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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.
They mean well, they simply don't know what they are doing. That is the synopsis of the city of La Crosse's Parking Utility Board.
When deer hunters take to Wisconsin's fields, they adorn themselves in blaze orange. They do so to ensure their safety. They are to be as visible as possible to other hunters. But soon, some hunters could take to the fields wearing blaze pink. That is the premise of a bill being introduced today in Madison. If passed, this legislation would allow hunters to wear either blaze orange or blaze pink. I don't really have a problem with the idea, just the premise behind it. The theory, according to lawmaker Terry Moulton, is that allowing hunters to wear blaze pink would encourage more women to try hunting. Really? Allowing women to wear pink hunting gear would encourage more women to take up the sport? That seems doubtful. Women are aware that hunting exists. They know when hunting season begins, because that is when a lot of men fragrance themselves with deer urine, grab their guns and head to their favorite spot. Women can do that too. They simply choose not to in greater numbers. Having to wear blaze orange is not what keeps women out of the field. Hunting is not designed to be a fashion statement. There is more women don't like about hunting than the color of their duds. Let's leave the pink on Barbie cars, and out of Wisconsin's woods.
It makes sense for the state to crack down on those claiming fraudulent benefits. It is a serious problem in Wisconsin. But so far, lawmakers have chosen to pursue punitive measures, like trying to restrict whether people on food stamps should be able to eat crab, or be forced to shop from a list of healthy items. But a new measure being considered in Madison would focus the state's attention not on what they eat, but whether they deserve the benefits in the first place. The Legislature's Finance Committee is considering adopting stiffer penalties for those committing unemployment benefit fraud. Right now, the fines for illegally claiming unemployment benefits in Wisconsin is a slap on the wrist. $500 in fines and up to 90 days in jail. This legislation, if approved, would create criminal penalties of up to $25,000 in fines and up to five years in prison. This type of fraud is rampant in Wisconsin. Fraudulent overpayments totaled more than $20 million last year. And most of those committing fraud already have a job, but claim they don't. When people cheat the system, they are not only stealing from us taxpayers, but also from those who are not acting fraudulently. It is good to see the state considering cracking down on those who cheat the system, rather than everyone who is poor and in need of a helping hand.
It sure didn't take long for the gloves to come off. Within minutes of former Wisconsin U.S. Senator Russ Feingold announcing his plans to run for his old seat, his political rivals began spewing their vitriol. One could even suspect the news release and talking points were hammered out well in advance, awaiting Feingold's announcement so they could pounce. And pounce the did. For example the Wisconsin Republican Party issued a news release with the headline, “Washington Insider Russ Feingold announces plan to regain lost power,” followed by “Feingold's radical agenda already rejected by voters for good reason.” The release continued it demeaning tone saying Feingold dedicated his career to expanding the size and scope of the federal government, increasing our nation's debt and increasing the tax burden on hard-working American families. And it boldly states that Feingold's only accomplishment during his 18 years in the U.S. Senate is legislation that “made it harder to achieve the American Dream.” That is all he accomplished? Feingold's opponent, incumbent Senator Ron Johnson, issued a statement that began with a positive tone, saying “I welcome Russ Feingold into the Senate race.” He quickly followed the lead of his party bosses as he went on to say “While I was creating jobs, Russ was building Washington into the gigantic, debt-ridden, tax-eating, unresponsive and freedom-squashing government we had today.” Apparently before Feingold began in politics, our government was small, debt free and responsive? Yes, the gloves have come off early, and this one looks to get even uglier before it's over.
As the saying goes, those who can, do. And those who can't, teach. That is an oversimplification of course, but perhaps that is the theory behind a plan to make it easier for people to become teachers. Governor Walker's plan would create an alternate path for people with life-experience to become licensed teachers. No longer would they have to go to college to get a degree in education. Instead, those with knowledge of certain areas could get a license to teach from the state. That completely undermines the years of schooling that today's teachers are required to undergo before becoming a teacher. It is a slap in the face, suggesting anyone can become a teacher. Maybe so, but that doesn't make them a good teacher. There is more to helping young people learn than having knowledge about the subject matter. How to teach is a big part of the equation, and that is only learned through proper training. Things like lesson plans, and how to deal with unruly children. Walker claims his plan to make getting a teacher's license easier will help fill teaching jobs. But last time I checked, there were no shortage of applicants for teaching positions. If people with knowledge of a particular subject want to become teachers, they should absolutely do so. But first they should get the necessary training, just like today's teachers have done.
Bicyclists in Wisconsin are under attack from lawmakers. Governor Walker has proposed eliminating the Complete Streets program as part of his budget. Complete Streets laws dictate that when new roads are built, designers must take into account the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians. That has led to more paved shoulders, bike lanes and fewer dangerous intersections. Walker claims eliminating Complete Streets would save more than $7 million over four years, although others suggest the savings would be much less. And now we're learning that some in the Wisconsin legislature would like to impose a $25 sales tax on all new bicycles made in Wisconsin. And to add insult to injury, that money would be added to the general transportation budget, rather than being dedicated for projects that promote bicycle safety. Basically, those who buy new bicycles would be getting nothing for the extra money they would have to spend. And our roads would be less safe. The desire to tax bicyclists seems to come from the view that they are some sort of freeloaders, who don't pay their share for roads because they use less gasoline. They may not be paying as much in gas tax, but they also aren't inflicting the same level of damage to our roads, or causing as much pollution. Our lawmakers should reject the proposed repeal of complete streets, and ditch the idea of collecting a new tax from those who are trying to be health and environmentally conscious.
It looks like it may be time to start over. It has been a tough week, to say the least, for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. We learned that yet another audit of Wisconsin's chief job creation agency found a trail of mismanagement, with the agency still failing to keep track of loans. And we learned that top aides to Governor Walker lobbied hard for a half-million dollar loan to a company which ended up creating no jobs and has yet to pay back the loan. And it turns out that same company was already being sued by the state for its failure to pay taxes. Oh, and the head of the company was maxing out his contributions to Walker's re-election campaign. Clearly, things aren't working at WEDC. Governor Walker serves as the chairman of the agency, but claims he knew nothing about the political contributions, or the pressure for the state to loan the company money. If that is true, then it would seem Walker's role as chairman is purely ceremonial. Given the troubles this agency has clearly demonstrated, it would seem the agency needs more than a ceremonial chairman. In fact, it may be time to blow up the agency and start over. Because whatever lawmakers come up with as a way to help spur job growth in Wisconsin can't be worse than what we have now.