Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
Many Wisconsin communities are growing tired of waiting for the state to act. They are frustrated with the inaction in Madison when it comes to fixing our crumbling roads. So they are taking matters into their own hands, approving things like local wheel taxes to raise money to pay for their road needs. La Crosse County is considering a more unique option, but one which seems to have little likelihood of success. County Supervisors are considering what is called a Premier Resort Area Tax. It would potentially allow La Crosse County to institute a new tax on tourism related businesses. Supervisors are considering gauging support by putting a referendum on the April ballot. But in order for this to work, La Crosse county would first have to get approval from the state to institute the new tax. Given that no other counties have adopted this tax, and that La Crosse currently doesn't qualify for the tax, that is far from a sure thing. It could be inserted in the budget bill, but that could take two years. And it may require yet another, this time binding referendum on the topic. And of course, that referendum would have to meet voter approval. That is a lot of hoops to jump through, with seemingly little chance of success. All of this shows just how desperate communities like La Crosse are waiting for the state to do its job and provide the money needed to fix our roads.
Who knew we had such an ass-kicker as Wisconsin's top cop? State Attorney General Brad Schimel is Wisconsin's top law enforcement agent. And he likes to kick ass. In fact, it is his motto. K.A.E.D. It is Schimel's pet phrase for how he does his job. It stands for kicking ass every day. Not just sometimes, or once in a while. Every day. And he wants everyone to know it. A bit crude, but hey, that is how he signs his emails and other communication to Justice Department staff. But sharing the motto in emails, presumably to motivate his staff, isn't enough apparently. Schimel has ordered 2000 gold-plated coins bearing his name, the state seal, and his motto. K.A.E.D. How cute. He hands them out to people he wants to impress. You and I won't see one, other than in a picture. But we paid for the coins. Schimel's office billed Wisconsin taxpayers for the $10,000 cost of the ass-kicking coins. That should be a crime. Why should you and I pay for his fake coins with his name and a crude motto? The answer of course is that we shouldn't. Yep, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel is a real kick in the pants. But it seems Wisconsin taxpayers are the ones who are taking the boot on this one.
Democrats on Capitol Hill threw a fit when their Republican colleagues refused to even schedule a nomination hearing for President Obama's nominee to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Congress successfully delayed nomination hearings for nominee Merrick Garland, arguing any hearings should wait until the outcome of the election. Now, President-elect Trump will be making the nomination for the Supreme Court seat, and Washington Democrats are threatening to try to prevent Trump's nominee to gain congressional approval, or even refuse to hold confirmation hearings. That was a bad idea when Republicans did it, and it is a bad idea of Democrats do it. We need a fully functional Supreme Court, with all nine seats filled. With an even number on the high court, there is greater risk of gridlock, and there is some evidence that courts not fully staffed refuse to even hear some cases because they are not confident there will be any consensus. Just as was the case with Obama's pick, Presidents have the right to make appointments to the Supreme Court. Trump won the election, and now gets to nominate justices. Members of Congress need to quit being obstructionist and get on with the business of governing.
The description of the course offering would seem to be without controversy. The optional course being offered at the University of Wisconsin is called The Men's Project. According to the description, the goal of the course is “to prevent future violence by teaching participants to recognize warning signs of unhealthy interactions.” The program also provides insights about perceptions of masculinity, including gender-based violence. Basically the course teaches it is not ok to hit women, and that men have a responsibilty to ensure that is not the case. But state lawmaker Steven Nass has a problem with this course offering. He argues that it “declares war on men.” And he is threatening to withhold state funding for the University System if they don't cancel the course and fire the teacher. Nass also has a problem with another UW course examing the problem of whiteness, encouraging white people to see the world from the perspective of a person of color. It appears Rep. Nass would rather live in a world where it is ok to hit women, or at least not talk about it, and where white people shouldn't have to consider the experiences of others. Such a viewpoint shows just why these courses are needed. Rather than criticize the courses, perhaps Nass should enroll in them. It seems he has plenty to learn.
It has become more than just a problem, it has become an epidemic. That is true across Wisconsin, and in La Crosse. That's why it is good to see the state of Wisconsin taking a number of additional steps to fight opioid abuse. Governor Walker yesterday signed a series of executive orders and issued directives to state agencies directing them to ramp up the state's fight against heroin and opioid abuse. The actions are the result of recommendations by the Governor's Task Force on Opioid Abuse. They follow a series of other similar laws passed by the Wisconsin legislature in recent sessions designed to crack down on the heroin epidemic. Make no mistake, these are no silver bullets which will end this epidemic. But they are wise and necessary steps to do what we can to prevent people from becoming addicts, and to help those who do. This has taken a lot of work, on the state and the local level in recent years. La Crosse's Task Force on Heroin Addiction has also worked hard to address this problem locally. Yet we continue to hear stories, locally and elsewhere, about the problems heroin causes in our communities. It is good to see the state recognizing that, and doing what it can to address the growing problem.
We all want to ensure integrity in our elections. We want to make sure every legally cast ballot is properly counted. But we don't need major reform to make that happen. Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein won't let go of her fears that voting integrity is somehow compromised in the Badger state. While forcing an unprecedented recall of the presidential contest in Wisconsin, Stein alleged Russian hacking may have altered the outcome of the race. The recount showed that didn't happen. There was very little change in the outcome of the election after the recount. It showed Donald Trump with a net gain of 131 votes, out of nearly three million cast. Yet Stein still isn't giving up. She wants to launch a new voter advocacy group in Wisconsin that would focus on updating some voting machines, and forcing recounts in close elections. She held a news conference this week to unveil her plans, but no one other than a few voters showed up. That's because this is not an issue for most people. We have faith in our elections, as we should. The recount discovered no structural problems in Wisconsin's voting system, and no hacking by the Russians. Game over. Stein should pick up her ball and go home.
Let the swamp draining commence. The 115th Congress has now been sworn in. What can we expect with this new Congress? from the 114th Congress, which some label the worst ever, we got little action but plenty of bluster. Sure they named a few post offices, and managed to pass some spending bills to keep the government operating. But they again failed to pass a budget. They have yet to tackle immigration. They still need to fix health care and provide tax reform. A number of other issues await congressional action, including criminal justice reform and addressing the nation's mental health issues. They haven't even taken care of poor Flint and it's water, or even tried to vote on a Supreme Court nominee. Can the 115th Congress do better? As the election of Donald Trump shows us, people want their leaders in Washington to actually get things done. Big things. Things that put the people first. Instead, the first order of business for this new Congress was an attempt to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, which holds badly-behaving politicians accountable. That is hardly putting the people first. If this Congress can't actually get things done, rather than simply be obstructionist, I think we may have found the swamp that needs to be drained.
Don't we deserve better? In the most recent presidential election, voters were again left with only two real choices. But we didn't really like either of them. In fact, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump scored higher in unfavorability ratings than any presidential candidates in history. We had to hold our noses when we walked into the voting booth. It wasn't a case of voting for someone who inspired you, but rather voting against the other candidate, the one you trust even less. Or, like many, you simply stayed home on election day, and sat this one out. Why can't we have more options when we determine who we want to lead this country? Should we have more choices in the yogurt aisle than we do on our ballots? Why do we only get to choose from names that have either a “R” or a “D” next to their name? Sure, third party candidates can get on the ballot, but few get on the ballot in all states. The way the system is set up, only the wealthy have a chance to run a third-party campaign. No third-party candiate has had any real impact on the outcome since Ross Perot in 1992. And he didn't carry a single state. American's deserve more choices when we select a President. Maybe we can even find one we actually like.
Sometimes, when you shout from the mountain tops long enough, and no one bothers to listen, you lose your voice and have to stop shouting. That seems to be the case with Wisconsin's Transportation Secretary. Mark Gottlieb is retiring from that post after six years of imploring for more state funding to fix our deteriorating roads. He wasn't very successful, but it wasn't his fault. He repeatedly warned Governor Walker and other lawmakers that without a significant infusion of money, the state's roads would continue to worsen. In fact, he argues, that if more money isn't found for road work, the percent of the state's roads rated as poor would double, to 42%. But Walker continues to turn a deaf ear to the state's road needs, relying on borrowing, and delaying a number of road projects across the state. Gottlieb has called for lawmakers to consider things like a higher gas tax, higher vehicle registration fees, even toll roads as a way to generate the needed revenue. But it appears he has given up, and who can blame him? Who would want to come to work everyday tasked with solving a problem, only to continually have your ideas rejected? With Gottlieb gone, Governor Walker can get his yes man. But that certainly doesn't solve Wisconsin's road woes.
The headline reads “Wisconsin is still one of the easiest places in the country to vote.” That quote comes from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has worked tirelessly to make it harder to vote. He wasn't always successful, as the judges ruled the law was not on his side. Walker was able to get a voter ID law in place before the last presidential election. But he failed in his efforts to limit in-person absentee voting to one location, to limit early voting hours, and to limit weekend voting. The courts struck down those requirements. A judge also overturned efforts by Walker and others to force people to live in the district in which they vote longer than current law. The judges also were critical of the state's efforts to get acceptable forms of ID to those who lack them, and forced the state to try harder. Despite these judicial attempts to ensure everyone who wanted to vote was able, we saw a sharp drop in voter turnout in the November election. That sure seems to suggest it is not as easy to vote as it used to be. And we have heard some behind the efforts to restrict voting admit that was the purpose of their efforts. So it seems a bit hypocritical for Walker to suggest that voting is still easier in Wisconsin than elsewhere. Someone better awaken the Governor, as he appears to be dreaming.
Why such a fascination with who pees where? Politicians across the country, including Wisconsin, remain intent on trying to determine which bathrooms public school students can use. State Rep. Jesse Kremer introduced a bill in Wisconsin's last legislative session to force LBGT students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their sex at birth, rather than the sex with which they currently identify. That bill failed to advance, but Kremer is ready to try again. That is despite the fact that North Carolina, which passed similar legislation, is facing the loss of as much as $600 million in its economy after many sporting events and concerts boycotted the state over its restrictive law. Kremer insists his legislation is about protecting the privacy of all students. But which bathroom a fellow students uses doesn't seem to be an issue for anyone but the politicians. We haven't heard any issues of privacy or other concerns from those who, knowingly or not, use the same bathroom as someone of the opposite sex. Our lawmakers should focus on the truly important issues facing this state, and not meddle with where people relieve themselves.
What is it like to be white? That is a question that will be attempted to be answered by some students at UW-Madison. A course entitled “The Problem of Whiteness” is among the course offerings at the university next semester. And some have a real problem with this. Two Wisconsin lawmakers, Reps Steve Nass and Dale Murphy, are demanding the course be pulled and the professor who teaches it be fired. Most disturbingly, they are also threatening that they and fellow lawmakers will withhold state funding to the university if they don't follow through with their orders. Do we really want lawmakers to determine what courses our public universities can teach? These politicians say the university needs to explain to “the hardworking people of Wisconsin” why their money is being “wasted to advance the politically correct agenda of liberal administrators and staff.” Who is to say the money is being wasted? This is a course that students sign up for voluntarily. The course seeks to challenge students to rethink race issues. That is exactly the type of critical thinking about difficult and controversial topics we should want our students to undertake. That is much better than having the politicians telling college students what they can and cannot study.
Mission accomplished. Those involved in the effort to end homelessness in La Crosse have already completed the first stage of that ambitious project. The La Crosse Collaborative to end homelessness is comprised of representatives from Coulee Cap, The Salvation Army, and the VA. Their goal was to end homelessness among military veterans within 100 days. They identified 13 homeless veterans sleeping on the streets of La Crosse, and were able to provide them all housing. Then they found three more, and found a place for them as well. Just in time for Christmas. They worked with landlords, imploring them to give those vets, many with criminal backgrounds, to give them a second chance as renters. That is quite an accomplishment, something that deserves our kudos, and something that makes La Crosse a better place for all to live. Now the collaborative is ready to take on stage two, finding housing for all the homeless in La Crosse. It is estimated there are 44 people sleeping on the streets each night. With the cold winter upon us, the group is ramping up efforts to find housing for the remaining homeless. This may be an ambitious goal, but as we have seen so far, it no longer seems an unattainable goal.
Fights among inmates. Inmates abused by guards. Intimidation. Staff shortages. The problems at Wisconsin's youth prison have been well documented. But Wisconsin is not alone in facing challenges in its juvenile justice system. Missouri faced the very same problems, 45 years ago. Back in the 1970s, Missouri began a concerted effort to revamp its troubled youth prisons, largely the same problems Wisconsin faces today. And that blueprint may be what it takes to repair the dirty and dangerous conditions that exist in Wisconsin. Missouri closed the doors of its large juvenile lockups in favor of smaller facilities closer to the offender's home. The focus is on therapy rather than punishment. Not just therapy, but also education and skills training. It hasn't always been easy, but it has worked. Only 12% of juveniles released from Missouri's correctional system were back behind bars in a year. In Wisconsin, that number is three times higher. And within 5 years of their release, 60 % of released juveniles are back behind bars in the Badger state. Clearly, what we are doing now isn't working. Our lawmakers should look to the Missouri model for answers on how to provide juvenile justice reform in Wisconsin. Figuring out how shouldn't be hard. There is a 45 year track record of success just a few states away.