December 27, 2016[Madison, Wisc…] Despite today’s never-ending, 24-hour news cycle, there are still crucial and important stories that somehow do not receive the attention they so richly deserve. Whether the mainstream media willfully ignores these stories or just misses them entirely, there are many essential stories the public deserves to hear.
That’s where your friends at the MacIver Institute come in.
With 2016 quickly coming to a close, it’s time for our annual roundup. This year, we start our series of year-end stories by presenting the Top Ten Under-Reported Stories of 2016. We start at number ten and conclude with the most under-reported story of the year.
10. Referendum Voters Around the State Increase Their Own Taxes
Our #10 most under-reported story of 2016 is the increase in the number of referendums where voters are increasingly approving local spending increases and essentially raising their own property taxes.
For example, of the 71 referendums on the April 5 ballot, voters approved 55 of them, giving school districts a total of $630.6 million in new spending power. Voters rejected only 16 referendums, a 77 percent passage rate – keeping with recent trends.
A MacIver Institute analysis also found that referendums held during Gov. Walker’s administration have increased in number, decreased in price tag, and have been far more likely to pass.
Legislators were concerned some school districts were up to no good by holding referendums on low turnout elections or placing them on the ballot during consecutive elections until they finally pass. The author of one piece of legislation intended to limit such tactics, Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), considers these to be dirty tricks intended to bypass the will of a majority of voters, particularly if a referendum initially fails.
In the end, assuming these referendums are held in a fair and democratic way, it’s ultimately up to local voters to be informed about the merits of the ballot questions and make the decision they think is best.
9. Republicans Roll Out Ambitious Agenda
When Speaker Paul Ryan and House Republicans rolled out their Better Way agenda back in June, the smart money in the media was on Hillary Clinton easily defeating Donald Trump in the November election. President Clinton would use her veto pen to stop any Better Way legislation, so what would be the point of giving any ink or airtime to the ideas contained within that agenda?
Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, President-elect Donald Trump will take office in January along with an all-GOP Congress. Right now, while everyone seems to be getting along, it’s likely that many of the ideas in the Better Way agenda – including tax reform, health care, the Constitution, the economy, national security, and poverty – will be signed into law by President-elect Donald Trump.
Brush up on the Better Way agenda and see what kind of legislation Congress is likely to put on President Trump’s desk next year.
8. The Left’s War on Free Speech
Receiving scant mainstream media coverage, the left’s ongoing crusade to stamp out free speech continued to grow more fervent in 2016. Democratic attorneys general banded together to intimidate climate change skeptics, including attempting to illegally seize private documents from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Then in July, 19 Senate Democrats took to the floor of the U.S. Senate in a fascist attempt to publicly intimidate and silence groups opposed to their policy positions. In response, the MacIver Institute joined the American Legislative Exchange Council and other groups from around the country in co-signing a letter fiercely defending the fundamental right to free speech of all Americans.
Joe McCarthy would’ve been proud of Senate Democrats for their Putin-like tactics.
Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, the effects of the John Doe probe still linger. In that ordeal, conservative activists had their homes raided and possessions seized in an attempt by some in government to use the heavy hand of the law to intimidate their political opponents.
Hopefully 2017 brings a new era of toleration for ideas from all sides of the debate, even the ones liberal-progressive officials don’t agree with.
7. Overtime Rule Threatens to Crush Businesses and Taxpayers
The Obama Department of Labor tried to double the overtime threshold without a single vote of Congress. First you’ve heard of it? You wouldn’t be alone – aside from a handful of fawning headlines praising the change, this major policy change and the undemocratic way the administration tried to implement it went virtually unreported in the mainstream media.
The new rule would have doubled the salary threshold to $47,500. Anyone not earning more than that would have to be paid overtime. It doesn’t take an HR professional to see the real-world impact such a drastic change would have.
It’s a classic one-size-fits-all blanket regulation because it doesn’t consider differences in the cost of living from one region to another. A bag of groceries bought in downtown Mequon does not cost the same as one bought in midtown Manhattan. The rule change was widely opposed by private and public sector employers, and it could’ve cost Wisconsin taxpayers $200 million over two years, according to one estimate.
Fortunately a federal judge in Texas blocked the rule shortly before its December 1 implementation date. It’s also increasingly likely that President-elect Trump will stop the regulation in its tracks, making this yet another part of President Obama’s cherished legacy that will go nowhere.
Future presidents who want to use their phone and pen to bypass Congress and dictate rules and regulations to the entire country should take note.
6. Crime Waves Hit Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s antiquated Unfair Sales Act, also known as the minimum markup law, managed to escape serious scrutiny in 2016. The law makes deep discounts illegal in the Badger State and requires gasoline and other items to be marked up 9.18 percent above cost.
Last year, we warned Wisconsinites about an impending Black Friday crime wave and to be on the lookout for suspiciously low prices. In 2016, multiple crime waves hit Wisconsin once again thanks to the minimum markup law, no doubt keeping the Price Police busy tracking down illegal good deals.
We warned consumers about low prices on Amazon Prime Day (which would be better described as Amazon Crime Day in Wisconsin). We also renewed our unfortunate tradition of warning Black Friday Shoppers that they should be wary of really good deals when doing their Christmas shopping.
We’re hopeful the legislation repealing the minimum markup law will be dusted off and given a long-overdue public hearing in the next legislative session.
5. Obamacare Co-Ops Fall Like Dominoes
While it’s hard to argue that Obamacare itself – notably its sky-high premium and deductible increases – received too little scrutiny, the failures of the health insurance co-ops set up under the (Un)Affordable Care Act were hardly even an afterthought.
That might be because they’re going belly-up so fast it’s hard for the media to keep up. We started 2016 with just half of the original 23 co-ops dragging themselves into the new year. At the dawn of 2017, we’re down to just four after Maryland’s Evergreen Health co-op recently threw in the towel and stopped offering plans.
Among the four is Wisconsin’s Common Ground, which secured secret funding from an undisclosed source to stay alive for a while longer. However, earlier this year we reported on a study that showed Common Ground’s ugly fiscal situation.
When a co-op fails, the consequences are worthy of media attention. Often, tens of thousands of people are kicked off their plan and forced to find new coverage. So much for “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan.” Hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funded financing also went down the drain with the failed co-ops.
4. Milwaukee Public Schools: The Rest of the Story
It seems MPS has a remarkable ability to sweep unsavory stories under the rug.
While the media preferred to report on the public breakdown of the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program (OSPP) and touted the flowery statements by MPS about their cherry-picked successes, the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering over OSPP went largely uncovered – as did the motives of MPS leadership in successfully stymying the turnaround plan.
From the very outset, the adults running MPS made a circus out of the turnaround plan, finally leading to the resignation of OSPP administrator Demond Means before any progress could be made. In the meantime, the children trapped in failing MPS schools continue to wait for the grown-ups to get their act together and finally tackle the shameful status quo at MPS.
Another under-reported story this year was the groundbreaking report on violence against teachers at MPS by WISN’s Dan O’Donnell. The report, entitled “Blood on the Blackboard,” revealed the shocking stories of teachers who endure violence in the classroom on an almost daily basis. O’Donnell told us the story behind the report here.
Needless to say, the public at large likely remains unaware of the true problems facing MPS thanks to the deafening silence of many in the media.
3. Welfare Reforms Help Wisconsinites Find Work
One of the great success stories of recent conservative reforms was virtually brushed aside this year, so it’s worthy of one more mention as 2016 becomes 2017.
Gov. Walker’s work and training requirements for the FoodShare program went into effect in 2015, and since then they’ve led to increased wages and hours worked for participants in the FoodShare Employment Training (FSET) program. More than 14,400 people found jobs between April 2015 and August 2016.
That positive trend continued through the end of the year as nearly 18,000 people had found jobs, and wages and hours continued to increase over the previous three months.
The success of FSET is a win for taxpayers, but more importantly it’s also a win for the people who are moving off government dependence to independence, a well-paying job, and the dignity that comes with work.
2. Taxpayers Keep Winning, and the Budget Hasn’t Collapsed
For Wisconsin taxpayers, 2016 was a great year, but you might not know it if you rely on your morning newspaper or nightly news report. Not only did we see that the tax burden in Wisconsin has been moving in the right direction, but that the state’s revenues are increasing.
The MacIver Institute reported that over the course of six years and three biennial budgets, a wide variety of changes to Wisconsin tax laws generated total taxpayer savings of $4.756 billion, according to an estimate by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
In February, we also released a report highlighting more than $5 billion in taxpayer savings from Act 10 during the five years since the landmark law was enacted in 2011.
Despite the all-too-predicable cries that the billions in tax relief would put government in the poorhouse and destroy any ability to pay for basic services, the sky is still up there and the lights are still on at the Capitol. In fact, the Department of Revenue estimates steady revenue growth over the next biennial budget period – an increase of $343 million in revenue for the 2016-17 fiscal year, a $448 million increase for ’17-’18, and a $482 million increase in ’18-’19.
As has been demonstrated time after time, fiscal responsibility and lowering the tax burden is a recipe for economic revival and financial success.
1. National Debt
Last year, the national debt was our top under-reported story. Just 12 short months ago, the debt was $18.8 trillion, a staggering number. As the debt clock above shows, that figure has of course only grown larger – with nary a peep from anyone in the media.
The nation will soon cross an ominous threshold: $20 trillion in debt, by far the most debt any country has ever held in the history of the world.
Yet, it seems even many in the conservative media have brushed the debt problem under the rug. Part of President-elect Trump’s stump speech was to spend an additional trillion dollars on infrastructure. It’s not entirely clear how he plans to pay for it. Some of his supporters have said much of the money will be recovered by reforming the tax code, revitalizing the economy, and re-patriating the enormous sums of money American companies have parked overseas.
Without specifics, it should concern Americans if the plan ends up being to put the new spending on the national credit card. However, there is hope. Trump’s plans to lower tax rates, reform the tax code, and pull back on regulations could spark an economic renaissance. Many of his cabinet picks also have the potential to actually reduce the size and scope of the federal government.
It was disheartening to see an entire presidential campaign go by with hardly a mention of the massive weight of the national debt. But we’re cautiously optimistic that the new political landscape will be an opportunity to finally turn the tide on rampant deficit spending by the federal government with a long-term debt reduction plan.