Wednesday, March 31, 2021

As COVID numbers rise again, Wis Supreme Court strikes down mask mandate

You may have heard of the big story out of the Capitol building today.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked Democratic Gov. Tony Evers from issuing any new public health emergency orders to mandate face masks without the approval of the Republican-controlled state Legislature.

In a 4-3 decision, conservative justices in the majority declared the statewide mask mandate invalid and ruled Evers exceeded his authority in issuing multiple emergency declarations over the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Evers used the emergency orders to require face coverings be worn indoors statewide after lawmakers opted not to.

"The question in this case is not whether the Governor acted wisely; it is whether he acted lawfully. We conclude he did not," Justice Brian Hagedorn, writing for the conservative majority, said.

State law says governors may issue health emergencies for 60 days at which point the Legislature must approve an extension. Evers has argued he may issue new emergencies without their approval because the pandemic's threat has changed, similar to emergency declarations over separate flooding events in the same river.

Hagedorn said state law governing public health emergencies "must be read to forbid the governor from proclaiming repeated states of emergency for the same enabling condition absent legislative approval."
So basically the 4-person GOP majority is saying that Evers couldn’t do anything past 60 days if the Legislature didn’t allow the state’s health emergency to continue. And even if circumstances change and the COVID outbreak becomes more severe, somehow it’s considered the same situation as when the emergency was put in place several months prior?

And this ruling comes at a bad time, as Wisconsin is following many other states in seeing COVID cases go back on the rise in recent weeks. The 7-day average of new COVID cases in Wisconsin has risen from 371 3 weeks ago to 470 today. In addition, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services released each county’s trends over the last two weeks, and there are now twice as many counties that have a statistically significant increase (8) than those that are significantly shrinking (4).

The numbers in St. Croix County are especially concerning to me. That county has seen its new cases more than double in the last 2 weeks, and now has the 3rd highest rate of new COVID infections in Wisconsin in that time, at 229 cases per 100,000 (behind Green County (290) and Door County (253). St. Croix County is also home to a sizable amount of commuters into the Twin Cities, and Minnesota is getting three times the cases of Wisconsin these days.

The other reason St. Croix County worries me is that it just hosted a town hall from the area’s Congressman, who was spewing this line of "reasoning." And hjere's more from Rep. Tiffany on COVID.
Tiffany made several false claims in his discussion of vaccines. Scientific data shows young people can be infected and spread the virus, but Tiffany claimed Monday they are "largely not susceptible to coronavirus." It is true that younger people are less likely than older people to experience serious health complications from the disease, but it is still possible. And in Wisconsin, two dozen people under the age of 30 have died from the virus….

And Tiffany's statements about advising his daughters, ages 22, 21 and 17, against getting vaccinated are in direct contradiction to state and federal public health guidance.

"Think about this practically," Tiffany said, recounting his conversation with them. "You really are not under that much of a threat as a result of this virus, and I'm not sure why you would go and take a vaccine as a result of that."

That goes against messages from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state Department of Health Services and medical professionals. They advise everyone to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible. On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Tony Evers announced that all Wisconsinites ages 16 and older would become eligible as of April 5.

And now the Wisconsin Supreme Court has allowed Tiffany’s former colleagues in the Legislature to decide what kind of response the state will/won't have in regards to this still-ongoing pandemic. Wonderful.

And the GOP Supreme Court “justices” didn’t answer a simple question – “What should happen in case the gerrymandered GOP Legislature chooses to do nothing and goes on a 9 ½ paid vacation?"

Much like so many other items in this state, the WisGOPs in the Legislature want all the power, but they don’t want to do anything with that power. Well, outside of causing the state government’s response to be dysfunctional, which would allow them to blame Evers for things going bad, and increase their chances of getting more power in 2022. What happens to the quality of life for everyone else in the state? WisGOP doesn’t care. They likely never have.

Ignore them, mask up, and do your part in finishing off this plague.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

WisGOP stimulus plans have big property tax cut. Evers should call their bluff with K-12 funding

One day after Governor Evers released his plan for how he plans to use the large amount of money coming to Wisconsin as part of the recently passed stimulus bill, the WisGOPs in the Legislature released their own plan for what to do with some of those billions.
While Assembly Republicans on Tuesday praised [Evers'] proposed investment in small businesses and the tourism industry, they also called for using $1 billion of that money to send rebate checks to Wisconsin property owners. That would provide what Rep. Mark Born said would be an equivalent of a 10% return on property taxes.

While the $3.2 billion in federal money can't be used for tax relief, Born, the Joint Finance Committee co-chair, said he didn't think the Assembly GOP framework would violate that provision. Instead, the state would use tax bills to determine how much aid to provide to property owners.

Theoretically, the WisGOPs would give a rebate to people who paid propety taxes earlier this year, so they claim it wouldn't be a "tax cut." I suppose they can try it that way, but it is interesting that WisGOP wants the money would go to property owners, because guess who's more likely to own property in Wisconsin?

Yeah, what about the renters, Mark?

Hmm. Well, let's look and see what Wisconsin renters might be getting from the stimulus, based on what the Legislative Fiscal Bureau wrote up last week.
Emergency Rental Assistance. The Act provides $21.55 billion for emergency rental assistance. It is unknown how much will be allocated to Wisconsin. Eligible households may receive up to 18 months of assistance with rental payments, rental arrears, utilities and home energy costs, or utilities and home energy costs arrears. Up to 15 percent of funds may be used for administrative costs and up to 10 percentmay be used for case management services. Funds must be used by September 30, 2027. Under the CAA, $25.0 billion was allocated for emergency rental assistance, of which $386.8 million was allocated to Wisconsin.

Tenant-Based Rental Assistance. The Act provides the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) $5.0 billion for tenant-based rental assistance to low-income households under the Housing Choice Voucher program. An estimated allocation to Wisconsin recipients is not currently available. However, under the previous allocation of funding for tenant-based assistance under the CARES Act, Wisconsin is estimated to have received 0.74% of all funding. Assuming a similar allocation, it is estimated that $37 million in tenant-based funding would be directed by HUD towards low-income tenants in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), in conjunction with local public housing authorities, administers federal vouchers in Wisconsin. Vouchers provide rent subsidies to individuals who have flexibility in selecting their residence. In federal fiscal year 2020, Wisconsin was allocated $189 million in federal funding, supporting 31,900 vouchers.
It's definitely quite a bit of help, but it totals less than $400 million vs the $1 billion WisGOPs want to rebate to property owners.

In addition, that rental assistance is targeted to those in need, but it doesn’t do much for those renters who have been able to stay afloat and employed throughout the pandemic. And one of the reasons some of them may have been able to stay employed was through the small business grants in 2020 that Evers wants to use much of the stimulus money for...and WisGOP is (somewhat) objecting to.

It does look like WisGOPs agree with Evers that more money should go toward making broadband more accessible in more places in our styate.
In addition, Republicans in a Capitol news conference called for directing $500 million toward broadband expansion grants, more than double what Evers proposed in his budget, and helping seniors and long-term care facilities, though few details were shared about that point.

Born didn't say whether the $500 million Assembly Republicans are calling for in broadband grants would be on top of an investment in the budget, saying only: "We would like to see a major investment in that area."
That's kind of a non-answer from Born as to whether WisGOP will use the help from Uncle Sam to avoid having the state step up their investment in broadband, but I don't think people will care much if they can get better Internet at home and cell service on the road.

Adding money to long-term care and nursing home services is something Evers has already asked for in his health services budget. But the difference is that while the WisGOPs seem to have no issue with using federal money from one part of the stimulus to pay for this bill, they don't want to use another part of the stimulus bill to take expanded Medicaid that would pay for those same long-term care services and many other types of coverage, while saving Wisconsin taxpayers $1.6 billion over the next 2 years!

Going back to property taxes, Evers should use the GOP's statements to call their bluff. Ask to use the extra funds for K-12 schooling to supplement a bump in state spending, and have half of those funds go to increasing school resources, while have the other half go to property tax relief.

Not only does this offer property tax relief for Wisconsin homeowners (and likely in a less regressive way than WisGOP's plan), it can be part of a larger-scale reform where schooling and other local government duties are taken off of the property tax and onto more state funding via income and sales taxes. And because it is done by expanding state spending and more than revenue limits are expanded, I wouldn't thinkj it would violate the rule that keeps states from using the stimulus to lower taxes.

Especially given that a lot of us can't write off property taxes on our federal taxes these days due to the GOP Tax Scam (screw you, Paul Ryan), Evers calling for property tax relief is a winner in multiple ways, especially among upper-middle class Wisconsinites who are a huge swing constituency these days. And it can be done by helping community schools which renters also use and benefit from, while making the GOP's offer seem gimmicky and short-sighted.


Monday, March 29, 2021

Evers is gonna grab those billions and do something with them

I knew Governor Evers would laugh at the gerrymandered GOP Legislature's plans to sabotage have oversight of the billions of stimulus dollars heading to Wisconsin. But I am impressed by how fast he put out a plan for how to use the money.
Gov. Tony Evers announced Monday he will spend $2.5 billion in federal relief funding to help Wisconsin's economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Democratic governor delivered the news at a Milwaukee cafe just before he vetoed a bill that would have given that decision-making power over billions coming to Wisconsin through the federal American Rescue Plan to Republicans who control the state Legislature....

He said he was vetoing Senate Bill 183 "to make sure once we get the guidance we need from the federal government, we can work to get these funds out quickly and make sure they don’t get tied up in some political fight in the legislature."

Evers didn’t spell out how he would spend all of the $3.2 billion he will have control of but said $2.5 billion of it would be used to help businesses, with $600 million going toward Wisconsin businesses and $50 million going to the tourism industry. The rest of the spending for business remains undefined.

With the remaining money, $500 million would go to the continued pandemic response efforts and $200 million would go to infrastructure, including broadband internet expansions.

In looking at the release from Evers' office, it doesn't go into too much more detail but says it will "build on" the We're All In program that used CARES funds to give targeted relief to small businesses, particularly in hard-hit areas such as restaurants and lodging.

The infrastructure part is interesting, because it indicates that Evers is not going to wait around for this Summer, when the Dem-run Congress and President Biden plan to get their own infrastructure package done. It also could take the place of spending more state funds on infrastructure at the state level to help Wisconsin close a significant gap in broadband access and speed.

But what I also like about this move is that is jumps ahead of lawsuits that Robbin' Vos and other WisGOPs have threatened to file to try to take control of those billions from DC. Good luck having WisGOP try to pull funds that have already gone out to Wisconsin businesses and indviduals, and then try to say they're doing to....grab power and deliberate? And that they know better than our governor and the business owners that are getting the block grants?

You go with that, guys. We see what your real goal is, because you need things to go badly in Wisconsin in order for the GOP to win in 2022.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

An uneven 2020 economy in the US and Wisconsin means there's a lot of recovery that's still needed

Wanted to give a few charts that came out from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis in recent days. And it illustrates more of the overall backslide that happened in 2020, and how uneven much of the economic activity truly was last year.

Let's start with overall GDP, which dropped by 3.5% on an annual basis last year. But as you will see, what added up to that -3.5% was heavily concentrated in services that relied on people going out and/or traveling, while manufacturing and construction only had minor losses for the year, and IT and finance industries actually grew.

Economic growth was also widely varied by state, and not just due to the "locked down vs COVID-available" differences between various parts of the country.

It makes sense that Hawaii would have the most depressed economy in America (with the collapse in long-distance/air travel) and that New York would be bottom 5 for growth (lots of death will do that). But West Virginia, Oklahoma and Wyoming are three of the Trumpiest places in America with few/any shutdowns in place for much of the year.

In Wisconsin's case, a few industries explain our larger GDP decline of 4.5%. The biggest gaps include government enterprises (-0.53% of our 4.5% drop, 2nd largest drop in America), and IT/Information, which took away 0.21% of our GDP in a time when the industry grew nationwide - the largest decline of any state in America.

Wisconsin also didn't benefit from the farm bailouts as much as other states - our agricultural industries slightly declined while they were a minor boost to GDP nationwide. And manufacturing in Wisconsin took away a total of 0.71% of our GDP compared to a drop of 0.30% for the US. Oh, but giving away hundreds of millions in tax cut to farmers and manufacturers is making us more prosperous, right WMC?

I also wanted to give you a look at how Wisconsin shaped up compared to the rest of the US in personal income. This number went up across the board in the US despite the COVID recession because of thousands of dollars in stimulus payments, enhanced unemployment benefits, and PPP bailouts. But Wisconsin didn't have nearly the boost that most places had, with our income growth of 4.4% putting us down at 46th in the country.

We trailed in all three areas, particularly in those transfer receipts, which may reflect that we had fewer people collecting those higher unemployment benefits, stimulus checks and PPP funds. But we also trailed in earnings (Wis down 0.3%, US was up 0.3%), and lagging in wage and earnings growth has continued to be a worrying trend in the last decade in Wisconsin.

That being said, it was even worse in the first 3 quarters of 2020, as Wisconsin ended up 8th in the US for income growth in a Q4 time period when most states had declines due to the unwinding of all of that CARES-era aid.

By the way, notice the big jumps in the Northern Plains? MAJOR farm subsidies from TrumpWorld in Q4 last year, especially for that part of the country. Iowa, Nebraska, and both Dakotas each had more than 10% of that listed rise in income due to farm "earnings", and Kansas 6.5% (tough, independent Red States, you know). By comparison, Wisconsin farmers only accounted for 1.4% of our state's income increase in the last 3 months of 2020.

In breaking it down, it looks like Wisconsin had much better earnings growth than the rest of the nation, and they had a much smaller unwinding of those CARES funds...likely because more of it unwound earlier in Wisconsin during Q3 (when our declines were much larger than the US).

Contributions to Q4 change in income
Wis +5.7%
US +3.5%

Transfer payments
Wis -5.0%
US -11.3%

Of course, both the US and Wisconsin should see sizable increases in income due to more stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits returning in the first 3 months of 2021. But earnings growth is the real indicator of whether people are becoming better off, along with overall economic output, and Wisconsin has even more to make up in those areas than the rest of the nation does.

Hopefully our strong budgetary situation and a lessening burden of COVID will help us to pump out enough funds and activities to make up our sizable gap. But there's a long way to go, especially in some harder-hit industries, and Wisconsin needs to follow the US's lead by giving strong economic support to the many that are in need, while hammering down on the gas to kick our recovery into the next level among those who were able to get through 2020 without much (if any) damage.

Biden and Evers offer new, progressive direction on taxes

If you start stacking the changes from the American Rescue Plan from DC along with tax recommendations in Governor Evers’ 2021-23 budget, there is a significant progressive tilt in which Wisconsinites are getting stimulus checks and tax breaks at the state level. Some of these have already hit, but the Evers budget would increase the rebalancing of a tax/benefit code that has gone far too much for the rich and corporate in recent years.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau has broken down both the stimulus rebate and the Evers budget tax changes for how it will affect Wisconsinites, and I’ll start with the stimulus breakdown, which includes both the $1,400 checks for individuals and the child tax credits.

This analysis combines single and married-joint filers, and the LFB says that more than 4/5 of Wisconsin tax filers should get a check in some form.

Also note that only 4.2% of Wisconsin tax returns are from filers with incomes of $200,000 or more. Keep that in mind if you hear GOPs complain about possible tax increases to pay for infrastructure in the coming months.

The LFB also looked at some of the tax provisions in Evers’ budget proposal, and there is an obvious slant to what is changed.

Not surprisingly, lower-income Wisconsinites would be more likely to get a tax break this year (particularly those with children due to the EITC increase), but richer Wisconsinites would pay more. Almost no tax filer making less than $125,000 would get a tax increase, and 16 times as many Wisconsinites would get a tax break vs a tax increase, But it becomes a net increase because nearly 3/4 of millionaires would pay quite a bit more.

Given that the mega-rich and corporate got most of the benefits of the 2017 GOP Tax Scam, and would continue to clean up if it was extended beyond 2026, I really don’t have a lot of sympathy for them having to pay for more under Evers’ budget. But I also am doubtful that a WisGOP that is owned by rich and corporate interests will go for those tax hikes, particularly given that there is already plenty of money available in this budget after the passage of the Rescue Act.

There’s another state tax question outside of the budget proposal that is now in play with the Rescue Act coming into law 2 weeks ago. The stimulus bill allowed for the first $10,200 of unemployment benefits to be tax-free, avoiding a possible tax bill for lower-income individuals (especially if no money was ever taken out of those benefit checks), but the LFB notes that the state has yet to adopt this tax break.

Wisconsin does allow for some write-off of unemployment benefits, but it’s not as much as the new Fed provision, so the LFB says it would be a tax cut if the state Legislature and Evers agreed to also make the first $10,200 of unemployment tax-free in Wisconsin.
Under separate provisions of state law, if the taxpayer's federal AGI is less than or equal to a base amount, then the entire unemployment benefit amount is excluded from income. The base amount is $12,000 for single taxpayers, $18,000 for married couples filing joint returns, and zero for married couples filing separate returns when the couple lived together at some point during the year. The base amount for single taxpayers applies in the case of married-separate filers who lived separately for the entire year. If federal AGI exceeds the base amount, then the amount of unemployment compensation benefits includible in gross income is the lesser of: (a) one-half of the excess of the taxpayer's AGI, including benefits, over the base amount; or (b) the amount of the unemployment compensation benefits.

If the state were to adopt the federal unemployment compensation exclusion under section 9042 of P.L. 117-2 for tax year 2020, affected taxpayers could calculate the excludable amount under the current state exclusion and the Act exclusion separately, and could claim the higher of the two amounts. If such a provision were adopted in state law, individual income tax revenues would be estimated to decline by $121 million in 2020-21. However, some of this fiscal effect could be realized in 2021-22, to the extent affected taxpayers have already filed state and federal income tax returns for tax year 2020 and choose not to file amended returns until after June 30, 2021 (such individuals would need to file amended returns to receive the exclusion). Alternatively, the overall fiscal effect could be lower, to the extent affected taxpayers who have already filed do not opt to amend their tax year 2020 returns.
There’s also a simplicity argument for taking on the federal rules for how unemployment is taxed, but tax season is already in full swing, and it may already be too late in the game to try to push such a thing through.

It's subtle, but a tax code that has often given huge advantages to those who already have plenty may well be leveling some in 2021, both at the state and federal levels. And while it is not likely that either Biden or Evers will be able to make things as significantly more progressive as they ask for, it still looks like we’re taking a step in a long overdue reverse of direction.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

A bit of concern on COVID in Wisconsin as March ends

Like other places around America, Wisconsin has seen a slight increase in new COVID infections in the last week. Over 3,300 new positive tests were recorded, which is the most since the end of February, and while some of that was skewed by a backlog of previously unreported cases (resulting in Wednesday's total of 776 new cases), it doesn't explain why most other days of the past week also saw increases vs the same day the week before.

On other parts of the COVID front in Wisconsin, things continue to go in the right direction. Deaths are now at their lowest levels since July.

And the rate of vaccinations continues to pick up. This week had the first two days where more than 50,000 vaccines were administered, and more than 1 million Wisconsinites should be fully vaccinated before March ends.
But there are still troubling signs. This includes the fact that all 3 overseas variants of COVID have now been reported in the state. And this story from today's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel made me wince a bit.

Saturday will be Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport's busiest day for air travel since the COVID-19 outbreak began, airport officials say.

Saturday is the peak of the spring break travel season at the airport, with a second, smaller peak on April 3. Spring break is the airport's busiest time of the year.

While travel overall has yet to rebound from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic that dealt a gut punch to the airline industry, the number of flights scheduled out of Milwaukee Saturday is similar to a record set in 2018.

Hoo boy. Please be smart out there, folks. And if you find a way to get the shot, get it.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Lower income/spending in Feb not a concern. But 12 months of COVID World has major changes

As December’s stimulus bill faded, we saw US income and spending totals regress back toward where they were at the end of 2020.
Personal income decreased $1,516.6 billion (7.1 percent) in February according to estimates released today by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (tables 3 and 5). Disposable personal income (DPI) decreased $1,532.3 billion (8.0 percent) and personal consumption expenditures (PCE) decreased $149.0 billion (1.0 percent).
You will see all of that “decline” in income came from stimulus payments being recorded in January, and no stimulus going out in February. But the down side of this is that wages and salaries were flat in February, which leaves us below the total of wages and salaries that we had in February 2020 – before inflation is accounted for, mind you.
The spending side offers more proof that the severe weather of February and dropoff of stimulus measures led to a slight drawback in the economy. But the $149.0 billion decline in spending for February is almost entirely offset by a $147.0 billion upward revision for January.

It indicates that the stimulus checks had a significant effect, although some of the gain was due to the COVID World reducing the usual post-Christmas dropoff in spending (this is also reflected in November’s and December’s “declines” in spending).

It portends good signs for March, with a new round of stimulus checks (for most people, anyway), warming weather, and a bump up in consumer confidence. But let’s not forget that there is still a big COVID-influenced hole to get out of, especially for many services industries.

Some of the service industries have finally gotten federal support in recent weeks (if they didn’t go out of business already), particularly the live music and restaurant industries, but there’s still a long way back to the pre-COVID World for these places.

On the flip side, the BEA’s blog summarizing the income and spending report has this interesting chart, which illustrates how spending on most goods (outside of oil/gas) has gone UP in the COVID World.

It will be interesting to see if this COVID World change in spending habits unwinds in the coming months, as more people get vaccinated and the weather warms. And to see if the new Recovery Plan Act will make for a more permanent rise in spending and economic activity, or if it fades after a few months.

The Recovery Plan also makes today’s report a bit dated, but it does give us information on what a year in the COVID World has done to the largest portion of the economy – individual workers and their related consumer spending. And where to look for signs of success or shortfall as the Biden stimulus takes hold.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

While unemployment stayed low in Wisconsin for February, a huge jobs hole persists

Here’s the latest look at Wisconsin’s jobs market, with today’s February jobs report.
Place of Residence Data: Wisconsin's labor force participation rate in February was 65.6, 4.2 percent higher than the national rate of 61.4 percent. Wisconsin's unemployment rate in February was 3.8 percent, while the national unemployment rate was 6.2 percent in the same month.

Place of Work Data: Wisconsin private-sector jobs declined by 1,000 in the month of February while total non-farm jobs declined by 4,500 over the same period.
On the household survey, unemployment stayed at its low 3.8% for the “good reason” – 2,500 more people re-enetering the work force, and 3,000 listing themselves as “employed.” That's good to hear, and we hope that trend continues.

The payroll survey is not good, and not just because of Feburary's loss of jobs. What's not mentioned is that January's gains were also revised down by 4,500 jobs, so we're now 9,000 jobs below where we thought we were after the last report.

That being said, much of February's loss of jobs can be explained by a seasonally-adjusted loss of 4,100 construction jobs. That likely reflects a sizable number of people not working outside during the survey week in mid-February, which happened as Wisconsin was under its worst cold snap in decades.

So that seems like a temporary blip that will work itself out in March's report. Outside of the losses in construction and education-related services (due to a lack of semester hiring that usually happens in non-COVID years), almost every other sector had job gains in Wisconsin last month. They were mostly minor increases, but it beats the alternative).

Overall, we need to remember that we are still far behind where we were in the pre-COVID World of February 2020, as Wisconsin has lost nearly 165,000 jobs over the 12 months measured since then, and we are basically in the same place we were in September.

And if you dig into this week’s new unemployment claims report, we’ve found out that more Wisconsinites have been suffering through long-term unemployment than we knew. Take a look at these numbers for the PEUC program, which goes to people who have been out of work for 26+ weeks.

Not surprisingly, the jump in PEUC claims coincides with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development announcing that they could pay claims that happened after the program was renewed at the end of December. But it also means that there were likely more people out of work for 26+ weeks than what those mid-20s numbers in the first 2 months of 2021 would indicate.

But despite these numbers showing that there is still a major jobs hole in Wisconsin, Assembly Speaker and PPP recipient Robbin’ Vos says what we really need to be doing is to force all of those unemployed people back into the work force to do….something. Hmmm, if only something could be done in Wisconsin to make work worthwhile to people – you know, like:

1. Raising the minimum wage above the poverty-inducing $7.25 an hour we have today
2. Expanding Medicaid to people barely above the poverty line
3. Expanding access and affordability for child care, or
4. Getting behind a mass vaccination effort.

But of course, that’s not what Vos and his WMC puppetmasters want, because giving employees good pay and benefits means they aren’t as desperate for work, and therefore won’t accept the rock-bottom wages that WMC/WisGOP wants them to have to accept.

I know a lot of us are optimistic these days with vaccinations continuing to pick up at the same time that weather is warming and Spring is trying to start in Wisconsin, and the worst of the COVID pandemic and its related job losses do seem to be over. But just because that's true, it doesn't mean that we are back to normal, or anything close to it.

And for Robbin' Vos and WMC and the rest of GOP BubbleWorld to pretend that there isn't a lot of people still in need in this state is the type of willful ignorance that is insulting to those of us that are dealing with the still-subpar reality. Keep on grinding, folks.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

GOPs want to handcuff Evers on stimulus $$$. Because they don't want things to get better

Wanted to do a breakdown of yesterday's action in the Wisconsin Legislature, where the Republicans in charge put a bill on Governor Evers' desk that deals with control over the billions that is coming to state government as part of the recently-passed stimulus.

Here’s the bill, which would not only handcuff Evers from discretionary funds that are given to the Governor’s Office, it also would give the Joint Finance Committee veto power over money that is earmarked for state agencies and moved down to local governments.
Under current law, with exceptions, the governor is authorized to receive and direct the expenditure of all federal funds received by the state. This bill increases the legislature's role in approving the expenditure of federal funds that are received by the state between the effective date of this bill and June 30, 2022, that relate to COVID-19 activities. Under the bill, as soon as practical after the receipt of any federal funds related to COVID-19 that are made available to the state, the governor must submit to the Joint Committee on Finance for a 14-day passive review a plan or plans for the expenditure of the funds.
And you can guess who is in favor of these fiscal handcuffs.

Koched-up front groups. SHOCKER!

Now let's dig into the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s rundown of the billions the state will get from the American Rescue Plan. Many of the funds going to the state will be used to fill in budget holes that would otherwise exist, and one of the largest areas that is getting help is education, which adds to the sizable amount of federal aid given to education in 2020.

In order, the three programs listed here include aid to K-12 public education (ESSER), K-12 private schools (GEER), and postsecondeary education.

While the state is set to get all of these funds for education, there are a couple of significant strings attached.
States are required to fulfill a maintenance of effort requirement to access the ESSER moneys. Under the ARPA, the proportion of state spending allocated to K-12 and higher education in 2021-22 and 2022-23 must be maintained at the same level as the state's average allocation in the 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19 fiscal years. Additionally, the Act includes two provisions requiring the state to maintain its current level of support for high poverty school districts: (a) per-pupil state funding cannot be reduced for any high-need district by an amount that exceeds the overall per-pupil reduction in state funds across all districts in 2021-22 or 2022-23; and (b) per pupil state funding cannot be reduced for any highest poverty district in 2021-22 or 2022-23 below the level of funding provided to that district in 2018-19. High-need districts are defined as those that meet the following criteria: (a) in rank order, have the highest percentages of economically disadvantaged pupils in the state; and (b) collectively serve not less than 50 percent of the state’s total enrollment of pupils. Highest poverty districts are defined as those that meet the following criteria: (a) in rank order, have the highest percentages of economically disadvantaged pupils in the state, and (b) collectively serve not less than 20 percent of the state’s total enrollment of pupils. The school district maintenance of effort requirements do not apply to a district that meets any of the Page 23 following criteria: (a) total enrollment of less than 1,000 pupils; (b) operates a single school; (c) serves all pupils within each grade span with a single school; (d) demonstrates an exceptional or uncontrollable circumstance, such as unpredictable changes in pupil enrollment or a precipitous decline in financial resources, as determined by the federal Secretary of Education.
The ARPA also includes an estimated $54 million for educational services to children with disabilities, which saves the state and the local school districts from trying to come up with more funds to pay for these still-underfunded services.

This means that there should be a large increase of funds available for K-12, at least as far as the state + federal part is concerned. Which also means that there is a significant opportunity for schools to be funded and have property taxes reduced for schools at the same time. This can be done by continuing overall revenue limits that both increase funds for schools and limit property taxes at the same time.

Along the same lines, there also is a lot of money that goes to local transit agencies and airports, which prevents those communities from having to throw in extra property tax dollars and/or cuts for those services and facilities (as well as frees up resources for other things). Similar federal aids get increased for rental assistance and other services that are often carried out at the local level.

The state will also get millions of dollars to help pay for administration and oversight of the higher amount of people in need of SNAP, substance abuse/mental health assistance, and unemployment benefits. But that would increase the efficiency of those state services, and might make it easier for Wisconsinites to receive the help they need, and that’s something that Republicans really don’t want.

Not surprisingly, Governor Evers is not going to allow the gerrymandered Legislature the ability to handcuff him from using stimulus funds.
Evers' spokesperson has already confirmed that the governor will veto the plan, and while Republicans have big majorities in both the Assembly and Senate, they're not big enough to override a veto without Democratic help.
But WisGOPs are still saying they’ll try to tie this aid up.
Vos, the Assembly speaker, signaled that if that happens, Republicans could sue.

"I believe that the governor's decision to take the money without any legislative involvement is unconstitutional," Vos said. "If, for some reason, the governor chooses to veto this bill, we will have no choice but to go to court, because the constitution is crystal clear." (other than the stimulus law saying the money goes to the Governor, and that there is not a damn thing that limits the Gov from using those federal funds).

Also not surprisingly, Robbin’ is taking a different tact than he did in the March before an election year when a GOP President was up for re-election.

The statement marked a shift for Vos, who just last year told Evers in a public letter that the governor had sole authority to spend federal money as part of the first federal coronavirus relief bill.
But now things are different's Biden that's president? And because the gerrymandered GOP Legislature passed yesterday has one goal in mind - 2022. This is exactly how Dems should be messaging, because that is all Republicans care about these days.

GOPs don’t give a damn what happens to Wisconsinites that aren’t part of their inner circle – in fact, WisGOPs feel their chances for takeover in 2022 are higher if things get worse. So they’re going to try anything to make things as chaotic and dysfunctional as possible.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Vos declares jobs crisis over in Wisconsin, so people can wait for $$$. Not true.

As calls continue to have the Wisconsin Legislature pass a bill getting rid of the one-week waiting period for people to get their unemployment benefits, which can be done under the new stimulus act, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robbin' Vos says that there's no need to worry.

That's because Vos says the jobs market is back to normal in Wisconsin.
In a press conference Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Republican lawmakers had not discussed plans to waive the waiting week again, and he did not know where the caucus stood on the question. But Vos raised doubts about the need to waive the waiting week, arguing that stimulus spending by the federal government may be leading some to put off reentering the workforce.

"I have concerns that just extending the one-week waiting period and ... not having the requirement be in place that people have to look for work, to not just stay on unemployment, is having an unintended consequence," Vos said. "Our unemployment rate is already somewhat similar to where it was pre-pandemic ... so I don't think the problem any longer is folks being able to access the system, to be able to have the one-week waiting period, it's getting people back into the workforce to be able to find a job."
Well, the unemployment rate as a percentage of the labor force may not be very different than it was a year ago (3.8% in Jan 2021 vs 3.3% in Jan 2020). But some of that drop is because 28,500 Wisconsinites have dropped out of the work force, and our unemployment rate would be nearly a full 1% higher if we hadn't had those dropouts.

And we are still 155,000 below our peak level of jobs, which was reached in February 2020.

So unlike what Vos claims, there are still a lot of jobs and workers who have not come back. And last week's unemployment claims report showed that a lot of Wisconsinites are still losing jobs and in need of benefits. More than twice as many as the amount of people that were filing new claims pre-COVID (shown in blue vs the 2020 figures in orange), and those are the people who are now having to wait another week for benefits.

And when 12,000 Wisconsinites have to wait one week to get their unemployment benefits, that's as much $7 million or $8 million that is being taken out of the pockets of those potential consumers. And let's also note that all of that money would be paid by the Feds under current law - not a dollar would come out of the state's unemployment fund to restore the waiting week.

The passage of the stimulus act from a couple of weeks ago guaranteed that the PEUC long-term unemployment program would be extended beyond March 14. That, along with the clearup of prior delays from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development from the last stimulus bill, meant that a backlog of PEUC claims were filed in Wisconsin during the last week of February. Which resulted in a doubling of new claims being reported in that week.

PEUC claims, Wisconsin
Week of Feb 20 23,538
Week of Feb 27 46,310

So sorry Robbin' Vos, we aren't back at full employment in Wisconsin, and there are many Wisconsinites still in need of support one year after the breakout of COVID-19 across America. And given that Uncle Sam is picking up the tab, what's the point in forcing Wisconsinites to wait a week to get benefits they are entitled to?

Monday, March 22, 2021

Wis COVID cases stay low, vaccinations up, and more places to get your shots

Things continue to mostly look up on the COVID front in Wisconsin. Dan Shafer has a good summary of how it has progressed over at The Recombobulation Area.
The 7-day average for new cases in the state of Wisconsin dropped below 400.

Covid hospitalizations dropped below 200, the lowest they’ve been since the first week of April 2020. They peaked on Nov. 17 at 2,277, with 456 people in the ICU with the deadly virus.

Daily deaths have finally fallen to a 7-day average of six per day. On Dec. 7, that number was 61.
Along with the cases being limited, the state is making headway toward lowering the number of people susceptible to the virus, as vaccinations continue to rise. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services says we reached a new high last week, with more than 300,000 shots administered.

Shafer points out that the groups that were most vulnerable to COVID complications are the ones where the largest amount of progress has been made on the vaccination fronts.
What we’re also seeing as a result of this vaccination success story is how it is also making a difference in the larger covid numbers in Wisconsin.

In early March, nursing homes reported a 97% decline in new cases since vaccinations began. Those numbers for 65+ Wisconsinites have continued to drop, and are now at the lowest rate among any age group in the state. During the week of March 14, just [171] state residents over 65 tested positive for covid.
Well, we hope it's drastically reducing the cases in nursing homes. There was a story last week that noted around 1,000 more COVID deaths in Wisconsin were attributed to people living in nursing homes, as more information was gathered on the prior living settings of those who have been killed by COVID.

But Shafer's point stands, as nearly 1/2 of Wisconsinites aged 65+ have completed their vaccine cycle. However, not everybody has been getting those shots, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics in Wisconsin, who DHS says is receiving shots at less than 1/3 the rate of white Wisconsinites, and less than 1/2 of Native Americans.

Which helps explain why Milwaukee opened up new vaccination clinics in heavily African-American and Hispanic parts of town today.
A line more than 50 people long formed outside North Division High School Monday morning before a new community COVID-19 vaccination site was set to open its doors there at 10 a.m.

Some brought folding chairs in preparation for a wait.

“To come here at 9:30 a.m. and see almost 50 people in line … is warming for me because it lets me know that we’re doing the right thing and allowing folks to get vaccinated and opening up the availability,” County Executive David Crowley said at a press conference outside the school Monday morning.

The site was one of two walk-in vaccination clinics, along with South Division High School, to open in Milwaukee Monday for residents of 10 ZIP codes that rank high in vulnerability to disasters such as the pandemic.
BUT let's not forget that even with all of the positive news in regards to COVID in this state, you'll notice that the number of new cases has leveled off at around 400 a day over the last 2 weeks.

And with Spring Breaks happening and far too many people deciding to party in Flor-duhhh to make up for the limits that the COVID World put on so many of us in the last year, let's stay smart and vigilant, and keep those shots coming for the next few months before we declare victory over the virus, OK?

Saturday, March 20, 2021

A welcome feeling of normalcy

Well that was a nice feeling yesterday.

And not just because the Badgers romped yesterday. But also because I was able to hang outside with friends with 4 TVs/computer monitors going and hours of MARCH MADNESS on the screens. It felt like we were out of the COVID World for a while (although we were taking COVID precautions), and that events were something recognizable, instead of the blunted, washed-out reality it feels like we have been under for much of the last year and especially this Winter.

Plus, we got the new grill in to replace the old one, my wife got her COVID vaccine Thursday, and mine is due next week. The COVID World is nowhere near over, but we at least can see where the path out of it is leading to. And it's so overdue and welcome.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Vos reaches new depths of idiocy on Medicaid expansion

At this point, the headline just made me roll my eyes instead of getting me upset. But then I read the justification that Robbin' Vos was giving for not taking Medicaid expansion, and it was the most absurd one yet.
"I think the State of Wisconsin has enough resources to be able to utilize, to make sure we have all of our priorities funded and we're not going to do it by expanding welfare," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester.

"Trapping people in the life of poverty is not something that there's ever the right amount of money to do."

1. Medicaid is health insurance. So apparently giving more Wisconsinites access to health insurance isn't something Robbin' Vos finds to be a "priority". I'm just surprised Vos didn't repeat his typical lie of Medicaid being "government-run health care", which it is not because many people on Medicaid are using the same providers the rest of us are, and most of those are in the private/non-profit sectors.

2. You know what gets people "trapped in the life of poverty", Robbin'? When an uninsured or underinsured person has a medical emergency, and can't pay their bills as a result of the high cost of health care. Know what else does it? When people lose their jobs because they don't have paid sick leave. As recently as 2 years ago, 2/3 of Americans that went bankrupt listed medical issues as a main reason, and one bad medical episode is often the event that puts them past the point of no return.

Hey Robbin', I understand that Koch makes a man say some really dumb things, and I know you have to race-bait with the "welfare" tag to deflect from the fact that WisGOP has no legitimate justication for not expanding Medicaid and saving billions of Wisconsin taxpayer dollars. But you gotta do better than this.

Inflation watch is on, but the Fed isn't biting

One week after the new stimulus bill has been signed into law, with checks already being deposited into tens of millions of Americans' accounts, the bond markets have reacted to all this money being pumped out.
But the short-term rates have not risen, and the Federal Reserve's Open Markets Committee said this week that it’ll keep the money flowing for the near future.
The median member of the FOMC still forecasts no liftoff from near-zero rates through the end of 2023, the same as Fed forecasts from December. Three months ago, five Fed officials saw at least one rate hike over that time horizon. But in this week’s release, seven (of 18) officials now see at least one rate hike.

In its updated Summary of Economic Projections, the FOMC now expects the unemployment rate to tilt down to 4.5% by the end of this year with inflation reaching 2.2%. Three months ago, the Fed expected an unemployment rate of 5.0% by the end of 2021 with inflation missing 2% until 2023.

The Fed reiterated that it is still waiting to see “substantial further progress” toward its dual mandate goals of maximum employment and stable prices before it pulls back on its quantitative easing program. The central bank maintained its commitment to purchase at least $120 billion a month in U.S. Treasuries and agency mortgage-backed securities.

The FOMC has also made it clear that it will not consider a rate hike until inflation (measured in core personal consumption expenditures) reaches 2% and shows signs of “moderately” overshooting that target for some time.
The “for some time” part of the equation is important because we will see some high year-over-year inflation numbers starting next month, as the lockdown-based deflation of prices comes off that 12-month clock.
So even if we get tepid increases of 0.2% in each of the next 2 months, the year-over-year amount will be at or above 3%, and I’d imagine there would be more voices asking for rate hikes (or at least fewer asset purchases) when that happens.

The other reason there may be talk of inflation is that it is costing businesses more in recent months to make products and provide services, especially in recent months.
The Producer Price Index for final demand increased 0.5 percent in February, seasonally adjusted, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. This rise followed advances of 1.3 percent in January and 0.3 percent in December. (See table A.) On an unadjusted basis, the final demand index moved up 2.8 percent for the 12 months ended in February, the largest increase since rising 3.1 percent for the 12 months ended October 2018.

Most of the February advance in prices for final demand can be traced to a 1.4-percent rise in the index for final demand goods. Prices for final demand services increased 0.1 percent.

Prices for final demand less foods, energy, and trade services moved up 0.2 percent in February, the tenth consecutive advance. For the 12 months ended in February, the index for final demand less foods, energy, and trade services rose 2.2 percent, the largest increase since a 2.4-percent advance for the 12 months ended May 2019.
It’s even higher before you get to the final product, which will likely raise costs and/or reduce profit margins as it moves further down the supply chain.

Much of this traces back to higher oil/gasoline prices in 2021 and other speculation in commodity markets. But those might be on the way down as oil is back down below $60 a barrel after dropping more than $5 on Thursday. And the runup in ag products like soybeans has leveled off in recent months.

In addition, the prices on soybeans futures drop from nearly 1400 to 1200 between May and November, meaning that traders are counting on this short run of inflation to end and go back to 2020 prices.

These reasons are likely why the Fed is waiting for US unemployment to drop further and stay down for several months before they start to tighten money, instead of reacting to the temporarily rising prices and longer-term interest rates. And that's the right response, as any change in interest rates will likely lead to a panic from Wall Streeters who see the cocaine party ending in our still-shaky economy, which could well re-start the cycle of layoffs and stagnate our recovery before we get back to anything close to pre-COVID normal.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Unemployment benefits continue, but that doesn't mean there aren't still barriers

In the American Rescue Plan Act, there were extensions for both the PUA and PEUC unemployment programs. This will allow for Wisconsinites to get up to 79 weeks of unemployment, carrying the time limit for these programs through to Labor Day Weekend, at which time you would hope that there would be enough people vaccinated by that time so that COVID is insignificant as an economic drag.

In addition, a $300 add-on for those benefits will continue for that time period (under the FPUC program), as will the newer Mixed-Earner program. However, many Wisconsinites are still waiting to get benefits under PUA and the Mixed-Earner program, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
But one item that is changing with unemployment benefits in Wisconsin is that the waiting week is back. That's because the State Legislature has not passed anything that would have allowed the waiver was that was in effect last week to continue.
In an email Monday, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) spokesperson Grace Kim said the waiting week is "again in effect for new initial applications filed for the week of March 14, 2021."

In Wisconsin and many states across the country, unemployment benefits are typically not payable for the first week a recipient is eligible for benefits. But that waiting week comes on top of the length of time it takes state unemployment agencies to process a person's claim, said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the left-leaning National Employment Law Project.

Recipients in Wisconsin must undergo a one-week waiting period each time they start a new year of benefits, according to DWD's website. That means those filing new initial applications for unemployment starting the week of March 14 will experience the one-week waiting period, Kim said.
Oddly, this week marks the restoration of the Feds paying 100% of the unemployment costs that occur due to removing that one-week waiting period (it was 50% between New Year's and ARPA). But even though it costs state taxpayers ZERO and adds stability for out-of-work Wisconsinites, WisGOP's claim that everything is economically fine in March 2021, and therefore don't feel a need to do anything. But that may be by design in WisGOP World. Vos's "things are fine" theme is starting to be echoed by employers complaints that these unemployment benefits may be too helpful for potential workers.
"We're seeing a decline in applications," Sarah Luchsinger, Vice President of Organization Development for SEEK Careers [in Wausau].

Luchsinger is on the front lines of this issue. Although she thinks extended benefits are important for some industries, its not one-size-fits-all.

"There are a lot of workers out there that could be earning a larger amount of money than they are," said Luchsinger….

"Right now, here in Wausau there are jobs that are paying between 15 to 16 dollars-an-hour for entry-level. And that's going to pay that person more than what they would make on unemployment," said Luchsinger.

She says its an employees market and there are plenty of jobs in Wisconsin.
Of course, Ms. Luchsinger is not saying what those jobs are - I would surmise they require certain skills and certifications, and are not something that some random person can get off the street. And if those jobs are more than unemployment would give someone, why wouldn't they take it? The assertion doesn't really add up to me, and we're still seeing well over 13,000 Wisconsinites file new claims each week (and over 100,000 overall) - far above the 5,000 that were filing new claims before the COVID World came to Wisconsin in March 2020.

DC is doing their job in making sure that the large numbers of people still out of work in March 2021 stay afloat and continue to pay their bills. But WisGOPs and Wisconsin employers need to do their part in helping those same job losers and job seekers stay on their feet as we start to come out of the COVID-induced gloom.

And this is why he's known as Russian Ron Johnson

Well, this is interesting news to drop today.

And who was one of the main people laundering this Russian disinformation to Americans?

Andriy Derkach? Why have I heard that name here in Wisconsin? Oh! Here we go.

And the name Kostantin Klimnik also keeps popping up in the DNI report.

Now here's where Ron Johnson and Konstantin Klimnik come together. This is from the redacted version of the Mueller Report from April 2019.

• The report notes that Manafort instructed Gates to “provide Kilimnik with updates on the Trump campaign—including internal polling data.” According to Mueller, “Manafort expected Kilimnik to share that information with others in Ukraine and with Deripaska. [Deputy Campaign Manager Rick] Gates periodically sent such polling data to Kilimnik during the campaign.” We knew that some polling data had been shared, but we did not know the extent of it and what exactly was shared....

The report also details how Trump’s campaign chairman had his deputy share “internal polling data prepared for the Trump Campaign by pollster Tony Fabrizio” via WhatsApp and those communications were deleted “on a daily basis.” When Manafort briefed Kilimnik on that data, he also discussed “ ‘battleground’ states, which Manafort identified as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.” And both Manafort and Gates assumed that data would be shared with a close Putin ally in Deripaska. What happened next to the data is a mystery. Mueller could not prove one way or the other whether it was used in Russia’s attack against the 2016 election—but Mueller did note that his team had a “limited ability” to gather such evidence.
Guess who benefitted from the Russian-targeted misinformation campaigns in Wisconsin in 2016? Yup, Ron Johnson, who was surprisingly re-elected after being left for dead for much of that year.

Maybe this helps explain why ol' Russian Ronnie's been even more ridiculous and squirrely in recent days, eh? Wonder how clear the connections between Trump/GOP campaigns and Russian disinformation get in the unredacted report. RoJo's scared, and he has good reason to be.

It is well past time for Adam Schiff and other leading Dems in Congress to call our Dumb Senator down to their Committees to answer just who fed RoJo the BS he was spewing before the 2020 election. And make Russian Ronnie answer why he (ab)used his position as a committee chair to cover up how Americans (and especially Wisconsinites) were being misled by Russian misinformation.

Johnson's treason (what else would you call it?) seems obvious, but watching Ronnie squirm and/or perjure himself would be well worth it. And it's LONG overdue.