Wisconsin's longest running daily commentary, a daily tradition since 1971.
The can of worms that accompanied Wisconsin's adoption of a Voter ID law is starting to spill over. Wisconsin lawmakers approved the law in 2011, and ever since we have seen nothing but confusion. The back and forth has largely played out in the courts, with a series of ongoing legal appeals. As of this moment, the law says voters must show an acceptable form of identification in order to cast a ballot. A judge ruled Wisconsin must work to make it easier for those seeking an ID to vote to get one. But now the state's Division of Motor Vehicles wants to add to the confusion over voter ID. The DMV is asking Governor Walker to allow them to no longer provide free photo ID's unless they are stamped “For Voting Purposes Only.” It seems that when the state started providing free ID cards in compliance with the law, many people who wanted a new ID just got the free one, and stopped paying the $28 fee that was charged to people who wanted an ID for purposes other than voting. That has caused the DMV's budget to take a hit. Printing two sets of ID's, along with driver's licenses, only further adds to the confusion. And why should we balance the DMV's budget on the backs of the elderly and low income and others who don't have a driver's license. It seems if approved, the poor who don't have $28 would be the ones most hurt. But aren't those the people our government should be trying to help?
It didn't take police in New York long to catch the man suspected of planting a series of bombs over the weekend. The arrest of the man, found sleeping in a doorway, came not long after police made the rare decision to use the city's emergency notification system, typically reserved for severe weather, to notify New York residents who the suspect was they were looking for. One man who provided a tip to police said he recognized the suspect from the photo police sent. Perhaps that could be a lesson to police elsewhere, including La Crosse. This case shows that enlisting the public's help in solving a crime can pay quick dividends. It would be good to see police more willing to share the photos of some crime suspects with the public via a text notification system. For the most part, the public is eager to help, especially if they feel they are in danger. And with all the tensions between police and the public, such a system may patch relations, with both groups working together toward a common goal. Would sharing the photos of a man suspected of an armed robbery at a La Crosse business yesterday help police catch the man more quickly? Based on what we saw in New York, it seems it can only help police do their jobs and catch their man.
We have talked at length about the problem of big money in politics. Some may wonder, what difference does it make who gives how much money to those running for political office? Here is the perfect example. Newly released documents reveal that during the 2012 recall election of Governor Scott Walker, our governor solicited campaign donations for a group called the Wisconsin Club for Growth. Because this is a third party group, those giving donations could give unlimited amounts of money without any public disclosure. These newly released documents say among the donors, to the tune of $750,000, was the owner of NL Industries, a company which was the county's biggest producer of lead paint before it was banned. The donation sure seemed to have some impact on those lawmakers who shared in the windfall. The legislature passed a law exempting this company from compensation claims for lead paint poisoning, as the families of 171 children have filed. The language of the bill even ensured that it would be retroactive, getting help with the language of the bill from NL Industries attorneys. The courts later ruled Wisconsin's law illegal, and those lawsuits have been allowed to proceed. But it is clear that when big money is involved, our politicians are willing to place their fingers on the scales of justice to tip it in favor of those willing to pay to play.
It is good to see the Wisconsin legislature willing to spend more money on public education. Especially after years of funding cuts to our K-12 schools. But if taxpayers are going to spend money on education, it should be for things that make sense for the students, and the districts which teach them. It is not clear that is the case with a proposal by Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly. They say they want to provide every high school freshman in Wisconsin a new laptop computer or tablet. If this proposal were to pass, Wisconsin would become the first state to outfit all high-schoolers with a laptop. It wouldn't be cheap. It could cost taxpayers nearly $15 million. But there seem more questions than answers. Lawmakers and education officials admit they have no idea how the plan would be funded, how this technology would be used, and whether buying kids laptops even help them learn, or improve test scores. Plus, it may be unnecessary. More than 40% of Wisconsin's school districts, including La Crosse, already provide students with laptops. And a one-sized-fits-all plan probably wouldn't work, as some schools prefer iPads, and others prefer Google Chromebooks. Today's rapid technology updates could render the devices outdated as soon as they get into a student's hands. It is good to see our lawmakers willing to help fund public education, but it would be better if they were committed to doing it in a way that makes sense.
For months, the Donald Trump campaign has been not so subtly hinting that Hillary Clinton may be physically unfit to be President. They have hinted at a possible mental illness, or that she has been hiding some sort of serious illness following her fall which led to the discovery of a blood clot. As Hillary coughed her way across the campaign trail, she dismissed any notion that she is not physically fit. But now, the fringe theory that Clinton is ill moves to the center of the campaign after she fell ill at a public event and had to be helped to her van. Now we do have to wonder about her health. She can no longer laugh off the allegations. That's why all presidential candidates in the U.S. should be forced to release their medical records. We deserve to know how healthy are those who want to lead our country. And while we're at it, we may want to give the candidates for the nation's highest office an IQ test. We should give them every test we can think of to test their readiness. The ACT test, a spelling test, an eye test, a driving test, the Wunderlich test, even the Rorschach ink blot test. The results of all should be made public. With so much on the line, we shouldn't have to just take a candidate's word for it when they tell us they are fit to serve.
It is no coincidence that the harshest critic of higher education in Wisconsin is firing a few verbal volleys at the UW System. After all, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is about to determine how much funding the System receives, and he would like higher ed to march more in line with his conservative views. Vos is calling for more conservative guest speakers on campuses like UW La Crosse, arguing all these liberal speakers on college campuses are somehow stifling free speech. He argues our universities intentionally seek out only experts in their fields who happen to be liberal. Most universities say they bring in those who are experts without regard to their politics. Among recent speakers at UWL was Michael Sam, the first openly gay football player to be drafted by the NFL. Vos may not like Sam, or the fact that he is gay, but Sam's story is an interesting one, well attended on campus. He spent his time talking about his journey, not telling UWL students how to think, and certainly not how to vote. Vos should go find his safe space if he is so easily offended by the views of others and quit trying to tie state funding of higher ed to his political views.
It is an ambitious agenda. Republicans who control the Wisconsin legislature have unveiled their plans for the next legislative session. And there are many things to like. Perhaps the biggest is the willingness to seek a sustainable plan for funding roadwork throughout the state. Lawmakers in recent years have resorted to borrowing, but many road projects remain on hold because of a lack of funding. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says his party is ready to look at toll roads as a possible way to raise the money needed to fix our roads. They are also willing to look at gas tax hikes and registration fee hikes as a way to raise enough to ease the current $1 billion transportation shortfall. Vos' agenda also includes giving local communities options for local road projects. The plan lacks specifics, but La Crosse would not doubt welcome the ability to have a say in how or whether roads are built after some skirmishes with the DOT. There is also a willingness on the part of republicans to look into tax reform, perhaps eliminating some existing loopholes. This is an ambitious agenda. Now we will have to see just how much ambition our lawmakers really have.
It doesn't happen often, but sometimes our elected officials do things which actually make our lives easier. This could be one of those times. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is proposing a sales tax holiday to coincide with back to school shopping. If approved by the legislature, this would allow purchases of school supplies, clothing and some computers to be made tax-free on the first full weekend in August both in 2017 and 2018. Computers under $750, as well as items of clothing costing $75 or less, and school supplies would all be exempted from the state sales tax. That would be a big help to Wisconsin families, especially those with several children in school. This wouldn't come cheap. Walker estimates that holding the sales tax holiday just one weekend in August would cost the state about $11 million in lost tax revenue. But stores, particularly those here on the border, could see increased traffic and higher sales by bringing in people from neighboring states. That would be good for Wisconsin retailers. Wisconsin lawmakers should pass this legislation when their session resumes, and give hard-working Wisconsin families the break they deserve.
It's back to work for members of Congress. Finally. Fresh off their seven week recess, which most of us would call a vacation, the nation's lawmakers are due to resume their session this week. They are scheduled to be in session for four weeks, but it wouldn't be surprising if their session is abbreviated so lawmakers can hit the campaign trails. Congress has just one real job to do in the remainder of this session, pass a new spending bill. Congress must pass that bill by October 1 to keep the government operating. Failure to do so would lead to another government shutdown. But if history is any guide, our leaders in Washington will fight over the government's spending priorities right up until the deadline. And it will again likely be only a temporary spending measure, likely lasting only until December. That will leave the new Congress in the same mess we are in now, failing to develop a sustainable long-term funding plan. There are other things that could be on the agenda, including funding for fighting the Zika virus. And of course lawmakers will try to cram in their pet projects in hopes of landing some federal money for their districts. But it seems that the final days of the 2016 U.S. Congress will find our distinguished politicians doing what they do best, the bare minimum.
So, who are you voting against? The 2016 presidential contest seems to be about deciding between the lesser of two evils. Many democrats will vote for Hillary Clinton, but don't necessarily like her. Same for republicans and Donald Trump. Both have unfavoraability ratings that are off the charts. Among registered voters, Clinton has an unfavorability rating of 59, and Trump has an unapproval rating of 60. That makes them the most unlikeable president candidates in 30 years. So many voters will be voting against, rather than for, the candidates. How can it be that if we don't really like either of the candidates, how did they get the nomination? Apparently we liked the other candidates even less. But there are other choices in the November election. On the ballot in Wisconsin, in addition to Clinton and Trump, are Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian party. Many would say a vote for any of the fringe candidates is a wasted vote, because those candidates can't win. But if we are only willing to consider from the two major parties, we're stuck with whatever candidates they spoon feed us, even if we can't stand the taste
The use of force by police is something the nation continues to wrestle with. This comes in the wake of highly publicized shootings of unarmed men by police, something we have seen recently in both Wisconsin and Minnesota. Now some lawmakers in Madison think Wisconsin's police officers should change their tactics. Rep. Chris Taylor of Madison is working on a bill she plans to introduce in the next legislative session which would tighten the standards for the use of deadly force. Her bill would set specific standards for when deadly force by police can be justified. Typically, such cases rely on the objective reasonableness standard, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989. That standard basically gives police the right to use deadly force if they believe the suspect poses an imminent danger to themselves or others. Taylor thinks that is too broad. She also wants to emphasize more de-escalation tactics during police training. But the fact is, police work is hard work. Police have a lot to consider, sometimes making split second decisions in a life-or-death situation. Police go through thousands of hours of training throughout their career. They want the situation to be resolved without incident, and typically work hard to make that happen. Those officer who make the wrong decision need to be held accountable of course. But lets let the police do the police work, and keep the politics out of it.
We need to do a better job making sure are military veterans are properly taken care of. We have witnessed a series of deaths at the Tomah VA hospital, where powerful drugs were being over-prescribed. That led to a series of new federal laws designed to ensure that we aren't turning our war heroes into zombies. Now we are learning about the allegedly deplorable conditions at Wisconsin's state-run veteran's retirement home in King, Wisconsin. There are reports, uncovered by the Capital Times newspaper, that the facility is plagued by staff shortages, and there are allegations of negligence of those living there. There has been cost cutting at the retirement home, even as millions of dollars in surplus revenue from the facility has been diverted to other parts of the state budget. There are also allegations that the retirement home is using outdated medical equipment, and cutting back on group activities for veterans. The report has captured the attention of politicians on both sides of the aisle. Some, including La Crosse State Rep. Jennifer Shilling, are calling for a federal investigation into the state-run retirement home. Others, like Governor Walker, are calling for a state investigation. Either way, we need to get to the bottom of what is happening in King, and make sure that those who so proudly served our country get the proper care they deserve.
By now, we have all heard of the marked increase in the price of EpiPens, used to administer medication to those suffering from allergic reactions. The price of the pens have increased five-fold since 2007, to the current price of $633 for a two pack. And many of us have wondered, “How could this happen?” The answer, at least in part, is that the Wisconsin Legislature is to blame. Mylan, the company which makes the EpiPen, has been a big contributor to key politicians serving on the Senate Health Committee. Records show Mylan contributed thousands of dollars in campaign cash to those key lawmakers, and spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying on bills related to the medical devices. Not surprisingly, lawmakers voted to expand the scope of users for the device to include recreational and educational camps, colleges, daycares, youth sports league and elsewhere. Its market has increased in Wisconsin, while the company profits soared, and while greedy lawmakers stuffed their pockets. Under current Wisconsin law, Mylan has the unlimited ability to sell its potentially life-saving medicine at grossly inflated prices. That's why some lawmakers are crafting legislation which would force Mylan to justify the price of its medication. Our lawmakers should be working to protect Wisconsin families, rather than the big drug corporations.
Do you have a plan? The state of Wisconsin is reminding people of the importance of having an emergency preparedness plan in the event of a disaster. Governor Walker has declared September to be Preparedness Month to encourage people throughout the state to take time to prepare now, before disaster strikes. We have already seen severe storms and flash flooding in our part of the state which put people at risk. The State Homeland Security Advisor has a number of tips for developing a family emergency plan. But it is important that be done before an emergency happens. Among the suggestions is to identify family meeting places to make sure everyone is safe. They suggest that one be close to your home, and the other somewhere in the neighborhood. The sate says you should keep a contact list, both on paper and electronically that has current contact information for those who would likely be needed to be reached in the event of an emergency. And they say you should have alternative ways to communicate in the event phones are not working. Another suggestion is to have an out of town contact, as sometimes calling long distance may be easier than making a local call during emergencies. It is a good idea to take time now to make these preparations, in hopes you never have to use them.