Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
A budget is a matter of establishing priorities. Determining how to best spend money for the best results. But that doesn't seem to be the case for our lawmakers in Madison. In the 2015 budget, they pulled all state funding for all of Wisconsin's state parks, leaving them to survive only on fees. Not surprisingly, the cost of visiting those parks went up sharply. Admission fees went up by as much as $11 a day. But Wisconsin's parks are still struggling, with an estimated budget deficit of $1.4 million. So the DNR wants to raise fees even more. Significantly. If approved, the cost of visiting some of Wisconsin's most popular state parks would go up by an additional $10. And the DNR wants to be able to sell naming rights at our state parks as a way to generate additional revenue. We don't need to slap corporate names on our pristine parks. Those parks are one reason Wisconsin gets so many summer visitors. Make it too pricey, and those numbers are sure to drop. But more importantly, properly funding our parks should be a priority of our lawmakers who should invest in one of the things that make Wisconsin a great place to live and visit.
This is what is wrong in Madison. Our lawmakers aren't really interested in hearing good ideas, unless they come from members of their own party. They continue to march in lockstep, following the orders of their party bosses who tell them what to think and how to vote. And sometimes the other team would rather just take their ball and go home. That seems to be the case now with comments from State Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse. When asked about a democratic plan for solving the state's transportation budget crisis, Shilling punted, saying it is not her party's responsibility to come up with a plan for fixing and paying for our roads. She admits the state needs a long-term, sustainable plan for paying for our roads, but thinks only republicans should be responsible for coming up with that plan. To be fair, republicans control the legislature, and likely would refuse to even allow a vote on any democratic solution. But if we are going to follow that logic, then democrats can just coast for the next two years. Why not just take the next two years off then? Our political parties need to work together, each coming up with ideas, and then debating those ideas fairly for the benefit of all Wisconsinites, regardless of which party is in control in Madison.
Your turn. Those who promise a quick end to Obamacare have worked hard to kill it, but not so hard to fix it. Critics have shouted end Obamacare, and it is widely assumed that Republicans who control Congress will make ending the Affordable Care Act their top priority in the coming term. But then what? U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan is already backpedaling on the repeal Obamacare pledge. Ryan suggests Congress may vote to end Obamacare, but delay the date of its demise. Why? Because coming up with a workable health care plan that people can afford and is sustainable is hard. Ryan says so himself, pointing out it took six years to create and adopt the Affordable Care Act, so there won't be a replacement plan available, in his words, next football season. But Ryan and the rest of his party who were so critical of the legislation, and made killing it their top priority, still don't have a plan for something better. They had six years, just like Obama, to develop a plan. They didn't. If only those who worked so tirelessly to kill Obamacare had instead spent their time coming up with a better plan, we could pass that ideal health care legislation tomorrow. But we're still waiting for those who so eagerly tell us what they don't like to provide a plan they do like.
It was one year ago this week when state investigators raided Wisconsin's troubled youth prison. The list of allegations is lengthy, and troubling. Sexual assault. Child neglect. Tampering with public documents. Intimidation of victims. Use of pepper spray to cause bodily harm. That raid followed a nearly year long investigation, and was two years after the complaints first came in. Since that raid on the Lincoln Hill School for Boys, several staff members have left, and nearly every Department of Corrections employee who oversaw the facility, including the state's Secretary of Corrections has quit or moved on. But what we don't have yet is the truth. The federal government took over the investigation shortly after the raid, and so far not a single person has been charged. The FBI will only say its investigation is ongoing. We don't even know the status of the investigation. With no resolution, it is difficult to know what changes to make at Lincoln Hills. Now, some are calling for the construction of a new juvenile lockup, in Milwaukee, which state taxpayers may be asked to pay for. Before we start throwing more money at the problem, shouldn't we wait to see exactly what the problem is and what should be done about it?
Ron Kind is being a bit coy. The La Crosse Congressman would prefer to keep certain things confidential. Like how he voted in the election of House Minority Leader. Kind refuses to say how he voted in the contest between Nancy Pelosi and her challenger, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan. Pelosi won that secret-ballot vote, and the right to remain Minority Leader. But it was hardly a shoe-in. Ryan captured 63 votes to Pelosi's 134. Those who voted for change reminded fellow democrats that their party got creamed in the last election, from the top of the ticket on down. But Kind won't say how he voted. A spokeswoman says that's because “this is exactly the type of inside-Washington politics that Wisconsinites are sick of hearing about.” Really? Why the secrecy? Explaining who he wants to lead his party in Washington is somehow inside Washington? People deserve to know how Kind voted. Does he want to see the party move more to the center or stay far left? Kind won't say. He is not bound to, given that this election was on a secret ballot. But keeping things secret seems much more like the kind of Washington politics that Wisconsinites are really sick of than simply telling us who he thinks should hold his party's most powerful position.
We probably don't think about it much. Just what is the benefit of having a University of Wisconsin campus in La Crosse? A public forum in La Crosse featuring University System President Ray Cross this week examined that question. There are the obvious answers, such as the economic impact the university has on our community, as well as the jobs it provides. But the university's connection to the community runs deeper than that. Many UWL graduates choose to live and work in La Crosse after college, contributing to our local economy. And the university does more than just teach students. Many conferences and symposiums are held at UWL, as well as the annual state track meet. These things wouldn't happen if UWL weren't here. Of course no one is suggesting we don't need the university. But we do need to make sure it is well supported. That hasn't been happening lately, with state imposed tuition freezes and state budget cuts hurting the bottom line. It is time to begin reinvesting in higher education in the state. As Rep. Jill Billings points out, every dollar spent on higher ed leads to a $10 return, and that is a good investment for Wisconsin taxpayers.
Can we please stop claiming the election was rigged? We heard that claim from Donald Trump throughout the campaign. He refused to say whether he would abide by the results of the election. That prompted a flurry of criticism from democrats like U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who condemned candidate Trump from his comments. But now the shoe is on the other foot. Now some democrats are suggesting the election was rigged, that hackers somehow played a role in getting Trump elected. Baloney. But Baldwin isn't shouting from the rooftops now. With democrats forcing a recount of every presidential ballot cast in Wisconsin, she should be condemning this latest suggestion the election was rigged. But she has been silent, along with other democrats who condemned Trump. Trump isn't doing our democracy any favors either. He continues to offer his unsubstantiated claim that two million illegal aliens voted in our recent election, and that is the only reason he didn't win the popular vote. Enough already. That is disparaging to municipal clerks who work hard to ensure election integrity. The fact is Donald Trump earned enough votes in our current system of selecting presidents to win the job. Let's just accept that, and move on, and end this nonsense about rigged elections.
Let's draw! Some Wisconsin lawmakers are suggesting changes to Wisconsin's process of redistricting, drawing new legislative boundaries every ten years. A panel of federal judges has declared the current maps, drawn by republicans, is unconstitutional. The judges have encouraged both parties to submit plans for improving the projects, and now, one Wisconsin lawmaker has come up with a plan to make the system fair. Senator Dave Hanson of Green Bay says he will introduce legislation that would take politics out of the redistricting process. Under the current system, whatever political party is in charge at the time the boundaries are to be drawn is in charge of doing so. That has led to abuse, by both parties, which gerry-mander the districts to make them more friendly to their candidates. Hanson's plan would place the duties of drawing boundaries not in the hands of one party, but in the hands of both parties. Unfortunately, Hanson's idea isn't likely to go far. Republicans control both the Assembly and the Senate, and they will control what legislation makes it to the floor for debate. But both parties have a responsibility to come up with ideas to improve the process, and simply standing in the way is not a worthwhile idea.
A panel of federal judges has now confirmed what we have long argued. That Wisconsin's political boundaries were drawn up to unfairly give advantage to one political party. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the legislative districts were created in violation of both the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because the districts were created to deprive Democratic voters of their right to be represented. The boundaries, drawn by whichever political party is in charge at the time of the census, were created to cram opposing voters into a single district, or by dividing them so they are the majority in fewer districts in a process called “Packing and cracking.” Gerrymandering these legislative districts makes it harder to throw the bums out. Because of how the maps were drawn, many races failed to even attract any opposition. That leads to less competitive races, and makes it more likely the incumbents will keep their seats, and we get more of the same from our elected representatives. That's why we need a new process for drawing legislative boundaries, putting it under the control of a non-partisan body. We deserve to be able to choose our elected representatives, rather than allowing them to choose us.
Just fix it. That is the message to Wisconsin lawmakers from one of the state's most important industries. The state's timber industry is reminding lawmakers of the importance of well maintained roads, encouraging them to summon the political will to make an investment in our infrastructure. Doing so is critical to the future of one of Wisconsin's biggest industries. Wisconsin is the nation's number one producer of paper and pulp and generates almost $25 billion per year to the Wisconsin economy. But most of that timber grows in rural areas, where roads have not been kept up. That leads to weight restrictions on local roads, which means truckers hauling big loads have to follow detours,or carry smaller loads, which means more miles logged, which ultimately means higher costs for consumers. That makes it a worthwhile investment to spend the money to properly fix our roads. For the timber industry, more delay is no longer an option. It is time to just fix it.
For those of us in the industry, the survey is troubling. The latest Gallup Poll finds American's trust in the news media has sunk to an all time low. Only 32% say they have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the media. That number is down eight percentage points from last year. Of course, rarely has the media been held in high regard. Journalists often rank just above used car salesmen in trustworthiness. And the so called mainstream media are the subject of frequent bashing from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and others. But we also have to consider how people are choosing to get their news, and where they choose to get it from. A quick scan of your Facebook feed each morning is hardly providing the full story. Especially when we hear that many of the pre-election posts on Facebook were fake news stories, designed not to inform, but to change opinion. Yet the number of people who get their news from mobile devices is now up to 72%, its highest level ever. Even though what they are reading may be just a hoax. Maybe then it is little wonder that Americans don't think they can trust the media, given the rapidly changing defintion of just what the media is.
If the recent election results taught us anything, it is that people are fed up with business as usual in Washington. But some in the nation's capitol remain very fond of business as usual. In fact, they want to return to the days of Congressional earmarks, allowing them to stuff billions of dollars worth of pet projects into congressional spending bills. Remember the bridge to nowhere? The symbol of wasteful federal spending linked a small Alaskan town to an island. It was eventually canceled amid public outcry over the pork barrel spending. But some in Washington want to bring these earmarks back. Perhaps they have forgotten how much corruption earmarks caused. Rep. Duke Cunningham went to prison after trading congressional favors for contributions and gifts. We don't need to return to the days of earmarks, when members of Congress routinely stuffed federal funding for their pet projects, even a bridge to nowhere, into unrelated spending bills. And going back to the days of earmarks wouldn't look good as the first order of Congressional business after this drain the swamp election. As one member of Congress points out, you can't drain the swamp by feeding the alligators pork.
The problems with Wisconsin's roads have been well documented. State funding has failed to keep up with the need for repairs. In La Crosse County, some $90 million in road work neds has been identified. Many Wisconsin counties have taken matters into their own hands and adopted wheel taxes to raise money for road work. La Crosse county considered going another route, pulling $1 million from county reserves to pay to fix our roads. Wisely, the La Crosse County Board of Supervisors rejected that idea. Supervisors have also put off, for now, the idea of a special sales tax on tourism related businesses which could raise millions for road work. Pilfering from reserve funds could have threatened the county's bond rating. But more importantly, funding road repair and construction is a function of state government. No matter how much La Crosse County were to spend on roads, it wouldn't be enough to address all the needs. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has hinted that his new budget for next year will include more flexibility for local municipalities to choose how to spend the state's road money. Let's see what the Governor's budget looks like, and how it will impact road needs in our area, before we start spending more money we may not have to.
Voter turnout in Wisconsin for the most recent presidential election was down to its lowest levels in 20 years. This most recent election was also the first in which Wisconsin voters had to show a photo ID in order to vote. Is there a connection? A new study will take a look. Only 66% of Wisconsin's registered voters cast a ballot in the most recent election, down about 4% from 2012. And the numbers of voters dropped even further in areas where the new Voter ID law was expected to pose problems for potential voters. Parts of Milwaukee and Dane counties saw voter totals drop more sharply than other parts of the state, with significantly fewer votes by young people, and by African Americans. A UW-Madison professor is about to begin a survey to find out why those who didn't vote didn't bother to cast a ballot. They hope to be able to provide specific numbers of people who were disenfranchised by the new law. But for what purpose? Those lawmakers who fought so hard for Voter ID knew what the results would be. They knew it would be harder for certain people, primarily democratic voters, to comply with the law. So no matter how much proof can be provided that Voter ID caused fewer people to vote, nothing will be done about it, because that is exactly what they wanted to happen.