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As I See It

As I See It

Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.

This sounds familiar. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says he wants to be known as the Education Governor. In his latest campaign pledge, Walker promises Wisconsin will have the highest high school graduation rate in the country. This sounds much like the promise Walker offered when he first ran for Governor that he would create 250,000 new jobs within his first term. Seven years later, and the state has yet to reach that goal. Becoming number one in graduation rates will likely be equally elusive. When Walker took office in 2011, the state's graduation rate was second in the nation, at 87.2%. Five years later, the state's graduation rate had improved to 88.2%, but dropped in the rankings as other state's rates increased more. And why should the goal be to be the best in the nation? It isn't a competition against other states. A better goal would be to close the performance gap between white and black students. The performance gap in Wisconsin is at 28.5%, the worst in the nation. Of course, no matter the promises, Walker won't be known as the education governor. He has repeatedly cut school funding and made enemies among teachers. His promise is simply an attempt to deflect, given that all the democratic candidates for governor will attack Walker for his record on education. Apparently Walker thinks, that like his jobs promise, declaring himself the Education Governor will simply make it so.

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We have one chance to get this right. That is why Mayor Tim Kabat is right to veto legislation calling for a huge expansion of the La Crosse Center. Like the Mayor, we too want to see the La Crosse Center expanded, but not using the current plans. Those plans call for the city to spend more than it can afford without significantly raising property taxes. The plans passed by the council also call for the expansion to encroach on Riverside Park, eating up a half acre of parkland that will never be replaced. And the designs of the park still don't fit in with the surroundings. Kabat suggests the costs, size and designs of the Center expansion should be changed so that it is affordable, more aesthetically pleasing, and doesn't cover so much of the park. It is likely that the council will consider overriding the mayoral veto, and based on our count, that vote could be close. But designers should go back to the drawing board, and figure out a better way to expand the Center. It is still a bit puzzling why Mayor Kabat was not more vocal sooner about his objections to the plan. The first public comments we heard from the Mayor was during an interview with WIZM. But that was just weeks ago. The head of the Parks department has also been rather quiet about losing so much parkland. Turns out in this case, we have a second chance to get this right. The council should order the Center Board to try again, as whatever is decided, we will be living with for the next 50 years.

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The fight is not over. The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to fair elections in Wisconsin by sending the case back to the lower courts. At issue is the drawing of legislative boundaries every ten years which determines in which legislative district people vote. The lawsuit argued, and lower courts agreed, that the process of drawing the maps was overly partisan and unconstitutional. But the high court essentially punted, leaving it to the lower courts to decide. It is important to point out that the court did not say the current maps are fine, and Wisconsin continues to have the dishonor of having some of the most partisan and gerrymandered political boundaries in the country. The legal fight will likely continue, but that shouldn't stop lawmakers in Madison from righting this wrong. Our lawmakers, regardless of what the courts have decided or not decided, have the power to draw maps that are fair for everyone. They could draw new maps that don't make it nearly impossible for candidates from one party to win elected office. They could as other states have done, take the job away from the majority party and give it to an independent commission so it is free from politics. And voters can play a role by electing candidates who pledge to draw maps that allow voters to choose their candidates, rather than the candidates choosing them. This ruling is a blow to a return to fair elections, but it seems the real fight is just beginning.

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And the pricetag just keeps going up. Wisconsin taxpayers are already on the hook for $3 billion to build that huge Foxconn plant in Southeastern Wisconsin. The cost went up further when Governor Walker raided the state highway fund to the tune of $90 million more to build roads around the Foxconn plant. That is money that won't go to fill any potholes in your neighborhood. And now, they're at it again. Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee have voted to shift another $67 million in state highway funds to pay for Foxconn related roads. Call it the Foxconn Highway. That means less money for roads in La Crosse. And more delays, even for previously planned projects. Our roads are so bad a group called Safe Transportation Over Politics, or STOP, is putting up billboards to highlight the lack of attention Governor Walkerhas given to fixing our roads. The ads poke fun at the Governor, renaming our potholes "Scottholes" in his honor. It is clear Walker is prioritizing helping Foxconn over helping us. But state highway money should be going to all corners of the state, not just the southeast corner.

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Friday - June 15, 2018 9:34 am

Idea of cutting lawmaker's pay a gimmick

Written by

It is a novel idea from one democratic candidate for Governor in Wisconsin. He wants to cut the pay of state representatives, making it equal to what first year teachers earn. Candidate Tony Evers is currently the Wisconsin State Superintendent of Schools, and he continues to be upset about Governor Walker's cuts to teacher pay. That is understandable given his position, but the idea is a bit wacky. Evers wants to reduce the pay of Wisconsin state lawmakers, now $51,000 per year, to $37,000, the average salary for first year teachers in the state. That idea certainly won't go anywhere in the legislature. Lawmakers are not going to be eager to trim their salaries. And cutting wages to match of that of first year teachers is arbitrary at best. Why not cut their salaries to match that of those working in radio if we really want to punish them? Evers idea would cut wages for those not just who voted for Act 10, but those who voted against it, as well as lawmakers who weren't even in office when the vote is cast. Evers is right that Wisconsin state representatives are overpaid for the work they do. Keep in mind, they only actually met in session a couple days this year, and will remain on vacation for the rest of this year. We shouldn't be paying full-time wages to those doing a part-time job. But cutting their wages to match teacher salaries is no more than a gimmick.

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In less than six months, Wisconsin voters will head to the polls to fill a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Justice Shirley Abrahamson will be stepping down after 42 years on the job. If history is any guide, the race to replace her will be nasty, with millions of dollars to be spent on attack ads funded by special interest groups. But what happens when the groups who spent all that money trying to get a judge elected to the state's highest court finds itself having to appear in a legal case before the Supreme Court? Unlike nearly every other state, Wisconsin has virtually no rules dictating when a member of the high court should step down and not hear the case because of the obvious conflict of interest. Actually there are some rules. That members of the Supreme Court should decide for themselves whether they should recuse themselves. The rule, or non-rule, was written by the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, one of the state's biggest and most powerful special interest group. In the most recent Wisconsin Supreme Court election, the WMC spent about a million dollars supporting Michael Screnock's candidacy. Screnock didn't win, but if he did, and a case involving WMC came before the high court, Screnock would have no requirement to not hear the case. Even though they spent a million dollars to get him elected. That is a clear conflict of interest. That's why our high court needs to adopt stronger recusal rules. And they should do that before the next nasty election.

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Leave it to the politicians to make things unnecessarily complicated. The Wisconsin Legislature in the last session passed a law designed to help consumers with their back to school shopping. The law creates a sales tax holiday that will exempt a number of typical back to school purchases from the state sales tax. We can assume that means things like notebooks, pencils, computers and school clothing. And those things are on the list of items that will be exempt from the sales tax from August 1 through August 5. But that is hardly the entire list. There are 77 items on the list of items you can buy without having to be taxed on it. Shoes are on the list, which kids typically get before the new school year begins. But so are slippers, which probably aren't allowed footwear for school. Neckties are on the list, but I haven't seen many school kids sporting a tie. Pantyhose also are exempt from sales tax, but I haven't seen many kids wearing hosiery. Wedding dresses also make the list, although not many kids still in school are planning a trip down the aisle. Diapers are also exempt, but I think even our youngest students are potty-trained. Also exempt are costumes, but I doubt school administrators would be happy to see kids show up wearing a mask. It isn't the end of the world that more items than you may think will be exempt from the sales tax, but it seems our lawmakers thought about this a little harder than they had to.

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Monday - June 11, 2018 9:13 am

Stop billing taxpayers for lawmaker's travels

Written by

It is, in comparison to other state spending, a drop in the bucket. But it still isn't right. Wisconsin taxpayers should not have to foot the bill when our elected officials feel the need for a road trip. But we are. Newly released records show Wisconsin taxpayers have spent in excess of $100,000 since 2015 to send our lawmakers on trips out of state. 29 Republican state representatives and 14 Democratic state reps biled you and I for their travels. We sent some of them to Washington to see President Trump's first address to Congress, others to see Paul Ryan get sworn in as Speaker of the House. All told there were 84 trips that we paid for. And we didn't even get a lousy t-shirt. It is fine that our lawmakers want to travel, but they should do so on their own dime, not our's. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who ran up the biggest travel tab, defends billing taxpayers, saying it is important for lawmakers to "facilitate bipartisan practices" when crafting legislation. Which given the lack of bipartisanship in Madison is laughable, but unfortunately not funny.

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The decision is expected soon. It could be the most important ruling from the United States Supreme Court this session. Its impact could be felt across politics for decades to come. The nation's highest court is expected to rule soon, perhaps by Monday, in a case known as Gill vs. Whitford and it has to do with how legislative boundaries were drawn in Wisconsin. The suit alleges the political boundaries, drawn by Republican lawmakers, were unfairly gerry-mandered because the way the maps were drawn, even if a majority of people voted democratic, there was no chance for a democratic majority in the Legislature. The Court of Appeals agreed, calling the drawing of the current boundaries unconstitutional and overly partisan in nature, designed only to further entrench the party in power. The state appealed and the Supreme Court took arguments in the case last October. The ruling is expected soon. If the court rules Wisconsin's method is unconstitutional, the political maps would have to be redrawn. But regardless of the outcome, the state should adopt a new method of drawing these political boundaries every ten years. A growing number of states are taking the jobs out of the hands of the politicians, appointing independent commissions to do the work in an effort to remove partisanship. That is a better way, and one that Wisconsin should adopt, regardless of the high court's ruling.

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It is amazing, although perhaps not surprising. The federal commission on school safety appointed by President Trump following the school shootings in Parkland, Florida will not examine what role guns played in the massacre. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is leading the commission, confirmed in remarks to the U.S. Senate that the group is not examining what factor guns played in the shooting. That would be equivalent to police investigating a traffic accident without checking if the driver was drunk. Or investigating a burglary without getting a descritpion of the suspect. DeVos says while her commission won't investigate the role of guns in school shootings, it will be focused on school safety. So just what is the threat? Tripping over chairs? Falling ceiling tiles? No, guns are what pose the threat to school safety, and the commission is simply playing games if it isn't going to examine the role of guns. The fact is, that while mass shootings make up a small percentage of gun deaths in the U.S. each year, this problem is largely unique to America. We have less than 5% of the world's population, but are home to 31% of mass shootings across the globe. The school safety commission holds its first public meeting today. Let's hope they get the message that it makes no sense to examine school safety without examining the role guns played in all these shootings.

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