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Adolescent Entrepreneurs Encounter 'Big Brother' In Battle To Sell Ice Cream

Wed, 07/19/2017 - 14:44

MacIver News Service | July 19, 2017

By M.D. Kittle

[Madison, Wis...] - Sara Ruffi is one fired-up mom.

She was so fired up Wednesday morning she could have melted the ice cream sandwiches and other frozen sweet treats her young sons would sell, if only they could sell them.

But Sarah says Mac, 13, and Nic, 12, won't be able to hawk ice cream from the back of their three-wheeled bike, even though the Wausau City Council Tuesday night approved a youth vendor ordinance that would allow kids to peddle products, from their homes, with certain restrictions.

It's the restrictions that have Nic's and Mac's mom so hot under the collar.

The new permit creates a relatively nominal $15 fee for youth vendors, but it requires parents take on $100,000 liability coverage through their homeowners' insurance. And the policy must name the city of Wausau as an additional insured party.

That's a Fudgsicle too far for the Ruffis. The additional coverage could be costly and Sarah said her insurance agent isn't sure whether the homeowners could get the rider, particularly one naming the city, in the first place.

"Right now they put two kids out of business because mom refuses to name the city on my insurance policy," she said.

Wausau Mayor Robert Meilke said the city must protect itself from possible lawsuits.

"Let's say he (Nic Ruffi) sells ice cream with a peanut in it and someone has a peanut allergy. Who is going to be on the hook for that? Not the city," the mayor said.

Sarah Ruffi countered that her boys' ice cream, like any packaged product, comes with a list of ingredients on each label - and a side of individual responsibility. She said the mayor's response is "Big Brother saying he knows what's best for everybody and we shouldn't have to take responsibility for ourselves."

"This is why this country is in the world of hurt that it is in, and that has to stop," she said.

Perhaps the bigger problem is the ordinance's restrictions on the kind of ice cream business Nic and Mac have developed: a mobile enterprise.

Tara Alfonso, Wausau assistant city attorney, said Wausau government officials are being accused of "beating up lemonade stands," and that couldn't be further from the truth. There are exceptions to the main commercial vending ordinance, Alfonso said. It doesn't apply to kids selling lemonade or other goods from their homes or on private property, with approval of the property owners.

"This applies to people selling on the street and on sidewalks. We have always allowed kids to have a lemonade stand," she said.

But the Ruffi boys didn't build their business model on stationary sales.

"That's why he (Nic) has a bike. That's why he has a speaker with the ice cream music. That's why he has a big flag on the back of the bike with the reflectors that flash," Sarah said. "They were trying to be enterprising entrepreneurs. Now, they got to find out how ridiculous city government can be."

Meilke this week told MacIver News Service that he believes the youth vendor matter is all a "big story about nothing," that the Ruffis are making a "mountain out of a molehill."

"I really believe the city has been unfairly portrayed. There is a legal process we have to go through," the mayor said, adding that the city has bent over backward to create a workable permit system for youth vendors.

The special permit is in response to backlash the city received about the Ruffis' regulation battles. Originally, Nic and his dad explored what was needed to get the ice cream bike business rolling. They were told that Nic would be subject to Wausau's standard commercial vendor permit, requiring at least $120 in fees and an insurance policy with $1 million in liability coverage. All of that was moot when Nic and his father discovered that Nic wasn't eligible. He had to be 18.

The city council rejected proposed amendments to the youth vendor ordinance, one that would have struck the insurance requirement altogether, or at least the provision demanding the city be insured, and another that would drop the restriction that kids are only allowed to sell in residential areas. Had those amendments passed, Sarah said, the doors would be open to young entrepreneurs.

Other youth ventures have faced the long arm of the regulator in Wisconsin.

In 2011, two grade-school Appleton girls were informed by police that they were violating the law for operating a lemonade stand at an Appleton Old Car Show & Swap Meet. A city ordinance prohibited soliciting "within a two-block radius of any other special event," according to the Appleton Post Crescent.

State Rep. Joel Kleefisch thinks such restrictions on young entrepreneurs are ridiculous. So the Oconomowoc Republican plans to introduce a "lemonade stand bill" in the next week or so that would allow kids under 18 the unregulated right to sell lemonade or other goods from their front yards. The bill sets a total sales limit of $1,000, Kleefish said.

"It's not going to interfere with any enterprise. It's going to teach children the entrepreneurial spirit and marketing and everything else," he said.

"This is just one of those things in life where we have gone too far overboard in regulation, and it's time we back off," the lawmaker said. "In any way possible to get the kid off the couch and away from the video games or off their phone or iPad or tablet, to get them out in the outdoors, to actually sell a product, this is a positive thing."

Sarah said she's not sure what the boys' next step will be given the restrictions built into the youth vendor ordinance.

"The city won and my kids are closed for business because they cannot satisfy one of the requirements to get a permit," she said.

Debt Driving Milwaukee's Budget Problems, Not Lack Of State Aid

Wed, 07/19/2017 - 06:00

Debt is Milwaukee's Fastest Growing Budget Item Under Mayor Barrett

July 19, 2017

A MacIver Perspective By: Bill Osmulski

There are two words that characterize every budget in the City of Milwaukee since Tom Barrett became mayor: borrow and spend.

When he took over in 2004, the city's annual budget was $856 million. As of 2015, it was $1.5 billion. Annual borrowing went from $90 million to $285 million. Outstanding debt went from $583 to $720 million. The annual debt service payment went from $103 million to $450 million, a 275 percent increase.

To give that $450 million debt service payment some context, that's more than Milwaukee's total public safety budget - which includes the police and fire departments - by $32 thousand.

Barrett is sounding the alarm over his city's dire finances. However, instead of going after out-of-control borrowing, he's zeroed in on the police department.

In June, he told the Journal Sentinel that since last year the police department's budget has been bigger than the city's entire tax levy. Of course, his debt service payments have been larger than the city's entire tax levy since 2010. Regardless, under this pretext, Barrett threatened to layoff 84 police officers and 75 fire fighters if he can't close a $26.9 million budget gap. Naturally, he blames the state of Wisconsin.

"Actions by State government to cut revenue sharing with cities since 2004 have kept local residents from getting the full benefit of Milwaukee's downtown renaissance. Of 39 peer cities, Milwaukee is the only one who cannot levy an income or sales tax to use the economic activity in the city for services and infrastructure," according to the mayor's website, indicating his desire to create new taxes to fund his out-of-control spending.

Although it's tempting to place the blame squarely on Republicans, it's worth noting Barrett borrowed the most money when Democrats controlled every branch of Wisconsin's government. In 2010 (one year after the massive federal stimulus) Milwaukee borrowed $585 million. By the way, that was $281 million more than its entire tax levy.

To his credit, Barrett realizes he has to make the debt service payments no matter what. It allows him to brag, "Milwaukee continues to be a national leader in municipal financial management, shown in Milwaukee's consistently high bond ratings."

And even though 30 percent of Milwaukee's budget is dedicated to debt service, the city is still well within its state constitutional debt limits, which is 5 percent of its total equalized property value. The Wisconsin Department of Revenue reported in 2015, Milwaukee was still $500 million below the limit.

The tragic reality of Milwaukee's debt problem is there's no need for it. Between its tax levy, intergovernmental aid, user fees, and other financing options, Milwaukee has more than enough "revenue" to operate.

In 2015, the city brought in $1.26 billion not including revenue from new bonding. That year it spent $1.06 billion not including debt service.

So while Tom Barrett points at the state for his city's financial wreck, his fingerprints all are over the steering wheel.

Budget Blog - Senate Unveils Budget Plan Amid Impasse

Tue, 07/18/2017 - 16:53

July 18, 2017

[Madison, Wisc...] Looking to get stalled budget negotiations "back on track," Senate Republicans on Tuesday rolled out a budget blueprint that, not surprisingly, looks a good deal like Gov. Scott Walker's two-year spending plan - but built on heftier borrowing.

Now, said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, the budget ball is back in the GOP-led Assembly's court.

"My point is to try to get the process back on track," said the Juneau Republican, surrounded by seven members of his caucus at a Capitol press event that, like the budget process, was delayed.

The budget plan and the accompanying press conference were manifestations of a Senate caucus that has been toiling in recent weeks to complete the people's business, even as the Assembly has lacked a "sense of urgency," Fitzgerald asserted.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, was less than impressed.

"There was nothing new in anything that they said. I found that kind of surprising. I thought there would be some kind of revelation," Steineke told MacIver News Service.

Indeed, much is the same. The Senate plan includes the budget items already approved by the Legislature's budget committee, staying true to much of the governor's 2017-19 budget proposal.

The Senate trims about $427 million in all-funds spending from Walker's version, with help in part from a reduction in 400-plus state jobs (255 of them at DOT). And it leans a lot heavier on borrowing than Walker's original $500 million transportation bonding proposal. The Senate's $712 million ask is significantly higher than the Republican governor's $300 million transportation bonding compromise deal offered earlier this month as a negotiations spur.

How @WIGOPSenate plan for road bonding compares to base and @GovWalker proposal. pic.twitter.com/cak4CzMcUX

— MacIver News Service (@NewsMacIver) July 18, 2017

Assembly Republicans have stood as dead set against that kind of bonding as Walker and Senate Republicans have been against gas tax hikes and vehicle fee increases. Fitzgerald said his caucus remains against "revenue enhancers," and it would seem Assembly leadership isn't budging on bonding.

Fitzgerald noted that the Senate has come down from its previous bonding position, of $850 million, thanks in large part to savings elsewhere.

Not nearly enough, said Steineke.

"It's unsustainable, a rounding error difference from what they proposed before," the lawmaker said.

Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance, said Assembly Republican's resistance to borrowing for road projects is "totally unrealistic."

"It is impossible to pay for these projects in cash. It's not smart to do that," the River Hills Republican said. Darling added that the so-called mega transportation projects in southeast Wisconsin, which carry massive price tags, are vital to Wisconsin's economy, and delays would only cost business opportunity - and, ultimately, taxpayers.

Fitzgerald asserts the Senate budget proposal keeps all of the mega projects on track, including the Interstate 94 east-west reconstruction project. Walker's budget did not include planning money for the project, estimated to cost $1.1 billion.

How @WIGOPSenate proposed funding for Mega Projects compares to @GovWalker and base levels. pic.twitter.com/aoqH7EnqLV

— MacIver News Service (@NewsMacIver) July 18, 2017

As MacIver News Service's Bill Osmulski reported this week, it is virtually impossible for state and local governments to fund highway projects without borrowing at some level.

"Without bonding, some projects would likely be delayed regardless of perceived need, and priorities would need to be reconsidered to assure the delivery of a balanced program within available resources," stated the Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission in its 2013 report to the governor and Legislature.

The piece also notes that governments impose borrowing limits, and Steineke and others worry Wisconsin may be crossing that threshold if it continues to bond hundreds of millions of dollars annually for transportation projects. They assert a more sustainable solution to Wisconsin's transportation budget issues must be found. Such a solution, it seems, would involve motorists paying more at the pumps or for the privilege of driving their vehicles.

Total bonding in the Senate GOP plan approaches $900 million. On the transportation side, $350 million would come from general fund supported bonding, another $362 million from the segregated transportation fund.

The Senate proposal also eliminates three state taxes - the forestry/mill (state property) tax, the alternative minimum tax, and the personal property tax (in the second year of the biennium).

"The personal property tax is a burdensome tax on Main Street Wisconsin created in the 1840s. This repeal is long overdue," said state Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukeville in a statement.

Stroebel, who attended Tuesday's press event, said the Republican focus should be on repealing taxes "rather than raise taxes."

The Senate budget plan calls for $24 million more in K-12 spending than Walker's generous education budget. Among other provisions, the proposal increases the revenue adjustment for low-spending school districts from the current $9,100 per pupil in the first year, going up $100 per pupil each subsequent year until it hits $9,800 in 2022-23. It's similar to an Assembly education plan, but the increases are phased in over a longer period.

Senate Republicans also embrace the Assembly's laptops-for-high-school-freshmen idea, although the Senate would provide half of the funding the Assembly proposed, or $9.2 million, attached to matching school district money. That giveaway would begin in the second year of the budget.

The Senate proposal also ups the income threshold for enrollment in the statewide school choice program to 220 percent of the poverty level, which would capture 550 new students. And it brings back a version of Walker's lifetime teachers' license proposal, an initiative that the Joint Committee on Finance stripped from Walker's budget plan.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson tweeted that the governor, "welcomes the initiative by the state Senate to move the process forward while keeping his priorities largely intact."

.@GovWalker welcomes the initiative by the state Senate to move the process forward while keeping his priorities largely intact on ... /1/

— Tom Evenson (@TomEvenson) July 18, 2017

The official Assembly Republican leadership statement was markedly less enthusiastic.

Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington), Steineke, and Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) made sure to note that Assembly Republicans "first put out a budget framework for transportation in January, a comprehensive tax and transportation plan in May, and an educational proposal in June."

"It's good to see Senate Republicans have solidified their positions and are ready to come back to the table to complete work on the state budget," Assembly leadership stated. "Assembly Republicans will give the proposal fair consideration as requested."

The lawmakers added that they appreciate Fitzgerald admitting that "additional revenue is needed for our roads; if not today, sometime in the future."

The Senate majority leader said that increased funding may eventually be needed, but not until the Legislature gets a handle on the troubled state Department of Transportation.

"As we look at the DOT, there's a lot of members who have talked to me, and we're not comfortable putting more money, that is increasing revenue, into that agency until we feel comfortable with that agency and the decisions the DOT is making," Fitzgerald said.

He readily acknowledges that he doesn't have the 17 votes required to pass the budget proposal, mainly because of smaller, "parochial" issues. And he doesn't have a "Plan B" if Assembly Republicans reject the proposal outright. Fitzgerald said the plan is about jump-starting a stalled budget process.

In a letter to Vos, Fitzgerald says his caucus believes the "proffered solution presents a reasonable compromise on the major outstanding issues."

"Furthermore, we have confirmed that Governor Walker believes this proposal meets his key priorities of funding K-12 education, holding the line on property taxes, and insuring sound investments in transportation without raising taxes," the majority leader wrote.

The governor has the power of the veto pen, and the support of the Senate. So what's the Assembly's next move?

"They have to understand, and I think the speaker understands, that it has to be something that's going to be palatable to the Senate and certainly to the governor at this point," Fitzgerald said at the press conference. "I'm hoping they take kind of a measured approach to how they do that."

Reality Check: Do Wisconsinites Really Want to Pay More for Roads?

Tue, 07/18/2017 - 06:05

July 17, 2017

By Chris Rochester
MacIver Institute Communications Director

The ground should've shifted beneath Madison recently when the latest Marquette University Law Poll found most Wisconsinites aren't nearly as concerned as many have long claimed about the issue of transportation, the debate that's plagued the state Capitol and budget process for months.

Marquette's poll, conducted at the end of June, found that a mere 23 percent of respondents identified transportation as their top priority. More Wisconsinites identified healthcare (25 percent) and K-12 education (37 percent) as their number one concerns.

Even more tellingly, the Marquette poll found that a slim majority - 51 percent - of those who said transportation is their highest priority would not be willing to pay higher taxes for transportation, while just 46 percent said they would pay more. By contrast, 75 percent of respondents who said K-12 education is their top concern would be willing to pay higher taxes for that priority.

When given the chance to list their top two priorities, just 42 percent of respondents in the Marquette Poll included transportation, again trailing K-12 education (63 percent) and healthcare (52 percent).

In other words, transportation isn't that hot a topic outside the beltline, and even those who say it's their most important issue are squishy when asked to put their money where their mouth is.

Proponents of increased revenue point to a different, privately-financed poll conducted in late May to early June by Public Opinion Strategies as evidence they're on the right side of public opinion. That poll found that 76 percent would pay $4 more a month "if it meant creating an immediate solution to fix Wisconsin's roads," according to a Transportation Development Association press release, which commissioned the poll.


The poll leads respondents to a desired answer by implying a measly $4 a month in higher taxes would instantly result in every single road in the state being transformed into pristine condition. It's very easy to respond yes to that question, but fixing state's transportation morass isn't nearly that simplistic.

The TDA poll also found that voters oppose increased borrowing for transportation. But Governor Walker's budget actually decreases road bonding to $500 million, down from $850 million in the last budget and the lowest level of bonding since the 2001-03 budget. Walker also recently offered to cut bonding to $300 million - an offer rejected by Assembly leadership.

The "revenue enhancement" crowd loves to compare transportation bonding to putting road work on the credit card, but a better comparison is buying a home. While it would be ideal to buy a house with cash, only a select few can cut a check that big.

It's simply not reasonable to think the state can or should pay for a billion-dollar interchange project in cash.

Speaking of billion-dollar road projects, respondents to the TDA poll also oppose delaying southeast mega projects. That's not surprising - reasonable people oppose delays in roadwork because every motorist has sat in a traffic jam surrounded by construction barrels. No one likes delays - but the fact is, the vast majority of projects throughout Wisconsin would proceed without delay under Walker's proposal.

So while the TDA poll found large majorities generally support a small revenue increase if it would fill every pothole, seal every crack, and finish every project on time without borrowing, the Marquette poll revealed that Wisconsinites aren't that passionate about the issue and are much more hesitant to pay more when not presented with a low-cost magic fix.

The Marquette poll contradicts claims by the "revenue enhancement" crowd that there's an angry mob of motorists clamoring for a price hike at the pump. Proponents of a gas tax increase also like to point to spontaneous and supposedly uncoached letters that have been appearing in various newspapers around the state demanding action on road funding.

Nearly the same letter appears in newspapers around the state, all written under the same two names - Megan Delaney and Shannon O'Connell. In the Janesville Gazette, Delaney claims to be from Janesville. In the La Crosse Tribune, she says she's from Onalaska. In the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune and Stevens Point Journal, O'Connell claims to be from Wisconsin Rapids, but in papers serving Baraboo, Beaver Dam, and Portage, she says she's from Fall Creek. In the Rice Lake Chronotype, she says she's from nearby Barron.

Even if there are two Megan Delaneys, one living in Janesville and one living in Eau Claire, and three Shannon O'Connells, each very concerned about our transportation infrastructure and the need for higher gas taxes, the similar language used in papers from Janesville to Rice Lake suggests something else may be afoot.

This is an astroturf campaign, the tactic of special interests that want to make it look like the rest of the state cares about their cause and sides with them.

Transportation funding has been the bull in the budget china shop for months here in Madison, but the Marquette poll and the copy-paste-repeat letter campaign suggests a different reality: Wisconsinites are not clamoring for a tax increase like some in the media are trying to portray. Real Wisconsinites are not obsessed with finding ways to increase transportation funding. Remember, according to the Marquette poll, even among those who are concerned about transportation, a MAJORITY of those transportation-concerned individuals DO NOT favor a higher gas tax or registration fee.

Legislative leaders have come up with a cavalcade of ideas for raising taxes and fees to achieve their transportation goals. They and others have floated the idea of applying the sales tax to gasoline, adding toll roads, taxing farm equipment, tacking on a new heavy truck fee, and increasing the sales tax by $1 billion - among other ideas.

The "just tax it" crowd has it backwards. Instead of using manufactured public outcry to justify wringing more money out of Wisconsin motorists, farmers, and truckers, they should support a commonsense budget that focuses on the real concerns of the majority of the taxpaying public.

To paraphrase a famous quip by Governor Lee Dreyfus, Madison is 77 square miles surrounded by reality. The heated and protracted debate over transportation funding taking place in the state Capitol is a perfect case-in-point.

Wisconsin's Three Billion Dollar Unfunded Liability of Unused Sick Leave

Tue, 07/18/2017 - 06:00

State Employees Accumulating 3.7 million hours of Unused Sick Leave for Healthcare in Retirement

MacIver News Service | July 18, 2017

By Matt Tragesser

[Madison, Wisc...] By allowing state employees to bank their unused sick leave for use in retirement, the state of Wisconsin is currently facing a $3 billion unfunded liability that's only going to grow as employees accumulate more sick leave and lawmakers fail to take action.

As previously reported by MacIver News, Wisconsin allows state workers to convert their unused sick leave into health insurance payments at retirement. State workers earn 16.25 sick days a year and typically just use over eight days based on 2016 averages. The unused days carry over year-to-year and accumulate throughout the employee's career. At retirement, each day is worth about $516.

In the private sector, employees do not receive any type of sick leave payout and are not guaranteed a set number of paid sick leave days. On average, a private sector worker will be given seven paid sick days, which is still less than half of what a state employee receives annually.

Over the past decade, the costs of sick leave have increased by nearly one billion dollars and have shown no signs of stopping. In 2006, state workers banked $79 million worth of unused sick leave hours. Payouts saw the largest increase in 2011, but since then state employees have increasingly stacked unused sick leave to their totals. As of 2016, $168 million of unused sick leave was banked according to the Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds (ETF) .

The three billion dollar deficit won't be shrinking any time soon. Since the program's creation in the early '70s, state workers have accumulated 3.7 million hours of unused sick leave, with participation in the program also reaching its highest level since 2002 or when records began. In the last five years, an additional 5,054 state employees have qualified for the benefit or a 7.6% increase, bringing the total number of active participants to 71,587 through 2016.

With fiscal conservatives consistently looking for ways to save taxpayers money and reduce the cost of government, the three billion dollars set to be spent on this sick leave benefit could go long ways towards state agencies that face financial shortages.

While there has been previous legislation to limit the retirement perk, efforts have slowed after a Senate bill gained little traction last session.

12-Year-Old Ice Cream Entrepreneur Buried In Regulations

Mon, 07/17/2017 - 17:52

MacIver News Service | July 17, 2017

By M.D. Kittle

[Madison, Wis...] Nic Ruffi, at the age of 12, has discovered what entrepreneurs everywhere have learned: Stifling regulation stops start-ups.

The Wausau tween wanted to do something more with his summer vacation than play video games and hang out. He wanted a job. He wanted to make money.

The answer: ice cream. Nic planned to sell frozen sweet treats on his three-wheeled bicycle.

His parents, owners of Ruffi Law Offices in Wausau, decided to check in with the regulators first before Nic proceeded with his ice cream American Dream. For his troubles, the would-be entrepreneur received a thick commercial vendor registration packet, replete with various rules and regulations. Nic would have to have his bicycle and his ice cream cooler inspected by the city health department, a $60 fee, and pay a permit fee - $75 for six months, $100 for a year.

But in order to get the permit, Nic's parents would have to take out an insurance policy for $1 million in liability, at a premium cost of $500. And the city required it be named as an additional insured party on the policy. Apparently the city was concerned about the possible carnage caused by a kid selling Fudgsicles from the back of his bike.

"So my kid would have to spend $620 in fees and insurance before he sells one ice cream sandwich," Sarah Ruffi, Nic's mom, told MacIver News Service in an interview on the Vicki McKenna Show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN in Milwaukee.

But that wasn't the worst part, Sarah said. After digging through all of the regulations, the Ruffi family found that Nic need not apply. The city's standard commercial ordinance requires a permit applicant be at least 18 years old.

Sarah said her husband was told by Wausau Mayor Robert Meilke that the rules are the rules, that there was nothing the city could do.

"We were not satisfied with the answer we got," she said.

So they talked to city council members. They weren't done there. Sarah and Nic drove to Madison to share their ice cream permit saga with the National Federation of Independent Business-Wisconsin. Then they hit the Capitol, meeting with state representatives and senators and "explaining the hurdles this 12-year-old kid is going through to try to sell ice cream."

The city, it seems, has relented - somewhat.

Responding to the Ruffis concerns, the Public Health and Safety Committee has approved a youth vendor permit that would lift the age restriction, lower the cost of the permit, and reduce the liability insurance coverage requirements. The committee proposal goes before the full City Council Tuesday evening.

Meilke said this is all a "big story about nothing," that the Ruffis are making a "mountain out of a molehill."

"I really believe the city has been unfairly portrayed. There is a legal process we have to go through," the mayor said.

The health and safety committee, he said, gladly created a youth vendor permit to accommodate Nic Ruffi and young businesspeople like him. Meilke added that the city could cite the 12-year-old for selling ice cream on his bicycle without the proper permits and insurance, but it won't do so.

Tara Alfonso, Wausau assistant city attorney, said the committee proposal creates a $15 fee for youth vendors, and requires a $100,000 liability policy. The ordinance still would require the city be named an additional insured participant.

The city must be protected, Meilke said, from possible lawsuits.

"Let's say he (Nic Ruffi) sells ice cream with a peanut in it and someone has a peanut allergy. Who is going to be on the hook for that? Not the city," the mayor said.

Alfonso said any ordinance must comply with state and federal child labor laws, which include different requirements depending on the age of the child worker. Nic Ruffi, it would appear, would fall under the "domestic business" category, meaning he would not be bound by the same kind of restrictions as children employed or contracted through a non-domestic business.

The assistant city attorney said Wausau government officials are being accused of "beating up lemonade stands," and that couldn't be further from the truth. There are exceptions to the main commercial vending ordinance, Alfonso said. It doesn't apply to kids selling lemonade from their homes or on private property, with approval of the property owners.

"This applies to people selling on the street and on sidewalks. We have always allowed kids to have a lemonade stand," she said. What's different in Nic Ruffi's case is that the young entrepreneur wants to sell his product on his bike, going door to door, the attorney said.

"We did tweak that for his situation and for other kids like him," Alfonso said.

Sarah Ruffi said the proposed youth vendor ordinance is a step in the right direction and that city officials' hearts are in the right place. But it still contains unnecessary restrictions and costs. Even the $100,000 liability insurance cap comes with a costly premium, of $265, she said. That operational expense is a big cut to Nic's profits. Sarah said she'd like to see a waiver for all kids.

It's all been a learning experience for Nic and his older brother, Mac, and in some ways the lessons have been invaluable. It's taught the boys what owning a small business truly entails. It's taught them not to accept the status quo. Mac, 13, saw potential in his kid brother's business plan and wants to get in on the venture. A "born litigator," according to his mother, Mac is scheduled to address the full council at the meeting.

Sarah said Nic and Mac aren't alone in their push to loosen the grip of government regulation.

"I find it very hard to believe that my sons are the only ones who want to be young entrepreneurs in this state," she said. "I think the government's job is to get out of their way and encourage them to be entrepreneurs and follow that spirit rather than say, 'Hey, we're going to make it difficult and expensive for you to get into business. I think that's just wrong."

The Truth About Road Bonding

Mon, 07/17/2017 - 06:06

MacIver News Service | July 17, 2017

By: Bill Osmulski

[Madison, Wisc...] Wisconsin lawmakers might not like the idea of borrowing to pay for road projects, but an overwhelming amount of research and experience, not to mention current state policy, shows bonding to be an effective and essential component in transportation funding.

"Without bonding, some projects would likely be delayed regardless of perceived need, and priorities would need to be reconsidered to assure the delivery of a balanced program within available resources," according to the Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission in its 2013 report to the governor and Legislature.

That could be why every state in the country either uses transportation bonds or allows its local governments to use them, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). In fact, AASHTO considers bonding to be one of the most effective strategies for transportation funding.

States typically have debt management policies that put limits on how much they can borrow. According to both the Legislative Fiscal Bureau and the commission, Wisconsin is well below established debt ceiling limits.

In Wisconsin, new bonds should only be issued if debt service is less than $1 for every $2.25 of revenue. Fiscal Bureau recommends a ratio of $1 for every $2.50 "in order to maintain a cushion."

Over the past ten years, the state has never gotten close to that limit. The current level is $1 for every $3. That's the same level it was at in 2006-2007. It dropped down to $1 for $3.60 in 2009-2011, which corresponds to an influx of $529 million in stimulus funds for road projects. LFB points out bonding has gradually increased since then to its current level.

Fiscal Bureau recommends a ratio of not less than $2.50 of revenue for every $1 of transportation debt. Here's how Wisconsin's doing: pic.twitter.com/x0TFDMQpog

— MacIver News Service (@NewsMacIver) July 14, 2017

The state Legislature created the commission in 2013 to develop a transportation funding policy for the next decade. It recommended continuing the use of bonds, and imposing a different measure for responsible borrowing. It said debt service should not exceed 25 percent of the transportation fund. Wisconsin is currently spending 18.2 percent. Fiscal bureau projected debt service over the next two years could top 20 percent.

According to 2013 Keep Wisconsin Moving report criteria to @WisconsinDOT, debt service levels continue to be within acceptable levels pic.twitter.com/KwDt6THoSS

— MacIver News Service (@NewsMacIver) July 10, 2017

Although the level of bonding has been rising over the past several years, Governor Walker's budget proposal would have reversed that trend. He had transportation bonding at $500 million, which would have been the lowest since the 2001-03 budget.

Assembly Republicans presented a plan in May that would have bonded for $200 million. The current Assembly Republican position is no bonding without new revenues (i.e. tax or fee increases).

"If we are going to borrow more money, there has to be a way to pay for it. We will not continue to borrow and spend; that's not the conservative way to govern," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a statement on Wednesday.

Walker and Senate Republicans strongly oppose any tax or fee increases. The Senate's plan would bond for somewhere between $700 and $850 million.

The state budget debate is currently at a standstill due to this standoff over bonding's role in road funding.

Ross: Ongoing Budget Stalemate Risks Federal Funding, Could Cause Widespread Project Delays

Fri, 07/14/2017 - 17:29

MacIver News Service | July 14, 2017

By Chris Rochester

[La Crosse, Wis...] The seemingly endless budget stalemate in Madison could lead to a loss of federal funding and delays in projects around the state, Department of Transportation Secretary Dave Ross warned Friday in an address to the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce.

"Without a budget it becomes more and more difficult to attract dollars to the state of Wisconsin through grant programs offered by USDOT," Ross told attendees, mostly La Crosse area business leaders. "We need a budget to continue to take these opportunities."

Ross said the DOT is making a very large request of federal dollars this year. "We think we are in line for a good, substantial allocation," he said, but added if the DOT goes without a 2017-19 budget for too long, the department will struggle to meet its funding obligations that are required to qualify for the federal dollars.

The Department of Transportation reportedly plans to request $341 million in federal transportation money, significantly more than the state's typical request of the feds.

The secretary said the federal government requires the state to show it can match the federal money. Right now, the DOT has enough money to shift dollars around within the department, but that won't be the case for long.

"We think we can cobble together enough dollars in the agency to match those grants and not miss that opportunity, but this is not the way we should be running state government. This is absolutely not the way we should be running the state government," he said, reiterating that the department needs a budget soon.

Every day the budget stalemate drags on, the DOT is operating off the base budget - the second year of the last biennial budget. Spending in the previous budget was front-loaded in the first year and the base budget relies on spending in the second year. That means fewer dollars for projects around the state, re-allocation of money to projects to meet federal matching requirement, and the possibility of widespread project delays.

After months of stalemate over transportation funding between the Assembly, Senate, and governor, Ross said he's seen a "sea change" in support for the governor's original budget compared to when the budget was first introduced. "The tone in Madison has changed now to 'hey, we want back what was lost when the governor's budget got thrown out'," he said.

The governor's transportation budget proposal doesn't raise gas taxes or vehicle registration fees, keeping a key campaign promise. It also provides more aid to local governments and keeps the vast majority of projects around the state on-track. While the Senate largely backs the governor's proposal, Assembly leaders have long bucked the governor's insistence on not raising taxes or fees, and recently rejected an offer by Walker to reduce bonding in his proposal by $200 million.

"I thought this was a brilliant olive branch that he gave to the Legislature," Ross said. The $300 million level of bonding Walker offered is very close to the amount of bonding the DOT pays off every year, Ross said.

Ross also called the perception that transportation revenue is declining a "myth," citing $100 million more in gas tax collections in the next biennium. Another myth is that projects are costing more money each year. In fact, the DOT is paying 12 percent less for road projects than last year and has saved $100 million in bid letting just this year, Ross said.

"That's how the governor's going to lower bonding by $200 million," the secretary said.

Ross told MacIver News that a bill being circulated by a coalition of 18 Assembly members and senators makes needed reforms to DOT. "We like a lot of things in that reform package...we need to look at our spending, we need to look at how we prioritize dollars going out to our districts...we just need to look at the bidding process," he said.

Ross has long said the DOT doesn't have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.

"We want more asphalt, more concrete, more projects, but we don't want to spend any more money because we have sufficient funds to do it. We just have to do it right," he said.

Ross's ultimate message was that the DOT just wants a budget - ideally the one first proposed by Walker but thrown out by the Joint Committee on Finance in the first phases of the budget process.

Weekly Roundup: Top Stories in Wisconsin Politics

Fri, 07/14/2017 - 06:00

July 14, 2017

Happy Friday readers! It's that time of week - we're all counting down the minutes to 5 o'clock in anticipation of a couple days of freedom. Before you go home, kick off your shoes, and unwind with a glass of wine, we'll get you up to date on news that might've slipped through the cracks in the midst of budget discussions.

PSA ~ It's national mac n' cheese day, so be sure to treat yo self!

Here's a recap of the top news stories since the 4th of July:

1. Senate Republicans Solidify Budget Plan
The Wisconsin Legislature is now two weeks past the budget deadline, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) is confident that his caucus will be able to find common ground with the Gov and Assembly.

The Senate Republican Caucus met Tuesday to discuss policy positions that have not yet been taken up by the Joint Finance Committee and transportation funding dominated the conversation. They agreed to reduce bonding from their $850 million goal, reject any tax or fee increases, and keep the I-94 east west megaproject on track.

After caucusing this morning the Senate GOP is unified behind a single budget plan, a spokesperson for Majority... https://t.co/2LUT66yk6i

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) July 11, 2017

Read more here.

2. Paul Ryan Discusses Conservative Reform at MacIver Event
Speaker Paul Ryan spoke at a MacIver event held Friday, July 7th. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, also joined the group and gave autographed copies of his latest book to the MacIver interns.

Ryan made it clear that federal spending will not be a saving grace to the transportation impasse in Wisconsin. Instead he expressed a desire to "take the federal fiscal footprint and make it smaller to leverage more of the private sector dollars."

Before you get your hopes up, Speaker Ryan made it clear a presidential race isn't in his foreseeable future - "I have federal sized policy ambition, I just don't have presidential sized personal ambition."

Speaker Paul Ryan stopped by MacIver on Friday -- Speaker Paul Ryan gave MacIver and our friends an update on... https://t.co/gXGuXiw9Xw

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) July 8, 2017

Read more here and here.

3. Walker Attempts to Break Transportation Impasse, Republicans Push DOT Reform Bill

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) insists his caucus will not support more transportation bonding without new revenues (i.e. higher taxes or fees). Gov. Scott Walker insists he will veto any new revenues, but last week offered to decrease his proposed level of bonding from $500 million to $300 million. In a letter to Assembly and Senate leadership, he explained they could cut $200 million out through "an improved transportation fund balance, project cost savings, and other administrative actions."

Neither the Assembly nor Senate has shown much interest in the plan. For the Assembly, it's still too much bonding and for the Senate it's not enough spending. Vos told reporters on Wednesday the Joint Committee on Finance will not meet this week or next to continue its work on the budget.

BREAKING: Governor Scott Walker today offered a plan that reduces transportation bonding by $200 million in an... https://t.co/aHhzpJC2Ot

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) July 6, 2017 As of yesterday morning, over two dozen lawmakers from both the Assembly and Senate have signed on to a new DOT reform bill, which would increase oversight at the DOT and recognize more cost saving opportunties. The legislative audit released in January was the inspiration for much of the bill's content.


For information on the bill and its provisions, read more here.

4. UW-Madison Honors Admirer of Socialist Dictatorships
The Havens Center at UW-Madison is awarding far-left activist Tariq Ali - who praises socialist dictators such as Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, and Fidel Castro - with their 2017 Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship Award.

MacIver Institute spoke with Venezuelan student activist Jorge Jraissati for a glimpse into what life is actually like in Venezuela and the struggles they endure. The country is ravaged with severe food and medicine shortages, no freedom of speech, no respect for human rights, looting, deadly mass protests, and more.

It is incredibly disheartening to see UW-Madison honor someone who callously disregards human rights violations and proudly supports the chaos, hunger, death, and despair in Venezuela - all for a political ideology.

Ali will return to UW-Madison's campus on October 19 for his award lecture entitled "1917-2017: Wars and Revolutions."

#Venezuela as seen by socialist filmmaker vs. Venezuela as seen by @JraissatiJorge, who's actually from there.https://t.co/9UA8nxoQrH#tcot pic.twitter.com/hoYYmHRT8Z

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) July 12, 2017

Read more here.

5. State Obtains Legal Counsel for John Doe Case
There's been a new development in the Department of Justice investigation into leaked court-sealed documents related to the John Doe investigation targeting conservative groups and Gov Walker - the Ethics Commission requested legal counsel to "assist our agency in the Department of Justice investigation of the release of John Doe documents."

Commission administrator Brian Bell shed more light on the situation and explained that "Wisconsin Department of Justice investigators have requested interviews with Ethics Commission staff regarding their involvement in collecting and preserving records related to the John Doe investigation conducted by the Government Accountability Board in coordination with five district attorneys."

On Friday the state Ethics Commission lawyered up, retaining the services of a Milwaukee lawyer as the state... https://t.co/4shUn8vqFI

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) July 10, 2017

Read more here.

6. MacIver Warns Readers of Impending Crime Wave for Amazon Prime Day
Bargain hunters and shopaholics had a field day earlier this week with Amazon's annual Prime Day deals. Those amazing deals are potentially illegal for Wisconsinites under the state's archaic minimum markup law.

MacIver's president Brett Healy jokingly refers to the event as Amazon Crime Day, but is serious about the repeal of the outdated law. He explains that "Prime Day just shows us how out of step Wisconsin's minimum markup law is. A law created for Wisconsin's economy during the Great Depression should not be holding Wisconsin back from fully participating in the economy of 2017."

Pictured: Brett Healy rocking a faux leather jacket.

Thx to #MinimumMarkup law banning great deals, #AmazonPrimeDay will be Amazon Crime Day in WIhttps://t.co/Mim73x8P3Z#wiright #wipolitics pic.twitter.com/vm1jSXEPz9

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) July 10, 2017

Read more here.

7. Inequity in Wisconsin's School Choice Programs Causes Hardship
There's a divergence of accessibility in Wisconsin's school choice program, which leaves some families struggling to make ends meet in order to send their children to their choice of public school alternatives. The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) allows families who make 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level ($44,955 annually) to participate in the program. However in Racine and Milwaukee, families can make 300 percent the Federal Poverty Level ($72,900 annually) and still be considered for the programs.

Parents like Angela Snider, a mother of two in Osceola, are concerned about the financial burdens. "I feel like I have to choose, 'which child am I going to send?'" Snider told the MacIver Institute.

Progress for school choice programs has been made with a consensus bill, awaiting Gov. Scott Walker's approval, which calls for improved accountability and efficiency.

If a family of 4 makes $45K/yr, they're officially "too rich" to qualify for #SchoolChoice in most of WI: https://t.co/YQlrWv2ZSQ#wiright

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) July 12, 2017

Read more here.

8. Transportation Fund Pays for Otter Exhibit at Milwaukee County Zoo
This August, the Milwaukee County Zoo is unveiling their new welcome center and otter exhibit. The zoo used the $12.7 million settlement from their 2014 lawsuit against the Department of Transportation and an additional $10 million from the state transportation fund to pay for the additions, including a new 500 space parking lot.

Many might consider a new otter exhibit a waste of taxpayer money, especially considering the current budget hangups and issues with transportation funding. To add insult to injury, the zoo could've accepted $8.09 million from the DOT when they acquired the zoo's east side parking lot. Rather than accept the money, the zoo backed out of the deal last minute and sued the DOT instead. MacIver's Tyler Brandt covers the details of the exchange in his piece on the new zoo additions.

Otter exhibit and welcome center at MKE zoo paid for w/money out of DOT budget:https://t.co/mndo4yrEJM#wiright #wibudget @VickiMcKenna

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) July 10, 2017


9. Continuing ChartSmart Series (three entire parts devoted to K-12, and now one on transportation!)
A friendly reminder to all of our readers - our ChartSmart Series has been on fire lately. We're pushing out content to keep you up to date with K-12 and transportation budget information. Check out our latest below.

Transportation funding has been at the core of the budget impasse for months. Though it's anyone's guess when the... https://t.co/GXnXdJDNhx

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) July 11, 2017

Check out the latest in our latest Chart Smart series - this time we break down one of the big final chunks of... https://t.co/JijkH5SOSo

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) July 5, 2017

How do Wisconsin students measure up? Our latest Chart Smart breaks down student success in a variety of ways -... https://t.co/xAM0o6nVey

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) July 6, 2017


Interested in more in-depth coverage on any of these issues? Check out our coverage from this week on transportation budget discussions, school choice debate, and more on Twitter.

Heavy Hitting DOT Reform Bill Emerges at Capitol

Thu, 07/13/2017 - 14:00

July 13, 2017 | MacIver News Service

By: Bill Osmulski

[Madison, Wisc...] Republican Lawmakers are pushing a new reform package in hopes of more efficient and responsible highway project management at the DOT.

A memo for co-sponsorship started circulating Thursday morning with two dozen lawmakers from the Assembly and Senate already signed on. Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), a co-author of the bill, told MNS Thursday another four to six lawmakers have signed on since then.

The package would address some of the problems identified by the legislative audit that was released this past January. It would implement new procedures to increase oversight at the DOT, while at the same allowing it more flexibility to capture cost saving opportunities.

"The genesis of these ideas isn't necessarily the audit, but the audit did urge the Legislature to act quickly on these issues," Senator Dave Craig (R-Town of Vernon) told MacIver News.

Under the bill, the DOT would be allowed to use alternative project delivery methods, specifically "Design-Build" or "Construction Manager-General Contractor" on highway projects. The only method currently allowed is design-bid-build, which critics say is not always the cheapest or most effective method to complete highway projects.

The package also includes five reforms that have already been introduced as standalone bills, including the full repeal of the prevailing wage law for state highway projects. That's already been passed out of committee, but the other bills have not yet had a hearing.

"When you look at the proposals we're making, and if you're in the private sector, you're thinking this is just common sense," Craig said.

Provisions in the bill:

Allow the DOT to use alternative project delivery methods, specifically Design-Build or construction manager-general contractor on highway projects.

Allow local governments to use alternative project delivery methods.

Create a technical review committee to review contract proposals.

Create a scoring process for bids that encourages transparency, low cost, and Wisconsin-based contractors.

Create reporting requirements to the Legislature. DOT would have to give updates on the performance of alternative project delivery methods.

Limit how much engineering work can be done in-house.

Implement need-based funding instead of baseline funding for DOT regions.

Require a full audit of the DOT. The audit released this past winter only examined the highway program.

Current Bills

SB 80 requires local approval of roundabouts. There are currently 40 roundabout projects planned throughout the state over the next 4 years, which will cost approximately $10 million, according to Department of Administration estimates. There has been no hearing yet on that bill.

SB 143 establishes an inspector general at the DOT. That person would be able to "examine the accounts and other financial records of DOT and may review the performance and program accomplishments of DOT." There has been no hearing yet on that bill.

SB 216 repeals prevailing wage. It passed out of committee on May 3, but has yet to be scheduled for a floor vote.

SB 217 swaps federal funds on certain projects with local funding. Savings are involved by categorizing projects from federal to local. There has been no hearing yet on that bill.

AB 361 requires a referendum to institute a local wheel tax. There has been no hearing yet on that bill.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos supports the package, but says it won't have much effect on the current transportation funding debate holding up the budget.

"I look forward to working with my colleagues in both chambers to improve the DOT to bring about a more effective and efficient agency. However, it's important to understand that reforms alone won't resolve the transportation funding issue that must be addressed in order to maintain a reliable and safe highway system," he said in a statement Thursday.

However, the memo for co-sponsorship explains the reform package is not about settling the current transportation funding debate.

"Regardless of what emerges from the revenue side of the discussion, we are all keenly aware of the dire need for operational reforms inside the Department of Transportation. The audit released earlier this year confirmed that this agency suffers from gross mismanagement on so many fronts," the memo reads.

Bill co-author Senator Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) said "These reforms have been proven around the country to save significant money and deliver projects in a more efficient and effective manner. It is part of what is needed to help get the agency back on track."

Senator Craig says even though a specific dollar amount cannot be attached to potential savings the bill could achieve, he's confident it will be significant.

"You're streamlining the bureaucracy, you're returning roles back to the competitive market, when you're returning local control. That's going to have a big impact," Craig said.

Rep. Sanfelippo said these reforms represent a two-pronged approach to the transportation issue. As leadership negotiates the funding side, Sanfelippo says these reforms are essential to avoid future funding fights.

"We have our disagreements on the money between the Assembly and Senate side no doubt, but nobody says we don't need reforms," he said. "No matter how we get it, we just all feel very strongly that these reforms have to get done."

Different Income Limits for Choice Programs Force Rural Families to Make Tough Decisions

Wed, 07/12/2017 - 16:00

Unsatisfied with public options and above the income limit for school choice programs, outstate Wisconsinites are working hard to make ends meet

July 12, 2017

By Ola Lisowski
MacIver Institute Research Associate


After her daughter spent a few years attending a local public school, Gina Larson knew the option wouldn't work for her family. She wanted a Christian education for her kids, so the mother of two tried homeschooling.

"It was good, but at the same time it was a huge challenge," Larson said, chuckling. "My daughter is a hardcore extrovert. She needed the social aspect of school. That's when we decided to see if we could figure out, financially, how to get them into private school."

"That was the biggest issue - that was the only issue - that was keeping us from sending her in the very beginning, was not having the means to do it."

The family tried to access the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) so that they could send their children to private school using a voucher, but discovered that their annual income was "slightly too high" to participate.

Instead, Gina went to work and helped the family tighten its belt. Today, Gina's husband Cory works full time, while she works two part-time jobs and tries to get a small business off the ground, all while raising two children.

The Challenge
Outside of Milwaukee and Racine, Wisconsin families have access to educational choice through a few avenues: public school open enrollment, the Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP), or the WPCP, also known as the statewide choice program. Open enrollment allows families to transfer between public school districts, while the latter two programs provide scholarships and vouchers for students to attend private schools.

Participation in the WPCP is limited to families earning up to 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). That amounts to a maximum annual income of $44,955 for a family of four in the 2017-18 school year. If a family of four makes $45,000 in a year, they're officially too rich to qualify for the voucher.

Down in Milwaukee and Racine, however, families who earn up to 300 percent of the FPL - $72,900 annually for a family of four - can participate in the choice programs in those cities. That's 62 percent more than the upper limit for participation in the statewide program. The inequity is causing some outstate families to make tough choices.

The challenge, then, becomes choosing between keeping the kids in public school or finding the money to afford a private education. The struggle is worth it, says Angela Snider, a mother of two with children at Valley Christian School in Osceola, but it's not easy.

"Our struggle is that it costs so much money that sometimes, I feel like I have to choose, 'which child am I going to send?'" said Snider, who also serves on the school board at Valley Christian. "We're talking over $8,000 [in annual tuition]. That's a big chunk of money for us to send our kids to school."

Under Gov. Scott Walker's 2017-19 budget proposal, no significant changes are made to the state's school choice programs. The same is true for the Assembly Republican K-12 plan, which focuses instead on districts whose revenue limits are capped at $9,200 per student.

The only recent progress on school choice came from Senate Bill 293, a consensus bill negotiated by choice groups and the Department of Public Instruction. Both the Senate and Assembly have passed the bill, which strengthens accountability for choice schools and eliminates inefficient regulations in the programs. Walker has not yet signed the bill into law.

Back in February, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said that he would support increasing access to choice in the budget, but no substantive plans have been released. In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said that Vos would support increasing the statewide income limits to reach parity with Milwaukee and Racine.

Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) threw cold water on the idea, saying that many families living under 300 percent FPL are not necessarily low-income.

"We just felt that that was too high of an income to have taxpayers to be paying for options for vouchers," Darling said. "We felt at 300 percent (of the federal poverty level), there are a lot of people who are not considered low-income."

But for families struggling to afford private education, it's not as simple as that.

Snider said her family drastically cut back on spending to find the money for private school. "We have a very strict, strict budget. We don't have cable TV or anything. We cut out all those things and we even have a budget for food that we make - that we struggle to make - so that we can send our kids to Valley Christian School."

That's a shared reality for families close to the income cutoff across the state. A family of four with average expenses and a combined salary of less than $72,000 would have disposable income of just $5,800 for the year, according to one recent estimate compiled by the American Federation for Children.

Both women agreed the financial challenge was worth the opportunity to send their kids to private school, though they each fight back against perceptions about private schools in their own way.

"There's kind of this stigma on private education that the people that go have tons of money and that it's just this elitist group of people," Larson said. "The school that my kids go to is filled with families that are bending over backwards to provide the finances to send them to private school because of their beliefs, because of their values."

The Inequity
Asked about the barriers to the choice program, Larson said she knows many families who are technically "too rich" to qualify for choice, but are far from affording private education on their own.

"You're talking about $7,000 [in] extra income, that's a significant amount in anybody's income, really," Larson said. "There's so many families I know that would like that opportunity but can't afford it and don't fall underneath that percentage limit. My brother's in that same range that we are, where it's like, ok - you bite the bullet and make sacrifices to make up for that several thousand dollar expense, or you continue in public education."

Larson emphasized her belief that the public schools in her area are good schools, but that they simply weren't a good fit for the family. Regardless, her family duly pays their taxes and sends plenty of money to an educational system they aren't using.

"I wish that everybody could choose where to send their kids to school, regardless of whether they're underneath a certain income or not," Larson said. "Personally, I would just like to see that percentage just done away with entirely because it doesn't make any sense to me."

Snider agreed with the sentiment, calling for wider access to educational choice across the state.

"I think it should be everybody's choice where they want to take their kids. I don't think that the government should just say, 'No, you have to go here,'" Snider said. "It should be every parent's choice."

--

As the MacIver Institute has previously covered, the state legislature is currently at a stand-still as leadership works to break the impasse in the transportation budget. Follow the MacIver Institute and MacIver News Service on Twitter for up-to-the minute coverage.

UW-Madison Honors Tariq Ali, Advocate of Socialist Dictators

Wed, 07/12/2017 - 06:00

July 12, 2017

By Jessica Murphy

UW-Madison is bestowing an award to Tariq Ali, a far-left activist with a long history of praising socialist dictators. What's concerning is his blatant disregard of the current crisis in Venezuela, a degenerative socialist nation with the state-controlled economy in ruins and millions of people starving.

The A.E. Havens Center for Social Justice at UW-Madison, a taxpayer funded entity, selected Marxist journalist, author, and filmmaker Tariq Ali as the recipient of their 2017 Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship Award. The award is presented to those with a "distinguished and extensive record of scholarly achievement in the critical tradition of social thought," according to the UW.

Ali previously spoke at a Havens Center event in fall of 2007 and will return to UW-Madison's campus on October 19 for his award lecture entitled "1917-2017: Wars and Revolutions."

Ali is a British-Pakistani writer who is well known in left-wing activist circles. He has met late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and current President Nicolás Maduro on multiple occasions and has spoken highly of both of them, specifically referencing Chávez's apparent "victories" in various publications and lectures. He was also invited to speak at the inaugural Hugo Chávez Memorial Lecture in 2014 hosted by the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, an organization that supports the tyrannical reigns of Chávez and Maduro.

Ali joined the International Marxist Group in 1968. The International Marxist Group, today known as Socialist Action, is a Trotskyist group based in the United Kingdom that launched various newspapers to spread Marxist ideas. Ali has been writing for the Guardian since the 1970s, is a long-standing editor of New Left Review, is a founder and current vice president of the Stop the War Coalition, and co-wrote the screenplay for South of the Border, a documentary that honors left-wing Latin American leaders such as Chávez. At the 2005 World Social Forum in Brazil, Ali was one of the "Group of Nineteen" to sign the Porto Alegre Manifesto, which consists of twelve socialist proposals ranging from implementing an international tax to canceling all debt of developing nations.

In a column for the Guardian, Ali glorifies Chávez's fight for social rights, the poor, and the underprivileged. In reality, Chávez left a legacy of corruption. His administration was known for exchanging favors and gifts for votes come election time, mismanaged the potentially lucrative oil industry (output fell by almost a third), used oil money for social programs, forced all media stations to cover his speeches under threat of termination, rigged elections so that he could decide who could and couldn't run, and more.

Chávez's love of literature was of particular interest, and Ali admired how Chávez distributed a million "free" copies of his favorite book, Don Quixote, to the poor. This act is more self righteous than charitable - people were starving and Chávez cruelly chose to buy a million books that would never be read rather than feed his people. Chances are the books were burned as kindling rather than read. This clearly shows greater passion for his personal ambition than the livelihoods and health of his people - a disconnect between the socialist elite in power and the suffering Venezuelans.

Ironically, Ali commented that Chávez "had a punctilious sense of duty to his people." Ali couldn't be more off base considering the tyrannical government led by Chávez lacked any sense of integrity or commitment to its people. Adoration of an ideology should not blind one to the atrocities and suffering real people are enduring.

Ali often calls out western media for portraying the situation in Venezuela as a transition to a communist-style dictatorship, when it's clear this is exactly what's happening. Most notably, Chávez usurped all private businesses, effectively taking control over the entire economy. People knew that if they wanted to keep their jobs, they would stay silent and not disagree with the regime. It's difficult to find dissent when everyone who speaks out is intimidated, threatened, jailed, or killed.

Venezuela, with the world's largest oil reserves, once had potential to be the richest country in Latin America. Today, the country is in shambles - facing severe food and medicine shortages, looting and violence, deadly mass protests, and a leader who attempts to silence any dissenters by force. Latest estimates of the anti-government protests put the death toll at 90 people, the majority of them under the age of 30. The country is spiraling out of control - people are rationing toothpaste and imprisoned protesters say they are forced to eat raw pasta mixed with human excrement. Apparently this is a socialist's paradise?

Venezuela is a poignant and relevant example of the failures of socialism. Socialists hide under a façade boasting equality, yet in practice it leads to egregious human rights violations, disintegration of democracy, and extreme poverty. Is this the equality they desire?

The strength and the courage of the Venezuelan people is immeasurable. They withstand threats, beatings, jail, starvation, intimidation, and more, and are still determined to fight. They fight for their lives, for their families, and for a better future.

I reached out to Jorge A. Jraissati, a Venezuelan student activist who has been at the forefront of the protests and fight for freedom in his country. When I told him that the UW intends to give an award to Ali, he commented that it is unfair to give an award to someone who doesn't know what he is talking about.

Jraissati conveys the truth of his experiences and the hardships Venezuelans have endured for years under the socialist dictatorship Ali extols:

"Venezuela is a country sunk in misery, a country in which our people don't have access to food, medicines, and jobs. Venezuela is a country with no freedom of speech, no human rights, and no opportunities to provide for our families with minimum wage less than $50 per month. A country divided, collapsed, and injured thanks to Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro.

Every time I visit the poorest sectors of my country and I see the misery in their lives, I feel disappointment. Chávez betrayed those who believed in him the most; those eager for hope. The people Chávez promised to help are the most exposed to the violence and hunger my country is living at the moment.

Today, we have been fighting for our freedom for three months, and despite the brutal repression of the dictatorship, we will keep fighting. In three months, more than 80 students have been killed by the regime, and more than 3,000 incarcerated."

In the coming months, Jraissati will be speaking with United Nations officials, in front of the European Parliament, and at various conferences to implore them to take action for the people of Venezuela and denounce the situation in Venezuela internationally.

Why is the University of Wisconsin honoring Ali, who shares anti-West conspiracies in favor of fighting for human freedom in Latin America? Ali is an anti-war activist and speaks out against human rights abuses such as honor killings, but he doesn't bat an eye when it comes to the human rights violations in Venezuela. It shows a lack of principle to stand for values such as human rights and independence while unabashedly supporting a socialist regime that is violating all of the above. Perhaps current supporters of the socialist Venezuelan regime are too prideful to admit that they were incorrect, and rather than retreat to silence, choose to stick to their guns and support the cruel and power hungry Venezuelan leader regardless of moral qualms.

Maduro's own administration is revolting. Venezuela's attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz, once loyal to the Maduro regime, is now one of his most outspoken critics. Speaking out in the name of justice and democracy has consequences in Venezuela - Díaz had her assets frozen and was banned from leaving the country last week.

Past recipients of the Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship Award include far-left activists Eduardo Galeano, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn.

Galeano, an Uruguayan historian and writer who openly supported the Bolivarian revolution taking place in Venezuela, also had connections with both Chávez and Maduro. An official statement released by the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry after Galeano's death lamented that "the Venezuelan people will always remember the commitment that Eduardo Galeano always showed towards the Bolivarian Revolution and to our eternal commander, Hugo Chávez." In honor of his dear comrade, Maduro created a special education plan for fifth and sixth graders to focus on Galeano's works. His novel about Latin America's exploitations by the West, The Open Veins of Latin America, gained popularity after Chávez famously offered a copy to Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas in 2009.

Chávez considered Chomsky one of his best friends in the west, who commented "what's so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela is that I can see how a better world is being created." In 2011, Chomsky raised concerns that Chávez was concentrating too much executive power, which he viewed as a risk to democracy. This story is familiar - the far-left praising a socialist paradise until it starts crumbling, and then they spin the story that it was never truly socialist in the first place.

It is incredibly disheartening to see UW-Madison honor someone who callously disregards human rights violations and proudly supports the chaos, hunger, death, and despair in Venezuela - all for a political ideology.

With all odds against them, Venezuelans remain hopeful and Jorge's words inspire those fighting for liberty:
"In these difficult times of long nights and great suffering, never stop resisting, never stop believing, and never stop fighting. We will be free."

If you want to take real action and help Venezuelans, please consider donating to Jorge's fundraiser for food and medicine.

You can follow Venezuelan activist Jorge Jraissati on twitter (@JraissatiJorge) for updates on their efforts to fight for freedom.

Photos courtesy of NBC and Wikipedia.

Budget Blog - Senate Republicans Solidify Budget Plan

Tue, 07/11/2017 - 15:23

July 11, 2017

[Madison, Wisc...] As of Tuesday afternoon, members of the Senate Republican Caucus are all on the same page, according to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald's office, and the challenge is to now maintain that unity while building consensus with the Assembly and Governor.

"There's relative agreement in our caucus and our members are actively working to get the budget passed," Fitzgerald spokeswoman Myranda Tanck told MacIver News.

The caucus met Tuesday morning to finalize its policy positions for the remaining items of the budget not yet addressed by the Joint Committee on Finance. Those include transportation and K12 education. Transportation seems to have dominated the meeting, which concluded shortly after noon.

Fitzgerald's challenge involves getting a budget deal all his members can agree on, that Assembly Republicans will support, and that the governor won't veto. On Tuesday, Senate Republicans agreed to reduce bonding from their previous $850 million goal, reject any tax or fee increases, and keep the I-94 east west megaproject on track. Key to this plan will be realizing the tens of millions of dollars in savings identified by the legislative audit bureau in its report on the state highway program.

Fitzgerald plans to present the details of this position to Governor Scott Walker and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos tomorrow at their weekly budget meeting. Last week, Walker sent a letter to Fitzgerald and Vos concerning his plan to reduce bonding, and Fitzgerald hopes to get more information about that tomorrow.

Federal Transportation Cash Windfall An Iffy Prospect

Tue, 07/11/2017 - 11:04

MacIver News Service | June 11, 2017

By Chris Rochester

[Madison, Wis...] House Speaker Paul Ryan threw some cold water on the idea that the federal government would swoop in with more federal dollars to fund some of the state's largest projects at a MacIver Institute event on Friday.

"Our goal is not to maximize federal spending," Ryan said when asked about the possibility of a major spending package aimed at infrastructure. Instead, the Janesville Republican said he hopes to use fewer federal dollars with more private money to match it.

"We need to take the federal fiscal footprint and make it smaller to leverage more of the private sector dollars," Ryan said.

That's bad news for Wisconsin infrastructure hawks who may have seen a ray of hope in Gov. Walker's compromise proposal to cut transportation bonding by $200 million and link more spending on the state's Southeast Freeway Mega Projects to a windfall of federal money.

The Department of Transportation reportedly plans to request $341 million in federal transportation money, significantly more than the state's typical request of the feds.

Walker offered the revised plan in an attempt to break an ongoing budget impasse centering on the transportation budget. In addition to reducing bonding by $200 million, the compromise plan asked the Legislature to approve contingency bonding for the Southeast Freeway Mega Project program, projects receiving federal financial assistance and carrying a price tag of $500 million or more.

"Interstate 94 North/South, the Zoo Interchange and Interstate 94 East/West are high profile projects in southeastern Wisconsin. We propose contingency bonding that would be linked to additional federal funding for mega projects," Walker wrote. "Wisconsin is well positioned to qualify for additional federal funding to help support mega projects."

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) is also hopeful more money from D.C. is in the offing. "The federal government budget comes out in August. We're hoping there is opportunity for us to get a big investment out of the federal government," said Darling, co-chair of the Legislature's budget committee.

Ryan's comments hint that a substantial boost in federal funding is unlikely to materialize.

Walker's offer - which does not increase the gas tax or vehicle registration fee, one of the governor's core promises in the budget - doesn't seem to have persuaded Assembly leadership, which is insisting on additional revenue for the troubled DOT.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke called Walker's proposal a "good step in the right direction" in an interview with the MacIver News Service on News/Talk 1130 WISN, but reiterated that he still believes new revenue is needed. "We need to keep some of these projects on track...and without new revenue, that's going to be impossible to do."

ChartSmart: Transportation Showdown

Tue, 07/11/2017 - 06:38

July 11, 2017

Transportation funding seems to be everyone's line in the sand in the budget debate. Governor Walker has said he will not allow any tax or fee increases into the budget - while Assembly Republicans say it is impossible to maintain current levels of bonding and insist tax or fee increases are the only solution.

Governor Walker's proposal increases overall funding to the DOT by $359 million, or 6.4 percent. However, it also includes a $289 million decrease to the State Highway Improvement Program. That amount would come out of the Southeast Mega Projects, but Walker says it would not impact the timeline for projects currently under construction. His proposal includes $500 million in bonding - the lowest since 2001-03 - and no tax or fee increases.

Senate Republicans are generally on board with Walker's plan, but Assembly Republicans reject even Walker's reduced level of bonding. They point to projections that 22 cents of every dollar in the transportation fund will soon be going to debt service. Although they've stated they want to lower bonding and raise new revenues, details have been sparse. However, Speaker Vos has suggested a $300 million increase in revenues could be acceptable.

Governor Walker offered a deal last week that would lower bonding another $200 million. The deal would also approve contingency bonding for the Megaprojects that would be linked to additional federal funding. That deal apparently fell flat with Assembly Republicans - and negotiations are once again stalled.

Although it could still be a while before the Joint Committee on Finance takes up the transportation budget, here are some charts we've put together at the MacIver Institute exploring this complicated and contentious topic.

Who's responsible for what roads in Wisconsin: pic.twitter.com/kp0zL55Z6g

— MacIver News Service (@NewsMacIver) July 11, 2017

Why does Wisconsin pay more for poorer roads? pic.twitter.com/fcUtH0ycNg

— MacIver News Service (@NewsMacIver) March 2, 2017

Best local roads in Wisconsin get the least in state transportation aid. https://t.co/DVFFOJmLmf #wiright @WisconsinDOT pic.twitter.com/yezmAwyomo

— MacIver News Service (@NewsMacIver) June 21, 2017

Transportation Fund revenues continue to rise since last gas tax increase in 2006. @WisconsinDOT #WIbudget pic.twitter.com/U88M0P5ZZx

— MacIver News Service (@NewsMacIver) April 13, 2017

Transportation Fund Revenue Collections by Source FY16 according to LFB. pic.twitter.com/hQh8mmJDc3

— MacIver News Service (@NewsMacIver) July 10, 2017

According to 2013 Keep Wisconsin Moving report criteria to @WisconsinDOT, debt service levels continue to be within acceptable levels pic.twitter.com/KwDt6THoSS

— MacIver News Service (@NewsMacIver) July 10, 2017

Wisconsin has 19 different sources of revenue for road funding. More than any other state in the country. pic.twitter.com/y4wG8KI0qW

— MacIver News Service (@NewsMacIver) March 2, 2017

State Ethics Commission Seeks Legal Counsel In John Doe Leaks Probe

Mon, 07/10/2017 - 06:00

MacIver News Service | July 10, 2017

By M.D. Kittle

[Madison, Wis...] The long-running state Department of Justice investigation into leaked court-sealed documents from Wisconsin's infamous John Doe investigation appears to be focusing on employees at the state Ethics Commission.

It remains unclear, however, whether Attorney General Brad Schimel is ready to file charges in the case he launched nearly seven months ago.

While the DOJ has been silent on the status of the case, MacIver News Service has learned the state has retained outside legal counsel to represent the Ethics Commission in connection with the agency's probe into the "unauthorized disclosure" in September of court documents to the British publication The Guardian.

Katie Ignatowski, Gov. Scott Walker's chief legal counsel, late last week authorized the contract with attorney Samuel S. Hall of Milwaukee-based Crivello Carlson, according to the Ethics Commission legal contract.pdf signed on Friday.

The state will pay Hall's professional legal services at a blended rate of $175 an hour.

On June 27, the Ethics Commission requested Ignatowski appoint a special counsel to "assist our agency in the Department of Justice investigation of the release of John Doe documents," a letter accompanying the contract states. "Because the Department of Justice is involved in the investigation, they have declined our request for representation and advised us to contact the Governor's office for assistance in obtaining counsel."

Walker had to remove himself from the matter. The governor's campaign was targeted along with dozens of conservative groups in the partisan campaign finance investigation. The state Government Accountability Board, the Ethics Commission's predecessor, was an integral partner in the probe that the state Supreme Court in 2015 ordered shut down.

"This request is submitted with the recommendation and approval of Ethics Commission Chairperson David Halbrooks and Vice Chairperson Katie McCallum," wrote commission administrator Brian Bell. "No litigation has been initiated at this point in time, but Wisconsin Department of Justice investigators have requested interviews with Ethics Commission staff regarding their involvement in collecting and preserving records related to the John Doe investigation conducted by the Government Accountability Board in coordination with five district attorneys."

In December, the DOJ opened an investigation into the leak of 1,300-plus pages of John Doe-related court documents, published in September by liberal British publication, The Guardian. The printed story, picked up by mainstream publications nationally, amped up the "John Doe II" prosecutors' widely rejected investigation into alleged illegal campaign coordination between Walker's campaign and conservative allies during Wisconsin's bitter recall season.

There's been little reported movement in the probe since February, when, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the DOJ seized materials from the state Ethics Commission.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court two years ago this month declared unconstitutional the politically charged investigation, launched by highly partisan Democrat Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and carried out by his prosecutors, the GAB and the agency's hand-picked special prosecutor, Francis Schmitz. The 4-2 decision found that Schmitz's position was invalid and that the special prosecutor had perpetrated a "perfect storm of wrongs" against innocent citizens whose First Amendment rights were trampled during the multi-year John Doe investigation.

But multiple court findings that prosecutors did not have probable cause for their free speech investigation meant little to The Guardian and the publications that pushed a "criminal scheme" theme in painting Walker and right-of-center groups as campaign finance lawbreakers.

The documents leaked to The Guardian were sealed by the courts and strongly suggest that sources within or close to the investigation provided them to the newspaper.

As Wisconsin Watchdog has reported in its investigative series into the unconstitutional probe, experts say there is a small universe of people who had access to the documents, and that universe is almost exclusively populated by prosecutors, investigators and court officials.

"The records include handwritten notes on the motion of an unnamed movant (one of dozens of conservatives targeted in the probe), as well as an unsigned draft of an affidavit from John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz," the publication reported.
Sources with knowledge of the leak have said there is other actionable intelligence - the time zone, date and exact time these documents were scanned. And the information includes the make and model of the copier used to scan them.

Earlier this year, the Journal Sentinel reported state Justice Department investigators reviewed documents in the Wisconsin Supreme Court's office.

MacIver PSA: Amazon Prime Shoppers Urged to Call Price Police If They See A Really Good Deal

Mon, 07/10/2017 - 05:55

June 10, 2017

[Madison, Wis...] In a public service announcement released today, the MacIver Institute is warning online bargain hunters in Wisconsin to take extra caution when shopping Amazon on Monday and Tuesday. The state's antiquated minimum markup law, which mandates higher prices for consumers and outlaws the sale of retail goods below cost, is in direct conflict with Amazon's Prime Day. The minimum markup law makes it illegal for Amazon to give Wisconsinites low prices and sell deeply discounted merchandise here in the Badger State.

Amazon is carelessly offering a 6-blade Yuneec Typhoon drone for 23 percent off, 50 percent off an infused water pitcher, and an astonishing 75 percent off a set of salt and pepper grinders, among many other deals, a cursory inspection of the website revealed.

"When our researchers uncovered these blatantly low prices, I was in shock," said Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, tongue thoroughly in cheek. "These deals are so good that they must be illegal thanks to Wisconsin's minimum markup law."

"I implore the Price Police to do something and stop all the money-saving carnage that is going on," Healy said.

The third annual Amazon Prime Day starts Monday at 8 p.m., when the online retailer will offer deep discounts for members of its Prime program. The company is advertising Prime Day 2017 as a 30-hour long "epic day of deals." However, those familiar with Wisconsin's minimum markup law, formally known as the Unfair Sales Act, know today should really be called Amazon Crime Day - an epic 30-hour crime wave.

Wisconsinites shopping on Amazon during Prime Day are urged to click the "empty cart" button immediately and contact the state Price Police the moment they see a deal that's too good to be legal. "Don't get caught up in the Amazon Crime wave by taking advantage of a great price," Healy urged.

"In all seriousness, Prime Day just shows us how out of step Wisconsin's minimum markup law
is. A law created for Wisconsin's economy during the Great Depression should not be holding Wisconsin back from fully participating in the economy of 2017. The world's highest-valued retailer doesn't operate a single brick-and-mortar store," Healy said.

"If the Price Police prevent me from buying the ZShow leisure faux leather jacket, it'll be the world's loss because I look really good in that jacket," Healy said.


Paul Ryan: Wisconsin Way Shows Congress Conservative Reform Can Be Done

Fri, 07/07/2017 - 22:44

MacIver News Service | July 7, 2017

By M.D. Kittle

[Madison, Wis...] Speaker Paul Ryan says he doesn't have presidential ambitions.

The Janesville Republican has long been comfortable in his role as "policy guy," a policy wonk with a sincere appreciation for the notion that while numbers can be spun, they don't lie.

"I'm fine right here," Ryan told MacIver News Service Friday morning during a discussion in Madison.

"Here," of course, is his job as Speaker of the House of Representatives, a position that comes with incredible power and unending pressure.

These days, Ryan spends a fair amount of time reminding his conservative colleagues on Capitol Hill of the covenant they made with the people who voted for them in November- the people who gave Republicans rare control of both houses of Congress and the White House.

Those voters did so premised on promises - that Republicans would at least begin to rein in a federal government that became more centralized and grabbed more and more power from states and citizens during the Obama Era. That means getting rid of Obamacare, reforming bloated entitlement programs, delivering on tax cuts, and removing the yoke of regulation from the shoulders of business, workers and consumers.

The results to date have been mixed.

While the House narrowly passed a sweeping health care bill aimed at replacing the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama's signature and imploding health care law, it has been a bruising, bitter battle that remains far from resolved in a Senate with little margin for defection.

Republicans have had much more success on regulation reform.

While the nation's attention last month was on former FBI Director James Comey and political theories of Russian collusion, the GOP-led House passed a bill killing the Dodd-Frank regulations implemented during the Obama administration. Free market advocates say Dodd-Frank has strangled economic growth as it has preserved the much-despised notion of "too-big-to-fail" and the big taxpayer-funded bailouts of financial institutions that have followed.

"No one knows we did this," Ryan said of the passage of the Financial Choice Act last month. "James Comey was testifying (before the Senate Intelligence Committee) a month ago on the same day we passed the repeal of Dodd-Frank."

Ryan, by all accounts, runs a tight ship. He said the Republican-controlled Senate needs to keep its end of the bargain and pass an Obamacare replacement measure so that Republicans can keep its ambitious agenda rolling and on schedule.

"We're knee deep in tax reform now," he said. "We want to get that going by fall." The White House and Senate have been working on the details of a tax cut package, the speaker said, with the intent to launch something by September.

As Obamacare continues its death spiral, Ryan has tirelessly pitched a GOP plan reforming Medicaid, the health care program covering low-income Americans and people with disabilities. The idea is to move from an open-ended entitlement into a program with federal payment caps on a per capita basis or through block grants to states.

"This is a tremendous entitlement reform, a huge opportunity we can't let slip through our fingers," the speaker said.

Conservatives have the opportunity to do what they have long said they wanted to do, and Ryan says he's been trying to drive that point home to some reluctant members. Perhaps his message is a hard sell for politicians who have grown accustomed to the comforts of congress.

"It's confusing a few members of congress. I'm trying to convince people. I tell them, 'You may lose your seats, but it's worth it,'" he said.

It's a tough question for some, Ryan said, but didn't they come to congress to change the system, to go big, go big, or go home?

For the more timid, Ryan points to his home state, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature have gone big and bold on government reform - and voters have rewarded them for their efforts. In six-plus years, Republicans have returned power to taxpayers through the Act 10 reforms to the state's public sector collective bargaining law. Act 10 has saved state and local governments north of $5 billion, according to a MacIver News Service review. Walker and his fellow conservatives have made good on promises to cut taxes and reduce Wisconsin's high-tax-state ranking. And they have implemented scores of regulatory reforms aimed at making Wisconsin "open for business," as Walker likes to say.

It certainly wasn't easy. Walker, his lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, and several Republican senators had to fight for their political lives in a 2012 recall campaign driven by Democrats and their big labor allies. Walker and GOP lawmakers faced a barrage of protests and demonstrations, even threats on their lives.

But they persevered, said tax-cut crusader Grover Norquist. More so, they instilled courage in conservative leaders around the country.

"When Scott Walker and the Legislature took on all the unions, that made it possible for other governors and congressmen to do the same," Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, told MacIver News Service. "Every time you get it right in Wisconsin you are getting it right for others who can follow the lead of Wisconsin."

Ryan said he's brought Walker in to meet with some of his congressional colleagues. The governor has told the war stories of the conservative policy battles, accompanied by "B-roll" of the hostile protests, Ryan said. Many of the same left-wing driven scenes have played out during the opening days of President Donald Trump's term.

"The vast majority of the country aren't them. That's just the loud people," the speaker said. "I sincerely believe that if we get our work done, because we do believe in what we believe, good things will happen as a result of it. If we keep the covenant with the people who elected us we'll be fine in 2018. If we don't, we won't."

ChartSmart: Focus on Milwaukee and School Choice

Fri, 07/07/2017 - 06:00

In our final K-12 edition of ChartSmart, a focus on Milwaukee and school choice in Wisconsin

July 7, 2017

Welcome back to ChartSmart! After examining funding levels for the Department of Public Instruction over time and diving into student achievement and outcomes, today we hone in on Milwaukee and the school choice programs.

As the state's biggest and most troubled school district, MPS deserves a bit of special attention. Just 58 percent of MPS students graduate high school in four years - over 30 percent lower than the statewide average. When they do graduate, many students require remedial education upon entering the UW System. However, programs such as open enrollment and the state's school choice programs allow students and parents options outside the traditional system.

Without further ado, let's dive in.

Are Local Governments Shirking Their Responsibility For Roads?

Fri, 07/07/2017 - 06:00

MacIver News Service | July 7, 2017

By Bill Osmulski

[Grant, Wisc...] Local governments are responsible for maintaining local roads, but through current transportation funding mechanisms, many push that responsibility onto the state, and then argue for even more financial help.

During the current budget debate, lawmakers like Representative Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) argued local roads in her district are falling apart and the state isn't paying enough towards their maintenance.

"The local road aids is not going to make a significant dent in the backlog of roads that they need to replace and repair," Shankland told DOT Secretary Dave Ross during agency briefs on March 29th.

However, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's guidance to local governments explains that state aid is simply meant to help "offset" local expenses. It does not supplant the local government's responsibilities.

GTAs, or General Transportation Aids, "provide local governments with a partial reimbursement of funds to offset the cost of county and municipal road construction, maintenance, traffic, and police costs," according to WISDOT.

This year, locals received that "offset" in the form of either $2,202 per mile or 15 percent of their total transportation related costs. DOT automatically pays them whichever rate is more. For some communities that choose to spend very little on road maintenance, the per mile payment can equal more than half of their total transportation expenses.

For example, the Town of Grant is responsible for 116.13 miles of road. In 2015, it spent a total of $502,050 on transportation related costs, and it received $255,718 in GTAs. That means the state paid for over half of Grant's local road repairs in 2015. You wouldn't know it listening to Rep. Shankland, though.

"At this point, they expect all the roads in their area will be gravel and I am hearing this from people all over the state," she said describing the situation in Grant.

The state is well aware that communities like Grant will use the mileage rate to push as much of local transportation costs onto the state as possible. That's why it limits the total GTA payment to 85 percent of the locals' three-year average costs.

Even when the cost sharing formula is used to determine the GTA payment, cities tend to get far more than just 15 percent of what they paid for road maintenance. That's because the formula has a very generous definition of what a "transportation-related expense" is. Twenty-six percent of all local law enforcement expenses is included in the transportation aid formula. Locals also ask the state to pay for storm water management costs, the street lighting electric bill, and "capital outlays," which includes things like DPW buildings.

The cost sharing formula also encourages local governments to take on debt. It rewards them for making debt payments, but does not include the borrowed money as a revenue.

As a result, the City of Milwaukee got $23.6 million in GTAs for 2015, while it only spent $40.7 million on actual street maintenance. That's 57 percent.

While most transportation aid is distributed through GTA, the state has other programs to additionally help locals with road expenses as well. The Connecting Highway Aids program provides another $12 million, County Forest Road Aids provide $284,700, and the Local Roads Improvement Program (LRIP) provides another $25 million for local road construction.

Last year the Local Roads Improvement Program provided $20,000 toward an $86,000 county road project that runs through the Town of Grant.

The Wisconsin Towns Association says 73 percent of town roads in the state need major repairs. That would cost $1.4 billion, plus another $333 to $435 million annually to then maintain them. WTA says this problem cannot be fixed in a single biennium, which suggests it's the state's problem to fix.

Wisconsin statutes provide some local solutions for transportation funding. Local governments may levy vehicle registration fees and additional property taxes for roads and bridges.

There is no wheel tax in Grant. Special assessment are permitted under local ordinances, though not widely used.

Governor Scott Walker's budget proposal would have provided locals with even more funding. His plan would have boosted GTAs by 6.8 percent and LRIP by 25 percent. However. The Joint Committee on Finance tossed that proposal in April, and decided to start from scratch. Transportation funding is proving to be the most contentious part of the budget.

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