Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Get this year outta here!

There are 8 hours left in 2014, and I've already seen my alma mater kick off Big Ten action in a good way today with a solid win over Penn State. The game was also noteworthy for using a live DJ over the band because of Winter Break (Madison's Nick Nice, and I actually think it worked well, since the Badgers already do NBA-ish stuff anyway), and for being sponsored by....KOCH INDUSTRIES???? C'mon Bucky! As I tweeted out, I'll gladly start a fundraising drive so you DON'T need to have Koch Industries sponsor the game. Do you really need the few thousand dollars that much, Barry?

I digress. It's been a bad year for the state of Wisconsin electorally and fiscally, and much like the rest of the nation, it feels like a lot of the decisions made in 2014 will come back to haunt both the innocent and the guilty in the coming years. But here at the Funhouse, we keep rolling along. We got over 18,000 pageviews in the month before the November election (so my 5 regular readers have now grown to 10, apparently), and enough of you even clicked on the site and its ads that I got a (tiny) paycheck out of this hobby.

I want to let you know that I appreciate those of you who take the time to read this site, as well as those of you that relay these ramblings onto other media. It's still really cool to see references from this blog be made in comments on state media sites or Facebook or Twitter or other places. What I do isn't necessarily major-league journalism or academic paper-worthy, and it certainly isn't my day job, but if a few of you learn some things and it changes the way some others might understand or look into a subject, I'm glad to help.

See you guys in 2015 (a year that's gotta be better than this one, doesn't it?), and I'll try to keep up the info in what seems sure to be a significant budget year in Wisconsin.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Here comes the bill for 2014's WisGOP tax cuts

Governor Scott Walker has been doing a whole lot of talking about property tax bills being lower in much of the state this month. But it’s quite an ironic and cynical pose to strike, because right-wingers like Walker have constantly shot their mouths off about how “there is no such thing as a free lunch” when it comes to tax policy. And the people in Wisconsin are going to find out the hard way in this next state budget cycle, because Walker’s and WisGOP’s election-year giveaways will now come with a big cost in 2015.

It is likely that any property tax decreases on this year’s bills are largely due to a reduction in the tax levy for the state’s technical colleges, which is a result of $406 million being added to those schools earlier this year. On the surface, that’s a good thing, as it moves more of that technical school funding off of the property tax and onto a statewide. Except there are two problems with how Walker and the WisGOP Legislature did this.

1. That $406 million was not funded with a corresponding increase in taxes, and is not being paid for by a one-time dip into surplus funds. In fact, it was part of a larger package of income and corporate tax cuts, which means that this $406 million a year is adding to the state’s budget deficit. Given that the state’s budget deficits are on track to end up above $2 billion, if Walker keeps this property tax relief for tech colleges on the books, he’s going to have to find some added source of revenue (aka tax increase) to make up for the extra $812 million of the next two years, or cut funding by a sizable amount elsewhere.

2.The tech schools won’t be able to use much of this extra funding to actually increase services, give pay raises to employees, or other measures that could help the state’s talent pool. That’s because the extra $406 million came with some new strings attached- most notably a revenue limit that is similar to K-12 school districts.
Replace the current limit that applies to each technical college district's tax levy with a revenue limit that would apply to the sum of the district's tax levy and the property tax relief aid received by the district under Item #11. As under the current levy limit, tax levy would be defined to exclude taxes levied for the purpose of paying principal and interest on valid bonds and notes, other than noncapital notes issued on or after July 2, 2013. Beginning in the 2014-15 school year and for each school year thereafter, specify that no district board could increase its revenue by a percentage that exceeds the district's valuation factor. As under the current levy limit, valuation factor would be defined as a percentage equal to the greater of either: (a) zero percent; or (b) the percentage change in the district's January 1 equalized value due to the aggregate new construction, less improvements removed, in municipalities located in the district, as determined by the Department of Revenue.

Specify that the current law levy limit provisions related to excess levy, referendum approval needed to exceed the limit, and carry forward of any under levy, would be modified to apply to the proposed revenue limits.
So in order to expand offerings of tech college services and expand the labor pool in these jobs (which Walker constantly claims he wants to do), that means even more state funding has to be pumped into the Tech College System to produce these classes and reduce wait lists, since the $406 million can’t be used for anything but property tax relief. And with the state’s budget woes (reiterated with weak revenue numbers that came out last week), good luck finding a place to pay for that.

This week’s interview with Gov Walker also indicates that Scotty seems to be stuck in a tough spot when it comes to funding the state’s transportation needs. Apparently last month’s DOT’s proposal of tax increases and big transfers from the General Fund doesn’t seem to be going over very well.
Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb in November released a budget proposal that called for $751.4 million in new taxes and fees. That included increasing the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon along with a 10-cent a gallon hike on diesel.

Walker said some alternatives could include diverting sales taxes collected on auto purchases to the transportation fund instead of the general fund.

The governor also said his administration will consider paring back projects to help address the shortfall in the transportation fund with some $650 million needed to meet current commitments.
Diverting sales taxes on auto purchases seems to be related to the 2.5% “new car tax” that the DOT proposed, which was mentioned on Page 70 in the PDF of the DOT’s budget request. The new car tax is projected to raise $379 million for the Transportation Fund over the next two years, but if Walker is talking about also moving the regular 5% sales tax into the Transportation Fund, that’s a double-whammy, because it reduces the money available to the General Fund. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the DOT budget request already is counting on $550 million in General Fund money just to balance its books in the next budget, so maybe this is some kind of offset of that transfer of funds. Either way, such a plan would simply be replacing one pot of money for another, and would still cause budget problems for the state and result in higher fees for the average Wisconsinite.

And Gov Walker mentions in that same interview that raising the gas tax, even by the relatively small amount the DOT proposed, might not be in the cards, given how the average Republican elected in Wisconsin hates raising anything that could be construed as a tax (other than reducing the Homestead Credit and other low-income assistance. They’re cool with that). But you’ve got to pay for these projects in some way, so it’s either pay up at the pump, or borrow even more funds in the next budget. Right now, neither of these strategies are necessarily bad, given the plummeting price of gas would make a tax increase relatively invisible and the low yields on the 10-year note in recent months. But it also goes against GOP “fiscal conservative” dogma that believes in striking no-tax, no-debt poses over responsibly paying to maintain and improve infrastructure.

So this upcoming budget is where one-time tax-reduction gimmicks and other one-time Walker/WisGOP deals like Act 10 are now running into the continuing reality of unpaid bills and low economic performance. It will be very intriguing to see what kind of stunt these guys try to pull to patch together a budget that is nowhere near balanced, and with a whole lot of magic bullets already being used up. Especially watch for the old shell game of shifting taxes from one level (the state) down to another, and then playing dumb when things fall apart for local governments and institutions.

Somehow, this tune seems fitting when it comes to Scott Walker's talk on taxes and "cutting government," and how a whole lot of rubes will feel when the cost of these tax cuts becomes apparent.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Ryan/Laffer flim-flam fooling too many Americans

Part of the reason it can be frustrating to be a liberal who relies on numbers and history to draw up conclusions on policy is that a lot of Americans don’t approach things the same way. Instead they rely on the word of unchallenged spinners and agenda-driven talk show hosts to come up with their “facts,” which often fly in the face of reality.

I can think of few better examples than the Bloomberg Politics Poll from earlier this month that asked 1,001 Americans their thoughts and “knowledge” on certain subjects. Inside that poll, 73% of the respondents said the U.S. budget deficit had gotten bigger in the last 6 years, and only 33% of respondents approved of President Obama’s handling of the U.S.’s budget deficit.

Well, the amount of the U.S. budget deficit is not something that is a matter of opinion, as there are real numbers out there that can tell us if the deficit is bigger or smaller under Obama. Let’s take the number from Fiscal Year 2009, which started in October 2008 (yes, that’s still Dubya’s Administration, but it’s 6 years, so let’s humor people) to see what Obama inherited, and compare it with the recently-completed 2014 Fiscal Year, and also see what the projections hold for FY 2015.

U.S. Budget Deficit, FY 2009-2015
FY 2009 $1,415.72 billion
FY 2014 $483.35 billion
FY 2015 (projected) $469 billion

So not only are those 73% in the Bloomberg survey wrong, they are WAY wrong- the deficit has shrunk by nearly 2/3 in the time that Barack Obama has been in office. That’s pretty good progress. So apparently a whole lot of people are relying on false information when it comes to evaluating this president’s performance in relation to fiscal policy. Gee, you think Faux News, AM radio and Sunday talk shows presenting constant and unchallenged crocodile tears about “exploding debt and deficit” might have something to do with this?

The trickle-down beLIEvers that helped to bring on that huge 2009 deficit are going to be in control of Congress for the next two years. In one of the most underreported stories about the fallout from the November midterms when it comes to framing the debate that is sure to follow with upcoming budget bills and the 2016 elections, Congressional GOPs are planning to remove the director of the . And it’s not because Elmendorf has been dishonest or misleading in his analysis, but it’s because the GOP want to hire someone to say “this time, when it comes to tax cuts, it’s different.” Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich called out this flim-flam, known as “dynamic scoring”, in an article over the weekend in the Huffington Post.
It's based on the belief that cutting taxes unleashes economic growth and thereby produces additional government revenue. Supposedly the added revenue more than makes up for what's lost when Congress hands out the tax cuts.

Dynamic scoring would make it easier to enact tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, because the tax cuts wouldn't look as if they increased the budget deficit.

Incoming House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) calls it "reality-based scoring," but it's actually magical scoring -- which is why Elmendorf, as well as all previous CBO directors have rejected it.

Few economic theories have been as thoroughly tested in the real world as supply-side economics, and so notoriously failed.

Ronald Reagan cut the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent and ended up nearly doubling the national debt. His first budget director, David Stockman, later confessed he dealt with embarrassing questions about future deficits with "magic asterisks" in the budgets submitted to Congress. The Congressional Budget Office didn't buy them.
Related to this, here's an excellent post from Paul Krugman on the joke known as the Laffer Curve, which had its 40th anniversary "celebrated" by Heritage Foundation hack Stephen Moore in some newspaper columns this week. Krugman's post shows what bullshit the "lower tax rates raise revenue" argument has been over that time, including this graph which shows that both the Reagan tax cuts of the early 1980s and the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 ended up reducing revenues.
Real revenue growth 36 percent in the 8 years before Reagan, 26 percent under Reagan, 28 percent in the [8] years following.
You can also see the nose-dive in revenues from the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, and combined with Bush's Great Recession, it took us over a decade to get back over the rates of 2000 (and not coincidentally, it's in a time when some of those tax cuts for the rich are getting rolled back).

But Purty Mouth Paul Ryan would tell you this reality of the last 3 decades of trickle-down failing to raise revenue should be ignored, and the only reason the numbers didn’t work out is because the CBO has simply not accounted for it right. It's not time to change the policy, oh no. We just need a new person in charge at the CBO that could claim the numbers would work out, then the rich and corporate will act completely different than they have over the last two generations, and this time, THIS TIME, they’ll stop hoarding and diverting their money and actually hire people and pay them a bigger wage, and revenues will grow! Gosh golly, Pau-LIE is sure it will!

How can these Republicans be so dishonest and willfully ignorant of history when it comes to fiscal policy, to the point that they literally want to change models of math? Well, there are two reasons. The first is that GOPs are the overwhelming beneficiaries from having a bunch of Chuck Todds in the political media who claim that it’s not their job to give numbers and facts, so they can get away with continuing to tell such a lie in public. And the second harkens back to this quote that a “George W. Bush aide” (aka Karl Rove) made to NY Times Magazine's Ron Suskind over a decade ago.
“The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
Oh, we've studied it alright, and it's why Republicans really hate dealing with us in the reality-based community. Because our community that recognizes the deficit has gone down by more than $900 billion during the Obama Recovery, and we're the ones that know that tax cuts for the rich have not and will not raise revenues, no matter how dynamic you make the scoring.

Chuck Todd and other political media exposed as gutless tools

If you wonder why the political establishment and reality often seems to be going in two different directions these days, this exchange from Sunday’s episode of “Meet the Press” might give you a good idea.

MTP host Chuck Todd decided to have a roundtable of comedians for this Holiday week, which isn’t a bad idea on the surface, since it’d likely be more interesting and honest than the white male right-wing politicians that dominate these programs. Daily Kos poster Egberto Willies wrote a great summary of this roundtable, and how the always-awesome Lewis Black exposed Todd as a fraud by asking Chuckles why he doesn’t call BS on his guests.
I have watched you and everybody else where somebody comes on," Lewis Black said. "I don't know how you do it. Because I would be barking at them. Because they sit there and go 'glib glib [blah blah]' and you sit there."

Chuck Todd then interjected. "We all sit there because we all know the first time we bark is the last time we do the show," Chuck Todd said. "... All of a sudden, no one will come on your show."

W. Kamau Bell came in with an interesting point. He said that many times the traditional mainstream media uses the comedian's satire to say what they dare not say. In effect comedians get to bark. He points out an interesting exception.

"The weird thing is that Fox News also gets to bark," W. Kamau Bell said "And I think sometimes the left leaning media is afraid of barking."
Yeah, it is kind of weird how right-wing media gets to hammer and demonize their opponents, but lefties don’t. Almost like there’s a double-standard in honesty and decency or something. (and yes, Charlie also has a great post on that today)

As usual, Esquire Magazine’s Charlie Pierce was on point with his summary of Todd’s embarrassing admission.
The problem with MTP never has been the hosts, although they could be better. The problem is that the format is obsolete, which is demonstrated quite clearly by the panels put together on MSNBC's weekend morning shows -- academics, and state politicians, and, occasionally, ordinary citizens who have latched into a cause, all viewpoints that almost never get aired anywhere else, and undeniably fresh ones. Does my man Chuck Todd really go through life concerned that he will lose the 90,763rd interview with John McCain if he points out that McCain really doesn't know fck all about much of anything? This makes me very sad. Kill this program now before it takes you all down with it and we have to escape down the mountain in a Sno-Cat.
As Pierce mentions, the real story is that Chuck Todd is admitting GETTING ACCESS TRUMPS THE TRUTH when it comes to political “reporting” these days. This is the same Chuck Todd who admitted last year that it wasn’t the media’s job to correct GOP lies and present facts regarding what was (and was not) part of the Affordable Care Act. In Chuck Todd’s world, facts take a back to seat to how much two sides can “sell” their side of an issue. Related to that, calling out liars for their BS and giving the record of the results of failed policies can jeopardize a relationship with politicians, so giving a bystanding public the information they need takes a backseat to cozying up to current and future guests.

We see the same situation here in Wisconsin, where the “journalists” at Journal Communications and other state media see a gravy train of opportunity with Scott Walker’s political career, and have consistently decided to play dumb and let this dishonest dimwit throw his statements out in public without a direct challenge. Don’t believe me? Remember how Scotty ended up blubbering on the campaign trail regarding Medicaid expansion when someone did the rare act of asking a follow-up question?

This lack of understanding of a huge health issue should disqualify any candidate in a society that valued competence, honesty, and respect for the common welfare- you know, stuff that public officials are supposed to have and stuff the media is supposed to hold them to account for. But since our state’s media relies on Walker/ WisGOP ad revenue and sources for their broadcasts and “news” stories, they won’t pull this routine too often, even if it destroys our state’s reputation and economy in the process. After all, these “chucktodd”-style journalists work for their corporate bosses, and not the public.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Reducing the state's talent pool- is that the Fitzwalkerstani plan?

Is draining the state of certain Dem-leaning voters a plan of Governor Scott Walker and the Fitzwalkerstanis in control of the State Legislature? That's a theory of James Rowen's in the Political Environment, and I think it has some legitimacy. Take a look at what James has to say, and then I'll add my own analysis of his theory, and the way these things are progressing (or regressing) in Fitzwalkerstan.
And in Wisconsin, Wrong-Way Walker has cut some poor people's take-home pay by raising their taxes - - breaking a promise to raise no taxes - - and he intends to further degrade those with the least through a mandatory, guilt-assumed drug test before releasing federal food stamp assistance he has also failed to fully expand.

I've said here that Walker is following a southern strategy of sorts to win what Capital Times editor Paul Fanlund brilliantly called the base GOP resentment vote, and I'm not kidding when I say Walker's ultimate goal is to use state power to force the poor - - and others - - to leave the state by any means possible so the GOP can seal control of the state's electoral votes....

Throw in forward-looking millennials, entrepreneurs, families and seniors who can choose to work, vacation or retire to states without government-sponsored hostility towards voting rights, pay equity for women, and health care for low-income residents, particularly females, unions and collective bargaining, public schools, same-sex marriage, transit, environmental protection, Native American culture and clean energy and you can see why people are beginning to call our one-party state Wississippi.
Sadly, this hypothesis makes some sense to me, especially on the higher-end of the spectrum. If you encourage people who value a high quality of life to seek it elsewhere, then look at what remains.

1. A state filled with pissed-off white guys who are too tied down or scared to move on to better places (go look at the reddening of Northeastern Wisconsin to see how this has worked over the last 20 years)

2. Mediocre middle managers and CEOs and other oligarchs with "big fish, small pond" syndrome that fear up-and-comers who might threaten their current place in society (which defines the Scott Walker fan club in the 262. It also describes the weak-mindedness that has driven many young people with talent to go into the cities of Madison and Milwaukee, if not out of the state entirely).

Don't believe there's correlation in voting between places who value education and produce educated, high-income workers, and those that places who don't? Let's compare the 3-year Census estimates for 2011-2013 for both median household income, and the percentage of the population with at least a bachelor's degree. And let's see which states fall into the top 16 for both categories, and the bottom 16, to represent the top third of the country, then cross-check them with whether these states voted Dem or Republican for president in 2012.

Top third for both income and education
Massachusetts - blue
Colorado - blue
Connecticut- blue
New Jersey- blue
Maryland- blue
Virginia- blue
New Hampshire- blue
Washington - blue
Rhode Island- blue
Minnesota- blue
California- blue

Pretty clear correlation there, and Utah's difference in voting can be drawn directly to the Mormonism of the area (it's a standout for red states in many "quality of life" statistics). Also note the one Midwestern state in this group are our friends across the St. Croix- who have been kicking our ass fiscally and economically for the last four years.

Bottom third for both income and education
West Virginia - red
Mississippi- red
Arkansas- red
Louisiana- red
Kentucky- red
Nevada- blue
Alabama- red
Indiana- red
Oklahoma- red
Tennessee- red
South Carolina- red

A whole lot of Confederacy here, with only Nevada as the exception (as sort of the amoral bizarro world of Utah). Also note the one state in this group from the Midwest- Indiana, which is sort of the "red middle finger" into the Midwest when you look at the red-and-blue map from 2012.

So where's Wisconsin in this list? 31st for education and 19th for income. So if you were Scott Walker and you wanted to carry out the dream of your top donors of becoming a "completely red state", it seems like you'd be OK with pushing down incomes and education levels, to make us more like Indiana and Mississippi than Minnesota or Massachusetts.

What does that mean for policy? It means degrading of the quality of life and having racial tension piss off open-minded people, and drive them out of the area to more tolerant places. It also includes de-emphasizing entrepreneurship and high-skill jobs so those types of people choose to move elsewhere (Colorado and Virginia's turns toward blue-voting are great examples of places that have benefitted from this), which keeps the current set of business oligarchs in control. And it also means driving down the wages of those who do stay, so they're more destitute and resentful of "others" instead of demanding a better wage and life for themselves.

This is where I differ with Rowen's declaration that Walker wants the poor to leave Wisconsin - he and WisGOP needs them as a distracting scapegoat for mediocre whites to get angry at for "being lazy takers," and to allow those same whites not to ask questions about their own losing lot in life. And as long as angry, dumb white people continue to fall for it, the Fitzwalkerstanis can continue these regressive policies that throw more money and power to the rich and well-connected. They'd just better hope there aren't a lot of thinkers among the working-class that wake up one day and realize they're being duped and driven down, because I bet they'll be none too happy with how they and the rest of the state has fallen.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Big-picture economy rolling right along

Right before Christmas, we got more indications that the U.S. economy is closing out on a high note for 2014. The Bureau of Economic Analysis revised up the nation's growth in Gross Domestic Product in the 3rd Quarter of 2014, from 3.5% up to 5.0%. Increased amounts of inventories and other business spending raised the number to this high level, and when combined with the 4.6% growth in Q2, it now makes 3% GDP growth for 2014 a real possibility, even with the polar vortex causing a temporary cutback in Q1. It now puts the Obama Recovery back on its track, and you can see the growth picking up over the last two quarters.

This week also gave new indications of good income growth (up 0.4% in November), and a good rise in real disposable income (up 0.5% for that month). These numbers reflect not only increases in money coming in, but also the drop in gas prices causing slight deflation for November. with the decline in price levels over the last couple of months (especially in gasoline). Combine that with the DOW closing over 18,000 for the first time ever (if you're lucky enough to own the right stocks), and it seems like good times nationwide.

Yes, there are still serious inequality issues and a long way to go before it seems like the 1990s anywhere but Wall Street, and let's not lose sight of that. But 2014's economic performance has definitely killed the idea that newly-installed higher capital gains taxes would lead to people to pull out of the stock market. And it also proves that the first year of Obamacare insurance exchanges haven't exactly been the economy-killer that the Tea Party crowd kept telling us it would. In fact, there's strong evidence coming in that the number of people getting insurance through those exchanges for next year is significantly higher than what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicted.

So why would we ever listen to policy advice from the trickle-down dimwits and anti-Obamacare TeaBags that have gotten it all wrong for the last five years?

P.S. Here's UW Professor Menzie Chinn's take on the strong GDP numbers from the Econbrowser blog.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Hidden revenue report shows Wisconsin still in the budget ditch

With the acquittal in the killing of Dontre Hamilton taking up a lot of the interest of the media in Wisconsin’s largest media market, it allowed the Walker Administration to drop the report of the state’s November tax revenues on Monday. And as I figured, the reason they were hiding the numbers are because they're not good, as overall tax collections were down even more in November, and for the fiscal year as a whole. We’ll use the adjusted figures from the Department of Revenue, as they reflect end-of-the-month money that was earned in November, but wasn’t counted until December due to the 30th being over a weekend.

Wisconsin Gen. Fund Tax Revenues, FY 2014 vs FY 2015, YTD
FY2014 $5.258 billion
FY2015 $5.113 billion (-2.8%)

Income taxes have been really off, down 7.3% in November 2014, and 6.3% for the first 5 months of Fiscal Year 2015. That being said, some of that can be explained due to the decrease in withholdings that was done to "show" people the effect of the Koo-Koo tax cuts from 2013, along with other gimmicks. Based on LFB projections, this means that $55 million a month is not being taken out at this time in FY2015 vs FY2014, so we should add that to the income tax totals to get a true idea on how things look (it's also fair to adjust upwards because tax refunds will be less in early 2015 to make up for the lower withholdings. Cool, huh?).

When you add $275 million in income taxes to the total, it turns that number to a positive, but not by much (2.3%). This is well behind the 6.21% increase in income taxes for 2014-15 that the DOR projected in its estimates last month. That report still projected a $132 million shortfall between now and June 30, even with the rosy revenue figures.

Let’s plug in the adjusted year-to-date 2.3% increase in income taxes along with the strong 4.94% increase in sales taxes (this is the one good part of the revenue report), and assume corporate taxes get out of its current 5.9% hole and wind up being even with 2014’s figures. With excise and other taxes largely barely below predictions (I'd estimate them to be $20 million above last year's total, which would be $4.1 million short of the DOR estimates in total), here’s what revenues end up being in comparison with the DOR estimates.

Income tax -$276.0 million
Sales tax +37.2 million
Corporate tax -$41.1 million
Excise and al other taxes -4.1 million
TOTAL SHORTFALL $284.0 million

Add that $284 million shortfall on top of the $132 million we're already short, and that number becomes a $416 million hole that must be made up in the next 6 1/2 months. It also leaves us further in the ditch for the next budget, above the $2 billion in deficits that I estimated at the end of last week.

Can't say we didn't try to warn you when it happened, and when the election campaign was going on. But apparently too many people were paid off to tell the truth, and too many others were too gutless to ask when the bill was going to come due from these Election-based tax cut stunts. And now we're all going to suffer the consequences for this fiscal recklessness.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Kareem and Jon Stewart say it better on cops

Today’s news about a Milwaukee police officer getting off without charges for killing the unarmed Dontre Hamilton in downtown Milwaukee have made an already sad year seem even dimmer. I could say a lot on the recent spate of uprisings against police violence and the right-wing reaction to the sickening murders of two police officers in New York City subject (and did some on Saturday), but others often sum up thoughts better than I can.

One of those is NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s piece in Time today, where he gives his usual deep thoughts into an issue that is more complex than the “protestors hate all police” confrontation that our corporate media wants to simplify it down to. It’s also of note that Kareem was raised in New York City, and has a family background that gives him added insight above many others running their mouths today.
The recent brutal murder of two Brooklyn police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, is a national tragedy that should inspire nationwide mourning. Both my grandfather and father were police officers, so I appreciate what a difficult and dangerous profession law enforcement is. We need to value and celebrate the many officers dedicated to protecting the public and nourishing our justice system. It’s a job most of us don’t have the courage to do.

At the same time, however, we need to understand that their deaths are in no way related to the massive protests against systemic abuses of the justice system as symbolized by the recent deaths—also national tragedies—of Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, and Michael Brown. Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the suicidal killer, wasn’t an impassioned activist expressing political frustration, he was a troubled man who had shot his girlfriend earlier that same day. He even Instagrammed warnings of his violent intentions. None of this is the behavior of a sane man or rational activist. The protests are no more to blame for his actions than The Catcher in the Rye was for the murder of John Lennon or the movie Taxi Driver for the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. Crazy has its own twisted logic and it is in no way related to the rational cause-and-effect world the rest of us attempt to create.

Those who are trying to connect the murders of the officers with the thousands of articulate and peaceful protestors across America are being deliberately misleading in a cynical and selfish effort to turn public sentiment against the protestors. This is the same strategy used when trying to lump in the violence and looting with the legitimate protestors, who have disavowed that behavior. They hope to misdirect public attention and emotion in order to stop the protests and the progressive changes that have already resulted. Shaming and blaming is a lot easier than addressing legitimate claims….

In a Dec. 21, 2014 article about the shooting, the Los Angeles Times referred to the New York City protests as “anti-police marches,” which is grossly inaccurate and illustrates the problem of perception the protestors are battling. The marches are meant to raise awareness of double standards, lack of adequate police candidate screening, and insufficient training that have resulted in unnecessary killings. Police are not under attack, institutionalized racism is. Trying to remove sexually abusive priests is not an attack on Catholicism, nor is removing ineffective teachers an attack on education. Bad apples, bad training, and bad officials who blindly protect them, are the enemy. And any institution worth saving should want to eliminate them, too.
This last part sticks with me the most. I’m all for union protections and solidarity with your fellow worker, but there needs to be an understanding that one person doing injury to the profession is doing injury to all in the profession. And these bad cops have made all cops (including the vast majority of them that do their jobs with honor and dignity) into people now viewed with suspicion and mistrust by a sizable amount of the public.

Instead of standing behind the blue line, they need to be speaking out and removing these cancers that cannot handle the responsibilities of the job of being a law enforcement officer, and urging their union not to reflexively support these bad cops. Everyday officers certainly shouldn’t be cool with letting cynical opportunists fan the flames of anger higher with outlandish public statements about how Mayor DeBlasio or President Obama have “blood on their hands.” Those irresponsible (and wrong) statements will only lead to more good cops being put in danger, which I have a hard time believing is something in the best interests of police officers.

Lastly, I’ll leave with an excellent quote given out by another New Yorker, and a rare member of the media who still believes in getting to the heart of a story over providing two sides of spin. Remarkably, the comment was made a couple of weeks prior to this weekend.

Why are comedians and basketball players the ones saying the most sensible things these days? Where is similar level-headedness, leadership, honesty from most of “legitimate” our media figures? Does money and ratings trump all resemblance of decency and to avoid making sour society even angrier and more divided than it already is? 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Yes, we should make people uncomfortable with what's going on

I see some people who are sympathetic to the "Black Lives Matter" movement against police brutality are still upset by any outward disruption that puts these protests in front of them. A good example is the whining from many white people about the dozens of people arrested after blocking I-43 northbound in Milwaukee last night to complain about the lack of charges against officers who killed the unarmed Dontre Hamilton in April. Another example include the numerous die-ins and other protests that took place at shopping malls on the last Saturday before Christmas, including a huge one that shut down the Mall of America in Minnesota for a spell. This no doubt annoyed shoppers who were trying to complete their lists, and maybe angered a few that didn't want to deal with the issue.

But there's a part of me that kinda likes that these people are made uncomfortable. People need to see and feel the reality in front of them, because the inability to empathize to others is one of this country's biggest failures today, and if these people end up having to think about the issue and go through a bit of annoyance in the process, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Once you're directly affected and forced to have some kind of skin in the game, no matter how fleeting, it can keep those issues aware in your mind, and makes discussion and action more likely.

And to those with hurt fee-fees from having to deal with these issues, and are unhappy about their day-to-day being disrupted? I note this passage from Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", in April 1963.
...I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. ...

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible "devil."

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the "do nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as "rabble rousers" and "outside agitators" those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies--a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.
I fear that if the bad cops are not brought to justice, and that the overwhelming advantages to those connected to power continue, then some people will feel they have no choice but to be destructive as opposed to work toward the hope of improving the situation through legal means. This happened in New York City today, where a homicidal maniac used the lack of prosecution in the death of unarmed Eric Garner as a reason to go over the edge, and he executed two innocent police officers in their squad cars today.

The lack of trust in our legal system and our law enforcement officers is a problem for ALL OF US, and it endangers the many good cops that work within their community and do the right thing in their very tough circumstances. Protecting the bad guys (be they in law enforcement, on Wall Street, or in our politics) is leading to a situation that is intolerable for many of us, and not reversing this trend will lead to some people to decide to do bad things that go well beyond a peaceful protest. I hope that we can de-escalate this tinderbox of anger and mistrust from igniting into something worse, but I fear too many in power and too many in our media benefit from that division for them to do the right thing, and too many white moderates that are willing to condone any response from those in power (no matter how destructive or regressive) because they don't want to face the serious issues that we must confront and try to solve.

No, the Wisconsin deficit isn't shrinking

We got another look at the State of Wisconsin's fiscal picture in the last couple of days, but I think many are confused over the different numbers being thrown around.

When you look at the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s cost-to-continue estimates, which were released on Thursday, they are based on no new laws or programs being changed, which means this is the basic “keep the lights on” estimate.
Revenues. The attached condition statement incorporates the administration's estimates included in its November 20, 2014, report. This includes both the tax collection and departmental revenue estimates contained in the November 20 report. This [LFB] office will prepare its tax collection estimates for 2014-15 and 2015-17 in January, 2015.

Net Appropriations. Net appropriation amounts incorporate: the 2014-15 adjusted base; 2015-17 standard budget adjustments; commitments enacted in the current legislative session; and amounts to reflect caseload and population changes. Included in the net appropriation figures are compensation reserve and lapse amounts contained in the November 20 report.

Gross Balances. Based upon the assumptions shown above, the condition statement reflects that the gross ending balance for the 2015-17 biennium would be -$824 million.
The breakdown of the figures shows the following:

Cost-to-continue Revenues vs expenses
FY 2015-16 -$619 million
FY 2016-17 -$205 million
TOTAL DEFICITS $824 million

At first glance, this seems to be, if anything, an improvement, as last month the Walker Administration estimated there would be a total deficit of $2.2 billion for the next budget. But there are a whole lot of added details in that DOA document that make the larger figure the one more likely to have to be closed.

For example, I’ll point to two items in the Department of Transportation’s budget request that give examples as to why the real deficit is much bigger. These proposals were not included in the cost-to-continue paper, but will cause cuts in the DOT’s funding if they’re not carried out.

In that budget request, along with the $751 million in proposed added taxes and fees that would go straight into the Transportation Fund, there are two sizable new uses of General Fund money that would go into that fund. First, $225.6 million in General Fund money was projected to be provided as state aids to local communities to help them operate their transit systems, as opposed to the Transportation Fund money that pays for these aids today. So you either add this amount to the cost-to-continue deficit, or you have $225 millon + that is in a new deficit for the Transportation Fund. The same goes for a proposed $225.2 million in extra transfers from the General Fund for the next budget. This higher transfer is not accounted for in the cost-to-continue deficit, so either add that number to the Gen Fund deficit, or find $225 million more to cut at the DOT.

So if we assume that those proposals are adopted, and that this $450.8 million will be used to fund DOT items, we now have $1.27 billion to make up for. Now add in the fact that the LFB’s cost-to-continue estimates include the Department of Revenue’s projections for taxes for the next budget. As I’ve mentioned in the past, these assumptions seem quite rosy, as current-year revenues look to be on pace to fall short of the DOR’s figures for Fiscal Year 2015. (Interestingly, the November revenues numbers were supposed to be out from the DOR yesterday, and they are nowhere to be found. I'm guessing they wouldn't be doing that if the news was good).

The LFB’s cost-to-continue paper assumed that this fiscal year’s $132 million deficit would be made up through extra lapses and other means, but if revenues fall short, it’ll take a whole lot more money to balance the budget over the next 6 months. A revenue shortfall for FY 2014-15 would be a chain-reaction that would drive the deficit for the next budget higher, because the state would start off from a lower base, and need to make up even more revenues to close the gap not only for that year, but in the following budget. For example, let’s assume Wisconsin only grows revenues by 2.5% for the 2014-15 fiscal year, and then the 2015-17 budget has the same percentage increases in revenue growth as projected by the DOR. Here’s what you get.

If 2.5% revenue increase for 2014-15
2014-15 revenue shortfall $346.5 million
2015-16 revenue shortfall $355.8 million
2016-17 revenue shortfall $370.0 million

2014-15 deficit $478.6 million
2015-16 deficit $974.8 million
2016-17 deficit- additional $575 million

Now add back the $450 million in funding that would have to be found for the Transportation Fund uses of General Fund money that I mentioned earlier, and the deficit will be back near $2.5 billion.

Remember, this is merely to keep things running as is- without adding in the effects of inflation on costs, or any additional state services beyond what we have, or more aids to local government, or using those aids to reduce roperty taxes. This means you shouldn’t count on a repeat of the $406 million in “property tax relief” that Gov Walker keeps touting, because that gimmick has not been paid for, and makes up $812 million of the deficit in the coming budget.

So don’t be fooled by any spin about the budget picture “improving” in Wisconsin after the release of the Cost-to-Continue document. There are already a laundry list of unmet needs that exist due to the first four years of the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, and a whole lot of bills that need to be paid but aren’t accounted for. Combine that with the likelihood that state revenues will come in below the already-slumping estimates, and you have a formula for a budget crisis that goes far beyond when Scott Walker claimed the state was “broke” in 2011. Forget tax cuts, we’ll be lucky to keep the lights on.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

One great jobs report, and one bad track record

I found it interesting to see that the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development put out their monthly jobs release in the morning, as opposed to their typical release time in the early afternoon. As you’d expect from the tactic, those early-release numbers were great, with 16,500 seasonally-adjusted private sector jobs added in November, and October was revised up by another 6,900 jobs. These are blowout numbers that go well beyond the expected increases of around 6,000 that the state should have in a November that added 321,000 jobs nationwide.

We’ve had false starts like this before (we gained more than 10,000 private sector jobs in October 2013 and over 20,000 for the last 3 months of that year, and then quickly fell back to mediocrity) but the gains are still impressive. 35,500 new jobs over the last three months makes up for the bad jobs numbers that we suffered through in the first 2/3rds of 2014, and now bumps up job growth to 45,000 for 2014. If those numbers hold, it would be the best job growth the state has seen in the four years Scott Walker has been in office, and the Walker jobs gap is back below 56,000 jobs- which is still 10,000 more than it was at the start of this year, but certainly the last three months have narrowed the gap.

However, I also figured there was a reason the monthly jobs numbers were dropped early in the day by Walker’s Department of Workforce Development. It was because the “gold standard’ Quarterly Census on Wages and Employment came out at 9am, and it wasn’t so hot. This more complete survey covers the June 2013-June 2014 time period, and it shows Wisconsin to be 32nd in the nation for private sector job growth, at 1.47% (just over 35,000 jobs). Even worse, after being 5th in the Midwest for private sector job growth in the March QCEW, Wisconsin has now dropped back into last place among our neighbors for job growth in this survey.

QCEW private sector job growth, Jun 2013- Jun 2014
Mich +2.66%
Ind. +1.87%
Iowa +1.78%
Ill. +1.65%
Minn +1.63%
Ohio +1.56%
Wis. +1.47%

On the positive side, this 1.47% job growth is above the 1.18% job growth that we had this time last year, and it's been a slow but steady increase in the rate of growth over the last year. But job growth should be picking up when 2014 is a year when the country is adding the most jobs in the last 15 years (aka "THANKS OBAMA!"), and Wisconsin's current rate of growth is still below the 1.9% year-over-year growth that the state was at when Act 10 passed the Wisconsin Legislature in March 2011. In addition, we’re nearly 5,000 jobs below the 39,891 jobs that we had added in the year ending June 2011, which was the last month before Scott Walker’s and WisGOP’s first austerity budget went into law.

The QCEW report also show Wisconsin to be in the bottom half of U.S. when it comes to private sector wage growth (26th) and in the average weekly private sector wage (34th). That might explain why Gov Walker was warning Senate Republicans yesterday about low revenues that may hamper the state’s budgets over the next 2½ years, even with the jobs numbers in October and November being as strong as they were. By the way, only 2 states in the Midwest had a lower average weekly wage in the private sector than Wisconsin – Indiana (37th) and Iowa (41st), - and yes, both are (right to)work for less states.

And before you start talking up how great things seem in Michigan after they passed (right to) work for less in late 2012, keep in mind that the 93,600 gain they had in private sector jobs is the lowest number of jobs gained in Michigan from June-June in four years. Michigan is still more than 85,000 jobs below where they were in 2006 (!), and is so lacking in tax revenues and services that the state is now planning to ask voters to raise the sales tax by 1% next year and increase the gas tax just to make up for shortfalls in road funding.

So to review from today’s releases.

·Wisconsin had great jobs numbers for October and November, and is finally keeping up with much of the rest of the nation when it comes to the Obama Jobs Recovery for 2014.

·The QCEW shows Wisconsin is still in a massive, underperforming hole when June 2013-June 2014 is considered, and was in last place for private sector job growth from the start of Scott Walker’s tenure through the end of June 2014.

·(Right-to) work for less states in the Midwest may be adding jobs, but their wages are badly lagging, and Michigan’s job growth actually slowed down in the first full year that it turned to (right-to) work for less. Given Wisconsin’s already low wages, this policy doesn’t seem like a solution for our problems in adding jobs.

Now we get to see how our major jobs increase from November measures up to the rest of the nation, and if we’re even further in the budget hole due to bad revenues. Both of those sets of information should be out tomorrow.

PS- Chris Walker at Political Heat notes that the QCEW cements Wisconsin in last place for job growth over the 3 years that Scott Walker's budgets have been in effect. It goes into these numbers in more detail if you wish to check it out.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Large batches of Wisconsin jobs, budget data comnig out

Tomorrow kicks off two days of huge amounts of Wisconsin economic data. First of all, we should see the release of the "gold standard" Quarterly Census on Employment Wages for the June 2013-June 2014 time period, and the Walker Administration has indicated that it'll show the state added just over 35,000 private sector jobs in this time period. If that number holds up, it would be an increase of 1.47%, which is above the 1.2% and 1.3% figures we've generally seen for the year prior, but it's still well below the 1.9% we had in March 2011 (when Act 10 was passed by the State Legislature) and 1.7% in June 2011 (when Scott Walker's first budget took effect.

We also get to see how Wisconsin matches up with the rest of the nation and its Midwestern brethren. We've consistently been between 30th and 40th since the policies of the Age of Fitzwalkerstan started taking effect, and given that US jobs numbers began to pick up with consistency in the Spring of 2014 (and will be included in this report), I see no reason to think that trend won't continue. The other question is to see if Wisconsin is out of the cellar for the first 3 1/2 years of the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, or not.

Later in the afternoon, we should see the release of the state's jobs numbers for November. With the US having that blowout increase of 321,000 jobs for November, this means that anything less than 6,800 jobs in Wisconsin means that the state falls further behind, jacking up the Walker jobs gap past the 72,500 that it was already at in October.

Then on Friday, two more reports are scheduled to drop. The first is the state-by-state jobs and unemployment figures, where we get to compare Wisconsin's situation with the rest of the country, and it might inspire me to take another look at how the Midwest's "(right to) work for less" states do against the ones that don't have those provisions. In addition, the third Friday of the month is usually when the monthly revenue figures for the State of Wisconsin come out. With the state staring at budget deficits due to revenue shortfalls for both this fiscal year, and the next budget, this report takes on some extra interest. And WKOW's Greg Neumann dropped this little bit of news today from Gov Walker's Capitol photo op with Senate Republicans, which gives a bit of a clue as to what to expect from the report from the Department of Revenue.

So keep your eyes and ears open for the next 48 hours, as there will likely be plenty of lame attempts to distract from the reality on the ground, especially if the jobs and revenue numbers disappoint. Bad reports would sure explain all of Walker's tweets today about lower property tax bills, which are the result of giving $406 million in extra funding to technical colleges solely to cut the levies associated with those institutions. What Walker isn't telling people is that this move (listed as item 13 on this list from the LFB) was made without offsetting the extra funding in taxes (driving up the deficit as a result). Bad budget info would expose this as the cynical gimmick that it likely is.

School vouchers- driving up city taxes, driving down results

It’s time for Wisconsinites to receive and pay their property tax bills, and with that comes a lot of spinning and about the trends in the bills and how it affects the “hard-pressed, middle-class Wisconsin taxpayer.” For example, our Guv is plastering the Twittersphere with examples of the one-time drop in property taxes that go toward tech schools as a result of legislation from last winter (I note that Gov Walker doesn’t mention the $400 million-a-year budget hole that this move has caused).

Another person that’s taking note of his property tax bill is Milwaukeean Dom Noth, who’s back with another excellent, in-depth article describing how a different Scott Walker/WisGOP educational funding policy - greatly expanding funding for voucher schools at the expense of public schools – is a big reason behind higher property taxes for 2014 in the state’s largest city. Noth describes how politicians at the Capitol hide the true tax-jacking that goes on due to voucher schools, as those costs are folded into the costs listed under Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).
Looking at the language and largest graphs within the bill, the home owner thinks the levy cost for MPS has grown 1%. It actually dropped 0.6% in one year. What actually has grown by 8.5% is the levy for a hidden school district, the second largest school district in the state, the voucher program. And since Madison makes sure those costs can be fobbed off on MPS, which never sees a dime, it is MPS that looks poorly run and overly expensive, not the voucher school program, known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).

MPCP is actually the sixth unit of local government on a tax bill that only reports five units. About 20% of what is blamed on the MPS it never sees, thanks to bureaucratic accounting finesse in Madison.

If this was about truth it would be the city of Milwaukee that would lead the cost figures in the levy parade and MPS would drop to second place. The voucher school district known as Milwaukee Parental Choice Program would be tucked into any pie graph just behind Milwaukee County and ahead of the MMSD and MATC. Nor has the state added a single dime in a year to the High Poverty Offset Aid used to sell the voucher program in Milwaukee though state tax credits and offsets have reduced the MPS portion of the so-called MPS levy…

To put it another way that would spell it out for the bean counters, the city’s tax levy has gone up a modest 1.2% since 2013 (and the city has been a responsible steward of the public money) but the MPS, listed as rising 1% in costs, actually dropped by .06%. It was the MPCP that actually went up 8.5%, so while MPS is spending less this year it looks like it is spending more.
And the voucher backers aren’t done with their attempts to deceive the public on the costs their cronyist giveaway cause for the average citizen. Take a look at this garbage from School Choice Wisconsin President Jim Bender, who felt a need to send out a press release in light of the fact that the vast majority of voucher students were already attending private school before the student got his/her voucher. In the process, Bender inadvertently gives away how getting their hands on taxpayer dollars adds a source of funding and flexibility for these (mostly-religious) private schools.
School Choice Wisconsin interviewed all the WPCP schools and found some interesting enrollment trends not mentioned in the [Department of Public Instruction’s’] press release. First, 99% of the students that were previously attending the private school before receiving a voucher were attending on a scholarship. As only low-income students qualify for the WPCP, this is not surprising.

Second,the private schools were able to offer their freed-­‐up scholarship dollars to public school students who had applied for a voucher, but were not lucky enough to be drawn in the lottery. In the end, 237 students that were attending public schools last year at taxpayer expense are now attending private school on a scholarship. Those students joined the 101 public school students who were selected through the lottery for a voucher.
In other words, they are using the voucher money (which comes from taxpayers throughout the state) to free up scholarship money that allows them to steal students from public schools. At the same time, the vouchers lead to less funding for the public schools, and requires them to rely more on property taxes to pay for the lost state aid. How is that not a “separate-but-equal” system of education where one type of school gets advantages that other types of schools do not? And notice Bender doesn’t talk about raising teacher pay or increasing the quality of the school, because the voucher program is only about grabbing more resources for the school and the church that often operates it. What a total scam!

But wait, there’s more from ol’ Jimmy, as he tries the zombie lie of “voucher schools cost less.”
For taxpayers, this means that, over time, those students that move from public schools to scholarships or vouchers in private schools cost less. These fiscal trends are certainly complicated, but the impact of this program is very straightforward – it connects students and parents with quality schools at a lower cost.
One problem with that argument. WE DON’T KNOW IF IT COSTS LESS TO EDUCATE A KID IN A VOUCHER SCHOOL. Bender himself mentioned above that donations and scholarships and other sources of funding go into these voucher schools beyond just taxpayer dollars, so unless we have all those costs included, we really can’t make the apples-to-apples comparison with public schools on whether they truly are “lower cost.” It could just as easily be true that these voucher schools are more top-heavy with administrative salaries and with higher overall costs per student than public schools, but since the voucher schools won’t open the books on ALL of their sources of funding, we don’t have the ability to make that comparison.

What we can do is to look at the results that have come out of these schools in Milwaukee after 25 years of their voucher program being in effect, and they aren’t too good. For example, we know that voucher schools scored lower than MPS students on standardized tests in the last school year, and that sketchy schools are still being allowed to grab $4.6 million this year in taxpayer funding despite having only 2% of its students rank as “proficient” in reading. If Scott Walker, the WisGOP Legislature and the voucher backers that funded their campaigns (and who ran ads that were about any topic BUT education) truly cared about raising the quality of education in Wisconsin, they’d cut these schools off from state aid, much like how they might try to do with certain public schools within MPS and other urban districts. If these people were truly interesting in reforming education, they would immediately reduce funding for voucher schools with 2% proficiency and/or demand high standards from the schools that are allowed to stay in the voucher program.

But the WisGOPs and the voucher lobbyists aren’t asking for that, are they? Nope, they’re about the MONEY AND POWER, and they don’t care what happens to Milwaukee’s property taxpayers or improving the state’s quality of teaching or its labor pool, or pretty much anything else that will suffer as a result of their greed

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Today's audit question- how do you keep Wisconsinites from their benefits?

Another day, another audit from the Legislative Audit Bureau. This one was organized after complaints that Wisconsinites were facing barriers in filing unemployment claims with the state’s Department of Workforce Development. Turns out that they had good reason to complain, as a large amount of people looking to contact DWD by phone in order to receive their benefits weren’t able to get through, and found themselves kicked out of the state’s automated phone system.
DWD indicated that it typically limited the size of the queues in order to minimize wait times. If more calls were received than available spots in a queue, some calls were blocked from entering the queue, and the individuals were instructed to call again later. In FY 2013-14, almost 1.7 million calls to the call centers, or 60.2 percent of the total, were blocked because a queue was full.

Call volumes were high from December 2013 through January 2014, compared to other times in FY 2013-14. During that two-month period, individuals made an average of 93,000 calls per week to the telephone line for initial claims. During other months in the fiscal year, individuals made an average of less than 10,000 calls per week to that telephone line.

The percentage of telephone calls blocked because a queue was full varied considerably during certain months in FY 2013-14, as shown in Figure 1. From December 2013 through January 2014, more than 80.0 percent of the 836,700 calls to the telephone line for initial claims were blocked. In contrast, less than 10.0 percent of the 155,500 calls from February through June 2014 were blocked.
December and January are typically the highest months for unemployment claims in Wisconsin, due to colder weather ending seasonal work and holiday-related layoffs, but having more than 4 out of 5 calls not even get through is absurd. And the report goes on to note that the Fiscal Year 2013-14 had a much higher rate of rejection than the two years before it, despite a larger amount of unemployment claims being reported in those prior years.

Total initial claims filed, Wisconsin
FY 2011-12 945,400
FY 2012-13 792,300
FY 2013-14 520,100

“Kickout” rate, DWD unemployment benefits
FY 2011-12 43.5%
FY 2012-13 41.8%
FY 2013-14 60.2%

It sure makes you wonder if some of that 34.4% drop in initial claims for 2013-14 might be related to these phone issues, though the Obama Jobs Recovery picking up steam also played a role in bringing those numbers down. Quite convenient that the drop happened ahead of the 2014 elections, didn’t it? (As Fox News would say, “I’m just throwing it out there!”)

It is mentioned in the audit that DWD has taken action in recent months to increase the ability to file unemployment claims online and to allow individuals to obtain their benefits information, and that more temporary employees are to be hired for the peak benefit season that occurs this time of the year. And since those changes started over the last two months, there has been a noticeable early uptick in the number of new unemployment claims filed in the state (as pointed out in this post from last week).

But the lack of capacity that led to all these kickouts on the DWD phone line calls to mind another LAB report from last week, where they reported the Government Accountability Board could not carry out its duties due to understaffing and a related lack of resources. As State Sen. (and Joint Legislative Audit Committee member) Kathleen Vinehout notes, this seems to be a trend in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, where an agency’s ability to do its job often goes by the wayside as a result of budget-cutting and “efficiency” moves.
Problems must be corrected. The agency response to the audit sets out details on how to do this. Some agency failures happened before 2011. Clearly tight budgets and tough workloads are not the only explanation.

But lawmakers can’t starve the agency, load it with additional work, and then complain staff isn’t doing the job fast enough.

If Wisconsin wants clean elections, transparent campaigns and lobbying and ethics among elected officials, the state must provide the GAB with adequate resources to do the job.
It is instructive to note that the Republican chairs of the Audit Committee (Sen. Rob Cowles and Rep. Samantha Kerkman) put out a release today that was supportive of the DWD’s attempts to improve its services and are taking a wait-and-see approach on how they pan out. This is in marked contrast to the WisGOP/right-wing media machine’s drumbeat to denigrate and blow up the GAB, and stack it with more GOP hacks to allow “decisions to be made.” Funny how the remedy tends to change depending on whether or not the GOP is in charge of the agency, isn’t it?

It proves yet again that Republicans think the biggest role of government is not to protect the common good, but instead to use the resources of government to grab more money for themselves and their campaign contributors, and to be utilized government as a mechanism to grab more power and control.

Monday, December 15, 2014

WisGOP doesn't want to fix GAB flaws- they want to rig it

In Wisconsin’s right-wing world, Friday’s release of the Legislative Audit Bureau’s report on the state’s Government Accountability Board is the documentation they need to defang and deform reform the agency, amid right-wing claims the agency is not doing its job in running elections fairly. And to a point, I agree, the GAB isn’t doing a good enough job. But the reasons why I think that probably aren’t the same as the righties- because the audit on GAB clearly shows it to be an underfunded overseer of elections and campaigns, and it needs more resources and staffing to carry out its job.

Among other problems, the LAB notes that the GAB wasn’t following up on violations on campaign finance disclosures and other related election laws.
In overseeing campaign finance, lobbying, and code of ethics laws, statutes allow GAB to assess penalties for various violations. In February 2008, GAB approved a schedule indicating the penalties staff are to assess for various statutory violations, including campaign finance reports that were filed late. We found that staff developed a manual that specified penalty amounts that differed from those in GAB’s schedule. GAB did not approve this manual. From FY 2010-11 through FY 2012-13, staff did not assess penalties for 655 of 674 reports that were late and should have resulted in penalties under the staff’s manual. All 19 penalties that staff did assess were for amounts inconsistent with GAB’s penalty schedule and the staff’s manual.

Staff indicated that they focused on obtaining compliance with statutory requirements, rather than assessing penalties for statutory violations. Staff were unable to provide us with complete information on penalties assessed for violations of campaign contribution limits, or on the number of penalties assessed for violations of lobbying laws, the amounts assessed, or why penalties were sometimes not assessed or were waived even though violations had occurred.

Staff did not regularly update GAB with complete information on efforts they took to enforce campaign finance, lobbying, and code of ethics laws. For example, staff did not regularly update GAB on the extent to which they assessed penalties for violations of these laws, the amounts assessed, and the amounts paid. However, staff did regularly update GAB on the extent to which state officials and employees did not file statements of economic interests on time.
And even in the handful of cases where organizations and candidates were penalized for breaking these rules, the amount of the fine was miniscule- $2,775 total for the 19 violations that occurred between 2010 and 2012. The GAB's toothless enforcement and small amount of fines makes it a worthwhile gamble to flout campaign finance limits and hide donation information, since most violations apparently will not be dealt with, and any prosecution and fines that do take place usually won’t happen until well after the elections (kind of like how the John Doe investigation has been stalled by legal maneuvers). If that’s the way things are being run, why not cheat and hide the sources of money from the GAB and the public?

In addition, the LAB says 119 campaign finance reports were missing when they should have been required, and added that GAB staff would often stop requesting information if a candidate or entity wouldn’t respond, especially if that candidate didn’t win. With that in mind, what’s stopping a shadowy group from dropping a ton of money on ads or other election-related activities at a key moment, and then slinking away after the election with no trail of who these people are and why they would be interested in these elections. Which is exactly what the John Doe targets and related right-wing oligarchs want to do- to spend as much money as they want and conceal the source of those funds, so the people don’t know who’s pulling the puppet strings.

The GAB was apparently aware of these problems, and asked for funding to hire enough staff to handle these concerns. But Governor Scott Walker and the WisGOP Legislature didn’t feel like providing the resources that GAB said they needed to adequately do their job. Makes you wonder why, doesn’t it? As LAB’s report notes
GAB has included requests for additional staff in each of its last three biennial budget requests. In its 2011-13 Biennial Budget Request, it requested to convert 21.00 federally funded project positions into permanent GPR-funded positions, but this request was not included in the Governor’s Biennial Budget Proposal. In its 2013-15 Biennial Budget Request, GAB requested six new GPR-funded positions for its Elections Division, but this request was not included in the Governor’s Biennial Budget Proposal. In its 2015-17 Biennial Budget Request, GAB requested to convert 22.0 federally funded project positions into permanent federally funded positions, the costs of which GAB’s staff indicated can be covered by existing federal revenue until FY 2016-17. Thereafter, another funding source would need to be identified to fund these positions. The Biennial Budget Request indicates that the loss of these 22.0 positions would impair the ability of GAB’s staff to fulfill certain statutorily required duties, such as overseeing election administration. For example, all staff who train local election officials are currently in federally funded project positions.
You can bet the real WisGOP plan is to defund GAB even further, to allow even more sketchiness to slip by, and allow for more rigging of our campaign finance system in favor of the rich and powerful. It’ll work even better if the GOP is able to “pack” the GAB with hacks who will side with pro-Republican interests, to destroy any semblance of independence and upholding of ethics that may exist within the GAB.

In contrast to the major flaws in enforcing campaign finance and ethics rules, Wisconsin’s elections seemed to run fairly smoothly. From GAB’s own report (see Page 60 of the packet for this week’s meeting), it seems like the biggest problems were not that voting requirements were ignored on Election Day (unlike what WisGOP and AM radio will tell you), but instead that a small minority of poll workers are being too restrictive when it comes to letting people vote. This is particularly true of people who had already registered ahead of November 4.
•There were several reports of inspectors requiring registered voters to provide proof of residence, and requiring registering voters to produce multiple proof of residence documents. (A municipal clerk stated that a TV station in the Brown County area was reporting that more than one type of proof of residence was required, which may explain the occurrences in that area, but does not explain the reports of this activity in other parts of the state.)

• There was only one confirmed report of inspectors requiring photo ID. The clerk confirmed she had instructed her inspectors to do this because she was not aware that the photo ID requirement was not in effect for the General Election. (#headdesk)

•After the polls closed on Election Night, the City of Stoughton Clerk and Election Inspectors reviewed the voting equipment results tapes and noticed there were only 16 votes recorded for the City of Stoughton “Move to Amend” advisory referendum. The City Clerk immediately contacted the Dane County Clerk’s office and G.A.B. Following G.A.B. staff’s recommendation, a hand count of the votes cast for the referendum was conducted at the Municipal Board of Canvassers (MBOC) meeting on Monday, November 10, 2014. The results of the hand count revealed that the referendum passed 4,440 to 992, and the referendum results were certified by the City of Stoughton municipal board of canvassers.

Further investigation exposed a coding error on the ballots for the municipal referendum. After reviewing the Public Test tapes and test deck after the election, it was found that the coding problem was not caught at the time of the Public Test. Measures have been put into place to help prevent this from happening again in the future.
What might be more concerning is the fact that several types of election equipment were not audited for several years after the election had taken place (noted on pages 49-51 of the audit’s PDF), meaning the horse was already out of the barn if there was any chicanery going on that allowed vote totals to be misreported. The audit says that the error rates for election equipment were within the acceptable federal standard, but the fact that these audits weren’t taking place until well after elections and the “winner” had taken office is worrysome- and a big reason why seems to be underfunding of the GAB.

Likewise, our local municipalities also seem to be underfunded when it comes to properly running elections. Look at this passage in the LAB’s audit.
In December 2013, GAB’s staff surveyed county clerks and received responses pertaining to1,231 municipalities, including 649 municipalities that reported using electronic voting equipment. County clerks reported that 325 of the 649 municipalities (50.1 percent) used equipment at least ten years old, and that 260 municipalities (40.1 percent) used equipment that had been approved by the former State Elections Board under 1990 federal standards that have since been superseded. GAB’s staff indicated that although some municipal clerks are concerned that older equipment is more likely to cease operating, the cost to purchase new equipment and train local election officials to use it has meant that some older equipment has not been replaced. In addition, staff indicated that some clerks are concerned that new equipment may not integrate with existing equipment or provide the desired functionality.
Given that a lack of time and resources to adequately do the job of regulating and enforcing elections and campaigns seems to be the biggest problem in the GAB, maybe we should worry about taking care of those duties before we start blowing up its board and structure. Just a thought.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Comments opened up

I've slightly opened up the comments some, as I've heard a couple of mentions from others that read that they can't necessarily comment without a Google ID.

However, I'm still moderating posts and if goofballs start trying to pollute the board, they and the "open commenting" will be gone as fast as it's come. So be adults out there. And not putting your name on certain takes will be openly mocked.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Listen to Professor Warren

I make no secret of my admiration for Senator Elizabeth Warren- no one, along with maybe Bernie Sanders, are the ones who truly "tell it like it is" in the U.S. Senate when it comes to how rigged America's economy is for the rich and powerful at the expense of the vast majority of the rest of us, and how it has to be fixed with real actions taken against the perpetrators. I proudly have an "Elizabeth Warren Wing of the Democratic Party" bumper sticker with this in mind.

But to see Sen. Warren CALL OUT CITIGROUP BY NAME for the better part of 10 minutes on the Senate floor? "Dodd-Frank should have broken you into pieces!" WOW! And shine a light on the revolving door of insiders that go between this bank and the highest levels of the Treasury Department and the White House should make everyone shiver.

I find myself constantly saying "DAYYYY-AMMMM!" during this speech, as Senator Warren pulls back the curtain in how our system truly works.

The part that's truly scary about Sen. Warren's speech is that almost everyone else on the Senate floor knows how this works, but almost no one is willing to say it. Let's hope Sens. Baldwin and Johnson follow the lead of Sen. Warren and remember who they truly work for- THE PEOPLE THAT VOTED THEM IN, and not the lobbyists and DC insiders that can't cast a ballot for them.

I have good reason to hope Baldwin will have the common sense to vote to take out the pro-Wall Street and big-money junk that's being attached to this budget bill, and "clean it up." Tammy's already indicated that she will follow Sen. Warren's lead, and vote against President Obama's choice of Antonio Weiss to be Secretary of the Treasury, saying that Weiss will favor Wall Street over Main Street. Let's see if she will keep up the good work on the CR_omnibus.

But counting on (mo)Ron Johnson, the "Kochs' model senator", to also step up and shoot this pro-oligarch crap down? Yeah, I can't really see that happening.

EDIT: Here's some more truth from the great Matt Taibbi.

Conservatives for welfare, and liberals for big business. It doesn't make sense unless we're not really dealing with any divided collection of conservatives or liberals, and are instead talking about one nebulous mass of influence, money and interests. I think of it as a single furiously-money-collecting/favor-churning oligarchical Beltway party, a thing that former Senate staffer and author Jeff Connaughton calls "The Blob."

What's happening here is that The Blob, which includes supposed enemies like Reid and Graham, wants to give donation-factory banks like Citi and Chase a handout. But a coalition of heretics, including the liberal Warren, the genuinely conservative Vitter and (surprisingly to me) the usually party-orthodox Nancy Pelosi is saying no to the naked giveaway.

Is killing the Citigroup provision really worth the trouble? Is it a "Hill to die on"? Maybe not in itself. But the key here is that a victory on the swaps issue will provide the Beltway hacks with a playbook for killing the rest of the few meaningful things in Dodd-Frank, probably beginning with the similar Volcker Rule, designed to prevent other types of gambling by federally-insured banks. Once they cave on the swaps issue, it won't be long before the whole bill vanishes, and we can go all the way back to our pre-2008 regulatory Nirvana.
And to see Tammy side with the Blob, and allow this garbage to go through to the president's desk (apparently in exchange for a seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee) is a very disturbing thought. It feels the date of explosion is getting nearer.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Bucks arena update- BC losses and new site changing?

The Bucks arena issue hasn't had any formal legislation to fund it or a even a site finalized as of this time, but that doesn't mean there weren't some intriguing events that have been going on to get things lined up with this half-a-billion-dollar project.

Don Walker of the Journal-Sentinel had an interesting article up today going over the Bucks current facility at the Bradley Center, and noted that the facility had an operating loss of $1.9 million for fiscal year 2013-14. The operating losses come at a time when the facility’s debt is near $20 million, and that debt will have to be paid off with any deal that comes with a new arena.
The net loss, which includes depreciation of $3.3 million, was a decline of $3.1 million compared with the prior fiscal year. Total operating revenue was $18 million, compared with $20.7 million for fiscal 2013.

Steve Costello, president and CEO of the BMO Harris Bradley Center, said the arena continues to be in a stable fiscal position. And there is hope, he said, that a reinvigorated Bucks franchise and an uptick in concerts will translate into a better year in the current fiscal year.

Costello acknowledged the debt the arena owes to banks and the Bucks in the form of tenant-shared revenue was "significant but manageable."
The article mentions that the biggest culprits in the 13% loss in revenue was a horrible 2013-14 that led to the lowest home attendance for any NBA team, and a season when the Bucks had the worst record in the league. In addition, the facility only hosted 7 concerts, as opposed to the 10-12 it would usually host. It would have been even worse, if not for the facility hosting March Madness with the Badgers being part of 2 of the 3 sessions, leading to sellouts and obvious upticks in concessions and revenues for those days.

But things may look slightly better for the Bradley Center in 2014-15. The improved fortunes of the Bucks are certainly playing a role, as the Deer have played at or near .500 ball for the first quarter of the NBA season. While they are still 4th from the bottom for home attendance at this point in the season, one would think that the Bucks staying in the playoff hunt (a strong possibility in the very weak Eastern Conference) would encourage some people to check them out the last 3 months of the year.

The vibe definitely seems different than the empty-arena death march the Bucks had in 2014 on their way to a league-worst 15-67 record. ESPN’s Zach Lowe had an impressive, in-depth article breaking down the Bucks plans this week, and how their future seems brighter than what it offered two years ago. The team is also investing in new positions to improve the team’s product, as well as its visibility in the Milwaukee area.
The Bucks think they have two franchise players, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, super-young combo forwards with preposterous arms, a determined work ethic, and varied skill sets they’re only discovering. Any team built around 19- and 20-year-olds is a half-decade from anything like contention, and the Bucks under new ownership aren’t going to rush the process as they did in chasing the no. 8 seed under Herb Kohl….

Antetokounmpo and Parker are the only sure bets to be on this roster in five years. The franchise is content in the meantime to measure its other young players, especially Brandon Knight and Larry Sanders, and watch Jason Kidd imprint his identity. The team’s new owners, Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, have spent millions building the infrastructure that must be in place if the Bucks hope to chase big things.

They’ve already hired about 50 new people, including a bundle of sales associates and a new sports psychologist. They’ll beef up the medical staff over the next few months, Lasry says, and they purchased a speedy new server for the team’s analytics department. They even hired the first director of merchandising in franchise history after Lasry became disenchanted at how difficult it was to buy Bucks gear.
Also in Lowe’s article is a discussion of the Bucks’ arena situation, which Lasry says he plans to build in the next two years, as he doesn’t want to be part of the team if it moves.
The need for a new arena and practice facility looms over everything. The BMO Harris Bradley Center is dull and outdated, and the Bucks practice 15 minutes from downtown in the back of a Catholic archdiocese. The NBA holds an option to buy the team back at a cheap price if the Bucks haven’t started construction on a new arena by fall 2017, and there will be a vigorous debate if the new owners request public funding.

Lasry is confident the Bucks will secure a deal, if only because the buyback clause and the looming Seattle threat have everyone backed into a corner. “The reason it’s gonna get done is that no one has a choice,” he says. He and [Bucks co-owner Wes] Edens are based in New York, and they will not entertain the idea of moving the Bucks to a West Coast market as long as they own the team. “I have no interest in being far away,” Lasry says. “The fun of owning the team is being part of the community. You can’t do that if you’re four or five hours away.”

Edens and Lasry have pledged $100 million to an arena project that could cost more than $500 million. Kohl made an identical pledge on his way out. It’s unclear where the rest of the money might come from, and any plan to divert funds from the coffers of a Rust Belt city into the hands of wealthy financiers will draw justifiable scrutiny. That is a real issue; sports are silly in comparison.
Speaking of the arena, Don Walker’s article on the Bradley Center also has an update on where that proposed arena might be sighted. Originally, the land that Journal Communications owns across from the Bradley Center was mentioned as a possible spot, but that option seems to be bogging down, and other sites in downtown Milwaukee are looking more likely, including the area just north of the BC, which heads out toward the Park East land on N. 6th Street near Juneau.
[Bradley Center president and CEO] Costello declined further comment on the arena land. Much of it is already vacant and could conceivably be the easiest path for the Bucks, which face an NBA-imposed deadline of the fall of 2017 to have a new arena in place.

Talks between Journal Communications, which owns a square block near the BMO Harris Bradley Center, and the Bucks have hit a snag. Sources say it is now unlikely Journal Communications, publisher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the Bucks will be able to reach agreement on sale of the property as part of a new arena site. (Hey, I guess they’d know, right?)

For months, the Bucks targeted the Journal Communications land, plus the land now occupied by the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and possibly the Milwaukee Theatre, as the preferred site. With that site now in doubt, the Bucks have focused on the BMO Harris Bradley Center land, as well as city-owned land at the corner of N. 4th St. and W. Wisconsin Ave., and land at the corner of N. 2nd and W. Michigan streets.
And of course, the financing is the other issue. I’ve previously discussed the mechanism of a “jock tax” to pay for the estimated $150 million of public financing a new Bucks arena is expected to cost, and I’m still very skeptical of the idea because it’ll take away those revenues for general usage throughout the state over the next 20 years. Wisconsin already has major fiscal issues from prior tax and voucher school giveaways to sort out before we can think about adding to those problems with a Bucks deal, and we should probably be dealing with other fiscal and social concerns in the state’s largest city and economic engine ahead of helping one specific company (the Bucks).

But the wheels are definitely still churning, and the Don Walker article indicates a site for a new Bucks arena is likely to be known in the next 3 weeks (!). Then it becomes crunch time with a new Legislative session in Madison and new state budget that will be part of these discussions, whether in the form of another subsidy from state taxpayers (as has been done under gubernatorial tenures of both Jim Doyle and Scott Walker), and/or a new funding mechanism for the arena project. If a deal does not get worked out, then we get to find out what might happen with the team’s future in Milwaukee.

Lots of things are going to heat up in 2015 when it comes to the Bucks, and it’s worth it to stay on top of the twists and turns, which will go well beyond the team’s development on the court.