Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
It doesn't seem possible, but it is worse than we thought. A new report finds Wisconsin roads to be the fourth worst in the nation. And more shockingly, the state's Legislative Audit Bureau finds that the work we have done on the state's roads have gone well over budget. In fact, the report finds that the actual cost of road projects in Wisconsin from 2006 to 2015 ending up costing double the original estimates. But it gets worse. The costs were higher not because of some unforeseen rises in the cost of blacktop, but because of incompetence at the DOT. Apparently the people in charge aren't all that good at math, and the cost overruns were due to the fact that DOT planners failed to take into account the cost of inflation had on the actual costs. So, our roads are crumbling, we don't have a sustainable system to pay for them, we are paying for the roads we do build on a credit card, and the people who map out our road needs can't add. Not a pretty picture. This underscores the need for Governor Walker and lawmakers to make tackling this problem a priority. Walker needs to abandon his no new tax for roads pledge, which may be politically expedient, but it does nothing to solve this growing problem.
Wisconsin lawmakers are about to boost their pay. Members of the Wisconsin State Senate are considering increasing the amount of money they can claim in per-diems. Per-diems are reimbursements for expenses like meals and lodging Wisconsin lawmakers can claim each day they are working in Madison. The Assembly recently upped their per-diem allotment, allowing members to claim up to $138 a day, on top of their annual salary. Now the Senate is considering upping its per-diem from the current $88 a day to $115 a day. These per-diems currently cost taxpayers about $200,000 a year for members of the Senate. Increasing the allotment would cost taxpayers an additional $62,000 a year. But here is the rub. Under current rules, Wisconsin lawmakers only have to fill out a form declaring they were working in Madison that day. They don't have to document how much they actually spent on meals, or lodging. The state simply takes their word for it. As a result, lawmakers almost always claim the maximum per-diem, regardless of what they actually spent out of their own pocket. Talk about government waste. If the Wisconsin Senate wants to increase how much lawmakers can be reimbursed for their expenses, we should make sure they actually spent some of their own money, make them prove it, and only reimburse them for what they spent. Wisconsin taxpayers deserve that.
If our lawmakers in Madison were wondering what they need to work on this legislative session, they can stop wondering. The courts have made it clear. Wisconsin needs to redraw its legislative boundaries by November so that the new map is in place for the 2018 election. The same judicial panel that ordered the new maps ruled in November that the current maps are “an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander” that “was intended to burden the representational rights of democratic voters.” The boundaries, which determine in what district people vote, are so crooked that instead of us choosing our political leaders, they are choosing us. Just look at the most recent election. The vote totals between republican and democrat candidates was split evenly, but republican candidates captured 64% of the state assembly seats. The deck is stacked. But so far the Walker administration's reaction to the judge's ruling is not to get to work drawing new boundaries, but continuing to fight in court, promising an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. That is unfortunate, and does nothing to restore fairness in Wisconsin's elections.
Governor Walker and Wisconsin legislators have been big supports of education. Unfortunately, that support has been limited to a private education. While many school districts have struggled with reduced state funding, they have had to turn to referendum to keep operating. But those who send their children to private voucher schools in Wisconsin are getting a helping hand from the state. That is because the state four years ago passed a law creating a tax break for those who send their children to private schools. And records released by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue show the majority of those receiving these tax breaks are the wealthy. The records show tax filers making more than $100,000 a year are collecting the majority of the tax breaks. In fact, two-thirds of those collecting the tax break make more than $100,000. That is costing taxpayers about $12 million a year. These are people who can afford to send their children to private schools without any help from the state. In fact, many of them already sent their children to private schools before the tax break became law. The law hurts low and moderate income families by further tilting the tax code in favor of wealthy filers, and by reducing support for public schools where most less affluent send their chldren. Wisconsin should stop giving tax breaks to wealthy people who don't need any state help enrolling their children in private schools.
Donald Trump just can't seem to get over the fact that he lost the popular vote. Not that it matters of course, since we elect Presidents through the Electoral College. But still Trump won't let it go. In fact, he is doubling down on his assertion that the only reason he lost the popular vote is because the election was rigged. The President now claims he will launch a major investigation into voter fraud. He alleges some may have voted in more than one state, that illegals cast ballots, and that even dead people were voting. Of course, Trump can't provide any evidence of his claim, perhaps because it is an alternative fact. The election wasn't rigged. He didn't lose the popular vote because some 5 million illegal aliens cast ballots for Hillary Clinton. In Wisconsin, a statewide recount of the presidential election was conducted, and found zero evidence of voter fraud. Still, Trump suggests he wants to make it harder to vote because of this supposed fraud. Trump claimed the election was rigged during the campaign. But saying it as President is different. It undermines confidence in our democracy. It impugns those hardworking election officials throughout the country who work hard to ensure every legally cast ballot is counted. Someone should remind Trump that he was duly elected, and is now our Commander-in-Chief, no matter the outcome of the popular vote.
Fixing the problems at Wisconsin's youth prison may prove to be an expensive undertaking. Especially now that a class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of current and former inmates at the Lincoln Hill School for Boys. That could cost taxpayers dearly. It didn't have to be this way. But the fact is, legislators and the administration have largely ignored the many warning signs about the abuses happening inside Wisconsin's youth prison. It seems little has changed in the past several years when we first started hearing stories about how these juveniles are being treated. Sexual assaults, solitary confinement, pepper spray. In one case, an inmate had to have toes amputated after having his foot slammed in a cell door by a guard. The lawsuit contains more disturbing allegations, like the 14 year old who over 8 months was kept in solitary confinement for all but two weeks. The lawsuit also alleges guards pepper sprayed the young inmates nearly 200 times over a 10 month period. In some instances, the pepper spray was the heavy duty stuff usually reserved for bear attacks. This has been allowed to happen due to lax management, staff shortages, and confusion over policies. Regardless of how this lawsuit comes out, our lawmakers should make it a priority to fix the problems at Lincoln Hills in this legislative session and stop treating our youngest lawbreakers like they are Hannibal Lecter.
President Trump is ready for war. With the media. Trump has long been a media basher, but stepped up his criticism over the weekend with his declaration that journalists are among the lowest life forms and that he has a running war with the media. His Press Secretary's very first order of business was to gather journalists to bash them over reports that Trump's inauguration crowd was not as large as that of Barack Obama. Trump counsel Kellyanne Conway defended the Press Secretary, arguing he presented “alternative facts.” But there are no such things as alternative facts, except in a George Orwell novel. But this is reality. Facts are facts. Trying to call something an alternative fact is really just a lie. Even the dictionary Marriam Webster trolled Conway, pointing out the definition of fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality. Perhaps this is a political tactic, rallying his supporters around the supposed media bias. Many people believe that to be true, even if it is an alternative fact. It seems that in today's reality, the new administration may claim it is at war with unfair journalists, but in truth, the real war seems to be against the facts. But as former Senator Patrick Moynihan once told us, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts.
Now is the time to fix our roads. And it couldn't be easier to do. Wisconsin lawmakers have put off for years an agreement on how to pay for roads. As a result, Wisconsin's roads are now some of the worst in the nation. The roads we have built have been paid for with a credit card. But most road projects are simply being put off as lawmakers argue over how to pay for them. Well, it seems Christmas came early. The state budget office says Wisconsin will have about $450 million more than expected through 2019. That money could be used to finally get our roads fixed. But the politicians seem to prefer a shell game, unveiling a plan to spend more on roads, in exchange for some type of offsetting tax cut. That's because Governor Walker has said he will not support a higher gas tax, or vehicle registration fees, without a corresponding tax reduction. This plan does exactly what the Governor wants. So, lawmakers should unwrap this early Christmas present, and get a deal done. That would be progress. But such a plan still fails to do much more than patch the pothole that is Wisconsin's transportation budget deficit.
It has been hard to know what to think about global warming. Since Al Gore first warned of a changing climate, we have seen scores of research that suggests indeed the planet is getting warmer, and other research suggesting recent changes are anomalies. We shouldn't have to wonder any more. According to both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, 2016 was the warmest year ever in North America. The previous warmest years were in 2015 and 2014. That makes three years in a row scientists have documented the warming of our planet. The top five hottest years have all come this century. Much of the warming is attributed to greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide which trap heat in the atmosphere, although an El Nino also contributed to the warmer temperatures. Despite the mounting evidence of a warming planet, some refuse to believe our climate is changing, much less who or what is to blame. How much more evidence do we need? Three straight years of global warming apparently isn't enough for some. Do we need to see four straight years? Five? Should we wait 10 more years before we make up our mind and finally decide to do something about it? By then, it may be too late.
If your child was sick, and the medicine that could help that child was illegal, wouldn't you want them to have it anyway? Dozens of parents in Wisconsin do, and continue to push lawmakers to legalize a controversial drug they say could help their sick children. These are children who suffer from seizures whose symptoms can be helped with the use of cannibid oil. But cannibid oil is a derivative of marijuana, and some lawmakers remain opposed to its use as a result. Senator Van Wanggaard is again introducing legislation which would make it legal to possess the oil with a doctor's permission. That is long overdue, especially to families whose children continue to battle seizures which could be calmed simply by a few drops of this oil. They have waited for years for Wisconsin to approve the use of this drug, waiting as their children continue to unnecessarily suffer. The wait may be nearly over. Some Madison lawmakers who opposed the oil, apparently fearing it would lead to the legalization of marijuana, are no longer in the legislature. And the new crop of lawmakers are more willing to consider the idea. 28 states have already approved the use of this drug. It is time for Wisconsin to do the same.
Too many communities have been torn apart by a series of police shootings. It was a big issue across the nation in 2016, and in Wisconsin. Is there something police can do to prevent such incidents? A forum this week in Wisconsin seeks to provide answers to that question. The meeting in Janesville brought together a small group of law enforcement leaders from across the country. The Janesville police department has worked hard to reduce officer involved shootings, particularly those in which a mentally ill person is gunned down. Their officers recently completed training which offers a new outlook for policing in order to save lives. Part of the new tactics involve having police back off rather than rushing in when someone who is distraught seems intent on getting killed by police. Typically, that person is a danger primarily to themselves. A growing number of police departments are implemented their new training designed to lead to fewer lives lost. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Janesville is to be complimented for his role in putting this meeting together, and signaling that one of Washington's most powerful politicians sees this as a priority. This is a worthwhile effort, which has the potential to lead to fewer losses of life, and that is something we can all support.
Many Wisconsin communities are growing tired of waiting for the state to act. They are frustrated with the inaction in Madison when it comes to fixing our crumbling roads. So they are taking matters into their own hands, approving things like local wheel taxes to raise money to pay for their road needs. La Crosse County is considering a more unique option, but one which seems to have little likelihood of success. County Supervisors are considering what is called a Premier Resort Area Tax. It would potentially allow La Crosse County to institute a new tax on tourism related businesses. Supervisors are considering gauging support by putting a referendum on the April ballot. But in order for this to work, La Crosse county would first have to get approval from the state to institute the new tax. Given that no other counties have adopted this tax, and that La Crosse currently doesn't qualify for the tax, that is far from a sure thing. It could be inserted in the budget bill, but that could take two years. And it may require yet another, this time binding referendum on the topic. And of course, that referendum would have to meet voter approval. That is a lot of hoops to jump through, with seemingly little chance of success. All of this shows just how desperate communities like La Crosse are waiting for the state to do its job and provide the money needed to fix our roads.
Who knew we had such an ass-kicker as Wisconsin's top cop? State Attorney General Brad Schimel is Wisconsin's top law enforcement agent. And he likes to kick ass. In fact, it is his motto. K.A.E.D. It is Schimel's pet phrase for how he does his job. It stands for kicking ass every day. Not just sometimes, or once in a while. Every day. And he wants everyone to know it. A bit crude, but hey, that is how he signs his emails and other communication to Justice Department staff. But sharing the motto in emails, presumably to motivate his staff, isn't enough apparently. Schimel has ordered 2000 gold-plated coins bearing his name, the state seal, and his motto. K.A.E.D. How cute. He hands them out to people he wants to impress. You and I won't see one, other than in a picture. But we paid for the coins. Schimel's office billed Wisconsin taxpayers for the $10,000 cost of the ass-kicking coins. That should be a crime. Why should you and I pay for his fake coins with his name and a crude motto? The answer of course is that we shouldn't. Yep, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel is a real kick in the pants. But it seems Wisconsin taxpayers are the ones who are taking the boot on this one.
Democrats on Capitol Hill threw a fit when their Republican colleagues refused to even schedule a nomination hearing for President Obama's nominee to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Congress successfully delayed nomination hearings for nominee Merrick Garland, arguing any hearings should wait until the outcome of the election. Now, President-elect Trump will be making the nomination for the Supreme Court seat, and Washington Democrats are threatening to try to prevent Trump's nominee to gain congressional approval, or even refuse to hold confirmation hearings. That was a bad idea when Republicans did it, and it is a bad idea of Democrats do it. We need a fully functional Supreme Court, with all nine seats filled. With an even number on the high court, there is greater risk of gridlock, and there is some evidence that courts not fully staffed refuse to even hear some cases because they are not confident there will be any consensus. Just as was the case with Obama's pick, Presidents have the right to make appointments to the Supreme Court. Trump won the election, and now gets to nominate justices. Members of Congress need to quit being obstructionist and get on with the business of governing.