Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
Nobody likes paying taxes. People like paying higher taxes even less. But La Crosse county is asking voters to approve an additional sales tax, that would add an additional half cent tax to a number of purchases. That question will be on the ballot in the April election, asking La Crosse county voters to approve what is called the Premiere Resort Area Tax. It is billed as a tax on tourism related items, but in reality it would be charged on just about everything we buy. The money it would raise they tell us would be used to repair our bumpy roads, but it could also be used for many other things. There is no guarantee we would get better roads even if this were to pass. La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat has come out against this tax, calling it regressive, and unaffordable. It is estimated this tax would add an additional $142 in tax burden per household, per year. Now is not the time to raise taxes. Local governments have done a good job holding the line on taxes in recent years. Given that we can't afford this new tax, that it would apply to purchases well beyond just tourism, and that there is no guarantee the money raised would go to what they say it would, this proposal is a bad idea. Now is not time time to raise taxes.
We need to do better. That is the overall assessment of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and it comes from the new boss at that state agency. DOT Secretary Dave Ross was called out on the carpet by lawmakers at a legislative hearing this week in Madison. That's because a recent audit found that the DOT had been woefully underestimating the cost of road projects in recent years, because the agency failed to account for the cost of inflation when determining cost estimates. In fact, the audit found that the DOT underestimated highway costs by $3 billion. That go lawmakers attention, and they are calling for changes in how the agency operates. Secretary Ross agrees, vowing to “change the culture” at the DOT, saying they need to be more accurate. That would be a good start. Lawmakers also want the DOT to better brief them on project updates and to account for inflation and other costs in future estimates. It shouldn't take a trip to the woodshed for those who run the DOT to be reminded of that, but it is good that our lawmakers are now keeping a closer eye on those in charge of our roads.
There has been enough troubling news coming out of the VA system. Nationally, we learned of the long wait times for veterans seeking medical care. Then things blew up at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tomah, where doctors were handing out powerful drugs like candy, and where some veterans died from overdoses. The top doctor at the Tomah VA eventually resigned, and had his license taken away. That led to federal legislative action designed to reduce the reliance on powerful painkillers. Now there is more trouble in our VA system. VA hospitals across the country are seeing an increase in opiod theft. The feds are investigating, but it appears the medicine intended to treat our military veterans is being stolen by VA employees, either for their own use, or to sell on the black market. Compounding the problem is that a number of VA hospitals have been lax in tracking their drug supplies. Perhaps the problem of missing medicine is no worse at the VA than in private facilities, but that shouldn't matter. These are people who are charged with caring for the nation's wounded or ill veterans, and should be held to a higher standard. Our nation's new VA secretary should make fixing this problem a priority, and ensuring that the drugs designed to treat our military veterans end up in the hands for which they are intended.
People are sick of politics-as-usual. Seldom does a day go by when there’s not some political scandal that highlights corruption, greed, graft, or straight-up political favoritism. Some of that is no doubt sensationalism, but you have to wonder where all those self-serving politicians come from. The truth is they get their start at the local level. A town council member or county board supervisor sees some success and toys with the idea of running for state assembly. They move on to the state senate, House of Representatives, then U. S. Senate. Eventually that local politician runs for president. Sure there are exceptions. Our current president is one of those. But for the most part they start out in local politics. Today is a primary election day for local offices. The expected turnout is about ten percent. That means your vote counts almost ten times as much as a presidential election. You have a voice in politicians running for the first rung of their career. Now is the time you can weed out people you don’t like. In fifteen years, you might be stuck choosing between two unpalatable candidates unless you take care of that today – primary election day.
Donald Trump is right. The media is not his enemy. But the media certainly is not the enemy of the American people. For some reason, our president is making a habit of pitting the people and the press. Our tweeter in chief blasted what he called “fake news” in his latest digital blast, calling out some media outlets by name. But it is Trump who is seemingly consumed with the media, constantly tweeting, often about what he did or didn't like hearing on the cable tv talk shows. He doesn't seem to like to have to answer difficult questions, but it seems there are more questions than ever. Even Fox's Shepherd Smith got that right, as he called on our President to be truthful and open to the American people. Where are the tax returns? What role is Russia really playing? These are the questions that have to be asked. Yet Trump continues to simply bash whatever media he doesn't like or whose questions he doesn't want to have to answer. Now, the role of a free press seems more important than ever. Senator John McCain had to point that out, arguing that dictators too would like to shut down the free press. No, it seems our work is just getting started, and we've got a lot of work to do.
There is much to like in Governor Walker's budget proposal unveiled this week. Unfortunately, plans for fixing our roads is not one of them. For years now, we have seen Wisconsin's roads continue to deteriorate. Our roads are now ranked as the worst in the Midwest, and among the worst in the nation. That is because our lawmakers have put off road projects as a way to save money. The money they have spent has been borrowed money, with the state deciding to let our children figure out how to pay for it. Governor Walker's new budget provides only more of the same. A number of planned road projects are being put off. Those road which are to be rebuilt or repaired are to be paid for with more borrowing. Walker wants to borrow another $500 million to pay for roads over the next two years. That is an unsustainable funding model, and still fails to cover the costs of needed repairs. And that's assuming the DOT is figuring those costs correctly, which has been a problem in the past. Walker refuses to consider new funding models for our roads, refusing to even consider a higher gas tax or higher vehicle registration fees as a funding source. There is hope that state legislators will buck the Governor on this one, and finally realize we can't continue to put off needed repairs, and keep borrowing money to pay for it. We can't just keep kicking the can down that pothole-filled road.
It was like Christmas in Madison yesterday, as government and state agencies hoped the big present under the tree would have their name on it. They eagerly awaited the details of Governor Walker's plan for how state money will be spent as part of his two year budget proposal unveiled yesterday. It appears the big winner in this budget is education. Walker is proposing cutting tuition at schools in the UW System, and significantly increasing funding for public schools. Walker's budget calls for spending $649 million more on K-12 education. That is an about face for the Governor, who in previous budgets has slashed public education funding to the tune of about $1 billion. It is not clear what has led to his sudden support for public education, especially given his penchant for supporting private schools at the expense of public schools. But regardless, this is good news for public education in Wisconsin. Local school districts are happy with this budget, and it should lead them to be less reliant on local property tax increases and referendums to generate the money they need to properly teach our children. It seems that finally, the big present under the tree this year belongs to our public schools.
What could be wrong with letting the people decide? Two Wisconsin lawmakers are introducing legislation calling for a statewide advisory referendum on the issue of medical marijuana. They also are calling for passage of the Compassionit Cannibis Care Act, which would legalize the use of medical marijuana in the Badger State. Similar legislation has been introduced before, but never even got a hearing in the last legislative session. Despite overwhelming evidence of the benefits of medical marijuana for those with pain, those suffering from seizures, glaucoma and PTSD, Wisconsin lawmakers don't even want to debate the issue. Our neighboring states have already legalized medicinal marijuana, including Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois. 28 states now have legalized the drug as a way to treat the ill. And its working. Studies show states which have legalized medical mariijuana have seen a drop in opiod overdoes, as they can turn to pot rather than pills. Wisconsin should get with the times and put this to an advisory referendum. It would no doubt show that a majority support the idea. 89% of Americans in a recent poll say they approve the medical use of marijuana. Perhaps that is why some lawmakers don't want the people to decide. It would show that these lawmakers are on the wrong side of history.
In Wisconsin, it is not uncommon for students to still be in school in early June. Especially with our winter weather causing a number of school cancellations already this year. Those snow days have to be made up, often in what we used to call summer. Of course, there is a way to get students out of class earlier. Simply start the school year sooner. But that is not so easy in Wisconsin. State law prohibits local school districts from starting school before September first unless they are able to secure a rare waiver from the state. But now some lawmakers in Madison are circulating a bill that would let local school districts decide when they should start school. That makes sense. Local control is always better. What works in La Farge may not work in the Dells. It is better if local school districts decide what works best for them. And there is plenty of evidence of many benefits to starting the school year sooner. Football, band and other practices already start in August. And getting older students more classroom time before the Advanced Placement Exams should help their scores. The earlier students start, the earlier they can get out. Like they taught us in school, the early bird gets the worm.
This is unacceptable on so many levels. The state of Wisconsin has done a poor job providing justice to victims of sexual assault. A backlog of what are called rape kits has piled up in the office of the Wisconsin Attorney General. In fact, it is estimated that there are some 6000 rape kits which are awaiting testing. These kits, which contain forensic evidence collected from victims at hospitals are to be tested at private laboratories, paid for with grant money. But that isn't happening. The state's top prosecutor, apparently recognizing the need to test more quickly, applied for and received a $4 million grant from the federal government to expedite the testing process and reduce Wisconsin's huge backlog. That was 16 months ago. So these kits have been tested by now, right? Not so much. Although Attorney General Brad Schimel said just days ago that “a few hundred” of the kits have been tested, they now acknowledge that isn't exactly true. In fact, only 9 of these backlogged rape kits have been tested in the months since the federal money arrived. This pace is unacceptable. Wisconsin needs to move more quickly to reduce this backlog, to ensure justice is swiftly provided to victims of sexual assault. That seems the least they can do.
It is time for a reboot on the idea of a marsh road in La Crosse. The state Department of Transportation has long called for building a new north-south corridor through La Crosse. The state's preferred route, which went to voters in a referendum, called for building that road in part through the La Crosse marsh. Voters overwhelmingly rejected that referendum back in 1998, and many assumed that was the end of the discussion. But the DOT continues to insist such a road needs to be built, and has kept a new north-south road in its plans all these years. There have been threats that if an acceptable road can't be found, the money will go away. Fine. Take it. The money isn't there anyway. And people here still don't want to see that road built, at least not the one the DOT envisions. Now we have learned that the project, identified as a $67 million project initially, would now likely cost $150 million. That was revealed in an audit of the DOT, which found road planners failed to take into account the costs of inflation, causing the cost of road projects to double. The DOT should take a new La Crosse road off its list. It would be a better use of our tax dollars to fix up the pothole-filled roads we have now, and stop trying to insist we need a road we don't want.
It doesn't seem possible, but it is worse than we thought. A new report finds Wisconsin roads to be the fourth worst in the nation. And more shockingly, the state's Legislative Audit Bureau finds that the work we have done on the state's roads have gone well over budget. In fact, the report finds that the actual cost of road projects in Wisconsin from 2006 to 2015 ending up costing double the original estimates. But it gets worse. The costs were higher not because of some unforeseen rises in the cost of blacktop, but because of incompetence at the DOT. Apparently the people in charge aren't all that good at math, and the cost overruns were due to the fact that DOT planners failed to take into account the cost of inflation had on the actual costs. So, our roads are crumbling, we don't have a sustainable system to pay for them, we are paying for the roads we do build on a credit card, and the people who map out our road needs can't add. Not a pretty picture. This underscores the need for Governor Walker and lawmakers to make tackling this problem a priority. Walker needs to abandon his no new tax for roads pledge, which may be politically expedient, but it does nothing to solve this growing problem.
Wisconsin lawmakers are about to boost their pay. Members of the Wisconsin State Senate are considering increasing the amount of money they can claim in per-diems. Per-diems are reimbursements for expenses like meals and lodging Wisconsin lawmakers can claim each day they are working in Madison. The Assembly recently upped their per-diem allotment, allowing members to claim up to $138 a day, on top of their annual salary. Now the Senate is considering upping its per-diem from the current $88 a day to $115 a day. These per-diems currently cost taxpayers about $200,000 a year for members of the Senate. Increasing the allotment would cost taxpayers an additional $62,000 a year. But here is the rub. Under current rules, Wisconsin lawmakers only have to fill out a form declaring they were working in Madison that day. They don't have to document how much they actually spent on meals, or lodging. The state simply takes their word for it. As a result, lawmakers almost always claim the maximum per-diem, regardless of what they actually spent out of their own pocket. Talk about government waste. If the Wisconsin Senate wants to increase how much lawmakers can be reimbursed for their expenses, we should make sure they actually spent some of their own money, make them prove it, and only reimburse them for what they spent. Wisconsin taxpayers deserve that.
If our lawmakers in Madison were wondering what they need to work on this legislative session, they can stop wondering. The courts have made it clear. Wisconsin needs to redraw its legislative boundaries by November so that the new map is in place for the 2018 election. The same judicial panel that ordered the new maps ruled in November that the current maps are “an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander” that “was intended to burden the representational rights of democratic voters.” The boundaries, which determine in what district people vote, are so crooked that instead of us choosing our political leaders, they are choosing us. Just look at the most recent election. The vote totals between republican and democrat candidates was split evenly, but republican candidates captured 64% of the state assembly seats. The deck is stacked. But so far the Walker administration's reaction to the judge's ruling is not to get to work drawing new boundaries, but continuing to fight in court, promising an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. That is unfortunate, and does nothing to restore fairness in Wisconsin's elections.