nothing, in the year 2020, because of planned reduction in Medicaid reimbursements, the state of Illinois is going to have to come up with potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. I don’t think anyone in Springfield thinks we can make that happen right now.”

Many other states face the same predicament. In addition, roughly one third of U.S. counties have just a single insurer on the individual market, driving up costs.

Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-New Jersey, told Advance Media that a vote on a new bill could come as soon as next week.

“It’s not dead,” MacArthur told Advance’s Newark-based The Star-Ledger. “I spoke with the vice president and the [House] speaker over the weekend, and it’s moving.”

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that replacing Obamacare will be key to his tax reform plans.

While it’s remains unclear what the proposed health reform would look like, Castle Group Health President Mark Gurda said it’s hard to trust anyone in the debate.

“I don’t think there are any credible sources you can rely on for dictating the road forward,” Gurda said. “Do you trust the Democrats in the health care reform? Not necessarily. They got us to this point, and they think there’s nothing wrong. If the Republicans go along and say there’s nothing wrong, you may find yourself in September with a third or half the country with no insurers. You can’t play that chicken game. The stakes are too high.”

Politicians aren’t the only ones in the debate who can’t be trusted, he said.

“Can you trust the insurers to do what’s right for the public? Not necessarily. I unfortunately am in the camp that it’s going to get worse before it gets better for 2018,” Gurda said.

One major criticism of the previous reform attempt was it included a provision to allow for a 30-percent penalty that insurers could levy against people who re-upped insurance after having it lapse.

“What we’re asking Americans to do is to be able to keep continuous coverage,” Davis said. “If you have coverage, make sure you keep it. Otherwise you may have to pay a little bit more.”

Critics said that’s still an individual mandate which is a key part of former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Reform advocates warn if nothing is done soon, insurers will vanish from the Obamacare exchanges and offerings left behind, if any, will be too expensive for the people who need it most.

Virginia’s top headlines – April 19

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 09:19; Governor wants Redskins to build stadium in N. Virginia; should state money be involved?

The Washington Redskins practice in Virginia; their corporate home is in Virginia, and most of the players and coaches live in Virginia. But they play their home games in Maryland.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe wants to change that. He’s spent hours, and a few state dollars, trying to convince Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to build a stadium in Northern Virginia.

A stadium deal probably won’t happen before McAuliffe leaves office next year, thanks to Virginia’s one-term limit on governors. But some of the men looking to succeed McAuliffe are ready to take up the fight.

State Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Va. Beach, is welcoming – to a point.

“We’d love to have the Redskins move to Virginia,” he said.

But how much state money should be involved? “Zero. I think it’s totally inappropriate. We just cut $1.2 billion out of the budget. We made some hard choices, some very hard choices. And quite frankly, I don’t think it’s a priority to help subsidize a billionaire to move to Virginia.” Adviser: Carly Fiorina ‘strongly considering’ Virginia senate run

Former Presidential Republican candidate Carly Fiorina is “strongly considering” a run to unseat Hillary Clinton’s former running mate Tim Kaine for Virginia senator in 2018, an adviser to the former Hewlett-Packard CEO told CNN.

Fiorina, who bowed out of the presidential race in February 2016 before a short stint as Ted Cruz’s running mate, has been considering a run against Kaine in Virginia since November, said Frank Sadler, former campaign manager for her presidential run and the former executive director to her PAC.

Sadler said that Fiorina will likely make a formal decision about running for Senate in the fall. Virginina’s highest court to hear cases involving Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Issues surrounding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will be in front of the Virginia Supreme Court Wednesday.

The cases will focus on surveying, and whether or not it’s legal. Landowners have been fighting the pipeline and their surveying efforts. Wednesday, that fight goes to Virginia’s highest court.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would run about 600 miles between West Virginia and North Carolina. The current proposed path runs through sections of Highland, Bath and Nelson Counties.

Daily Press: Virginia gas prices highest they’ve been this year

Gas prices in Virginia are the highest they’ve been this year, says AAA Tidewater.

Unleaded gas in Virginia now averages $2.23 per gallon — three cents more than last week, 14 more than last month and 29 more than it was last year. Virginia ranks No. 10 for least expensive gas in the country, just behind Kansas and Louisiana, a news release from AAA Tidewater said.


Michigan business groups oppose proposed border tax

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 16:26

By Michael Carroll

Michigan business organizations want to put the brakes on a section of the GOP tax reform plan that would tax goods imported into the country, arguing that the measure could burden import-dependent companies such as car makers.

A study released this month by Freedom Partners, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute, found that Michigan would be ground zero in terms of potential new tax burdens imposed by the proposed border adjustment tax (BAT). That tax proposal would impose a 20 percent tax on everything imported into the United States, including parts and raw materials for manufactured goods.

“Michigan – perhaps not coincidentally – is both the most sensitive state to a border adjustment tax and the state with the most auto manufacturing jobs,” says the Freedom Partners report, which found that imported goods represent 27.4 percent of Michigan’s Gross Domestic product.

That puts Michigan’s “sensitivity rank” for the border tax at No. 1 in the nation, the report said. The state has 124,500 motor vehicle manufacturing jobs on the line, according to a 2014 estimate.

“It’s going to seriously rock the boat,” Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told

Although de Rugy, who is also a syndicated columnist, supports reforming the federal corporate tax system, she expressed concern about potential BAT effects on the auto industry.

“Parts of cars made in America come from abroad,” said de Rugy, predicting that the border adjustment tax could disrupt a lot of companies that depend on imported parts for their products.

Michigan in particular will be hit hard by the tax, she said, although other parts of the Republican tax package could offset that burden somewhat.

The border adjustment tax has the support of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican. Brady and other supporters have argued that the tax would strengthen the dollar to the point of offsetting the increase in the corporate tax bills. But de Rugy said that empirical research has shown otherwise – that the strengthening of the currency would not be enough to offset the tax burden.

“This is an untested idea,” she said, expressing doubt that the currency would adjust as perfectly as supporters claim. “It is so focused on importers. The burden is on that group of producers.”

The net effect, said de Rugy, could be on millions of American consumers.

“Companies will pass on costs to consumers in the form of higher prices,” she said.

U.S. companies that export their goods tend to support the border adjustment tax, but de Rugy said that economic research indicates that they too would be affected.

“Exporters are behind it because they see it as a potential source of income growth,” she said. “But it’s not going to be the bone they’re hoping for.”

A Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA) position statement also expresses concern about the proposal. The association concludes the plan would boost costs for car manufacturers, reduce the amount of capital invested in new product development, bump up consumer prices, cut sales and possibly lead to an erosion of manufacturing jobs in the nation.

“The BAT issue does seem to bump up against larger trade issues,” MEMA spokeswoman Cindy Sebrell said in an email.

Sebrell pointed to a MEMA position statement expressing concern about possible changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“During the last four years, MEMA member companies have invested more in the U.S. than in any other NAFTA country,” the statement said. “NAFTA has been a key contributor to this investment and U.S. growth. As such, any changes to NAFTA should not risk disrupting motor vehicle supply chains.”

Both the National Retail Federation and the Michigan Retailers Association have come out in opposition to the tax.

“The BAT would be felt immediately in the pocketbooks of middle-class Americans, effectively amounting to a $1 trillion tax that would punish employers, consumers and the American economy,” the Michigan Retailers Association said in a statement this spring.

And a business coalition against the tax called Americans for Affordable Products predicts dire consequences if the tax is approved, including a 35-cent-per-gallon boost in the cost of gasoline and added new car costs of $2,500.

“The border adjustment tax will push the cost of a new car out of reach for middle-class consumers, who will already be saddled with higher costs on everyday necessities like food, clothing and medicine,” said George Sharpe Jr., general manager of The Sharpe Collection, a car dealership in Grand Rapids, Mich., in a prepared statement.

Wisconsin’s top headlines – April 18

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 10:27

President Trump’s in Wisconsin Tuesday, technology jobs are growing in the state and more headlines from around Wisconsin.

CNN: Trump to push ‘Buy American, Hire American’ policy at Wisconsin visit

President Donald Trump on Tuesday will sign an executive order directing federal agencies to implement the “Buy American, Hire American” rhetoric of his campaign.

The order looks to bolster protections for certain American-made goods and calls for a review of the H-1B visa program for skilled workers, with the goal of reforming the program, senior administration officials said.

Trump will sign the executive order during a trip Tuesday to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he will tour the headquarters of Snap-on-Tools, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer, and deliver a speech about US manufacturing.

Channel 3000: Fitchburg mayor-elect wants city to consider panhandling ordinance

When Madison put a median safety ordinance in place, it moved panhandlers down the road to neighboring cities.

The mayor-elect of Fitchburg, Jason Gonzalez, hopes his city will adopt a similar ordinance to the one Madison put in place.

Wisconsin State Journal: Tech taking larger role in Wisconsin’s economy

Agriculture, manufacturing and tourism are the holy trinity of the Wisconsin economy and may always be so, given the state’s rich traditions in all three sectors.

Technology increasingly drives each of those sectors, however, and is slowly building an impressive standing of its own in terms of the jobs and value it adds to the Wisconsin economy. A recent national report makes the case.

The 2017 “Cyberstates” report from CompTIA, the nation’s largest leading tech association, showed Wisconsin cracking the 100,000-job barrier in 2016 for the first time. The report, which draws upon a mix of public and private data, counted 101,542 state tech workers last year compared with 97,633 in 2015.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Gov. Scott Walker signs laws on unions, cannabis oil

Contractors won’t have to work with unions on taxpayer-funded building projects and parents will have an easier time getting an anti-seizure drug derived from marijuana, under legislation Gov. Scott Walker signed Monday.

The measure on labor agreements, which passed the Legislature on party-line votes, is the latest in a series of moves to roll back union power by Republican lawmakers in recent years. Walker signed the law at Amerilux International, a De Pere distributor of construction materials.

Modern Healthcare: Wisconsin Medicaid proposal includes drug tests, premiums

Wisconsin on Monday unveiled plans to overhaul Medicaid by requiring members to pay insurance premiums and undergo a drug screening to participate in the program.

The state’s Department of Health Services said it will submit a waiver request to the CMS on May 26, following public comment.

The proposal looks a lot like the one used in Indiana’s Medicaid expansion known as Healthy Indiana 2.0, which is facing renewed scrutiny following reports that the state used misleading and inaccurate information to justify an extension.

Not-so-free speech: Don’t call a cop an ‘a-hole’ in Hammond, Wisconsin

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 06:49

MADISON, Wis. – While it might not be the wisest decision, it’s generally not illegal to call a cop an asshole.  It’s one of those First Amendment things.

PRICE OF SPEECH? Hammond, Wis., resident Tony Endres found himself in a legal battle over what is protected speech and what is disorderly conduct.

But perhaps free speech need not apply in the northwest Wisconsin village of Hammond, where resident and local government critic Tony Endres found himself in trouble with the law for exercising his First Amendment rights.

In August 2015, Endres was out for a motorcycle ride when he said he waved at a police officer in his neighborhood. The police officer brusquely turned away, Endres said. Offended, Endres shouted out the offensive moniker.

“I came back that evening and another officer on duty at the time pulled into my driveway. He told me there was a complaint filed against me and I was going to be charged with disorderly conduct because of my statement. I said I didn’t do anything wrong,” Endres said.

Nothing seemed to come of the incident at the time.

Weeks later, Endres received a personal advertisement letter from an enterprising local attorney asking whether Endres would like legal representation. For what? Endres was confused. The attorney in a review of online court records had discovered that Endres had been charged. But Endres said he was never served, either in person or by letter.

To Endres, the charge was retaliatory.

He had long been an outspoken critic of Hammond Police Chief Rick Coltrain, at one point accusing the law enforcement official of fraud. Endres provided documents and photographic evidence to support his allegation that Coltrain’s car was parked in front of his home while the chief’s time cards noted that he was on the clock and on the job. Endres also obtained phone records through an open records request that showed Coltrain placing a call from his cabin in Siren while his time cards said he was on the job.

In a decision that involved a recusal by one of Coltrain’s allies, the Hammond Police and Review Board cleared the chief of any wrong-doing. Endres said it was small-town cronyism at its worst. Coltrain was “stealing money from the taxpayers,” Endres testified at the board meeting.

His citizen activism did not play well with local law enforcement and the pro-chief members of the Hammond Village Board.

In closed session, a board member threatened Endres, according to the resident.

“He said he’d shoot me in the head, and I’d be in a body bag,” Endres said. A fellow board member resigned over the incident. Endres filed a complaint with the district attorney’s office, but the DA did not file any charges.

Village Board President Tony Bibeau did not return a request for comment. The chief said he needed to consult the village attorney before responding.

Dan Orr, the police officer who filed the original complaint against Endres, claimed that he was “afraid for the safety of his family because of the actions of Tony Endres.” Orr, who previously worked on the Hammond police force but was employed with an area law enforcement agency at the time, noted Endres’ “hateful posts” on his Facebook site and that he carries a concealed gun. Endres’ Facebook posts are highly critical of police and local government officials, like so many other social media sites. And Wisconsin, like every other state, has a concealed carry law.

Endres said he had to go to court over a half dozen times in fighting the disorderly conduct charge. At the final appearance the judge asked him if he wanted to say anything to the court.

“I said, ‘I haven’t broken any laws. It’s not illegal to swear in public.’ The (assistant) DA interrupts and says, ‘That’s not for a judge to decide, that’s for a jury,’” Endres said.

Frustrated and feeling like he would receive no justice in a provincial place controlled by corrupt government officials and their law enforcement allies, Endres said he was tired of the whole mess. He gave up his free speech fight and paid the $250 fine, entering a no-contest plea.

“They were dragging it out and dragging it out,” he said. “The assistant DA insisted on taking it to trial.”

“They beat me down, I admit it,” he said. “I didn’t want to take the chance of going to trial with of all the corruption all the way through the county.”

Instead, Endres fought back at the polls. He ran for village board trustee in this month’s election. He lost.

But the citizen activist hasn’t quieted his campaign against what he claims is ongoing bad behavior by small town government leaders.

“I want to expose their behavior,” Endres said. “I want people to know what’s going on in our local government. …People need to watch the police. Don’t be afraid of the police or the government. They serve us, not the other way around.”

Florida cities closer to banning the bag

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 05:47

With last year’s styrofoam ban upheld by a Miami-Dade judge, the city of Coral Gables, south Florida’s “City Beautiful,” is stepping into the eco-regulation fray with another initiative. This time, to “ban the bag.”

At a March 14 meeting, the Coral Gables City Council gave initial approval to an ordinance prohibiting plastic bags being used by retailers or at special events – with a few exceptions.  A final vote, which would make the ban official, is expected on May 8.

Coral Gables would be the first city in Florida with a plastic bag ban.

“Coral Gables has strict zoning laws of which you wouldn’t believe the minutiae and nitpicking,” according to WLRN. “If something is ‘decayed’ in Coral Gables, even lushly, you risk getting beaten to death with a perfectly manicured palmetto branch that can only be removed Thursdays at 4:00 a.m. by the mayor’s cousin.”

And if the city does enact the bag ban, it would also be operating in defiance of existing state regulations –  but perhaps not for long.

Two bills in the state legislature are poised to allow cities across Florida to legally join Coral Gables in this popular regulation.

Ban on the ban

In 2008, Florida lawmakers passed legislation that prohibited cities and municipalities from instituting retail bag bans until such time as the Department of Environmental Protection could make recommendations on the practice. The DEP’s Retail Bags Report came out in 2010.

PROOF IN THE PUDDING: Environmental groups push bag bans as a necessary planet-saving step. But do they work?

State Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, has been introducing bills for several years to allow bag ban programs in the state.

The third consecutive iteration, this year’s HB 93, would allow coastal or otherwise water-adjacent municipalities of less than 100,000 residents to initiate a pilot program banning plastic bags. The accompanying Senate bill, SB 162, has made it through its first committee stop.

If enacted, the man-made island of Miami Beach, population 92,312 according to the latest available Census estimates, would be allowed to begin a bag ban trial program. On the other side of Biscayne Bay, the city of Miami, with its 2,712,945 residents, would not.

Richardson was not available for comment. But his legislative assistant, Luis Callejas, told Watchdog that this was the result of legislative negotiations to advance the bill.

“Initially, it was for any city in the state,” said Callejas.  “[Our goal is] just to make sure that interest groups know that this is a big concern for Miami Beach and coastal communities in general.”

Callejas said that the larger goal of this legislation was simply to get these environmental issues more attention in the legislature, but that the Florida Retail Federation had successfully blocked previous bag ban bills from advancing in the House.

The Florida Retail Federation had not responded to Watchdog’s requests for comment at the time of publication, but FRF spokesman James Miller told the TC Palm that the ban hurts the “ability of each retailer to respond to the demands of its customers,” particularly when navigating different regulations in different municipalities.

“Plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable, and retailers have embraced their role in recycling these materials,” he said, adding that there is no perfect environmental solution.

A little less conversation

At the state legislature, the bag ban talk might be more for show.

But for Coral Gables, the activity on the ban is real.

If Coral Gables does pass the ban in defiance of existing state law, it can expect to be sued by the state.

Marilu Flores, vice chair of the Surfrider Foundation’s Miami chapter, told Watchdog that they have offered the city legal assistance in the event of a suit.

“What’s happening in Coral Gables is very interesting because it’s putting pressure in Tallahassee that this is what people want,” she said, adding that Surfrider has drummed up 40 letters of support from different Florida communities interested in their own bag bans.

Callejas also said the Surfrider Foundation has been instrumental in crafting the language of the bill and pushing the legislative agenda.

Surfrider’s involvement in the Florida issue is longstanding. It has been active in pushing legislation in the past few years and tried to thwart the initial legislative bag ban pre-emption.

Flores said she was hopeful. “This year, we’ve seen some movement that haven’t seen in years past.”

She added that Florida was uniquely situated to benefit from a ban, and that aside from all of the obvious wildlife and ecological pollution problems, plastic bag pollution is a “huge financial disruptor as well.”

Miami Beach found that loose plastic bags interfered with the city’s floodgate mechanisms and worsened flooding problems, she said.

Surfrider is one of the most visible advocates behind a nationwide epidemic of bag bans.

Florida alone has eleven Surfrider chapters, with many more across the country, all of which coordinate with the organization’s Malibu headquarters.

Surfrider bills itself as a community of everyday people who are the “champions of surf and sand.”

However, investigations into the national organization suggest that Surfrider sometimes skirts the laws that govern not-for-profit entities.

Solving the wrong problem

In addition to questions about the organizational integrity of the bag ban’s loudest advocate, the movement’s claim to scientific integrity and environmental dedication is undermined in another way: the empirical results of places that have already tried the ban.

“Plastic bag bans haven’t been transformative anywhere else. This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the free-market Reason Foundation.

CLEAN WATER:  Reason’s Adrian Moore says that banning plastic bags is not an effective way of getting at the real problem: littering.

He told Watchdog that plastic bag bans do not have a significant impact on litter reduction. Reusable plastic bags make up only 1 percent of litter found in a typical city, and even less than that of the solid waste in landfills.

Moore added that the heavy duty reusable bags that people turn to when grocery plastic bags are banned are not necessarily better for the environment, given the greater resource and processing demands of making them.

He called bag bans a kind of “cop-out,” allowing cities to avoid asking the real questions about why we have problems with litter (including plastic bags) getting into the environment, be it lack of garbage cans, insufficient public education, or not cleaning up after events, for starters.

Moreover, Moore said that a lot of these cities that pass bag bans are those with environmentally conscious, better-off residents. In other words, places where people are already likely to be mindful of reusing bags and stewarding the environment – and where the impact of bag bans is particularly negligible.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states proposed legislation regulating the retail use of plastic bags in 2015 and 2016. The only laws that passed were in Arizona, Idaho and Missouri, all of which pre-empted city bans.

California has the oldest statewide ban, passed in 2014. Hawaii effectively has one as well, given that all of its largest cities have passed bag ban ordinances.

At the city level, there has been even more activity, with cities like Austin, Chicago and Seattle passing legislation regarding the use of plastic bags. Others, such as Boulder, Colorado; Brownsville, Texas; and Washington, D.C., have instituted bag fees.

The results are underwhelming.  In Washington, the evidence of definitive success isn’t there. The bag tax money has been used for purposes like school field trips and personnel costs, as opposed to the environment initiatives that it was earmarked for.

In Brownsville, the legality of local bag fees has come under question.

But maybe Florida would be different?

“No,” said Moore.  “There’s nothing unique about Florida.”

“If you have a litter problem, you have a litter problem, not a plastic bag problem.”

Erin Clark reports for Florida Watchdog. 

Plaintiffs say Act 39 suit dismissal a victory for religious liberty

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 13:58

VICTORY?: Doctors are claiming victory despite the dismissal of their religious liberty suit against Act 39, Vermont’s physician-assisted suicide law. The court ruled that the law was not a real threat to their religious or moral convictions.


Despite claims of victory from physician-assisted suicide advocates, plaintiffs in a recently dismissed District Court case say the judge’s decision ultimately was a win for moral and religious liberty.

“They are cautiously optimistic, and thankful the court recognized their right to pro-life [medical practice],” Steven Aden, the plaintiffs’ legal counsel, told Watchdog.

Last July, the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and the national Christian Medical and Dental Associations filed suit against Vermont, claiming the state’s physician-assisted suicide law, Act 39, violated their moral and ethical beliefs. The groups enjoined the court to prohibit the state from taking disciplinary action if a physician refused to counsel a patient about the option to commit suicide.

Last week, the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont dismissed the case, reasoning that the law was not a real threat to the plaintiffs religious liberty.

The judge maintained that, after litigation, all parties agreed on at least one option that would not violate religious liberty or be a barrier to a patient’s right to medical information: refer patients who inquire about doctor-assisted suicide to another physician or to a website.

“Without some likelihood of injury, there is no real controversy between the parties sufficient to meet the constitutional requirement [to continue the case],” Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford wrote in his decision.

During the proceedings, the court took testimony from representatives of the Attorney General’s office, who clarified how the state views religious protection under Act 39.

“Act 39 does not give patients a ‘right’ to ‘request’ and ‘expect and receive’ aid in dying from their health care provider, but, instead, expressly provides that health care providers and facilities are not obligated to participate in the Act 39 process,” the written testimony stated.

Aden says the clarification of the state’s position is an important result of the case.

“Before the lawsuit was filed, the state was rather coy about under what circumstances clients are required to counsel [patients about assisted suicide]. We’re thankful that through this litigation, the state’s position is much closer to respecting plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.”

While the physicians who brought the suit are optimistic, assisted suicide advocates are taking the ruling at face value.

“Justice has prevailed in this case for terminally ill Vermonters,” Betsy Walkerman, president of Patient Choices Vermont, stated in a press release.

“This ruling reinforces the professional obligation of doctors to have full and open discussions, respond substantively to all questions, and enable patients to make fully informed decisions.”

It remains to be seen whether the state will abide by its protective stance or transition toward the agenda of assisted suicide advocates.

Aden said his clients plan to pursue other avenues to ensure protection of their ethical rights. Some have advocated that legislators introduce a bill that fully clarifies religious protection under Act 39.

If prosecution does arise, said Aden, his clients have stated they would leave the state rather than violate their religious or moral beliefs.

This could be significant for Vermont, which is facing a shortage of primary care doctors. Vermont has an unsustainable ratio of one primary care doctor for every 1,121 patients.

Emma Lamberton is Vermont Watchdog’s health care and Rutland area reporter. Contact her at or @EmmaBeth9. 

UW-Platteville whistleblower professor fighting on

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 13:14

MADISON, Wis. — On the verge of losing the job she loves, embattled Criminal Justice Professor Sabina Burton is not going gently into that good night.

BURTON BATTLES ON: UW-Platteville Professor Sabina Burton says she will continue to fight against what she claims is a culture of corruption among university administration.

Burton is filing an amended federal complaint charging that University of Wisconsin-Platteville administrators violated her constitutionally protected rights, including her First Amendment right to criticize the administration.

Burton and her attorney also charge that UW-P Chancellor Dennis Shields failed to include appeals procedure language in his letter earlier this month calling for Burton’s dismissal from her tenured position. Shields advised Burton that he had “found just cause” to fire the professor following an investigation into complaints brought by one of the administrators Burton has accused of discrimination and retaliation.

Burton said she plans to refute Shields’ findings at a faculty senate committee hearing, and will appeal the dismissal to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.

She said she holds out little hope that she will receive justice from what she describes as Shields’ “kangaroo court,” but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has granted her the right to sue administrators. Burton has lost twice in federal court on previous charges, but she said she received inadequate representation and that Shields’ move to terminate her position only underscores her charges.

As first reported in Wisconsin Watchdog’s series, Troubled Campus, Burton alleges she has been the victim of harassment, discrimination and retaliation at the hands of UW-P administrators since October 2012, when Burton stood up for a female student who said she had been sexually harassed by a male professor in the Criminal Justice Department.

Burton claims administrators took away a grant and committee seats, and effectively stalled her professional career after she spoke out about the handling of the sexual harassment complaint in Oct. 2012. She defended a female student who felt sexually harassed by a male professor. A university committee found in favor of Burton and said that administrators had “slut shamed” the student.

Burton alleges she was physically threatened by the former acting chairman of the department, and also claims she was defamed by an instructor.

She sued the university and some of its administrators in 2015 in federal court, eventually losing the case.

In January, Shields ordered Burton to clean out her office and prohibited her from being on campus while the investigation into complaints against the professor continued.

The chancellor at the time advised Burton that he was “initiating the dismissal process” based on a complaint filed by two administrators. Shields informed Burton that if the allegations were true, they would warrant “Burton’s dismissal.”

Among other offenses, the administrators’ complaint alleges Burton behaved “unprofessionally,” including “involving students into your personal concerns.”

Burton denies the allegations and has provided evidence refuting accusations regarding internal email communications, for instance. Court depositions and other communications also show administrators making conflicting statements.

In his dismissal letter, Shields claims an investigation conducted by UW System administrator Petra Roter found that Burton engaged in “disrespectful, harassing and intimidating behavior” toward her colleagues “in an attempt to undermine them professionally and damage their reputation and careers.”

Roter last month completed a report on her findings. The investigation included interviews with Burton and her accusers, who claim it was Burton who has caused a hostile environment in the department.

Overall, Roter’s report suggests the Criminal Justice Department has been in disarray for some time.

“Everyone interviewed agreed that Dr. Burton is an excellent teacher,” the report states.

UW-Platteville officials have said they cannot comment on personnel issues.

Burton said she has appealed to everyone from state Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, to Gov. Scott Walker. She received lots of promises from numerous pols to look into her case, but none have come to her aid.

Tranel’s office did not return Wisconsin Watchdog’s call seeking comment.

In a lengthy statement to Wisconsin Watchdog, Burton, who was born and raised in Germany, said corruption has made the U.S. Constitution a mockery:

“From everything I have learned about the U.S. of America it should be absolutely un-American to accept corruption. You look at why people emigrated from Europe to America, the Constitution the forefathers gave us, the strong individual rights protection. Having worked in law enforcement I understand that people break the law. I understand that corruption will always exist, what I don’t understand is why people don’t seem to be more invested in fighting government corruption. UW-Platteville is a public institution. The sheer apathy on the side of employees and politicians in this state is unprecedented to me. After WWII the United States taught Germans how to recognize and resist government corruption. The German constitution bears resemblance to the American Constitution and includes strong individual rights protection. I am a product of post WWII education. Perhaps that is why I can’t just look the other way, take the easy way, drink the Kool-Aid. They have offered me the Kool-Aid but the price was too high. I wasn’t willing to give up my integrity and forego the safety of our students for the carrot they offered.”