As I See It

As I See It (364)

Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.

It is unnecessary, unproductive, and likely unconstitutional. The Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee has endorsed Governor Walker’s idea to drug test those who receive public medical benefits. That is now a provision of Walker’s budget which the full legislature will vote on this summer. If approved, Wisconsin would become the first state in the nation to require those receiving public health coverage to be tested for drugs. It would be easy to suggest those receiving public benefits shouldn’t be using drugs. Of course they shouldn’t. But testing for drug use is expensive. And the record shows drug screening those receiving public benefits is rarely productive. For example, those enrolled in Wisconsin’s W-2 program are already screened for drug use. The results suggest a lower drug usage rate than the general population, with only one half of one percent of those tested turning up positive test results. That isn’t providing much bang for our buck, given the pricetag. This idea would be a waste of money, costing more than it would save. Perhaps that is the reason no other states have chosen to go down this punitive road.

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Whenever you fill up your car's tank with gas, you are paying more than you should have to in Wisconsin. That is because of the old and outdated Unfair Sales Act, more commonly known as the minimum mark-up law. This law dates back to the depression era, requiring Wisconsin gas stations to sell their gas at a rate at least 9.18% more than they pay for it. It is designed to protect mom and pop operators from being forced out of business by the big chains, which without the law could undercut them on price. There is little evidence the law ever worked, and even less evidence it is working today. Take a look. There are no more mom and pops. The gasoline retail industry has changed. This law prevents gas retailers from competing with one another on price, and forces us to pay more than we should at the pump. The free market, not the government, should decide how much we are charged at the pump. Rep. Dale Kooyenga recognizes that, and is introducing legislation that wouldn't do away with the minimum mark-up entirely, but would reduce the rate from more than nine percent to three percent. That would put the free market back in charge, and help us save a few bucks whenever we fill up our tanks.

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Monday - May 22, 2017 11:36 am

Drug drop-offs working well

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That is a lot of drugs. Which could have ended up in the wrong hands, or on the street. People in Wisconsin were clearly eager to properly dispose of expired or unneeded prescription drugs. The state's April Drug Take Back Day collected more than 66,000 pounds of unused medications. That is a new record in Wisconsin, which is leading the way for gathering these drugs. More law enforcement agencies participated in the event in Wisconsin than in any other state. 267 police agencies and 69 sheriff's offices took part. This provided a way for people to conveniently and anonymously dispose of their unused medications in an environmentally friendly way. That is important, because statistics show that a majority, 70%, of painkiller abuse begins when friends or family improperly obtain them. In addition to the take back days, Wisconsin also has a number of permanent drug disposal drop boxes, more than all but three other states. And we have seen tremendous use of the new needle drop boxes which have been set up in La Crosse. More than 9000 dirty needles were collected in just three weeks, and firefighters have seen a marked drop in calls of dirty needles littering our playgrounds since those new boxes were installed. Those behind the efforts deserve praise for their work to helping keep our communities safe.

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Free speech sure is in the political crosshairs these days. Lawmakers in Madison want to punish students in the UW System who protest speakers on campus. But they’re not stopping there. Now they want to create new, and unneeded, laws on rioting. A bill under consideration would make rioting a felony in Wisconsin. Apparently they don’t like all those protesters. But the wording of this language is so vague it could never pass constitutional muster. For example, three people assembling together could be considered a riot. Even if nothing happens. Even if no one is hurt. Even if no actual threat is even made. Under this bill, that could be considered a riot, and now, a felony. Apparently it would be enough if something could happen for people to face up to three and a half years in prison, and a $10,000 fine. Look at someone the wrong way, and face prison time? Besides being unconstitutional, this bill is unnecessary. We have plenty of laws on the books that are designed to punish those to take part in riotous behavior. Disorderly conduct, vandalism, failing to disperse. We have plenty of laws. This idea is unneeded and unconstitutional.

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Friday - May 19, 2017 11:11 am

WEDC still can't keep track of loans

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Good news and bad news for Wisconsin's job creation agency. Unfortunately, once again an audit finds the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation still has a long way to go to right the ship. WEDC uses state money to help private companies create jobs. But they still aren't doing a very good job keeping track of our tax dollars they hand out, or making sure the companies which get the money actually create jobs, or that the money gets paid back. Those should be very basic goals for WEDC, but the latest audit from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau finds those goals are still largely unmet. For example, the agency still isn't forcing loan recipients to submit enough info to determine how many jobs were actually created. The audit also finds that WEDC cannot be certain about the number of jobs created. And the amount of potentially uncollectable loans has ballooned from just over $1 million two years ago to more than $11 million today. So the bottom line, the state agency designed to create jobs in Wisconsin still doesn't know how many jobs have actually been created, and may have handed out millions of dollars which will never be paid back. When will our lawmakers finally realize that this agency, mired in ineptitude from the beginning, continues to waste our tax money, and that it is time to make them do what they are supposed to do, or pull the plug on WEDC altogether.

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Tuesday - May 16, 2017 11:31 am

FAIR drug prices? Yes please

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It sounds like an oxymoron. The title of new legislation being pushed in Washington is the FAIR Drug Pricing Act. We don't often hear “fair” and “drug prices” in the same sentence. Turns out the word FAIR in this sentence is an acronym, standing for fair accountability and innovate research. But the goal is to make drug pricing fair, or at least understandable, which currently it is not. This is a bipartisan bill, introduced by Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. If passed, this legislation would, for the first time, force drug companies to justify their massive price increases. That is long overdue. We have heard too many stories of things like the EpiPen skyrocketing from $100 to $600. That may have outraged the public, but such massive price hikes remain common in the pharmaceutical industry. This bill would require drug companies to provide to the public more information about planned drug price increases, including research and development costs. It wouldn't prevent the price hikes, but would make the drug companies justify them. Prescription drug spending in the U.S. has reached a record high of $425 billion a year, and climbing. The reality is drug companies are getting filthy rich, on the backs of sick citizens. Those Americans should at least have more information about what they are getting for their money.

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Tuesday - May 16, 2017 8:59 am

Road funding bill belongs in state budget

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There are some things that belong in a state budget, and things that don't. How to pay for roads is one thing which certainly belongs in the budget. Lawmakers are often criticized, properly, for inserting things in a budget which don't belong there. They like to tuck their pet projects into budgets, because they are spared a separate debate, and lawmakers tend to vote the entire budget up or down. When a less popular idea is debated outside of the budget debate, its chances of passage are typically less. That is why the budget is supposed to address fiscal expenditures, rather than policy ideas. How to pay for roads is certainly a fiscal item which belongs to be included in the state budget, which lawmakers in Madison are currently debating. But they remain stuck on the issue of how to pay to fix our crumbling roads and bridges. So some lawmakers are suggesting removing the road funding bill from the budget, and debate it separately. That is not how our system is to work. By trying to remove the road debate from the budget, lawmakers are trying to give themselves more time, an admission they are not close to a solution. They would need to come up with a plan before the new state budget takes effect in July. Our elected representatives need to come up with a sustainable, long-term fix for our roads, and that should be done as part of the current budget debate.

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Monday - May 15, 2017 9:05 am

Russia woes theme of Trump presidency

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Even amid all the constant chaos, there has been one constant to mark the Trump presidency so far. No matter the distraction du jour in this White House, the issue of Russia seems to remain front and center. In fact, it all appears to be related. Yet we seem no closer to getting to the truth. Or is it right in front of us? We have been told of Russian interference in the U.S. election, with the intent of influencing the outcome. President Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor was fired after having an improper contact with Russian officials, and then lying about it. Still, it took the Trump administration 18 days to fire Mike Flynn, now facing a subpoena to testify before the U.S. Senate. The head of the FBI, while leading the investigation into whether any members of the Trump campaign were complicit with Russian influence, was abruptly fired by Trump, who then remarked there may be tapes of his conversation with FBI Director Comey. But we have heard many versions of why and how the firing happened. And of course we still haven’t seen Trump’s tax returns so we can see proof there is no Russian connection there. It seems there are plenty of smoking guns, and they all appear to be stamped "Made in Russia." We need to get to the bottom of what role Russia is playing, and who is involved. Our very democracy depends on it.

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Thursday - May 11, 2017 11:02 am

Fining poor parents for their truant children

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On the surface, it seems to make sense. Fining parents on public assistance whose children are habitual truants. That is the gist of legislation in Madison which has now won the approval of the State Assembly. Those behind the effort say it is important to keep kids in school. And they argue, taxpayers are paying for all children to go to public schools. On top of that, they are subsidizing things like welfare and food stamps, so parents receiving them should have an obligation to make sure their kids make it to school. But in reality, this bill would do little to correct truancy problems, and unfairly targets the poor. Current law only requires children of Wisconsin families receiving public assistance to be enrolled in school. It doesn't say they have to attend regularly. This bill would fine families $50 a month for each child with five or more unexcused absences per semester. The fact is, truancy affects all economic groups, not just the poor. And there are already laws against truancy. This efforts focuses only on those in poverty, and there is no evidence that poor children are more truant than those from other economic groups. What about the rich parents who pull their kids out of school to take them to Disney World? Should they be fined too? Fining parents for their truant children only makes it less likely that those children will receive the food, clothing and shelter they need. If the goal is to keep all kids on a path to education, this bill gets a failing grade.

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Wednesday - May 10, 2017 11:14 am

DOJ kicking ass with more than just coins

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K.A.E.D. It stands for Kick Ass Every Day. And it is the motto of Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel. He is so fond of the saying, he had it printed on some commemorative coins that he hands out to promote the job his agency is doing. Schimel got in some hot water back in January when it was revealed that he spent $10,000 in taxpayer money on the profane coins. He defended the spending, but admitted at the time that he didn't know exactly how much money was being spent to buy them. Now we know. The group One Wisconsin Now filed an open records request, and learned Schimel was spending way more than $10,000, and was buying more than just commemorative coins. We have learned that taxpayers were hit with nearly $53,000 in spending on swag. Pens, backpacks, visor clips, golf towels, lanyards and plastic tumblers, all purchased at taxpayer expense. All for shameless self-promotion. They were often handed out to police officers when they attended training sessions at the Department of Justice. When news of the coins first broke, Schimel should have come clean, and admitted to the thousands of other promotional items he bought. Did he think this was never going to come to light? There is no reason taxpayers should pay for these trinkets. Lawmakers should reduce funding for the Department of Justice by an equal amount in the next budget. That would be justice for taxpayers.

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