As I See It

As I See It

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

Tuesday - April 11, 2017 9:01 am

More evidence of error in dumping GAB

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It is looking more and more like a big mistake. Wisconsin lawmakers disbanded the former Government Accountability Board two years ago in favor of separate ethics and elections commissions. They claimed the GAB had become partisan. So they dumped the board made up entirely of retired judges in favor of partisan appointees. It hasn't been a smooth ride so far. Last December, Ethics Commission member Robert Kinney resigned from the newly created board, calling the commission ineffective and paralyzed by gridlocks. Some may suggest that is what happens when you appoint partisan members. Now, the chairwoman of the Ethics Commission, former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager has abruptly submitted her resignation. She didn't elaborate on her decision to step down, but did call on the Governor and lawmakers to “recognize the importance of the work of the commission.” The commission was created to oversee and enforce ethics requirements for public officials. But clearly it isn't working. Wisconsin should return to the days when Wisconsin was a leader in ethics requirements for its public officials, and allow those who are truly independent, not partisan appointees, to decide when our lawmakers are behaving badly.

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Monday - April 10, 2017 9:59 am

Wisconsin Republicans show real backbone

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It doesn't happen often. Almost never in fact. So it is certainly notable that our politicians finally stopped marching in lockstep and actually showed they can think for themselves. It happened in Madison, where the Republican-controlled legislature told their boss what to do with his budget plan. The powerful Budget Committee didn't just tweak Governor Walker's budget, they eviscerated it. Walker's plan for borrowing more money to pay for roads? Gone. Walker's idea to eliminate minimum classroom time for our public schools? Gone. Making college professors spend more time in the classroom and less time in the research lab? Gone. In fact, nearly every policy item, not dealing with state spending, was stripped from Walker's budget. This sets up quite a showdown between top Republicans in the legislature and Walker, who seems certain to seek a third term. He is no lame-duck. But republican leaders showed real backbone, demonstrating that non-spending items belong on the floor for debate, not tucked into the budget, where they are protected from public input. What will be next will certainly be interesting, but it is encouraging that finally, some politicians stood up for what is right, not just what their powerful bosses want them to do.

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Friday - April 7, 2017 8:41 am

Keep local control on school referendums

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It is clear that people in Wisconsin value public education. That is evident in the wake of Tuesday's election, when a majority of school referendum were approved across the state. Voters approved more than 62% of the requests for additional money for education in Tuesday's vote. Voters agreed to boost school spending by an additional $700 million statewide. That included requests for new schools, or for operating expenses. In rapidly growing Verona, Wisconsin, voters approved one of the largest bonding requests in state history, providing an additional $162 million to build a new high school and make other renovations. Despite the size of the referendum, it was approved by 73% of Verona voters. But some lawmakers think Wisconsin's school districts should have more restrictions on when they can conduct referendums for more money for education. Rep. Duey Strobel's bill would restrict how often schools could ask voters for money, and schools which win voter approval could lose state education aid from the state. That makes no sense. Clearly, voters value a quality education, and are willing to pay for it, even if the state will not. Local school boards should be free to make their own decisions about how to best provide a quality education, without interference from the state. Lawmakers would be better to simply boost state education spending, rather than forcing districts to go to voters with their hands out.

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Wisconsin remains notoriously lax on those caught driving drunk. Some legislators have tried for years, most often unsuccessfully, to strengthen the state's drunk driving laws. And they are trying again this year. Some of our elected officials want to impose mandatory minimum 18month prison sentences on drunk drivers found guilty of a fifth or sixth offense. That seems reasonable. But other lawmakers argue that mandatory prison sentences would be too expensive for taxpayers to afford. The State Department of Corrections estimates this legislation would come with a hefty pricetag. They estimate that this bill would cost taxpayers about $15 million per year. More people locked up means more beds and more treatment programs, and that doesn't come cheap. But the fact is, ensuring public safety comes with a price. We don't refuse to lock up murderers because it costs taxpayers money. We shouldn't let repeat drunk drivers off the hook just because it is too expensive to lock them up. Our lawmakers in Madison are scheduled to debate this minimum prison sentence today. They should remember that their obligation is not only to spend our money wisely, but also to ensure public safety.

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Wednesday - April 5, 2017 8:59 am

Retain minimum school requirements

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In Wisconsin, when winter weather closes schools, those lost days need to be made up. Typically at the end of the year, when students thoughts are turning to summer fun. That could be a thing of the past under legislation being considered by lawmakers in Madison. A new proposal tucked into Governor Walker's budget proposal could make makeup days a thing of the past. The proposal calls for eliminating the current requirement that school districts provide a minimum amount of instruction. It used to be 180 days comprised a school year. Recently, that minimum standard was changed to hours, at least 1050 hours for students in grades one through six. Walker wants to do away with the minimum requirement altogether. That would make it easier for schools to deal with snow days. But it would also have unintended consequences. Without a minimum amount of time in the classroom, smaller school districts, perhaps struggling with staffing and budget issues, could simply adopt a four day school week. Without minimums, the playing field would no longer be level among Wisconsin's school districts. Reducing hours spent in the classroom could end up hurting scores on standardized tests. A better idea would be to adopt a proposal being considered in Minnesota which would have kids learn from home on snow days. At least that way their nose would still be in the book, not the video game.

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Tuesday - April 4, 2017 9:25 am

Another important election today

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For most people, it is not a big deal. Our spring elections can be a bit of a yawner, especially compared to the drama of the recent presidential contest. But the truth is, every election matters. In fact, it could be argued that your vote will count more today, relatively speaking, because of the predicted light turnout. Clerks across Wisconsin are bracing for a turnout of only around 20%. But there are important issues on this election day. In Wisconsin, there is just one statewide race on the ballot, but it is a big one. Incumbent Tony Evers is facing a challenge from Lowell Holtz in the race for Wisconsin's Superintendent of Public Instruction. The winner will help shape education policy in the state for the next four years. Certainly, that is an important reason to go to the polls today. In La Crosse, there are also a few contested city council races, and we will select from among 5 candidates to choose three representatives for the La Crosse school board. And in La Crosse County, there is an advisory referendum on the ballot, asking voters whether the county sales tax should be raised an additional half percent as a way to raise money to fix our roads. These are important issues, worthy of the few minutes it would take you to cast a ballot today. So grab your photo ID, and head to your polling place today. Because even our spring elections are important elections.

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Monday - April 3, 2017 9:07 am

Turns out replacing Obamacare isn't that easy

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Turns out governing is much more difficult than campaigning. President Trump is finding that out, barely 70 days into his presidency. It is easy to say “lock her up” and get the base excited. It is easy to say that it would be easy to repeal and replace Obamacare. Turns out actually doing it is much more difficult. Even with a Republican controlled White House, Legislature and Senate, Republicans could not come up with a plan. This is despite the fact that while Obama was in office, every Republican criticized Obamacare, and voted more than 60 times to try to repeal it. But when it comes time to actually doing the work, coming up with a plan better than Obamacare, was out of reach. So much for the art of the deal. So much for it being easy. Turns out the hastily-crafted plan was less about ensuring Americans than it was providing a big tax cut for the rich. Turns out there are problems with Obamacare that need fixing. It is a better system than we had before, ensuring more Americans than ever, but it isn't perfect. Republicans had a chance to fix it, and failed. President Trump says that after the defeat, he is ready to move on, to address other issues. But that does nothing to improve our system of health care. As we are seeing, it is easy to throw stones, but a lot more difficult to actually get things done.

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Friday - March 31, 2017 9:00 am

Where are opponents to Scott Walker?

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Is there no one beside Scott Walker who wants to be Wisconsin's next governor? The list of democrats who have given up on the thought of challenging Governor Walker keeps getting longer. Former State Senator Tim Cullen is the latest to announce that after considering a challenge to Scott Walker, he is giving up on the idea. Previously, La Crosse State Senator Jennifer Shilling and La Crosse Congressman Ron Kind abandoned their possible runs. Alma Senator Kathleen Vinehout is said to be considering a run, but hasn't announced. So far, the only announced candidate for the democrats is a 25 year old man named Bob Harlow, a Wisconsin native who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress from California last year. In announcing his decision not to run, Cullen cited the task of fundraising, saying it is likely Walker will raise upward of $40 million if he seeks a third term as expected. It shouldn't take that much money to win election in Wisconsin. Why can't an average Joe, with good ideas, run a successful campaign for Governor? Because money is what fuels the political machinery, and it takes big bucks to be a successful candidate, especially when taking on an entrenched politician. That shouldn't be the case, but as Cullen's announcement shows us, it is a political reality.

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On its surface, the effort seems to be to give chesse some much-needed love in Wisconsin. A group of elementary students are asking Wisconsin legislators to declare cheese Wisconsin's official dairy product. It is not so much that they love cheese, but want to get a first-hand look at how laws are made in Wisconsin. But if these inquiring students really want to get a look at how politics works at the state level in Wisconsin, they would have to peel many layers of this onion. The students should know that whatever party is in charge in Madison controls what legislation can even be debated. They should see how the lobbyists grease the palms of the politicians so they can get their pet project passed. They should witness how political boundaries are gerrymandered so that only the chosen few can get elected. They should witness the deals that are made behind closed doors, and the repeated efforts to keep the public in the dark about it. The students should see how arcane procedural rules can keep people from testifying about the proposal. Unlike most bills, the effort to declare cheese the official dairy product has bipartisan support. It requires just a rubber stamp from the legislature. But if these students think making a law is simply as easy as asking your legislator do introduce it, and give it a fair debate on its merits, they are not getting much of an education about our political process.

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Technically, seats on the Wisconsin Supreme Court are non-partisan. Those running for office don't declare themselves either republican or democrat. Of course, in reality, we know that our high court justices are partisan. Some get most of their campaign cash from conservative groups, while others get their funding from liberal groups. But when it comes to whether they behave politically, that is something that the Wisconsin Judicial Commission is in charge of finding out. The Commission has just been handed a complaint targeting conservative Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman for his involvement in a political fundraiser. Gableman was listed as a speaker at a Lincoln Day Dinner in Rice Lake, where conservatives gathered to raise money for like-minded candidates. That is a no-no. The Wisconsin Judicial Code prohibits a judge from participating in political party promotions and from using the prestige of judicial office for fundraising. Gableman ultimately didn't attend the event, but his name and face was on the flyer inviting people to open their wallets to advance their political cause. Justices and others complain about a lack of judicial integrity in Wisconsin. Perhaps if they stopped demonstrating a lack of integrity, such complaints would stop as well.

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