Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
As Americans, we love football. Especially the NFL. Meanwhile, we hate politics. Especially the race for President. So if we had to choose between football and politics, we would choose the NFL hands down. It appears people will have that choice later this year, when two of the presidential debates will conflict with NFL games. The Commission on Public Debates has scheduled matchups between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for Monday, September, 26, and Sunday, October 9. There are NFL games being played, and televised nationally, on both of those dates at the same time. One of them is the Packers game when they play the Giants. What channel do you think Cheeseheads will be watching? Donald Trump is crying foul, claiming Hillary Clinton hates the NFL. But the fact is, the debate schedule was set a year ago, well before this year's NFL schedule was announced. There may be some who will be torn whether to watch the presidential debate or the Packers, but I'm guessing most would be glad to turn their attention from politics to the pigskin. Or they could always set their DVR.
It looks like they are at it again. The state of Wisconsin again seems eager to cut corners when it comes to caring for our military veterans. An attempt was made in the last legislative session to regionalize what are now county-run Veterans Services Offices. Current law says each Wisconsin county must offer a Veterans Services Office, and it must be staffed by a military veteran. The attempt to regionalize was shouted down by county leaders, and veterans, and it never passed. But now Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary John Scocos has said he wants to again consider a regional approach to serving veterans. Scocos argues that a regional approach could lead to better service for military vets, ensuring that those in all parts of the state receive equal treatment. But it seems that is what is already in place. Requiring each county to operate its own Veterans Services Office ensures equal access to service in all corners of the state. How does operating fewer offices, forcing military veterans to drive longer distances to get help, provide better treatment? The fact is, the idea of offering fewer veterans services offices was a bad idea when it was proposed a year ago, and it remains a bad idea today.
How to pay for better roads remains elusive for Wisconsin legislators. The state in recent years has resorted to borrowing money to pay to build or fix roads. A lot of borrowing. $500 million, just in the last budget. But still, it isn't enough. A drive nearly anywhere in the state confirms that. The potholes serve as constant reminders. The state is now almost one billion dollars shy of having the money needed to complete those road projects already planned. Wisconsin roads are now considered to be some of the worst in the nation. Some in the Wisconsin legislature realize the state can't continue to rely on borrowing, but rather need to develop a sustainable, long-term plan to pay for road work. That generally means new taxes or fees, something Governor Scott Walker remains opposed to. He points out that Wisconsin's gas tax is already among the highest in the nation. But unlike many other states, Wisconsin does not apply the sales tax to gas purchases. The cost of registering a vehicle in the state is significantly lower than in many neighboring states. Studies show owning and operating a car in Wisconsin is one of the least expensive among the states. And falling gas prices and more fuel efficient vehicles continue to make it even cheaper. Nobody wants to pay higher taxes, or more fees, but we also want to drive on roads that are safe. Now is the time to figure out how to balance the two.
You're being ridiculous. That was the message to Bernie Sanders supporters on day one of the Democratic National Convention from comedian Sarah Silverman. And she is absolutely right. No question, Bernie Sanders became a phenomenon, energizing voters, many of them younger voters in his quest for the party's nomination. He failed. He ran a remarkable campaign, and the level of support he generated may be unprecedented. But he lost nonetheless. You can blame the Superdelegates, and wouldn't necessarily be wrong, but that is the system that is in place. But now his supporters are being stubborn, shouting down speakers at the convention, and somehow hoping that their candidate, the man who inspired them so, can somehow capture the nomination. Even Bernie Sanders knows that isn't going to happen, and his urged his supporters to instead back Hillary Clinton in hopes of defeating Donald Trump. Still they remain behind Bernie. But that isn't what the party needs. These delegates, and voters, need to align with Hillary for the good of the party. The leaked emails and suggestions of a rigged election aren't helping of course, but the party needs to unify behind Hillary in order to win in November. But it seems so far at least, Sanders isn't able to quell the revolt that he started.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders don't agree on much. But both argue our political system is rigged. That sentiment gained new momentum with the release of thousands of emails which suggest the Democratic National Committee favored Hillary Clinton during the primary election, despite the group's pledge of neutrality. The leaked emails suggest party bosses were all in for Hillary from the start, despite Bernie Sanders' groundswell of support. One email even suggests Democratic party bosses were even willing to focus on Sanders' religion, arguing a Jewish candidate wouldn't do well in the South. Another suggests they were considering accusing Sanders of being an Athiest. Bernie didn't have a chance with party bosses working harder to ensure Hillary Clinton gets the nomination. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has pledged to step down amid the controversy. Not exactly the way the Democrats wanted to kick off their convention. So much for party unity. This is not the way our democracy is supposed to work. It is hard enough to get elected President without insiders rigging the system. Trump and Sanders may not agree on much, but they are both right on this one. Our political system is rigged.
What's for dinner? You may have a meal planned for tonight. But do you have a plan for the leftovers? A new nationwide survey takes a look at the issue of food waste, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture. The survey finds that Americans waste 130 billion pounds of food each year. That is about $160 billion dollars worth of food, wasted each year, just in the United States. The survey also finds about half of Americans are aware that food waste is a problem. Slightly more realize wasting food is bad for the environment. Food waste that ends up in landfills releases methane, which helps contribute to global warming. But the survey also finds more than 40% don't have time to worry about it. There is some good news. Compared to prior surveys, the percentage of those recognizing this is an important issue is up. And some things are being done. Wal-Mart is beginning to sell bruised apples and other fruit at discounted prices. Previously, they would have been thrown away. And there are simple things you and I can do. Food waste can be reduced by cooking smaller portions. We can eat more leftovers, and compost food scraps. Or are you like the 40% in this survey who simply don't have time to worry about it?
Not so fast. That is the message being delivered by Wisconsin's Public Records Board is giving to the state Department of Corrections. The DOC requested permission to delete some videos it makes of its employees on the job. For the first time ever, the department requested permission to delete those videos after just one day. The board has put the brakes on that proposal, over concerns about the rapid destruction of the videos. The videos are recordings of Corrections Department employees either while on the job, or in training sessions. It is not clear why the agency wants to destroy those videos so rapidly, or even at all. Some on the board wisely argued for a rewriting of the proposed rules over concerns that the destruction of the videos could make the employee's performance reviews more difficult. But the bigger concern is why this agency, already under a federal review by the FBI over allegations of prisoner abuse at the state's boy's prison, is so eager to destroy what would otherwise be a matter of public record. As the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council points out, it is troubling when an agency covets the ability to destroy records. Because once those records are destroyed, you no longer know if there is a good reason for them not to see the light of day.
Scott Walker is the governor of Wisconsin. All of Wisconsin. The red parts, and the blue parts. He represents all the people of the state, even those who didn't vote for him. But when Walker tours the state to hold listening sessions, he only wants to hear from certain people. In fact, only certain people are invited. When Walker laid out his plans to hold listening sessions in Wisconsin, he called it an effort to bring together a diverse group of people. But it turns out the groups are not that diverse. They are overwhelmingly republican, people who are happy with the job the governor is doing, and a higher proportion donate to political campaigns than the national average. These are hand selected crowds, sometimes picked by lobbyists eager to give the governor a friendly audience. It must be working. Statewide polls show 50% of the people in the state believe that under Walker, the state is on the wrong track. That surprised the Governor, who says he only hears good things at his listening sessions. No wonder. If you let the lobbyists hand pick the audience, you can guarantee a friendly response. Walker should make these events open to the public, and perhaps he will find that things aren't quite as rosy as he seems to think.
Technology sure has changed things. Generally for the better. But some would rather remain stuck in the past. The changes in technology are leading some units of government in Wisconsin to push for the ability to post required meeting notices online, rather than in the newspaper. For years, newspapers were the media of record, where notices of meetings, ordinance changes, minutes of meetings and other notices were published. But newspaper subscriptions have dropped significantly, so it is not clear how many people are even seeing the meeting notices, even if they bother to look for them. Meanwhile, the internet has continued to grow, reaching more people. And it is much cheaper to post legally required notices online, rather than paying to put them in the paper. It costs each municipality about $5000 a year to post their meeting notices in the paper. Some cities pay much more. Madison budgets more than $100,000 a year to post its notices in newspapers. A legislative study committee this month will begin looking into requests that the requirement that notices be published in the local paper be allowed to be posted only online instead. That makes sense. The government saves money, and with 80% of U.S. households now are served by high speed internet, more people can be reached than just those few still reading newspapers.
It is a good time to be a polluter in Wisconsin. A good time to pollute our land, air and water. Because it is a lot easier to get away with it these days. As has been previously reported, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has not been as diligent about enforcing the state's environmental laws. The DNR is taking up fewer cases, and issuing fewer notices of environmental violations. The agency has only issued an average of 281 violations each year during the Governor Scott Walker administration. That is a drop of 42% from the average during the administion of his predecessor, Jim Doyle. Now we are learning that Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, the state's top law enforcer, also isn't very interested in holding polluters accountable for environmental violations. Under Schimel, the state has issued the lowest number of financial penalties to polluters since 1994. The amount the state received in settlements, less than three quarters of a million, marks the first time the financial penalties totaled less than a million dollars. It would be naïve to think companies have suddenly become more environmentally conscious. The state is dropping the ball. By not holding Wisconsin polluters accountable, those willing to threaten the health of our environment are only emboldened to continue to do so.
The law is clear. Wisconsin's open records law requires the release of public documents as soon as practicable and without delay. So then it should also be clear that the University of Wisconsin System violated that law when it sat on its more than $6 billion budget for next year. The UW Board of Regents members were provided with that 60 page document six days before they voted to approve it. But no one else got to see that document. It was not until 90 minutes prior to that Regents meeting that the UW System officially released copies of the budget. According to the spirit, if not the letter of the law, once a document is finalized, it should be released to the public. That should happen as soon as the Regents get their copies. What does it matter? The state's open records law is designed to keep members of the public informed of the state's business. Citizens can't offer their opinions, or urge changes to the proposal if they only get to see it within an hour and a half of its approval. If the regents need six days to review the proposal, the public should have that much time as well. Wisconsin taxpayers who fund the university deserve that.
The delays in holding nomination hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland have been well documented. Garland was nominated to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Antonin Scalia back in March. But the Senate refuses to even hold nomination hearings to consider his credentials, despite the fact that Garland has more federal judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in history. But that delay in holding hearings is nothing compared to the delay in holding hearings for a vacancy on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals which serves Wisconsin. Donald Schott was nominated to fill the vacancy on that court back in January. There should be some sense of urgency on the part of our U.S. Senate to get this post filled. It has been vacant for more than six years, a total of 2400 days and counting. That is despite the fact that Schott's nomination is endorsed by both Wisconsn Senators, and a bipartisan group of former Wisconsin State Bar Presidents. The Senate Judiciary Committee has finally held a hearing and approved the nomination with bipartisan support. But still the Senate is refusing to schedule hearings. Schott deserves a fair shot, and the people of Wisconsin deserve a fully staffed court. Because the courts can't fully do their jobs until our Senators do theirs.
Just what are we teaching our kids these days? That is what Wisconsin lawmaker Steve Nass is wondering. The longtime critic of the University of Wisconsin System now has his sights set on one particular class being offered this summer at UW-Madison. Nass is upset that students in this class were given an assignment that delves into the sexual urges of gay men. And the vice chairman of the Wisconsin Senate's higher education committee warns that that assignment could jeopardize funding for the entire UW System. Nass has written a letter to the UW Chancellor, the President of the UW System and each member of the Board of Regents demanding they justify this course offering, and threatening the legislature could withhold funding for higher education throughout the state if he doesn't like their answers. Who made this guy the chief of the morality police? Do we want one prude to determine how much the state should spend to educate our young people based on how he feels about one course at one university? Let's not forget, students who enroll in this course aren't being forced to do so. Maybe the subject matter interests them. Maybe they will even learn something. Maybe Rep. Nass should sit in on this course, and write his own paper on the matter. Maybe he could even learn something.
When it comes to hiding government business from the people of Wisconsin, some lawmakers can't get enough. That comment from Wisconsin Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca is unfortunately true. We have seen plenty of evidence of that. It was one year ago that members of the Joint Finance Committee tried to ram through last-minute legislation which would have exempted lawmakers from having to comply with the state's open records laws. They wanted to conceal their conversations with constituents, and fellow lawmakers, even records of who visited their office. That was wisely abandoned after much public backlash. But their intent was clear. Shielding themselves from the same laws with which other members of government throughout the state must comply. Our lawmakers should be pushing for more openness, not less. One good place to start would be to make sure members of the Wisconsin Legislature are held to the same standards as other government officials. The legislature has exempted itself from the same rules for retaining records which apply to other public officials. They are free to amend or even destroy records that show what they are doing to earn their taxpayer-funded salary. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald reportedly deletes his emails on a daily basis. This legislative loophole needs to go. The people of Wisconsin should be served by a legislature which is required to preserve its records just like they insist for other levels of government.