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Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2007

Electric Bills Will Go Up

We Energies doesn’t get its full request, but it will stil

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The Public Service Commission (PSC) of Wisconsin approved an increase in We Energies’ electric and natural gas rates last week, but it didn’t give the utility everything it wanted. Initially, We Energies asked for a 7.5% increase in 2008, and another 7.5% increase in 2009. The PSC will instead allow rates to rise 3.4% for electricity customers in both 2008 and 2009. Natural gas bills will go up 2.1%.

Part of that increase will cover the cost of expanding the Oak Creek coal-fired power plant, which is the largest construction project in the history of the state. We Energies wanted customers to pay about $19 million in 2008 and again in 2009 for the plant’s controversial cooling system, which is in legal limbo right now. Although the environmental group Clean Wisconsin asked the PSC to not ask ratepayers to foot the bill for that system until its legal status is secure, the PSC allowed those costs to be included in the rate hike.

The PSC set the company’s profit level at 10.75% for 2008 and 2009. That’s pretty sweet. But the company had asked for a profit level of 11.2% in the next two years, showing that it’s looking out for itself, and not the consumers it should be serving.

“Corporate Tax Leakage” Sounds Bad, But the Reality Is Worse: Last week, the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future (IWF) released a new report on how corporations avoid paying their full share of taxes in Wisconsin. According to the report, huge, multi-state and multi-national companies develop tax strategies that allow them to report little to no profit in states with robust tax laws, and move their profits to states with weak tax laws. They also report one set of numbers on their federal tax returns and another on their state tax returns—which is known as “corporate tax leakage.”

In Wisconsin, the amount of taxes lost is estimated to be $643 million in 2006 alone—a huge pot of money that could be used for the public schools, safety, snowplowing, the parks and services for the elderly and disabled. The IWF report contends that the leakage has grown in the past few years, since companies are becoming more aggressive about using tax loopholes to reduce their tax burdens.

State Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) introduced a bill last week to require corporations to publicly disclose their tax payments and deductions. Predictably, the bill is being denounced by Republicans, especially state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Caledonia), because it would finally reveal who is shouldering the tax burden in the state— and it isn’t big business. Rather, the IWF’s report shows that individuals and small businesses are paying more than their fair share in taxes.

So Much for Blind Justice: State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen shocked court-watchers last week when he said he wanted the state to settle with former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, whose conviction for three felonies was overturned on a technicality. Jensen will be granted a new trial, but Van Hollen— who is a Republican, like Jensen—said the state should strike a deal with the former lawmaker and not retry the case.

While that may be sound advice from a lawyer to a client, it certainly isn’t proper for Van Hollen to make public remarks about such a politically sensitive case that has a connection to his office. Although Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard tried the case, the Department of Justice (then under Democrat Peg Lautenschlager) was involved in its investigation and prosecution. Van Hollen should keep his comments to himself and allow the case to proceed without political pressure from the state’s highest law-enforcement official.

Our Bodies, Our Battleground: Earlier in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a federal partial-birth abortion ban was constitutional, even though it didn’t have an exemption for the life and health of the woman. But Wisconsin has its own ban, one that goes further than the federal one, and even though it’s still on the books, it’s unenforceable. (The federal ban still outlaws these abortions in the state, though.) So, seeing a chance to whip up some hysteria— and perhaps some donations from the prolife lobby—anti-abortion advocates are trying to develop a new state ban that mirrors the federal one. Sponsors are Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (RJuneau), Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon) and Rep. Tony Staskunas (D-West Allis).

On the other side of the spectrum, two Democratic lawmakers are trying to repeal Wisconsin’s criminal abortion statute, which has been on the books since 1849. Although this statute hasn’t been enforced since Roe v. Wade, it could be if that landmark court decision were overturned by the increasingly conservative Supreme Court. If that were to happen, abortion would be a crime in Wisconsin, even in cases of rape or incest. State Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) and state Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) are seeking sponsors for their bill.

A Sane Policy Preserved: The federal government announced that it will allow the state to renew its Family Planning Waiver through Dec. 31, 2010. The program provides reproductive health services to lowincome women, such as family planning office visits, STD testing and treatment, and family-planning supplies and services. In 2008, the program will be expanded to cover women ages 15 through 44 who are at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

Settled: The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted last week to settle the lawsuit brought by a former Milwaukee County deputy sheriff against Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. James Fuerst sued the sheriff after Clarke passed him over for promotion. Fuerst had been critical about Clarke’s hiring of a PR person, and had made those criticisms public. Fuerst will receive $50,000 from the county, while his lawyer will receive $95,000 of taxpayer money. Thank you, David Clarke.

Lighthouse Is Open to the Public: One of Milwaukee’s treasures is the North Point Lighthouse, located in Lake Park on the shores of Lake Michigan. Built in 1855, it was used until 1994 and then restored by the North Point Lighthouse Friends Inc., with cooperation from Milwaukee County. Now the restoration is complete and the public is invited to tour the lighthouse every Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. The 74-foot tower offers a 360-degree view of the city and the lake, which we’re sure is spectacular in any weather. Admission is $5 for those 12 and up; $3 for those 5-11; and free for kids under 5. For more information, go to www.northpointlighthouse.org.

Help the Library: Amid cutbacks that include ending transfers between libraries, there’s one way you can help the Milwaukee County Federated Library System: Fill the shelves. Thanks to a partnership between the Katie Gingrass Art Gallery (241 N. Broadway) and the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, the Fill the Shelves project allows gallery-goers to buy books, which will then be donated to the library. “The goal is to fill the shelves by Dec. 31,” the partners announced. For more information, go to www.gingrassgallery. com or call 289-0855.

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