Here & Now for Dec. 22, 2017 | Wisconsin Public Television

Here & Now for Dec. 22, 2017

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December 22, 2017

Here & Now for Dec. 22, 2017

On tonight's show, we examine: the impact of the newly-signed Republican tax plan with tax expert Todd Berry; the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court with candidate and Sauk Co. Judge Michael Screnock; the race for governor with Libertarian candidate Phil Anderson; and tourist-targeted assaults in Mexico, with Journal Sentinel reporter Raquel Rutledge.

Episode Transcript

Frederica Freyberg:

I'm Frederica Freyberg. Tonight on "Here and Now," how tax cuts passed in Washington will impact Wisconsin. A closer look at dangers at Mexican resorts. And an interview with State Supreme Court candidate Judge Michael Screnock. It's "Here and Now" for December 22.

Announcer:

Funding for "Here and Now" is provided, in part, by Friends of Wisconsin Public Television.

Frederica Freyberg:

A first look tonight at the tax cut plan passed by Congress and signed by the president this week. Surrounded by fellow Republicans and President Trump at the White House, House Speaker Paul Ryan said the plan sends a strong message to Americans.

Paul Ryan:

It is really simple. The message to the hard-working taxpayers of America is your tax relief is on its way. That is what's happening here. The message to the families in America who have been struggling paycheck and paycheck, your tax rates are going down and your paychecks are going up. This is the kind of relief that Americans deserve. This is the kind of tax reform and tax cuts that get our economy growing to reach its potential. This gets us better wages, bigger paychecks, a simpler tax system. This gets the American economy competitive in the global economy.

Frederica Freyberg:

House Speaker Paul Ryan on the passage of the tax cut package. On the other side of the aisle, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin had this to say. "This is largely a tax giveaway to the wealthiest few, big corporations and Wall Street while millions of middle class families will face tax hikes. Powerful corporations get permanent tax breaks. The top 1% will see 83% of the benefits and Republicans have put people's health care on the chopping block to pay for it. That's just not right and it's not fair. We should have worked together on bipartisan reform that was focused on the middle class." So those are the political persuasions around the tax cuts and changes passed this week in Washington. But what does it mean on the ground here in Wisconsin when you sit down to file your taxes? We turned to Todd Berry, President of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. Thank you very much for being here.

Todd Berry:

Good to be back.

Frederica Freyberg:

So the $10,000 deduction cap for state and local taxes, will that hurt the majority of Wisconsin tax filers?

Todd Berry:

No, in short. The average Wisconsinite maybe pays $2500 to $3,000 in income taxes. Property taxes, maybe $3,000 or something like that. You know, home values are not high in most of Wisconsin. So when you put that together, the average will be well below the cap. Where things are going to get interesting is not in the middle. It's going to be in the upper middle. It's going to be in the $150,000 range, $200 range, where you may have a fair amount of income, state income taxes and a larger house and live in an expensive community.

Frederica Freyberg:

As for the kind of new tax brackets, people who might experience a cut, would they start seeing those out of their paychecks right away?

Todd Berry:

Well, it depends on when they change the withholding tables and that will mean the IRS will have to talk to employers, et cetera. But they should see it early in the year.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, you say that far fewer people will end up itemizing because the standard deduction nearly doubles, $12,000 for a single filer, $24,000 for married. How many fewer?

Todd Berry:

Right now something like 1/3 of Wisconsinites itemize, give or take. After this, I think it will be more like one in ten. I mean, that's a little bit of a guess. But -- and from my perspective, being an old tax guy, to allow tax preparation and filing to be easier is a good thing. We make it way too hard.

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, that is good, because one of the things they wanted to do was simplify it.

Todd Berry:

Yeah. And it's not -- there is some step in that direction.

Frederica Freyberg:

So we've said that this salt cap won't affect most Wisconsinites, but with the standard deduction now doubling, you're saying 2/3 of people in Wisconsin probably won't itemize or more. But you also say that that could mean these people would see a state tax increase.

Todd Berry:

Yeah. I don't mean to exaggerate here, but if you're not itemizing at the federal level and so you're going to become a standard deduction taker, you don't carry over your itemized deductions to the Wisconsin return, then you may need a little bump in the state standard deduction in order to avoid problems. Now, I -- you know, there will be some kind of state adjustment, rate reduction, and there really probably should be some sort of standard deduction increase as well. I'm not saying this is going to be widespread. You get up into this $100,000-$150,000 range it gets interesting.

Frederica Freyberg:

What do you make of the corporate cuts being permanent but the individual cuts sunsetting?

Todd Berry:

Well, I mean the real reason for that is simply the way the procedure was set up and certain debt rules and so forth. I think in reality both are permanent, one for legislative reasons, one for political reasons. Congress doesn't undo tax cuts usually.

Frederica Freyberg:

That would be difficult. But do you expect businesses to give higher wages or hire more people given their windfall?

Todd Berry:

Well, this is going to be the big debate. Economic theory suggests that, you know, businesses pass on taxes to workers or consumers or perhaps shareholders, so, you know, that would suggest that some of the benefits would shift to people and there is some indication in the early news that there are bonuses happening, an announcement of some kind of investment activity. But we'll have to see.

Frederica Freyberg:

Todd, we do not to let you go without recognizing that you are retiring from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance as its president after how many years?

Todd Berry:

Almost 25.

Frederica Freyberg:

So you're moving on to do what?

Todd Berry:

Well, I am an avid painter as a hobby. I'm an avid gardener. I collect learning foreign languages. I have kids and my wife prays for grandkids, so we'll be busy.

Frederica Freyberg:

You have also been on Wisconsin Public Television for just about as many years. So thank you very much.

Todd Berry:

It’s been a pleasure. I always hear good things from your listeners.

Frederica Freyberg:

Todd Berry, congrats. This time of year, thoughts turn to the warming sun of beachfront resort vacations, but the dangers of some resorts and popular destinations in Mexico resulted Wisconsin's U.S. Senator Ron Johnson calling for a federal investigation because dozens of people reported being robbed, sexually assaulted and injured after drinking alcohol at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico. In tonight's closer look, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Raquel Rutledge, who broke the story and continues to report on it, joins us with details. And thanks a lot for being here.

Raquel Rutledge:

Well, thank you for having me.

Frederica Freyberg:

So what is the status, if you know, of the U.S. Inspector General's investigation?

Raquel Rutledge:

Well, it's early. They just announced in the last ten days or so that they were going to take a look at how the State Department handles these complaints because, as we reported back in July and August, they weren't keeping track of injuries and assaults in Mexico. They do keep track of deaths. But even that database is not inclusive. So when the young woman, Abby Conner, drowned in a Mexican resort pool, her death was not included in the tally because she actually technically was taken off of life support in Florida. So it's early. It's hard to say where that investigation is going to go.

Frederica Freyberg:

So if the State Department heretofore wasn't tracking these numbers, what you did discover in your reporting about the potential number of incidents at these resorts?

Raquel Rutledge:

Gosh, it's hard to say the scope of this thing. Since we wrote that first story, which just raised questions about what was going on, I have gotten dozens and dozens -- right now I’ve heard from about 150 people I would say, that have told of drinking small to moderate amounts of alcohol, blacking out, being sexually assaulted, robbed, otherwise encountering trouble there and those are just the people who have read our stories and took the time to reach out. So it's hard to say how wide spread it really is.

Frederica Freyberg:

What about the number of deaths and specifically victims from Wisconsin?

Raquel Rutledge:

Well, we know of, gosh -- I know of about at least seven or eight deaths. And, again, these are people that are drowning in resort pools, sometimes during the day, and some of these pools are waist-high water. The people that I’ve heard from -- their loved ones, they're from all around the country. I may have heard from somebody from Canada as well on that front.

Frederica Freyberg:

Resorts keep saying that they use only premium alcohol and yet Mexican authorities I understand acknowledge problems with tainted alcohol. Like what's happening with the alcohol being served at these resorts?

Raquel Rutledge:

Yeah. Well, they deny the tainting. What they do acknowledge is that they have a vast problem with illicit alcohol and illegal alcohol. So whether it's counterfeit. It's made under unregulated conditions, poor manufacturing practices, without tax stamps, it's under the radar of regulators. That number is about 36% of all the alcohol consumed in Mexico, falls into that category. Now, a percentage of that is thought to be tainted. So they'll deny that they found any evidence of contaminated alcohol, but what I can tell you is the people that I’ve talked to, many, like I said, dozens, they report drinking one, sometimes two, three drinks and then blacking out, sometimes simultaneously with their spouse and these are people that are all different sizes. You have men that are 6'3" and these petite women and they will black out at the same time, for hours and then come to around the same time. There is something going on. We just don't know exactly what it is just yet.

Frederica Freyberg:

Additionally your reporting showed that the resorts often were not only not helpful in these emergencies, but specifically unhelpful. Describe some of that.

Raquel Rutledge:

Yeah. That is a theme, a common theme that I’ve heard from people when they -- when they seek help, when they are injured or, you know, otherwise face trouble, the resorts are not cooperative in terms of supplying any kind of surveillance video. They often have refused to call the police. You know, as Americans we think, oh, you know, you get into trouble, call the police. That is not the way it works in Mexico. Often if something happens to you, it's your responsibility to get to the police. So you have to take a taxi to go to the police often and even there then what people have encountered is a hesitant police force that says, you know, "Hey, well, it looks like you were drunk, looks like you -- you know, there's nothing here to investigate. The drowning was accidental," for example. So they're not getting -- there's no recourse when something goes wrong.

Frederica Freyberg:

Knowing what you know -- and I don't know if this is like a fair question to a reporter, but knowing what you know, briefly, what's your best advice for those traveling to these Mexican resorts?

Raquel Rutledge:

Yeah. I mean, that is a tough question because there is not a lot you can actually do to totally protect yourself. I mean, some of the safety tips that have come out are not helpful. I mean, suggesting that you watch -- you know, watch what's being poured into your cup. That's not helpful because we know in Mexico that some of the alcohol is counterfeit, so it might look like it's in an authentic bottle, but they have a problem with counterfeit alcohol making its way into authentic-looking bottles. So you can't tell that. You know, everybody has to gauge their own risk. You know, everybody has a different comfort level with what sort of risk they're willing to take. So it's really hard to say because you can say stick with beer, but I have interviewed some folks that had tap beer and blacked out shortly thereafter. So maybe canned beer might be better that you open yourself? Again, that's just sort of me speculating from talking to dozens of people.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right. Well, I need to leave it there, but thank you, Raquel Rutledge, very much for your reporting on this.

Raquel Rutledge:

Thank you for your interest in it.

Frederica Freyberg:

We shift gears now into electoral politics and an inside look at the 2018 race for State Supreme Court. Last week we introduced you to Supreme Court candidate Tim Burns. On our January 5 program, we will talk with candidate Rebecca Dallet. Tonight we speak with Supreme Court candidate and Sauk County Circuit Court Judge, Michael Screnock. Before entering the field of law, Judge Screnock spent over a decade in local government, including a stint as the Washburn City Administrator. As a private practice attorney, he defended legal challenges to Act 10. In 2015, Governor Scott Walker appointed him to the Sauk County Circuit Court. He retained his seat in the 2016 election. Judge Screnock joins us now. Thanks very much for being here.

Michael Screnock:

Thank you for having me.

Frederica Freyberg:

We first wanted to ask why you believe you would be best among the candidates running to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court?

Michael Screnock:

Thank you. I think the most important thing, because I think it's the most important thing for the Supreme Court, is that I believe strongly in the rule of law and I believe that the role of the court is to interpret and to apply the law, but not to rewrite the law or to try to legislate from the bench. I think that's fundamental to our system of government and I think it's critical that the justices on our Supreme Court understand the limited role that they've been given by the people through our Constitution. And as I watched Mr. Burns and Judge Dallet announce their candidacies, I wasn't satisfied that either one of them really share that view of the role of the court and I do think it's critically important that whoever does succeed Justice Gableman has that view. So I think my judicial philosophy first and foremost is a reason that the electors should be interesting in having me on the Supreme Court. Now, I have a very different experience than either of my two opponents and you highlighted some of it in the opening. What I bring to the position is a broad experience on the types of issues that the Supreme Court regularly hears. So as a local government official, I was involved heavily in matters of zoning and planning, property tax assessment, budgeting. As an attorney in private practice, I represented private interests in those same areas. And so I understand those matters of law that people interact with on a day-to-day basis and that frequently do end up in our Supreme Court.

Frederica Freyberg:

Candidate Tim Burns says that the notion that judges are apolitical is a "fairytale." What do you think?

Michael Screnock:

I think that he believes that passionately. I think he really does believe that. I think he's wrong. And I can say that because I deal with it every day. Every day when I sit on the bench, I approach cases based on the facts as they come to me and the law as I find it. And it's not unusual for me to have a case in front of me that I have a personal feeling about or an emotional attachment about one way or the other and I must set aside those feelings, personal opinions and emotions and not let them get in the way of my role as a judge in applying the law to the facts as they come to me.

Frederica Freyberg:

Yet you defended the state in Act 10 as a private lawyer and you also helped Republican lawmakers draw the voting maps. Now, that suggests kind of an inclination, a conservative GOP inclination. What about that?

Michael Screnock:

Well, I didn't draw the maps. And I know that's something that people think from one article that Patrick Marley wrote. But the work that I did on Act 10 I’m proud of because of the issues that were in front of the court. There are many cases -- there were six different cases that were filed over Act 10, challenging it. And the first one dealt with the way that it was adopted. And then a number of cases dealt with the merits. Those issues raised fundamental questions of the separation of powers and the role of the court in comparison to the other two branches of government. And that's how those cases were decided. They weren't decided because a Republican legislature and governor passed Act 10. And we see that with Justice Crooks in his concurrence in Act 10. He did not think it was a good law. He did not think it was a good idea. He thought it was very bad public policy. But he said as a matter of law, not only was the majority right, he said it's not even a close call. So the fact that I worked on that doesn't indicate that I have any sort of Republican leanings or that I would be inclined to rule on cases based on the political preferences of the parties in front of me. It demonstrates that I have the ability to really research the law on complex issues of constitutional questions and identify what the law says about those questions. And that's the role of the justice on our Supreme Court.

Frederica Freyberg:

What is your position on lack of recusal rules when it comes to campaign contributors who come before the high court?

Michael Screnock:

Well, the first thing, I think it's unfortunate the way this issue has been framed so far in this campaign. We have a recusal rule. And the people of Wisconsin should know that and should not be misled into thinking we don't have a recusal rule. We have a recusal rule that's been on the books for a long time. It was a question that Justice Abrahamson addressed in 2009 during her reelection bid at that time. And what she said then is true now. And what she said then was that we -- judges look at the question of recusal on a case-by-case basis based on all of the circumstances in the case. And there could be any number of reasons why a judge or a justice would feel the need to recuse themselves that could have nothing to do with contributions or support during a campaign. And I do that, you know, every case that comes in front of me. I have to think is there a reason why I need to get out of this case? Now, we have an elected judiciary. That's the system that the people of Wisconsin have chosen. And at the very core of that system is the belief and the expectation that judges individually will not sit on cases when they can't be fair and impartial. And the recusal rule that we have in place right now allows and requires judges to make that analysis. And I have done it on the circuit court. I would continue to do it on the Supreme Court because that's fundamental to our system of government.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right. We need to leave it there. Michael Screnock, thank you very much.

Michael Screnock:

Thank you.

Frederica Freyberg:

There’s been lots of attention paid to the unprecedented number of Democrats running for governor in Wisconsin, but what of third party candidates? In tonight's look ahead, we talk with Libertarian candidate for governor, Phil Anderson. Anderson is chair of the Wisconsin Libertarian Party, a former U.S. Army combat medic. He's a realtor in Fitchburg and he ran for U.S. Senate in 2016. Phil Anderson joins us now. Thanks for being here.

Phil Anderson:

Thanks for having me.

Frederica Freyberg:

We've asked all the Democrats that we've interviewed what sets them apart from each other, but what sets you apart from candidates of either major party?

Phil Anderson:

We have a radically different vision for what government should be. We believe that people have the right to live their lives as they choose, as long as they don't interfere with other people's right to live the same way with the same rights. That's our basic principle. But how that plays out in state government, for example, is we believe government should return to being more local, more accountable and more transparent. So right now both Republicans and Democrats go to Madison to represent their parties and their constituents and they fight over how they're going to control people's lives. We want to return that control to people by getting rid of the state income tax and by getting rid of the state mandates that require local municipalities to act in certain ways, to pass certain laws to comply with state government.

Frederica Freyberg:

You have run for elected office before, not garnered very much of the vote. Why do you think your message is resonant?

Phil Anderson:

Well, when we talk to people, we get a really positive response. Basically, the first statement that I made in my last question. People do believe that they have the right to live their lives as they choose to as long as they don't interfere with other people's right to do the same thing. For Libertarians though, we're not a good investment for those entities, for those interests that like to invest in politicians hoping to have influence after the election. Democrats accuse the Walker Administration of that. If there were a Democrat in the governor's mansion, they'd get the same accusation. But we stand for a radically different view on that. We want to get rid of that influence there. And because of that, we don't get a lot of campaign contributions from those big out-of-state donors that you hear quite often for Republicans and Democrats. And that manifests itself in how much coverage we get and how much media we can pay for when we're running for office.

Frederica Freyberg:

Let’s move to the issues. What in your mind is the most important thing that Wisconsin needs to do for its education system?

Phil Anderson:

We need to allow local units of government and municipalities to make their own decisions. Right now, there's way too much control exerted from Washington and from Madison. Government used to be an idea where people would come together from various parts of the state or the country to make decisions, because all of the expertise, the knowledge, the books were all in one place. That's not the case anymore. People have tremendous access to all kinds of resources, expertise and I believe that people in whatever municipality in Wisconsin, whatever school district in Wisconsin, should have the ability to retain their funds locally, their tax monies not flying off to Madison or D.C., and to make decisions that best fit their communities.

Frederica Freyberg:

What do you think is the best way to grow good-paying jobs in Wisconsin?

Phil Anderson:

By getting government out of the way. The Foxconn deal is a disaster of disasters for two reasons. Number one, I don't think it's productive to pick winners and losers in the economy because people do that every day when they decide where to work, who to hire, how to spend their money. But the other thing is even if you think that's a good idea, the government should be involved in manipulating the economy, Foxconn is a particularly bad deal. It spends $3 billion plus of taxpayer money and we're uncovering new expenses every day, local expenses, road building, exceptions from rules, that sort of thing. If we just let Wisconsin grow from within, if we believe that the people of Wisconsin are good at doing business, are good consumers, are good producers, are good employers, then let's just get government out of the way and let them do that. And that's how Wisconsin will grow best.

Frederica Freyberg:

How do you think state government should create a sustainable funding source for Wisconsin highways?

Phil Anderson:

Well, it needs to be tied to use, I think. Right now the gas tax is pretty much tied to -- supposedly tied, but hasn't always been tied very well, to roads. But we should make sure that we're approaching that where we know exactly what the costs are, where the bids are open, where we're not doing business with only certain road-building companies and where we can have the most bang for our buck in terms of what money we have to spend for roads. If we have devolve that to the more local or county level, let's do that.

Frederica Freyberg:

If you say tied to use, does that mean something like tolls?

Phil Anderson:

I would be open to tolls. Tolls sound sort of scary. They sound very Illinois, which isn't very popular in Wisconsin but they do reflect people paying for what they use. Let's not fool ourselves. If people pay tolls to use the roads, that should be going directly to the roads. If companies, shippers, are paying tolls and that ends up in the consumers' pockets as well, but that also enables an advantage in terms of price for local goods and services because they're not paying as much transportation expense. It's more directly tied to that. So in essence, more local companies that use the transportation system less will have a price advantage because they're not paying for transportation they're not using.

Frederica Freyberg:

With less than a half minute left, why do you think you could unseat Scott Walker?

Phil Anderson:

I think that our message resonates and because--you mentioned that we didn't get a ton of votes last election cycle but we got 90,000. We're going to build on that and do better and better. As long as we have an opportunity on platforms like this to get our message out, people understand that what we're trying to do empower them and their communities to make good decisions and we trust them. We don't need a central government that micromanages every aspect of their lives and the economy.

Frederica Freyberg:

Phil Anderson, thanks very much.

Phil Anderson:

Thank you.

Frederica Freyberg:

The 10th Senate District Republican primary was won by Adam Jarchow, one of two Republicans who voted against the Foxconn bill in the state Assembly this fall. He will face St. Croix County Medical Examiner Patty Schachtner in the general election on January 16. In the 66th Assembly District, Democrat Greta Neubauer will run unopposed. Republican Rick Gundrum will face Democrat Dennis Degenhardt in the 58th. Also this week, news out of Washington, where it was announced that former Wisconsin DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp will return to the Midwest to become a regional EPA administrator for much of the Great Lakes region, including Wisconsin. Stepp's role will include oversight of some of the chemicals that will be used by Foxconn in LCD manufacturing. And next week we end the year with a forecast of all things political for 2018. Our political panelists Bill McCoshen and Scot Ross make predictions on the big money races ahead for governor and U.S. Senate. I'm Frederica Freyberg. Have a great weekend.

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Funding for "Here and Now" is provided in part by Friends of Wisconsin Public Television.

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