Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
In Wisconsin, it is not uncommon for students to still be in school in early June. Especially with our winter weather causing a number of school cancellations already this year. Those snow days have to be made up, often in what we used to call summer. Of course, there is a way to get students out of class earlier. Simply start the school year sooner. But that is not so easy in Wisconsin. State law prohibits local school districts from starting school before September first unless they are able to secure a rare waiver from the state. But now some lawmakers in Madison are circulating a bill that would let local school districts decide when they should start school. That makes sense. Local control is always better. What works in La Farge may not work in the Dells. It is better if local school districts decide what works best for them. And there is plenty of evidence of many benefits to starting the school year sooner. Football, band and other practices already start in August. And getting older students more classroom time before the Advanced Placement Exams should help their scores. The earlier students start, the earlier they can get out. Like they taught us in school, the early bird gets the worm.
This is unacceptable on so many levels. The state of Wisconsin has done a poor job providing justice to victims of sexual assault. A backlog of what are called rape kits has piled up in the office of the Wisconsin Attorney General. In fact, it is estimated that there are some 6000 rape kits which are awaiting testing. These kits, which contain forensic evidence collected from victims at hospitals are to be tested at private laboratories, paid for with grant money. But that isn't happening. The state's top prosecutor, apparently recognizing the need to test more quickly, applied for and received a $4 million grant from the federal government to expedite the testing process and reduce Wisconsin's huge backlog. That was 16 months ago. So these kits have been tested by now, right? Not so much. Although Attorney General Brad Schimel said just days ago that “a few hundred” of the kits have been tested, they now acknowledge that isn't exactly true. In fact, only 9 of these backlogged rape kits have been tested in the months since the federal money arrived. This pace is unacceptable. Wisconsin needs to move more quickly to reduce this backlog, to ensure justice is swiftly provided to victims of sexual assault. That seems the least they can do.
It is time for a reboot on the idea of a marsh road in La Crosse. The state Department of Transportation has long called for building a new north-south corridor through La Crosse. The state's preferred route, which went to voters in a referendum, called for building that road in part through the La Crosse marsh. Voters overwhelmingly rejected that referendum back in 1998, and many assumed that was the end of the discussion. But the DOT continues to insist such a road needs to be built, and has kept a new north-south road in its plans all these years. There have been threats that if an acceptable road can't be found, the money will go away. Fine. Take it. The money isn't there anyway. And people here still don't want to see that road built, at least not the one the DOT envisions. Now we have learned that the project, identified as a $67 million project initially, would now likely cost $150 million. That was revealed in an audit of the DOT, which found road planners failed to take into account the costs of inflation, causing the cost of road projects to double. The DOT should take a new La Crosse road off its list. It would be a better use of our tax dollars to fix up the pothole-filled roads we have now, and stop trying to insist we need a road we don't want.
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.