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Tony Evers, like Scott Walker, eyes fuller picture for state finances, but progress is elusive (copy)

MADISON — Before he took office, Gov. Scott Walker vowed to use it as the standard for a balanced budget. Now incoming Gov.-elect Tony Evers says it’s “something to work towards.”

Both were referring to a method of accounting standards used by publicly traded companies, certified public accountants and local governments — but not the state — known as “generally accepted accounting practices” or GAAP.

After eight years in office, Walker never fulfilled his campaign promise to balance the state budget using the GAAP method.

The state’s financial picture is much less rosy when measured by those standards — though it’s in far better shape now than when Walker took office in 2011.

The Wisconsin Constitution requires state government to balance its budget. But it only must do so under so-called “cash accounting” practices — a less-expansive view of the state budget that doesn’t fully account for future expenses to which the state has committed.

The latter standard is what Walker used in a statement last week, touting that for the eighth year in a row the state ended the fiscal year with a budget surplus, which totaled $588 million as of June 30.

“We are leaving Wisconsin in the best financial condition in a generation. This is part of our legacy,” Walker said.

Using this benchmark for state finances is an about-face from Walker’s campaign rhetoric when he ran for governor in 2010. Then Walker pledged to “require the use GAAP to balance every state budget, just as we require every local government and school district to do.”

As of June 30, under GAAP accounting, the state faced a $1.25 billion deficit, according to the state’s comprehensive annual financial report issued by the Department of Administration.

The discrepancy between the two methods is largely due to the state making some spending commitments, such as property tax credits, that it doesn’t fully pay out until the next fiscal year.

As recently as 2015, using GAAP to measure Wisconsin’s financial picture ranked it among the worst of any state, the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance said last year.

There’s little question, however, that state finances are in better shape now than when Walker took office. The $1.25 billion deficit under GAAP is the state’s lowest since 2001, according to figures supplied by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum, created last year through a merger of the taxpayers alliance and the former Public Policy Forum.

When Walker took office in 2011 amid a national recession that dampened tax collections, the GAAP deficit was $3 billion.

As a percentage of revenues or of expenditures — which helps account for growth in state revenues and spending over time — it’s at its lowest point since the policy forum began tracking the figures in 1990.

Forum research director Jason Stein said Walker is in line with past governors who also used cash accounting as the yardstick for state finances. Still, Stein said one reason the state’s GAAP deficit matters is because the future spending commitments for which it accounts could hamper the state’s ability to respond to a potential economic downturn.

“Clearly we’re at or near the peak of the economic cycle, so we should be making progress on our fiscal condition,” Stein said. “Sooner or later there will be a recession, and we won’t be making progress — or maybe going backward.”

Evers, asked Friday about using GAAP accounting, said it and cash accounting are “two completely different animals.” He noted he employed the former when he was a school district superintendent.

At the same time, he made no promise to adopt it.

“That’s something we need to work towards. I can’t guarantee in our first budget we will be able to move to GAAP accounting,” Evers said. “But certainly the people of the state of Wisconsin expect to have transparency in the budget. And as we move forward in this budget time, we want to make sure that people understand the difference between those two.”


Chippewa County employees in several departments competed for the fourth year in a row in 2018 to raise funds for the Legacy Center. For the story, turn to page Ax.

No deal to end shutdown; Trump says 'could be a long time'

WASHINGTON — No one budged at President Donald Trump’s White House meeting with congressional leaders Wednesday, so the partial government shutdown persisted through a 12th day over his demand for billions of dollars to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. They’ll try again Friday.

In one big change, the new Congress convenes today with Democrats taking majority control of the House, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said outside the White House that there would be rapid passage of legislation to re-open the government — without funds for the border wall. But the White House has rejected that package, and Trump said ahead of the session with the congressional leaders that the partial shutdown will last “as long as it takes” to get the funding he wants.

“Could be a long time or could be quickly,” Trump said during lengthy comments at a Cabinet meeting at the White House, his first public appearance of the new year. Meanwhile, the shutdown dragged through a second week, closing some parks and leaving hundreds of thousands of federal employees without pay.

Democrats said they asked Trump directly during Wednesday’s private meeting held in the Situation Room why he wouldn’t consider their package of bills. One measure would open most of the shuttered government departments at funding levels already agreed to by all sides. The other would provide temporary funding for Homeland Security, through Feb. 8, allowing talks to continue over border security.

“I said, Mr. President, Give me one good reason why you should continue your shutdown,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said afterward. “He could not give a good answer.”

Added Schumer, “We would hope they would reconsider.”

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said there’s no need to prolong the shutdown and he was disappointed the talks did not produce a resolution. He complained that Democrats interrupted Homeland Security officials who were trying to describe a dire situation at the border.

“We were hopeful that we could get more of a negotiation,” said McCarthy.

The two sides have traded offers, but their talks broke down ahead of the holidays. On Wednesday, Trump also rejected his own administration’s offer to accept $2.5 billion for the wall. That offer was made when Vice President Mike Pence and other top officials met with Schumer at the start of the shutdown. Instead, on Wednesday Trump repeatedly pushed for the $5.6 billion he has demanded.

Making his case ahead of the afternoon session with Democratic and Republican leaders, he said the current border is “like a sieve” and noted the tear gas “flying” overnight to deter arrivals.

“If they knew they couldn’t come through, they wouldn’t even start,” Trump said at the meeting, joined by Cabinet secretaries and top advisers, including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

Trump complained that he was “lonely” at the White House during the holiday break, having skipped his getaway to Mar-a-Lago in Florida. He claimed his only companions were the “machine gunners,” referring to security personnel, and “they don’t wave, they don’t smile.” He also criticized Pelosi for visiting Hawaii.

At the Capitol on Wednesday, Pelosi said she hoped Republicans and the White House “are hearing what we have offered” to end the shutdown.

Trump contended the Democrats see the shutdown fight as “an election point” as he celebrated his own first two years in office. He promised “six more years of great success.”

The partial government shutdown began on Dec. 22. Funding for the wall has been the sticking point in passing funding bills for several government departments.

Pelosi, who is expected to become speaker on Thursday, said Tuesday that Democrats would take action to “end the Trump Shutdown” by passing legislation today to reopen government.

“We are giving the Republicans the opportunity to take yes for an answer,” she wrote in a letter to colleagues. “Senate Republicans have already supported this legislation, and if they reject it now, they will be fully complicit in chaos and destruction of the President’s third shutdown of his term.”

But the Republican-led Senate appears unlikely to consider the Democratic funding bills. A spokesman for GOP leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans would not take action without Trump’s backing.

Even if only symbolic, passage of the bills in the House would put fresh pressure on the president. At the same time, administration officials said Trump was in no rush for a resolution to the impasse, believing he has public opinion and his base on his side.

Romney bolts into Washington, criticizes Trump (copy)

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and incoming senator, set himself apart from other Republicans in the new Congress with a blistering attack on President Donald Trump’s leadership and character. Romney’s strong denunciation could mark the start of a new rivalry within the party.

Romney put to rest expectations that he would take his time getting his footing in Washington. Instead, in a Washington Post column published two days before Romney was sworn into office, he said Trump’s “conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.”

Trump, in a Twitter response, said he hoped Romney wouldn’t follow in the footsteps of Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who often criticized Trump and paid the price, opting to retire rather than risk defeat in a GOP primary in 2018.

“Would much prefer that Mitt focus on Border Security and so many other things where he can be helpful,” Trump tweeted. “I won big, and he didn’t. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!”

Romney’s remarks prompted swift backlash from allies of the president in the Republican Party — including his own niece, Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.

McDaniel retweeted Trump’s remarks about Romney and added that the president is constantly “attacked and obstructed” by the media and Democrats.

“For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack” Trump @realdonaldtrump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and is disappointing and unproductive,” McDaniel tweeted.

GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said the 2020 election hopes of many Republicans in the Senate and House will be tied to Trump. He said the criticisms were bad for the Republican Party and made it harder to get things done in the Senate.

“I don’t think the president deserves a new senator coming in attacking his character,” Paul said.

Romney will be sworn in as a senator today.

By taking on Trump so early in his Senate career, Romney could be picking up where Flake and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., another retiring senator, left off.

Their retirements left some wondering whether any other Republicans would be willing to publicly criticize the president. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., noted that almost half the Senate Republicans are up for re-election in 2020 and some might feel the need to push back against Trump.

“They just saw what happened in 2018,” Durbin said, referring to Republicans losing the House majority in November. “I think, once they do polling back home, not all of them but many of them will find that independence is being rewarded.”

Romney had his public run-ins with the president before and tried to prevent him from winning the GOP nomination in 2016. In one speech, Romney said there was plenty of evidence that Trump was “a con man, a fake.” In that same speech, he said, “Dishonesty is Donald Trump’s hallmark.”

But after the presidential election, Romney eased off the criticism and interviewed to become Trump’s secretary of state. Trump picked former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who lasted about 14 months before Trump fired him.

During his Senate campaign, Romney insisted that he would agree with Trump on some issues and not be shy about disagreeing with him on others. Romney appears to have more room with GOP voters in Utah to take on the president. More than half the voters in the state, 64 percent, would like to see Romney confront the president, according to data from AP VoteCast, a survey of midterm voters.

Romney, in his opinion column, credited Trump for cutting corporate taxes, stripping out what he described as excessive regulation and appointing conservative judges. But he said policies and appointments are only part of being a president.

A president, Romney wrote, must also demonstrate honesty and integrity and elevate the national discourse.

“With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring,” Romney wrote.

Trump said during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday that he was surprised by Romney’s comments. “People are very upset with what he did,” Trump said.

Romney later told CNN that there “are places where we agree on a whole series of policy fronts, but there are places that I think the president can, if you will, elevate his game and do a better job to help bring us together as a nation.”

Asked if we would endorse Trump for president in 2020, Romney said, “I’m going to wait and see what the alternatives are.”

Romney ruled out another run himself: “You may have heard, I ran before,” he said.

Some Trump critics within the GOP are hopeful that Romney’s comments are a sign of more to come from Republicans. Conservative commentator Bill Kristol tweeted that Romney’s words confirmed that “Trump’s dominance over the GOP, pretty complete until now, can no longer be taken for granted.”

“For now at least Mitt Romney has become the leader of the Republican Resistance to Trump,” Kristol said.


Authorities refer homicide charge for Menomonie man in death

Authorities have recommended a first-degree homicide charge for a man detained after a suspicious death in Menomonie Sunday.

Richard W. Seehaver, 52, of 603 15th St. SE was detained and arrested Sunday after authorities responded to a disturbance call at the 15th Street residence and found another man, John Likeness, 54, dead at the scene.

Likeness was also a resident of the 15th Street house, according to Menomonie police.

Seehaver was referred to the Dunn County District Attorney’s office on charges of first-degree intentional homicide and domestic abuse-repeater, according to a statement issued by the Menomonie Police Department.

Police are still investigating the case and are waiting for the results of an autopsy, Menomonie Police Commander Rick Hollister said.

The emergency call came at 3:17 p.m. Sunday, and authorities first treated the scene as a suspicious death.

“In the early part of this investigation, it appears at this time (that) the crime scene is not a random act,” Hollister said.

Menomonie police, Menomonie Fire and Rescue, Dunn County Sheriff’s Office, UW-Stout Police, Wisconsin State Patrol, Wisconsin Crime Lab, Dunn County Medical Examiner’s Office, Dunn County District Attorney’s Office and the Ramsey County Medical Examiner assisted with the case.