State News: Gas Tax, Abortion, Solar

Evers Signals Gas-Tax Hike May Be Included in Budget Proposal

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Transportation Secretary-designee Craig Thompson are sending strong signals that the upcoming state budget will include a proposal to raise the gas tax to pay for roads.

Evers told the Superior Days delegation in Madison Tuesday that a task force of transportation stakeholders has been meeting to address funding for roads. Speaking with reporters afterward, he said there seems to be some consensus on how to fund transportation.

“From what I hear, at least part of it is gas-tax increases,” Evers said. The governor couldn’t say how big the hike might be. Republicans such as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, say that raising the gas tax wouldn’t solve the state’s transportation woes, touting tolling as a more long-term solution.

Thompson said he didn’t think tolling would be an option that could be implemented in the next two-year budget and added that states such as Michigan, Indiana and Iowa have raised the gas tax to meet their needs.

Republicans Warn Against Abortion-Law Changes

Republican state lawmakers last week called on Democrats to abandon a previous proposal that would have barred some state restrictions on abortion. Under the bill, an abortion could be performed at any point during a pregnancy if a physician determined it to be necessary to protect the life or health of the mother. That aligns with current state law, which bans abortions after 20 weeks unless they are caused by a medical emergency.

The proposal would also prevent the state from restricting abortions at any point before a baby could be born with a reasonable chance of survival and from creating barriers to accessing abortion services unless those laws or rules are in the interest of health.

More than 30 Democratic legislators signed on as co-sponsors of that bill during the last legislative session. The bill was never taken up for a vote.

Republican lawmakers held a press conference in Madison to urge Democrats to abandon the bill.

“We have a reason to be concerned in Wisconsin because there is obviously across the nation a nationwide attack on the unborn,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester. “We are not going to allow that to happen in Wisconsin.”

One of the sponsors of the previous bill, Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, pushed back on Vos’ characterization of the bill as “radical.”

“You’re the radical for opposing safe, legal abortions, which most Wisconsinites support,” Taylor tweeted.

Wisconsin Takes On PFAS Groundwater Contamination

Concerns are bubbling up over contaminated drinking water in some Wisconsin municipalities, leading officials to take action. The contaminants are per- and poly-fluorinated compounds, a class of more than 3,000 related chemicals known collectively as PFAS. They’re present in household items such as nonstick cookware and food packaging, as well as firefighting foam.

PFAS exposure presents a health hazard. Because humans cannot metabolize these compounds, exposure accumulates over time. The federal government doesn’t regulate the compounds.

In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a health advisory for two of the most commonly used PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS. It advised that the combined concentration of these compounds should fall below the 70-parts-per-trillion threshold for drinking water. However, the advisory is nonenforceable.

Some worry that the advisory level is still too high. Vermont has a 20-parts-per-trillion enforceable standard for drinking water, and Wisconsin is looking into establishing a standard of its own.

In recent weeks, the compounds have made headlines in and around Madison and Marinette as officials and residents push for change.

In 2017 in Madison, two wells tested positive for PFAS, though in amounts well below the EPA’s guideline. Groundwater contamination near Marinette comes from the Tyco Fire Protection Products facility.

“The problem with that is that no one is really sure that the established limit set by the EPA is indeed current or correct enough to prohibit harm to human health,” said Lauren Cnare, president of the Madison Water Utility Board.

Solar Jobs Grow in State, Despite National Dip

Wisconsin has bucked a national trend in solar energy, growing its number of jobs in the renewable field by 3 percent last year while nationwide jobs decreased by the same amount.

In 2018, Wisconsin had 3,007 solar jobs, compared with 2,921 the previous year, according to the latest report by the Solar Foundation, a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

In addition to Wisconsin, 28 other states also gained jobs in the solar industry. Despite that, the nation lost 8,000 jobs, or 3.2 percent, in 2018, largely due to the Trump administration’s tariff on solar-panel components and uncertainty about state policy, according to the report.

Nationally, about two-thirds of these opportunities relate to installation and project development, and about 14 percent relate to manufacturing.

Wisconsin is “right there in the middle of the pack,” said Ed Gilliland, senior director of the Solar Foundation.

The state ranks 24th in the nation for total solar jobs and 26th for solar jobs per capita.

But it also lags behind its neighbors. Illinois saw some of the largest gains in solar employment in 2018, and Minnesota has consistently outpaced Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin doesn’t have aggressive renewable-portfolio standards,” said Gilliland, though he did credit Wisconsin’s net metering system, which allows for consumers to return excess electricity to the grid.

Illinois, meanwhile, recently enacted new policy and renewable targets, which Gilliland said are paying off in solar job growth.

Former Gov. Scott Walker previously opposed increasing Wisconsin’s renewable-portfolio standard.

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