Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
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.
America's democracy is built on the principle of one person, one vote. Yet, when the votes were counted in the recent election, Donald Trump was awarded the office of President of the United States. That is despite the fact that Hillary Clinton captured more overall votes than Trump. Clinton earned just over 60 million votes, while Trump earned just over 59 million. But who is elected President is determined not by the popular vote, but by the Electoral College. Under that system, Trump is the winner. Now some are revisiting calls for scrapping the Electoral College, and determining the winner based on the popular vote. That would be a mistake. While it is logical to argue that whoever gets the most votes should win, period, scrapping the Electoral College wouldn't make for a better election system. If winners were based on the popular vote, many states like Wisconsin wouldn't be in play. Candidates would only have to focus on the big cities on the campaign trail. They would ignore Wisconsin, at least outside of Milwaukee and Madison. Instead, our President would be campaigning only in places like New York, California and Chicago. It may be frustrating that the winner of our presidential election didn't get the most votes, but the system we have now is still better than a return to the popular vote.
It seems so simple. So simple, and smart, its a wonder it hasn't been thought of before. Making it easier, and faster, for students to get a college degree. The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents is finally coming up with plans to get students to graduate sooner. The idea is hardly rocket science, but it has been elusive thus far. Plans include expanding college credit courses in our high schools. These classes challenge the best and brightest, and earn them tuition credits when they take their AP tests. They want to make it easier to transfer college credits between the UW System and the Wisconsin Technical College System. Just like real people do in real life. The Regents issued a statement that says “If a student can graduate in a shorter amount of time, they pay less.” Gee, thanks for that brilliant insight professor. The fact is, they are right. We should make it easier and faster for college students to graduate so they can join our workforce. But why is it only now those in charge of our higher education system seem to finally be figuring that out?
It is the day after the election, but let's face it, we'll all a little burned out on politics. So we will take a break from the political talk today, and focus on something equally frustrating...the condition of our roads. The state of Wisconsin has continually failed to develop a long-term, sustainable approach for paying for roadwork in Wisconsin, so a number of cities and counties are taking matters into their own hands. Some are passing wheel taxes, designed to generate local money to pay to fix the roads the state will not. La Crosse County is considering a more novel approach, but maybe putting the cart before the horse. The county is considering adopting a special sales tax that could generate more than $5 million a year in road funding. The tax would be levied on patrons of certain tourism related businesses. But there are many problems with this plan. Adopting the new tax would require a special waiver from the state. Getting that waiver is no certainty. Even if the legislature granted the waiver, Governor Walker could veto it. But most importantly, we don't yet know how people in La Crosse County feel about the plan. It would be a mistake to seek state approval if the people who have to drive our roads aren't in support of the plan. La Crosse County should put the brakes on this plan, at least until they can prove their idea has the support of those who would have to pay this new tax.
It is all over now, but the voting. It is finally election day, when millions of people will cast their ballots for President. It has been a long, and disappointing campaign between two people most people don't like very much. Some suggest our choices in this election are the worst ever. Most of us will just be glad it is over. No more attack ads, no more robo-calls. Some predict if their candidate doesn't win today's election, it will mark the apocalypse. America cannot survive a Clinton or Trump presidency, according to doom-sayers in each party. But let's not forget that no matter the outcome of today's election, no matter who our next President will be, this is still America, still the greatest country in the world. The world will not come to an end following the counting of the votes. We are a resilient nation, and we will persevere regardless of whether your candidate wins. Let's hope that no matter the winner, our next President will be treated with respect by the American people, regardless of who they voted for. We don't need to agree with them on every issue, but we do need to respect the office of the Presidency, and remember that we will survive the next four years.
Early voting is proving increasingly popular in Wisconsin. The number of people in Wisconsin who have already cast a ballot is nearly 700,000. That number is up from each of the previous two presidential elections. Clearly, people like the convenience of voting sometime other than the second Tuesday in November. That should be celebrated. When we make it easier for people to vote, we make it more likely people will vote. But some of our lawmakers in Madison think giving the people what they want is not a good idea. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is suggesting that he again is interested in restricting early voting in the state, despite a judge's ruling overturning similar voter-restriction laws passed by the legislature. The judge ruled restrictions on early voting were designed only to curtail voting. Vos thinks every community in Wisconsin should have the same number of hours and days available for early voting. So much for local control. But this isn't about uniformity. It is about voter suppression, making it harder for people to vote, particularly for those who lean democrat. Vos should embrace the fact that more people are participating in our democracy by early voting, not again work to try to restrict it.
Voters are frustrated this election season. Many potential voters are less than enthused about either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as our next President. Polls show the two to be the most unpopular candidates ever to square off in a race for President. Voters astutely point out that it is frustrating that we have more choices in the yogurt aisle than we have in determining who will lead our country for the next four years. But we do have more choices, if we are willing to make them. In addition to the names Clinton and Trump on Tuesday's ballot, there are actually five other choices. These are candidates who most haven't heard of, but who filed the necessary paperwork to get on the ballot. Like Darrel Castle, the nominee of the Constitution Party, a group dedicated to advancing laws that are patterned after God's laws, as outlined in the Bible. Another choice is Jill Stein of the Green Party which promotes social, economic and environmental justice. Also on the ballot is Monica Moorhead of the Workers World Party, which seeks to abolish capitalism. Gary Johnson represents the Libertarian Party, and he will be a choice for President for local voters. And Rocky de la Fuente heads the American Delta Party, which is focused on exposing the corruption of our political system. So we may not have as many choices for President as we have for yogurt, but we do have more than two flavors to choose from. The question is, if you don't like the mainstream candidates, can you bring yourself to vote for some other name on the ballot?
It is getting to be that time of year that even when the days are mild, there is a chill in the evening air. Many of us are barely inconvenienced by the brisk weather, able to simply turn up the heat a bit. But that is not the case for La Crosse's homeless population. That is why La Crosse is so fortunate to have people willing to help those who struggle in the cold weather. The Warming Center, operated by La Crosse's Catholic Charities, has now opened for the season to provide a place where those in need of shelter can gather when the winds blow cold. The shelter has been available for several years, but continues to grow. Formerly housed in a local church, where people would line up outside for several hours to secure a spot, the Warming Center can now accommodate more than 30 people, and offers a warm bed, hot shower, and laundry facilities. There is no charge for people to stay there, and unless they are causing trouble, no one is turned away, even if they suffer from mental health issues or addiction. Turns out they get just as cold as everyone else. These people are treated with dignity and respect as they are given a helping hand. La Crosse is fortunate to be blessed with the volunteers who operate this valuable program, to make sure that everyone makes it through another Wisconsin winter.
Another endorsement for the integrity of Wisconsin elections, but from an unlikely source. Governor Scott Walker, who has led efforts to restrict voting opportunities in the state, now says it will be easy to vote, but hard to cheat, in Wisconsin elections. It is good to hear the Governor rebuke the claims from the top of the ticket that elections in the U.S. are somehow rigged. He is right. People need not worry about the security of their votes. But to say it is easy to vote is rather hypocritical, given how many steps Walker and other Madison lawmakers have taken to actually try to make it harder to vote. The state has adopted a controversial Voter ID law, requiring many people to make a trip to the DMV before they can cast a ballot. And that hasn't gone all that smoothly, with a federal judge criticizing the state for making the process more confusing than need be. Walker and others worked to restrict early voting opportunities, which are proving increasingly popular, trimming the amount of time local clerks could allow ballots to be cast. They worked to do away with special deputies, which help people, often the infirmed, register to vote and cast a ballot. Our Governor is right that it is hard to cheat in Wisconsin elections, but he is all wet when he says it is easy to vote.
The presidential election is now just one week from today. Who will win? The answer to that is still unclear. But we do know who will lose. The American people. Actually, we have already lost, no matter who wins next Tuesday. After the votes are tallied, about half of the country will be unhappy with the results. We are as polarized, politically, as a nation than we have ever been. But the woes run deeper. Our two choices for president are among the most unpopular ever at the top of the ticket. Many Republicans don't like Donald Trump and many Democrats don't like Hillary Clinton. Both political parties will likely come out of this race licking their wounds. The Republican party is splintered, and Hillary is still feeling the Bern from young voters. And whoever wins will enter the official office faced with trying to get their policies through our do-nothing Congress. They could again play the role of obstructionist, shooting down any legislation the new President offers, even if only to prop up their own political party. We will likely all be glad when this rather putrid campaign is over, but don't expect things to automatically get better after next Tuesday.
Those who host lose the most. That is the message plastered on billboards throughout the La Crosse area, designed to remind parents they can get in trouble for hosting underage drinking parties at their home. But as a result of a court ruling in Wisconsin last week, those billboard may be coming down soon. A Fond du Lac parent successfully appealed the $1000 fine he was given for violating that county's social host ordinance. The court ruled that, among other things, the county's statue is more strict than the state law, and is therefore illegal. Many other communities, including La Crosse and Onalaska have similar ordiances on the books, but because of the court ruling are now likely unenforceable. That is a setback for those who have worked hard for years to curb underange drinking in our area, in part by fining parents who allow drinking in their home. It is now up to the state legislature to revisit that law, making sure that it is properly written and enforceable. And our lawmakers should get to work on that quickly, before the next round of graduation parties arrives.
Perhaps you have seen the video which purportedly shows evidence of voter fraud in Wisconsin. In the video shot by the group Project Veritas Action, a democratic political operative in Madison is shown talking, in profane terms, of planning to incite violence at Donald Trump rallies. This is a significant allegation, and the democratic operative has already been fired. But more trouble may follow, as it is possible some laws were broken. But just who should be in charge of getting to the bottom of this? Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel would be the likely lead investigator, as he is the state's top law enforcement official. But is he the right person for the job? Schimel is after all a Republican who works to advance his party's agenda. The Wisconsin Justice Initiative says Schimel, given his partisanship, is the wrong person to investigate the conservative filmmaker's claims that the video shows evidence of voter fraud. They have a point. That is why Wisconsin's newly formed ethics commission should be in charge of the investigation. The board is comprised of both republicans and democrats, and has as its charge ensuring compliance with elections laws. This case certainly seems to fit that description. Let's keep partisanship out of the investigation, and allow this new commission to do the work it was created to do.