Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
Governor Walker likes to boast that he is tough on crime. He famously refuses to issue pardons to inmates, no matter their circumstances. Now Walker wants to eliminate the Wisconsin Parole commission, which determines when inmates should be eligible for early release. Currently, the commission is comprised of eight members, although 5 of those seats are vacant, and Walker refuses to fill them. He wants to eliminate the commission, and put just one person, someone of his choosing, in charge of determining when Wisconsin's prison inmates should be released. But there are thousands of parole-eligible prisoners in Wisconsin. How can putting all that work in the hands of just one person streamline the process as the Governor claims? More likely, the change will lead to a backlog of cases. But more importantly, it is good to have a difference of opinion among board members. With a handful of board members, there is a collaborative decision-making process. Putting all that power into the hands of just one person could reduce the board's independence. It seems that while Wisconsin's current parole system may be broken and unfair, this proposed change would only make it worse.
It is getting hard to know what to believe. We often hear people make accusations, even unsubstantiated ones, even unbelievable ones, and we can dismiss them as fiction, or fantasy. But we aren't used to hearing such bold claims from the President of the United States. In the form of a tweet. But that is what we awoke to this weekend, with Donald Trump tweeting the wild accusation that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign. He went on to refer to Obama as a bad guy, and compared the so-called scandal to Watergate. Trump has offered no proof, but isn't afraid to make the claim. Of course we have heard this before. Trump previously tried to tell us the election was rigged, that millions of illegals voted, that his inaugural crowd was bigger, that Barack Obama wasn't even born in this country. It seems the more Trump tweets, the more we ignore him. Even his own White House didn't issue any follow up statements to his wiretapping yarn. Fellow republicans said little on the campaign trail. It seems that these days when the President of the United States makes bold claims, America is largely choosing to ignore them. But how are we to know when we should listen?
Remember waking up on a snowy weekday morning, hoping Mother Nature would cause school to be canceled? It is not uncommon in our part of the country. But really, that school day isn't canceled, just postponed, typically until the end of the school year. A snowy winter often means kids are still in school well into June. But in Minnesota, that may no longer be the case. Minnesota legislators are considering doing away with snow days. Instead of canceling classes during the harshest winter days, students would learn from home. They would get on their laptops or tablets and follow along with the teacher's online instructions from home. This makes sense. Kids already spend as much time as possible with their eyes fixed on a small screen. This way they wouldn't have to go to school in the summer, when attention spans for both students and teachers are likely shorter as the weather warms. If approved, Minnesota schools would not be required to teach online on snow days. Instead, it would be an option for districts. There may be some hurdles, like how to teach students who don't have internet access at home. But this idea has merit, and is something that Wisconsin lawmakers should consider as well.
Do you play the lottery? Would you play more if you saw or heard more advertisements encouraging you to play? That is the hope of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is proposing spending significantly more to promote the games of chance. Walker wants to increase state spending on Wisconsin Lottery advertising, to the tune of an an additional $3 million. His budget calls for total lottery advertising spending of $10.5 million. Wisely, the extra ad money would come from lottery sales, not from taxpayers. But still this isn't a good idea. There is little evidence that increasing spending on lottery ads translates to more ticket sales. And while the lottery generates property tax relief for Wisconsin homeowners, that money tends to be transferred from the low income who are more likely to play the lottery to middle and upper income property owners. And the last time Wisconsin increased its spending to promote the lottery, lottery sales actually declined the following year. It the Governor wants to provide additional property tax relief, he would be better served to write us each a check, rather than encouraging people to buy more lottery tickets.
You probably haven't spent much time thinking about the Wisconsin Judicial Commission. But this independent body does important work, serving as the watchdog over our judicial system. The Commission investigates judges who are accused of misconduct and can order disciplinary procedures. They investigate some 500 complaints each year involving state and municipal judges. They operate under a modest $300,000 a year budget, and has helped ensure our judicial system operates fairly. But our Governor wants to change the whole setup. He wants to remove the independence from this commission, and have the watchdog group funded and administered by the state Supreme Court. The very court that the Wisconsin Judicial Commission is designed to investigate. And has, bringing ethics complaints against three members of the current Supreme Court. Who would now be the bosses of this independent commission. Awkward. Talk about a conflict of interest. This move would not help the commission become more efficient, nor would it save taxpayers money. This power play should be rejected by our legislators when the Governor's budget is slapped on their desks.
It is the kind of thing that should be illegal. But apparently it is not in Wisconsin. It seems that when running for public offices, it is ok to make a backroom deal with your opponent. It is even ok to promise your opponent a cushy state job if he were simply to bow out of the race. That is what happened in the race for the position of Wisconsin's top educator, the post of Superintendent of Public Instruction. There were three candidates on the ballot in the recent election. Incumbent Tony Evers, and challengers John Humphries and Lowell Holtz. AT some point during the campaign, Holtz offered to buy Humphries out of the running. He proposed that if Humphries dropped out, and Holtz won, he would reward Humphries with a job in the education office. A $150,000 a year job, at taxpayer expense. As you can imagine, some are crying foul, alleging election bribery. But it turns out offering our money to a political candidate to take a powder isn't illegal in Wisconsin. That could change. One state lawmaker is planning to introduce legislation making it illegal for one candidate to make a deal with another. It shouldn't take a law to ensure people do what's right when running for office, but this case proves it does.
Nobody likes paying taxes. People like paying higher taxes even less. But La Crosse county is asking voters to approve an additional sales tax, that would add an additional half cent tax to a number of purchases. That question will be on the ballot in the April election, asking La Crosse county voters to approve what is called the Premiere Resort Area Tax. It is billed as a tax on tourism related items, but in reality it would be charged on just about everything we buy. The money it would raise they tell us would be used to repair our bumpy roads, but it could also be used for many other things. There is no guarantee we would get better roads even if this were to pass. La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat has come out against this tax, calling it regressive, and unaffordable. It is estimated this tax would add an additional $142 in tax burden per household, per year. Now is not the time to raise taxes. Local governments have done a good job holding the line on taxes in recent years. Given that we can't afford this new tax, that it would apply to purchases well beyond just tourism, and that there is no guarantee the money raised would go to what they say it would, this proposal is a bad idea. Now is not time time to raise taxes.
We need to do better. That is the overall assessment of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and it comes from the new boss at that state agency. DOT Secretary Dave Ross was called out on the carpet by lawmakers at a legislative hearing this week in Madison. That's because a recent audit found that the DOT had been woefully underestimating the cost of road projects in recent years, because the agency failed to account for the cost of inflation when determining cost estimates. In fact, the audit found that the DOT underestimated highway costs by $3 billion. That go lawmakers attention, and they are calling for changes in how the agency operates. Secretary Ross agrees, vowing to “change the culture” at the DOT, saying they need to be more accurate. That would be a good start. Lawmakers also want the DOT to better brief them on project updates and to account for inflation and other costs in future estimates. It shouldn't take a trip to the woodshed for those who run the DOT to be reminded of that, but it is good that our lawmakers are now keeping a closer eye on those in charge of our roads.
There has been enough troubling news coming out of the VA system. Nationally, we learned of the long wait times for veterans seeking medical care. Then things blew up at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tomah, where doctors were handing out powerful drugs like candy, and where some veterans died from overdoses. The top doctor at the Tomah VA eventually resigned, and had his license taken away. That led to federal legislative action designed to reduce the reliance on powerful painkillers. Now there is more trouble in our VA system. VA hospitals across the country are seeing an increase in opiod theft. The feds are investigating, but it appears the medicine intended to treat our military veterans is being stolen by VA employees, either for their own use, or to sell on the black market. Compounding the problem is that a number of VA hospitals have been lax in tracking their drug supplies. Perhaps the problem of missing medicine is no worse at the VA than in private facilities, but that shouldn't matter. These are people who are charged with caring for the nation's wounded or ill veterans, and should be held to a higher standard. Our nation's new VA secretary should make fixing this problem a priority, and ensuring that the drugs designed to treat our military veterans end up in the hands for which they are intended.
People are sick of politics-as-usual. Seldom does a day go by when there’s not some political scandal that highlights corruption, greed, graft, or straight-up political favoritism. Some of that is no doubt sensationalism, but you have to wonder where all those self-serving politicians come from. The truth is they get their start at the local level. A town council member or county board supervisor sees some success and toys with the idea of running for state assembly. They move on to the state senate, House of Representatives, then U. S. Senate. Eventually that local politician runs for president. Sure there are exceptions. Our current president is one of those. But for the most part they start out in local politics. Today is a primary election day for local offices. The expected turnout is about ten percent. That means your vote counts almost ten times as much as a presidential election. You have a voice in politicians running for the first rung of their career. Now is the time you can weed out people you don’t like. In fifteen years, you might be stuck choosing between two unpalatable candidates unless you take care of that today – primary election day.
Donald Trump is right. The media is not his enemy. But the media certainly is not the enemy of the American people. For some reason, our president is making a habit of pitting the people and the press. Our tweeter in chief blasted what he called “fake news” in his latest digital blast, calling out some media outlets by name. But it is Trump who is seemingly consumed with the media, constantly tweeting, often about what he did or didn't like hearing on the cable tv talk shows. He doesn't seem to like to have to answer difficult questions, but it seems there are more questions than ever. Even Fox's Shepherd Smith got that right, as he called on our President to be truthful and open to the American people. Where are the tax returns? What role is Russia really playing? These are the questions that have to be asked. Yet Trump continues to simply bash whatever media he doesn't like or whose questions he doesn't want to have to answer. Now, the role of a free press seems more important than ever. Senator John McCain had to point that out, arguing that dictators too would like to shut down the free press. No, it seems our work is just getting started, and we've got a lot of work to do.
There is much to like in Governor Walker's budget proposal unveiled this week. Unfortunately, plans for fixing our roads is not one of them. For years now, we have seen Wisconsin's roads continue to deteriorate. Our roads are now ranked as the worst in the Midwest, and among the worst in the nation. That is because our lawmakers have put off road projects as a way to save money. The money they have spent has been borrowed money, with the state deciding to let our children figure out how to pay for it. Governor Walker's new budget provides only more of the same. A number of planned road projects are being put off. Those road which are to be rebuilt or repaired are to be paid for with more borrowing. Walker wants to borrow another $500 million to pay for roads over the next two years. That is an unsustainable funding model, and still fails to cover the costs of needed repairs. And that's assuming the DOT is figuring those costs correctly, which has been a problem in the past. Walker refuses to consider new funding models for our roads, refusing to even consider a higher gas tax or higher vehicle registration fees as a funding source. There is hope that state legislators will buck the Governor on this one, and finally realize we can't continue to put off needed repairs, and keep borrowing money to pay for it. We can't just keep kicking the can down that pothole-filled road.
It was like Christmas in Madison yesterday, as government and state agencies hoped the big present under the tree would have their name on it. They eagerly awaited the details of Governor Walker's plan for how state money will be spent as part of his two year budget proposal unveiled yesterday. It appears the big winner in this budget is education. Walker is proposing cutting tuition at schools in the UW System, and significantly increasing funding for public schools. Walker's budget calls for spending $649 million more on K-12 education. That is an about face for the Governor, who in previous budgets has slashed public education funding to the tune of about $1 billion. It is not clear what has led to his sudden support for public education, especially given his penchant for supporting private schools at the expense of public schools. But regardless, this is good news for public education in Wisconsin. Local school districts are happy with this budget, and it should lead them to be less reliant on local property tax increases and referendums to generate the money they need to properly teach our children. It seems that finally, the big present under the tree this year belongs to our public schools.
What could be wrong with letting the people decide? Two Wisconsin lawmakers are introducing legislation calling for a statewide advisory referendum on the issue of medical marijuana. They also are calling for passage of the Compassionit Cannibis Care Act, which would legalize the use of medical marijuana in the Badger State. Similar legislation has been introduced before, but never even got a hearing in the last legislative session. Despite overwhelming evidence of the benefits of medical marijuana for those with pain, those suffering from seizures, glaucoma and PTSD, Wisconsin lawmakers don't even want to debate the issue. Our neighboring states have already legalized medicinal marijuana, including Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois. 28 states now have legalized the drug as a way to treat the ill. And its working. Studies show states which have legalized medical mariijuana have seen a drop in opiod overdoes, as they can turn to pot rather than pills. Wisconsin should get with the times and put this to an advisory referendum. It would no doubt show that a majority support the idea. 89% of Americans in a recent poll say they approve the medical use of marijuana. Perhaps that is why some lawmakers don't want the people to decide. It would show that these lawmakers are on the wrong side of history.