December 29, 2016[Madison, Wisc…] It’s that time of year once again. The time when we take a moment to reflect on the stories of the year that shaped our state and our country. Any way you look at it, 2016 was another monumental year in Wisconsin.
The second in our series of year-end stories brings you the Top Ten MacIver Stories of 2016, stories that we put a particularly bright light on that will have a long-term impact on our state. In descending order, they are…
10. A Wild Election Year
Last year, we followed the arc of Gov. Scott Walker’s short-lived presidential campaign. This year, we followed the catapulting of Donald J. Trump from political outsider to the President-elect of the United States of America.
The horse race on the GOP side came down to Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Donald Trump by the time the Wisconsin primary came around on April 5. In addition to drawing huge crowds of supporters, Trump also drew crowds of protesters and the ire of leftist agitators. The MacIver Institute was there to cover many of them, including this viral incident featuring one of the free speech questions that has long dogged American politics – whether defacing Old Glory is a right [profanity]:
Cruz won the state’s primary, but by the time the dust settled it was Trump who prevailed and accepted the Republican nomination at the party convention in July.
On the other side of the aisle, self-avowed socialist Bernie Sanders gave Hillary Clinton a good run for her money. Eventually Hillary pulled it off and secured the Democratic Party’s nomination that eluded her in 2008.
After a general election season filled with more controversy, twists, and turns than anything even the most creative Hollywood script writer could conjure up, Trump emerged victorious, winning 36 more electoral votes than necessary to become the nation’s 45th president, including Wisconsin. Shortly afterwards, protesters hit the streets to express their disapproval of the new President-elect [profanity]:
The left felt compelled to protest right down to the bitter end and take one last stand at the vote of the Wisconsin electoral college – including the protester in this video, whose unhinged interruption of the vote gained national attention:
9. More Low-Price Crime Waves Hit Wisconsin
Last year, we warned Wisconsinites to use caution when shopping on Black Friday. After all, the state’s Unfair Sales Act, also know as the minimum markup law, makes deep discounts illegal in Wisconsin.
In 2016, more crime waves hit Wisconsin thanks to the minimum markup law, which is still on the books. We warned consumers about low prices on Amazon Prime Day. We also renewed our tradition of warning Black Friday Shoppers that they should be wary of suspiciously low prices when starting their Christmas shopping.
We also highlighted how the minimum markup law raises the cost of back-to-school shopping when we compared prices at Milwaukee Wal-Marts with prices at Wal-Mart stores in Chicago and Milwaukee. We also exposed the bureaucratic overreach the minimum markup law makes possible.
Fortunately, a bill repealing the Depression-era law is written. Unfortunately, it hasn’t gotten a public hearing yet.
The earliest Senator Vukmir and Representative Ott, the law’s authors, could re-introduce their bill to repeal the Unfair Sales Act is January 2017, when the next session of the legislature is scheduled to convene.
8. Dane County Spends $50,000 on “Implicit Bias” Conference
When we found out Dane County sent 200 of its employees to a day-long “implicit bias” conference intended to address racial bias in the criminal justice system, we felt compelled to investigate.
We found that employees from various divisions of Dane County’s judiciary and law enforcement system spent an entire work day attending the “Recognizing and Responding to Implicit Bias in the Dane County Criminal Justice System” conference on Friday, April 22.
The county spent an estimated $50,000 on the conference in staff salaries and other expenses, according to documents obtained by the MacIver Institute,
We also obtained copies of each presentation and the extensive feedback given by attendees through an open records request. After attending six different presentations that focused on the topic of racial equity from a variety of angles, employees in attendance submitted mixed reviews.
Some viewed the conference as a positive experience that will change the way they approach their jobs. Others viewed the conference less favorably – many attendees said the presentations were repetitive and the conference too long. Some suggested it could’ve been scaled back to a half-day instead of a full day. Many others said the subject matter did not pertain to their jobs.
A number of attendees also expressed disappointment that taxpayer dollars had been spent on the conference, with several reviewers commenting that the money would’ve been put to better use cleaning the dirty courthouse windows.
The MacIver Institute will continue to stand guard, highlighting questionable spending of hard-earned taxpayer dollars when others just stand by.
Taxpayers in the Badger State have enjoyed nearly $5 billion in tax relief since Gov. Walker first took office. That’s truly an accomplishment worth celebrating!
Over the course of six years and three biennial budgets, a wide variety of changes to Wisconsin tax laws have generated a total taxpayer savings of $4.756 billion, the LFB estimates. Those savings include 50 income and franchise tax changes totaling $3.018 billion in tax relief; 13 other general fund tax changes totaling $27.46 million; and five measures that target reducing property taxes, totaling $1.711 billion.
Gov. Walker and the legislature have consistently chipped away at the tax burden for nearly six years now. As a result, Wisconsin has made great strides in making our state a better place to raise a family, start a business, and retire – but the work is far from done. Stay tuned in 2017.
6. Battle Over Transportation Funding Heats Up
A clash over Wisconsin’s transportation funding has been in the making for some time. On one side, Gov. Walker and others have stuck by a pledge not to raise taxes or fees, including the gas tax and vehicle registration fee. On the other side of the debate are legislators and special interests who are open to raising taxes and fees.
The MacIver Institute has been there all along as the battle has developed into the marquee matchup of the next legislative session.
In a column earlier this summer Walker made his position crystal clear, writing, “For me, it’s simple. A family doesn’t add a major addition to their home if they don’t see a pay raise. Instead, they use current wages to make sure their home is safe and to cover basic maintenance. The same is true with transportation.”
Owen Robinson argued that the state doesn’t have a shortage of transportation revenue, it just spends too much. George Mitchell offered his own take rebutting the argument that no new revenue is needed and framing the debate to come.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) submitted its biennial budget request in September. Under that budget, local road maintenance would get a big boost in funding, but certain mega-projects in southeast Wisconsin would be delayed. As Walker promised, the proposal did not include a gas tax hike or registration fee increase.
Earlier in December, the transportation question took center stage in a lengthy hearing by the Assembly Committee on Transportation. The day-long hearing started with nearly four hours of testimony by DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb. Gottlieb explained his agency’s biennial budget request and answered extensive questioning from both sides of the debate.
Just this week, the latest chapter in the battle over transportation funding was written when Gottlieb’s retirement as DOT Secretary was announced. He will be replaced by current DSPS Secretary Dave Ross starting January 7.
5. UW’s Ongoing Poverty Cries Continue to Ring Hollow
The annual cycle of hearing the UW System claiming to be hanging by a string, then uncovering evidence to the contrary continued like clockwork in 2016.
In May, UW System administrators found $35 million in one-time savings that came from lower-than-budgeted benefits costs, as well as $20 million in savings in utility costs from a milder than expected winter. Apparently there is at least one upside to global warming. While just one-time savings, the money was set aside for staff salary increases – which are essentially permanent.
Gov. Walker also indicated earlier this year that he’s open to renewing the UW System’s tuition freeze in the next budget. The freeze is now in its fourth year. Renewing the freeze as part of the 2017-2019 budget would extend it into a fifth and sixth year.
Will the UW System survive?
Perhaps catching Walker’s drift, UW President Ray Cross got approval of his biennial budget request, which was sent to Gov. Scott Walker and the Department of Administration. The proposal requests $42.5 million in new general public revenue funding and does not increase tuition for Wisconsin residents. Cross said the budget increase request was “modest” and “reasonable.”
To make sure claims of doom and gloom for the UW System once again failed to come true at the start of yet another academic year, we visited the UW-Madison campus in September. What did we find? Students huddled around burn barrels? Professors pushing around shopping carts full of aluminum cans? Crime, looting, and biker gangs running roughshod? See for yourself:
4. Successful Welfare Reform Moves Wisconsinites from Dependence to Workforce
One major reform has quietly helped nearly 20,000 Wisconsinites move away from dependence on government and enter the workforce.
Gov. Walker’s work and training requirements for the FoodShare program went into effect in 2015, and since then they’ve led to increased wages and hours worked for participants in the FoodShare Employment Training (FSET) program. More than 14,400 people found jobs between April 2015 and August 2016.
That positive trend continued through the end of the year – nearly 18,000 people had found jobs by early December, and wages and hours continued to increase over the previous three months. From July to September of 2016, participants earned an average of $12.06 per hour, up from the previous three months’ average of $11.99. Participants also worked an average of 32.9 hours per week, nearly 45 minutes more per week compared to the previous three months.
The success of FSET is a win for taxpayers and the employers who hire FSET participants, but more importantly it’s also a win for the people who are moving off government dependence to independence, a well-paying job, and the dignity that comes with work.
3. Obamacare’s Downward Spiral Continues
From insurance giants dropping out to announcements of more massive price hikes, the demise of Obamacare was the least surprising story of the year.
United Health and Humana pulled out of the Wisconsin market earlier this year citing massive losses on the individual market. The decline in competition on Obamacare’s exchanges is a symptom of the larger problem with Obamacare: it’s built on a foundation of sand that’s doomed to eventually crumble as young and healthy people decline to pay the ever-increasing prices of the substandard plans.
Early data from the federal healthcare.gov website showed prices could increase 10 percent. That number jumped to nearly 16 percent once final rate hikes were approved by the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance.
Once the new rates were finalized, the MacIver Institute analyzed premiums and deductibles under Obamacare in 2017. Among our findings was that a Wisconsin couple unfortunate enough to be in their 50s with three children could pay almost $51,000 per year in Obamacare health insurance premiums in 2017 under one gold plan in southwest Wisconsin. Rate hikes varied widely around the state, with many plans seeing premium increases over 30 percent.
While far from ideal, Wisconsin’s 16 percent average increase is well short of the estimated 25 percent average national increase and far lower than Minnesota’s 50-67 percent increases announced in October.
In response to Minnesota’s sky-high rate increases, Gov. Mark Dayton rolled out an emergency plan that would spend nearly all of the state’s $313 million surplus on a stopgap measure to lessen the burden on families that don’t qualify for federal subsidies – a double-whammy for Minnesota taxpayers.
After a year of terrible news for Obamacare and its enrollees, does the left in Wisconsin still think we should’ve followed Minnesota’s lead and embraced the (Un)Affordable Care Act?
2. No Change in Milwaukee Public Schools Despite Reform Requirements
The past year has been pockmarked by a tug of war between Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and the Milwaukee teachers’ union – who want to protect their turf – and reform-minded legislators who authored the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program (OSPP) to reform failing MPS schools.
Under the requirements of the OSPP, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and OSPP Commissioner Dr. Demond Means put forth a mild, meek, watered-down turnaround plan. It was, however, a starting point. To the surprise of nobody, MPS came out against the proposal, countering with an even weaker plan of their own.
It wasn’t long before Dr. Means submitted his resignation as OSPP Commissioner. In his resignation statement, Dr. Means expressed his frustration over the increasingly adversarial attitudes he encountered and that kids weren’t the top priority. It seemed that MPS families who wanted better schools for their kids had reached a dead end.
But later in the year, one tweak to the Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) school district report card formula, and voila! MPS was no longer failing – problem solved! The DPI’s new report cards rolled out in November weigh student achievement and student growth differently based on the overall percentage of economically disadvantaged students within the district.
That’s not inherently a bad set of metrics – measuring the increase in student achievement rewards districts that make great strides. The new report cards do, however, conveniently shield MPS from the dreaded “failing” label and are just one more example of one bloated bureaucracy papering over the failures of another.
The bureaucrats at DPI and MPS can’t keep the problem hidden under the rug forever. Next year, it’s likely that the state legislature will take further steps to fix MPS. All the political maneuvering in the world won’t exempt MPS from a bipartisan federal law signed by President Obama, the Every Students Succeeds Act, which requires states take steps to reform their lowest-performing schools.
The adults running MPS will likely be forced to sit down and eat their veggies in 2017.
February of 2016 marked the anniversary of the start of Gov. Walker and the Republican legislature’s odyssey that resulted in the signing of Act 10, a milestone law in Wisconsin history.
A MacIver Institute analysis released in February found the law has saved Wisconsin taxpayers an incredible $5.24 billion over the past five years.
The analysis found that Wisconsin saved $3.36 billion by requiring government employees contribute a reasonable amount to their own retirement. The analysis also estimates local units of governments saved an additional $404.8 million total by taking common sense steps like opening their employees’ health insurance to competitive bidding.
Milwaukee Public Schools saved $1.3 billion in long-term pension liabilities, and Neenah saved $97 million in long-term pension liabilities in addition to other savings.
These savings are only possible thanks to Act 10, and the savings keep adding up every day, month, and year that goes by.
On its own, the UW System saved $527 million in retirement costs alone. More than 493 different units of government in Wisconsin have saved over $1 million since 2011. More than 100 units of government have saved over $6 million and almost 20 units have saved more than $20 million since 2011.
“We owe Gov. Walker and all of the courageous legislators who voted for Act 10 a big thank you,” said MacIver Institute President Brett Healy. “Gov. Walker has reduced the cost of government in Wisconsin by more than $5 billion – it is the gift that will keep on giving back to taxpayers long into the future. Five years and $5 billion in taxpayer savings later, it’s still working Wisconsin!”
After President-elect Trump takes office along with an all-GOP Congress, Washington politicians will have a great opportunity to model national reforms after those successfully undertaken in Wisconsin – Act 10 in particular.