State News: Wheel Tax, Solar, Oil Spill

Eau Claire County Passes $30 Wheel Tax

Eau Claire County has approved a $30 local vehicle registration fee to offset borrowing for local road and bridge repairs, adding it to a list of 28 counties and municipalities using wheel taxes to help pay for roads. By a 20-9 vote the Eau Claire County Board passed the $30 wheel tax, which will go into effect Jan. 1. It’s expected to raise around $2.4 million annually that will be earmarked for road projects. The Eau Claire County Highway Department reported that 29 percent of its budget now goes toward paying off loans and interest, also called debt service, that have accrued in recent years.

Opponents of the county registration fee call it a regressive tax that limits collections to smaller vehicles.

“It disproportionately targets and hurts low-income families,” Eau Claire County Board Supervisor Brandon Buchanan said. “A $30 registration fee hits a family making $18,000 or $24,000 a whole lot harder than it does someone making $180,000. What’s more this policy exempts vehicles 8,000 pounds or higher from having to pay a fee.”

The exemption for heavier vehicles is contained within the state statute authorizing local governments to enact wheel taxes.

According to the state Department of Transportation, nine counties and 19 municipalities have imposed local vehicle registration fees.


Groups Won’t Endorse in Governor’s Race

Two liberal groups that used online voting in an effort to narrow the Democratic field for governor won’t endorse any of the candidates after all. The groups Our Wisconsin Revolution and the Wisconsin Working Families Party conducted the votes as part of an effort they called “Wisconsin’s Choice.” During their previous round of voting in June, they identified four finalists: longtime activist Mike McCabe, Madison firefighter Mahlon Mitchell, former Madison state Rep. Kelda Roys and Alma state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.

But Wisconsin Working Families Director Marina Dimitrijevic said none of the four candidates received the majority of the vote needed to earn the nod. “In fact, no candidate even received more than a third of the vote,” she said.

The lack of an endorsement marked an anti-climactic conclusion to a process that appeared to get the candidates’ attention.


Report:  Worst-Case Oil Spill Would Reach Wisconsin

A new report details more than 2.4 million gallons of oil would be released into Lake Michigan and Lake Huron if a worst-case spill took place on Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac.

The single greatest distance of oiled shoreline in one worst-case spill scenario spanned west along the Lower Peninsula of Lake Michigan and Wisconsin, causing an estimated $1.37 billion in damage. The total liability for Enbridge in a worst-case spill could climb to nearly $2 billion when factoring in cleanup costs, lost income and other damages.

Researchers at Michigan Technological University modeled almost 4,400 scenarios. The report includes situations that have little likelihood of taking place, but pose great risks.

National Wildlife Federation spokesman Drew YoungDyke said the report illustrates the danger of having twin pipelines along the lake bed.

A worst-case release in the Straits could cover more than 400 miles of shoreline in oil on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. In Wisconsin, oil on the coastline would extend as far as Sheboygan.

“Line 5 cannot remain in the Straits in its current form,” said Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and co-chair of the state’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board in a release. “This report highlights the need to continue developing a decommissioning strategy that protects the Great Lakes while at the same time maintaining the critical infrastructure between Michigan’s peninsulas that makes us one state.”

A decision on how Michigan officials plans to move forward with regards to Line 5 is expected in the fall.


Solar Group Buys Gaining Ground

At least 75 people have signed contracts to install solar panels on homes and businesses in northern Wisconsin. A nonprofit group looking to expand renewable energy in the region said it’s the most contracts that have been sold through a group purchase program in the state so far.

Cheq Bay Renewables group buy program manager Amber Vadnais said the nonprofit group has partnered with solar equipment installer Next Energy Solution, Inc. of Shell Lake on the group buy.

“We’re just really excited that there’s been so much interest in our area,” said Vadnais. “To put it in perspective, I think the largest group buy in Wisconsin last year was 335 kW. We were over that by 100 kilowatts.”

The installations will take place within a 60-mile radius of the Chequamegon Bay area, including Ashland, Washburn and Bayfield. Cheq Bay Renewables estimates it takes 6 kilowatts of solar to power the average Wisconsin home each year. Next Energy Solution owner Danielle Kelly said the partnership allows her business to focus on installations rather than sales.

In 2016, there were four group buy programs with 128 installations totaling around 528 kilowatts of solar power. Last year, five programs yielded a total of 160 installations producing around 1 megawatt or 1,000 kilowatts of solar energy.  


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