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Eric Gay 

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2018, file photo, members of the U.S. military install multiple tiers of concertina wire along the banks of the Rio Grande near the Juarez-Lincoln Bridge at the U.S.-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas. Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan says the U.S. will be sending "several thousand" more American troops to the southern border to provide additional support to Homeland Security. He says the troops will mainly be used to install additional wire barriers and provide increased surveillance of the area. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)


JOHN HART, WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL 

Steam billows from the West Campus Cogeneration facility on the campus of UW-Madison, which uses natural gas to provide steam heat to the campus and electricity for Madison Gas & Electric. A new study from UW-based COWS estimates the state could create thousands of jobs $14 billion in economic activity by transitioning away from fossil fuels. 


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Study: Transition to renewable energy could create 162,000 jobs in Wisconsin

MADISON — Moving away from fossil fuels could create thousands of jobs, improve public health, and increase overall production by nearly $14 billion in Wisconsin, according to a new study done at the request of La Crosse County.

Despite providing the frac sand used to extract oil and natural gas, Wisconsin has no significant fossil fuel deposits to exploit and generates three quarters of its electricity with coal and natural gas, leaving it with one of the largest “energy deficits” in the country.

Coal is shipped in from other states (97 percent comes from Wyoming, according to data from the Energy Information Administration), natural gas is piped in from around the country, and petroleum products come from around the world.

As of 2016, Wisconsin was spending about $14.4 billion a year on those fossil fuels, according to the study released this week by COWS, a UW-Madison think tank.

By converting the electric power sector to in-state renewables — such as wind and solar — and powering vehicles with that clean electricity (along with some biofuels), the study suggests the state could keep that money within its borders and more than double the number of energy-related jobs.

That would generate nearly $570 million a year in additional tax revenue, which could be used to offset added costs.

The study is hypothetical and doesn’t address technological challenges. Nick Nichols requested it in his role as La Crosse County’s sustainability director.

“This isn’t just some nice warm fuzzy thing a tree-hugger wants. There’s a potential for tremendous economic impact,” Nichols said.

“The impetus for this whole study was just to figure out whether producing our energy in-state would be beneficial to the economy and people and the environment of Wisconsin,” said David Abel, a UW energy researcher and lead author of the study.

COWS 

Abel

“What we find is that it really is beneficial to all three.”

That’s consistent with the mission of COWS, which promotes environmental sustainability and social fairness.

“There are solutions that don’t actually involve these traditional things we think of as trade-offs between the economy or the people or the environment,” Abel said.

The study comes just as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., released an outline of the “Green New Deal,” a plan for juicing the U.S. economy while eliminating carbon emissions.

Abel said the lack of detail in the plan make it difficult to assess, but Abel said it could be a boon for Wisconsin.

“We may stand the most to gain because of our lack of fossil resources,” he said.

The COWS study estimates the transition to energy independence would push electricity costs up about 10 percent, which could be offset by investments in energy efficiency, creating a 3 percent net reduction in total spending.

On the benefits side, such a switch would create about 162,000 new jobs and increase productivity by creating a healthier population.

The study does not outline how to get there.

Electrifying all vehicles and converting to an all-renewable electric grid will require significant advances in battery storage and other technologies, which Abel said could take decades.

Abel said the point was to focus on the bigger picture, and he notes that states like California and Texas are already running with far more renewable energy.

“We’re not going to get to 100 percent overnight anyway,” Abel said. “We’ve got a lot of progress we can make before there would be any challenges at all.”


Klobuchar launches 2020 presidential bid

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar joined the chase for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination Sunday with a frigid campaign kickoff along the Mississippi River with the Minneapolis skyline as a soaring backdrop.

“Today, on an island in the middle of the mighty Mississippi, in our nation’s heartland, at a time when we must heal the heart of our democracy and renew our commitment to the common good, I stand before you as the granddaughter of an iron ore miner, the daughter of a teacher and a newspaperman, the first woman elected to the United States Senate from the State of Minnesota, to announce my candidacy for President of the United States,” Klobuchar told the cheering crowd.

The third-term Minnesota senator and former county attorney now is part of an already bulging field looking to take on Republican President Donald Trump. And she’ll be one of a historic number of women in the White House hunt, becoming the fifth so far to press ahead with a bid.

“Let us cross the river of our divides and walk across our sturdy bridge to higher ground,” she said in remarks prepared for Sunday’s event, and released earlier in the day.

The announcement setting helps showcase the Midwestern roots of a candidate certain to present herself as a mild alternative to the sharp-edged Trump. She’s among a crop of senators in the race or giving it serious consideration.

“I don’t have a political machine. I don’t come from money. But what I do have is this: I have grit,” Klobuchar planned to tell supporters. “I have family. I have friends. I have neighbors. I have all of you who are willing to come out in the middle of the winter, all of you who took the time to watch us today, all of you who are willing to stand up and say people matter.”

Even before her launch, Klobuchar has had to answer for her managerial style, with some former staff members voicing anonymous concerns of overbearing and abusive treatment. Her office has endured significant turnover throughout her tenure. Other Klobuchar aides defended her as setting high standards and creating a culture where other staff members have gone on to hold higher positions in state and federal government.

Within the Democratic field she’ll have to navigate from the gate, Klobuchar hasn’t espoused many of the hard-left positions that have proven popular with the party base. Instead, she’s prone to playing up where she’s worked with Republicans on legislation.

Klobuchar, 58, convincingly won a third term in November, meaning she won’t have to choose between staying in the Senate and attempting to climb the political ladder. As part of that last campaign, Klobuchar pledged she’d serve her full six-year term if she won.

“Of course I will,” Klobuchar said at an August debate at the State Fair. “I think my track record shows that. I love working in the Senate. I love representing Minnesota.”

The pledge wouldn’t be breached unless she wins, but the demands of a presidential campaign will force her to split time between Washington and the key states on the nominating calendar. Klobuchar is already scheduled to appear later this month in Iowa, the traditional first state to weigh in.

Klobuchar has steamrolled her opponents in her Minnesota races, twice topping 60 percent in a state where other comparable contests have produced much narrower outcomes. Her last two opponents struggled to keep her in striking distance or raise money; her 2018 opponent was so strapped he resorted to hammering in his own lawn signs around the state.

But that’s also meant that she hasn’t received significant opposition scrutiny, been subject to searing television ads or had to fight through difficult debates that are common in presidential contests.

Critics say she is reluctant to take the lead on controversial issues, preferring instead to focus on easy targets with wide public support, such as swimming pool safety and fighting human trafficking.

“She’s a senator of small things,” said Minnesota Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan. “She puts on this persona of being a nice midwesterner, but she hasn’t stood behind any core issue, championed it or built that seniority out in Congress in her time in Washington, D.C.”

Klobuchar’s initial challenge will be to ramp up fundraising to sustain a campaign that will require a presence in multiple states at once. She’ll also have to build up a network of staff and volunteers. And she will need to find ways to attract attention in a crowded race with some better-known competitors.

She is just the latest Minnesota hopeful to put sights on the White House. Two former Democratic Minnesota senators — Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale — got there as vice presidents but fell short in their bids for the top job.

More recently, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and then U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann pursued the Republican nomination in 2012 but exited the race in the early stages.


Liberals eye 2020 takeover of Wisconsin Supreme Court

MADISON — Wisconsin liberals hope to take a key step this spring toward breaking a long conservative stranglehold on the state’s Supreme Court, in an election that could also serve as a barometer of the political mood in a key presidential swing state.

If the liberal-backed candidate wins the April 2 state Supreme Court race, liberals would be in prime position to take over the court when the next seat comes up in 2020 — during a presidential primary when Democrats expect to benefit from strong turnout.

The bitterly partisan court, which conservatives have controlled since 2008, has upheld several polarizing Republican-backed laws, none more so than former GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s law that essentially eliminated collective bargaining for public workers.

If liberals can win in April and again in 2020, they would have the majority until at least 2025.

“It is absolutely critical we win this race,” liberal attorney Tim Burns, who lost a Wisconsin Supreme Court race in 2018, said of the April election. “It does set us up for next year to get a court that’s likely to look very differently on issues of the day like voters’ rights and gerrymandering.”

The court could face big decisions on several partisan issues in the coming years, including on the next round of redistricting that follows the 2020 Census, lawsuits challenging the massive Foxconn Technology Group project backed by President Donald Trump, and attempts to undo laws that Republicans passed during a recent lame-duck session to weaken the incoming Democratic governor before he took office.

A group run by former Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that fights gerrymandered maps spent money supporting the winning liberal candidate in last year’s Wisconsin Supreme Court race. It was expected to do so again this spring ahead of the next round of redistricting.

Given that Wisconsin now has a Democratic governor and Republican-dominated Legislature, the courts will increasingly serve as the battleground where disputes will be resolved, said Douglas Keith, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks spending in judicial races.

Keith said he expects millions to be spent on the April race by outside groups even though majority control won’t shift by its result alone.

This year’s race, which is officially nonpartisan, pits liberal-backed chief state Appeals Court Judge Lisa Neubauer against fellow Appeals Court Judge Brian Hagedorn, the choice of conservatives.

“This is likely going to be the race that determines the philosophy that will govern the Supreme Court for the next 10 to 20 years,” Hagedorn said in an interview. “People understand what’s at stake in this race.”

Liberals are confident the electorate is on their side. Liberal-backed Rebecca Dallet won a spot on the high court last year in a race where she ran a television ad critical of President Donald Trump. Democrats captured every statewide race in 2018 and recent polls show voters siding with Democrats on a host of issues raised during that election.

Trump became the first Republican to carry Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984, and Democrats are determined to put the state back in their column in 2020. The result of April’s court race will be read as the latest indicator of their prospects.

“They are holding a good hand,” said Republican strategist and longtime court watcher Brian Nemoir. “But we are in a period of political swings right now. What’s true yesterday may not be true tomorrow.”

Democrats are even more confident about 2020, when conservative Justice Dan Kelly will be up for re-election. That race takes place during a presidential primary that should have heavy turnout by Democrats — but not by Republicans, with Trump at this stage unlikely to face a serious primary challenge.

Legislative Republicans were so concerned about losing the Kelly seat that they actually considered moving the primary date to improve his chances, but they ultimately dropped the idea amid widespread criticism.

Both Hagedorn and Neubauer pitch themselves as impartial, despite having partisan ties.

“I am not running for the Supreme Court to promote any policy agenda whatsoever, whether Governor Walker’s or Governor Evers’,” Hagedorn said. “My job doesn’t change one bit depending on who the governor is or who controls the Legislature.”

Hagedorn, 41, served as a law clerk for state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, whose victory in 2008 gave conservatives control of the court. Hagedorn served as an assistant attorney general, worked in private practice and was Walker’s chief legal counsel for nearly five years. Walker appointed him to the state appeals court in 2015 and Hagedorn won election two years later.

Hagedorn’s law school blog from 2005 and 2006 has become a flashpoint in the race. He wrote about his evangelical Christian beliefs, calling Planned Parenthood a “wicked organization” and denouncing court rulings favoring gay rights by likening homosexuality to bestiality.

Hagedorn hasn’t apologized for what he wrote and said his personal views don’t affect his judicial rulings. Neubauer said she was surprised by the posts, but she declined to comment beyond that.

Neubauer, 61, was appointed to the appeals court in 2007 by former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. She previously donated $8,100 to Doyle.

Neubauer was elected to the appeals court in 2008, re-elected in 2014 and has been chief judge since 2015. She spent almost 20 years as an attorney in private practice.

Both candidates cite bipartisan endorsements as proof that they would be impartial.

Neubauer’s campaign is full of Democratic operatives, including Scott Spector, who managed Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s re-election victory last year. Hagedorn’s campaign is run by Stephan Thompson, a former Walker campaign manager.

Neubauer’s husband, Jeff, was a former Democratic legislator and past chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party while her daughter, Greta Neubauer, is currently a state representative from Racine.

“I have chosen a very different path than my family,” Neubauer said. “I would ask to be judged on the path that I’ve chosen and my path is as a judge.”

The winner will serve a 10-year term.


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WHEDA provided record number of mortgages in 2018

Wisconsin’s housing assistance agency reported record numbers of assisted mortgages across the state in 2018, while the housing market remains tight and prices increase.

The Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority reported that it helped provide mortgages last year to 3,918 individuals and families totaling $497.6 million, the single family lending volume since the housing crisis of 2008.

WHEDA works with lenders, developers, local government, nonprofits, community groups and others to implement low-cost financing programs.

In Chippewa County, those partnering lenders include BMO Harris Bank, Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp., Forward Financial Bank and Old National Bank.

WHEDA Single Family Director David Rouse called the accomplishment amazing in their announcement.

“Wisconsin families that have purchased new homes now have a better opportunity to achieve success and prosperity,” Rouse said. “Furthermore, these new homeowners will help strengthen the state’s economy.”

According to WHEDA, since 2011 they’ve seen consistent growth year to year in the number of mortgages they provide.

In 2017, loans were provided to 3,078 individuals and families totaling $371.2 million.

They also provided 2,884 home buyers with down payment assistance totaling more than $11.8 million, which they noted was far more than any previous year.

The continued application for mortgage assistance mirrors a year of high housing sales numbers.

The 2018 home sales numbers for the state reported by the Wisconsin Realtors Association show only a slight dip from record numbers in 2017, despite have fewer numbers of homes for sale.

Home sales fell 2.2 percent below the record sales seen in 2017, making 2018 the third strongest year for home sales since 2007.

December closed the year with home sales down 13.1 percent compared to December 2017, while WRA also reported an imbalance of supply and demand which pushed the median price for December up 5.3 percent to $179,000 over the past 12 months.

Median home prices were up 7 percent in 2018 overall compared to 2017.

WRA Chairman Jean Stefaniak said when reporting the numbers that despite the lower numbers of houses for sale and higher prices, the interest and competitiveness was still present in the housing market.

“With the exception of higher-priced homes, supply has been very low, giving sellers the clear advantage in most of the markets across Wisconsin,” Stefaniak said.

The WRA also reported that they don’t believe the increase in price was inflationary, despite the strong demand and relatively weak supply.

They reported that declining energy prices helped to keep inflation in check, especially late in the year.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that December inflation rates fell below 2 percent, which bringing inflation for all of 2018 to just 2.4 percent.

Michael Theo, WRA president, credited the Federal Reserve System in their numbers report with keeping mortgages and inflation down.

“Strong demand and relatively weak supply in 2018 created significant price pressure,” Theo said. “High inflation leads to high mortgage rates, so it’s good the Fed has kept inflation in check.”


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Abel