WED AM News: Bioenergy researcher calls on Senate leaders to invest in bioeconomy; WPF report focuses on state pension plan

— UW-Madison Professor Timothy Donohue is calling for Senate leaders to form policies that invest in the biotech and biohealth industries. 

“The country, its citizens, and society will benefit from bold, inter-agency investments in securing U.S. leadership in the bioeconomy,” said Timothy Donohue, director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at UW-Madison. 

Donohue testified yesterday before the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Oceans, Fisheries, and Weather. The hearing examined the federal government’s role in these segments of the economy and related research.

“We need a lot of inter-agency coordination because this initiative will reach across all of the obvious players,” said Donohue. 

He pointed to the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, but didn’t specify which agency should take the lead. 

“In Wisconsin, our bioeconomy has deep roots from farming to food processing to producing paper and power to keep the economy running; we’ve always used the resources available to build a better life.” said U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. “This discussion is about the next phase of economic potential in our bioeconomy.”

Donohue argued that a federal investment in these areas could support new jobs and economic growth nationwide, produce new bio-based chemicals and materials, allow the U.S. to become less dependent on foreign products, transform medicine and agriculture, and safeguard the environment.  

See more: 

— A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum points to the state’s retirement system as a potential model for city and county pension plans in Milwaukee. 

The Wisconsin Retirement System stands out on the national stage, as its financial position has remained strong compared to the U.S. average. According to the report, the WRS had a funded ratio of 96.5 percent at the end of 2018, while one year earlier, state employee retirement funds across the country had funded around 69 percent of the $4.1 trillion in obligations. 

By comparison, Milwaukee’s plan was 78.7 percent funded at the end of 2018, and Milwaukee County’s plan was 70.6 percent funded. 

WPF highlights a number of factors explaining the state pension plan’s success including “generally conservative” assumptions about investment returns and overall adequate funding. 

The report notes the WRS has benefitted from the increased employee contributions enacted in 2011 Wisconsin Act 10. Plus, the state system ties benefit payments to the plan’s rate of return and other outcomes. 

If the WRS fails to meet certain benchmarks including its annual investment return, the plan can put off increases in payments to plan beneficiaries and also decrease the amount of the payments. 

Meanwhile, both of the Milwaukee plans highlighted in the report are required to automatically increase benefits by up to 3 percent per year — even if the plan’s investments don’t pan out as expected. 

WPF cautions the report isn’t advocating for any specific changes to the Milwaukee pension plans. But the report’s authors do list some potential tweaks they say could strengthen the plans for Milwaukee and Milwaukee County. Those include reducing automatic benefit adjustments, reducing benefits, requiring higher employee contributions, and exploring a merger with the state’s system. 

“Given WRS’ fiscal health and its high regard nationally, it is logical to ask whether the city and county in Milwaukee should simply close their plans and have their participants become part of WRS,” report authors wrote. “Indeed, that approach has been seriously considered by Milwaukee County and its retirement task force, and it may receive similar consideration by the city.” 

See the full report: 

— Gov. Tony Evers has asked the Department of Health Services to brief legislative leaders and constitutional officers on the state’s response to the coronavirus.

The state has so far reported one positive case of coronavirus, though health officials say that patient has recovered and is no longer in isolation. The state is awaiting results on the tests for one other possible case.

Tomorrow’s informational meeting will include DHS Secretary Andrea Palm, State Health Officer Jeanne Ayers and Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the Bureau of Communicable Disease chief medical officer.

They will provide information and answer questions on the coronavirus in Wisconsin.

— U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan is seeking answers from the director of the CDC after public information regarding coronavirus testing was allegedly removed from the agency’s website.

According to a letter sent to CDC Director Robert Redfield, the agency was reporting numbers on the number of travel-related cases of COVID-19 in the country, the number of cases spread between people, the total number of people tested for the disease and the number of deaths associated with COVID-19.

But now the CDC site no longer has information on testing numbers or deaths from the virus, the letter notes.

“I would like to know why,” Pocan wrote.

Pocan referenced comments from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, noting that thousands of unidentified cases could already exist in the United States. He presses Gottlieb in the letter, asking him “when will you return to publicly reporting the total number of deaths and tested persons on your website?”

See the release: 

See the CDC coronavirus page:  

— Mia Keeys, director of health equity policy and advocacy for the American Medical Association, says equitable public policy should be informed by a historical perspective. 

“When we’re talking about access to safe places to play, good food, access to spaces where you can be healed, these spaces are often determined by a history of policies that put them in place,” Keeys said this week at the La Follette School of Public Affairs’ health policy forum. 

Her remarks included an overview on policies such as the Indian Removal Act, voting rights and redlining that still influence communities and individuals today.

“It takes a very mindful person to consider the history of our polices which has so very long impacted our ability to make healthy choices,” Keeys said. “We have to keep in mind how any of this potentially, if we are not mindful, repeat itself just on the other side of the century.” 

Looking forward, Keeys noted that the next frontier in health is artificial intelligence and precision medicine. 

“By 2050, the majority of our nation will be people of color, will be minoritized populations,” said Keeys. “We have to be really thoughtful to ensure that whatever we build today is ready to serve the new majority.” 

She mentioned that Wisconsin has a history of being diverse, but not equitable in distribution.    

“I really do admire the Wisconsin idea — the idea that your research and your work shouldn’t just stay in a silo, it really has to solve the problems of today and tomorrow. If that isn’t a call to action, I don’t know what is,” she said. “Whether or not you know it or used the word equity, you signed up for it.”

See more from the event: 

— Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers is hosting its 2020 Health Equity Summit on March 31 in Milwaukee, organizers recently announced. 

“Empower a Healthier Milwaukee” will be held at the Italian Community Center and will feature remarks from leaders in business and health care. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is also scheduled to attend. 

“We need to look at empowerment through a systemic lens to understand how it contributes to addressing the social determinants of health and reducing health inequities,” said Dr. Julie Schuller, President and CEO of Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers. “I’m thrilled to bring alive this conversation through our third annual health equity summit.”

See more on the summit: 


# Solar farm covering 8 acres near Milwaukee Mitchell airport could be just the start

# Levatich in line for $2.2 million severance package from Harley

# State Senator, Marinette County residents voice opposition to PFAS amendment

# Wisconsin hosts largest technical dairy competition in world



– An ‘Indicator plant’: Wild rice struggles to survive in a changing climate

– Edelburg re-elected VP of National Farmers Union


– State Building Commission approves $15.2 million for Milwaukee County juvenile justice center plan

– Wisconsin Ready Mixed Concrete Association names award-winners

– City likely to cut ties with company in $1.2M deconstruction contract


– Milwaukee’s black women business owners building on pockets of success


– CentralStar Cooperative offering college scholarships

– Collegiate FFA to hold state officer candidate forum


– Fiserv acquires New York fintech company MerchantPro Express


– Evers calls meeting of state leaders to discuss coronavirus


– Department of Workforce Development administrator to lead Employ Milwaukee


– Wisconsin court refuses to refund airlines’ property taxes


– Harley-Davidson’s acting CEO eligible for $3M bonus if he stays until new chief hired


– Evers signs bill increasing Opportunity Zone benefits, others related to construction


– Common Council wants more time to review Wisconsin Center expansion

– Aldermen contemplate housing grants to help around Century City


– Kohl’s profits dipped 13.7% in 2019

– Kohl’s sees little impact of coronavirus outbreak, but retailer monitoring situation

– Kohl’s comparable sales flat in last quarter of 2019

– Kohl’s holiday sales miss expectations, but store traffic rises


– College hockey tournament set for December at Fiserv Forum


– Water Council launches third Tech Challenge competition


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