June 09, 2011The last weekend in May is traditionally regarded as the start of the summer season. Unfortunately, in our haste to make the most of the few short months of warm weather, the more serious side of the month is often overlooked. Yard work and vacations all too often take priority over Memorial Day observances. A few dedicated groups of veterans, however, still take the time to remember our war dead. I had the honor of speaking at one such ceremony in Whitewater this year.
It isn't unusual for me to give speeches. My speaking circuit, however, is generally limited to service clubs around the county. The topics of those speeches usually involve some aspect of county government. As any Rotarian or Kiwanian, who has patiently sat through one of my lunchtime presentations, can attest, I can talk at great length about county issues. Preparing to speak at a ceremony as solemn as Memorial Day, however, was far more of a challenge for me.
Fortunately, while researching the topic I ran across a Memorial Day speech delivered by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Before he became a Supreme Court Justice, Holmes was a Civil War veteran. Wounded several times, Holmes fought in battles including the Wilderness and Antietam. In 1884, with the Civil War fading in the nation's memory, he was asked by a young man why the holiday should still be recognized. Holmes' answer was the best explanation of Memorial Day that I have ever read. Since I couldn't have put it nearly as well, I borrowed heavily from his address. If you weren't able to attend Memorial Day observances in your community, I would encourage you to look up Holmes' speech on the Internet. It might just change the way you think about the last Monday in May.
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January 20, 2011Back in the 1980s, Illinois Gov. James Thompson ordered the placement of a billboard on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, which read "Would the last business to leave Wisconsin please turn out the lights?" The action and the message sparked yet another rivalry between the two states, as Wisconsin's economy struggled and businesses considered moving to more tax-friendly states, such as Illinois.
But in an ironic twist, all of that may soon change as the state of Illinois recently enacted massive tax increases, which could send business to other states, including Wisconsin.
Following the November election and before newly-elected lawmakers could take office, the Illinois legislature narrowly adopted and the governor is expected to enact into law a series of tax hikes, along with new spending and borrowing increases.
Recent Legislators at Work
Legislature acts on election reform measureMay 26, 2011When Wisconsin voters go to the polls, they exercise a fundamental and protected right to shape, and reshape, their government to better reflect their values and principles for a free society. But when someone knowingly acts to misrepresent themselves and engage in fraud at the polling place, that right is taken away from someone else, and the integrity of our elections is called into question.For years, and following numerous instances of such voter fraud, Wisconsin voters have called on lawmakers to do more in order to address the concern, and now, that call has been answered. Under new legislation recently approved by the legislature, an elector will be required to provide proof of identification in order to vote by way of a photo ID. Under the legislation, acceptable photo IDs include state-issued ID cards, Wisconsin drivers’ licenses, temporary DMV receipts, military IDs, passports, naturalization certificates, IDs issued by Wisconsin-based tribes, and certain student IDs. Students would have to show an accredited college or university ID that includes a photo, current address, expiration date, date of birth and signature.
An update on action in the State AssemblyMay 19, 2011With the Budget Repair Bill passed and protestors leaving the State Capitol in Madison, things have returned to a more normal state. However, we are continuing to move full speed ahead with a variety of reforms in the State Assembly.Last month marked our first 100 days in office. The number one focus of the Special Session called by Governor Walker was to get Wisconsin back on the right track by improving the job creation climate, reducing the tax burden and balancing the state’s budget. We passed bills designed to improve the business climate by enacting much-needed tort reform, reducing health care costs and reforming the state’s Commerce Department. Part of this 100 day package of legislation included my first bill, Special Session Assembly Bill 5, which makes it harder for the legislature to pass tax increases. Hopefully, this bill will go a long way toward getting Wisconsin out of the top-10 highest taxed states in the nation.
An estranged collectionMay 12, 2011I haven’t seen any official statistics on the subject, but based on countless conversations that I have had with middle-aged men, I’m going to say that 70 percent of men over the age of 40 have had their valuable baseball card collections thrown away by their mothers. I realize that this may be a sore point to raise right after Mother’s Day, and I want to make it clear that I am not blaming moms. In an era before iPods and X-Boxes, trading cards got a real workout. In addition to being occasionally run through the washing machine, they were often placed against the spokes of bicycle tires to serve as makeshift motors. In defense of mothers everywhere, most of the cards probably looked like junk. The collections of younger guys often didn’t suffer this fate. They bought their cards for the sole purpose of saving them until the end of time. Hermetically sealed in hard plastic cases, moms are less apt to mistake these collections for junk as they did when they threw away most of the world’s supply of Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax rookie cards.
Getting ready for webcastsMay 05, 2011Walworth County government has been gearing up over the past few months to broadcast streaming video of its board and committee meetings over the Internet. Once the system is up and running, anyone with an Internet connection will be able to watch either live or archived versions of county meetings. I’m glad the board made the commitment to “webcast” its meetings. Even though it will probably never challenge the ratings of American Idol, the public benefits from knowing more about the government it elects.During the past 20 years I have been involved in local government, technology has dramatically improved the public’s access to information. It has also added significant duties to the job of the staff person responsible for providing administrative support to the board or committee. In Walworth County, the County Clerk provides support for the County Board. Keeping committee proceedings straight is the responsibility of department heads. They, in turn, rely heavily upon an administrative assistant. These employees perform other duties within county government. Every month, however, they are pressed into service to ensure that county supervisors and the public stay informed and that the county complies with the Open Meetings Law. Supporting a committee used to involve typing up the meeting agenda and taking minutes. Both of these tasks remain important responsibilities. The job, however, has expanded to include a whole lot more.The support process begins with agenda preparation. After committee chairpersons give final approval, it is the responsibility of the administrative assistant to type up the agenda and assemble the informational material that accompanies it. The “packet,” as it is often called, consists of memos, draft resolutions and reports that pertain to agenda items. The entire packet, which can range from 20 to more than 200 pages, is then scanned, posted on the county’s website and e-mailed to elected officials, department heads and the media. Uploading the agenda also permits its display on four public computer kiosks located in various county buildings. Paper versions of the agenda packet are assembled, for delivery by courier to supervisors who prefer the “hard copy,” rather than virtual version of agenda materials. State law requires only that agendas be publicly posted. A few years ago the board directed that the packets be made available to the public, as well. Supervisors reasoned the meeting would make a lot more sense to constituents if they could see and read the actual documents that were being discussed.
County volunteers a special groupApril 14, 2011The drama in Madison has dominated my columns for the past few months. With lawyers and politicians now battling over the budget repair bill, I thought it would be a good time to catch up on a few issues impacting the county.April 10 marks the start of National Volunteer Week. As the county has downsized its workforce over the past decade, I have come to appreciate the increasingly important role volunteers are playing in delivering services to the public. Walworth County government supports two volunteer initiatives. The first effort is led by our volunteer organizer, Colleen Lesniak. She is a county employee who is responsible for placing volunteers in county departments and programs. While the job may seem straightforward, there’s a lot to it. Colleen promotes awareness of the importance of volunteerism, both among the public and within the county organization.
GOP path to prosperityBudget cuts $6.2 trillion in spending puts nation on track to pay off debtApril 07, 2011Congress is currently embroiled in a funding fight over how much to spend on less than one-fifth of the federal budget for the next six months. Whether we cut $33 billion or $61 billion — that is, whether we shave 2 or 4 percent off of this year’s deficit — is important. It’s a sign that the election did in fact change the debate in Washington from how much we should spend to how much spending we should cut. But this morning the new House Republican majority will introduce a budget that moves the debate from billions in spending cuts to trillions. America is facing a defining moment. The threat posed by our monumental debt will damage our country in profound ways, unless we act. No one person or party is responsible for the looming crisis. Yet the facts are clear: Since President Obama took office, our problems have gotten worse. Major spending increases have failed to deliver promised jobs. The safety net for the poor is coming apart at the seams. Government health and retirement programs are growing at unsustainable rates. The new health-care law is a fiscal train wreck. And a complex, inefficient tax code is holding back American families and businesses.
Good timing for Sunshine Week
March 31, 2011It seemed to be quite a coincidence that one of the biggest cases challenging open government in Wisconsin would be heard during Sunshine Week. The big case, of course, was the open meetings violation filed by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne challenging the State Senate’s approval of portions of the controversial Budget Repair Bill (BRB). Sunshine Week, surprisingly, isn’t one of those “Hallmark Holidays,” like “Bosses Day,” but rather a national effort to promote open government throughout the United States. At the time of this writing, at least, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi temporarily enjoined implementation of the BRB after finding that the District Attorney was likely to succeed on the merits of the case. A competing school of thought says the law is currently “on the books,” having been recently published by the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Why budgeting reforms are neededMarch 24, 2011With Wisconsin facing an immediate shortfall of $137 million and a $3.6 billion deficit over the next budget biennium, the budgeting sins of the past are finally coming due. It is imperative that we finally balance the budget, and do so without harmful tax increases. The budget repair bill implements the reforms needed to accomplish this, and that is why I voted in favor of the bill.The controversial budget repair bill contains three major budgetary reforms which give the state, local governments, and school districts the flexibility and tools they need to absorb the upcoming reductions in state aid. The reductions are partially needed due to legislative Democrats irresponsibly using $789 million in one-time Federal Stimulus funds to pay for ongoing school costs in the last state budget, which state taxpayers are now on the hook for. Overall, the following provisions will save local government and school boards over $1.44 billion, thereby avoiding thousands in layoffs or massive increases in already-too-high property tax bills.
Standing with taxpayersChanging status quo in MadisonMarch 03, 2011Gov. Scott Walker and I were sent to Madison to get spending under control by balancing the budget, without raising taxes. Although the Governor’s Budget Repair Bill has been controversial, there is no question that the bill accomplishes these goals.With Senate Democrats going into hiding, Assembly Democrats keeping us on the floor for over 60 hours straight, and thousands of out-of-state protestors packing the Capitol building, our democratic process in Wisconsin looked like it had been put on hold. Despite these obstacles, the State Assembly took clear and decisive action on Friday morning by passing Gov. Walker’s bill. I cast my vote in favor of the bill.
Making it more difficult to raise taxesFebruary 17, 2011In 2003, then-Gov. Jim Doyle received praise from members of the Legislature on both sides of the aisle when he pledged not to raise taxes in order to solve the state’s budget deficit. His exact words — “we should not, we must not, and I will not, raise taxes” — were met with thunderous applause during his first budget address to the Legislature. Those words echoed throughout the Chamber that night, and for many months to come. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of that speech dissolved over time, as subsequent state budgets were dealt with billions in new and increased taxes. As the new governor and Legislature prepare for the 2011-13 state budget, we know raising taxes may be an easy way out to solve a short-term fiscal problem, but that it only leads to long-term financial crisis much greater than just a budget deficit. In fact, the many tax increases enacted over the last several years have done nothing to solve Wisconsin’s budget deficit, as it repeats itself budget after budget. In order to solve this problem in the public sector, the private sector must be allowed to succeed. We can not tax our way out of this mess, we must grow our way out.While I firmly believe that is the sentiment of the day, there is no guarantee future legislatures will hold true to it. That is why Legislation was recently adopted to statutorily require a two-thirds “super-majority” vote of the Legislature in order to raise taxes. Under the bill, which governor Walker has pledged to sign, no increases to the income, sales, or business tax may be adopted by the Legislature unless the two-thirds majority standard is met, or if the legislature adopts a joint resolution seeking a recommendation from the voters to do so through a statewide referenda. In either case, raising taxes in Wisconsin will become much more difficult, as I believe it should.