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Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Milwaukee’s employee-benefit conundrum. Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett and the city’s Common Council are unsure whether the city is exempt from a new state law that requires public employees contribute more toward benefit costs. The city’s attorney says Milwaukee should not comply. The governor’s chief counsel says yes. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the disagreement centers around the state constitution’s home-rule provisions and terms of a decade-old legal settlement. Following the new law could save the city $8.2 million annually, but risks a lawsuit.

2. Chicago schools’ financial trouble. An 82-page analysis of Chicago Public Schools’ 2012 budget says that a “fiscal calamity” lies in the district’s near future if cuts are not implemented, according to the Civic Federation, which released the report Monday. The organization endorsed decisions like denying teachers a 4 percent cost-of-living increase and raising property taxes, according to our partner station WBEZ. The Federation said those decisions will look small if other remedies are not implemented to the $5.9 billion annual budget by 2014.

3. Urban garden potential. Two Ohio State researchers say as much as $115 million in produce could be grown on vacant land in Cleveland, enough to meet 22 to 100 percent of the city’s fresh food demands. “We were definitely shocked it was really possible to be self-reliant,” Parwinder S. Grewal, co-author of the study, told the Columbus Dispatch. Cleveland holds 5.3 square miles of vacant lots, and the city has recently loosened regulations to make urban gardening more palatable.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Mixed unemployment numbers. The number of people applying for unemployment benefits rose above 400,000 last week, but the nation’s four-week average fell to the lowest levels seen since mid-April, according to The Associated Press. A report from the U.S. Labor Department said Thursday that applications rose to 408,000. They have remained above 400,000 in 18 of the past 19 weeks. But the four-week average fell for the seventh consecutive week to 402,500.

2. Wisconsin property values decline. For the third consecutive year, property values fell across Wisconsin in 2010. The value of homes, businesses and other property declined by 1.8 percent to $487 billion, according to a report by the state’s Department of Revenue. In 2009, values declined by 3.1 percent. Before the three-year slide, Wisconsin had only one other year on record, 1959, when property values declined, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

3. Lyric Opera averts strike. Officials the Lyric Opera of Chicago and America Guild of Musical Artists announced a tentative, one-year contract agreement Wednesday that likely averts a strike, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The agreement must still be ratified by union members and the Opera’s board of directors. The opera’s seasonal performances are scheduled to begin on Sept. 10 at Millennium Park.


The turmoil that enveloped Wisconsin politics since spring is over, at least for now.

Protests roiled the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison this winter.

Two Democratic state senators hung on to their seats in yesterday’s recall elections, leaving Republicans in control of state government. The senators, Jim Holperin of Conover, and Bob Wirch of Pleasant Prairie, defeated Republican challengers.

The votes were last involving six state senate seats over the past two weeks. The recall elections came in the wake of Wisconsin’s controversial new law, pushed by its Republican Gov., Scott Walker, that strictly limits collective bargaining rights for state employees.

Republicans hold a 17-16 margin in the state senate, and have a majority in the state house as well as the governor’s chair.

An estimated $37 million was spent on ads during the recall campaigns, which followed a court challenge to the new law. Holperin and Wirch were among 14 Democrats who left Wisconsin rather than vote on the collective bargaining proposal.

In last week’s elections, Democrats gained two seats previously held by Republicans, but weren’t able wrest control of the state senate.

However,  the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “The narrower majority would make it tougher to win approval of controversial legislation, such as stricter abortion restrictions or tougher penalties for illegal immigrants.”

But it noted that Republicans this year have already achieved many of the top goals that they have pursued for years. “In addition to the collective bargaining changes, they approved significant cuts in state aid to schools and local governments; some tax cuts; the carrying of concealed weapons; requiring photo ID at the polls starting next year; and eliminating all taxpayer funding for political campaigns.”

Read Changing Gears’ Wisconsin coverage here.

Now that it’s over, what do you think Wisconsin says about the political climate in our region? Post your comments below.

 


It’s been a tumultuous and expensive year for Wisconsin politics, and it comes to a conclusion today, at least at the polls. Two Democratic state senators face recall elections today, in the wake of the state’s new law that sharply limits public employee collective bargaining rights.

Associated Press photo

Republicans are assured of keeping control of state government, where they hold the governor’s seat and majorities in both the state senate and the assembly. But they could widen their one-seat state senate lead by upsets. Read more from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Last week, Republicans took four of six senate seats that were part of the recall effort, with Democrats claiming two victories. In all, the campaign to unseat state senators has cost an estimated $37 million.

The Wisconsin recall effort has attracted national attention as states in the Great Lakes and elsewhere grapple with tight budgets. It followed dramatic weeks of protests in Madison over Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to pass a law severely limiting public employees’ collective bargaining rights. The Democrats facing recalls today were among 14 senators who left the state, rather than vote on the legislation.

Walker, who was elected last November, could face his own recall effort by Democrats next year.

Check out Changing Gears’ continuing coverage of the Wisconsin political situation and the efforts by lawmakers across the region to affecting public employees.

 


Over at PBS NewsHour, there’s have extensive coverage of yesterday’s Wisconsin recall elections. Patchwork Nation has broken down the numbers, and has spotted two big trends.

1) Counties where public employees live are shifting away from supporting Republicans. That’s because Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, has led the drive to weaken collective bargaining rights. Says Patchwork: “If Democrats can win bigger portions of the electorate in those counties in 2012, it would greatly increase their chances for success.”

2) Monied suburbs around Milwaukee may be tilting even more sharply to Republican candidates. According to Patchwork, “It may be that the Monied Burbs are the kinds of places where GOP efforts to strike at public sector unions could win voters. There are many well-paid private sector employers here. Many of them have seen a lot of cuts in benefits over the past decade and they may not be pleased with the benefits public sector workers receive.”

Patchwork’s conclusion is that change may be in the air, both for Wisconsin, and for the nation in 2012. And those changes could certainly be felt in our region.

 


Republicans kept four state Senate seats, and retained control of state government, in hotly contested recall elections in Wisconsin yesterday.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Jeremy M. Farmer.

The elections were triggered by the uproar over the state’s new collective bargaining law, which limits bargaining rights for state employees and requires them to pay more for benefits. Republicans hold a majority in the Senate and Assembly, while Wisconsin has a Republican governor, Scott Walker.

Now, attention moves to two Democratic state Senate seats, which will be the subject of recall elections next week. Tuesday’s races saw high turnouts in the six districts where voters mounted challenges to their representatives. Democrats needed to win three of the seats in order to have a majority in the state Senate, and the expensive races attracted national attention from political writers and labor unions.

So far more than $35 million has been spent on the recall races, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks political money, the Journal-Sentinel said. The spending on the nine races dwarfs the $19.3 million spent in last year’s 115 legislative races, and approaches the $37.4 million spent in the race for governor.

Many analysts see the elections as a precursor of a statewide bid to recall Walker, which could take place in 2012.

The two Democratic victories mean that Republicans now hold just a 17-16 lead in the state Senate. But for Republican officials, that margin is still sufficient.

“I think it’s a huge victory for us,” said John Hogan, director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate.

Democrats, however, said they were pleased by the two victories.

But Democrats claimed victory for the two seats they captured from Republicans.

“We went on their turf and we won on Republican turf,” said Mike Tate, chairman of the state Democratic Party. “We will not stop, we will not rest” until Walker is recalled.

 

 

 


Voters go to the polls in six Wisconsin state senate districts today. They’re considering whether to recall Republican lawmakers who supported Gov. Scott Walker’s bid to restrict state workers’ collective bargaining rights.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that turnout is strong, while Wisconsin Public Radio says state officials have seen a big demand for absentee ballots. Two Democratic senators face recall elections next week.

According to the Journal-Sentinel, there’s been a flurry of activity at the polls in Whitefish Bay, which is represented by one of the Republican state senators.

Mordecai Lee, a political scientist and professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says he voted at 8 a.m. at the Whitefish Bay Public Library. He was No. 237 when he voted in the 8th Senate District recall election between Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and challenger Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Whitefish Bay).

“Voting was as heavy as a presidential election,” he wrote. “Nowhere to park, traffic jams, lines, etc. Amazing.”

Associated Press photo

The debate over Wisconsin’s new collective bargaining law sparked big protests in the state capitol earlier this year. The law, which limits state employee bargaining and requires them to pay more for benefits, took effect in June after a court challenge. Read Changing Gears’ coverage of Wisconsin’s collective bargaining law here.

Are you a Wisconsin voter? How do you feel about the recall effort?


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Michigan starts negotiations. Administrators from Gov. Rick Snyder’s office will begin contract negotiations this week with state workers, who face wage and benefit cuts as Michigan grapples with a budget deficit. According to our partner station Michigan Radio, workers must agree to re-open contracts before negotiations commence. State officials say layoffs are possible should employees not green-light concessions.

2. Ohio’s SB5 faces uphill fight. Voters in the Buckeye State will find a referendum on SB5 on the ballots in November. An early poll shows the controversial state bill that limits collective bargaining rights of public employees faces a formidable challenge. A Quinnipiac poll released this week showed that 56 percent of voters favor repealing the law, while 32 percent believe it should be kept, according to The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.

3. Political divide on Wisconsin rail projects. A proposal for a commuter rail from Milwaukee to Racine and Kenosha could be dropped today. Tomorrow, the Milwaukee Common Council could approve a downtown streetcar line. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the transportation issue has become a “defining” one for politicians. What comes next in Wisconsin? To some extent, it depends on how people get to work.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Michigan starts negotiations. Administrators from Gov. Rick Snyder’s office will begin contract negotiations this week with state workers, who face wage and benefit cuts as Michigan grapples with a budget deficit. According to our partner station Michigan Radio, workers must agree to re-open contracts before negotiations commence. State officials say layoffs are possible should employees not green-light concessions.

2. Ohio’s SB5 faces uphill fight. Voters in the Buckeye State will find a referendum on SB5 on the ballots in November. An early poll shows the controversial state bill that limits collective bargaining rights of public employees faces a formidable challenge. A Quinnipiac poll released this week showed that 56 percent of voters favor repealing the law, while 32 percent believe it should be kept, according to The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.

3. Political divide on Wisconsin rail projects. A proposal for a commuter rail from Milwaukee to Racine and Kenosha could be dropped today. Tomorrow, the Milwaukee Common Council could approve a downtown streetcar line. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the transportation issue has become a “defining” one for politicians. What comes next in Wisconsin? To some extent, it depends on how people get to work.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Wisconsin reports job growth. Citing a resurgent tourism industry, Wisconsin officials reported a gain of 12,900 private-sector jobs from May to June. It’s the largest one-month gain in the Badger state in nearly eight years, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But the state’s unemployment rate nonetheless ticked upward from 7.4 percent in May to 7.6 percent in June. Gov. Scott Walker noted that Wisconsin’s growth accounted for nearly half of the nation’s job creation.

2. U.S. sells stake in Chrysler. Italian automaker Fiat purchased the U.S. government’s remaining stake in Chrysler on Thursday, a move that ends federal involvement with the automaker. Fiat paid $560 million to the Treasury Department in exchange for its 98,000 shares, according to our partner Michigan Radio. The government had helped rescue the automaker from bankruptcy, with Chrysler receiving $12.5 billion. Of that amount $11.2 has been repaid.

3. Is high-speed rail dead? That’s the opinion of The Urbanophile’s Aaron M. Renn, who argues that a poorly executed federal plan combined with Republican resistance at state levels has crippled the future of high-speed rail in the U.S. More than $8 billion in funds were provided in President Obama’s stimulus package, but major initiatives still aren’t off the ground. “It’s time to take a major gut check on high speed rail in America and re-think the direction,” Renn writes.