Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
We need to do a better job making sure are military veterans are properly taken care of. We have witnessed a series of deaths at the Tomah VA hospital, where powerful drugs were being over-prescribed. That led to a series of new federal laws designed to ensure that we aren't turning our war heroes into zombies. Now we are learning about the allegedly deplorable conditions at Wisconsin's state-run veteran's retirement home in King, Wisconsin. There are reports, uncovered by the Capital Times newspaper, that the facility is plagued by staff shortages, and there are allegations of negligence of those living there. There has been cost cutting at the retirement home, even as millions of dollars in surplus revenue from the facility has been diverted to other parts of the state budget. There are also allegations that the retirement home is using outdated medical equipment, and cutting back on group activities for veterans. The report has captured the attention of politicians on both sides of the aisle. Some, including La Crosse State Rep. Jennifer Shilling, are calling for a federal investigation into the state-run retirement home. Others, like Governor Walker, are calling for a state investigation. Either way, we need to get to the bottom of what is happening in King, and make sure that those who so proudly served our country get the proper care they deserve.
By now, we have all heard of the marked increase in the price of EpiPens, used to administer medication to those suffering from allergic reactions. The price of the pens have increased five-fold since 2007, to the current price of $633 for a two pack. And many of us have wondered, “How could this happen?” The answer, at least in part, is that the Wisconsin Legislature is to blame. Mylan, the company which makes the EpiPen, has been a big contributor to key politicians serving on the Senate Health Committee. Records show Mylan contributed thousands of dollars in campaign cash to those key lawmakers, and spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying on bills related to the medical devices. Not surprisingly, lawmakers voted to expand the scope of users for the device to include recreational and educational camps, colleges, daycares, youth sports league and elsewhere. Its market has increased in Wisconsin, while the company profits soared, and while greedy lawmakers stuffed their pockets. Under current Wisconsin law, Mylan has the unlimited ability to sell its potentially life-saving medicine at grossly inflated prices. That's why some lawmakers are crafting legislation which would force Mylan to justify the price of its medication. Our lawmakers should be working to protect Wisconsin families, rather than the big drug corporations.
Do you have a plan? The state of Wisconsin is reminding people of the importance of having an emergency preparedness plan in the event of a disaster. Governor Walker has declared September to be Preparedness Month to encourage people throughout the state to take time to prepare now, before disaster strikes. We have already seen severe storms and flash flooding in our part of the state which put people at risk. The State Homeland Security Advisor has a number of tips for developing a family emergency plan. But it is important that be done before an emergency happens. Among the suggestions is to identify family meeting places to make sure everyone is safe. They suggest that one be close to your home, and the other somewhere in the neighborhood. The sate says you should keep a contact list, both on paper and electronically that has current contact information for those who would likely be needed to be reached in the event of an emergency. And they say you should have alternative ways to communicate in the event phones are not working. Another suggestion is to have an out of town contact, as sometimes calling long distance may be easier than making a local call during emergencies. It is a good idea to take time now to make these preparations, in hopes you never have to use them.
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.