Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
On the surface, it may seem like a good idea. Tying our tax dollars to how well public colleges and universities perform. It is an idea a number of states have adopted, and Wisconsin may be next. Governor Walker has indicated he may tie some state funding for the University of Wisconsin System to a performance-based model. Some of the performance the money will be linked to could include a school's graduation rates, how many graduates a school produces in high-demand fields and its job placement rates. Walker argues the performance-based funding models work for the state's technical college system. But it may be too early to tell. Wisconsin's technical colleges only adopted the model a few years ago. And so far there seems to be little evidence that graduation rates or the number of degrees awarded goes up under a performance-based funding model. And there may be some drawbacks. Schools which are under pressure to improve their graduation rates may be tempted to pad grades to make sure students don't fail, or water down course materials. And they may be less likely to accept minority or low-income students who they don't feel are as likely to graduate. We don't know the details of what Walker will propose yet, but it seems there is little reason to think our schools will do better under this plan.
What does Ron Johnson have against higher education? The U.S. Senator from Wisconsin is trying to backpedal now after his controversial comments about college. Johnson mused that we can replace college teachers simply by letting today's college students watch movies as a way to learn. He points to Ken Burns award-winning documentary, The Civil War. He argues there are no college professors more expert on the subject, so colleges should fire history teachers and let student's watch the movie as a way to learn about that period in the nation's history. The reaction was strong and swift. Even Burns weighed in, saying he hopes to support teachers, not replace them. Sen. Johnson is now trying to argue that what he meant is that we need good teachers and good technology. But Senator, videotapes which you reference are not good technology. Hate to break it to you, but the digital age has arrived. But the most striking thing about Johnson's comments is the vitriol he unleashes on higher ed, referring to our college and university system as a “cartel.” Clearly, he isn't a fan. His idea is ridiculous, as videotapes, or even mp3's, couldn't begin to replace our teachers, who teach not only the subject matter, but also critical thinking. Something that seems to be sorely lacking in Johnson's bashing of higher education.
The first test isn't very encouraging. Wisconsin's newly formed state agency dealing with keeping government honest would like to be able to grease the palms of those they are overseeing. The State Ethics Commission, in charge of our campaigns and the conduct of our public officials is facing the first test of its ability to remain neutral. The members of this new commission are not neutral, unlike the retired judges who comprised the Government Accountability Board they replaced. They are handpicked partisan appointees, tasked with overseeing the state's campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws. Three democrats, three republicans. The commission is to consider whether its members should be allowed to contribute to political campaigns. The answer should be no. How can this group claim to be independent and accountable if they are giving money to the very people they are charged with overseeing? So much for unbiased. The retired judges on the GAB weren't allowed to give to political candidates, and neither should this group of partisan hacks.
The La Crosse public library is once again at a crossroads. It was three years ago that the city considered closing one or more of the library branches in order to balance the budget. The library system was saved thanks to local support, but in the next city budget, the library system again faces a deficit. Mayor Tim Kabat is proposing regionalizing the library system, basically merging the city library system with the county system. He envisions a system where the county takes over the library system, which would continue to operate branches in the city of La Crosse. He is right, that such a plan would likely save taxpayers money, and would again put the library system on sound financial footing. We should be looking at ways to better share services. The county's reception to the idea has been a bit chilly so far. County administrator Steve O'Malley seems hurt the mayor didn't bring the idea to him, and Board Chair Tara Johnson says she is disappointed with the mayor's plan, although she is willing to consider it. She proposes the appointment of a study committee for up to a year to map out the possibility of a library merger. Mayor Kabat wants this done by June, but that seems ambitious. Let's talk about this important issue, but make sure we allocate the time necessary to give this the attention it deserves.
Remember when we learned that the Pentagon was paying $900 for a hammer? That may seem like a bargain compared to today's numbers. Because nobody seems to know for sure just how much money our military is spending, or what we are getting for our money. A Reuters report has uncovered that the United States Army has done such a poor job keeping its books that it has resorted to simply making up numbers. The report finds that the Army had to resort to making trillions of dollars in improper accounting adjustments, just to make their books appear balanced. In 2015, the Army made $6.5 billion in accounting adjustments even though they lacked receipts and invoices to support the numbers. An investigation by the Inspector General found the Army didn't keep or lost required data, and much of the data it had was inaccurate. Congress is aware of the problem. In fact, Congress gave the Army until September...of next year, to prepare to undergo an audit. Shouldn't we be moving a little more quickly? After all, the Defense budget is $573 billion, more than half of all money appropriated by Congress. If this were a private business, someone would be going to jail. The fact that it is our tax money which is being squandered should call for a speedy and thorough investigation.
GO USA! Congratulations on your Olympic victory. Your tax bill is now in the mail. Most of us were likely surprised to learn that when Americans earn medals at the Olympic games, Uncle Sam wants his cut. Olympic medal winners are taxed not only on the prize money they receive, but also the value of the medal they earn. Those who earn gold medals can be taxed up to $9900 depending on their tax brackets. Some lawmakers are now said to be considering repealing this so-called “victory tax.” Members of Congress are drawing up legislation, as are our state lawmakers in Madison. They argue that our athletes should not be penalized for their Olympic success. Some point out that if we are going to waive the tax on earnings for our Olympic athletes, then we should do the same for other athletes. They argue that Aaron Rodgers then shouldn't be taxed on what he makes for his athletic accomplishments. But Olympic athletes depend on private donations and sponsorships to make their way to the games. We should celebrate the success of our Olympic athletes. But we shouldn't be sending them a bill after they reach the highest pinnacle of their sport.
When we were young, we were taught that you don't buy what you can't afford. But we also learned that sometimes things are cheaper today than they will be tomorrow. That is what the state of Wisconsin is discovering. In the current state budget, Governor Walker delayed plans to borrow money in order to build several new buildings at campuses throughout the University of Wisconsin system. Those needs still exist, and in the next state budget, the UW System is again requesting that those buildings be built. Only this time, the request for state money is $30 million more than it was two years ago, due to inflation and other rising costs. Among the requests from the UW System is a new fieldhouse, with a pricetag of $35 million, and a new dorm, with a pricetag of $37 million. Both projects cost more today than they would have two years ago. Wisconsn lawmakers should remember that when determining how to pay for our roads. Walker has resorted to borrowing, and putting off projects as a way to save money on roads. Because as we have seen in the UW System, those projects will never be cheaper tomorrow than they are today.
Finally some common sense in the debate over Wisconsin's new voter ID rules. The courts have gone back and forth, and back and forth, over what the rules should be on election day. Most recently, the courts ruled that Wisconsin's election laws, passed in recent sessions of the legislature, unnecessarily restrict voting. The court ruling reduces restrictions on early and absentee voting and lessens the amount of time a person has to live in their legislative district before being able to cast a ballot. But the ruling that voters must show a photo ID before casting a ballot remains in place, at least for now. In his ruling the judge called Wisconsin's restrictive Voter ID law “a cure worse than the disease.” But finally, the state Department of Motor Vehicles is making it easier for those who have struggled to get the necessary form of identification to get one. They have cut through the red tape and the confusion. Now any resident can go to their local DMV and get the necessary photo ID. They only have to bring one document proving their identity, and one proving where they live. The DMV will issue, within six business days, the ID they need to vote. That should make it much easier for people to get the necessary form of identification. Finally, some common sense and clarity amid the legal sea of confusion.
Can we afford to wait any longer? Roads throughout the La Crosse area continue to deteriorate, and lawmakers in Madison continue to refuse to address the problem. A growing number of Wisconsin communities are taking matters into their own hands. Fifteen municipalities and counties have already approved some version of a wheel tax, tacking an extra $10 or $20 on to the cost of registering your car. Many others are considering similar action. La Crosse county briefly flirted with the idea of a wheel tax. It would raise desperately needed money to begin to fix our roads. Estimates suggest new annual revenue of $1.75 million, exclusively to be used for roadwork. That is still well short of the $83 million in identified road repair needs in La Crosse County. One year ago, when the idea of a La Crosse County wheel tax surfaced, we suggesting waiting for the state to finally approve more road money, but it is increasingly clear that isn't going to happen anytime soon. The time to wait is over. La Crosse County needs to commit to improving our roads and do what our state lawmakers will not.
When are kids just being kids, acting out or doing dumb stuff, and when do they become criminals? It is an important question, with important consequences, and one which La Crosse County is about to tackle head on. The county has developed a new way to deal with cases of young people who commit minor offenses. The effort is designed to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system. That is important, because in addition to jail crowding and the cost of incarceration, putting young people in the criminal justice system can increase the likelihood of further criminal activity, and reduce the likelihood of student's getting on the right path in life. This effort is being organized by a number of local agencies, including police, county courts and our schools. The partnership has a lot of potential to help save tax dollars, and keep our community safe. Because not every kid who swipes something that doesn't belong to them, or gets in fights on the playground deserves to be locked up with hardened criminals. This effort seeks to make services available to these kids, and recognizes that the development of adolescents often includes behaviors such as mood swings, risk taking, and challenging authority. This could pay big dividends. It may not work, but if it doesn't it won't be for lack of trying to reach kids when they may be at a crossroads in their life.
It is time to invest in education. That is the message UW System President Ray Cross is sending to lawmakers in Madison. But that message is not likely to be well received. Governor Scott Walker has already declared that the state budget he will unveil next year will again call for a tuition freeze throughout the UW System. That will be welcome news for students, as tuition costs have risen rapidly for years until the freeze was put in place. It is good to see tuition costs finally being capped. But the legislature didn't just freeze tuition. They also trimmed $250 million in state funding for the UW System in the current budget. I wasn't a math major, but it seems to me if you freeze tuition, and cut state funding, the UW System doesn't have as much money. And that is leading to a declining quality of education among UW schools. That means class sizes are growing, classes are being cut, and it is taking longer for students to graduate. Leaders in the UW System are preparing to ask for more than $40 million in additional state funding to deal with the costs of another tuition freeze. That would help get students out of school and into the workforce faster, and isn't that the goal? But you can expect a chilly reception in Madison, where some lawmakers seem intent on punishing the UW System. That doesn't help improve the quality of education today's students receive, and it doesn't help Scott Walker meet his job goals. But I guess most of our lawmakers weren't math majors either.
Would you volunteer to pick up dirty needles? An effort is underway to organize volunteers to pick up the thousands of hypodermic needles which litter the streets and playgrounds of La Crosse. This has become a big problem. The used needles are a danger to our community, especially our children. It also has been a big burden for La Crosse firefighters. They are in charge of picking up the needles now, but that puts a strain on the force. When a call to retrieve a needle comes in, an entire fire crew is dispatched to retrieve it. That is so that if a fire call comes in, the entire crew can respond without delay. Sometimes firefighters have to interrupt their training just to go pick up a single needle. Organizing community members to do that work instead makes sense. But it would also make sense for those handing out all these free needles to drug users in the name of public health to require that before users get any new needles, they return the old ones. It is estimated that the AIDS Resource Center handed out more than 200,000 free syringes last year. But many end up in our alleys and on our playgrounds. If this group is so concerned about public health they hand out free needles, they should also work to improve public health by insisting that dirty needles be turned in before any new ones are handed out.
When did parking become such an issue in La Crosse? Issues involving where people park their cars have continued to arise in recent years. La Crosse has built parking ramp after parking ramp. So have other entities, including Gunderson Health System, UW-La Crosse, and WTC. Those ramps have all gone up in just the last few years, and a number of them, at UWL, and the Riverside Center ramp downtown, are already having more levels added to the ramps. There are plans for yet another ramp, across from the jail. The city has hired a parking utility coordinator, all to try to sort out issues with how much to charge, and when, and how to keep people from vandalizing the parking gates. All of these issues have come to light in just the past few years. Which makes us wonder, what did we do before we built all these ramps? Where did we park? I don't remember it being such a problem. Yet even as we build hundreds and hundreds of new parking spaces, still people think La Crosse has a parking problem, so we continue to build and build. But the city of La Crosse's population hasn't grown much at all as all these ramps are being built. Have we become more picky about where we park? Are there more cars on the road, or more cars heading downtown? La Crosse used to regulate parking with parking meters throughout the downtown. Maybe we need to put those back in place, returning to a time when where to park wasn't really an issue.
If you see orange cones, put down the phone. That is the gist of a new law about to take effect in Wisconsin. Starting October 1st, it will be illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving through work zones in Wisconsin. Drivers caught talking on their cell-phones, other than hands-free, while driving through work zones face a $40 fine on a first offense, and a $100 for any subsequent violation. It is good that Wisconsin is cracking down on those who use their phones behind the wheel. The DOT says distracted driving in the state causes about 24,000 crashes each year, about one every 20 minutes. But this hodge-podge of laws is too confusing, and have too many loopholes. For example, what exactly is a work zone? Does it apply when there is no actual work being done? Under current law, it is illegal to text while driving in Wisconsin. But only to send a text. It remains perfectly legal to read a text while driving. Or read an email. Or send an email. Or even surf the internet on your phone while barreling down the road at 70 mph. Wisconsin lawmakers need to go further, and make it illegal to do anything on our phones while behind the wheel if they really want us to stay safe on the roads.