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Government
Local officials oppose state-mandated wheel tax referendum

Ask Milton City Administrator Al Hulick about a bill proposing a wheel tax referendum, and he’ll point to the Milwaukee Bucks’ new arena.

The state Legislature never asked voters before it passed lucrative funding packages for the Bucks’ soon-to-be-completed arena or for Foxconn’s mega manufacturing project in Mount Pleasant, he notes.

So why is the Legislature trying to impose referendums on local municipalities’ ability to enact wheel taxes, one of the last available funding tools for communities to fix their roads?

“Why is it so directly punitive toward local communities?” Hulick asked.

Wheel taxes are flat fees imposed on vehicles registered within a municipality. All money collected is used for road maintenance. Milton, Janesville, Beloit and Evansville are the four Rock County communities with wheel taxes.

Sen. Steve Nass, R-La Grange, has proposed a bill that would require any municipality wishing to implement a wheel tax to first get voter approval via a referendum. Communities such as Milton and Janesville would have to put their wheel taxes on the ballot within 18 months of the bill becoming law.

The referendums would have to be part of a regular election. But the municipality would have to pay the prorated cost of adding the question to the ballot, according to the bill’s fiscal estimate from the state Department of Administration.

If voters reject the referendum, no more wheel tax.

In a statement emailed to The Gazette, Nass defended his proposal and said it gives control to the people.

“This legislation does not take away the ability of a local municipality or county to propose a wheel tax. It simply gives voters and taxpayers the final say on whether a wheel tax is imposed in their communities,” Nass wrote in the statement.

“Holding a referendum requires municipalities to make the case to local residents that this new fee is necessary and will be used for its intended purpose of improving roads.”

However, having quality roads tends to be an expectation for most drivers, especially in a state where brutal winters routinely crack pavement and cause potholes.

And getting people to tax themselves is a tough sell, said Maggie Darr, assistant to Janesville’s city manager.

Janesville enacted a $10 wheel tax in 2012, but it didn’t generate enough money to keep up with road repairs. The city went to referendum in 2014, asking voters for permission to exceed the state-imposed tax levy limit—by up to $1.2 million annually for five years—and put the extra money toward street repairs.

It failed overwhelmingly, despite residents saying road improvements were one of their biggest priorities as the city began a strategic planning process, Darr said.

“That is why we have a system where you elect a city council, and they hear what your priorities are, and the council determines how to balance those priorities with the funding that’s available to us,” she said. “I tend to think that every April, we have a referendum on whether or not the city is doing the right things.

“If we enacted a wheel tax and the citizens don’t like it, they have the opportunity to vote out those city council members that voted in favor of the wheel tax.”

Janesville later doubled its wheel tax to $20 per vehicle, the same amount as Beloit and Evansville. Milton has a $30 fee.

Janesville receives roughly $1.1 million annually wheel tax revenue. Milton, which has not yet collected a full year of fees, estimates it will generate $120,000 to $160,000 per year, Hulick said.

Without a wheel tax, Darr, Hulick and Beloit Finance Director Eric Miller said their cities would have to borrow more money—which Darr said was a poor long-term decision—or cut spending from other areas to maintain roads.

None wanted to speculate on a wheel tax referendum’s likelihood of passing.

Hulick said Milton residents have come to expect a certain level of services. Reducing one area has a ripple effect on other sectors, he said.

Road repairs become more expensive per linear foot as a street’s condition worsens. Cutting a wheel tax would restrict Milton’s ability to do preventative maintenance and would be less cost-effective in the long term, he said.

As those costs increase, the city would have to take drastic measures to keep up with roadwork, Hulick said.

Beloit has had a wheel tax since 1986. Wheel tax revenue comprises 41 percent of the city’s street operations budget, spokeswoman Sarah Millard wrote in an email to The Gazette.

Miller, the city’s finance director, said laying off employees or reducing spending elsewhere are options, but they are last resorts.

“We’d rather keep people employed. No one wants to cut positions,” he said. “We want to maintain the number of services and services we currently provide, same as every other municipality does. We don’t want to cut services and offer less just to rob Peter and pay Paul.”

Nass’ bill is not the only one circulating that would affect wheel taxes.

Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, has proposed modifying wheel taxes to give municipalities more flexibility in the tax’s implementation.

The state currently requires wheel taxes to be flat fees. Bowen’s proposal would preserve that option, but it adds options for variable fees based on vehicle weight or value or the income level of the vehicle owner.

Hulick said it’s worth discussing Bowen’s legislation to shore up certain flaws in the current wheel tax structure.

But Hulick has a problem with the state trying to influence local government through a state-imposed referendum, which he called “unprecedented.”

Only 25 of nearly 1,900 Wisconsin communities have wheel taxes. He was certain other places had considered such a tax but decided against it, which is the right of local government.

In his statement to The Gazette, Nass said if voters think the wheel tax is a smart use of public money, they will approve it at the polls.

Hulick called that logic “flawed and shortsighted.” The government is a representative democracy, and governing bodies have the power to prioritize issues and spend money accordingly, he said.

“What I say to those legislators who say, ‘You don’t trust the people,’” Hulick said, “I say, ‘You don’t trust the elected officials.’”


Government
top story
Forecasters toil to make sense of weather 24/7

SULLIVAN

On a recent morning early this month, a bomb cyclone plundered its way up the East Coast.

The nasty nor’easter not only created heavy snow and high winds, it also locked a frigid cold snap squarely over Wisconsin.

In eastern Jefferson County, meteorologists at the National Weather Service office in Sullivan finally predicted some relief to a prolonged run of wintry misery in the state.

Every day, 24 hours a day, workers at the rural location monitor changing weather information to update forecasts for 20 southern Wisconsin counties, including Rock and Walworth.

Sometimes, they are wrong.

But the people who predict wind, rain and snow are more accurate today than ever before thanks to improved technology.

“The advancements have been tremendous,” said meteorologist Steve Davis, who has worked for the National Weather Service for 30 years.

In part, he attributes the increase in forecasting accuracy to computer modeling at the National Weather Service center.

The former Milton man, who now lives in Palmyra, said the changes have been incremental in recent decades.

“When I started, we issued a two-day forecast with a three- to five-day general overview,” Davis said. “Now, we issue seven-day forecasts that challenge the two-day forecast accuracy from 20 years ago.”

Forecasts still fall apart for any number of reasons, “but not as often as they used to thanks to the advancements of computer modeling,” Davis said.

A powerful mainframe computer system in the National Weather Service office is fed with information about what is happening in the atmosphere in real time, including radar readings of the locations of rain and snow and real-time satellite observations of clouds.

Three “American” weather models predict what is happening in the next 24 hours, the next three days and the next two weeks.

“Different weather services throughout the world have developed their own models,” meteorologist Tim Halbach said. “That is why you will hear references to the European model.”

The 24-hour forecast is typically reliable in terms of temperatures and precipitation.

“Beyond three days, it is less reliable,” Halbach said. “We always tell people to check the latest forecast.”

He called forecasters “their own hardest critics if things don’t go the way they predicted.”

“If we are wrong, we review the forecast to make it better next time,” he said.

Technology advancing

More than a year ago, the National Weather Service launched a new weather satellite that improves the visibility of smaller things and relays information more quickly.

“Instead of imagery every 15 minutes, we are getting it every five minutes and, at times, every 30 seconds,” Davis said. “This allows us to see rapid trends in thunderstorm development.”

As a result, forecasters can see where storms are starting more quickly and can issue more-timely warnings.

“I strongly believe our focus on early heads-up to these events, coupled with timely warnings, saves numerous lives every year,” Davis said.

Both he and Halbach said their main goal is to keep people safe.

They work with decision makers in school districts, including Janesville, first responders, departments of public works and emergency management at both the local and state levels.

Instead of just issuing a forecast and hoping users understand it, they interpret the information so officials can make critical decisions, such as whether to close schools.

Davis called the new role for forecasters rewarding.

“The direct interaction we have with our users and knowing we are having a big impact on their decisions is very motivating,” he said.

Halbach realizes firsthand why it is so important to issue tornado and severe-weather warnings.

He grew up in Fond du Lac and witnessed the devastating Oakfield Tornado of July 1996.

“I watched it from the driveway of my parents’ house,” he said.

In addition to satellites, the station depends on information from Doppler radar, which Davis called “unmatched in its ability to track weather moving through the area.”

In addition to telling them how intense precipitation might be, radar also gives them wind information by tracking the movement of rain and snow particles.

“This allows us to see wind circulations within a thunderstorm that pinpoints the genesis of tornadoes or strong straight-line winds,” Davis said.

Without getting too complicated, the radar sends out both horizontally and vertically polarized electromagnetic waves.

By comparing the results of the two signals, forecasters get an idea if the precipitation is hail, rain, snow or even birds or bugs.

The radar reaches all the way to Green Bay in the north to northern Illinois in the south.

Humans play roles

Forecasters also depend on people to provide them with important data.

“We get a lot of information from storm spotters and chasers,” Halbach said. “We have a network of people who report what’s in their rain gauges. People think it’s all about technology. But there are limitations to technology, and we still depend on people to provide information.”

In addition to the general forecast, meteorologists also issue aviation, marine and fire forecasts, and they have a large hydrology program that tracks and forecasts river stages for many locations across southern Wisconsin.

Davis called each work day different.

“I have a new puzzle to solve every time I walk in the door,” he said. “Some days are quiet, and some days are controlled chaos.”

In recent years, forecasters have become more engaged with social media, which gives people “an avenue to be brutally honest and, at times, insulting,” Davis said.

Still, “we have far more positive interactions with the public than ever before,” he added.

He believes one of humankind’s greatest achievements is predicting weather.

“We are predicting the future state of an incredibly complex and chaotic system,” Davis said. “Our forecasts aren’t always perfect, but they are very reliable. Even our harshest critics look at the weather forecast every day.”


Where the work-for-welfare movement is heading

WASHINGTON

As President Donald Trump and Republican leaders in Congress set out to impose tougher restrictions on welfare, their conservative allies across the country are trying to help them accomplish their mission, state by state.

Republican governors and state legislators are moving ahead with proposals that would make it harder for people to get and keep welfare benefits and restrict what benefits they get. Measures already have been floated in about a dozen states, and, policy analysts say, what happens in states in the coming year will serve as an indicator of what’s to come nationally.

Some state lawmakers are proposing new work requirements for people receiving food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, and for people receiving government-subsidized health insurance under Medicaid. Others want welfare recipients to pass drug tests. Many are looking to crack down on fraud by requiring recipients to prove their eligibility more frequently and with better documentation. Efforts to ban the purchase of junk food and soda with food stamps are also ongoing.

In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker last week called a special session for lawmakers to consider a package of draft legislation that would impose more restrictions on food stamps and Medicaid. His proposal and many others are driven by the philosophy that government benefits should only be temporary, and that people should earn the benefits if they can.

“Governor Walker has long believed that welfare should be more like a trampoline and not a hammock,” said Amy Hasenberg, Walker’s press secretary, in a statement to Stateline.

But Democratic leaders and welfare advocates say the restrictions Walker and others are pushing would strip people of the support that is allowing them to scrape by, and drive them deeper into poverty.

“These programs work,” said David Lee, executive director of Feeding Wisconsin, a statewide network of food banks. “They help people get the nutrition and health care they need in order to live, and work, and support their families. And that’s what we need to focus on.”

The movement to restrict welfare programs is being driven by conversations at the federal level. But Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., said much of the change in the coming year will occur as states experiment with new ways to deliver their programs.

What happens in states, she said, “may be a bellwether for things to come down the road nationally.”

Republican governors say they are invigorated by the Trump administration’s recent promises to give states more control over how they run programs, including welfare.

The federal government sets rules for administering both food stamps and Medicaid, and many states for years have sought permission to impose greater restrictions on eligibility, such as work requirements and drug testing.

The administration this month signaled it will follow through on its promise, when for the first time it approved a request from a state—Kentucky—to require able-bodied, working-age Medicaid recipients to work, go to school, get job training or volunteer in order to receive benefits.

Ten other states have submitted similar requests, and at least another—Ohio—is in the planning stages. Now that the administration has granted one of the requests, policy analysts and welfare advocates say many more states are soon to follow.

“It will soon become the standard and the norm in the United States of America. And America will be better for it,” said Republican Gov. Matt Bevin at a news conference this month to announce that Kentucky’s request had been approved.

People already have to meet work requirements in order to receive housing assistance and cash assistance through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. And in the past five years, most states have reinstated work requirements for able-bodied adults without children receiving food stamps. The new proposals would require some Medicaid recipients to meet work requirements for the first time, and would expand the requirements for food stamp recipients.

The goal is to “get the idle population back into the labor force,” to overcome the workforce shortages that exist in many states, said Jason Turner, executive director of the Secretaries’ Innovation Group, a coalition of about 20 human service and workforce secretaries from states with Republican governors.

Creating standard rules across welfare programs, such as work requirements, sets expectations for recipients, Turner said. The group has proposed requiring able-bodied, working-age adults without children to meet work requirements for food stamps immediately, instead of after the three-month buffer period now permitted under federal law.

The group also supports implementing certain work requirements for some parents, which more states are considering.

Maine adopted a new rule this past summer that requires parents who receive food stamps to register with a state service that can help them find a job. And Wisconsin is testing a program next year that would require parents in some regions to meet certain work requirements. Walker has proposed making those requirements permanent and statewide.

Walker also is proposing to increase the food stamp work requirement from 20 hours a week to 30.

The idea of stricter work requirements has long been pushed by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative nonprofit advocacy group based in Florida with staff in 14 states. Its advocacy work, policy analysts say, is driving many of the proposals for welfare restrictions in state legislatures.

Jon Ingram, the organization’s vice president of research, said he expects more states to impose Medicaid work requirements this year.

The ability to impose the work requirements may prompt leaders in conservative states to revive plans to expand Medicaid for the poor. State lawmakers in Kansas and Utah told The Associated Press, for example, that Trump’s shift gives their states more flexibility. “I have a lot of confidence that they (the Trump administration) will be willing to work with us and approve this,” said Utah state Rep. Robert Spendlove, a Republican pushing for a partial expansion in his state.

In Kentucky, Bevin said the new Medicaid program, which offers workforce training and job search help, will empower recipients to change their lives.

Kentuckians want “an opportunity not to be put into a dead-end entitlement trap but rather to be given a path forward and upward so they can do for themselves,” Bevin said.

The Kentucky program, and the work requirements proposed in other states, wouldn’t apply to most people on Medicaid.

Nearly two-thirds of the 68.2 million people on Medicaid would not be subject to the new rules because they are children, elderly or disabled.

The remaining third—about 24.6 million—are working-age adults without disabilities. But the work requirements also wouldn’t apply to many of them, who already work or don’t work for reasons that would make them exempt from the new rules—such as being caregivers or attending school, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.

If the goal is to help people get jobs, policy analysts from left-leaning organizations say, work requirements won’t help. Instead, it will cause them to lose their health insurance, sending them into a downward spiral, said Judith Solomon, vice president for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“They won’t get the blood pressure medication, they won’t get their diabetes supplies,” she said, “and then they get sicker, and it’s worse.”

Having subsidized health insurance actually decreases the risk of job loss, according to a recent study by researchers from multiple universities.

In another study, which examined work requirements under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that requiring recipients to work did not significantly reduce the share of families living in poverty in most cases. And, the study found, recipients facing work requirements were likelier to live in deep poverty than above the poverty line.

While many state officials want fewer people to need Medicaid, the challenge is ensuring that the changes really help people get back to work, said Matt Salo, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors.

“Are you cutting off your nose and saying, ‘Hey, my face weighs less. That’s a good thing,’” Salo said. “Or are you saying, ‘Hey, we are building a culture of volunteering, of working, and leading people to springboard out of poverty and into a situation where they can get health coverage elsewhere.’”

Salo expects legal challenges to the work requirements, and while more states may submit waiver requests, many may wait to see how those cases play out.

Along with work requirements, more states may look to require welfare recipients to pass drug tests. Historically, states have had permission to impose the requirement on people receiving cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. At least 15 states drug test for that program, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But in March 2017, Trump signed legislation that allows states to require drug testing for residents to receive unemployment compensation. And some states want to test applicants or recipients of other forms of assistance.

Proposals this year in Illinois, South Carolina and Wisconsin would require some or all food stamp recipients to pass drug tests.


Anthony Wahl 

Janesville Craig’s Jack Huml scores on a baseline layup during the Cougars’ Big Eight matchup against Middleton on Saturday at Craig. Jacob Ngobi led Craig with 17 points but four Cougars scored in double figures as the team took control by the end of the first half and cruised to a 71-55 victory. The win improved Craig to 7-8 on the season and 6-7 in league play. Story, Page 1B.


Al Hulick


 

Steve Nass


glance

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