Tax Reform Roundtable Comes to Western Wisconsin

Last week Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and Wisconsin Department of Revenue Secretary Rick Chandler visited northwest Wisconsin to discuss state tax policy and its impact on our household budgets and economy. The visit by the Lieutenant Governor and Secretary Chandler was part of a series of twenty roundtables on tax reform that they have held around the state to gather suggestions and comments from taxpayers.

I was pleased that our region was included in this tour as a roundtable was held last Thursday in Hudson at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls’ Hudson Center. Area residents, small business owners, local elected officials, and economic development professionals took part in this event to share and discuss their experiences with taxes in Wisconsin.

In addition to suggestions on improving our tax climate, a number of attendees at the roundtable raised the importance of controlling spending at all levels of government. Some of the key themes of the roundtable included:
• Addressing property taxes to help seniors, working families, and small businesses,
• Continue the Legislature’s efforts to reform assistance programs to encourage those seeking to re-enter the workforce,
• Reform onerous taxes that are affecting small businesses due to the economic downturn, and
• Repealing the personal property tax that hits Main Street businesses particularly hard and is difficult for local governments to administer.

As discussed by Secretary Chandler in his presentation at the roundtable, the State Legislature and Governor passed three significant tax relief measures this session, totaling over $500 million in property tax relief and nearly $750 million in income tax cuts. Overall reductions to the tax burden since 2011 amount to over $1.9 billion in taxpayer savings. While these are positive developments for Wisconsin taxpayers, there is more work to be done to address the state’s tax burden. I look forward to working with my colleagues next session to continue our progress on keeping more of your hard-earned dollars in your pockets.

Those that were unable to attend the roundtable but would like to submit comments or suggestions to the Lieutenant Governor and Secretary Chandler can do so online at www.taxreform.wi.gov/. This website also includes information on the tax reform roundtables and Secretary Chandler’s presentation on Wisconsin’s tax structure.

What are your suggestions for reforming Wisconsin’s tax system? Please feel free to share your thoughts with me by visiting my website at www.harsdorfsenate.com or calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or 608-266-7745.

Summer Celebrations Ramping Up with June Dairy Month

Following one of the longest and coldest winters in decades, I know many are enjoying the recent pleasant weather and are looking forward to a wonderful Wisconsin summer. Community festivals have already begun in many areas this month and our summer celebrations will be in full swing starting with June Dairy Month.

Agriculture is an important component of our state’s economy, as it generates nearly $60 billion in economic activity annually and employs 10% of our state’s workforce – over 350,000 Wisconsin workers. Wisconsin has a proud history of being a national leader in dairy production and continues to be the top cheese producing state and ranks second in milk production. Additionally, Wisconsin’s exports of dairy-related products grew by 41% in 2013, amounting to nearly $400 million in trade.

We recognize our strong dairy farming industry each year during June Dairy Month. This provides us the opportunity to showcase our dairy industry and celebrate our agricultural heritage. I encourage you to join me in participating in June Dairy Month activities by visiting www.dairydaysofsummer.com to find events near you.

In addition to June’s Dairy Month events, Wisconsin’s Free Outdoor Fun Weekend will be held next month on June 7th and 8th. This annual event encourages residents to check out Wisconsin’s beautiful natural resources by waiving all state trail pass fees, state park admissions, and fishing license requirements. Many state parks will also make equipment available for use at no charge. More information on the Free Outdoor Fun Weekend can be found on the Department of Natural Resources’ website at www.dnr.wi.gov.

Another great resource for those seeking weekend outings or thinking about summer vacations is the Department of Tourism’s Travel Wisconsin website at www.travelwisconsin.com. Community festivals, art shows, farmer’s markets, and county fairs are just a few of the events highlighted through Travel Wisconsin. Those interested in more information can also frequently find details on community events through websites maintained by our area chambers of commerce and tourism bureaus.

Do you have suggestions on improving tourism promotion efforts in Wisconsin? Please feel free to share your thoughts with me by visiting my website at www.harsdorfsenate.com or calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or 608-266-7745.

Top Ten Accomplishments of the 2013-14 Session

With the recent conclusion of the two-year legislative session, we are provided a good opportunity to look back on the top legislative accomplishments of 2013-14. Here is my list of the top ten bills or actions taken by the State Legislature this session.

Tax Relief – The State Legislature passed three significant tax relief measures this session, totaling over $500 million in property tax relief and nearly $750 million in income tax cuts. Overall reductions to the tax burden since 2011 amount to over $1.9 billion in taxpayer savings.

Encouraging Job Creation – With our continued focus on encouraging job growth and improving our business climate, legislation was enacted to address the skills gap through workforce development initiatives, improving access to investment capital, and reducing unnecessary red tape.

Budget Surplus – Through economic growth, financially responsible budgeting, and working to live within the means of taxpayers, our state benefitted from an over $1 billion budget surplus. This growth in state revenues allowed the Legislature to invest in our priorities and enact tax relief.

Addressing Heroin Addiction – I was pleased to be the Senate author of the H.O.P.E. package that begins to address the heroin epidemic affecting our state. Two other bills that I co-sponsored will expand addiction treatment options in underserved areas and increase funding for local treatment and diversion programs.

Rainy Day Fund – Deposits have been made to the state’s rainy day fund for three consecutive years for the first time ever and the fund now has a balance of $280 million.

Enhanced DNA Collection – Recognizing the value that advances in DNA technology have on saving lives, apprehending career criminals, and saving taxpayer dollars, enhanced DNA collection was approved by the State Legislature and signed into law. I have championed this effort to collect DNA profiles from those arrested on felony charges to stop career criminals and provide relief to victims and their families.

Investing in Students – Prudent investments in education were made to support students and their families, as well as in funding private-public partnerships through technical colleges to address local workforce needs.

Improving Mental Health Services – Representative Erik Severson chaired a bipartisan task force that developed over a dozen bills that were enacted to reform and modernize our state’s mental health laws and to improve treatment and accessibility of services.

Tuition Freeze – University of Wisconsin tuition was frozen to help students and their families.

Reducing Barriers to Work – A number of bills were advanced to help individuals gain professional credentials and begin employment. Students attending a technical college or university may begin taking licensing exams before graduation as a means to enter the workforce more quickly. Legislation I introduced to further this effort involved eliminating unreasonable barriers for nurses trained in other states to be licensed in Wisconsin. This proposal was developed given input I received from an area nurse.

What do you believe is the top legislative accomplishment of the past session? You can let me know by visiting my website at www.harsdorfsenate.com or calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or 608-266-7745.

Citizen Input Results in State Law Changes

Since the conclusion of the 2013-14 legislative session earlier this month, the Governor has been reviewing and acting upon legislation passed by the State Legislature this spring. This process was nearly completed this week as the Governor signed 55 bills into law, including eight proposals that I authored in the State Senate. I am pleased that all of these eight bills enacted this week were suggested to me by local residents or have ties to our region.

One of these bills responded to the concerns of school officials and law enforcement regarding the increased availability and growing use of dangerous synthetic drugs and the associated problems that result. Last session, the State Legislature passed legislation that banned the sale of synthetic drugs, which are often times more potent than the drugs they seek to mimic. These synthetic drugs are commonly referred to by their street names such as K2, bath salts, plant food, and spice. This law change updates Wisconsin’s prohibition on synthetic drugs in an effort to keep pace with manufacturers and to help district attorneys as they prosecute offenders.

Several changes that I authored seek to reduce barriers between Wisconsin and Minnesota and were brought to my attention by area residents that were affected by these barriers. Living along the border, we recognize that we operate and work as a region with Minnesota and it is important to align our laws where possible for the convenience of residents. One new law allows Wisconsin border counties and municipalities to contract with Minnesota border counties to house jail inmates to find cost savings and address overcrowding. A number of residents also suggested increasing the length of three-vehicle combinations involving recreational vehicles to match what is allowed in Minnesota and Iowa, which will help promote our state’s important tourism industry. In addition, legislation I authored with Representative Dean Knudson reduces the number of training hours required to become a cosmetologist to match Minnesota’s training requirements.

Another example of reducing barriers is in training requirements for nurse aides, which is an occupation in high demand in our state. This issue was brought to my attention by a nurse that had moved to Wisconsin, but ran into licensing roadblocks when seeking to practice nursing in our state. Since Wisconsin’s nursing licensure law did not allow for reciprocity, under previous law, nurses moving into our state were required to complete their entire training program over again. Under the bill I authored, options are provided to nurses that received their license from other states to become licensed in Wisconsin without burdensome time and cost requirements.

Representative Erik Severson and I also authored legislation to improve the safety of snowmobile field training courses, given the tragic loss of a young girl’s life in Osceola last fall. With the Governor’s signing of the bill this week, snowmobiles used in field training exercises will need to be equipped with a device that limits the snowmobile’s speed to 15 miles per hour in an effort to help prevent future loss of life. The Department of Natural Resources has suspended snowmobile field training courses in response to this accident.

Do you have any suggestions on issues to look at for next session? Please let me know by calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or sending me an e-mail at Sen.Harsdorf@legis.wi.gov.

Legislature Passes Bipartisan Bills as Session Concludes

The 2013-14 legislative session concluded this past week with the State Legislature giving final approval to a number of bills addressing important issues ranging from the heroin epidemic, coverage of oral chemotherapy, and updating agricultural implement regulations.

Building on legislation passed earlier this session that focused on saving lives and discouraging the use of heroin, the State Senate gave final approval to a bill that will allow for the creation of regional comprehensive opioid programs. These programs will provide additional treatment options in rural and underserved areas for those in need of treatment.

Another bill that passed with bipartisan support mirrors a program that is seeing tremendous results in other states as it recognizes drug addiction as a public health and correctional issue. The “rapid response” legislation focuses on individuals who are convicted of a drug offense and during probation violate the conditions of supervision, such as abusing drugs again. The Department of Corrections will design a program that will create immediate, short-term sanctions for individuals who violate the terms of their supervision, as research has shown that drug use and reoffending is less likely when consequences are immediately imposed.

The State Senate also gave final approval to the oral chemotherapy bill, which will help establish parity between oral chemotherapy and intravenous chemotherapy under health insurance policies. As a cosponsor of this legislation, I am pleased that this bill was signed into law by the Governor last week and will help ensure cancer patients have access to the treatment that is most effective in fighting their particular cancer. Oral chemotherapy is a more convenient treatment option for those not in close proximity to a treatment facility and provides an alternative that can help improve a patient’s quality of life as they undergo the treatment they need.

Final approval was also given to legislation that modifies the weight and width allowances for agricultural implements in an effort to update regulations with current farming practices. As one of our state’s top industries, agriculture plays a vital role in our economy and this legislation will enable our farmers to continue to be productive and efficient.

These bills and other legislation given final approval by the Legislature are now before the Governor for his consideration. With the end of the legislative session, any bills that have not been acted on will need to be reintroduced in the next session in order to be considered.

What issues would you like to see the State Legislature take up next session? Please stay in touch by calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or sending me an e-mail at Sen.Harsdorf@legis.wi.gov.

State Legislature Passes Oral Chemotherapy Bill

Legislation to ensure access to oral chemotherapy for cancer patients was a highlight of a busy week in the State Legislature, as both houses work to complete action on legislation before the end of the session. Senate Bill 300 (SB 300), also known as the “Cancer Treatment Fairness Act,” was passed with broad, bipartisan majorities in both the State Senate and the State Assembly this week.

As a cosponsor of SB 300, I was pleased that we were successful in passing this important legislation that will help ensure that cancer patients have access to the treatment that is most effective in fighting their particular cancer. Even as intravenous chemotherapy is the most common chemotherapy treatment option, more than 25% of chemotherapy drugs being developed are administered orally. Additionally, oral chemotherapy can be an alternative for those whose illness has not responded to other treatments and has been shown to improve patients’ quality of life and provide a more convenient and less invasive treatment option.

SB 300 will create parity by requiring that insurance policies that provide coverage for intravenous chemotherapy also cover oral chemotherapy. The bill is expected to come before the State Senate for final approval on April 1st and will then go to the Governor for his signature.

In other action this week, the State Legislature also passed Senate Bill 648, legislation I authored that provides options to border communities to contract with neighboring counties in another state to hold inmates. Given the limitations of border areas due to geography in collaborating with neighboring counties, this legislation provides additional options to local governments to find cost savings or address overcrowding in local jails by partnering with adjacent counties in another state. This legislation is now before the Governor for his signature.

Other proposals given final approval this week by the State Senate and that have been sent to the Governor for his consideration include:
• Assembly Bill 270, which would expand the list of health care and mental health professions that may be covered by the state’s volunteer health provider program. This program encourages health care professionals to volunteer their services at no cost, such as through free clinics, by providing liability coverage through state government.
• Assembly Bill 668 provides an additional $1.5 million in state grant funding for county treatment and diversion programs that have proven successful at providing alternatives to courts in addressing offenders that are dealing with alcohol or drug addictions.
• Assembly Bill 620 strengthens and improves state laws to combat human trafficking, which is a rapidly growing criminal enterprise and a global problem affecting vulnerable children and adults.

Please free feel to contact me on these bills or any other issue by calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or 608-266-7745 or sending me an e-mail at Sen.Harsdorf@legis.wi.gov.

Harsdorf Votes for Property Tax Relief

State Senate Approves Returning State Surplus Back to Taxpayers

(Wisconsin State Capitol – Madison) – The State Senate took up and passed legislation this week that will complete efforts to return the state’s budget surplus back to hard-working taxpayers. The final package will lower property taxes for seniors and working families, lowers the bottom income tax rate, and improves the fiscal condition of the state’s general fund as compared to the original proposal.

“We are listening to taxpayers and returning the state’s surplus back to the pockets of those that earned it,” Harsdorf said. “I am pleased that this additional tax relief will help families during these challenging economic times and encourage further economic growth and activity.”

In addition to the tax relief included in the legislation passed this week, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue is modifying paycheck withholdings for state income taxes to reflect recent reductions in tax rates. These changes will ensure that workers take home more of their wages by lowering the amount the state takes out of each paycheck beginning in April. Between the property and income tax changes approved by the State Legislature and the withholding changes, it is anticipated that the average working family will see an approximate $700 annual benefit.

“Our action continues to put taxpayers first and is the third significant tax relief measure passed this session,” Harsdorf continued. “It is encouraging that our efforts to improve our state’s business climate and restore fiscal responsibility are paying off for taxpayers.”

Along with the tax relief, the State Legislature is committing a portion of the budget surplus to further ongoing efforts to address the skills gap. These funds will be used to provide more funding for job training in high-demand fields, grants for collaborative private-public partnerships to provide high school students with technical skills, and additional resources to assist those with disabilities to find employment.

State Legislature Addresses Heroin Epidemic

This week, the State Senate unanimously passed the H.O.P.E legislation, a package of bills I was pleased to introduce in the State Senate that address the growing heroin epidemic in our state. These bills, having already passed the State Assembly, will now go to the Governor for his signature.

While heroin addiction has been on the rise throughout our state, western Wisconsin has been hit especially hard. In 2013, in Hudson alone there were 7 deaths due to heroin overdose. Two Hudson residents who have been directly affected by heroin shared their personal stories of addiction and tragedy at legislative public hearings. Karen Hale lost her daughter, Alysa, to a heroin overdose and is now devoting her time and energy to saving lives. Phil Drewiske, a recovering heroin addict, shared his story of battling his addiction with heroin.

Two of the bills in the H.O.P.E. package deal with prescription drugs in an effort to make them less accessible to those that may struggle with addiction. Individuals who have become addicted to heroin often times report that their history with substance abuse started by taking prescription painkillers. The first bill will require individuals to show identification in order to pick up prescriptions of highly-addictive medications at pharmacies. By having this information on hand, pharmacies will be able to assist law enforcement in solving crimes and identifying those that are abusing prescription drugs. The second bill updates existing state law in order to clearly provide statutory authority for prescription drug disposal programs. These programs provide an important service by ensuring that prescription drugs are not readily available to those who may abuse them and that unwanted drugs do not enter our water supply.

The last two bills in the H.O.P.E. package seek to prevent loss of life by aiding those that have medical emergencies due to heroin use. Heroin users often use in groups, as individuals will help one another to “shoot up.” Unfortunately, when an overdose situation occurs, other heroin users in the group tend to leave the person rather than call to report the overdose for fear of being arrested. The third bill will provide limited immunity for possession of a controlled substance when an individual calls 911 or brings a person in an overdose situation to a health care facility. Finally, the fourth bill allows trained emergency service personnel and others to legally carry the drug Naloxone, also known as Narcan. This drug counters the effects of an overdose and can save lives if administered in a timely fashion.

While these bills are an important step towards addressing the heroin epidemic, there is more work to be done. We have seen success in treatment alternative and diversion programs in dealing with substance abuse and addiction issues, and two additional bills currently before the State Legislature seek to build on that success. One bill would create regional comprehensive opioid treatment programs in underserved, high-need areas. The second would create an evidence based program working with individuals on probation and parole for immediate sanctions for probation violations. This legislation will further our efforts as we address prevention, treatment, and the saving of lives.

What are your thoughts on combating the heroin epidemic? Please free feel to contact me on this or any other issue by calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or 608-266-7745 or sending me an e-mail at Sen.Harsdorf@legis.wi.gov.

Tax Relief Leads January’s Legislative Headlines

Last week, the Governor gave his State of the State address and outlined his proposal for returning the state’s over $900 million budget surplus back to taxpayers. This latest effort to deliver tax relief would be accomplished through reducing property taxes, a reduction in the bottom income tax rate, and adjusting income tax withholding tables that will increase the amount of money workers keep in each paycheck. Additionally, the Governor proposes using a portion of the surplus to deposit in the state’s rainy day fund to help safeguard taxpayers against future economic downturns.

The Governor’s plan seeks to reduce the impact of technical colleges on property tax bills by providing over $400 million in property tax relief. I have heard from citizens throughout our region expressing their frustration with the growth of the technical college levy on their tax bills. In past legislative sessions, I have proposed legislation seeking to increase the state’s commitment to funding technical colleges in order to reduce the property tax levy. I am pleased that the tax relief proposal before us acknowledges these concerns and would act to reduce the technical college levy.

In addition to enacting further tax relief, the State Legislature is working to finish action on a number of important initiatives and measures as we head into the final weeks of our legislative session. The State Senate took bipartisan action last week to approve ten bills seeking to improve mental health treatment in our state. These bills were the product of a bipartisan task force that was charged with reviewing and proposing reforms to state laws on mental health issues.

A number of bills I have been working on were also advanced or received public hearings last week. Several of these bills were brought to my attention by residents of our area, including Senate Bill 325, a bipartisan effort to strengthen state laws prohibiting dangerous synthetic drugs, such as K2 and bath salts. Law enforcement and school officials have expressed alarm over the increased availability and growing use of synthetic drugs and the associated risks that result from using these substances. Senate Bill 325 received final approval from the State Legislature this week and will now be sent to the Governor for his signature. Other bills acted on that were brought to my attention by constituents include:

• Senate Bill 75, legislation that would bring Wisconsin’s laws in line with those of neighboring states involving three vehicle combinations of recreational vehicles. This legislation received final legislative approval and will make our state more inviting to travelers and tourists.
• Senate Bill 435 is legislation commonly known as the “cookie bill.” This legislation seeks to encourage homegrown businesses that sell home-baked and home-canned goods and was approved this week by a State Senate committee.

Information on these bills and other parts of my legislative agenda can be found on my website at www.harsdorfsenate.com. I welcome your comments and input, which you can share through my website or by calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or 608-266-7745.

UPDATED: Propane Shortage Affecting Wisconsin

UPDATE 1/27:

Today the Governor took several actions to address the propane shortage being experienced in Wisconsin after having declared a state of emergency over the weekend.  The Governor ordered the Department of Administration’s Division of Energy Services to make an additional $7 million available to counties administering the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program (WHEAP).  For more information and criteria on eligibility for the program, you may contact the energy assistance call center at 1-866-HEATWIS (432-8947).

The rapidly rising cost of propane has exhausted some propane retailers’ lines of credit to replenish their supplies of propane as they become available.  In response, the Governor directed the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) to implement a $5 million loan guarantee plan aimed at providing these propane retailers with a new line of credit.  Under the plan, WEDC will offer 80% loan guarantees to Wisconsin propane retailers.

Additionally, the Governor instructed the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) to move forward with a similar $3 million loan guarantee plan for propane dealers.  While these actions seek to address the cost of propane, supply issues continue to keep propane reserves low.  Prior actions to enable companies to ship propane into Wisconsin by truck remain in place to aid in the effort to increase the supply of propane.

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In rural parts of our state, many Wisconsinites rely on the use of propane fuel, also referred to as liquefied petroleum (LP) gas, to heat their homes. Currently, a shortage of propane is affecting much of the country, including Wisconsin and the Midwest. The shortage is attributable to numerous factors including an unusually cold winter, the shutdown of a pipeline that previously supplied a substantial portion of the region’s propane supply, and a fall harvest that saw increased use of propane for corn drying.

To address the shortage in Wisconsin, the Governor has issued executive orders relaxing certain trucking regulations in an effort to increase the state’s supply of propane. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a declaration of emergency that will also aid propane transporters to meet demand.

The limited supply of propane is also resulting in burdensome price increases for many consumers. Individuals affected by the shortage are encouraged to contact their county’s social services office to inquire about their eligibility for assistance under the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program (WHEAP). For more information you may contact the energy assistance call center at 1-866-HEATWIS (432-8947).

With more bitterly cold weather on its way, you are encouraged to check in on those you know that are using propane for their heating source. Additionally, other recommendations include calling to schedule a delivery when your tank is 30% full to help ensure that you receive additional fuel to meet your needs and to lower the temperature in your home by a degree or two to conserve propane.