Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Self-absorbed end of year note on this blog

As 2013 draws to a close (and this is a good thing), I wanted to give a thanks to my 5 groupies and the random others who dropped by the Funhouse this year. It's a great outlet for me to handle this messed-up, deception-filled world, and if a couple of you reading have learned something that you can pass on to your buddies, all the better.

Here are the 5 most-viewed posts from this last year. I'll have a few words on each, and feel free to take a gander.

1. June 8 - Wisconsin's economy- it hasn't just sucked for the last 3 months.

Hilariously, I wrote this article the morning of my wedding, and it was one of many "Philly Fed survey coincident index" articles. This is right before Gov Walker's administration tried to use this same index to indicate the state was finally starting to grow (and I and others noted that the "improvement" still left Wisconsin dead last in the Midwest since Walker/WisGOP came to power in January 2011). A lot of the reason I write what I do is because I recognize our political media has little clue in how to read economic figures, and falls prey to the spin that politicians and stink-tankers give to them, and this post is an example of that.

2. Oct. 3 - United Sportsmen Scandal Pt. 1- where we've been.

This basically was a rundown of former Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder's connections to the corrupt Koch front group United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, and also illustrated how United Sportsmen connected to the mining interests that wrote the bill to try to open up the Penokee Hills to GTAC. If you remember, Suder was quitting his Assembly post to take a high-paid regulator's position with the Public Service Commission, but stepped away from the job after the United Sportsmen scandal heated up. I wrote this post the day Suder proved he wasn't so "unintimidated" to stay on, instead choosing to be a lobbyist for the (Koch-affiliated) paper industry. The J-S head honchos took Jason Stein off of the United Sportsmen story after Suder's comeuppance, but I got a feeling we'll hear from these guys again as John Doe Deux's details come out in 2014.

3. Nov. 25 - The good, bad and ugly in senior services

While I also propped up the good story of the Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources (GWAAR) and Dane County working to add more services to the elderly, I bet the bigger reason you read this article was because of the allegations of grant-rigging by the Walker Administration. (read them again at this link) Amazingly, the grant-rigging story was buried by most state media, including the Journal-Sentinel, but I noticed that my tweets on the subject keep getting relayed more than a month later. I also combined this callous disregard for outcomes and cronyism with the ongoing failures of this administration on Medicaid- failures you can bet will continue to occur in 2014. We need to keep the pressure up with stories like this, on both the WisGOPs, and the media, because you can bet both of those groups don't want this issue discussed in any detail.

4. Sept. 4- Walker Administration keeps deceiving on Obamacare

This is one of many "exposing the Walker Admin's BS" posts I've had on Obamacare, illustrating how this administration has tried to sabotage the Affordable Care Act's implementation in the state from Day 1. Since Obamacare implementation combines wonky policy items and budgetary effects, it's both mysterious to a lot of people (which allows them to be misled), and is something I can usually explain a lot better than media can, so I write about it quite a bit. Also because this administration says blatant lies about Obamacare that are often unchallenged, in tandem with other Koch/ALEC-run states (in this case, Indiana, Ohio, and Georgia). I recognized Walker's Insurance Commissioner was intentionally giving "apples to oranges" comparisons in insurance costs, and omitting very important context like what sort of treatments were covered and the amount of subsidies and tax credits that were available to cut consumers' costs. This type of garbage is sure to continue next year as well, but with people actually being covered under Obamacare and the world not ending as a result, I bet it falls flatter and flatter.

5. Nov. 26- New Philly Fed index out- where's Walker's press release?

This came the day after the grant-rigging post that was the Number 3 most-viewed, so there was probably some crossover viewing here. The October Philly Fed coincident index came out after Walker's Administration had been trying to pull the "It's Working" routine when the last couple said the state's economy was looking good. This gave Wisconsin more pedestrian numbers, and the Administration was strangely silent (as they were when a similar "Wisconsin had moderate growth in November" report came out from the Philly Fed on Christmas Eve). And by the way, even with the better growth numbers of the last few months, Wisconsin is still dead last in the Midwest by this index's measure since January 2011- when the Age of Fitzwalkerstan began.

I won't be going away from this blog in 2014. In fact, I fear I'll have plenty to discuss and refute in this election year, given that our courtesan media won't dare go after the golden goose of campaign cash (the way the Journal-Sentinel headline writers tried to cover up Jason Stein's revelation of a $93 million Medicaid deficit yesterday is a good example). Oh well, the need to do good and prevent misinformation never seems to go away, and it'll continue next year.

Thanks for reading, and let's make 2014 better than what we have now.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Population numbers show slow Midwest growth

A lot of things can be sliced and diced from today's release of the Census' population estimates for 2013. But I figured I'd hone in on the Midwest and compare it to what's going on nationwide.

First of all, the country's population is estimated to be up 2.20% since the end of 2010, from 309.3 million to 316.1 million. It's a steady climb that stay's on pace for the population growth we saw in the last decade. And like we saw from 2000-2010, population growth in the Midwest has stayed slower than that, although how much slower changes based on the state.

First, let's look at how population changed in the Midwest in the 2000s.

Population change, 2000-2010
U.S. +27.3 million (+9.7%)
Ill. +411,339 (+3.3%)
Ind. +403,317 (+6.6%)
Minn +384,446 (+7.8%)
Wis. +323,311 (+6.0%)
Ohio +183,364 (+1.6%)
Iowa 120,031 (+4.1%)
Mich -54,804 (-0.6%)

So Minnesota, Indiana, and Wisconsin were 1, 2, and 3 for largest rate of growth, Michigan and Ohio were the clear laggards, and Illinois added the most people (in no small part because it had the most people to begin with). Now let's compare that to what the Census estimates since the middle of 2010 to the middle of 2013.

Population change, 2010-2013
U.S. +9.8 million (+2.20%)
Minn +110,043 (+2.07%)
Ind. +80,937 (+1.25%)
Wis. +53,653 (+0.94%)
Ill. +42,440 (+0.33%)
Iowa +40,102 (+1.31%)
Ohio +25,373 (+0.22%)
Mich +19,473 (+0.20%)

Minnesota is a clear standout, adding nearly 30,000 more people than the next-closest state, and more than double 5 of the 7 states in the region (including Wisconsin). The big-population states of Illinois, Ohio and Michigan are especially slow, with all 3 in the bottom 7 of the U.S. (and the 4 slower states all have populations under 2 million), and this can really be illustrated when you compare the average change per year from 2010-2013 vs. the 10 years before then.

Per-year change in population, 2010-13 vs. 2000-10
Minn +36,681 ('10-'13)vs. +38,445 ('00-'10) (-1,764 4.6% slower)
Ind. +26,979 vs. +40,332 (-13,353 33.1% slower)
Wis. +17,884 vs. +32,331 (-14,447 44.7% slower)
Ill. +14,147 vs. +41,134 (-26,987 65.6% slower)
Iowa +13,367 vs. +12,003 (+1,364 11.4% faster)
Ohio +8,458 vs. +18,336 (-9,878 53.9% slower)
Mich +6,491 vs. -5,480 (+11,971, negative to positive)

So Michigan's declines have at least been reversed, even if the growth is extremely slow. Minnesota and Iowa is pretty much adding the same amount of people they were in the 2000s, and that's better than the other 4 states, which have seen the brakes get slammed on in growth- especially Ohio and Illinois. Wisconsin doesn't look that great either, especially when you consider the two states to our west (Minnesota and Iowa) have stayed level while we're adding barely more than half the people each year than we previously did.

Now some could theorize that cold weather is a deciding factor that applies nationwide....until you see that North Dakota, D.C., Utah, and Colorado are in the top 5 for growth rate nationwide, and the snow flies in all of those places, so throw that theory out. It appears that what helps is a low and declining unemployment rate. Minnesota and Iowa have by far the lowest unemployment rates in the region, each being below 5 percent. There seems to be some relationship to how bad a state got hit by the Great Recession, as Ohio, Michigan and Illinois all exceeded 10% for several months, but Indiana is an interesting exception to this rule, as they have continued to add people at a good rate (for the Midwest anyway), and that has continued as the state's unemployment rate has fallen to 7.3%. By comparison, Ohio and Michigan each saw drops in their unemployment rates by more than 3% from 2010-2012, but haven't seen their population grow like Indiana's (both Ohio and Michigan have seen their UE rates go UP from where they were at the start of 2012, going against the U.S. trend).

Wisconsin follows neither of these rules- we never got higher than 9.1% unemployment, but we're still sharply decelerating in our population growth. The contrast with Minnesota is especially noteworthy, and perhaps it shows that people value high quality of life and job opportunities over pro-corporate tax policy and lower wages (and think how big the gap would be if fast-growing St. Croix County wasn't in Wisconsin, but was in Minnesota, where many of its residents work).

This is more information-based than anything else, but continued slow population growth is a real economic and social issue when you start projecting what the Midwest will look like in 20 years. And destroying its strong traditions of good public education and rewarding hard work doesn't seem to be the way the way to reverse the trend.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

16 games and whaddya get? More football!!

When it comes to sports, I get a little perspective as I age, and I don't get surprised from a lot of things any more. But I've still never seen a topsy-turvy season like this Packers' one. But after THAT GAME, the roller coaster has been definitely worth it.

Now I'm very concerned about the pack playing the Niners next weekend. It's the team that seems to have the Packers' number, they seem to be peaking (SF has won 6 in a row and has their swagger back), and between Kaepernick and Harbaugh, there's a whole lotta cockiness to get annoyed with when it comes to San Francisco.

But I'm damn glad that I get to worry about it, instead of have the Packers' season be over. Especially when it comes at the Bears' expense.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The tax reform we should discuss- streets and transportation

1. This topic seems timely given that temperatures are in the process of dropping more than 50 degrees in less than 36 hours in these parts. Saturday's Journal-Sentinel had a story on Milwaukee and Waukesha having their snow and ice removal costs go way over budget in 2013, In Wisconsin, local governments have a calendar-year budget (January-December), and the cold and snowy December has put a major pinch onto things.
The City of Milwaukee is likely more than $1 million beyond what it had allocated for clearing streets, with the exact figures yet to be tallied. The budget for 2013 was $7.9 million, but the city Department of Public Works already had spent $8.6 million as of Dec. 17. That was before last weekend's storm that dumped another 7 inches of snow on the city.

"We estimate that our costs are above $10 million but we won't have final numbers until all invoices are paid and charges are posted," said Sandy Rusch Walton, department spokeswoman....

Officials from other municipalities also said their budgets are stretched and salt bins low as December ends.

"We did order more salt this month than previously because of this weather," said Tom Eeg, assistant commissioner of the Department of Public Works in Racine. "The temperature has been below the average, too, which means yes, we are doing more salting and brining."
Some cities such as Milwaukee have separated snow and ice removal into a separate fee that appears on property tax statements, but many others include it as part of regular property-tax funded services, which means that if snow and ice removal runs high one year, some other service often has to be sacrificed. This is especially true in recent years, as the Walker/WisGOP budgets have cut shared revenues to municipalities for both general services as well as to help pay for local roads. Strict property tax limits have compounded this situation.

Partly as a result of this austerity combining with harsh winters, it has led to a need to make adjustments to policy to conform to Wisconsin's reality. The state already had to transfer big money out of highway construction this Summer due to higher winter maintenance costs from the previous months.
The 2012-13 winter season was more severe in most parts of the state than the five-year average (the basis of the Department's winter budget planning). In particular, snowfall totals were 46% above the five-year average on a statewide basis. As a result, counties incurred costs exceeding the amount budgeted for winter maintenance by an estimated $14,440,000. In addition, the counties' use of salt exceeded the amount set aside for the season, as well as the Department's salt reserve, which required the Department to replenish supplies during the season, at a total cost of $11,220,000. In total, therefore, winter costs exceeded the amount budgeted by $25,660,000.

Because of the nature of winter maintenance, the Department has already incurred the encumbrances or expenses for which the request is being made. The Department is required by statute to reimburse counties for their actual expenses, so it is not possible to avoid those costs by providing a partial reimbursement of counties' costs. Similarly, the purchases of additional salt were made during the winter season to avoid depleting supplies. As a result, expenditures and encumbrances in the Department's highway maintenance and traffic operations exceed budget authority in the appropriation. [Although winter costs exceed budgeted amounts by $25,660,000, some expenditures are not expected to be incurred in 2012-13. The Department's request of $25,000,000 is the amount that would be needed to avoid having the Department's maintenance and traffic operations appropriation end the fiscal year in deficit.
Given how the 2013-14 winter has start (31 inches in 30 hours in Ashland???), there may be a need for another additional injection of help state side. So the question is "How do we make up for this?" Do we cut certain road projects, or cut local road aids to local governments (who are already hurting, as you saw above)? The 2013-15 budget did put in more state funds for highway maintenance, so maybe the state's fiscal gap won't be as bad this year, but it still doesn't solve the problem for local governments in 2015 (especially if they've gone into their reserves to take care of this year's snow and ice removal costs), and there is now a higher base level of spending that is going to have to be met by the state in the next budget.

These concerns lead to a larger issue. The state's Transportation Fund already is slated to get $175 million from the General Fund and other non-transportation fees in 2014-15, and is still projected to spend $30 million over what it takes in, with major borrowing costs coming due in the next few years. In addition, Walker ignored the recommendations by a state tax force asking for a 5-cent raise in the gas tax to pay for a backlog of projects and needs, so that makes the up-front costs more if you decide to catch up in the future. So what do you do in 2015-2017? Throw even more sales or income tax revenue to Transportation? Larger fees for items like vehicle registration and driver's licenses?

Here's my suggestion. Why not have a part-time raise in the gas tax, from May 15-September 15? This would be the height of tourist season, meaning that more people from outside the state are paying the additional tax, instead of having people who work and live full-time in Wisconsin pay more of it, and it also allows for the roads to be better maintained so they can get to Wisconsin in the Summer.

Maybe we could also look at funding transit instead of adding huge projects in the Milwaukee and Madison areas? Especially in light of the US PIRG report from earlier this month that showed people are actually living closer to work in the state's two largest metro areas.
New Orleans has seen the largest drop in per-capita VMT – 22 percent – since 2006, possibly a result of Hurricane Katrina. The urbanized areas containing two Wisconsin cities, Milwaukee and Madison, saw the second and third biggest drops in per-capita VMT – 21 percent and 18 percent, respectively. Two Pennsylvania urbanized areas, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, saw the fourth and fifth biggest drops in per-capita VMT – 14 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
Why not match policy to these changing commuter pattersn, and instead of sinking massive amounts of money into freeway expansion, why not have those funds go toward transit and local streets, since those seem to be getting used more? And maybe we should allow these communities to form Regional Transit Authorities and have the freedom to fund the level of transit that they see fit, instead of being dependent on state funding and property taxes? Heck, even the pro-Walker Journal-Sentinel said this week that RTAs should be brought back.

Unlike the stupid thought of dropping the income tax to 0% and raising the sales tax to 13.5% (I illustrated just how regressive and idiotic this proposal is here), this is the type of real tax reform Wisconsin should be looking into. We need to update our infrastructure and adequately fund transit if we want our economy to grow in the 2010s and our communities to remain vibrant, and developing more stable funding for these projects is much more important and effective than continuing failed trickle-down policies that inevitably will lead to a blown-up budget and unnecessary fiscal crisis.

Then again, we've seen that they don't want to have effective, stabilizing policy in Walker World. They just want to funnel money to campaign contributors and grab power for their little club. And talking about income tax policy distracts the public (and the lazy media) from the real funding discussion we should be having- how to pay for our streets, highways and transportation options.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

"We are two nations, but we do not have to be"

The always-strong Charles P. Pierce had an amazing essay right before Christmas that sums up where we're at quite well. It's the 3rd part of a Three Part series called "We are Two Nations," and here is an excerpt.
We are two nations but we do not have to be. We are two nations because we choose to be. We are two nations because we choose to blame the poor for their lot. We are two nations because we choose not to alleviate problems but to place the blame for them on the people least capable of solving them. We are two nations because we rationalize selfishness as virtue, success as being moral in and of itself, and however it was achieved, and contempt as wisdom. We are two nations because we choose to be.

We are two nations but we do not have to be. We are two nations because we choose to be. We are two nations because we have separated work from wages, justice from the law, and public service from politics. We are two nations because we have made the government an "other," a thing to be dreaded, a creature to be feared, instead of being the highest creative act a citizen can perform. We are two nations because we choose to be.
It explains our disease in this country quite well. I feel I am existing on a different planet than far too many in this country, because I have the ability to see more than 5 feet past my own nose and understand that governing means promoting policies that work out FOR PEOPLE THAT MAY BE OTHER THAN ME. And the reality that many of these people on a different planet are the ones making policy is something that often makes me very melancholy.

However, Pierce is still hopeful.
There is a kind of justice rising, I believe, and not just because of the season, although I freely confess to being a sucker thereto. There is a pope impatient with the shotgun marriage of cupidity and virtue, and who is not shy about explaining why. There is a sense in our politics that we are now paying for having abandoned the creative act of self-government through which we build a political commonwealth, a sense that we allowed that great work to be hijacked by religious grifters, and political bunco artists, and the various assortment of thieves and brigands to whom we handed the world's finances. There is a feeling in the land that the mist has begin to burn away, and that we see more clearly than ever the consequences of decades of choices, made and not made, and that we see more clearly than ever the work that has to be done to repair what we have chosen to do to our country and to ourselves. We can still refuse to do the work, but we no longer have the excuse available to us that we don't know what has to be done.
I agree that the everyday person recognizes that things are rigged in favor of the oligarchy, and that something should be done about it. But do the everyday people have the desire and time to make the effort to change that the big-money lobbyists and interests do? I hope so, but worry about how bad things have to take to snap enough people out of their comfortable lethargy.

I do believe that we are currently two nations, even though the vast majority of us have relatively common values and desires. But there are enough people in that other nation that aren't going to want to work with us in above-ground America, and don't have those common values, so we have to work around them to show the bystanders just how shallow, weak and foolish the people in the other country are. If you want to call it a Cold War, go ahead. But the older I get, the more I know I have no common ground with the "divide and conquer" crew who only communicate and receive information from within the right-wing bubble.

With that in mind, I believe there is no sense in trying to reach a compromise with a group of people who Pierce recognized in October were the logical extension of Nixon's ratfuckers from the 1970s. Tactics and power are everything with these guys, and basic governance is not a matter of concern. If it kills thousands of people due to substandard health care or drives millions more Americans into poverty from a lack of stabilizers in the economy, it's just collateral damage. Recognize that, and react accordingly. I don't have confidence in a corrupt political media to tell the truth, because they get paid big money from those who promote the division, hate, and oligarchy. But maybe enough everyday people will stop accepting the shit being shoveled to them, and start returning fire with the facts. That's the hope I cling to in the face of unparalleled cynicism, it's a big reason I write as much as I do here, and I will continue to do so in 2014.

Because just like 40 years ago, the ratfuckers can't stay in power any longer if you want this country to continue to be worth caring about. If these divisive bastards can be isolated into the fringe that they really are, then we can finally start progressing into a 21st Century nation, and stop being 2 nations, but instead be united by our common purposes and dreams.

MSP and MSN- the real drivers of any Wisconsin growth

Noticed an interesting thing with the release of the state's local unemployment and job figures. Take a look at the 3 counties in this survey with the lowest unemployment rates in Wisconsin.

Lowest unemployment rates, Wisconsin counties, Nov 2013
Pierce 3.4%
St. Croix 3.7%
Dane 4.0%

Intriguing, eh? Pierce and St. Croix Counties are the two closest counties to the Twin Cities, and Minnesota's 4.6% unemployment rate with the progressive social policies that attracts all the hipsters. And of course, Dane County is filled with wacky, overeducated lefties. In fact, Dane County is the leading area for Wisconsin job creation, as the Madison MSA added 5,300 jobs in the last 12 months, and no other metro area in Wisconsin gained more than 2,300 (Green Bay).

Hmmm, you think that possibly places that accept outsiders and have open-minded social policies attract the talent that makes people want to locate their businesses there? And yet we have GOP leadership turning away from this winning strategy at every turn, and instead supporting a Confederate system that has a small club of oligarchs run all decisions, be it in business, or in people private lives.

And you wonder why Wisconsin lags every other state in the Midwest in job creation over the last 2 years?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Not out of the woods quite yet

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, let's not get a false sense of security from that 4.1% growth level in the 3rd Quarter for the U.S. this Holiday shopping season is looking like it might be as chilly as the weather up here.
U.S. store visits plummeted 21 percent and retail sales dropped 3.1 percent in the week through Saturday, signaling a lackluster finish for stores' most important selling season, Chicago-based researcher ShopperTrak said yesterday.

Falling store traffic in recent weeks and uneven demand, especially for apparel, spurred chains to risk earnings by piling on the discounts to generate sales. Retailers including Neiman Marcus Group LLC were offering as much as 75 percent off, and some, including Macy's and Kohl's Corp. (KSS), were keeping stores open around the clock starting Friday. At the same time, Americans are increasingly shopping online.

"The numbers are a bit scaring," Bill Martin, ShopperTrak's co-founder, said in an interview. "This is modest growth."
Now Martin is still thinking we'll have 2.4% growth for the entire season, since sales were up before last week, and a lot of online shopping can also include gift cards that don't show up in sales till they're redeemed. But the same article notes that Target lost customers last week after their security breach made the news (even with Target scrambling to take 10% off everything as a "We're sorry" measure), and that department stores and teen apparel stores are both expecting declines in sales for this season.

With this in mind, I wonder if we might start seeing some serious vacancies and closings in brick-and-mortar stores over the next few months as the 4th Quarter figures roll in. I do believe the concept of large malls and big-box stores are things that are falling out of favor, particularly with people under 40 that grew up with the nightmare of those places being uncomfortably jammed and obnoxious. We'd rather buy things at our own pace at home. Now, many of these potentially lost retail jobs simply slip into other areas or into the new Amazon.com warehouses that are springing up everywhere, but it might not look so nice if you see a lot of empty spaces come this Spring.

Another item to keep your eye on is if our new housing bubble might be deflating. Numbers from the National Association of Realtors indicated that previously-owned home sales have been slowing down in recent months, possibly due to the reality of higher interest rates. The same phenomenom is happening in Wisconsin, where the Wisconsin Relators' Association said home sales were down 6% compared to November 2012. Now if you look inside those Wisconsin home sales numbers, they still look pretty good, with sales up 11.1% for the year and prices up 7.5%. But it also has been a long slog back from the decline in sales and home values that occurred between 2007 and 2011, and with the recent increases in unemployment claims and brutal December weather in much of the state, we need to keep our eyes peeled to see if the upward trend reverses in the coming months.

I still think we're more likely to continue growing than to decline in early 2014, but I also find a lot of the recent economic optimism on Wall Street and in the DC media to be a little premature. Better to stay level-headed than be suckered again by another bubble.

My take on the NFC North race

This is as accurate a metaphor as I can find for the NFC North "race" between the Packers and Bears, which will end one way or the other on Sunday.

But hey, since there has to be a winner, why not let it be the Pack?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

GDP shows upside potential, but not booming yet

In between all of the other economic data that came out this week, we received word that GDP for the 3rd Quarter of 2013 got upgraded to 4.1% from the previously reported 3.6%. Combined with the Federal Reserve keeping most of its bond-buying in place, it made Wall Street very happy, and the Dow Jones jumped more than 300 points after dropping much of the month of December on speculation that the cocaine party Fed's easy money policy was ending. It's also heartening to see why the number was revised up.
With this third estimate for the third quarter, increases in personal consumption expenditures (PCE) and in nonresidential fixed investment were larger than previously estimated.
So maybe the purchasing economy isn't slowing down as much as we thought. The revisions also raised the year-over-year GDP increase to 1.97%, and the private-sector GDP increase to just over 3.0%. Those were the best numbers in a year, and could signal that the stall-out of economic growth that we had in early 2013 may be ending.

But you'll notice that the trend until this last quarter was for lower growth, and a few other items tell me that prosperity is not yet guaranteed to be around the corner. The last 2 weeks of unemployment claims have seen huge increases, with 379,000 seasonally-adjusted claims last week and 369,000 claims the week before- both numbers well above the low 300s we'd been seeing in recent months. And with the lousy weather in much of the nation over the last couple of weeks, there may be another rise in claims coming. This could put a cap on holiday spending, and might hold down growth rates in the 4th Quarter. Obviously, there are many other moving parts in the GDP equation, but it's worth looking at what retailers are saying in the next month, as the Christmas season is a huge part of the earnings numbers for those types of businesses.

We also need to see if the recent reductions in unemployment benefits from the budget deal is going to compound this problem. If it does, maybe our growth rate decelerates again, and the conversation changes in early 2014. But right now, it feels like the overall economy is starting to pick up again, and the GDP report looks to be a good sign that the post-Great Recession economic upturn will reach a 5th year.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The other Snowden story- media choosing access > truth

Good article here by Reed Richardson, which got printed in both The Nation and on Bill Moyers' website, discussing Edward Snowden's situation, and the handling of it by the media. It goes over how the details of the NSA's (over)reach was available and had been pried into since 2010, but few "mainstream" media outlets chose to tie things together, and see the bigger story. And some of that media also sat on certain stories out of fear of disrupting relationships with government officials, which Richardson believes is a big reason why it was the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald that Snowden and other whistelblowers have gone to- because they realize he is outside of the DC insider Village.
However, the Snowden revelations and their subsequent publication haven’t just had an impact on issues of privacy and national security. They’ve also occasioned a re-awakening of a debate about the role of journalism (and journalists) in a democracy and its relationship to authority. As the lead reporter whom Snowden has entrusted with his massive trove of stolen secrets, former Guardian columnist/ reporter Glenn Greenwald has come to personify this new breed of independent-minded, advocacy journalist. He’s endured some clumsy smear attempts as well as a share of fair criticism of his reporting, but it’s hard to quantify how fully his lightning-rod persona has become fused to the larger discussion of the merits of “objective” versus “advocacy” journalism. On Twitter, as is often the case, these discussions have unfortunately devolved further into competing “teams,” either pro- or anti-Greenwald. Set aside all the hashtag vitriol, though, and you find that the Snowden effect precipitated this bracing debate between Greenwald and former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller that every journalist should read and think about, no matter what side you come down on.

To say, as his critics do, Greenwald merely got lucky that Snowden chose him for what might the biggest leak of all time is a mistake, though. Just as it is a mistake for those who might have legitimate critiques of a journalist’s portrayal of intelligence operations to lapse into old-fashioned, insider-y rank-pulling instead of honest engagement. Greenwald’s reputation as someone with an unabashed adversarial approach to covering government no doubt fit the profile Snowden sought for someone who would distill, curate and aggressively report the secrets he’d taken. It was no coincidence, then, that Snowden — and, before him, Pfc. Chelsea Manning — choose to leak everything he had to Greenwald instead of a major U.S. news organization, many of whom have on numerous occasions been too easily talked out of publishing stories by our government.
In fact, there were many "leigitimate media" members who not only questioned Snowden's revelations (even if they knew better), and tried to bring down Greenwald for allowing Snowden's allegations to be published. And now these same insider types are trying to ignore their role in trying to smear Snowden and Greenwald, which led to this awesome smackdown of the No. 1 weasel of the DC cocktail party circuit- Dancin' Dave Gregory.

Richardson points out that the Gregorys of the world are too cozy to the powerful interests they report on, and that by adhering to the lie of "objective" journalism are doing the audience a disservice- because they refuse to act when action and questioning is warranted in order to get the true story out.
These days, the establishment media all too often adopts an indifferent attitude toward how the public connects with what it publishes, content to merely be conveyors of information rather than providers of context, chroniclers of the powerful instead of champions of the powerless. That no doubt contributes to why the public mistrusts the press so much. [Very true- many viewers have a good indication when media members are trying to let bullshit pass, even if the viewers may not know what the truth is.]

Of course, the not-so dirty little secret about objective journalism is that does have agenda, it just won’t admit to having one honestly and transparently. In fact, the mainstream media advocates on behalf of politics and policies all the time. Most of the time it’s in service of the status quo, but not always. Take again, for example, the [Washington] Post’s Dana Priest. In 2007, she produced world-class reporting on the horrid conditions for wounded veterans recovering at Walter Reed hospital. Couched as objective, this was in fact advocacy reporting at its best, uncovering wrongdoing, challenging the status quo and shaming our military into fixing a broken system. Though she won a Pulitzer Prize for her work, what made her journalism stand out was that it applied a steady adversarial pressure to get results. In contrast to the intermittent nature of her “Top Secret America” series, Priest published 10 separate stories on Walter Reed over the course of 10 months.

That, to me, is the higher gear that journalism rarely engages but that our democracy demands. It’s also the primary takeaway from the past few months of the “Snowden effect.” That truly free societies depend upon a free press that does more than just finds the facts and tells the stories and calls it a day. They demand a larger commitment from journalists and journalism, a willingness to make the stories matter. To not just make a sound, but to be heard.
And this is the failure in Wisconsin's media that allows Scott Walker to maintain an approval rating near 50%, when his administration has been a corrupt failure by pretty much any objective standard. They shrug their shoulders when Walker or Assembly Speaker Robin Vos throw some assertion against the wall instead of looking into the claims and calling "BULLSHIT" on things that are clearly not true or filled with key omissions. And because they (and the corporations they work for) won't be given prime access to doings at the Capitol if they don't nod their heads and print the WisGOP line without question, it allows the lies to fester and become part of the conversation, instead of being laughed out of the building like they should.

And the inherent conflict of interest between corporate media thriving off of big-money campaign ad buys (as shown by the huge earnings the Journal-Sentinel got during the 2012 recall elections) and any attempt to question the role of money in politics (because doing so could cut off that organization from the ad gravy train) could go a long way toward explaining why Journal-Sentinel writers like Jason Stein, Daniel Bice and Patrick Marley are only allowed to look so deeply into obvious scandals involving Koch and Bradley front groups, and instead we're left to people like Lisa Kaiser of the Shepherd Express and Brendan Fischer at PR Watch to blow the whistle on biased "studies" and "news reports" that are nothing more than right-wing funded propaganda. The Wisconsin corporate media's dereliction of duty leaves the average state voter as the big loser, because they're not being allowed to find out the full story in the most commonly-available outlets.

So instead, alternative outlets have to be the source we rely on to bring truth to power, as we can only count on the corporate, insider media to only go after the story once they believe the worm has turned. With that in mind, watch this discussion with Glenn Greenwald from this June, and especially pay attention to the introduction that starts around 2:30 in. It's done by one of the few Wisconsinites that still do real journalism- my fellow Tosa East grad Jeremy Scahill (of "Dirty Wars" fame and other outstanding works). What Scahill has to say about how too much of our media chooses to be in bed with the subjects they cover is something that rings extremely true to me, stating that "real journalism is under attack." It should be a cautionary tale to all of us, and we have to tell our media "We see through your crap, and we're not buying what you are trying to sell us."

The ALEC/WisGOP tax "reform" fail

Regardless of what reality says, it seems like the big guns in the Wisconsin GOP want to have as many tax giveaways as possible. From Gov. Walker saying he'd like to consider lowering Wisconsin's income tax to 0% while his cabinet members hold closed-door meetings with "business leaders". It also includes Assembly Speaker/ ALEC Cabin Boy Robin Vos hoping to tack on more income tax cuts in the Legislature early next year, somebody at the puppetmaster's headquarters has handed down the orders.

Well, a quick check of Wisconsin's budget indicates that if the state wanted to keep the same amount of revenues coming in (i.e., avoid even further cuts in state aid), the state's sales tax would have to be raised from 5% to 13.5%. So the Wisconsin Budget Project decided to look into how much this would change the amount of total taxes Wisconsinites would pay, and it shows that 80% of us would lose in a "0% income, 13.5% sales tax" Wisconsin, and pay more.

We're not even mentioning that paying taxes "out-of-pocket" (like sales and property taxes) are harder for people to adjust to than never seeing the money in the first place (like income taxes), so this policy is even more negative than it appears, particularly for the lower incomes. But of course, performance and reality have nothing to do with this. Like many other issues, Walker and Vos are merely doing a copy-and-paste of the ALEC agenda. GOP-run Kansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina have all suggested in the last year a similar "0% tax, higher sales tax" combination, and it was shot down once the proposal got put on paper and people could see the real effects of this kind of policy. And none of these states have seen large increases job growth since a modified version of these ALEC laws went into effect (in fact, Louisiana has consistently ranked among the worst economies in the Philly Fed index).

This policy truly makes no sense from a fairness or overall economic outcome standpoint, and is merely an excuse to funnel even more money to the richest Wisconsinites. It would compound what we've already seen in America over the last 35 years, where lowering tax rates on the rich increases inequality, and keeps the average worker's wages stagnant despite growing productivity.

As I showed earlier this week, among the 7 states with no income tax, there is little correlation between that and higher job growth, or higher incomes. The biggest correlation found is that 3 of the top 4 states for having people with no health insurance had no income tax, and given the Scrooge-like policies on Medicaid passed this week by the Wisconsin Senate and signed by Governor Walker yesterday, WisGOP seems to be more than OK with higher levels of uninsured for Wisconsin (we already had the highest increase in the amount of uninsured over the last 2 years).

We're not even mentioning the businesses that would be hurt by the higher sales tax, as they would likely lose customers. You think the giant outlet mall in Pleasant Prairie wouldn't see a major loss when a lot of their customers could get the same items at Gurnee Mills 20 miles away, and pay a whole lot less is sales tax? And it's also worth mentioning that the fastest-growing county with the lowest unemployment in Wisconsin is St. Croix County, right across the river from the Twin Cities. A large number of those people work in the Twin Cities, and it wouldn't take much more to convince them to not want to live in Hudson or the nearby area, given that their property and sales taxes will be going through the roof, taking away a lot of the incentive to stay a further distance away from their work. We already are well behind Minnesota in social policy and economic growth over the last 3 years, so why compound these disadvantages?

By the way, we already have tax cuts going into effect in Wisconsin, the Koo-Koo ones passed in the last budget. Sure, our income tax revenues look good right now, but this doesn't take into account that these numbers are artifically inflated, and not just because of our bubble-isicious stock market. A sizable amount of that 7.1% increase in income taxes is going away in early 2014 because the Koo-Koo tax cuts were so ham-handedly thrown together at the last minute, and the lower tax rates weren't able to be taken out of people's paychecks in 2013. The good part of this is that a whole lot of us will be getting larger-than-normal tax refunds this year, but maybe ALEC Vos should also wait to see just how much revenue drops out of the state's coffers in the first 4 months of this year before we go around asking for more cuts on top of them, and in making people pay more sales tax on anything they might buy with that higher-than-normal tax refund. If only 7% of that income tax increase since July is going to be refunded, we're back to the FY 2012-13 levels of income, and the breathing room that Vos claims makes further tax cuts a viable possibility becomes a whole lot less.

We already know Fitzwalkerstan's tax policy is already very Bush-like, where we blow and borrow away any one-time surpluses and leave us susceptible to massive deficits once the economy has its next downturn. If revenues revert to the budgeted levels over the next 19 months, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau projects we already have a $725 million deficit in store for 2015-17, with the one-time bursts of Act 10 cost moves and cuts in shared revenues to schools and local governments already having been used. Which of course means that if we cut income taxes even further, and economic activity halts to drive sales taxes down further, we'll have little choice but to make massive layoffs and privatizations that sell state assets and services off to private companies for pennies on the dollar.

Oh wait, that IS the ultimate end-game here, isn't it? And that's why we need to step up and kill this zombie, trickle-down idea of 0% Wisconsin income tax in the grave before it rises out of there and starts to eat the brains of the public- and causing a lot more destruction to get rid of the zombies much later.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Jobs and claims on the way up in Wisconsin

A couple more jobs-related reports came out here in Wisconsin today, and both gave some insight into where we're going in the months after the time period shown in yesterday's "gold standard" QCEW report (gone over in detail here). First of all, the state released its own monthly jobs report, and it featured a solid gain of 4,000 jobs in the private sector (but only 200 overall due to lower-than-normal winter hiring in local government). October's strong report was revised up even higher, so the state has seen 18,700 additional private sector jobs in the last 2 months, and 15,200 overall.

Manufacturing has also been a source of major strength in the last 2 months, with 9,000 jobs added in that sector since September. It's reflective of a big jump in manufacturing jobs nationwide in the same time period (43,000), and with Wisconsin being one of the manufacturing-heavy states. It might also indicate that employers are ending their BS excuses about a "skills gap" and hiring workers at a fair wage, but we'll need the wage data to make sure on that one. Another big reason behind the good reports has been that workers are being kept on the job longer than normal as the weather cools, instead of being laid off. An example is in Construction, where only 2,600 people were laid off in November, a much lower-than-normal number that translated into a seasonally-adjusted increase of 2,600. The goods sector has certainly been a leader in the last 2 jobs reports, with 10,800 jobs gained overall.

On the flip side, hiring for Holiday shopping season seems to have started slower than normal, as shown by the Trade sector only adding 4,700 jobs, which translated to a seasonally-adjusted monthly LOSS of 6,000. The Leisure and Hospitality sector had larger than usual post-Fall layoffs (10,800), which meant a seasonally-adjusted loss of 2,400. We'll see if there's a snap-back adjustment in December, or if this is a sign of bad things in the service sector.

These good reports have helped to make up for the state's horrible spring jobs reports (punctuated by over 20,000 jobs lost in April), and a weak July-September period (only 1,400 jobs added COMBINED in those 3 months), and now the state is up over 40,000 private sector jobs gained for the year. It's cut into the Walker jobs gap a bit, but the private sector gap is still close to 50,000.

An indicator that this would be a decent jobs report was the lack of increased unemployment claims through the middle of November, as they were running 10%-20% below the amount of claims in November 2012. This has reversed a bit in recent weeks, famously during the week of Thanksgiving, when Wisconsin led the nation in increased claims (partly due to the later deer hunting season). The unemployment claims report that came out today included the Wisconsin numbers for the first week of December, and while it didn't come close to being the largest increase in the nation thjis time, new claims in Wisconsin still rose by more than 1,600 to 16,896. This elevated number is still below last year's totals, but not by much, and if the claims don't drop next week here(they didn't drop much nationwide), they'll start to fall behind December's numbers.

So while it has been a good run in October and November for jobs figures in Wisconsin, it's not looking that promising for December, as claims are starting to run up as the snow starts to fly. It makes the decision by the Wisconsin State Senate to delay Badgercare benefits for 83,000 Wisconsinites all the more cruel, as there stands to be many more people falling below the poverty line in the next few months, but apparently Republicans felt a state with a massive cash surplus couldn't afford to shell out the $23 million it would take to fulfill the governor's original promise to cover that vulnerable group at the start of the year.

Stay tuned tomorrow, as the state-by-state report comes out around midday, and we'll see if the state is starting to get out of its "last in the Midwest" hole that it put itself in for the first two years of Scott Walker's tenure.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Low pay and few jobs = 2 years of Fitzwalkerstani fail

No surprises to me with the release of today's Quarterly Census on Employment and Wages, at least on the jobs side. Wisconsin fared poorly for job growth from June 2012 to June 2013, 42nd in the nation for total job growth, and 37th for private sector jobs, and continued to horribly lag the vast majority of the Midwest.

Private sector job growth, Midwest, Jun 2012-Jun 2013
Mich +2.79%
Minn +2.14%
Iowa +1.50%
Ohio +1.48%
Ind. +1.38%
Wis. +1.02%
Ill. +0.98%

The time period measured is important to note, as it lists the 12-month period after the recall elections of June 2012. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Governor Walker each claimed that job growth in Wisconsin was being held back due to "uncertainties" surrounding the recalls, and they said there would be huge growth immediately afterward if Walker and the Wisconsin GOP won. Well, that didn't happen. In fact, job growth FELL by nearly 40% after Walker was retained.

But you gotta give credit to the WisGOPs for one thing- they're consistently sucky. This time last year, the state was 40th in private sector job growth, and they're 38th nationwide (and dead last in the Midwest) for the last two years- which happen to be the two years Walker's and WisGOP's budget was in effect. So feel free to run on THAT record, guys.

The wages side is a mixed bag. On the positive side, weekly wages for all Wisconsin jobs were up 3.0% in the last year, and 2.4% in the private sector, both above the national average (the 3.0% increase for all wages was 3rd best in the nation). The problem with that is Wisconsin wages were well below our neighbors to begin with, and so this doesn't allow us to gain much ground.

Average weekly wage, June 2013
Ill. $971
Minn $929
Mich $875
Ohio $830
Wis. $801
Ind. $776
Iowa $757

This is especially true in manufacturing. Not only did Wisconsin lose 118 manufacturing jobs in the year surveyed, it also short-changes the people working in those industries.

Average weekly manufacturing wage, June 2013
Mich $1,184
Ill. $1,127
Minn $1,089
Ind. $1,040
Ohio $1,033
Iowa $978
Wis. $972

And Wisconsin's manufacturing workers weren't getting real raises either, with weekly wages losing ground to the country's 1.5% inflation rate in the period measured. Wisconsin's wage growth in manufacturing rated a horrible 45th in the U.S., and only Ohio kept it out of the Midwest's basement in this category. Also note who's Number 1 here.

Change in avg. weekly manuf. wage, Jun 2012-June 2013

Minn +2.64%
Iowa +1.66%
Mich +1.37%
Ill. +1.08%
Ind. +0.67%
Wis. +0.62%
Ohio +0.48%

That's right, not only is Minnesota gaining jobs at twice the rate of Wisconsin, they're giving manufacturing workers raises that are 4 TIMES MORE than Wisconsinites are getting, and at higher wages. So if you were a "free agent" manufacturing worker with skills, would you locate in the places that's got the better economy and better wages, or the place that's stuck in the mud, and paying less? NO BRAINER, and that's a big reason why we're losing ground to our Midwestern neighbors.

It also proves yet again that Wisconsin CEOs that claim they can't hire because there's a "skills gap" are full of crap. The QCEW data prove that a lot of the problem stems from the fact that Wisconsin manufacturers refuse to pay a fair wage to potential workers, and until they stop being low-paying greedheads, they won't get the top-flight applicants they want.

And with Gov Walker refusing to discuss raising the minimum wage or try to pass any type of regulation that might make manufacturers do their part in shrinking the wage gap, we will continue to lose work and workers to other places that give them what they're worth.

The QCEW data once again makes it clear- it is not working here in Fitzwalkerstan, and we are losing ground to our neighbors the longer we stay on this road.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Medicaid and tax "reforms" make Wisconsin seem very Confederate

If you look at some of the policy proposals coming out of the Walker Administration, it doesn't sound like anything that's done in the Upper Midwest, an area of the country that traditionally has strong human services. And that's because this Administration's heart isn't with the Midwest and its values, but instead seems in line with that third-world part of the country with high poverty, low incomes and even less hope- the American South.

1. The best example of this is Walker's folly in refusing the expanded Medicaid funds that are part of Obamacare (I've touched on how stupid this is numerous times, most recently here, where I noted a report that said turning down Medicaid funding will cost Wisconsin $1.75 billion in federal funds by 2022). Greg Sargent's "Plum Line" column at the Washington Post pointed out that of the 4.8 million people that may face gaps in their health coverage due to their states not expanding Medicaid, 80% are in the South. Slightly more than half of those people are not white (I'm sure that's mere coincidence), and Sargent relays the findings of the Kaiser Family Foundation, who broke down the states that are and are not taking the Medicaid expansion, as well as identified the backgrounds of the people who would fall into a coverage gap.

Now to its credit, the Walker plan does not have much of a coverage gap, because the state's Badgercare program would cover all Wisconsinites below the poverty line after April 1, and those with incomes above poverty are eligible to get coverage through the federal exchanges. So the only people facing a coverage gap will be those in poverty without children between January 1 and March 31 (unless the Senate refuses to pass the bill this week, then these people would be covered on Jan. 1), but even with that in mind, there are over 160,000 Wisconsinites facing a serious disruption resulting from the delay of being able to finally go on Badgercare, or from families that are barely above poverty being kicked off of Badgercare, and having to get coverage through the federal exchanges.

And this type of health insurance disruption in Wisconsin is happening for no other reason than for Scott Walker to pose against President Obama to try to impress the fraction of a fraction that TeaBag Republicans make up in the electorate. As the Kaiser Foundation's map shows, it is a stance that is completely out of step with the rest of the Midwest, as well as virtually every other state that stayed with the Union in 1861.

The Kaiser Foundation also mentions that this modern-day "nullification" approach on Obamacare could be a harbinger of longer-lasting effects down the road, much like how the South lagged the rest of the country for decades after the Civil War.
These continued coverage gaps and their varied impacts across groups will result in millions of poor adults remaining uninsured and likely lead to widening racial and ethnic as well as geographic disparities in coverage and access to care.
And this week, Scotty doubled down on the Confederate-style policies, saying his administration was considering "tax reform" measures that could include abolishing state income taxes in favor of higher sales taxes. Obviously, this is an absurd trial balloon, especially since there's no proposal on paper showing what cuts in services or hikes in sales and local taxes would need to be done to make up for the revenue shortfall from getting rid of income taxes. After looking at revenue numbers from the most recent budget, quick math indicates the state sales tax would have to go from 5% to at least 13% to make up for the loss of $7.6 billion a year in income tax. And for a whole lot of Wisconsinites, they pay more in sales taxes than income taxes, so they'd really get hurt by this idea.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy breaks down who pays what taxes in each state every year, and for 2013, its "Who Pays" report on Wisconsin shows that sales and excise taxes take a bigger bite out the wallets of the bottom 60% of Wisconsin income earners than income tax does.

% of income going to various taxes, Wisconsin end of 2012
Hurt by 0% income, 13% sales tax
Lowest 20% of income- 6.2% to sales taxes, 0.0% to income taxes
20-40% of income- 5.1% to sales taxes, 2.0% to income taxes
Middle 20% of income- 4.0% to sales taxes, 3.5% to income taxes

Helped by 0% income, 13% sales tax
60%- 80% of income- 3.4% to sales taxes, 4.1% to income taxes
80%-95% of income- 2.5% to sales taxes, 4.6% to income taxes
top 5% to top 1% of income- 1.6% to sales taxes, 4.8% to income taxes
top 1% of income- 0.9% to sales taxes, 5.6% to income taxes

So go ahead Scotty, sell that one to the general public, since a majority of them would lose in this equation, on top of the large amounts of workers that have already lost due to Act 10 stealing their take-home pay, their lower property values, and the worst job performance in the Midwest. Of course, this administration probably isn't too aware of how many people would be screwed over by such a policy, since the only outside input they're allowing on any of these "tax reform" talks are in closed-door meetings with oligarchs, such as the one Lt. Gov Mini-van Rebecca Kleefsich held in Beloit last week.

And it's telling that Walker claims to be "envious" of places with no income tax. Let's take a look at a few economic stats of states with no income tax, compare them with Wisconsin and the rest of the U.S. right now, and see what Walker "envies" about them. We'll even forget the fact that 3 of these states are in the bottom 5 for population, and really aren't close to Wisconsin's demographics in any way.

Median Household income
Alaska $63,648
Washington $62,187
Wyoming $57,512
Wisconsin $53,079
Texas $51,926
U.S. $51,017
South Dakota $49,415
Nevada $47,333
Florida $46,071

Unemployment rate, October 2013
South Dakota 3.7% (2nd lowest)
Wyoming 4.6%
Texas 6.2%
Alaska 6.5%
Wisconsin 6.5%
Florida 6.7%
U.S. 7.0%
Washington 7.0%
Nevada 9.3% (highest in U.S.)

Seems like the 0% income tax groups holds up OK. Until you get to this stat, which ties in very neatly with Walker cutting people off of expanded Medicaid funding.

Percentage without health insurance
Texas 24.3% (no. 1 in U.S.)
Nevada 22.5% (no. 2 in U.S.)
Florida 20.7% (no. 4 in U.S.)
Alaska 18.4% (no. 8 in U.S.)
Wyoming 16.8%
U.S. 15.8%
Washington 14.0%
South Dakota 13.5%
Wisconsin 9.8%

But hey, who wants to be ahead of the curve by having 90% of their people insured anyway? Apparently Scotty would rather we be like the states that don't care for their poor and sick, while keeping incomes largely the same, and possibly more susceptible to economic bubbles that burst (as shown in states like Florida and Nevada). Nice priorities, huh?

Then again, Scotty doesn't care about what happens to most of us. He's already gotten his orders, and plans to carry them out any way he can.

And yes, someone from that woman's company was at the closed-door meeting in Beloit with Lt. Gov. Kleefisch. Because that's the way business gets done in "a truly red", Confederate state. As The Daily Beast's Jamelle Bouie so accurately put it today
Of course Scott Walker is looking at eliminating the income tax in his state.

I mean, why wouldn't you turn your state in a laboratory for plutocratic nonsense?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Numbers from the CAFR show Walker failure

Wisconsin's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) was released on Thursday, and while there's loads of data to go over in this document, I want to narrow in on a few points of emphasis.

1. Ignore all the spin at the start of the document and get into the numbers. On Page 34 of the PDF and Page 29 of the report, the CAFR shows a large budget deficit, based on Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).
The General Fund is the chief operating fund of the State. At June 30, 2013, the State's General Fund reported a total fund deficit of $(1.7) billion. The net change in fund balance during Fiscal Year 2013 was $468.3 million, in contrast to $733.0 million in Fiscal Year 2012.
This in itself isn't a big deal, as we all make payments on things in the present with plans to pay for them in the future, and it looks like good progress has been made, with the GAAP deficit dropping from $2.9 billion 2 years ago to $1.7 billion now, which Gov. Walker was quick to point out (and as a state employee, I say "You're welcome, Governor."). There's only one problem with this situation, and it's that candidate Walkersaid this in 2010.
Require the use of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) to balance every state budget, just as we require every local government and school district to do.
Huh, 'magine that, Walker lied to get himself elected. By the way, if you look at that page, Walker is going 0 for 5 in these "reforms", and he certainly doesn't include the addition of no-bid selling of state facilities and turning scores civil service positions into "Governor-appointed hack" jobs.

2. Page 39 of the PDF and Page 34 of the report goes into the state's debt, and it shows the amount of debt increasing in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan.
The total general obligation debt outstanding for the State as of June 30, 2013 was $7.5 billion, as shown in Table 8. During Fiscal Year 2013, $703.3 million of general obligation bonds were issued to provide for the acquisition or improvement of land, water, property, highways, buildings, equipment, or facilities for public purposes or to refund outstanding bonds. Of the bonds issued in the current year, $233.2 million was to be used for University of Wisconsin System academic and self-amortizing facilities; $257.6 million for transportation projects, $19.8 million for energy conservation projects, $61.7 million for environmental programs, and $131.0 million for various other projects.
And as the 2011 CAFR shows, this $7.5 billion is more than 11 percent higher than the amount of debt that the state had 2 years ago.

Outstanding General obligation debt, State of Wisconsin
FY 2010 $6.015 billion
FY 2011 $6.730 billion
FY 2012 $7.279 billion
FY 2013 $7.492 billion

This 2013 figure doesn't include the $2 billion in added borrowing that the 2013-15 Walker/WisGOP budget has, to help pay for his Koo-Koo tax cuts and other initiatives, so this number will increase as we go along. Not really "fiscally responsible", now is it?

3. The CAFR also goes into economic factors, and these don't look good for Wisconsin, for either the past or the near future. These show up beginning on Page 40 of the PDF and page 35 of the report, and it reiterates that Wisconsin's job growth lagged what was going on in the rest of the country under the first full year of the Walker/WisGOP budget.
Wisconsin employment continued to grow throughout 2012. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, total nonfarm employment in Wisconsin increased 0.9 percent during the year, but at a softer pace than national growth of 1.7 percent. Wisconsin employment decreased in 2009 and 2010 by 4.4 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively before increasing 1.1 percent in 2011. This performance matched national employment trends. Nationally, employment decreased 4.4 percent in 2009 and 0.7 percent in 2010 before increasing 1.2 percent in 2011.

More recently, Wisconsin's growth in employment has accelerated, closely matching the national growth rate. Between August 2012 and August 2013, Wisconsin employment has increased 1.7 percent. Nationally, employment is up 1.7 percent over the same period.
With the strong US jobs reports in the three months since August, Wisconsin needs to keep adding jobs at a brisk pace just to keep their jobs deficit at its already unacceptable level. We'll find out if they have later this week when the state's jobs numbers come out, and we'll also have the June 2012-June 2013 Quarterly Census on Wages and Employment come out, which seems likely to keep Wisconsin in the bottom third of the US for job growth.

4. Right after the employment info, the CAFR points out that the state's production and income growth also remain below national average. I also love how the DOA tries to spin this away in the report.
Wisconsin's state nominal gross domestic product increased 3.2 percent in 2012. This was in line with the 3.2 percent growth in 2011 and 3.4 percent in 2010, while representing a significant improvement over 2008 and 2009 when the state's economy shrank 0.2 percent and grew only 0.5 percent, respectively. It compares to a 50-state total for gross domestic product decline of 2.3 percent for 2009, and growth of 3.7 percent, 4.0 percent and 4.1 percent in 2010, 2011 and 2012, respectively. Since 2007, Wisconsin's gross domestic product increased by a similar magnitude to the national average at 10.6 percent compared to 11.7 percent nationally.
It takes a graph to show what this means, and you'll see that Wisconsin (in blue) had cumulative GDP growth above the nation's in 2009 and 2010 (under Doyle/Dem control) and has fallen behind the US since Walker and WisGOP took over.

The DOA writers didn't want to let you in on that, did they? The state is also lagging in income growth. These are nominal numbers, by the way, and not adjusted for inflation.
Wisconsin personal income grew 1.4 percent, 5.3 percent and 3.9 percent in 2010, 2011 and 2012, respectively. Nationally, personal income grew 2.9 percent, 6.1 percent and 4.2 percent in the same years. On a per capita basis, Wisconsin's income performance is similar to the nation's. Per capita income in Wisconsin increased by 1.0 percent, 4.9 percent and 3.6 percent in 2010, 2011 and 2012, respectively. This compares to growth of 2.0 percent, 5.3 percent and 3.4 percent in the same years nationally.
Actually, (nominal, not real) per capita income being up 9.8% over the last 3 years isn't that close to the 11.1% increase in the rest of the nation. It's a rate of growth more than 10% LESS than the national rate.

So the CAFR shows Wisconsin doesn't have a GAAP-balanced budget, we have growing debt, and lagging job, output and income growth. So explain to me how "it's working" in any type of honest analysis? Well, outside of increasing inequality in favor of campaign contributors and FUBARing the state so badly that its services may have to be sold off to oligarchs in exchange for big-time corporate payoffs. Maybe that's the intelligence of Fitzwalkerstan's design, but it sure screws those of us with real jobs and real lives.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Higher unemployment claims OK, but WisGOP Scrooges are not

1. I'm going to do a rare thing, and agree with Scott Walker's Administration that there is a legitimate excuse for the bad economic news that came out for Wisconsin this week. It comes from the weekly unemployment claims report, and Wisconsin stood out as Number 1 in a bad way.
The largest increases in initial claims for the week ending November 30 were in Wisconsin (+4,420), Ohio (+2,597), Kentucky (+1,538), Massachusetts (+1,129), and New Jersey (+1,124), while the largest decreases were in California (-19,920), Texas (-7,284), Florida (-5,400), Pennsylvania (-5,145), and Nevada (-3,295).
And usually, I'd use that as a reason to say "it's not working" and go from there. But the Walker Administration's reasoning for the 4,400+ added claims has some legitimacy behind it.
Officials with the state Department of Workforce Development explain that Wisconsin historically sees a seasonal increase in unemployment claims around Thanksgiving -- in part because of deer hunting -- but note the number of claims for 2013 is actually down from 2012 by 17.4 percent and the lowest since at least 2009.
And the recent history of Wisconsin unemployment claims bears this out. As you'll see from the last 4 years, claims usually spike up this year, and the week of Thanksgiving, and the average increase in claims during Thanksgiving week is just over 6,500. It just came a week later this year because Thanksgiving (and deer hunting) came a week later in 2013.

So 4,420 is actually less than in previous years, which makes sense, since the nation as a whole is seeing lower unemployment claims on the order of 10-15% year-over-year. The real test to me is to see what happens with the unemployment claims in Wisconsin for the most recent week, which get revealed next Thursday. The U.S. had an increase in unemployment claims (unadjusted) of just under 150,000 for last week- not too unusual, due to seasonal factors, but it should also raise Wisconsin's unemployment claims in the next report. That'll give us a good indication what the December jobs picture might look like, a lot more than this week's increase in claims will.

On the flip side, this seasonal increase in unemployment claims is what makes the Walker Administration's desire to delay Badgercare for childless adults all the more cruel. Because it is this time of the year when more people lose their seasonal jobs, and would need Badgercare to get by (especially if they were covered in their previous job). It's especially bad because these people previously received notification from the state that they would be eligible for services starting on January 1, and if the Senate agrees to these changes next week, they'll have all of 2 weeks to find out they're going to have be on their own for the next 3 months, and that includes the Holidays. But don't worry, the Walker Administration said today that they have a plan.
Wisconsin health officials plan to call and send letters to all 83,000 childless adults who were originally scheduled to start receiving Medicaid in January but now will have to wait until April under a cost-savings move by Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature.

The calls will be placed not only to those who thought they were about to receive coverage but also another 80,000 childless adults who have been on a waiting list but earn too much under tighter eligibility requirements set by Walker and the Legislature, said Department of Health Services spokeswoman Stephanie Smiley.
Isn't that nice of them? Poverty-level Wisconsinites will get a phone call and a letter to tell them they're screwed in the coldest months of the year that have the least amount of jobs available (of course, whether the DHS folks will actually reach them is a whole 'nother story). Tell you what, I've got a better idea. Why not accept the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, which would save Wisconsinites' taxpayer dollars, and cover all these people and many more! What a concept!

But OK, I understand Walker needs to do his symbolic "stand in the doorway" move against Obamacare for the right-wing bubble-worlders, and can't accept that. Fine. Here's another option, and it was laid out in State Sen. David Cullen's letter to Walker from a couple of weeks ago that called BS on this plan. All the state would have to do would be to cover the childless adults at or below the poverty level, AND families with children that are currently on Badgercare for the next 3 months. Doing both for 3 months would cost all of $21.6 million to state taxpayers- a drop in the bucket compared to the Medicaid costs, and with revenue numbers coming in strong so far, why can't we do the right thing through the winter months? To ignore that easy compromise should reveal the Wisconsin GOP as the self-absorbed "dollars over people" Scrooges that they are, and should be hung around their necks for the next 11 months, through the 2014 elections.

Given that the State Senate seems to be up for grabs along with the Governor's mansion next year (and the Assembly too, if there's a Dem wave), it would probably behoove GOP State Senators in purple districts to go along with this 3-month compromise. Especially in light of the proposed budget deal cutting extended unemployment benefits, delaying Badgercare for 83,000 Wisconsinites would be a brutal double-whammy in the dead of winter, and is the type of thing that leads people to take our their desperation in very bad ways. I'd recommend that the WisGOP Senators not push their luck on this issue when they meet next week, and work out the sensible compromise....but I bet they won't have the guts to.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Vos, Vuke and Icki illustrate Common Core fail

I got three quotes here, the first to show why the GOP's argument against Common Core is so foolish and hypocritical, and the second illustrates why there'd be reps saying and thinking things so stupid.

The first comes from Assembly Speaker and ALEC cabin boy Robin Vos, who said that having nationwide standards doesn't allow for local schools to have the freedom to decide their own curricula and levels of knowledge that they want their kids to have.
It’s important that our state continues to empower local school boards to decide what’s best for their students. State or federal bureaucrats should not force feed local school districts educational standards or curriculum. Our local school board members were elected and are accountable to the taxpayers for making the appropriate educational decisions for their communities.
Hmmm, Speaker Vos, that's an interesting comment, since you and your Republican colleagues had no problem with force-feeding local school boards with Act 10 when it came to how they should negotiate salaries, benefits and work conditions with their teachers. And you certainly had no problem with a top-down, hands-tying approach when it came to how much they could levy in property taxes. But because Common Core wasn't your idea, and wasn't ALEC-written legislation, NOW is the time to start talking about "local control" with schools, isn't it?

Then again, when you realize Vos refuses to subject his beloved vouchers face the same measures that public schools do, I guess it isn't all that surprising. After all, Robin Vos loves any idea that would make Wisconsin public schools mess up and look worse to the public, which would give him an excuse to privatize even more schools for his campaign contributors. ( Remember him telling Mike Ellis "I know where I can find $200 million in venture capital for schools?" I do.)

Another obnoxious Wisconsin rightie chimed in to ask that Common Core not be implemented today.
“While the Common Core State Standards may be better than what we currently have, I believe we can do better. They do not have the rigor associated with the top state standards in the US and around the world. The standards do not appropriately take into account the needs of advanced students. States are not allowed to enhance these standards due to copyright laws. They emphasize writing over reading which contradicts centuries of research. These concerns are just a few of the many discussed during this process.

Reading through the considerations of the two reports, I believe there is hope for getting Wisconsin’s educational system out from under the federally pushed Common Core State Standards." - State Sen. Leah Vukmir
Sen. Vukmir also asked for the State Legislature to have more oversight of what standards are, and to make sure the school boards follow what the Legislature hands down. Seems like she might want to get on the same page as Vos there. And yes, she was a vehement backer of fellow Tosan Scott Walker and Act 10.

Now, are Sen. Vukmir's "concerns" based on a belief that the standards are too light and aren't meeting kids' needs, or might there be something else in play?

Ah, there's your answer! Just more ALEC bullshit to try to denigrate public schools and them eju-kated types.

No you may ask, how can people in the suburban areas that Vos and Vukmir represent not see through their hypocritical bullshit that they are trying to throw around? Probably because far too many of Vossy's and Vukmir's constiutents are weak-minded bitter folks that get their "facts" on the radio from people like this.

These are the LAST people that should be making any decisions on education, or pretty much anything else that ends past their nose. They all have to go.

EDIT: Here's an excellent summary from Wisconsin Soapbox on just how much these people want to oversee and screw up our public education system. Please read it, and pass along.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Quotable in Wisconsin's Common Core K-12 debate

3 quotes that sum up a lot of things going on with the K-12 education debate in Wisconsin, and why you shouldn't allow people who are hostile to public education be the ones designing education policy.

First off, the state's Select Committee on Common Core standards released the results of a statewide survey of superintendents on Common Core today. Statements from GOP Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt and GOP Rep. Dean Knudson tended to focus on the cost that has already been done to adopt the nationwide standards, and expressed a desire to have legislators change the standards if they felt it wasn't fitting the state's needs.

The problem with these statements (well, in addition to Reps. Thiesfeldt and Knudson not understanding the concept of "sunk cost") is that the report included the actual testimony of the superintendents and other school officials, and they were overwhelmingly positive about Common Core, with many claiming it raised standards in the state, and that it would be foolish to go back on keeping those standards after districts have spent so much time and money getting the correct curriculum in place. One of my favorite quotes comes from John Engstrom, who's the District Administrator at the K-8 Friess Lake school district in Hubertus (which feeds into Hartford High School), and it makes up the last 2 pages of the Common Core report.
I am not a wholesale supporter of the Common Core. I have concerns about an overly standardized curriculum, an over reliance on standardized testing and the rise of a “Testing Industrial Complex,” a narrow focus on the role and purpose of K-12 education, and a lack of attention on the #1 problem impacting the educational experience of too many young people today- poverty.

If the Wisconsin Legislators were raising these types of concerns about the Common Core, I would be with them. However, the concerns I’ve heard from legislators have been quite different. At least one legislator chose to show an alarmist video in their local office that spewed lies and distortions about the Common Core. I would expect this sort of nonsense from an interest group or a private citizen, but not from an elected official.

Then, we moved to the hearings. The hearing I attended in Fond du lac left much to be desired. It did reveal some true colors, as it served as a platform for riling up the types of folks who think it is appropriate to distribute detestable packets of information- including a pamphlet entitled “20 reasons why Christian parents should get their children out of Wisconsin’s WEAC-run government schools.” Open the pamphlet up and the first thing you see is a verse from Matthew 18:6: “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drown in the depths of the sea.” Then, just for good measure, there’s a picture of a millstone. Get it?

Truly Horrible. And yet, sadly, this type of garbage was very much in line with the prevailing sentiment of the anti-Common Core crowd at the Fond du lac hearing. I will state with a high degree of confidence that most of the people who attended that hearing to oppose the Common Core have no connection to a public school.
And Superintendent Engstrom continues in this vein, mentioning that "We have not had one concern, not one complaint, about Common Core" from Friess Lake parents, despite being located in arguably the most Bagger-ific part of the state (one which supported DON PRIDEMORE for State Superintendent).

Bergstrom's criticism echoes the smackdown Dem Rep. Christine Sinicki gave the committee 6 weeks ago, when she resigned from serving on it, denouncing it as a Tea Party-organized sham. Fellow Dem Assemblywoman Sondy Pope has also consistently hammered on the Common Core Committee, and she immediately responded to the release of the report by urging Republican reps to make policy based on what education professionals had to say, and not politics.
Today, the results of a survey that was sent to school district administrators on behalf of the Assembly Select Committee on Common Core was released by Chairman Thiesfeldt. The letter asked administrators to answer four questions regarding their experience with the Common Core State Standards. Unfortunately, members of the committee have cherry-picked quotes to fit their own partisan goals.

“If this committee does decide to implement a review of academic standards, it must be done in a fashion that protects the constitutional authority of the State Superintendent and guarantees fact and reason is put ahead of politics,” said Rep. Pope. “Any legislative body will struggle greatly with that task as evidenced by the workings of the current Common Core review committees.”

Many of the superintendents surveyed voiced their support for the continuation of the Common Core standards and emphasized their desire to keep politics away from any review process related to Wisconsin’s academic standards.
In the meantime, there are real issues to be dealt with in regards to public schools, such as achievement gaps and inequities in funding, but it seems that the Baggers in the Legislature really don't care about digging deep into solving that problem- they'd just rather beat up on the public schools and funnel money to their campaign contributors in the voucher lobby. State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout goes into this in a lengthy interview with Heather DuBois Bourenane at Monologues of Dissent .

I'm a Vinehout fan to begin with, but she's even better in this interview with the level of detail in which she describes the issue. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here's a passage that sums things up quite well.
VINEHOUT: What’s happening in Milwaukee, the parents who are engaged, the parents who are a little wealthier, the parents who maybe have the resources, are pulling their children out of public schools. I was just at a meet and greet in Wauwatosa, where a fellow who teaches – young guy, really excited – who teaches in MPS, really excited about teaching in MPS, and what he described for me what a student body that was becoming higher and higher need, but the resources were not following that. This is where I see Wisconsin going ten years from now. Diane Ravitch’s book lays it out very clearly. The intention is to create a multitude of options for parents. The only problem is: not all parents have those options. We’re never going to see a [Two Hours] Charter school sit down the road from Alma. There’s not enough people. Just like why AT&T doesn’t want to come out and put out broadband there. Why do we have to have our own rural electrification? Because the utility companies didn’t want to come out there. The density of the population is very low. They can’t make money there.

MoD: Well I don’t’ think these organizations have even expressed an interest in serving kids in these areas. They only want to go into the areas that have large education budgets; that’s been demonstrated nationwide.

VINEHOUT: Absolutely. So to say, “the schools are broken, we need to privatize them” is to repeat the myth of the other side. To say that “poverty is no excuse” is to repeat the myth of the other side. What we need to do is look at what’s actually happening. There’s no evidence that shows us that these schools do any better at educating the same kid when we control for factors like poverty and special education and other factors. And the research is clear: achievement is related to poverty. And how do we solve the problem of achievement in high impoverished areas? We increase the resources. We lower the student/teacher ratio. We use innovative means in a very hands-on, one-on-one if we have to, to help those children. We know the answers to how to deal with these problems, but we can’t seem to get the will of the legislature in this building to pass the changes to the funding formula that recognize that children in poverty cost more to educate....

We need to have a dialogue in communities all across the state about what’s happening, what happens Election Day, what’s happening in the Capitol, and what’s happening in your community related to what’s happening in the Capitol.

When I have those dialogues with people, the first topic that comes up is education. People want a great school. And they’re very worried about what’s happening in the rural schools. And the Republicans see this vulnerability. It’s no fluke of luck that Robin Vos put together a Special Task Force on Rural Schools, and named one of his most vulnerable members, in an area where the schools are being starved of resources, to chair it. If the Superintendent’s uncomfortable, tell me, there’s nobody north of Highway 8 that got a single bit - pennies on the dollar related to that 100 million dollar property tax decrease money going into schools. We know now, from the history, and looking at what happens with property tax and state aid, they’re tied at the hip. If you dramatically decrease state aid, you’re going to increase property tax. Yes, there’s a levy limit, but there’s also a lot of people who haven’t levied to the max – like Alma, and my husband’s on the school board – who are now in the position of saying “We cut as much as we possibly can. If we’re going to continue to provide great education to these students, we’ve got to raise revenue under the levy, and use that space under the levy law.”

We have to be honest – we, the Democrats, have to be honest about what’s happening in the Capitol and how people are being distracted from what really matters. The Common Core hearings were nothing but a distraction.
As usual, Sen. Vinehout is right. Dems need to be upfront over the next year in calling out the pro-voucher GOP for their failed, corrupt education policies, and stand strongly for what traditionally has been one of Wisconsin's few advantages over other states- its high-quality public education system. A voice defending that system is one of the many reasons I support Vinehout entering the Governor's race, and hope her injuries from this weekend's auto accident don't set her back much.

If Dems don't speak up like Sen. Vinehout, and tell Wisconsinites the truth about what GOPs are trying to mess up, they not only will lose on this issue to the privatizers, but Wisconsin will descend into a mediocrity that few will want to move to.