Looking back on the past year, it can be easy to just see a blur. From Foxconn to John Doe, from Russia to Weinstein, the 24/7 news cycle was running at full tilt all year. Despite that – or maybe because of it – it can be easy to lose sight of even the biggest stories.
That’s where your friends at the MacIver Institute come in.
In our final annual wrap-up of 2017, we revisit some of the biggest stories in the state and nation. Some were in the headlines for a few months (like Foxconn), some were in the news for a few months more than expected (the budget), and some have dragged out for the entire year (Russia). Still others, like tax reform, will continue to be in the news throughout the year to come.
We start at number ten and conclude with the biggest news story of the year.
#10 – WISDOT Audit
It was a bad sign when Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb resigned just weeks before the Legislative Audit Bureau was set to release a report on the State Highway Program. When the report came out in January, it was in a word – devastating.
The auditors found the DOT regularly breaks state law in budgeting, negotiating, communicating, and managing contracts. Among these statutory violations: the department does not always solicit bids from more than one vendor, it does not spread out solicitations throughout the year, it does not post required information on its website, its cost estimates to the governor are incomplete, and it skips steps in the evaluation process for selecting projects. These practices manifest themselves through an inescapable reality: the cost of major projects tends to double after the DOT gets approval from the governor and Legislature to proceed. The auditors looked at 16 current highway projects and found they are over-budget by $3.1 billion.
Some public officials tried to spin the report, claiming it indicated the state is not spending enough on transportation. That didn’t fly. Instead the audit became an insurmountable obstacle for those seeking to raise the gas tax. It also sparked a series of reforms that aimed to make the DOT more transparent and accountable to the taxpayers of Wisconsin.
#9 – It’s On: Walker’s Push for 2018 Begins
Many commentators called the 2017-19 budget a “re-election budget,” with more state dollars going toward almost every major initiative. It was the best-kept secret in state politics. There was no, “will he or won’t he,” there was only a “when will he?”
With the state budget and the Foxconn deal in the books, Gov. Scott Walker finally made it public in early November when he announced that he would run for a third term as governor in what will be his fourth campaign for the office (who could forget about the 2012 recall election).
As we round the corner into the new year, the 2018 midterm elections will soon be at the top of everyone’s mind, including the non-political among us. Including Wisconsin, 36 states will hold gubernatorial elections come November.
For Walker, the race will likely focus on jobs, jobs, jobs, or to use an older reference – “it’s the economy, stupid.” We’ll stay tuned to see which of the many Democratic challengers end up facing Walker in the general election. Until then, we’re likely to see a short legislative session in early 2018 followed by a long election season.
#8 – UW Regents Protect Free Speech
As protests and demonstrations gripped campuses across the country, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents took a stand for free expression this year. In October, the Regents voted to allow any UW campus to expel students who repeatedly disrupt speakers or stifle speech.
The sole dissenting vote was that of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, who is running for governor.
Jose Delgado, a UW Regent who came to America from his native Cuba in 1961 at the age of 13, spoke to MacIver about his yes vote. Delgado’s family fled the oppressive Castro regime, which brutally struck down dissenting speech. Delgado said that back then, the Cuban government would simply arrest and murder anyone who disagreed with it. For that reason, the 70-year-old said, he has always been passionate about his freedom of speech as an American. He’s been deeply troubled by the decline of peaceful dialogue, especially on university campuses.
Summing up his reason for the vote, Delgado said “I cannot make you listen, but I can certainly prevent others from preventing you from listening. You have the right to listen.”
#7 – Gas Tax Battle Heats Up
Predictably, the forces behind a push to increase the state gas tax, vehicle registration fee, or other source of revenue for transportation saddled up in 2017.
Gov. Walker – insistent he would not sign a budget that raised the gas tax or registration fees – made the first move when he appointed Dave Ross to be secretary of the Department of Transportation after the resignation of Mark Gottlieb. Since he took over in January, Ross has been steadfast in insisting the department doesn’t need new revenue, it needs to find savings in the multibillion dollar budget it already has.
Members of the Legislature spent the summer sparring over the issue. A protracted public relations battle raged across the state – possibly manifesting itself in a series of phony letters to the editor that appeared in newspapers from Janesville to Rice Lake begging lawmakers to increase taxes. All along, MacIver was suspicious that more revenue was truly needed – and we found plenty of examples to back us up.
Proponents of an increased gas tax have advocated putting more money into a department with a record of wasting it. We, at MacIver, refuse to just go along with this ‘increase taxes first, ask questions later’ mentality. We’ve suggested instead that Secretary Ross should have the opportunity to scour the department for savings before Madison lawmakers foist a permanent tax increase on Wisconsinites.
#6 – Russia, Russia, Russia!
Unless you’ve been living under a rock with no human contact throughout all of 2017, you’ve likely heard the words “Russia” and “collusion” on a near-daily basis.
Ever since President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, liberals – still in shock that they lost – have been charging that the Trump campaign was working with Russian agents behind the scenes to hack the election, propagate fake news, and swing the election. Throughout 2017, a special investigation being run by former FBI Director Robert Mueller has produced nonstop daily headlines that might sound nefarious to the casual observer. But other than nabbing Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI (never do that, by the way) the probe has so far come up mostly empty-handed.
We saw the birth of this story all the way back in December 2016, when members of Wisconsin’s electoral college cast their ballots for Donald Trump at the state Capitol – the first time Wisconsin Republicans did so since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide. While they voted, they were serenaded by protesters screaming about selling out the country to Russia and Putin and ushering in fascism.
— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) December 19, 2016
It’s been in that same spirit that liberals, convinced Trump is only the president because of Russia and Putin’s hacker brigade, have persisted in a seemingly never-ending quest to find some evidence of a crime by someone close to President Trump.
#5 – Sexual Misconduct Scandals
The last few months of 2017 saw the world crashing down on a red carpet full of Hollywood celebrities in the wake of a string of allegations against iconic producer Harvey Weinstein.
What has come to be called the #MeToo movement soon hit politics, costing the careers of politicians on both sides of the aisle – perhaps most notably Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who was forced to resign along with several other members of Congress. Here in Wisconsin, leaders of both parties have opted to keep records of accusations against legislators and staff private for the protection of the victims’ identities, they contend.
In many cases, the boorish and even criminal behavior of people like Weinstein was an open secret – hidden in plain sight and covered up throughout the years. Many careers collapsed to allegations of misconduct in 2017, and unless the newfound ability of victims to come forward with allegations is just a trend, that’s unlikely to change in 2018.
#4 – Foxconn
At the beginning of 2017, it’s likely the vast majority of Wisconsinites had never heard of Foxconn, but most had likely used their products.
Then earlier this year, President Trump hinted that the state would soon get good economic news when visiting a Snap-on plant in Kenosha in April. The mystery soon was lifted, and a months-long saga of negotiations, deal-making, and legislative action ended in a contract signing between the electronics manufacturing giant and the State of Wisconsin.
The deal that was inked is the largest development agreement of its kind in American history, offering Foxconn up to $3 billion in tax incentives if the company invests $10 billion in a massive manufacturing campus and creates 13,000 jobs. Foxconn’s Wisconsin operation — now on track to begin construction in 2018 — won’t just be a plant, it will be a small city unto itself in southern Racine County.
Emerging over the course of a few months in 2017, the Foxconn deal will surely be a transformational project for the entire state of Wisconsin. The company’s leaders have signaled their goal is to establish a high-tech manufacturing hub right here in Wisconsin to rival (and supply hardware to) Silicon Valley.
From groundbreaking ceremonies to other new announcements related to the massive new development, we expect 2018 to bring lots more news about Foxconn.
#3 – Wisconsin State Budget: Entire Taxes Eliminated, No Tax Increase
What would a list of the top stories of the year be without talking about the state budget? It might’ve crossed the finish line months late, but the 2017-19 budget included some historic reforms, including completely eliminating two taxes.
Under the new budget, the state Forestry Mill Tax and Alternative Minimum tax are both deleted from the books. The budget also holds the line on income taxes and continues the push to reduce the property tax burden, while increasing spending in classrooms.
It’s easy to forget the old days when Jim Doyle and the Democrats were raising every tax imaginable and increasing spending by leaps and bounds. It’s also easy to take today’s momentum for reducing taxes for granted.
It’s for exactly that reason that here at MacIver, we work hard to celebrate these conservative wins. It’s certainly not every day that entire taxes are eliminated, and it’s certainly not every state that is determined to walk down a path of lowering taxes and shrinking government. On, Wisconsin.
#2 – John Doe Returns
In last year’s annual roundups, we had hoped that 2017 would bring a new era of toleration for ideas from all sides of the debate, including for the victims of the John Doe probes. With the Supreme Court officially declaring the efforts illegal and ordering that they be shut down immediately, we hoped that those victims would see some justice.
After all, those individuals had their private information illegally seized, their homes searched in pre-dawn raids, their rights to free speech trampled, and their names dragged through the mud, all while an unsympathetic media continued to cover the story with an eye on Gov. Walker.
Unfortunately, in 2017, that new era did not come. Rather, we learned that government employees had continued their unconstitutional search through private records. The very watchdog meant to uphold the government’s standard of ethics seized even more personal records – including private text messages between a Senator and her daughter – and put them in a file labeled “opposition research.”
This all came to light after the state’s Department of Justice looked into leaks, suspecting that private records had been illegally handed off by members of the Ethics Commission – the old Government Accountability Board. In the end, the DOJ declined to press charges in the leak, saying that the wrongdoing was so widespread and the data so mishandled that they couldn’t determine who exactly was the source of the leak.
In many ways, John Doe returned to headlines this year…but in reality, we found out that it never went away at all. In its report, the DOJ itself refers to the new probe as “John Doe 3.” Just before Christmas, the Senate Committee on Organization voted to authorize the DOJ to dig deeper into the wrongdoing. While we hoped that the saga would come to an end, we now know that the last chapter of this story has not yet been written.
Without further adieu, the biggest story of 2017…
#1 – Time to Cut Taxes – the federal government’s first go at significant tax reform since ‘86
The last time they did this, Top Gun was the highest-grossing movie in America, the world met Ferris Bueller, and Whitney Houston’s self-titled album was at the top of the charts. That’s right — it was 1986 the last time the federal government took on tax reform. Boy, has the world changed.
This year, congress made good on its promise to pass a tax reform bill and get it signed into law by Christmas. Among many (many) other things, the bill cuts both individual and corporate rates, cleans the tax code, and nearly doubles the standard deduction. According to the Department of Revenue, the average Wisconsin family will see a tax cut of more than $2,500. That’s more than $200 every month that hard-working families won’t have to turn over to the IRS.
Not only will individuals be able to file their taxes on a form the size of a postcard, our economy will take notice, too. By lowering the tax burden on everyday Americans and unlocking the secret to economic success, the plan is undeniably pro-growth.
MacIver’s analysis, focused on the House version of the bill, found that the reforms will boost wages by $2.5 billion in Wisconsin and add more than 65,000 jobs in 2018 alone.
2018, here we come. As always, your friends at the MacIver Institute will be there every step of the way.