Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
The city of La Crosse has done a good job holding the line on property taxes in recent years. The levy rate has held basically steady for several years, meaning that for most people their property taxes have not gone up. In fact, the city's share of property taxes has held steady for five years. Again this year, Mayor Tim Kabat put forth a budget which would continue to fund essential city services, and do so without raising taxes. That is what we should want in a budget. But others think the city should spend more, even when it doesn't need to spend more. That was the vote of the La Crosse Board of Estimates which voted to add $250,000 in spending, for no reason. Just to have it in case they need it. Some wanted to add nearly twice that much in spending. And tuck it away in reserves. Because we might need it some day. The Mayor's budget does what a budget is supposed to do. Identify spending priorities, and fund those which are most important to the community. Not spend, or tuck away, or more importantly, take from us, what they don't need.
Pot, meet kettle. Wisconsin's largest business lobbying group is criticizing one politician for advocating the very same stance as they have. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce has for the past few years argued in favor of a gas tax increase as a way to raise money to pay to build and repair roads in the state. That is not a radical idea. A number of politicians have advocated a three cent gas tax increase to raise road money. It seems a more prudent approach than continually borrowing money to pay for road work, passing the costs along to future generations. But WMC, despite its pledged support for a higher gas tax, took one state senate candidate, Mark Harris of Fond du Lac, to task for proposing a higher gas tax. It is running an ad criticizing Harris for the idea of raising the gas tax, and even urges people to call the candidate to tell him his liberal tax policies are hurting Wisconsin families. Why is WMC critical of Harris for proposing the same policies it espouses? WMC isn't saying. But the inference clearly is that the group, which consistently supports republican candidates, is against Harris' idea simply because he is a democrat. It is unfortunate that this powerful group is more interested in electing republicans than it is in truly solving the issue.
Election day is now less than a month away, but once again voters in Wisconsin will find themselves with few choices when they head to the polls. In fact, in many cases, they will have just one choice...the incumbent. All 99 Wisconsin Assembly seats are up for election in November. But 17 of those seats are held by incumbents who don't have a single opponent. In the Wisconsin Senate, only half of the 16 seats up for election have an opponent to the incumbent to give voters more than once choice. That is deplorable for our democracy, but it is no accident. Lawmakers who currently hold office in Madison worked hard to make sure that they can coast to re-election. The political boundaries, created by Wisconsin's legislative Republicans in 2011, were fixed to make them safe for republican office holders. They drew the boundaries to stack each district with as many like-minded voters as they could to ensure their candidates won re-election. That is pretty easy when voters have no choice on election day. The next Wisconsin Legislature should come up with legislative districts which allow more candidates to have a fair shot at winning, giving voters a real choice in the ballot box. Because otherwise, what is the point of even having an election?
Just what will it take? U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and U.S. Senator Ron Johnson have been ambivalent supporters of Donald Trump's candidacy for President. Ryan hesitated at offering his support initially, but eventually relented. Johnson too pledged loyalty to Trump, but said he could withdraw that support if Trump crossed the line. Apparently objectifying women doesn't cross the line in their minds. Nor does being a racist, or a birther. Both Ryan and Johnson have condemned Trump's latest words and actions, but continue to offer their support for his candidacy. It has turned into quite a Texas two-step. Ryan, along with Johnson, and Governor Scott Walker were to appear with Trump together for the first time in a supposed show of unity in Wisconsin over the weekend. After the revelation of Trump's sexist and mysoginist comments, Trump was uninvited. So much for party unity. The rally went on, but without Trump, and with only three mentions of the candidate by name. It's like they are pretending Trump doesn't exist. But he does, at the top of the ticket, and Wisconsin's top politicians continue to support the indefensible.
We spend a lot of money to lock people up. But are there more efficient, and effective, ways to deal with lawbreakers? That is a question that a newly appointed committee in Wisconsin will try to answer. And a La Crosse judge will be among those working on the issue. Judge Elliot Levine is among those serving on the statewide panel, and he should have a lot to offer. Levine points to the failed war on drugs as proof that locking up drug users hasn't solved the nation's drug problem, despite the billions of dollars spent on the effort. Just look at who is sitting behind bars in La Crosse's jail. Many of them are frequent fliers, no stranger to the justice system, who keep getting in trouble again after they get out of jail. La Crosse county has been innovative in trying to come up with jail alternatives which may help reduce recidivism, and save taxpayers money. We have established a special drug court to try to help people stay out of jail and beat their addictions. We have a special OWI court, and a special Veterans court which focuses on military veterans who have run afoul of the law. La Crosse has been among the first in the state to establish these special courts. This group will spend a couple years studying and identifying solutions in hopes of creating new laws. IF they can come up with better ways to deal with lawbreakers that can help them get on the straight and narrow, and save us tax money, we're all ears.
We have heard plenty of stories about Wisconsin schools having to deal with reduced funding by the state. Turns out it isn't exactly true. The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau this week released a report finding that state funding for public schools has actually gone up slightly in the past few years. The report finds that state support for schools last year covered 62.7% of the cost of educating our children. That is up slightly from 62.3% in 2014, and 62% in 2013. But the state should do more. Wisconsin used to promise school districts the state would cover two-thirds of the cost of education, but that went out the window during tight budget times a dozen years ago. In the years since, we have seen a marked increase in the number of Wisconsin school districts turning to voters in the form of a referendum seeking permission to exceed state imposed levy limits. That means higher property taxes to pay for what the state will not. Yet those referendums have been overwhelmingly approved, signaling voters value education, and believe paying for it is a good use of their tax money. The state should further increase its commitment to funding public education, and they could do that without raising an additional dollar in tax revenue. If Wisconsin abandoned the voucher system, paying for students to attend private schools at taxpayer expense, we could once again fund at least two-thirds of the cost. That would be money well spent.
Wisconsin continues to have some of the most lax drunk driving laws in the nation. It is probably no coincidence that Wisconsin also has the highest rate of drunk driving in the nation. Lawmakers in Madison have repeatedly failed to get tough on drunk drivers. But one lawmaker wants to change that. Rep. Andre Jacque of De Pere wants to toughen the laws requiring certain drunk drivers to have an ignition interlock device installed on their car. Wisconsin law requires certain drunk drivers, those who are repeat offenders or who have a blood alcohol level above 0.15 are required to have the device installed which prevents them from starting their car if they have been drinking. But it seems there are plenty of loopholes. It seems many of those who are ordered by the court to have the devices installed aren't doing so, because failing to do so carries no criminal penalty. A violation is the equivalent of a traffic ticket. Others are circumventing court orders by driving someone else's car, or even switching the title to a family member or friend. Jacque's legislation would strengthen penalties by tying the interlock system to a person's driver's license instead of their car title, and by significantly increasing fines for ignoring the court order. This is a small step Wisconsin lawmakers can take to keep us safe on the roads.
Sometimes, it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. For the past five years, the legal battle has brewed over whether Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his aides acted illegally. The initial probe, part of what is called a John Doe investigation, led to the conviction of six Walker aides. The Governor was never charged. The second investigation looked into whether Walker's campaign had partnered with the Wisconsin Club for Growth to violate campaign finance laws. The cases went back and forth in the courts until it was halted two years ago. Yesterday came the final chapter in the legal battle, with the United States Supreme Court refusing to take up the case on appeal. Attorneys representing the Wisconsin Club for Growth correctly pointing out that prosecutors have lost at every conceivable level. Perhaps it would have been better never to start the probe, because the result has been bad for our democracy. Governor Walker changed the John Doe law so it can no longer be used to investigate crimes related to politics. And the probe led to Walker dismantling the Government Accountability Board, the group which had overseen campaign finance laws. A new commission of political appointees has taken its place. Walker may have won the legal fight, but the people of Wisconsin who value the democratic process are the real losers.
Local control. Two small words that we hear a lot from our politicians. But these words seem to carry little actual weight in Madison. We witnessed that for several years, as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation failed to listen to the locals about the poor condition of Lang Drive. That road was recently, finally, finished, and it is now possible to drive north and south through the city without risking falling into a pothole. But that road redo was only possible because the state DOT relented, and finally agreed to move up the timetable for repair. The city knew the road was bad, and wanted to fix it. But because it is a state road, Madison was in charge, and we were left to the whim of the Madison knows best mentality. That is why it is encouraging that Governor Walker has hinted that his next state budget, while still not coming up with a long-term funding plan, and still too reliant on borrowing as a funding mechanism, will at least provide local communities more control over how state road money can be spent. Providing local control should be the goal. Because as we have seen with Lang Drive, when the state actually listens, things can finally get done.
Happy Oktoberfest! The 56th annual Oktoberfest celebration gets underway today. The theme for this year's fest is Family, Friends, Fun. And if past history is any guide, you'll find all three at this year's fest too. This is one of the biggest weekends of the year in La Crosse, with estimates of 100,000 people packing the parade route on Saturday. This event doesn't happen by accident. Members of the Oktoberfest Board of Directors work hard to plan and organize the event. Police put in overtime throughout the weekend to keep us and our community safe. And once again an Aid Station downtown serves as a gathering point, a place to charge phones, or to get assistance. There are free shuttles being offered between the north and southside fest grounds. Other shuttles will transport revelers to campus areas and to Onalaska. They are working hard to ensure everyone remains safe. But we need to play a role too. Providing directions to visitors, keeping a close eye on our friends, and making sure we all stay well behaved. The beer will be flowing of course, but let's not overdo it. That is true for college students new to the area, and to the many veteran Oktoberfesters. Enjoy the family, friends, fun, and the libations. But please do so responsibly, and make sure this four days of fest is safe for everyone. Prost!
Justice delayed is justice denied. That is why it is important to fill vacancies on our courts. It has now been an unprecedented 6 months since President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Until now, a U.S. Supreme Court nominee has never had to wait more than 125 days for a confirmation vote. Republicans who control Congress say the confirmation hearing should wait until after Obama's term ends. But 17 Supreme Court justices have been confirmed during an election year, including current Justice Kennedy, a nominee of President Reagan, confirmed by a Democratic Senate 1988, a presidential election year. But senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is among those continuing to refuse to schedule a hearing. Johnson also continues to block the nomination of another justice, Donald Schott, who has been nominated for what is called “the Wisconsin seat” on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This vacancy is the longest in the nation. It has been 2500 days since the opening was announced, but still no confirmation hearing has been scheduled. It is important that our courts not have empty seats. Our members of Congress need to do their jobs, so our courts can properly do theirs.
Scott Walker has outdone himself this time. Wisconsin's governor has offered a not so subtle threat aimed at those who prosecute crimes in the state. He suggests that he may choose to cut funding for district attorney's across the state, if they choose to further pursue a criminal investigation into his behavior. It has to do with the now-closed John Doe investigation, which was looking into whether Walker violated campaign finance laws. The District Attorneys in Milwaukee, Dane and Iowa counties are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the investigation to resume. Walker suggested that if they want to spend their time investigating him, he may choose to withhold state resources. The chilling warning comes despite the fact that Walker's own Attorney General, Brad Schimel, is calling for the state to spend more to fill vacancies in DA offices across the state, not less. This threat is clearly a warning that if they want to investigate any alleged wrongdoing by Walker that they will have to pay. The amount of funding any state agency receives should be based on the need, and what taxpayers can afford, not on the political views of those working in that agency.
t won't win any Tony awards, but tonight's first Presidential debate promises to be great theatre. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will make their case for why they should be the next leader of the United States in what is being called must-see TV. It's clear we will be watching, and listening. Some think tonight's debate will be one of the most watched programs in television history. But what can we expect? Trump prefers an off-the-cuff style, while Clinton has studied, and practiced in mock debates. Trump has been more predictable and calm of late on the campaign trail, but he is likely to ditch the teleprompter tonight. And let's not forget, the host of Apprentice is no stranger to reality tv. The expectations are higher for Clinton, as debates typically are won by those who have expertise, a command of the issues and a steady hand. If she stumbles, she has more to lose, while if Trump trips, it will likely be dismissed simply as Trump being Trump. How the moderator does his job could be key. Lester Holt will have to balance the desire to fact-check the candidates without appearing to make the debate about him. Here's hoping that whoever wins tonight, the American people won't be the ones who lose.
Apparently, Wisconsin state government is as good a steward of our tax dollars as it can possibly be. At least if you believe the various agencies which make up our state government. For the first time, agencies such as the Department of Corrections, the UW System, even Veterans Affairs, were asked to submit two budget proposal. One, their usual request, the other proposal calling for a five percent funding cut. Not an outlandish request. In fact, it must be possible that we can find enough fat in any state agency to trim just five percent. But when asked what would happen with a modest five percent budget cut, the agencies painted a gloom and doom scenario. They are protesting the very idea of a budget cut, so they warn that state emergency management would stop stockpiling sandbags for communities to fend off flooding. Probably not a very popular idea around here right now. The Corrections department would make counties pay more to supervise parolees. That may save the state money, but not taxpayers. The fact is the Wisconsin state budget has grown from $26 billion in spending in 1991 to $73 billion today. Surely state agencies can find a way to make government more efficient by just five percent.