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MacIver Institute Joins Coalition Urging Senate to Confirm Pruitt for EPA

Thu, 01/12/2017 - 09:27

January 12, 2017

[Madison, Wis...] The MacIver Institute and 22 other free market organizations are urging the U.S. Senate to quickly confirm Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to be the next EPA Administrator. The groups expressed their support for Pruitt in a letter sent to members of the Senate on Thursday.

According to a joint study published in 2015 by The Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University and the MacIver Institute, the EPA's proposed Clean Power Plan would cost Wisconsin $920 million in 2030, increase electricity prices significantly and lower disposable income in the state by nearly $2 billion. Under Pruitt, such draconian federal overreach by the EPA would be reined in.

In their letter, the groups stated, "The federal government is not the end-all, be-all solution. Empowering states to take their own steps in addressing environmental concerns promotes responsiveness, the responsible use of taxpayer resources, and ensures that the people closest to the issues and with the most knowledge of what is needed are given the power to do just that...Mr. Pruitt has demonstrated his commitment to upholding the Constitution and ensuring the EPA works for American families and consumers."

The full letter follows:

Dear Senators,

We, the undersigned, express our strong support for the nomination of Edward Scott Pruitt to the position of Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mr. Pruitt is highly qualified to lead the nation's chief air and water regulatory agency. We fully endorse his selection and urge the Senate to confirm Mr. Pruitt as the next EPA Administrator.

Attorney General Pruitt has consistently fought for Oklahoma families and communities and has been a stalwart defender against federal intrusion into state and individual rights. Notably, Mr. Pruitt led a multi-state effort opposing the EPA's unlawful attempt to take over the nation's electricity grid under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. The EPA's plan would shutter an estimated 40 GW of reliable and affordable energy, unnecessarily harming American families for little to no environmental benefit.

In recent years, the EPA has been chronically late on complying with deadlines. In a study assessing 1,000 deadlines across the four major stationary source programs, the Competitive Enterprise Institute found that the EPA missed 84 percent of their Clean Air Act deadlines and was late by an average of 4.3 years. Mr. Pruitt will work to get the EPA back on track and in compliance with its statutory Clean Air Act responsibilities.

Attorney General Pruitt has stood up for states, families, and the Constitution by opposing the Administration's unconstitutional regulatory overreach through the re-definition of the "waters of the United States." This rule was so invasive that small ditches on family farms or near businesses could have been subject to federal regulation. Mr. Pruitt filed suit against the EPA, refusing to subject Oklahomans and other Americans to this unconstitutional regulation without exhausting all legal pathways.

Attorney General Pruitt understands that air quality in the United States has dramatically improved over the years. According to the EPA, since 1970 alone air pollution emissions have fallen by 70 percent even as we have used more coal, natural gas, oil, and grew the economy by 240 percent. Mr. Pruitt is committed to continuing these trends.

Some claim that Mr. Pruitt opposes clean air and water. This could not be further than the truth. Mr. Pruitt respects and upholds the Constitution, and understands that many of the nation's challenges regarding clean air and water are best met at the state and local level. It is, in fact the states that implement many of the nation's environmental laws, and for good reason.

The federal government is not the end-all, be-all solution. Empowering states to take their own steps in addressing environmental concerns promotes responsiveness, the responsible use of taxpayer resources, and ensures that the people closest to the issues and with the most knowledge of what is needed are given the power to do just that.

Mr. Pruitt has demonstrated his commitment to upholding the Constitution and ensuring the EPA works for American families and consumers. Under Mr. Pruitt, we hope the EPA will follow the laws set forth by Congress and cooperate with states to advance its mission of keeping our air clean and our water pure. We fully support Mr. Pruitt for the position of EPA Administrator and encourage the Senate to swiftly approve his nomination.


Thomas Pyle, American Energy Alliance
Michael Needham, Heritage Action for America
Grover Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform
Kent Lassman, Competitive Enterprise Institute
Adam Brandon, FreedomWorks
David McIntosh, Club for Growth
Phil Kerpen, American Commitment
Craig Richardson, Energy and Environment Action Team
David Williams, Taxpayers Protection Alliance
Harry Alford, National Black Chamber of Commerce
Jim Martin, 60 Plus
Andrew Langer, Institute for Liberty
Independence Institute
Richard Martin, Americans for Limited Government
Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST)
Brett Healy, MacIver Institute
Joseph Bast, Heartland Institute
George Landrith, Frontiers of Freedom
Randy Eminger, Energy Policy Network
Paul Gessing, Rio Grande Foundation
Mike Nasi, Balanced Energy for Texas
Brent Mead, Montana Policy Institute
Forest Thigpen, Mississippi Center for Public Policy

Read the full letter here.

Recapping 2017 State of the State, Walker Tuition Cut Proposal

Tue, 01/10/2017 - 19:01

MacIver News Service | January 10, 2017

[Madison, Wis...] Governor Scott Walker proposed cutting tuition for UW undergraduate students and pledged to keep his focus on workforce development at his State of the State address on Tuesday afternoon.

Walker touted Wisconsin's 4.1 percent unemployment rate, $4.7 billion in tax cuts since he took office, and FoodShare reforms that have moved 21,000 people off government dependence and into the workforce.

He then turned to his plans moving forward, including taking the popular tuition freeze that's been in place for four years to the next level by actually cutting tuition, a plan he says his 2017-19 budget proposal will fully fund.

Pleased to announce that our '17-'19 budget will cut tuition for all WI undergraduates throughout @UWSystem #WIWorking #StudentSuccess

— Governor Walker (@GovWalker) January 10, 2017

At a press conference after the speech, Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) questioned whether Walker would actually fully fund the tuition reduction:

.@PeterWBarca says of @GovWalker call for tuition cut: "He has never funded the freeze, so I can't imagine he's going to fund a decrease."

— Shawn Johnson (@SJohnsonWPR) January 10, 2017

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank seemed open to the tuition cut, but urged Walker to not only fully fund the proposal but also to grant the UW System's "modest request" for a $42.5 million increase in funding.

Chancellor @BeckyBlank responds to @GovWalker's call to reduce WI resident undergrad tuition.

Full #WISOTS text:

— UW-Madison (@UWMadison) January 10, 2017

Walker repeated his pledge to not raise the state's gas tax or registration fee, noting that since he took office the state has spent $18 billion on transportation. Walker also reminded attendees that former Gov. Jim Doyle and the legislature raided $1.4 billion from the state's transportation fund to plug budget holes.

The Department of Transportation's budget request doesn't increase any taxes or fees while redirecting funding to local infrastructure maintenance. "Safety and maintenance of our existing system is a priority," Walker said.

.@GovWalker: Safety and maintenance of existing transportation is a priority #WISOTS #WIWorking

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) January 10, 2017

Walker added that in the listening sessions he's held around the state, voters made it clear that they want the tax burden reduced. "I just believe firmly that we were not sent here by the people of Wisconsin to raise taxes."

.@GovWalker: voters didn't send us here to raise taxes on the people of WI #WISOTS #WIWorking #wiright

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) January 10, 2017

Walker briefly mentioned Wisconsin's school choice programs, referencing a common rally for supporters of school choice: "I trust parents."

"When it comes to making the right choice for their daughters and sons, #ITrustParents." @GovWalker on #SchoolChoice #EdReform #WIpolitics

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) January 10, 2017

Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield) applauded the expansion of school choice in her reaction to Walker's address:

"Families all over the state have more quality choices in education." #SchoolChoice helps kids all over WI succeed! #WISOTS #itrustparents

— Senator Leah Vukmir (@LeahVukmir) January 10, 2017

Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) shared Walker's optimism about the state of the state, but added there are challenges that lie ahead and urged all sides to come together.

My #WiSOTS statement.

— Dale Kooyenga (@DaleKooyenga) January 10, 2017

Despite the successes Walker highlighted, Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) wasn't convinced that Wisconsin is better off now than it was six years ago:

#WISOTS long on rhetoric but short on details. WI can and must do better than we have the past 6 years.

— Rep. Mark Spreitzer (@RepSpreitzer) January 10, 2017

The MacIver Institute live streamed the address on Facebook. Watch it below:

Transportation Emerging as Wedge Issue in Wisconsin

Tue, 01/10/2017 - 18:00

MacIver News Service | January 10, 2017

[Madison, Wisc...] Governor Scott Walker promised a big boost to transportation spending during his State of the State Address on Tuesday, January 10th. However, fellow Republican, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, said the governor is not showing the full picture of the numbers behind his proposal. Vos believes all options need to be considered, including a gas tax increase. That's something Walker says is out of the question.

What to Expect From Walker's State of the State Address

Tue, 01/10/2017 - 09:21

January 10, 2017

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

It is the unfortunate trend of the modern welfare state that major addresses by politicians tend to devolve into a list of policy proposals and updates on five-year plans. Governor Scott Walker's state-of-the-state address Tuesday afternoon will probably continue that unfortunate trend, a fault that is not entirely his. So don't expect great oratory, but it's worth paying attention to the details beyond what the governor saved using Kohl's cash last week.

Walker will no doubt spend much of his speech focused on the past successes of his administration. According to the MacIver Institute, as of the last budget income taxes have been cut by $750 million and property taxes were cut more than $800 million since 2011. The typical homeowner's property taxes decreased by $116 compared to 2010. Act 10 continues to save the taxpayers money, over $5 billion and counting.

Somebody in the Walker Administration should put up a sign like McDonald's celebrating, "billions and billions saved."

Meanwhile, tax revenue is actually up. The state's "rainy day" fund is the healthiest ever. Wisconsin is no longer lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis, using raids on segregated funds and one-time federal money to fill holes. Wisconsin is in sound financial condition.

The employment situation is better than the national average, too. Wisconsin's latest unemployment number is 4.1 percent. Labor participation is sixth highest in the United States.

We should also expect Walker to repeat his position against raising gas taxes and registration fees to fill the gap on transportation spending unless there are corresponding cuts in taxes elsewhere. This will pit him directly against Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, other Republicans in the legislature, and the road builders.

It is encouraging that Walker told the MacIver Institute in December that one of his top priorities was to push for more federalism by asking the federal government to let the states do more without federal interference. That interview followed a letter to President-elect Donald Trump which asked Trump to block-grant Medicaid, education and transportation funding. Walker also asked for the power to drug-test some recipients of public aid in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and FoodShare programs. These are all policy goals that we'd like the governor to include in his state of the state address as well.

Unfortunately, Walker's letter to Trump did not include the call to repeal Davis-Bacon, the federal version of the prevailing wage law requiring government contractors to pay above-market wages, increasing the costs of projects done with federal money. Rather than try to play shell-games of figuring out which pot of transportation money should pay for what construction, wouldn't it be easier to ask the federal government to repeal the law?

Meanwhile, Republicans in Wisconsin could complete the job of repealing the state version of the prevailing wage law to lower the costs of state public projects. Republicans in the legislature have also proposed preventing local governments from requiring Project Labor Agreements that raise the costs of public works projects, too. Walker's support of these reforms would be a continuation of the success of Act 10.

On Monday, Walker also released a letter to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy reiterating Wisconsin's request to have Medicaid funds sent to Wisconsin via a block grant to let Wisconsin control the program at the state level. Walker points out that Wisconsin is the only state to refuse to expand Medicaid using federal Obamacare funding to not have an insurance coverage gap. In the letter, Walker points out that Wisconsin actually has better coverage than three-quarters of the states that did take the extra Obamacare funding.

Walker needs to celebrate that success again to remind both parties that asking for the expanded Medicaid money from Obamacare, especially as Congress is poised to get rid of the program, would be a terrible mistake.

Walker should also propose lifting the caps on statewide school choice, or moving to universal school choice using Education Savings Accounts. Walker famously said that he trusts parents when it comes to school accountability. Then Walker can show it by allowing every Wisconsin parent a choice where their children go to school.

Finally, given the nearly unprecedented Republican majorities in the legislature, now is the time for Walker to be bold on tax reform. Wisconsin still has a fourth income tax bracket, an unfortunate holdover from Governor Jim Doyle's administration. It's time to move Wisconsin to a simplified income tax system with one tax bracket and end the progressive income tax.

The question to Walker and the legislature is, if not now, when? Republicans will likely never have bigger majorities in the legislature, and the state Senate is even more conservative after the last election cycle. Walker's challenge to the legislature should be the type of bold reforms that propelled Wisconsin into the national spotlight. As the late Margaret Thatcher said to former President George H. W. Bush, "this is no time to go wobbly."

A Look Ahead at the Upcoming Budget Debate

Mon, 01/09/2017 - 12:12

State agencies request $69 billion for 2017-2019 budget

Will President Trump send significant responsibilities back to the states?

In first year of "201" requirement, MacIver examines agencies' proposals

January 9, 2017

[Madison, Wis...] Wisconsin state agencies are requesting more than $69 billion in total funding for the 2017-2019 biennial budget, a debate that is quickly taking shape as Governor Scott Walker prepares for his State of the State address Tuesday.

While most Madison insiders and the phalanx of lobbyists hovering about believe that the transportation debate will dominate and may even hold up the passage of the 2017-2019 state budget, the Governor has signaled that he is, once again, looking to make significant long-term changes to state government and the way it operates. Might we see the next big Act 10-like reform that will fundamentally change our state for generations to come? We will soon find out.

As we begin the '17-'19 budget debate, we take stock of where Wisconsin stands and highlight for you, the taxpayer, all the important upcoming debates - from important policy discussions to petty back-biting and everything in between. While we are not sure where Gov. Walker and the Legislature will end up on the gas tax, tax reform, welfare reform or a whole host of other important issues, we are sure that the budget debate itself and legislative deliberations as the budget moves through the process will prove to be highly entertaining and completely mesmerizing.

This year, agencies have also been required for the first time to submit budget scenarios for a zero percent increase and a 5 percent decrease - named the "201" requirement after the 2015 Act 201 law that forced agencies to submit the different scenarios. Some agencies took the requirement seriously, while some listed shock-value cuts and others barely made an effort at all.

As the Budget Debate Begins, Where Do We Stand?

Wisconsin's 2015-17 budget ushered in the fifth and sixth consecutive year of no tax increases. It also partially repealed the prevailing wage, froze UW System tuition for two more years, and reduced bonding significantly over previous budgets.

As Wisconsin prepares to begin the next budget cycle, the state's finances are in solid shape. While taxes have been cut repeatedly, state revenues grew 4 percent from fiscal year 2015 to FY16, a jump from $9.49 billion to $9.87 billion. Overall revenues are projected to continue growing by about 3 percent annually over the next biennium with a modest economic growth projection of 2.2 percent per year.

Wisconsin closed the books on the 2015-16 fiscal year with a positive balance of $331 million. "The State of Wisconsin completed fiscal year 2015-16 with a positive general fund balance of $331.0 million. With this total, we entered fiscal year 2016-17 with the fourth-largest opening balance in 16 years, all four coming after fiscal year 2010-11," stated Department of Administration Secretary Scott Neitzel.

Total projected revenue in the next biennium is expected to increase by about $1.4 billion over the 2016-17 base. A healthy revenue stream means that Wisconsin is well-positioned for a deliberative, non-feverish budget debate in the coming months.

That's a stark difference from just a few short budget cycles ago. Back in the Doyle years, Wisconsin lurched from one budget calamity to the next. In response to massive shortfalls between budgets, Doyle and his allies raised taxes, raided funds like the transportation fund, and used every budget gimmick they could to meet the state's balanced budget mandate.

In the era of Walker, it seems those days are over.

Transportation Battle Takes Shape

The battle between Gov. Walker and some members of the Legislature over whether to increase transportation-related taxes and fees developed throughout 2016. Walker has been steadfast in sticking by his campaign pledge not to raise taxes or fees without a corresponding decrease elsewhere. However, some legislators say they're open to increasing the gas tax, vehicle registration fee, or finding another new source of revenue like toll roads to tackle the state's transportation needs.

In an open letter last year, Walker ordered then-Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Mark Gottlieb to submit a budget that prioritizes local infrastructure maintenance without raising taxes or fees. In September, the agency complied and submitted a $6.1 billion budget request that invests heavily in local infrastructure funds with zero tax or fee hikes.

The DOT budget request asks for an increase of more than $522 million from its base funding. That includes nearly $15.9 million in increased transportation aid to counties and more than $30 million in increased aid to municipalities. DOT is also requesting an increase of $14 million for the Local Roads Improvement Program and $5 million for the Local Bridge Improvement Assistance program.

New bonding levels are $500 million over the biennium, the lowest amount since the 2001-03 budget and a dramatic 41 percent decrease from the previous budget, which borrowed $850 million for transportation projects.

DOT is also requesting nearly $30 million for highway maintenance and traffic operation needs, $33.7 million for routine maintenance performed by the counties, one-time transfers of $19 million in fiscal year 2018 and $19 million in fiscal year 2019 as revenue to the segregated Transportation Fund.

After the budget request was submitted, then-Secretary Gottlieb spent about four hours testifying before a hearing of the Assembly Committee on Transportation, during which he clashed with several legislators on the funding question. Several weeks later, the administration announced Gottlieb's sudden resignation. His replacement as DOT secretary is Dave Ross, previously head of the Department of Safety and Professional Service (DSPS). Ross is walking in to a high-profile and testy family fight between Republicans. Will Ross be a calm voice of reason and consensus or will his appointment add fuel to this combustible debate?

The transportation battle is likely to be the marquee matchup in developing the 2017-2019 state budget.

Substantial Tax Reform?

While Governor Walker has made significant and long-lasting taxpayer-friendly changes to state government, now is not the time to rest on his laurels.

With conservatives firmly in charge of the legislative process and Republican majorities at historic levels in each house, now is the time to consider comprehensive tax reform to keep moving Wisconsin forward. The state has made great strides in reducing the state's tax burden, including taxpayer savings of nearly $5 billion over the last six years - not to mention the $5.24 billion Act 10 has saved since it was enacted in 2011.

Despite the progress, there's much more work to do to keep Wisconsin economically competitive both nationally and internationally, to attract businesses and families, to help entrepreneurs set up shop and grow, and to encourage people to keep living here after they retire. Wisconsin loses an estimated $136 million in adjusted gross income to tax migration every year. Substantial tax reform could help stem this outmigration and make Wisconsin more competitive among the states.

Legislators should look to the future and consider major tax reforms that would flatten and widen the tax base. If Walker and the Legislature make serious and substantial changes to leapfrog Wisconsin ahead of our nearby competitors, our children and our children's children will reap the benefits for years to come.

Overview of Budget Requests

Media outlets across the state predictably reported late last year that the state was facing a $693 million shortfall over the next biennial budget. However, this so-called "shortfall" is simply the difference between what state agencies have requested and projected revenues over the 2017-2019 biennial budget.

Remember, unlike Washington, Wisconsin has a strong balanced budget requirement and while agencies always request spending levels they want, Gov. Walker and the Legislature will pass a budget that matches spending with tax revenue so everything balances. Gov. Walker's record also suggests that if the budget is somehow unbalanced, he will seek spending cuts to balance the budget rather than tax increases to fill the gap.

By recent historical standards, the $693 million figure is modest. In the last go-around, as the 2015-2017 budget was being developed, the gap between agency wish lists and revenues was $2.2 billion.

Here's a summary of major agency requests:

By far the largest request was from the Department of Health Services, which asked for about $24.4 billion in total, a 5.1 percent increase over the agency's base funding, which is determined by multiplying the agency's current annual budget by two.

In a letter accompanying its budget request, DHS stated the request includes $452 million in new general purpose revenue (GPR) funding for Medicaid over the biennium. The previous three biennial budgets increased GPR spending on Medicaid by $650 million, $685 million, and $1.6 billion. While $452 million is a lot of money, the rate of increase in Medicaid spending during Walker's tenure has slowed significantly.

"These slowing Medicaid growth rates reflect the success of Governor Walker's entitlement reforms, efforts to improve health outcomes through better care coordination, and initiatives to identify and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse," DHS Secretary Linda Seemeyer wrote in a letter sent with the agency's budget request.

The second largest request was from the Department of Public Instruction, which asked for about $13.8 billion, up 0.3 percent from its base funding. A significant component of the request was for $33.3 million to fund a public library system aid program increase of 13 percent.

The third largest budget request was from the UW System, which asked for $12.4 billion, up 1.7 percent from its base funding - a $210.4 million increase. A significant piece of that increase - $84 million - is a request for program revenue via increased student fees. Another $4 million GPR increase would fund the Focus on Operational Excellence initiative, which is intended to increase transparency and accountability, according to the UW budget request.

Another large increase is $26.1 million GPR for the UW System's Focus on the Educational Pipeline initiative, which encompasses college options, 360 advising and developmental education, seamless transfer, new traditional financial aid, and meeting Wisconsin's workforce needs, the budget request states.

UW is also requesting $6 million for its Focus on the University Experience initiative, which "involves creating experiences that cultivate new ideas and increased understanding in the University community," the request states. In addition, UW requests $6.4 million in GPR funding "to increase creativity, knowledge transfer, and job opportunities across the state through the following programs: UniverCity Year, Wisconsin Vitality, and CareerConnect."

The UW System's budget request will likely be contentious as legislators continue to question how it spends the money it gets. In 2013, legislators discovered a nearly billion-dollar slush fund in the UW System's coffers. More recently, UW-Madison has come under fire for offering a controversial course called "The Problem of Whiteness."

The Department of Corrections asked for $2.5 billion, up 4.6 percent from its base. DOC proposes to spend the increased funding on various routine programs and new hiring. The department also is requesting just over $3 million GPR and 50 full-time equivalent positions in response to legislation passed last year that made all OWI 4th offenses a Class H felony.

DOC is also asking for nearly $2.4 million GPR and 16.5 full-time equivalent positions to improve staff ratio requirements at the Lincoln Hills School. The department's budget also requests that minors under the age of 18 be placed at a juvenile correctional facility for sentencing, replacing the current age threshold of 16.

The Department of Revenue's budget request of $425,558,900 is just a 0.3 percent increase from its base with no significant proposals for new spending.

One agency proposing a budget reduction is the Department of Workforce Development, which is requesting $695,118,000 - a decrease of 4.1 percent. DWD does not create any new initiatives in their budget request.

The Department of Administration also proposes a significant reduction. Its budget request is for $1,918,990,600, down 28.1 percent.

The agencies' requests were submitted to the DOA last year and are the first stage of the biennial process of forming the next state budget. Gov. Walker's administration will use these requests to assemble a budget proposal, which will be sent to the Legislature in February.

"201" Compliance

For the first time, agencies must comply with a new law - 2015 Act 201 - and include budget proposals for two additional scenarios:

  • A zero growth target in each fiscal year for the 2017-19 biennium

  • A 5 percent reduction in the agency's state operations budget from the 2016-17 adjusted base in each fiscal year of the 2017-19 biennium.

Prior to Act 201's passage, agencies would submit a single request with no particular impetus to reduce or control costs. Included in our basic analysis of each agency's budget request will be a consideration of that agency's Act 201 compliance.

While some agencies laid out concrete steps to comply with Act 201, others proposed simplistic solutions like massive staff reductions or draconian cuts to high-profile services to scare the public. Other agencies were downright snarky in their 201 proposals and refused to identify any real opportunities for taxpayer savings.

Department of Health Services - Under the zero percent scenario, DHS proposed staffing levels of 4,906 full-time equivalent positions, a reduction of 1,227.05 from their standard request.

Under the 5 percent reduction scenario, the department proposes 4,719.87 full-time equivalent staff, 1,413.18 fewer than their standard request. That's in addition to converting some staff from contractors to state positions to save money, returning Milwaukee enrollment functions to Milwaukee County, re-allocating funds from state operations to local assistance, and reforming SeniorCare into a Medicare Part D wraparound program.

Department of Public Instruction - Under the zero percent increase scenario, DPI proposed staffing levels of 332.16 full-time equivalent positions, down nearly half from its standard staffing request of 649 such positions.

Under the 5 percent decrease scenario, DPI proposed the same staffing levels. DPI did not explain their reduction scenarios - they appear to have applied a simple five percent across-the-board cut to comply with the 201 requirement.

UW System - Under the zero percent increase scenario, the UW System proposes a full-time equivalent staffing level of 29,914.6 positions, 5,423.06 fewer than their standard request. UW's zero percent proposal also states it will, "Limit the ability to be responsive to the needs of students and staff," among other proposals.

Under the five percent reduction scenario, UW proposes 28,539.63 full-time equivalent positions and suggests a variety of reductions in operations and services. They also suggest the scenario "Will result in fewer class sections and could extend time to degree," and reductions in public health support.

The UW System apparently misinterpreted Act 201's requirement. While agencies were supposed to explain how they would respond to the two funding scenarios, it seems they assumed the law asked them to explain how students, staff, academic offerings, and even public health could suffer.

Department of Transportation - Under the zero percent increase scenario, DOT proposes to cut staffing levels by 807.12 full-time equivalent positions, from 3,496.79 under their standard request to 2,689.67.

Under the 5 percent reduction scenario, DOT proposes an additional reduction of 20 positions and a litany of reductions in services, such as eliminating service at travel locations, cutting annual salt purchases, and reducing management training and travel.

The DOT could've done better in identifying areas to save money, but instead they simply slashed staffing levels and eliminated services.

Department of Corrections - The department proposes minimal staffing reductions under the zero percent increase scenario, cutting 105.1 full-time equivalent positions from its standard request of 10,206.42.

Under the five percent reduction scenario the department proposes staffing cuts of 866.52 positions and anticipates that counties will utilize services for adult community supervision.

Department of Revenue - The department proposed adding one full-time equivalent position under both scenarios, noting under the five percent reduction scenario simply that it would reduce FTEs. The department didn't seem very eager to comb through their vast operations for savings - a back-of-the-envelope calculation of staff cuts is so much easier.

Department of Workforce Development - The department proposes a flat draconian staffing reduction of 1,243 full-time equivalent positions under both scenarios, down from 1,631.55 in their standard budget request. DWD also proposes several spending reductions under the five percent reduction scenario. Once again, a department found it easier to simply whip out the calculator and figure out how many staff it would theoretically send packing.

Department of Administration - The department proposes eliminating 76.75 full-time equivalent positions under the zero percent reduction scenario. That's in addition to converting contractor positions into permanent FTE positions to save money, which is also part of their standard request. DOA also proposes the reduction of various spending authorities.

Under the five percent reduction scenario, DOA proposes eliminating 84 positions, the reduction of even more spending authority, eliminating the mandated use of electric energy that is derived from renewable resources, and finding additional efficiencies.

Keep an eye on the MacIver Institute's ongoing coverage of the state budgeting process as the complex process unfolds throughout the year.

The MPS Disaster - Do the People of Milwaukee Care?

In 2016, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) had an opportunity to reform its failing schools but decided to stick with the status quo. MPS and the Milwaukee teachers' union battled constantly with reform-minded legislators who authored the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program (OSPP), a program intended to turn around failing MPS schools.

We'd also be remiss if we overlooked the fact that the vast bureaucracy at the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has hardly lifted a finger to address the failures of the state's largest school district. That is, other than to roll out new school report cards that conveniently remove MPS from the list of failing schools. Perhaps the state's education agency is waiting for MPS to tackle its own problems - after all, MPS has more bureaucrats working for it than DPI.

The bureaucrats at DPI and MPS can't keep ignoring the problems plaguing many of Milwaukee's schools forever. In 2017, it's likely that the state Legislature will take further steps to address the many issues at MPS and to work to help out the thousands of kids stuck in failing schools. That could include breaking the district up into smaller districts, removing some of the power from the MPS board, or using more sticks and fewer carrots if the district doesn't get serious about rescuing its own students from its lowest performing schools. On the other side of the education spectrum, it's also likely that school choice-friendly legislators will work to expand access to the four choice programs in the state.

Besides, all the political maneuvering in the world won't exempt MPS from a bipartisan federal law signed by President Obama, the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), which requires states take steps to reform their lowest-performing schools.

Whether they like it or not, the adults behind MPS' systemic failures for decades will be forced to sit down and eat their veggies in 2017. At least we hope they will be forced to eat their vegetables.

Will the Legislature Finally Strike A Blow For Freedom?

As the budget process unfolds, there are a number of measures that the Governor and the state Legislature should consider to make Wisconsin more friendly to free markets and liberty. Here are some of the things we hope they consider:

Minimum Markup
After enjoying low gas prices for the past few years, Wisconsinites are likely to see prices at the pump climb to a five-year high in 2017. But there is a way the Legislature could help ease the burden of rising gas prices for hard working Wisconsinites while expanding freedom from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi.

A complete repeal of the state's antiquated Unfair Sales Act, also known as the Minimum Markup law, would lift the requirement that gas stations artificially inflate their retail gas prices by 9.18 percent. Abolishing this price floor and the state's Price Police that enforce it would encourage gasoline retailers to compete over customers, leading to lower prices.

Repealing the Depression-era law would also allow retailers of all sorts to set their own prices. Since the Minimum Markup law also requires all products be sold at or above the cost to the business, abolishing it would allow retailers to offer deeper discounts, foster more vigorous competition, and would be a win for all Wisconsin consumers.

Prevailing Wage
Speaking of eliminating antiquated, artificial price floors, the job of repealing Wisconsin's prevailing wage law is only half done. While the prevailing wage was repealed for local projects in the last state budget, all state projects still must pay inflated wages based on arbitrary calculations under the (also antiquated) federal Davis-Bacon Act.

How much could Wisconsin taxpayers save? One study from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance showed that Wisconsinites could have saved $200-$300 million on vertical construction projects in 2014 in the absence of prevailing wage. That estimate doesn't even consider all other public construction that goes on in the state, including billions of dollars on road construction projects.

Examples abound of cost overruns thanks to the prevailing wage law. One six-mile ATV trail in Vilas county was initially going to cost $30,000 per mile, but when the prevailing wage determination was made the price shot up to $55,000 per mile. In the Village of Grafton, an already-completed water tower maintenance project exploded in price from $597,000 to $861,000. Since the project was already completed, local taxpayers had to come up with an extra $260,000.

If prevailing wage was costing taxpayers so much extra money for local projects alone, imagine how much could be saved if legislators finally repeal it at the state level.

Local Government Property Insurance Fund
When it comes to relics of days gone by, the hits in Wisconsin keep coming. Did you know the state government offers property insurance to local units of government? Well, it does. The state's Local Government Property Insurance Fund dates back to 1911 when private insurance was still in the horse and buggy days and local governments couldn't find insurance for their property.

Gov. Walker proposed eliminating the fund in the last state budget, but instead the Legislature balked at the Governor's proposal. Considering that in today's world, you can buy insurance from a Gekko or Aaron Rodgers, many local governments have since found insurance elsewhere. As a result, the fund has shrunk considerably and is in danger of becoming a bigger and more expensive liability for all state taxpayers.

As part of its 2017-19 budget, the Office of Commissioner of Insurance (OCI) proposed stopping the issuance of new property insurance policies and not renewing existing ones in an effort to phase the fund out. If the OCI budget passes as-is, the state government will nearly be out of the insurance business. Nearly...

State Life Insurance Fund
The state government is also in the life insurance business. According to the OCI's website, the State Life Insurance Fund was established in 1911 "in response to a national scandal over the improper practices of some life insurance companies." More than a century later, the state is still offering life insurance, despite innumerable private options.

Rep. John Nygren, who called for an end to the Local Government Property Insurance Fund, also called for an audit of the State Life Insurance Fund in December:

"Similar to the LGPIF, the SLIF has been experiencing difficulties for years. It is my belief that we should find a prudent solution to this fund and encourage the fund's financial stability. Just like with the LGPIF, the state should not be in the life insurance business. With so many viable options in the market, a state-run life insurance fund is simply duplicative and outdated."

Government Transparency
Gov. Walker issued an executive order last year that put new requirements on state agencies to respond to open records requests in a more responsive manner. The order required agencies to respond to records requests within 10 days when practicable, provide electronic copies at no charge when possible, and track requests as a way to measure agencies' responsiveness.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council praised the steps as "a gust of fresh spring air blowing across state government."

However, they added that such measures could be expanded: "Local governments--cities, counties, villages, towns, school boards and other government entities, including the state Legislature--would do well to follow the governor's lead and institute similar steps."

As committed advocates of open, responsive government, we agree.

990 Motion
Speaking of transparency, the so-called "990 Motion" that the Joint Committee on Finance uses at the end of budget deliberations needs to be looked at. In previous budgets the 990 has been used to slip a wish list of special projects into the budget without much notice by the press or the taxpaying public. Notoriously, the Nth-hour 990 was also used in 2015 to include a provision that would've significantly altered the state's open records law, giving legislators the power to essentially determine what records should be fair game for the public to see.

That attempt was defeated, and as a result, expect the public and the media to pay much more attention to any last-minute maneuvers as this budget is finalized. Reforming the use of the 990 Motion would prevent more last-minute hijinks, with the added benefit of stopping taxpayer-funded goodies from being hidden deep inside the state's massive budget at the last minute.

The Trump Effect?

The giant variable in all of this state budget speculation is what President Trump's first federal budget will look like. Will the new President look to prime the economy with an infrastructure-building stimulus plan like President Obama's "shovel ready" American Recovery and Reinvestment Act?

Will the death-spiral that is Obamacare be repealed in 2017 and with it the 20 tax hikes used to prop up this disastrous law? If Congress believes it must replace Obamacare, what will it look like and how will it be paid for? What happens to President Obama's promise for the federal government to pay for his financially unsustainable Medicaid expansion? Will Trump and Congress give power back to the states and turn over significant responsibility to the states for education, Medicaid, transportation?

Will Trump finally rein in the unelected bureaucrats who drag down our nation's economy with stifling and burdensome rules? Any one of these decisions could have a dramatic impact on Wisconsin's budget and the state's finances. Only time will tell.

Governor Walker's State of the State Address on Tuesday signals the opening round of the budget debate. With so many special interests already circling around the state capitol and too many politicians looking to impose their dominance on the process, the posturing has already begun.

Next month the governor gives his budget address where he will lay out the specifics of his next budget and his vision for the future of Wisconsin. Once the Joint Committee on Finance finally sits down to hammer out the actual budget bill, will an all-out public brawl erupt or will their differences be settled quietly behind the scenes? One thing is for sure - taxpayers will definitively know whose side their lawmakers are on.

The initial version of this story incorrectly stated that the DPI, not the DOC, would anticipate greater use of community adult supervision as part of its 201 compliance. This has been corrected.

How to Destroy an Industry: Federal E-Cig Regulation Could Cost One Wisconsin Company $200 Million

Thu, 01/05/2017 - 05:01

January 5, 2017

By Chris Rochester
MacIver Institute Communications Director

An entire industry faces extinction at the hands of impending FDA rules, putting the crushing burden of the regulatory state on full display.

Upwards of 99 percent of businesses in the decade-old e-vapor industry - also known as the vaping or e-cig industry - will likely be crushed under the weight of new FDA "deeming" regulations. However, swift action by Congress and the incoming Trump administration could save the industry and the jobs it supports.

The raft of new rules could cost one small Wisconsin business, Johnson Creek Vapor Company of Hartland, Wis., a staggering $200 million just in FDA application fees and legal costs, said Christian Berkey, the company's CEO.

"If you want to see how regulations can destroy an entire industry, this is it," he said.

Though relatively small - the company employs 47 people full-time in southeast Wisconsin - Johnson Creek Vapor was the country's first producer of e-liquid, the nicotine-containing liquid that's converted to vapor in e-cigs. Today, Johnson Creek Vapor is the largest e-liquid producer in the country and the second largest in the world, shipping about 50,000 gallons of e-liquid to more than 120 countries each year.

Johnson Creek and its employees, along with the rest of the e-vapor industry in the United States, would likely be snuffed out under the FDA's new regulatory regime. "It's going to cost hundreds of thousands of jobs in the U.S. in one fell swoop," Berkey said. "To say this is ridiculous is the understatement of the year."

Though one major deadline for e-vapor companies - categorizing all products with the FDA - was pushed back from December to June, that and other deadlines make the next few months a crucial stretch for the industry.

If the objective of the federal government was to destroy the e-vapor industry, these new deeming regulations would be the way to do it.

If the rules take effect, the vast majority of companies in the e-vapor industry will be forced to endure the same massively expensive and complex FDA approval process as Johnson Creek Vapor for every product they sell. That's because the 2009 law enabling the rules sets February 15, 2007 as the "predicate date" for the rules.

To translate from bureaucrat-speak: Products that entered the market after the 2007 predicate date will be subject to the stringent new approval process. However, products that were already on the market on that date will get a pass - tar-causing traditional cigarettes, for example.

Since the e-vapor industry was still in its infancy at the predicate date - and since most of the industry's advancements have taken place since then - nearly all e-vapor businesses will be subjected to the costly new process if they want a permission slip from the federal government to keep selling their products.

In practical terms, that means most e-vapor businesses like Johnson Creek Vapor will likely collapse under the weight of the new rules within three years.

The FDA's draconian and arbitrary new rules don't sit well with Congressman James Sensenbrenner, who represents the area where Johnson Creek Vapor is located.

"Over-regulation is a pervasive problem in Washington," Sensenbrenner previously told the MacIver Institute. "I have concerns this new rule will hurt the burgeoning vapor and e-cigarette industry, as well as the businesses supported by it."

But there is hope for the industry. A first step is the Cole-Bishop amendment, which would change the predicate date from February 15, 2007 to the date the final regulations were adopted - August 8, 2016. That change would put e-cigs on the same regulatory playing field as traditional cigarettes. The amendment is making its way through Congress' budget process.

Both the Cole-Bishop amendment and regulatory changes by the incoming Trump administration are critical not just to protect jobs, but also to protect public health.

Growing evidence shows that using e-cigarettes is considerably less harmful than smoking traditional cigarettes. An August 2015 study by Public Health England, an agency of England's Department of Health, found e-cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful than combustible cigarettes.

E-vapor products can help people put down their cigarettes for good and turn to a much less harmful alternative - a ray of hope for many smokers that the FDA is trying its best to extinguish.

Industry leaders and advocates are pushing for a more complete rollback of the FDA rules. "Our ultimate objective is a full repeal and replace" of the regulations, Berkey said.

After talking with members of the new administration, Berkey is optimistic about that possibility. "They are far more reasonable and I'm far more hopeful that we'll get a resolution, and fairly soon," Berkey said.

Wisconsin's Energy Fight Looking Brighter in 2017

Thu, 01/05/2017 - 05:00

January 5, 2017

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Two cabinet picks by President-Elect Donald Trump promise to have the most impact on Wisconsin in 2017: Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and Tom Pruitt as EPA Secretary. Combined, they will directly deal with the biggest threat to Wisconsin's economy, the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan (CPP).

Wisconsin and 26 other states are suing to block the CPP in court. The goal of the CPP is to reduce carbon emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. According to the EPA, these new regulations will cost over $50 billion annually while having almost no effect on global climate change.

The CPP would hit Wisconsin's economy especially hard due to our reliance on coal for 60 percent of our energy generation and the state's dependence on manufacturing. When the proposed goal was a 30 percent reduction, a study by the MacIver Institute and Beacon Hill found that the CPP would cost Wisconsinites 21,000 jobs and $1.82 billion in disposable income by 2030. The average household electric bill would jump $225 and the average Wisconsin factory would pay an extra $105,094 per year if the CPP is allowed to go through.

Wisconsinites already pay the 17th highest energy rates, the result of renewable energy goals under former Governor Jim Doyle. The average price of electricity jumped by 21 percent from 2007 to 2012. WE Energies alone made $12 billion in improvements since 2003, improvements that will not be counted under the CPP. The CPP's promised increases in energy costs will drive businesses out of state, and possibly overseas.

Shortly before Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's death, the court ordered on a 5-4 vote a stay to temporarily stop the new regulation. Even before Scalia's death, liberals were depending on the court to ignore the inherent problems in the CPP, even prompting talk of "court packing."

After Scalia's death, liberal proponent's pinned their hopes for the CPP's implementation on President Barack Obama's appointment of Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. With Trump's victory in November, a conservative appointment is likely to maintain a 5-4 majority against the CPP if the case gets that far.

But that's still a gamble, as the Court rulings on Obamacare have shown. The CPP's future is really in the hands of the incoming Trump Administration.

Speaking in Milwaukee, EPA Region 5 Administrator Dr. Susan Hedman said that it would be impossible for a future administration to undo the CPP. "The Clean Power Plan was established through the standard federal rulemaking process. Any change would have to go through that process to promulgate a new rule," Hedman said.

However, that may not be the case. The Washington Post reported in November that, as Attorney General, Sessions could file a motion for "voluntary remand" to allow the EPA to consider the states' position on the CPP and revise the rule. This would allow Congress time to pass legislation to stop the CPP completely.

In addition, Trump could issue an executive order saying that the rule cannot be implemented because it is unlawful and that EPA lacks authority to enforce it. As the state Attorney General for Oklahoma, Pruitt led the fight in court to stop the CPP. As head of the EPA, he would be expected to carry out such an executive order.

There will be the inevitable lawsuits by special interests to try to force the Trump Administration to enforce the CPP. Sessions will have to defend the new administration's position against the CPP vigorously while Pruitt prevents the bureaucracy from implementing the rule.

But the benefit of such a fight is clear for Wisconsin. Governor Scott Walker's decision to refuse to implement the CPP at the state level while the lawsuit continued looks especially wise when looking at the EPA regulation's shaky future. If the Trump administration acts as the candidate promised during the campaign, Walker's temporary stop of the CPP at the state level will soon become a permanent victory for Wisconsin's energy consumers.

Jill Stein Denounces Wisconsin Recount and "Jim Crow" Elections

Wed, 01/04/2017 - 14:04

January 4, 2017 | MacIver News Service

[Madison, Wis...] The Wisconsin Green Party and former presidential candidate Jill Stein were at the Wisconsin Capitol to announce that, for them, the election still isn't over.

Stein announced a new project to continue her efforts in Wisconsin, called Neither Stein nor the website mention any specific actions they plan to take any time soon.

The MacIver Institute's Top Ten Education Stories of 2016

Wed, 01/04/2017 - 05:00

January 3, 2016

by Ola Lisowski
MacIver Institute Research Associate

[Madison, Wis...] It was a busy year in education. From brand new report cards, reports that offered interesting new peeks into our education system, to a vexed turnaround program, we're counting up the top ten most important education stories for you, the MacIver reader.

We'll start at number 10 and work our way to the single most important education story of the year. First up...

10. School Districts Skim Millions from Local Taxpayers, Some Blame School Choice

For our first major education story of the year, we go back to February and the end of the legislative session. The MacIver Institute broke this story on public school districts raising local property taxes to cover "losses" from the expansion of the school choice program. According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo, 115 school districts raised local property taxes more than the amount they lost to choice schools, and raised taxes by a total of $19.8 million statewide. This figure is $3.7 million more than the districts lost in state aid.

From the perspective of taxpayer advocates, if a child leaves a public school district and that district no longer incurs expenses to educate that child, the district shouldn't need to raise taxes to make up for "lost" aid. Fewer kids served, less money for the district. It's that simple - successful business owners know that this is the way life works, but in the vortex that is public education spending, this point somehow gets lost.

Racine Unified School District (RUSD) raised local property taxes the most, by $5,580,980 in 2015, while it lost only $4,164,500 as a result of students leaving for the choice program. As a result, RUSD made a net profit of $1,416,480.

Legislators got word of this and in a last-minute fix, passed an amendment to make it clear that when a student transfers to a choice school, public schools can levy for the amount lost in state aid and no more.

When Democratic legislators cried out against the solution, saying the bill would "gut millions more from public schools," Rep. Mary Czaja (R-Irma) had some choice words for the legislators.

"I hate to say this, but I guess math is not your strong suit. We are not cutting schools," Czaja said. "We're allowing the schools to levy for the exact amount that will be transferred to the voucher. Exact amount. So the schools will have enough dollars coming in and enough dollars going out. No more dollars will be taken out of the school districts than what they would normally have. Because for every child that they are counting in the levy, that exact amount goes back out. They won't be educating those children. So I think, I think you have to have a more honest answer to the citizens of the state of Wisconsin. Public schools will be held harmless."

@MaryCzaja: we are not cutting from public schools. We are levying the EXACT amount of the vouchers back to the public schools. #wipolitics

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) February 19, 2016

9. The Every Student Succeeds Act, America's New Federal Education Law

Just about one year ago, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law with bipartisan support, making it the first major federal education law since 2011's No Child Left Behind (NCLB). To make a long story short, from a small government perspective, ESSA is a surprisingly good law coming from the Obama administration. Where NCLB created massive federal overreach into education, ESSA brought the reins back and handed them to the states.

ESSA allows states to create their own rules and standards on education - now called "state plans" - and while it does not spend much time dictating what those rules are, it requires states to have guidelines. State plans must include evidence-based interventions and strategies to improve schools. In ESSA, "strict flexibility" is the name of the game. Of course, such openness had already led to differences in interpretation, which will likely cause some battles in 2017.

This past summer, Wisconsin's DPI held listening sessions for the general public and for educators in order to gather input from the public on testing, achievement gaps, state monitoring, and other important education issues.

DPI will submit a state plan to the feds some time around March 2017. You can bet that the MacIver Institute will be on the issue - stay tuned.

8. WEAC Membership

Since our inception, the MacIver Institute has diligently reported on union membership in the state, especially in our post-Act 10 world. As many of you may remember, Act 10 allowed Wisconsin's public employees the freedom to decide whether or not they want to join a union and pay dues. Unions must also now hold annual recertification votes.

The result? Membership in the state's largest teachers' union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) has dropped by 58 percent since 2011. This is in line with a national trend, but the drop in membership is larger than that of any other state. Almost 5,100 members left WEAC in just the last year. Before the passage of Act 10, WEAC had nearly 100,000 members. Today, the union membership stands at 36,074.

Survey says: people don't want to be forced to pay for things they didn't ask for. We'd also argue that while WEAC's membership has more than halved in five years, they now have an opportunity to reorganize themselves and prove their value in the 21st century, or risk losing even more members. It's simple competition, and the ball's in their court.

7. University of Wisconsin Update: Another Tuition Freeze in Our Future?

Four years into the University of Wisconsin System's popular tuition freeze, Gov. Walker indicated that he'd be open to another two-year tuition freeze in the coming budget. Great news for our taxpayers and families looking to send off their kids to get a great education at a great price.

To remind our dear readers of the state of tuition before Walker's freeze - tuition had increased by 118 percent in the decade before the freeze. The average UW student has saved a whopping $6,000 as a result of the freeze. These are significant amounts of money that truly help Wisconsinites who are just trying to get an education.

As for the UW System itself, their 2017-19 budget proposal asks for $42.5 million in new general public revenue and does not increase tuition for Wisconsin residents. Looks like this battle is all but won for the Governor and ultimately, for Wisconsin taxpayers.

6. Forward Exam/ACT results

Wisconsin's public school students took three different standardized tests in three years. This year, the Forward Exam made its debut, and whether you like the test or hate the test, you probably agree that we shouldn't change the test at least for a while. Why? Well, in the last three years of data, it's tough to compare proficiency rates across different exams. Education officials and honest data wonks alike will tell you that it's not a strong or significant comparison because of the differences between exams. And so, Wisconsin's students have suffered from a lack of year-to-year comparisons in the form of test scores, which is why other indicators - such as remedial education and graduation rates - are useful to lean on.

So other than the fact that we shouldn't compare this exam to the others, how did students do? Not great. Nearly six out of ten Wisconsin students are performing below grade level. Statewide, 42.5 percent of students were proficient in English while 42.3 percent were proficient in math. Students fared the best at science, with 50.1 percent having achieved proficiency.

It's a sorry tale when the fact that half the students passed in science - supposedly now the state's best subject - becomes the highlight of the release. Half? Half. The disconnect between plugged-in education officials and average Wisconsin citizens who know that half is not a good rate of success is real, and it's an issue we've been going back to all year.

Within MPS, 19.7 percent of students achieved English proficiency, and 14.9 achieved math proficiency. Of black students, just 7.5 percent achieved math proficiency while 36 percent of white students fared the same. In a perhaps surprising reveal, achievement gaps between white and black students at Madison Metropolitan were bigger than the gaps in Milwaukee.

The true highlight of the release for MPS: the fact that older students did better than younger students in English Language Arts, reversing a long-static trend that still exists statewide. That achievement must be highlighted and it must be replicated in more schools across the state.

On the ACT, students scored an average of 20.1 out of 36, a small increase from the previous average of 20. Students achieved an average English score of 18.6, down from 19.3. In math, students achieved a 20.1, a small increase from last year's average of 20.

As we'll highlight later in the list, choice students did outstanding on this exam. Students in all three parental choice programs, who are primarily low-income, outperformed their full-income peers in public schools across the state. A system that's getting less money per kid with better results? I'm interested. And as the data shows, so is the public - but more on that later!

5. Return of the School Report Cards

DPI's public school report cards provide a glimpse into how schools and districts around the state are faring, but as we've covered throughout the year, the report cards often show one thing when the situation on the ground may be totally different. This year, the report cards returned after having skipped a year. The big news was that MPS fell off the list of failing districts and was replaced by Racine United and four smaller districts - more on that later!

Fifty-four districts and 329 schools are ranked as significantly exceeding expectations. Five districts and 99 schools are ranked as failing to meet expectations. I've written extensively about the issues with the report cards and such complicated and convoluted rankings, but ultimately, it's important to have such accountability and feedback so that parents actually know how their local schools are faring.

Unfortunately, the reality on the ground in many of these schools doesn't reflect what their formal rankings say. One needn't go much further than MPS to see this - again, more on that later - but it's true in other parts of the state. Racine United, for example, the largest district to have been added to the "failing" list, sent 33 percent of its graduates needing remediation upon entry at the UW. That number is a whopping 56 percent at MPS, and yet one of the districts is "failing" while the other "meets few expectations."

4. Remedial Education Report: Is High School Education in Wisconsin Failing?

One study that we kept going back to this year was the Remedial Course Report released by the University of Wisconsin System in October. The report revealed - for the first time - the extent of the remedial education problem in the state.

The report was prompted by a new law championed by Rep. John Jagler (R-Watertown), which required the UW System to list all public high schools that sent more than six graduates into the System needing remedial math or English. Jagler discovered that 20 percent of all freshmen at the UW System required such coursework - which counts for zero credit and costs full tuition - but the UW could not tell him from which in-state high schools those students came. The remedial course report changed that.

We now know that in 2015, 160 schools graduated senior classes where more than 10 percent of students needed math remediation at the UW System. Twelve schools - nearly 7 percent of the list - graduated classes where 50 percent or more - half! - of their graduates needed math remediation when they arrived on campus.

The report was able to take a new datapoint and make it clear to the public that no matter what our Department of Public Instruction says, there are schools all over the state that simply aren't fulfilling their duties. What's more, the report revealed some serious dissonance when several schools touted as high achieving were shown to be sending a lot of kids off to college who didn't pass their entrance-level math exams. Rufus King High School, for example, was named 8th best high school in the state by U.S. News and World Report, but one-third of King graduates needed math remediation. Reagan High School was named 2nd best high school in the state by U.S. News and World Report but sent nearly 43 percent of graduates to college needing math remediation.

Not only was this one of the biggest and most important education stories of the year, but it was seriously underreported. Have no fear, the MacIver Institute will stay on top of this issue.

3. Choice Programs Are Still Helping Students Get a Better Education

This year, nothing terribly new or groundbreaking happened with the choice programs in Wisconsin. The three programs - Milwaukee Parental Choice, Racine Parental Choice, and Wisconsin (statewide) Parental Choice - educate a stunning 32,350 students. Almost 30 percent of all families statewide exercise some type of choice in Wisconsin. In Milwaukee, over 80 percent of students attend a school of their choosing. The programs certainly have their political enemies, but the participation of Wisconsin families in choice makes their position pretty clear: Wisconsinites want choice. Polling supports this fact, but more importantly, the growth of student and school participation makes clear that the demand is there.

And one last time, for the record - no, school choice is not a program for the ultra-rich to get private school educations that they otherwise would have been able to afford. All three programs are income-limited. If the state wants to start increasing or even removing the income caps, that's a separate debate - but as it stands today, school choice is giving primarily disadvantaged children the opportunity to get a great education. Though the anti-choice forces are strong: if you ask some people, choice's expansion is "heartbreaking." I wonder how the kids getting the better education feel.

And getting a great education they are. Without much fanfare, choice students did great on standardized tests this year, beating even their non-economically disadvantaged public school peers on ACT scores. On the Badger Exam results from back in March, students in school choice programs outperformed their peers in public schools in nearly every category. In Milwaukee, income-limited choice students outperformed kids at MPS by every single proficiency measure. Not every school is perfect, but this system is giving students options. That matters.

2. The Ever-Troubled Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program

Education news in the summer of 2016 can be summed up by one frustrating acronym: OSPP. The Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, championed by Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), was established with the intent of turning around up to five of the poorest-performing schools within MPS per year. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele appointed Mequon-Thiensville Superintendent Demond Means to the post of OSPP Commissioner, and all was well. Sort of. Not really. Well, they said things were going swimmingly and they were looking forward to working together and all that other fancy press release talk but then - surprise! - Means resigned, citing the "toxic" atmosphere around education.

To be fair to Means, the man was between a rock (the MPS school board) and a hard place (the teachers' union, which wanted nothing to do with this plan from the beginning). It was never going to be an easy job. But after all that - the spinning of wheels and protests and proposals and counter-proposals - someone still needs to help these kids. It's a moral demand as well as a legal demand - ESSA requires states to intervene in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.

These days, the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program is on hold because no school districts technically qualify for it anymore. Does that mean there are no schools in Wisconsin who could seriously benefit from different types of leadership and radical new approaches to education? Of course not. But as of today, the state isn't working to help those kids. Which brings us to our next point and the most important education story of the year...

1. Milwaukee Public Schools Taken off List of Failing School Districts

The biggest education news story of the year, without a doubt, came out of Milwaukee when the Department of Public Instruction announced that MPS would no longer be classified as a failing school district on the new report cards. Pack it in everyone, we did it! Wait, what's that? Is it the sound of bureaucratic doublespeak whooshing by? After all, only 19.5 percent of MPS students are proficient in English and only 14.9 are proficient in math. Of black students at MPS, only 7.5 percent are proficient in math.

With numbers like that, how can one possibly proclaim that MPS is succeeding? The district is failing the tens of thousands of kids missing out on a good education while the education bureaucrats pat themselves on the back. But as I've written over and over again this year - don't hold your breath for MPS to serve up some much-needed self-criticism.

Ultimately, the story of MPS moving off the list is one of cognitive dissonance. More than 25,000 kids are at schools at MPS which are still individually classified as failing schools. The district itself managed to swoop by, a miraculous 2.4 out of 100 points above the cutoff for failing schools. As it turns out, "fake news" isn't just a potential issue in our media but also in our government institutions, how they work, and what they tell the public. For the truth, dig deep and start downloading those excel spreadsheets and dig through the numbers yourself - you'll be shocked, just as I was when I began covering education.

Or, you know, keep reading the MacIver Institute's coverage for the latest education news as we head into 2017!

Gas Tax Wars and The Minimum Markup

Tue, 01/03/2017 - 11:57

Michigan raises its gas Wisconsin next?

January 3, 2017

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

It was just last January when Michigan drivers were able to point their finger at Wisconsin and laugh because they were enjoying the benefit of a price war for gasoline. Three gas stations in Houghton Lake were charging just 47 cents per gallon.

Wisconsinites could never have such a price war here because an antiquated minimum markup law, the so-called Unfair Sales Act, actually requires gas stations to mark up the price of gasoline 9.18 cents or more. The law also requires a minimum mark up of 6 percent on alcohol and tobacco retail sales while preventing retailers from selling other products below cost.

Because, you know, consumers need to be protected from cheap prices. And just to make sure Wisconsinites will never, ever see a gas price war like Michigan went through (with no casualties, I might add), Wisconsin even has its own version of the price police working for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). They're ready to spring into action the moment someone gets cheap coffee or gasoline.

But now it's Wisconsin's turn to laugh, and not just because the Green Bay Packers beat the Detroit Lions. Michigan just raised their state gas tax from 19 cents to 26.3 cents per gallon on January 1, the first state gas tax hike in 20 years. Combined with the state sales tax of six percent and Michigan's gas tax will be 37.8 cents per gallon.

Michigan is also expected to raise vehicle registration fees from $120 to $144 for the typical car. The combined gas tax hike and increase in registration fees is expected to generate $455 million in revenue, according to the Detroit News. The new gas tax increase takes Michigan from 18th in the nation into the top 10. It's Pure Michigan.

By comparison, Wisconsin's state gas tax will "only" be 32.9 cents per gallon and typical vehicle registration costs are $75. After Michigan increases their gas tax, Wisconsin will only have the second highest gas tax of the midwest states, according to the Tax Foundation. Our national ranking will actually drop from 12th to 13th place, thanks to Michigan and New Jersey. (Those sneaks in West Virginia dropped underneath us by actually lowering their gas tax by a penny.)

On the other hand, when over 114,000 moved from Illinois last year, according to the Chicago Tribune, they probably fueled up before they left and snuck around the tollways. They only paid 30.18 cents per gallon.

Of course, in politics and gas prices, all victories are temporary. With a $1 billion transportation fund shortfall, Wisconsin legislators are looking at possibly raising our gas taxes. According to the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Wisconsin's gas tax would have to jump 28 cents per gallon to cover the entire shortfall without any borrowing. Such an increase would make the Badger state #1 according to the Tax Foundation.

That kind of gas pain is enough to make someone call an ambulance.

Even to cover the governor's more modest transportation budget goals without borrowing, the state will need to increase the gas tax by seven cents per gallon. That catapults us past Michigan again, making Wisconsin drivers pay the highest gas tax in the midwest.

Michigan Republicans were able to sell the gas tax and registration fee increases by combining them with $205.8 million in annual property tax relief. It remains to be seen how Wisconsin Republicans who control the legislature here will sell a gas tax increase.

So we'll keep the laughing at our Michigan neighbors to a minimum. It looks like they may have the last laugh, yet.

Walker: Workforce Development, Federalism Top 2017 Goals

Fri, 12/30/2016 - 16:57

December 30, 2016

[Madison, Wis...] Governor Scott Walker will keep his focus here in Wisconsin on economic development in 2017, but he's also excited about the chance in Washington, D.C. of restoring federalism - the idea of shifting responsibilities back to the states as a more efficient way to run government.

Walker explained his goals for 2017 when he sat down with the MacIver Institute for a year-end interview.

MacIver Year-End Interview: Assembly Speaker Robin Vos

Fri, 12/30/2016 - 13:16

December 30, 2016

[Madison, Wis...] In a year-end interview with the MacIver Institute, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos looked forward to the challenges and opportunities for reform that lie ahead, while touting the many conservative reforms passed in the last legislative session - in particular, Right to Work.

MacIver's Top 10 Stories of 2016

Thu, 12/29/2016 - 05:00

December 29, 2016

[Madison, Wisc...] It's that time of year once again. The time when we take a moment to reflect on the stories of the year that shaped our state and our country. Any way you look at it, 2016 was another monumental year in Wisconsin.

The second in our series of year-end stories brings you the Top Ten MacIver Stories of 2016, stories that we put a particularly bright light on that will have a long-term impact on our state. In descending order, they are...

10. A Wild Election Year

Last year, we followed the arc of Gov. Scott Walker's short-lived presidential campaign. This year, we followed the catapulting of Donald J. Trump from political outsider to the President-elect of the United States of America.

The horse race on the GOP side came down to Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Donald Trump by the time the Wisconsin primary came around on April 5. In addition to drawing huge crowds of supporters, Trump also drew crowds of protesters and the ire of leftist agitators. The MacIver Institute was there to cover many of them, including this viral incident featuring one of the free speech questions that has long dogged American politics - whether defacing Old Glory is a right [profanity]:

Cruz won the state's primary, but by the time the dust settled it was Trump who prevailed and accepted the Republican nomination at the party convention in July.

On the other side of the aisle, self-avowed socialist Bernie Sanders gave Hillary Clinton a good run for her money. Eventually Hillary pulled it off and secured the Democratic Party's nomination that eluded her in 2008.

After a general election season filled with more controversy, twists, and turns than anything even the most creative Hollywood script writer could conjure up, Trump emerged victorious, winning 36 more electoral votes than necessary to become the nation's 45th president, including Wisconsin. Shortly afterwards, protesters hit the streets to express their disapproval of the new President-elect [profanity]:

The left felt compelled to protest right down to the bitter end and take one last stand at the vote of the Wisconsin electoral college - including the protester in this video, whose unhinged interruption of the vote gained national attention:

9. More Low-Price Crime Waves Hit Wisconsin

Last year, we warned Wisconsinites to use caution when shopping on Black Friday. After all, the state's Unfair Sales Act, also know as the minimum markup law, makes deep discounts illegal in Wisconsin.

In 2016, more crime waves hit Wisconsin thanks to the minimum markup law, which is still on the books. We warned consumers about low prices on Amazon Prime Day. We also renewed our tradition of warning Black Friday Shoppers that they should be wary of suspiciously low prices when starting their Christmas shopping.

We also highlighted how the minimum markup law raises the cost of back-to-school shopping when we compared prices at Milwaukee Wal-Marts with prices at Wal-Mart stores in Chicago and Milwaukee. We also exposed the bureaucratic overreach the minimum markup law makes possible.

Fortunately, a bill repealing the Depression-era law is written. Unfortunately, it hasn't gotten a public hearing yet.

The earliest Senator Vukmir and Representative Ott, the law's authors, could re-introduce their bill to repeal the Unfair Sales Act is January 2017, when the next session of the legislature is scheduled to convene.

8. Dane County Spends $50,000 on "Implicit Bias" Conference

When we found out Dane County sent 200 of its employees to a day-long "implicit bias" conference intended to address racial bias in the criminal justice system, we felt compelled to investigate.

We found that employees from various divisions of Dane County's judiciary and law enforcement system spent an entire work day attending the "Recognizing and Responding to Implicit Bias in the Dane County Criminal Justice System" conference on Friday, April 22.

The county spent an estimated $50,000 on the conference in staff salaries and other expenses, according to documents obtained by the MacIver Institute,

We also obtained copies of each presentation and the extensive feedback given by attendees through an open records request. After attending six different presentations that focused on the topic of racial equity from a variety of angles, employees in attendance submitted mixed reviews.

Some viewed the conference as a positive experience that will change the way they approach their jobs. Others viewed the conference less favorably - many attendees said the presentations were repetitive and the conference too long. Some suggested it could've been scaled back to a half-day instead of a full day. Many others said the subject matter did not pertain to their jobs.

A number of attendees also expressed disappointment that taxpayer dollars had been spent on the conference, with several reviewers commenting that the money would've been put to better use cleaning the dirty courthouse windows.

The MacIver Institute will continue to stand guard, highlighting questionable spending of hard-earned taxpayer dollars when others just stand by.

7. Wisconsin Tax Burden Down Nearly $5 Billion During Walker's Tenure

Taxpayers in the Badger State have enjoyed nearly $5 billion in tax relief since Gov. Walker first took office. That's truly an accomplishment worth celebrating!

Over the course of six years and three biennial budgets, a wide variety of changes to Wisconsin tax laws have generated a total taxpayer savings of $4.756 billion, the LFB estimates. Those savings include 50 income and franchise tax changes totaling $3.018 billion in tax relief; 13 other general fund tax changes totaling $27.46 million; and five measures that target reducing property taxes, totaling $1.711 billion.

Gov. Walker and the legislature have consistently chipped away at the tax burden for nearly six years now. As a result, Wisconsin has made great strides in making our state a better place to raise a family, start a business, and retire - but the work is far from done. Stay tuned in 2017.

6. Battle Over Transportation Funding Heats Up

A clash over Wisconsin's transportation funding has been in the making for some time. On one side, Gov. Walker and others have stuck by a pledge not to raise taxes or fees, including the gas tax and vehicle registration fee. On the other side of the debate are legislators and special interests who are open to raising taxes and fees.

The MacIver Institute has been there all along as the battle has developed into the marquee matchup of the next legislative session.

In a column earlier this summer Walker made his position crystal clear, writing, "For me, it's simple. A family doesn't add a major addition to their home if they don't see a pay raise. Instead, they use current wages to make sure their home is safe and to cover basic maintenance. The same is true with transportation."

Owen Robinson argued that the state doesn't have a shortage of transportation revenue, it just spends too much. George Mitchell offered his own take rebutting the argument that no new revenue is needed and framing the debate to come.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) submitted its biennial budget request in September. Under that budget, local road maintenance would get a big boost in funding, but certain mega-projects in southeast Wisconsin would be delayed. As Walker promised, the proposal did not include a gas tax hike or registration fee increase.

Earlier in December, the transportation question took center stage in a lengthy hearing by the Assembly Committee on Transportation. The day-long hearing started with nearly four hours of testimony by DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb. Gottlieb explained his agency's biennial budget request and answered extensive questioning from both sides of the debate.

Just this week, the latest chapter in the battle over transportation funding was written when Gottlieb's retirement as DOT Secretary was announced. He will be replaced by current DSPS Secretary Dave Ross starting January 7.

5. UW's Ongoing Poverty Cries Continue to Ring Hollow

The annual cycle of hearing the UW System claiming to be hanging by a string, then uncovering evidence to the contrary continued like clockwork in 2016.

In May, UW System administrators found $35 million in one-time savings that came from lower-than-budgeted benefits costs, as well as $20 million in savings in utility costs from a milder than expected winter. Apparently there is at least one upside to global warming. While just one-time savings, the money was set aside for staff salary increases - which are essentially permanent.

Gov. Walker also indicated earlier this year that he's open to renewing the UW System's tuition freeze in the next budget. The freeze is now in its fourth year. Renewing the freeze as part of the 2017-2019 budget would extend it into a fifth and sixth year.

Will the UW System survive?

Perhaps catching Walker's drift, UW President Ray Cross got approval of his biennial budget request, which was sent to Gov. Scott Walker and the Department of Administration. The proposal requests $42.5 million in new general public revenue funding and does not increase tuition for Wisconsin residents. Cross said the budget increase request was "modest" and "reasonable."

To make sure claims of doom and gloom for the UW System once again failed to come true at the start of yet another academic year, we visited the UW-Madison campus in September. What did we find? Students huddled around burn barrels? Professors pushing around shopping carts full of aluminum cans? Crime, looting, and biker gangs running roughshod? See for yourself:

4. Successful Welfare Reform Moves Wisconsinites from Dependence to Workforce

One major reform has quietly helped nearly 20,000 Wisconsinites move away from dependence on government and enter the workforce.

Gov. Walker's work and training requirements for the FoodShare program went into effect in 2015, and since then they've led to increased wages and hours worked for participants in the FoodShare Employment Training (FSET) program. More than 14,400 people found jobs between April 2015 and August 2016.

That positive trend continued through the end of the year - nearly 18,000 people had found jobs by early December, and wages and hours continued to increase over the previous three months. From July to September of 2016, participants earned an average of $12.06 per hour, up from the previous three months' average of $11.99. Participants also worked an average of 32.9 hours per week, nearly 45 minutes more per week compared to the previous three months.

The success of FSET is a win for taxpayers and the employers who hire FSET participants, but more importantly it's also a win for the people who are moving off government dependence to independence, a well-paying job, and the dignity that comes with work.

3. Obamacare's Downward Spiral Continues

From insurance giants dropping out to announcements of more massive price hikes, the demise of Obamacare was the least surprising story of the year.

United Health and Humana pulled out of the Wisconsin market earlier this year citing massive losses on the individual market. The decline in competition on Obamacare's exchanges is a symptom of the larger problem with Obamacare: it's built on a foundation of sand that's doomed to eventually crumble as young and healthy people decline to pay the ever-increasing prices of the substandard plans.

Early data from the federal website showed prices could increase 10 percent. That number jumped to nearly 16 percent once final rate hikes were approved by the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance.

Once the new rates were finalized, the MacIver Institute analyzed premiums and deductibles under Obamacare in 2017. Among our findings was that a Wisconsin couple unfortunate enough to be in their 50s with three children could pay almost $51,000 per year in Obamacare health insurance premiums in 2017 under one gold plan in southwest Wisconsin. Rate hikes varied widely around the state, with many plans seeing premium increases over 30 percent.

While far from ideal, Wisconsin's 16 percent average increase is well short of the estimated 25 percent average national increase and far lower than Minnesota's 50-67 percent increases announced in October.

In response to Minnesota's sky-high rate increases, Gov. Mark Dayton rolled out an emergency plan that would spend nearly all of the state's $313 million surplus on a stopgap measure to lessen the burden on families that don't qualify for federal subsidies - a double-whammy for Minnesota taxpayers.

After a year of terrible news for Obamacare and its enrollees, does the left in Wisconsin still think we should've followed Minnesota's lead and embraced the (Un)Affordable Care Act?

2. No Change in Milwaukee Public Schools Despite Reform Requirements

The past year has been pockmarked by a tug of war between Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and the Milwaukee teachers' union - who want to protect their turf - and reform-minded legislators who authored the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program (OSPP) to reform failing MPS schools.

Under the requirements of the OSPP, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and OSPP Commissioner Dr. Demond Means put forth a mild, meek, watered-down turnaround plan. It was, however, a starting point. To the surprise of nobody, MPS came out against the proposal, countering with an even weaker plan of their own.

It wasn't long before Dr. Means submitted his resignation as OSPP Commissioner. In his resignation statement, Dr. Means expressed his frustration over the increasingly adversarial attitudes he encountered and that kids weren't the top priority. It seemed that MPS families who wanted better schools for their kids had reached a dead end.

But later in the year, one tweak to the Department of Public Instruction's (DPI) school district report card formula, and voila! MPS was no longer failing - problem solved! The DPI's new report cards rolled out in November weigh student achievement and student growth differently based on the overall percentage of economically disadvantaged students within the district.

That's not inherently a bad set of metrics - measuring the increase in student achievement rewards districts that make great strides. The new report cards do, however, conveniently shield MPS from the dreaded "failing" label and are just one more example of one bloated bureaucracy papering over the failures of another.

The bureaucrats at DPI and MPS can't keep the problem hidden under the rug forever. Next year, it's likely that the state legislature will take further steps to fix MPS. All the political maneuvering in the world won't exempt MPS from a bipartisan federal law signed by President Obama, the Every Students Succeeds Act, which requires states take steps to reform their lowest-performing schools.

The adults running MPS will likely be forced to sit down and eat their veggies in 2017.

1. MacIver Study Finds Act 10 Has Saved Wisconsinites $5 Billion

February of 2016 marked the anniversary of the start of Gov. Walker and the Republican legislature's odyssey that resulted in the signing of Act 10, a milestone law in Wisconsin history.

A MacIver Institute analysis released in February found the law has saved Wisconsin taxpayers an incredible $5.24 billion over the past five years.

The analysis found that Wisconsin saved $3.36 billion by requiring government employees contribute a reasonable amount to their own retirement. The analysis also estimates local units of governments saved an additional $404.8 million total by taking common sense steps like opening their employees' health insurance to competitive bidding.

Milwaukee Public Schools saved $1.3 billion in long-term pension liabilities, and Neenah saved $97 million in long-term pension liabilities in addition to other savings.

These savings are only possible thanks to Act 10, and the savings keep adding up every day, month, and year that goes by.

On its own, the UW System saved $527 million in retirement costs alone. More than 493 different units of government in Wisconsin have saved over $1 million since 2011. More than 100 units of government have saved over $6 million and almost 20 units have saved more than $20 million since 2011.

"We owe Gov. Walker and all of the courageous legislators who voted for Act 10 a big thank you," said MacIver Institute President Brett Healy. "Gov. Walker has reduced the cost of government in Wisconsin by more than $5 billion - it is the gift that will keep on giving back to taxpayers long into the future. Five years and $5 billion in taxpayer savings later, it's still working Wisconsin!"

After President-elect Trump takes office along with an all-GOP Congress, Washington politicians will have a great opportunity to model national reforms after those successfully undertaken in Wisconsin - Act 10 in particular.

The Top 10 Under-Reported Stories of 2016

Tue, 12/27/2016 - 15:18

December 27, 2016

[Madison, Wisc...] Despite today's never-ending, 24-hour news cycle, there are still crucial and important stories that somehow do not receive the attention they so richly deserve. Whether the mainstream media willfully ignores these stories or just misses them entirely, there are many essential stories the public deserves to hear.

That's where your friends at the MacIver Institute come in.

With 2016 quickly coming to a close, it's time for our annual roundup. This year, we start our series of year-end stories by presenting the Top Ten Under-Reported Stories of 2016. We start at number ten and conclude with the most under-reported story of the year.

10. Referendum Voters Around the State Increase Their Own Taxes

Our #10 most under-reported story of 2016 is the increase in the number of referendums where voters are increasingly approving local spending increases and essentially raising their own property taxes.

For example, of the 71 referendums on the April 5 ballot, voters approved 55 of them, giving school districts a total of $630.6 million in new spending power. Voters rejected only 16 referendums, a 77 percent passage rate - keeping with recent trends.

A MacIver Institute analysis also found that referendums held during Gov. Walker's administration have increased in number, decreased in price tag, and have been far more likely to pass.

Legislators were concerned some school districts were up to no good by holding referendums on low turnout elections or placing them on the ballot during consecutive elections until they finally pass. The author of one piece of legislation intended to limit such tactics, Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), considers these to be dirty tricks intended to bypass the will of a majority of voters, particularly if a referendum initially fails.

In the end, assuming these referendums are held in a fair and democratic way, it's ultimately up to local voters to be informed about the merits of the ballot questions and make the decision they think is best.

9. Republicans Roll Out Ambitious Agenda

When Speaker Paul Ryan and House Republicans rolled out their Better Way agenda back in June, the smart money in the media was on Hillary Clinton easily defeating Donald Trump in the November election. President Clinton would use her veto pen to stop any Better Way legislation, so what would be the point of giving any ink or airtime to the ideas contained within that agenda?

Well, that didn't happen. Instead, President-elect Donald Trump will take office in January along with an all-GOP Congress. Right now, while everyone seems to be getting along, it's likely that many of the ideas in the Better Way agenda - including tax reform, health care, the Constitution, the economy, national security, and poverty - will be signed into law by President-elect Donald Trump.

Brush up on the Better Way agenda and see what kind of legislation Congress is likely to put on President Trump's desk next year.

8. The Left's War on Free Speech

Receiving scant mainstream media coverage, the left's ongoing crusade to stamp out free speech continued to grow more fervent in 2016. Democratic attorneys general banded together to intimidate climate change skeptics, including attempting to illegally seize private documents from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Then in July, 19 Senate Democrats took to the floor of the U.S. Senate in a fascist attempt to publicly intimidate and silence groups opposed to their policy positions. In response, the MacIver Institute joined the American Legislative Exchange Council and other groups from around the country in co-signing a letter fiercely defending the fundamental right to free speech of all Americans.

Joe McCarthy would've been proud of Senate Democrats for their Putin-like tactics.

Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, the effects of the John Doe probe still linger. In that ordeal, conservative activists had their homes raided and possessions seized in an attempt by some in government to use the heavy hand of the law to intimidate their political opponents.

Hopefully 2017 brings a new era of toleration for ideas from all sides of the debate, even the ones liberal-progressive officials don't agree with.

7. Overtime Rule Threatens to Crush Businesses and Taxpayers

The Obama Department of Labor tried to double the overtime threshold without a single vote of Congress. First you've heard of it? You wouldn't be alone - aside from a handful of fawning headlines praising the change, this major policy change and the undemocratic way the administration tried to implement it went virtually unreported in the mainstream media.

The new rule would have doubled the salary threshold to $47,500. Anyone not earning more than that would have to be paid overtime. It doesn't take an HR professional to see the real-world impact such a drastic change would have.

It's a classic one-size-fits-all blanket regulation because it doesn't consider differences in the cost of living from one region to another. A bag of groceries bought in downtown Mequon does not cost the same as one bought in midtown Manhattan. The rule change was widely opposed by private and public sector employers, and it could've cost Wisconsin taxpayers $200 million over two years, according to one estimate.

Fortunately a federal judge in Texas blocked the rule shortly before its December 1 implementation date. It's also increasingly likely that President-elect Trump will stop the regulation in its tracks, making this yet another part of President Obama's cherished legacy that will go nowhere.

Future presidents who want to use their phone and pen to bypass Congress and dictate rules and regulations to the entire country should take note.

6. Crime Waves Hit Wisconsin

Wisconsin's antiquated Unfair Sales Act, also known as the minimum markup law, managed to escape serious scrutiny in 2016. The law makes deep discounts illegal in the Badger State and requires gasoline and other items to be marked up 9.18 percent above cost.

Last year, we warned Wisconsinites about an impending Black Friday crime wave and to be on the lookout for suspiciously low prices. In 2016, multiple crime waves hit Wisconsin once again thanks to the minimum markup law, no doubt keeping the Price Police busy tracking down illegal good deals.

We warned consumers about low prices on Amazon Prime Day (which would be better described as Amazon Crime Day in Wisconsin). We also renewed our unfortunate tradition of warning Black Friday Shoppers that they should be wary of really good deals when doing their Christmas shopping.

We're hopeful the legislation repealing the minimum markup law will be dusted off and given a long-overdue public hearing in the next legislative session.

5. Obamacare Co-Ops Fall Like Dominoes

While it's hard to argue that Obamacare itself - notably its sky-high premium and deductible increases - received too little scrutiny, the failures of the health insurance co-ops set up under the (Un)Affordable Care Act were hardly even an afterthought.

That might be because they're going belly-up so fast it's hard for the media to keep up. We started 2016 with just half of the original 23 co-ops dragging themselves into the new year. At the dawn of 2017, we're down to just four after Maryland's Evergreen Health co-op recently threw in the towel and stopped offering plans.

Among the four is Wisconsin's Common Ground, which secured secret funding from an undisclosed source to stay alive for a while longer. However, earlier this year we reported on a study that showed Common Ground's ugly fiscal situation.

When a co-op fails, the consequences are worthy of media attention. Often, tens of thousands of people are kicked off their plan and forced to find new coverage. So much for "If you like your plan, you can keep your plan." Hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funded financing also went down the drain with the failed co-ops.

4. Milwaukee Public Schools: The Rest of the Story

It seems MPS has a remarkable ability to sweep unsavory stories under the rug.

While the media preferred to report on the public breakdown of the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program (OSPP) and touted the flowery statements by MPS about their cherry-picked successes, the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering over OSPP went largely uncovered - as did the motives of MPS leadership in successfully stymying the turnaround plan.

From the very outset, the adults running MPS made a circus out of the turnaround plan, finally leading to the resignation of OSPP administrator Demond Means before any progress could be made. In the meantime, the children trapped in failing MPS schools continue to wait for the grown-ups to get their act together and finally tackle the shameful status quo at MPS.

Another under-reported story this year was the groundbreaking report on violence against teachers at MPS by WISN's Dan O'Donnell. The report, entitled "Blood on the Blackboard," revealed the shocking stories of teachers who endure violence in the classroom on an almost daily basis. O'Donnell told us the story behind the report here.

Needless to say, the public at large likely remains unaware of the true problems facing MPS thanks to the deafening silence of many in the media.

3. Welfare Reforms Help Wisconsinites Find Work

One of the great success stories of recent conservative reforms was virtually brushed aside this year, so it's worthy of one more mention as 2016 becomes 2017.

Gov. Walker's work and training requirements for the FoodShare program went into effect in 2015, and since then they've led to increased wages and hours worked for participants in the FoodShare Employment Training (FSET) program. More than 14,400 people found jobs between April 2015 and August 2016.

That positive trend continued through the end of the year as nearly 18,000 people had found jobs, and wages and hours continued to increase over the previous three months.

The success of FSET is a win for taxpayers, but more importantly it's also a win for the people who are moving off government dependence to independence, a well-paying job, and the dignity that comes with work.

2. Taxpayers Keep Winning, and the Budget Hasn't Collapsed

For Wisconsin taxpayers, 2016 was a great year, but you might not know it if you rely on your morning newspaper or nightly news report. Not only did we see that the tax burden in Wisconsin has been moving in the right direction, but that the state's revenues are increasing.

The MacIver Institute reported that over the course of six years and three biennial budgets, a wide variety of changes to Wisconsin tax laws generated total taxpayer savings of $4.756 billion, according to an estimate by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

In February, we also released a report highlighting more than $5 billion in taxpayer savings from Act 10 during the five years since the landmark law was enacted in 2011.

Despite the all-too-predicable cries that the billions in tax relief would put government in the poorhouse and destroy any ability to pay for basic services, the sky is still up there and the lights are still on at the Capitol. In fact, the Department of Revenue estimates steady revenue growth over the next biennial budget period - an increase of $343 million in revenue for the 2016-17 fiscal year, a $448 million increase for '17-'18, and a $482 million increase in '18-'19.

As has been demonstrated time after time, fiscal responsibility and lowering the tax burden is a recipe for economic revival and financial success.

1. National Debt

Last year, the national debt was our top under-reported story. Just 12 short months ago, the debt was $18.8 trillion, a staggering number. As the debt clock above shows, that figure has of course only grown larger - with nary a peep from anyone in the media.

The nation will soon cross an ominous threshold: $20 trillion in debt, by far the most debt any country has ever held in the history of the world.

Yet, it seems even many in the conservative media have brushed the debt problem under the rug. Part of President-elect Trump's stump speech was to spend an additional trillion dollars on infrastructure. It's not entirely clear how he plans to pay for it. Some of his supporters have said much of the money will be recovered by reforming the tax code, revitalizing the economy, and re-patriating the enormous sums of money American companies have parked overseas.

Without specifics, it should concern Americans if the plan ends up being to put the new spending on the national credit card. However, there is hope. Trump's plans to lower tax rates, reform the tax code, and pull back on regulations could spark an economic renaissance. Many of his cabinet picks also have the potential to actually reduce the size and scope of the federal government.

It was disheartening to see an entire presidential campaign go by with hardly a mention of the massive weight of the national debt. But we're cautiously optimistic that the new political landscape will be an opportunity to finally turn the tide on rampant deficit spending by the federal government with a long-term debt reduction plan.

Charlie Sykes Signs Off

Wed, 12/21/2016 - 05:00

School choice expansion just part of legendary broadcaster's legacy

December 21, 2016

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

If Tuesday morning seemed a little odd, it's because your morning routine was thrown off. Got the kids off to school. Check. Made the morning coffee. Check. Poured the breakfast cereal. Check. Turned on Charlie Sykes. And that's where your morning routine went haywire.

Tuesday was Charlie Sykes Day in Wisconsin, proclaimed by Governor Scott Walker in honor of Sykes' semi-retirement. For 23 years, Charlie Sykes has been a morning staple on WTMJ-AM, enlightening and informing the public about the issues that matter. Too often, Sykes has had to be the corrective to false media narratives, much to the chagrin of the gatekeepers in the state's newspapers and broadcast media.

Lately, Sykes has taken on a different role, confronting the false narratives in the conservative media bubble on the right. With the crash of the mainstream media's credibility, the void on the right has been filled with an alternative media, some of which is unscrupulous in its search for an audience. It will be interesting to see how Sykes in his semi-retirement continues to address the problem at his website RightWisconsin and in his upcoming book.

In 2005, Sykes hosted a number of political bloggers in his studio, including myself. It's interesting to see how many are still involved. Sean Hackbarth is now at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Kevin Binversie is the current acting managing editor of RightWisconsin. Brian Fraley is in public relations and political consulting. Owen Robinson is still writing a column for Conley newspapers. I remember thinking at the time, this isn't too bad, and the subsequent hits to my website gave me a small indication of the power of talk radio.

But it wasn't long after that we saw the real power of talk radio. In 2006, Milwaukee school choice was becoming so popular that the caps on enrollment were about to be a problem. Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, an ally of the teachers unions, refused to allow them to be raised. Doyle and the state legislature were in a stalemate despite even some Democrats demanding that the caps be raised.

Sykes, along with the Community Journal's Mikel Holt and some students from Messmer High School, created a radio spot saying the Doyle was "standing in the schoolhouse door," imagery reminiscent of segregationist days. Here's the text from Democratic consultant Bill Christofferson's blog, who was apoplectic over the radio bit.
AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: Fifty years ago the Supreme Court opened the schoolhouse doors. But the fight hasn't been easy. And the fight isn't over.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: In 1957 a governor named Orval Faubus stood in the schoolhouse door in Little Rock Arkansas to keep nine African American students from getting an education.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: In 1963 a governor named George Wallace stood in the door of the University of Alabama to keep two African American students from going to school.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: Now, in 2006, don't let a governor named Jim Doyle stand in the schoolhouse door again. This time, blocking hundreds of African American students right here in Milwaukee.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: Students who just want a chance.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: A chance to go to the school of their choice.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: If Governor Doyle doesn't lift the cap on school choice, he'll be standing in schoolhouse door, just as surely as Governor Faubus and Governor Wallace.

Governor Doyle. Let Our People Go.

Governor Doyle: Let Our Children IN.

Governor Doyle. Let Our Children Learn.


Liberals screamed. Christofferson even made a ridiculous claim that Sykes and Holt were breaking the law, a claim that was quickly refuted by bloggers on the right. But eventually, embarrassed by the image of denying African American children a chance at a decent education, Doyle relented.

If Sykes' role in raising public awareness of the Milwaukee pension scandal helped elevate a certain politician named Scott Walker in 2002, it was the 2006 battle over school choice that finally cemented the program's place in Milwaukee education. From there, the program could only grow despite Democratic opposition.

A decade later, school choice has been expanded to Racine. Wisconsin has a small statewide school choice program that will only grow. School choice has now been extended to special needs students. Republican legislators are still looking at more ways to give more parents educational options for their children. Democrats are left to making false claims about the program's costs and the program's effectiveness.

If that were the only accomplishment of Sykes' long career, that would have been enough. But even though he is stepping away from the radio microphone, there are many more dragons to slay, more causes to advance, more books to write, and much, much more to say. Sykes may call it retirement, but it sounds like he's just getting to work.

Photo credit: WTMJ

Unhinged Protester Escorted From Electoral College Shouting "This is My America!"

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 17:01

December 20, 2016

As the meeting of the Wisconsin Electoral College went along, protesters took turns standing up, shouting, and being escorted out of the room. When the final vote was announced, one protester went unhinged and started screaming "This is my America!" as she was being escorted out of the room.

Protesters Fail to Derail Trump Election at Wisconsin Electoral College

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 12:59

December 20, 2016

[Madison, Wis...] Although Electoral College votes are usually an uneventful matter of procedure, this year a group of protesters opposed to President-elect Trump showed up to voice their opinion as Republican electors cast their ballots for Trump at the state Capitol on Monday.

Some protesters marched outside, others inside the Capitol rotunda, and others sat in the Joint Finance Committee hearing room, where Wisconsin's 10 electors gathered to make Trump's Wisconsin victory official. As the meeting went along, protesters took turns standing up, shouting, and being escorted out of the room.

While their cause was almost certain to fail, the protesters seemed convinced their actions could stop Trump's victory - the first Republican to win Wisconsin since 1984. One protester screamed that "we're all going to go to war and die because of you people" as she was escorted out of the room:

"We're all going to go to war& die because of you, shame on you,this is your fault" cries a protestor, electors make it official #wipolitics

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) December 19, 2016

Another carried around a sign that invoked the Nazi salute "sieg hell! (hail victory!)" and "welcome to the Fourth Reich," apparently making the claim that the Trump administration will usher in fascism:

"Hail victory! Welcome to the 4th Reich" says a protester's sign using the Nazi-era greeting in the original German. #WIpolitics #wiright

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) December 19, 2016

As the electors made their vote official, some in the audience begged "please say no to Donald are selling us to Russia."

As electors nominate @realDonaldTrump, several protestors stand and ask electors to vote against Trump. "Dont sell us to Russia" #wiright

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) December 19, 2016

In the end, protesters failed to persuade any Wisconsin electors. Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes were all cast for President-elect Trump and running mate Mike Pence.

Here's the stack of #Wisconsin #ElectoralCollege ballots for @realDonaldTrump for President #wipolitics #wiright

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) December 19, 2016

Elector Brad Courtney, who chaired the Electoral College meeting, spoke about the historic nature of the vote after gaveling the meeting to a close:

Brad Courtney, chairman of WI electors, talks to media briefly on historic nature of todays vote, excitement for future #wipolitics #wiright

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) December 19, 2016

As the crowd filed out after the vote was finalized amid a round of chants of "shame!", one person audibly thanked everyone who came from out of state to help (see the Facebook embedded video below, at about 18:00):

"Thank you to all of you who came up from out of state" - one protestor. No clarification on who exactly she's talking about #wipolitics

— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) December 19, 2016

The MacIver Institute live streamed the event on Facebook, capturing the proceedings and the protesters as they stood and shouted throughout the meeting. Watch the video below:

Check out our Facebook photo gallery of the Electoral College and protesters below:

Walker to President-Elect Trump: Return Power to States

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 11:11

MacIver News Service | December 20, 2016

[Madison, Wis...] Governor Scott Walker urged President-elect Donald Trump to return federal power to the states in a letter to the incoming administration on Tuesday.

In the letter, Walker explains what he thinks the Trump administration can do to restore states' control over a list of programs and services. Walker also says he has directed Wisconsin cabinet secretaries to review all programs and federal mandates that cost Wisconsin taxpayers money and limit state control.

"Too often, states have become mere administrative provinces of an all-powerful federal government in Washington," Walker said. "Now is the time to reverse that trend. These requests are the first of many my administration will make as Wisconsin leads the effort to restore balance between state and federal government."

Walker, the new Republican Governor's Association chairman, will be in a position to continue advocating for de-centralizing power from Washington and returning it to the states during Trump's presidency.

Read the full letter below, or download it here.

BREAKING NEWS: Campus Activists Work to Silence Conservative Free Speech, Shut Down UW-Madison YAF Chapter

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 10:36

The petition calls on the UW-Madison administration to "denounce" Young Americans for Freedom as a hate group, revoke its charter, and force students to go through mandatory diversity training

MacIver News Service | December 16, 2016

[Madison, Wis...] Progressive campus activists on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus have started a petition asking the school's administration to "take a hard look at" the conservative Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) group. The petition calls for YAF to be labeled as a hate group, for members of the conservative group to attend forced diversity training, and for the administration to revoke its charter.

While college is typically meant to be a time for young students to expose themselves to new and differing opinions, it seems that the liberals on the UW-Madison campus have had enough and are working to silence conservative free speech.

From the petition:

Members of Y.A.F. have further contributed to making campus a hostile environment by attempting to out and misgender LGBTQIA+ students as well as have individually confronted and made feel unsafe prominent members of student government. We, the undersigned are asking that UW-Madison administration take a hard look at the charter of Young Americans for Freedom, an organization where some of their chapters have been classified as hate groups by the SPLC, and ideally put the involved students through intensive diversity training and have the charter revoked so Y.A.F. is no longer a campus organization that can create a hostile environment on campus.

The petition was launched in part as a protest of the YAF chapter bringing conservative speaker Ben Shapiro to campus several weeks ago.

In an email with the MacIver Institute, Shapiro said, "This is pure thought policing -- and it's a disgusting slur against YAF and me personally. Linking me with the alt-right is absolutely ignorant (statistically speaking, I was their #1 journalistic target last year), and the content of my speech was entirely a rebuke of racial tribalism on all sides. But truth doesn't matter to leftists, who pre-emptively declare their feelings hurt so they can play victim and then hurt others."

Tyler Brandt, Vice President of the Young Americans for Liberty UW-Madison chapter, spoke to MacIver about the left's new attack on free speech.

"Never before have I seen such a clear example of targeted defamation to advance a political agenda," Brandt said. "The baseless claims in combination with hypersensitive rhetoric is a way for the campus left to isolate themselves from any sort of dissenting opinion. They want to have the majority voice on campus and are using any tactic viable to silence conservatives."

Brandt, a junior at UW-Madison, said that protesters have not even sought consistency or accuracy in their claims. When Shapiro held an event on campus, protesters told Shapiro he should be wearing a swastika. Brandt points out that Shapiro is Jewish and, in fact, was named by the Anti-Defamation League to be one of the most discriminated against journalists in the 2016 Presidential Campaign.

"At the end of the day this is just sad," Brandt said. "Not only does it unfairly target conservatives for voicing their opinion on a liberal campus, it represents the lack of tolerance for political discourse. When we have a generation of kids being taught that it is acceptable to mislabel, defame, and shut down dissenting groups we are in for a rough political future."

Readers may remember the MacIver Institute's coverage of the Ben Shapiro speech on campus, notably how prominent radio host Vicki McKenna was harassed and dubbed a white supremacist by campus protestors.

At press time, the petition had 66 supporters.

When asked for comment on the petition, a communications representative in the UW-Madison Chancellor's office wrote that "Young Americans for Freedom is in good standing as a student organization."

Free Speech Shutdown: Conservative UW-Madison Student Reacts to Petition

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 06:00

November 16, 2016

By Tyler Brandt
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

After the Ben Shaprio lecture, the campus left decided that shouting down a speaker wasn't quite enough. To take it even further they are now trying to label the campus conservative group Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) as a hate group.

They fling egregious claims such as their safety being threatened due to the presence of YAF on this campus. They claim that the mere presence of Shapiro on the campus caused them to feel betrayed and unwelcome.

Never before have I seen such a clear example of targeted defamation to advance a political agenda. The baseless claims in combination with hypersensitive rhetoric is a way for the campus left to isolate themselves from any sort of dissenting opinion. They want to have the majority voice on campus and are using any tactic viable to silence conservatives.

It's sad how they don't need to be factual or accurate in the slightest to have a majority voice on campus. This is straight defamation.

I venture to say 100 percent of what is stated in the petition is completely untrue. It is riddled with baseless claims in attempt to disparage YAF. If you need further proof of this, just consider that this is the same group of people who shouted down Shapiro telling him that he should be wearing a Swastika. The glaring irony is that Shapiro is Jewish. In fact, Shapiro was the number one figure on the Anti Defamation League's list of most discriminated people. This group of people is notoriously known for not doing their homework as well as playing fast and loose with the facts. They have the magical ability to make up anything they want and claim it as true.

At the end of the day this is just sad. Not only does it unfairly target conservatives for voicing their opinion on a liberal campus, it represents the lack of tolerance for political discourse. When we have a generation of kids being taught that it is acceptable to mislabel, defame, and shut down dissenting groups we are in for a rough political future.

Standing in line with the tradition of open academic discourse, I really hope that UW-Madison refuses to cave in to these leftist bullies and stands up for free speech. Conservatives already constitute a minority opinion on campus and I genuinely believe a lot of them are afraid to stand up for what they believe. Many students keep their opinions quiet because they know the danger it could have to their image as a student on a traditionally liberal campus. By recognizing YAF and other groups' right to free speech this could set the tempo for a revitalization in conservative opinion on campus.

UW-Madison should recognize that this is no more than a political stunt to shut down conservative voices on campus. If the administration truly believes in the future of UW as fostering academic discourse, they will stand with conservative groups right to free speech. By refusing to accept this childish petition UW-Madison will demonstrate themselves as truly concerned with free speech and open debate. If they were to accept this position it would show how a couple of immature cry babies can coercively shut down differing opinions. It would be a dangerous precedent to set and would also harm the university's image.

The goal of a college education is to foster a diverse environment with a broad range of opinions and ideas. Students should be able to hear opinions they disagree with and rebut appropriately. If one side of a debate is disallowed it leaves an imbalance and will harm the academic excellence that UW-Madison strives to provide. Without hearing altering opinions nobody grows or learns. I hope that UW will stand strong in their tradition of open discourse and allow free speech to prosper for all.

Tyler Brandt is vice president of the UW-Madison chapter of Young Americans for Liberty.