July 14, 2011The 2011-13 state budget and the highly contentious budget repair bill are now finally law, both of which not only provide needed reforms to state government, but also put Wisconsin in a new, and much more positive light than some of our neighboring states. In fact, as new reports and numbers show Wisconsin surging ahead on many fronts, other nearby states slip, stumble and falter on their respective paths to economic recovery. In short, Wisconsin leads as others fall behind.
After months of high drama in the Badger State, the budget repair bill (Wisconsin Act 10) goes into effect, which most notably requires state and local employees — including state lawmakers — to contribute more toward their benefits packages, specifically health insurance and retirement plans. Further, state and local units of government will no longer be required to negotiate the terms of those benefits with their employees collectively, creating more flexibility for employers in determining compensation packages.
Finally, represented employees will no longer be required to pay union dues, and could even opt out of the union altogether. Wisconsin took the lead on this issue several months ago, and many other states are starting to follow our lead.
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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
Journal of proceedings a good read?July 07, 2011Everyone loves to read a good book over the summer. Fortunately for me our County Clerk, Kim Bushey, recently provided some great summer reading by releasing the 2010 Journal of Proceedings of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors. Times like these remind me that I am a bit of a geek when it comes to local government issues. While the 495-page tome would put most people to sleep, I looked forward to reading it like most folks would anticipate the release of the latest Dan Brown thriller. The journal is an indexed compilation of a year’s worth of County Board meetings. It fulfills two separate statutory directives that require the County Clerk to “record at length, in a book” every resolution adopted, order passed and ordinance enacted and “to keep and record in a book” true minutes of all of the proceedings of the board. Rather than capturing a calendar year, the journal follows a County Board year, which starts in April at its organizational meeting. This year’s 2010 journal, therefore, also includes the first three months of 2011. One reason why I like the journal is that it provides a historical record of County Board activities and allows comparisons to be made from year to year. Clerks have been keeping these books for a long time. The oldest edition I have in my office is a copy from 1903. I haven’t asked, but I would expect that even older versions are kept in the clerk’s vault. Because the format of the journals has stayed the same over the years, reading them provides insight as to how county government has changed. In 1903, for example, the County Board met just twice. The main order of business that year included levying $92,000 in property taxes to support the next year’s budget. The equalized value of taxable property in the county, that year, stood at a mere $33 million. In 2010, Walworth County’s equalized value was $14.4 billion and, at its meeting this past November, the board levied $60.7 million in taxes.
Preserving Land Preservation ProgramJuly 07, 2011The Wisconsin Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program is an environmental success story which I have supported throughout my tenure in the Legislature. The program allows the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to purchase tracts of land and keep them preserved for generations to come. Some of Wisconsin’s “best kept secrets” for outdoor enthusiasts may be found on Stewardship land. In the 2011-13 state budget, which will soon become law, the program is authorized through 2020 at a level of borrowing of $60 million per year, which is a reduction from the previous level of $86 million a year.
This is what stability looks likeJune 30, 2011The Legislature has now acted and adopted a revised version of Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011-13 state budget, and after all the heartburn and headache of attempting to produce a balanced budget, the budget heading to the Governor’s desk is not only in balance, it’s in the black for the first time in more than a decade. But more than that, the new state budget does so without raising taxes, while at the same time, protects core funding for many state programs. Here are just a few highlights of the budget.Back in black. According to the Legislature’s non-partisan Fiscal Bureau, the 2011-13 state budget eliminates the $3.6 billion budget deficit, nearly wipes out the entire structural deficit, and actually creates a $306 million surplus over the next two years.
Balanced budget puts Wisconsin on right trackJune 23, 2011After years of out of control spending, the State Assembly finally passed a balanced state budget, 60-38. Let me say that again — this budget eliminates our state’s $3 billion deficit and balances the budget by leaving a surplus. This shouldn’t be a shocking statement, but due to fiscal irresponsibility of previous administrations, this will be Wisconsin’s first balanced budget in many years.We did it by enacting true budgetary reforms, making tough decisions and cutting unnecessary fat, rather than using the accounting tricks of the past.
Obama’s economic experiment has failed — time to get back to what worksJune 16, 2011A flurry of recent economic news — especially the May jobs report — confirms what many have feared for some time: This president’s leadership deficit has caused a disastrous jobs deficit, and where he has led, his policies have made things worse.The president clearly inherited a difficult fiscal and economic situation when he took office. But his response to the crisis has been woefully inadequate. The president and his party’s leaders have made it their mission to test the hypothesis that more government spending and greater government control over the economy can jump-start a recovery better than the private sector can.That experiment has failed. The stimulus spending spree failed to create jobs. Massive overhauls of the financial sector and health care sector are fueling uncertainty and hindering our recovery.
Remembering Memorial DayJune 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.
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.