Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
It is called the prevailing wage law, and some Wisconsin lawmakers think it is time for the law to go. Prevailing wage laws require governments to pay those who secure contracts for public projects pay their workers whatever the prevailing wage is there. That is designed to ensure those companies hire skilled workers, and pay them a fair salary for their work. But some argue that inflates the price of public projects, and they have introduced legislation to end the prevailing wage law for state projects, just as they did for bids on local government building projects two years ago. This would clearly result in wage cuts for laborers, and likely would send Wisconsin workers to other states which still have the prevailing wage law to look for work. Critics of the law say ending the prevailing wage requirement could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars, but an estimate by the state's Legislative Fiscal Bureau finds the impact of prevailing wage laws on construction costs to be inconclusive. But those legislators who want to end prevailing wage are proving to be hypocrites. These same legislators just voted to increase their per diem payments, allowing them to collect even more of our money to cover their costs of travel, dining and lodging in Madison. Apparently they think it is ok for the average Joe to see a cut in wages, while they keep increasing their own.
Finally, some common sense in Madison. Lawmakers are considering ending the state's ban on the sale of home-baked goods. The legislation is called the “cookie bill.” If passed, it would allow people to sell their homemade treats, like breads, muffins and cookies. It is not clear exactly why it is illegal now. Wisconsin and New Jersey are the only states which prohibit the for-profit sale of baked goods made in a home kitchen. It has prompted a lawsuit against the state filed by some home bakers who argue the state's ban on home-baked goods is unconstitutional. Some health advocates say the current ban is designed to protect public health, but this bill addresses that, requiring sellers to register with the state, and to take a food safety class. They also would have to follow a number of requirements, regarding labeling, and keeping track of their sales. The bill would also limit income from the cookie sales to no more than $7500 a year. This bill should win approval from lawmakers. It allows us to sample some tasty treats, and encourages people to start their own business. But this idea has come up before, and despite bipartisan support in the Senate, failed to pass in the Assembly. Let's hope this year, just like the muffins and cookies, this batch comes out just right.
School referendums are in the sights of some Wisconsin lawmakers. They want to make it harder for public school districts to hold referendums, considering legislation that would limit how often and for what reason they could ask voters to approve more money for education. These lawmakers also want to punish school districts which do approve referendums, withholding a portion of their state aid. Of course, this makes no sense. If voters in the La Crosse school district or elsewhere place a high value one education, and are willing to pay more to support it, that should be up to them. They know better than some legislator from Brookfield. But the focus seems to be only on public schools. What about voucher schools? They are expanding in the state, and taxpayers are funding them. In fact, these voucher schools get more state aid money than public schools, and now the money that goes to private schools is coming directly from public school budgets. So another group of lawmakers think what is good for the goose is good for the gander. They hope to approve a law that would only allow the state to take money from public schools and give it to private schools if voters in that district approved it in a referendum. This would not end voucher schools, it would simply level the playing field. Because if we get to have a say on how public school dollars are spent, we should also get a say on how our tax money is spent on private schools.
The election was rigged. We heard that throughout the course of the recent presidential campaign. It wasn't true of course. There is no evidence of millions of illegal immigrants casting ballots, or felons voting in droves. But, as it turns out, there were many ballots which were cast in Wisconsin, but which were never counted. That is because of a new state law, which requires absentee ballots to be received by election day. Previously, absentee ballots only had to be postmarked by election day. This was the first major election with the earlier deadline in place, and a number of potential Wisconsin voters missed it. 1028 absentee ballots cast in Wisconsin in the November election were received late, and thrown out. That is more than double the number of late ballots from the 2012 presidential contest. This new law is part of a series of efforts by our lawmakers to make it harder to vote in Wisconsin. They reduced opportunities for early voting, tried to get rid of special registration deputies and have made us show an ID in order to exercise our right to vote. Now the state has thrown out more than 1000 ballots from legal voters, many of whom, given the contentious nature of the election, may have waited until the last minute to decide for whom they would cast their ballot. If we really want to ensure the election is not rigged, and that every vote counts, we should be making it easier for people to vote, not harder.
There can no longer be any debate. Justice is for sale in Wisconsin. Certainly that is the case on the state's highest court, which has rejected a call for justices to recuse themselves from cases that involve their political donors. A group of 54 retired judges submitted a petition that sought to ensure that our high court justices aren't able to bend the rules for their fat-cat friends. It would have forced members of the Supreme Court to sit out any cases in which their donors are litigants or attorneys. Justice Shirley Abrahamson argued that forcing justices to recuse themselves from cases in which they may have a conflict of interest would help restore integrity to the court. But the petition failed by a 5-2 margin. So our most prestigious judges, supposedly of high ethics, can continue to rule on cases in which those who give them money are involved. Not only did they reject the request, they seem hurt it was even made. Justice Rebecca Bradley claims Wisconsin justices should be offended by the petition. But even if our high court justices aren't acting improperly, being unwilling to recuse themselves certainly can give the appearance of impropriety. And for those who claim their moral compass is always pointing due north, that should be enough of a reason not to rule in cases involving their cash cows.
Branding can be important for a business. It can help them stand out from their competitors. But is it important for government as well? La Crosse County apparently thinks so, spending $60,000 on a new branding campaign that includes a new logo and tagline. But, boy, is it boring. Even a number of members on the county board voted against the new logo, calling it nondescript and unexciting. The new logo features a square with the letters “LC” next to another square which reads “1851” a reference to the year La Crosse County was founded. Beneath the logo is the tagline, “Exceptional services. Extraordinary places.” Huh? According to the dictionary, a logo is defined as a graphic representation or symbol of a company often uniquely designed for ready recognition. This $60,000 logo is hardly uniquely designed, or readily recognizable. Shouldn't the words La Crosse County appear in the new logo somewhere? Perhaps a picture of the bridge or the bluff, or the river, something that screams La Crosse? As one board member points out, 'If you showed this logo to a passerby, they would have no idea what it is to represent.' That makes it a bad logo, and in the case of La Crosse County, a rather expensive one.
It is the type of thing they tend to talk about only among themselves, perhaps over coffee or beers. But some top La Crosse police are now being openly critical of the La Crosse County judicial system. Assistant Police Chief Rob Abraham calls it “ridiculous” that people are being arrested, pampered by the courts, set free with a slap on the wrist, who then go on to commit more crimes. We have seen evidence of that in two recent La Crosse shootings, allegedly committed by people who have been in trouble before, but let off with much less than the maximum penalty. Police are frustrated, and no longer staying silent about it. Their concerns are understandable, as we all want a safe community. The criticism seems to be that judges are soft on crime. But there is more to the story than that. Many times deals are made between prosecutors and defense attorneys, where people plea to a lesser crime in exchange for avoiding a trial, which can be costly to taxpayers. Judges are also bound by state-imposed sentencing guidelines, so even if they wanted to lock someone away for life, they may not be able. It is important that our law enforcement and judicial system work together to keep La Crosse a safe place to live. But it is more than just our judges being soft. There are a lot of issues in play. We suggest that local police and court officials sit down, perhaps over beers, and work to find common ground, or at least a better understanding of the other's role. Because we want to make sure that only those who truly deserve them get second chances.
It is clear that Wisconsin citizens value a good public education. We see that in the number of referendums voters statewide have approved to provide the money needed to educate our children. Since 1990, Wisconsin school districts have approved more than 1600 school referendums worth more than $12 billion. That comes in the face of declining state aid for public schools. But some lawmakers in Madison want to severely restrict when school districts can go to voters in a referendum. This is unneeded, and unnecessarily punitive. The bills would not only limit when and how often local school referendums can be held. And school districts which convince voters of the need for more money for education would be penalized by the state. If this legislation is approved, if voters in the La Crosse school district approved a $5 million referendum, they would lose $1 million in state aid. Sponsors of this legislation say they would use that money to reward other Wisconsin school districts which are able to live within their means. Wisconsin schools shouldn't be punished for following the will of their citizens. If people in a school district agree to provide more money for education, because they want good schools, they shouldn't be penalized for that. Local voters know best, and should make their own choices about what is best for their schools and their tax dollars.
Do you recall the recount? Republicans in Madison do, and they want it to remain a distant memory. Some lawmakers are pushing legislation that would make it harder for losing candidates to force a recount after an election. You can probably thank Jill Stein for that. The Green Party candidate captured just one percent of the vote in Wisconsin, yet was able to force a recount of all of the presidential ballots cast in the state. It seemed trivial. After all, there was no way the recount was going to show Stein the winner. But state law allows losing candidates to force a recall, if they pay for the costs of doing so. That was more than a million dollars in Wisconsin. Stein raised the money, and paid the bill. It didn't cost taxpayers a dime. Still, some want to make recounts harder, allowing only second place finishers, within one percent of the winner's total. That would be a mistake. Recounts can restore faith in our system of voting, important especially after the last election with claims of rigging and illegal voting. If the state makes recalls harder, minority political parties, typically not a first or second place finisher, would be discriminated against. It may have seemed trivial to force a recount in the recent election, but Stein was in her right to do so, and other losing candidates should continue to have that same right.
Wisconsin's public records laws are among the strongest in the nation. Basically, they say that governments and elected officials have to keep records of their actions and share them with the public, except under very specific circumstances. But that doesn't seem to be the case for the Wisconsin court system. In fact, judicial conduct remains almost entirely secret in the Badger state. Right now, complaints filed against judges are heard by the Wisconsin Judicial Commission. Those complaints are never made public, unless some form of public discipline is handed down. Wisconsin's Director of State Courts insists the public should not be able to see complaints filed against elected judges, saying “judges occupy a unique position of trust and authority in our system of government.” It seems to Bill Lueders, President of Wisconsin's Freedom of Information Council, that for that reason our judges should be subject to high standards of openness and accountability. He argues that currently complaints against a garbage collector or bus driver are subject to a greater degree of openness in Wisconsin than complaints against an elected judge. Keep in mind, judges aren't subject to performance evaluations, and if complaints are filed against them that don't lead to a public rebuke, the public never knows about it. Judges should be held to at least the same standards as bus drivers, but right now that is not the case in Wisconsin.
Who knew a magazine could be so controversial? Probably not Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. In his budget proposal to the legislature, Walker called for eliminating a state-run nature magazine produced by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine is produced six times per year. It has been published by the DNR since 1919. It offers its many readers information about hunting and fishing opportunities in the state, as well as environmental issues. But Governor Walker argues the state should not be in the publishing business, and that publishing a magazine no longer fits the agency's core mission. Never mind that the state publishes lots of publications, and that more than 80,000 readers of this beloved magazine entirely fund its costs. This would not save taxpayers a penny. Never mind that part of the core mission of the DNR is to keep the public informed about environmental issues. The Governor's decision is at its core a continuation of the battle between Governor Walker, the DNR, and science. Under Walker's administration, environmental regulations have been pulled back, DNR funding has been slashed, and reference's to climate change have been pulled from state websites. Governor Walker clearly has a problem with science. But stopping publishing a magazine does nothing to change the facts, other than making it more difficult for people to find those facts.
The sudden shift toward good government in Madison is hard to overstate. Republican leadership in the legislature has done something that is quite rare. They removed all non-fiscal items from the state budget Governor Walker has proposed. It has become commonplace in Madison for Governors to insert their pet projects into a budget. That is a safe move politically, because budgets are voted up or down. An idea, like the one Governor Walker proposed to reduce the time students have to spend in the classroom, does not belong in a budget document. But Governors like to put things like that there, because then they are not subject to public hearings as they would if they had to stand on their own merits. Stripping the budget of non-fiscal items hasn't happened in Madison in 14 years. And at that time, republican legislators pulled the items from the budget proposed by a Democratic governor. That was a power play. This is good public policy. If they don't relate to spending our tax dollars, they don't belong in a state budget. If the ideas the Governor has proposed are so good, they should be able to withstand public debate and public hearings. This was a bold move by Republican leadership, and we hope it will be the new standard for future budgets in Madison.
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.
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.