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What did he know, and when did he know it? The answers to those questions remain elusive. But we need to hear the answers from Scott Walker. We need to know just what involvement the state's most powerful politician had in trying to get around Wisconsin's open records laws. 12 members of the Joint Finance Committee voted, literally in the middle of the night heading into a holiday weekend, language which would have shielded state lawmakers from complying with open records laws. Any communication with their staff would be kept secret, as would their contacts with constituents. Drafts of bills now a matter of public record would have been off limits. Even communications from local school boards would have been kept private. But not one of the 12 who brazenly voted to gut the open records laws is saying who was behind it. It has been confirmed Governor Walker's office was involved, but no one is saying to what degree. But it is clear our Governor has a problem with open records, as he has refused to comply with a request to provide records related to his efforts to rewrite the Wisconsin Idea, the university system's mission statement. We need to hear directly from Governor Walker just what his role was in this misdirected effort to keep us from keeping tabs on our politicians. The public deserves answers. And we deserve politicians interested in increasing government transparency, not limiting it.
I don't know art, but I know what I like. And I don't like a plan to display artwork in the new La Crosse County Administrative Center. The county is planning to move the offices that remain in the old Administrative Center into what is now the Associated Bank building at Sixth and State. Converting a bank into county office space won't come cheap. It is estimated La Crosse County will have to spend more than $22 million to renovate the bank, to create more office space in the Law Enforcement Center, and to add on to the Health and Human Services building. That is already more than $3 million more than the original estimates, and they haven't even started construction yet. But that isn't stopping county supervisors from considering spending even more. They are considering spending $10,000 to come up with a plan for displaying artwork in their new building. That money would go to a consultant who would develop plans for properly displaying art, some pieces permanently, others on a rotation, inside their Taj Mahal. We don't need art in a government building. This isn't a museum. It is a place where people go to file paperwork, or pay fines. We don't need to be entertained, or inspired while we are there. And we don't need county employees to pause and reflect on pieces of art while they are supposed to be working. Given that the building is already over budget, let's just paint the walls white. If I need culture, I can stop at a museum.
They backtracked quickly from a plan to gut Wisconsin's open records laws. The last minute insertion into the state budget is being pulled in the face of swift and strong opposition. But that doesn't mean the issue should just go away. There should be political fallout for the 12 members of the Joint Finance Committee who unanimously voted to approve the plan to shield state lawmakers from the state's open records laws. They of course have been mum as to why they felt they need to shield what they do from the public. Just what exactly are they trying to hide? And not a one will say whose idea it was in the first place or why it had to be jammed into the budget last minute with no opportunity for public debate. What this case makes clear is the level of corruption inside our state capitol. They want to keep their activities private. These same lawmakers want to dismantle the non-partisan Government Accountability Board which keeps tabs on our lawmakers. They want to rewrite the campaign finance laws to benefit themselves, not the public. And they want to make it harder for us to vote them out of office by gerry-mandering legislative districts, ending same-day registration and shortening early voting opportunities. These 12 lawmakers are clearly corrupt and with this string of efforts to keep auditors from checking on them and to keep the public in the dark are showing their true colors.
La Crosse finds itself in the presidential spotlight again this week. Continuing a string of hosting presidential visits that stretches back to George H.W. Bush, La Crosse will welcome President Barack Obama to town on Thursday. At least we hope he will be welcomed warmly. Critics of the President have cranked up the volume of their hatred on social media and elsewhere in the wake of what is being called the best 10 days of his presidency. Obama got a boost from the Supreme Court ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act. Despite opposition from his own party, Obama scored a legislative victory on trade. And of course the advancement of marriage equality was the cherry on the cake. In between all that, Obama had to deliver the eulogy of a slain pastor in South Carolina which earned rave reviews. But online comments continue to illustrate the underbelly of racism which is very much on display. A number of bloggers continue to use vile terms when referring to the President of the United States, which won't be repeated here. The President of the United States deserves the respect of all of us, regardless of whether we agree with his policies. We don't have to agree with his actions, but we also shouldn't sink to name calling and other derogatory acts. Let's welcome President Obama to La Crosse on Thursday with the respect he deserves. Remember, the world will be watching.
La Crosse, Wisconsin is the backdrop today as President Barack Obama announces plans to put more money into the pockets of millions of workers in the U.S. The plan is to change the rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Right now, only those making less than $24,000 a year are to be paid overtime, typically time and a half. And there are a number of exemptions, such as those working as managers. During his speech in La Crosse today, President Obama will propose raising that standard to $50,000 a year. That makes sense. The threshold hasn't changed since 1975, and inflation certainly has risen since then. People who work more than 40 hours a week should be paid for the hours they work. Critics suggest this change would hurt businesses and cost them money. That is likely true in the short term. Business costs will increase. And some say that's not fair. But the goal shouldn't be just to help businesses thrive, it should be about making sure workers can get properly compensated for their hard work. It costs businesses money when they have to ensure workplace safety, but few would argue that is a bad thing. Like increasing the minimum wage, it is nothing more than taking the existing rule and adjusting it for inflation, which hasn't been done in 40 years. As Obama will outline today in La Crosse, it is past time to ensure those working more than 40 hours a week are properly compensated for their hard work.
Want to know why it is a bad idea for Wisconsin to allow students to attend private schools at taxpayer expense? Look no further than a school in Milwaukee called Right Step. This program, according to its website, develops the minds, bodies and spirits of the community's most challenging youth, through discipline and motivation toward positive outcomes. A lawsuit alleges the school uses much more controversial and dangerous practices. The lawsuit was filed this week in a Milwaukee County court, alleging seven elementary and middle school students enrolled at Right Step were improperly disciplined, and even tortured. The complaint alleges these students were kicked, punched, called derogatory names and their food and water was limited. One instructor allegedly urinated on a student. Another student was forced to line in his own vomit for half an hour. The worst part of all this? Wisconsin taxpayers are footing the bill. Right Step is part of the parental choice program which allows students to attend private schools at taxpayer expense. According to these allegations, students are being mentally and physically abused on the taxpayer's dime. This lawsuit targets not only the school but also the state of Wisconsin, so taxpayers could wind up paying even more. We wouldn't allow public school teachers to behave this way. But the school choice program remains unregulated. Lawmakers need to change that, before more Wisconsin students are treated so inhumanely.
The news just keeps getting worse, but those in charge seem unwilling to do anything about it. We have heard for years about the failings of Wisconsin's job creation agency, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. And they deeper they dig, the more trouble they find. The latest internal review by WEDC finds the agency handed out 27 subsidies to companies promising new jobs that were never formally reviewed by staff. They simply gave the money away. More than $124 million worth. That includes a $500,000 unsecured loan to a company which created zero jobs and never bothered to pay the state back. State Senator Jennifer Shiling says she has seen lemonade stands with better financial safeguard in place. However even as the scandal worsens, Wisconsin's legislative leaders have remained silent about fixing the problem. And let's not forget, aside from handing out money like drugs at the Tomah VA, the job creation agency has failed to do its job of creating jobs. Wisconsin remains mired in last place among Midwest states in creating new jobs. Clearly this agency is failing, and it is costing taxpayers dearly. Lawmakers should order an immediate investigation into WEDC to find out if any laws were broken, and they should shut down the agency before they waste any more of our hard-earned money.
Successful politicians have a plan. A plan A and a plan B. But when it comes to the fight over Obamacare, it appears Wisconsin has no Plan B. The United States Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling soon, perhaps this week, in a case that could determine the future of the Affordable Care Act. The case King V. Burwell questions whether states that use the federal health insurance marketplace are eligible for federal subsidies to purchase health insurance, or whether that financial assistance can only go to people in states who run their own health insurance exchanges. If the court rules that states such as Wisconsin which do not operate their own health insurance exchanges are not eligible for federal subsidies, 184,000 people in the state could lose their subsidies. If Wisconsin had created its own health insurance marketplace, there would be no threat to health coverage. Those currently enrolled in the Affordable Care Act would see their insurance premiums increase by as much as 300% if the court rules against the federal subsidies for states like Wisconsin. If that happens, many are likely to drop their health insurance coverage, which would send insurance premiums higher for everyone, and destabilize the entire Affordable Care Act. Our lawmakers so far have been unwilling to come up with a plan should the court rule against Wisconsin. Governor Walker's only answer has been that the states didn't create this problem, the federal government did, and they should be the one to fix it. Maybe so. But our lawmakers have a responsibility to protect our citizens from a foreseeable disaster such as this, and so far they refuse to take responsibility.
What are we getting for our money? We don't even know. We do know that we spend a lot on transportation in Wisconsin. Transportation spending totals about $6 billion in Wisconsin, but that hasn't been enough to fix all our roads. Governor Walker has proposed borrowing an additional $1.3 billion to pay for new roads, but lawmakers, even those in his own party, aren't ready to take on that much debt and that is holding up passage of a new state budget. But maybe we don't need to spend more money to get good roads. We won't know unless the legislature orders a complete audit of the Department of Transportation, last done way back in 1997. We do know that part of what is driving up transportation costs is the increased reliance on private firms to do the engineering work. In 1987, only 8% of engineering costs was outsourced to private firms. Now that is up to about 75%. That's despite the fact that the most recent state budget increased DOT staffing by more than 150 positions. And those private engineers are more expensive than having DOT employees do the work. It is estimated costs per project rise by up to 68% when the state hires private consultants. Legislators should order the Legislative Audit Bureau to conduct a complete audit of the DOT. We just may find we have the money we need to pay for roads, if we just spend that money more wisely.
It appears work on a new Wisconsin state budget has slowed to a crawl. Members of the Joint Finance Committee charged with creating the new budget haven't met in two weeks. Instead, Republican members of the committee have been meeting behind closed doors to try to unify their party on the still contentious issues. The sticking points continue to be how to pay for transportation in the state, and a proposal to publicly finance a new Milwaukee Bucks arena. It is rarely good that these meetings be held behind closed doors. That gives lawmakers little time to digest the proposal that is served to them, and often contains deals benefiting special interests. The transportation budget and a deal for the Bucks are both big ticket items. The Bucks arena could cost taxpayers $250 million, and the transportation budget could include $500 worth of borrowing to pay for new roads. Both issues deserve a fair and timely hearing. If those are the only things preventing lawmakers from passing a new state budget, then they should be removed from the budget and voted on separately. That would allow the new budget to be in place by the July 1 deadline, and would allow for more thorough discussion of roads and the arena. Lawmakers should vote on both issues separately, rather than try to create a last-minute deal then demand a vote with the clock ticking.
We were shocked to learn what was happening at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tomah. Patients there being given high powered drugs like they were candy, earning the facility the nickname “Candyland” among patients. Tragically, some patients at the Tomah VA died, including Jason Simcakoski, who died of acute drug toxicity. This finally got the attention of the national VA, and the Under Secretary for Health, Dr. Carolyn Clancy has made repeated visits to Tomah. A new interim director has been put in place, but many of the changes thus far have to do with improving communication and morale among employees there. Now, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin is working to address the issue of overprescription which brought these issues to light in the first place. Baldwin has authored the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Act to help prevent this tragedy. This legislation would do some of the things Secretary Clancy has already talked about, including exploring forms of pain relief other than powerful drugs. It would also increase oversight for the quality of care our veterans receive at VA hospitals across the country. It is good that Congress is now getting involved in approving patient care at the Tomah VA and elsewhere, because so far the reforms enacted have yet to get to the real root of the problem.
We can at least imagine. Imagine what it would be like if we could be spared all those nasty attack ads in the next election. That is possible, although probably unlikely, in the race for one of Wisconsin's U.S. Senate seats. The race between incumbent Ron Johnson and former Senator Russ Feingold is likely to be one of the most watched Senate races in the country. A victory by Feingold could change the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. That means the Super Pacs and other special interest groups are licking their chops ready to write those big checks to attack the candidates. These are the ads typically the worst of the worst, often bending the truth and featuring ominous music and chilling warnings. Feingold is now calling on Senator Johnson to agree to keep all this third party money out of their Senate race. You might think Feingold would be eager to accept Pac money, since he refused to do so in the 2010 election when he lost to Johnson. Under Feingold's plan, both sides would agree to disavow money from political action groups. If a group did spend money to help either campaign, half of the cost of the ad would have to go to charity. That would finally be campaign money well spent. It is not clear if Johnson will agree to turning his back on those millions of dollars in campaign cash, but if there was no special interest money in this campaign, that would be something to imagine.
A little patience, please. Getting around in La Crosse has gotten more difficult of late with all of the construction going on. We're getting a handful of new hotels, new private developments, and lots and lots of road construction. All of these projects happening at the same time is making navigating our city a little more of an adventure. Just ask anyone who was in town for the state track meet last weekend. Or ask the Fed Ex driver who stopped here to drop off a package, and to ask for directions to the Grandstay Hotel, just blocks away from this radio station. But getting there requires a series of turns and zig-zags, stretching what should be a four block ride into one lasting more than a mile. Friends have bemoaned how difficult it is to get around, especially during afternoon drive. But remember, we are all in this together. This is not a time for road rage. Just realize that when you jump in your car, getting where you are going will likely take a little extra time, and perhaps a lot more turns. But all of this gridlock, while frustrating, will be worth it in the end. New buildings, better roads, increased employment and an expanded tax base. It may be a long summer with all these roadblocks, but seeing all these improvements is much better than no new construction.
There are plenty of people who believe our climate is changing. And there are plenty of people who believe global warming is a myth. Both sides can cite plenty of science to bolster their claims. But the fact is, we don't know whether our climate is changing, much less if it is caused by human behavior. So some in the Wisconsin legislature think that is reason enough to try to shut down anyone who espouses the idea that the earth's climate is getting warmer. That seems to be what is behind a provision in the state budget that eliminates more than 17 full time positions from the Department of Natural Resource's Science Services Bureau. That is the portion of the agency that two years ago released a plan calling for study of how climate change has affected Wisconsin's rivers, lakes and forests. Worrying about climate change is only a small part of the agency's research, but it seems even suggesting we study the possibility of climate change is too much for some lawmakers. This certainly seems like political payback for those who even dare suggest our climate may be changing. Especially since the agency's work was already approved by DNR Secretary Kathy Stepp, a Walker appointee. Given that we don't know for certain whether our climate is changing, or whether humans have something to do with it, it seems at least worthy of study, instead of sticking our heads in the sand.