WED AM News: Statewide taxable sales take a sharp decline compared to last year; $10M approved for Rural Workforce Housing Initiative

— Taxable sales in Wisconsin took a four-year step backward due to COVID-19, according to a report by Forward Analytics.

According to Forward Analytics, taxable sales in Wisconsin declined 10.5 percent in March and April compared to the same months in 2019, reaching numbers resembling 2016. This was the early stage of the pandemic when the state’s safer at home order was issued.

Statewide, there has been a steady rise in sales for March and April year over year from 2014 to 2019, the years covered in the report, from $719 million to $884 million, respectively. But 2020 dropped to $791 million. 

The report shows that taxable sales varied widely by industry. The hardest hit industries included accommodation, which saw a 64 percent decline; clothing stores, a 57 percent decline and food and drink establishments saw a 42 percent decline. 

But some industries were beneficiaries, including online sellers or nonstore retailers, which saw taxable purchases rise 66 percent during March and April compared to the same months in 2019. Taxable sales rose 23 percent at food and beverage stores and 16 percent at building material and garden supply stores.

“What was most interesting was that the economic impacts varied widely by county,” said Forward Analytics Director Dale Knapp in a statement. He noted that taxable sales were off by 31 percent in Sauk County but up 7 percent in Burnett County. 

“And of the 66 counties with sales taxes in place in 2019 and 2020, 14 saw more economic activity this year compared to last year,” he said.

Knapp also pointed to an urban-rural component to the changes in sales data. 

“As a group, urban counties saw a decline of 11.9 percent while rural counties experienced a drop of 6.5 percent,” he said. “These numbers show the complicated impact of the COVID-19 crisis across our state.”

See the report: 

See the release: 

— The Joint Finance Committee unanimously backed a modified proposal from WHEDA to use a $16.7 million surplus from 2018-19 for various housing and economic development initiatives.  

Included in the plan was a set aside of $10 million for a Rural Workforce Housing Initiative championed by Co-chair John Nygren, R-Marinette.

The agency regularly finishes the fiscal year with excess funds and then puts together a plan to spend the money. An Assembly committee objected to the original proposal, saying it gave insufficient consideration to rural housing.

The agency then revised the plan to reflect a rural workforce housing initiative in the amended version of AB 544, which was co-authored by Nygren. The bill cleared the Assembly in January, but hasn’t been taken up by the Senate.

He called it a “perfect example” of how the two sides can work together to improve the lives of Wisconsinites.

“One of the challenges to economic development in rural parts of the state is the lack of quality, affordable housing,” Nygren said in a statement. “This is especially true in my district where we will need 1,000 more workers to fulfill billions in federal Navy shipbuilding contracts. The plan approved yesterday will help deliver more housing capacity to rural communities throughout Wisconsin.”

The Rural Workforce Housing Initiative, modeled after AB 544, is a pilot initiative aimed at creating new and rehabilitating existing housing in rural areas of the state. 

“Modern and affordable rural housing availability was an issue before the COVID-19 pandemic and it will be after,” Nygren said. “I am pleased to have worked with WHEDA and thank them for their efforts to make this a reality. I look forward to seeing its results throughout the state.”

The amended Dividends for Wisconsin plan is supported by Gov. Tony Evers who endorsed the plan and Sen. Janet Bewley who sits on the WHEDA Board and approved the plan. The WHEDA board approved the plan and rural workforce housing initiative unanimously.

The initiative is also intended to maximize matching funds from state, federal and private partners to make the $10 million go farther with “shovel ready” projects. WHEDA will administer the process of creating an application process and scoring projects. All counties with at least 25 percent of the population defined as rural by USDA would qualify — 63 counties in Wisconsin, according to Nygren’s staff.

See Nygren’s statement: 

— Attorney General Josh Kaul joined a multi-state coalition calling on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reject a petition he says could cost jobs and weaken state clean energy programs nationwide.

Kaul, alongside 16 other AGs, the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission, argues a New England Ratepayers Association petition to the commission doesn’t recognize multi-decade precedent allowing state’s rights over net metering programs.

Utility customers use net metering to lower energy bills by generating their own power through solar panels or other means. The NERA petition argues all customer-based energy generation should be subject to federal monitoring over state regulation.

“Suddenly changing the rules on Wisconsinites who invested in clean energy for their homes is wrong and bad for the future of clean energy,” Kaul said in a statement. “The federal government shouldn’t be disrupting state programs that are good for the environment and help consumers save money.”

Heather Allen, interim executive director for Renew Wisconsin, told “there’s no way of knowing” what FERC would do if it approved the petition and took control of net metering regulation. But she added “there’s a lot of potential negative consequences,” including the possibility of FERC removing net metering altogether.

“Positive net metering policies incentivize renewable energy installations and production, and they really help keep electricity costs low for folks who put on renewable energy and it also helps the grid overall by reducing capacity needs,” she said.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates there are 4,827 total residential, commercial and industrial net metering customers in Wisconsin.

See the release:

— The Department of Workforce Development reported Monday it has received nearly 3.2 million weekly claims since March 15 and has paid more than 2.3 million.

Of the remaining 859,399 weeks, 373,457 have been denied because applicants were ineligible for various reasons.

That leaves 485,942 weeks claimed by roughly 151,000 Wisconsin applicants.

As Republicans have continued to knock the Evers administration for delays in processing unemployment claims, GOP state Sens. Steve Nass and Van Wanggaard are now calling for the UI administrator to resign or be fired.

Nass mentioned those nearly 151,000 applicants yesterday in a statement calling on Mark Reihl to either resign his post as Unemployment Insurance division administrator or be fired. He made a similar demand in an email to Reihl yesterday.

“The problem is the complete lack of urgency to get these people either their benefits or denial determinations so they can commence the appeals process, if applicable,” Nass wrote.

Wanggaard responded to Nass’ email that he was backing the call for Reihl to resign or be fired.

DWD referred questions to the guv’s office, which didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nass had a testy exchange last month with Reihl before the Senate and Labor Regulatory Reform Committee the Whitewater Republican chairs.

Reihl defended the Evers administration’s response to the crush of unemployment applications, saying it wasn’t as good as they’d like, but “we’ve done a great job in this period of time.”

As Nass responded, Reihl briefly interrupted the lawmaker, and the irritated chair questioned why no one in the administration had anticipated a spike in unemployment after issuing a stay-at-home order that shut down many businesses.

Wanggaard, vice-chair of the Labor Committee, yesterday released an email from DWD Legislative Liaison John Keckhaver. In it, Keckhaver updated lawmakers that it takes the agency four to five weeks in most cases from the time it receives a constituent inquiry from a legislator to respond to that lawmaker with a resolution.

Keckhaver added the agency is adding several adjudicators and support staff to handle constituent claims, and it is trying to focus on the most urgent ones.

In the email, he also asks lawmakers to note in the subject line or opening of an email if a constituent is facing an eviction.

And he notes the agency’s three contractors will have about 840 people taking calls and processing claims by the end of June.

See Nass’ release:

See the DWD email:

See the email chain between Nass, Riehl and Wanggaard:

— UW-Madison Prof. Andrew Stevens explains why there are disruptions facing the pork and beef supply chain caused by COVID-19 in “Badger Talks”. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a significant disruption for the entire meat supply chain and is pretty sizable,” Agricultural and Applied Economics Professor Stevens said. “Despite the entire supply chain being a little precarious, it seems to be holding to some extent.”

The nature of working in a meat-packing plant — close quarters in a large refrigerator — is ripe for COVID-19 transmission, he said. Sick workers led to a shut down of plants, meat shortages in the store, price increases and issues for livestock farmers. 

But Stevens assured that processors are adapting by increasing protective equipment to protect workers in order to stay open and meet consumer demand.

Watch the video:

— The anti-inflammatory drug dexamethasone was found to reduce mortality in critically ill COVID-19 patients in a study out of England.

Dr. John Raymond, president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin, announced yesterday in a Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce briefing that the “promising, high-quality study” is “good news on the treatment front.”

The steroid medication reduces mortality by 35 percent for patients on ventilators and by 20 percent for patients who require supplemental oxygen, but who are not on ventilators, Raymond said.

He noted that dexamethasone is a widely used immunosuppressive and anti-inflammatory drug that is inexpensive and readily available to be used both in oral and IV forms.

— Raymond warns interstate travel has been linked to community spreading and could create new hotspots.

He said travel from Chicago or Iowa to the Northwoods is a “trend we’ll have to pay attention to very carefully.”

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s coronavirus hotspots are largely located in the southeast region of the state, with the exception of Brown County.

In six days, Racine County added 81 new COVID-19 cases to its count, giving the county a cumulative total of 2,033 confirmed cases and the highest infection ratio of 10.4 per 1,000 people.

With the most Wisconsin cases — 9,658– and an increase of 562 cases in six days, Milwaukee County ranks second in terms of an infection ratio at 10.1 per 1,000 people.

Brown County’s ratio is 9.6 and it ranks second for the most positive cases at 2,492, an increase of 87 in six days. Kenosha County’s infection ratio is 8.2 per 1,000 people and cases number 1,374 an increase of 66 cases in six days. 

Dodge (4.8), Rock (4.7) and Walworth (4.66) counties follow.  

Almost 60 percent or 159 of the new cases yesterday came from the southeast region of the state made up of Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha counties.

— The state’s COVID-19 death count is at 703, nine more deaths since Monday.

Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties had two more deaths while Brown, Kenosha, Racine, Rock and Waupaca counties each had one more.

The number of recovered patients continues to rise, now at an estimated 74 percent, while 3 percent of patients have died. Twenty-three percent are still in a 30-day waiting period of symptom onset or diagnosis.

Counties reporting deaths include: Milwaukee (352), Racine (55), Brown (39), Kenosha (37), Waukesha (35), Dane (30), Rock (22), Walworth (17), Ozaukee (15), Grant (12), Washington (11), Winnebago (9), Outagamie (8), Fond du Lac (6), Clark (4), Dodge (4), Jefferson (4), Richland (4), Sheboygan (4) and Waupaca (4).

Door, Marinette and Sauk counties report three deaths each. Adams, Buffalo, Calumet and Forest counties report two deaths each.

Bayfield, Burnett, Columbia, Green, Iron, Jackson, Juneau, Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Marathon, Marquette, Monroe, Polk and Wood counties report one death each.

According to Raymond, there is an uptick in the percentage of deaths attributed to people of Hispanic or Latin heritage in Wisconsin.

DHS reports Hispanics and Latinos account for 33 percent of COVID-19 cases and 11 percent of COVID-19 deaths statewide.  

Click here for more coronavirus resources and updates: 

— Despite an uptick in COVID-19 cases with 266 new ones yesterday, Raymond says Wisconsin is doing better than most states. 

“It’s been a reasonably good week for us here in Wisconsin,” said Raymond. “We are doing better than most states surrounding us.”

He noted three positive coronavirus metrics for the state: the doubling time for positive tests is stretching out — now at 27 days, the daily growth rate of the virus is low — at 1.2 percent, and the reproductive number or person-to-person spread ratio has been under one for the last 13 consecutive days — now at .87. That means that one person is spreading the virus to less than one person. 

Raymond referenced a color-coded map published by CNN that shows Wisconsin has one of 20 states with a week-over-week decrease in COVID-19 cases.

“Milwaukee and Wisconsin show a clear deceleration of the trajectory of the pandemic,” Raymond said. “This trend is more pronounced in Milwaukee than it is in Wisconsin.” 

The new cases bring the cumulative case count to 23,198.

After a light day of reported testing Monday, the state recorded 11,149 results yesterday, at its previous average of 10,000 to 11,000 tests per day. 

“We’d really like to push that up close to our capacity,” Raymond said. The state’s lab capacity is 16,668 tests per day, which has been stable over the last few days, but has grown by 1,000 in the past week. 

— To date, the state has administered over 437,000 tests, with the Wisconsin National Guard responsible for administering over 131,000 of those.

The National Guard has ongoing coronavirus testing sites statewide, supporting the state’s initiative to increase COVID-19 testing. A total of 25 specimen collection teams made up of nearly 500 citizen-soldiers and airmen are involved in the mobile testing sites.

Community-based testing sites are located at Alliant Energy Center in Dane County, United Migrant Opportunity Services and Custer Stadium in Milwaukee County, and Horlick High School in Racine County.

The Guard is conducting site-based testing at the Chippewa County Jail, Columbia Correctional Institution in Columbia County, Prairie du Sac Correctional Institute in Crawford County, Dodge County Correctional Institution and Waupun Correctional Institution, Oakfield in Fond du Lac County, Racine Correctional Institution in Racine County, and a senior living facility in Sheboygan County.

See the Guard’s release on its role in the state’s response to coronavirus here: 

— COVID-19 hospital patients statewide continue to decline, now numbering 275, the lowest since April 3.

“We’re in really good shape,” Raymond said. 

About 70 percent of those patients — 193 — are in southeastern Wisconsin, which is also seeing its lowest number since April 2.

According to data from the Wisconsin Hospital Association, the state’s COVID-19 ICU patients are at 100 and COVID-19 inpatients with pending tests number 194.

Of the state’s confirmed cases, 13 percent have been hospitalized and 3 percent have received intensive care, according to DHS.

The department also reports that 32 or fewer patients are in each of the six other public health regions of the state.

WHA data show that statewide, Wisconsin seems to have a stable and adequate supply of beds and ventilators.

See the WHA dashboard here: 

— But hospitals continue to lack personal protective equipment for health care workers.

The WHA data show that 31 hospitals have a seven-day or less supply of face shields, 40 have a limited supply of goggles, 32 have limited N95 masks, 36 have a limited supply of gowns and 28 hospitals have limited paper medical masks.

Health care workers account for about 10 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases — 2,242 — an increase of 18 cases over Monday.

Raymond said the most critical needs are goggles and N95 masks.


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