Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
The judge's order was clear. Wisconsin lawmakers were told to redraw the current legislative boundaries by November 1 of this year. The judge ruled the current gerrymandered boundaries were created, purposely, to benefit republican candidates. The maps were called the most partisan the judge had ever seen. So what has been the reaction to the judge's ruling? Unfortunately, the only reaction we have seen so from from republicans who control the legislature is to try to launch another legal battle, hoping to overturn the judge's ruling. Apparently they are pinning their hopes on being successful, because so far there is no evidence that our lawmakers have spent a single minute trying to work with each other to draw new maps which are fair to both parties. There has been no input from the public. In fact, lawmakers are spending hundreds of thousands more of our tax dollars on lawyers, without so much as a public vote to authorize the expenditure. But there have been no meetings even scheduled to begin drawing new maps. We have not heard when they will finally get to work, and how they plan to do this job. They have not told us how much they are spending on these lawyers, or even who they have hired to do the work. We shouldn't be kept in the dark on this. Our lawmakers should get to work on these new maps, and the public should be part of that process.
Members of the Wisconsin legislature are likely to once again debate strengthening Wisconsin's drunk driving laws. If history is any guide, our lawmakers will do little to address the problem. Wisconsin has a long history of brushing off the dangers of drunk driving, and remains the only state in the nation that fails to consider first offense drunk driving a crime. Lawmakers have over the years spent much time debating strengthening these laws, but little has come of it. They did finally make the fourth offense drunk driving a felony a couple years ago, but more needs to be done. Rep. Jim Ott of Mequon has introduced a series of bills designed to toughen Wisconsin's drunk driving laws. One would set a minimum of five years in prison for anyone driving drunk who kills someone. Currently there is no minimum sentence for drunk driving homicides. A second bill would raise the minimum incarceration for fifth and sixth offenses from six months to 18 months. Another piece of legislation would prohibit anyone caught driving drunk from driving any vehicle without an ignition interlock device. That should be a priority. The latest numbers from Mothers Against Drunk Driving show some 37,000 people tried to get behind the wheel while drunk in one year's time, but were prevented from doing so by ignition interlock devices. That is more than any other state. La Crosse police call the numbers staggering, and they are right. Wisconsin needs to do more to toughen our drunk driving laws. This package of legislation is a good start.
The numbers don't lie. Wisconsin lawmakers continue to fund voucher schools to the detriment of public schools. Even as Governor Walker pledges more money for public schools in his latest budget, it still doesn't keep pace with what lawmakers are handing out in free tuition to private schools. A report by Wisconsin's Legislative Fiscal Bureau shows that payments to voucher school operators would be at least $1000 higher per student than the average for public school students. And the money that pays for these vouchers is coming directly from the general aid fund that should go to public schools. The report finds that while state tax dollars for voucher school operators has increased 12 times faster than total school aids for public schools. In fact, voucher payments are more than doubling over 8 years of Republican control. At the same time, general aids for public schools in Wisconsin fell. Under the Governor's budget, payments to voucher schools would total up to $8403 per student, while aid to public school students would total just $6700. These numbers tell the story. Public education in Wisconsin has suffered, while we continue to hand tax dollars to those attending voucher schools. Public school students should not be second in line for state aid.
It seems that no matter how many laws we may pass to try to hold our politicians accountable, our lawmakers inevitably find a way around them. For example, there are a number of laws which require those we elect to public office do the people's business in public. Meetings where decisions are made about our tax dollars are to be held in a forum where we can watch and even participate. But in Wisconsin, it is becoming increasingly common for our state representatives to try to remain in the shadows. This week in Madison, Republicans serving on the Budget Committee will meet in private to discuss the Governor's budget proposal. But because only Republican lawmakers are invited to this closed-door discussion, there will not be a quorum of the committee, and therefore, technically, it does not violate the state's open meetings laws. But it sure isn't right. What do they want to say in private that they don't want to say in public? Why the need for secrecy? Unfortunately, this tactic is becoming more common. Members of the Assembly Corrections Committee circumvented the law by taking turns in groups touring the state's troubled youth prison so as to keep their meeting private. There is a reason we have laws designed to keep the public informed. These troubling tactics may not violate the letter of the law, but certainly violate the spirit of the law.
So, just what did we learn with the release of some of President Trump's tax returns this week? Apparently, that people have real issues with the use of the term “breaking news.” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow offered what she called breaking news Tuesday night, when she told viewers she was in possession of Trump's tax return. She tweeted about an hour before the show that she would be revealing the results. When she finally did, we learned that Donald Trump paid about $38 million in taxes on income of nearly $150 million. On the surface, there is no smoking gun, no evidence that our President is a tax-dodger. But the reaction seemed to be more about how the new information was released than about the substance of the returns themselves. Some said it took Maddow longer to actually release the information than it would take most people to do their taxes. Others claimed this should not be considered breaking news because there was very little news there. I'm not hung up on the use of breaking news to tease the information. To me, breaking news is something happening now that we didn't know before. This would fit that bill. It was the first time we had seen Trump's returns, even if it was just two pages of a return filed a dozen years ago. But the real story is why are we relying on little leaked bits of information in order to try to get the facts. If Trump would simply release his returns, as presidents before him have done, then we wouldn't have to brag about uncovering any scrap of information, and we wouldn't have a debate about what really constitutes breaking news.
Those who claim that our system of voting is ripe with fraud may be pointing to a new report which finds some people voted illegally in Wisconsin as proof of their claims. But once again, they would be wrong. A report the state Elections Commission will submit to the legislature finds there were some 60 cases of people voting in last fall's primary and general elections who were not yet of legal voting age. Were these people trying to rig our elections, as some have claimed? No. These were 17 year olds who wanted to be part of our democracy, to have their voice heard. What they did hear, on social media and elsewhere, is that people could vote in the primary election if they would be turning 18 by the November election. That may be true in some states, but not in Wisconsin. These teens didn't know that, and showed up to vote, having been told they could. That was the case for one La Crosse county teen, who voted despite not yet being of legal age. But he freely told the poll workers he was 17, so he told no lies. The La Crosse District Attorney wisely is not prosecuting the case, telling Wizzum this voter truly believed he was eligible, and did not attempt to circumvent the process. The real mistake made here was by a poll worker, who should not have let him vote. But while some may see the headline that 60 17 year olds voted in Wisconsin as proof our elections are rigged, the truth is our election system works, and when it doesn't, we catch those not eligible to cast a ballot.
Like many communities, La Crosse has a problem with binge drinking. But a proposal to be debated by the La Crosse city council designed to prevent the problem is not a good solution. The council will debate putting an end to those all you can drink specials offered by some bars. Customers pay five bucks, get a wristband, and can drink as much as their stomach's allow. The proposal would put an end to these all you can drink specials. But that would likely do little to curb binge drinking. First, only a small handful, maybe 3 or 4, La Crosse bars even offer these specials. There are also enough places to get cheap drinks, even without all you can drink specials, that you could get good and loaded for just a few bucks. This proposal does nothing to prevent young people from partying at home before even heading downtown. But if this legislation were to be approved, it would also likely have to include a ban on all you can drink specials at bars, but also at community events, like the Between the Bluffs Beer and Cheese Fest, or the Craft Beer Night at Oktoberfest. These events both are very popular, and bring lots of people to town. Both have a significant economic impact on our community. Do we really want to put an end to these popular events, just so we can feel like we are doing something to prevent binge drinking?
Wisconsin's open meetings laws are pretty clear. Basically, they insist that the people's business be done in a public forum. But some of our elected representatives would rather you not know what they are doing. Members of the Assembly Corrections Committee plan a tour of Wisconsin's troubled yourth prison. They want to see first-hand the conditions of this facility, which is currently the subject of a federal investigation alleging physical and sexual assaults of inmates by guards. It is good that our legislators are finally looking into these long-standing problems, but it is troubling that they would prefer to do so in private. So they have developed a plan to circumvent Wisconsin's open meetings laws. Instead of all of the members of the committee visiting the prison at once, which would make it a public meeting, they have decicded to go halvsies. Today, five members of the 11 member committee, not enough to constitute a forum, will tour Lincoln Hills. The remaining members of the committee will tour later. This allows members of the committee to deny reporter's access to the tour. But we the public should have access, and we should be outraged they are purposely avoiding complying with the law, especially as we begin Sunshine Week. They should let the sun shine in on Lincoln Hills.
Politicians like to take credit for creating jobs. But how many jobs do they really create? Not nearly as many as they claim. There is little scientific evidence of how many jobs government actually create. Some economists suggest governors are only responsible for about five to ten percent of the changes in employment numbers over their term in office. They point out that most of the things that affect a state's economy are beyond a governor's control. That didn't stop Governor Scott Walker from famously promising to create 250,000 new jobs during his first term. He fell well short, and there is no evidence of how many of those jobs were created based on the governor's policies. Often, efforts to create jobs fall flat. Consider the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which uses tax dollars to encourage businesses to expand or relocate to Wisconsin. We know how that turned out. WEDC failed to keep track of loans, gave money to companies which didn't qualify for state help or who lied on their applications. That was hardly a good use of our tax dollars. No matter what our politicians tell us about how good they are at creating jobs, many other factors have a much more significant influence on how many jobs exist at any given time.
Wisconsin has taken a variety of approaches to the lottery. Lawmakers were reticent to legalize games of chance years ago, but have come to rely on the revenue generated for state government, and property tax relief. In fact, Governor Walker is proposing, as part of his state budget, an increase in spending on lottery advertising. Walker says if we spend an additional $3 million a year on lottery advertising, ticket sales will increase, and people will get more property tax relief. But what no one ever mentions, or perhaps chooses to forget, is the restrictions put on lottery advertising when the games were first legalized. But in fact, it is clearly written in the constitution. It states, “The expenditure of public funds or of revenues derived from lottery operations to engage in promotional advertising of the Wisconsin state lottery is prohibited. Any advertising of the state lottery shall indicate the odds of a specific lottery ticket to be selected as the winning ticket for each prize amount offered. “ So, the constitution says we can advertise the lottery, but cannot promote the lottery. Have you seen the lottery ads? Sure, they explain the odds, but they certainly promote playing the games. How else do you explain those cheesy smiles on those actors who look so happy playing their scratch games. Before Wisconsin spends any more money on lottery advertising, our lawmakers should refresh their knowledge of the state constitution.
It is a seed that has really started to germinate. The Farm to School program in Wisconsin has continued to grow since its inception. The program provides a partnership between local schools and area farmers, providing fresh fruits and vegetables for students to enjoy. Wisconsin has become a national leader in the farm to school movement. But not for much longer. Governor Walker has proposed eliminating the position of the state's farm to school coordinator as part of his new budget. That would be a mistake. Eliminating the position provides only modest savings to taxpayers, less than $90,000 a year. The program helps students understand where their food comes from, and gets them thinking about what they put in their bodies. The program benefits not only students who get to eat fresh, healthy, locally-grown food, but also benefits our farmers. Eliminating the program also sends the message that our kid's health isn't important if the state can save a few bucks along the way. This farm to school program has accomplished great things, and is a bargain for taxpayers. Legislators should reject the Governor's call to eliminate the coordinator position, and restore that small amount of funding when they approve the budget.This program should be allowed to continue to grow.
Governor Walker likes to boast that he is tough on crime. He famously refuses to issue pardons to inmates, no matter their circumstances. Now Walker wants to eliminate the Wisconsin Parole commission, which determines when inmates should be eligible for early release. Currently, the commission is comprised of eight members, although 5 of those seats are vacant, and Walker refuses to fill them. He wants to eliminate the commission, and put just one person, someone of his choosing, in charge of determining when Wisconsin's prison inmates should be released. But there are thousands of parole-eligible prisoners in Wisconsin. How can putting all that work in the hands of just one person streamline the process as the Governor claims? More likely, the change will lead to a backlog of cases. But more importantly, it is good to have a difference of opinion among board members. With a handful of board members, there is a collaborative decision-making process. Putting all that power into the hands of just one person could reduce the board's independence. It seems that while Wisconsin's current parole system may be broken and unfair, this proposed change would only make it worse.
It is getting hard to know what to believe. We often hear people make accusations, even unsubstantiated ones, even unbelievable ones, and we can dismiss them as fiction, or fantasy. But we aren't used to hearing such bold claims from the President of the United States. In the form of a tweet. But that is what we awoke to this weekend, with Donald Trump tweeting the wild accusation that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign. He went on to refer to Obama as a bad guy, and compared the so-called scandal to Watergate. Trump has offered no proof, but isn't afraid to make the claim. Of course we have heard this before. Trump previously tried to tell us the election was rigged, that millions of illegals voted, that his inaugural crowd was bigger, that Barack Obama wasn't even born in this country. It seems the more Trump tweets, the more we ignore him. Even his own White House didn't issue any follow up statements to his wiretapping yarn. Fellow republicans said little on the campaign trail. It seems that these days when the President of the United States makes bold claims, America is largely choosing to ignore them. But how are we to know when we should listen?
Remember waking up on a snowy weekday morning, hoping Mother Nature would cause school to be canceled? It is not uncommon in our part of the country. But really, that school day isn't canceled, just postponed, typically until the end of the school year. A snowy winter often means kids are still in school well into June. But in Minnesota, that may no longer be the case. Minnesota legislators are considering doing away with snow days. Instead of canceling classes during the harshest winter days, students would learn from home. They would get on their laptops or tablets and follow along with the teacher's online instructions from home. This makes sense. Kids already spend as much time as possible with their eyes fixed on a small screen. This way they wouldn't have to go to school in the summer, when attention spans for both students and teachers are likely shorter as the weather warms. If approved, Minnesota schools would not be required to teach online on snow days. Instead, it would be an option for districts. There may be some hurdles, like how to teach students who don't have internet access at home. But this idea has merit, and is something that Wisconsin lawmakers should consider as well.