August 18, 2011For years, critics have told me that they could do a better job managing the county. Now, thanks to the National Association of Counties (NACo), they finally have their chance. NACo recently posted a game on its website called "Counties Work." In the game, a player takes on the role of a county executive, responsible for providing services, dealing with citizenry requests, raising revenues and working within a budget. The goal of the game is to "keep your citizens happy by making sure they want to live and work in your county." Throughout the game, constituents ask for your assistance to address a variety of concerns. Your first task is to "triage" the problem and escort them to the county office responsible for the issue that they are raising. As county executive, you then must decide whether to implement the idea being proposed. Your popularity rating rises or declines on the basis of how you respond to constituent concerns, handle an occasional crisis and manage taxes. A fifty percent approval rating, or better, allows you to serve another four-year term.
It took me a while to get the hang of the game. At first, I couldn't figure out which button to click in order to hear the constituent complaint. As in real life, ignoring constituents leads to a lower approval rating. Once I cleared that hurdle and directed the constituent to the appropriate county department, I assumed that I was supposed to implement all of the requests. I found out the hard way, after having all pet owners arrested, that, like in real life, I needed to exercise some quality control over the requests. Ignoring the most harebrained ideas angered a single constituent, but kept the majority of citizens happy. It took several game "years" to recover from the pet fiasco to regain a fifty percent popularity rating.
Like any simulation the game wasn't a perfect replica of life. A few misses from my point of view included the following:
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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
Don’t go wobbly, don’t go backAugust 11, 2011Earlier this year, I offered a number of columns which focused on new initiatives and ideas to rebuild Wisconsin’s economy and create jobs, as well as the Republican majority’s desire to bring finality to a number of important statewide issues. We pledged to hit the ground running in January and tackle the difficult issues as the voters asked us to do. Even in the face of one of the most tumultuous times in state history, we remained focused on getting the job done and making good on our word to the people of Wisconsin to significantly reform state government. First, and most importantly, we produced a balanced state budget. For more than a decade, Wisconsin has been plagued with multi-billion dollar deficits with virtually no end in sight. The previous administration used a myriad of budget gimmicks to deal with those deficits — such as massive tax increases, excessive borrowing, and raids of protected funds — but none of those produced any long-term stability for the state.
Nursing home no longer ‘new’ facilityAugust 04, 2011A friend of mine chastised me the other day for not keeping up with the times. We were comparing children’s photos and when it was my turn, I pulled out pictures of my three kids that were at least six years out of date. I could have still saved myself from the scolding when he inquired whether I chose to keep such outdated photos out of a sense of nostalgia. Not thinking quickly enough, I confessed that I kept such old pictures because, until he pointed it out, they really didn’t seem that far out of date to me. My friend was right and I promptly replaced the pictures with newer ones learning, once again, that time passes by much more quickly than I realize.I recently experienced the same phenomenon when I read an announcement regarding the fifth anniversary of the county’s skilled nursing facility. Since its opening in 2006, I have always referred to the Lakeland Health Care Center as the new nursing home. Like the pictures in my wallet, however, enough time has passed that I should probably drop the word “new” when I talk about it. It was five years ago, this past July, that residents made the short move down Highway NN from the old nursing home to the present facility, culminating one of the more emotional and complicated issues that I have been involved in during 10 years with Walworth County.While our current nursing home is celebrating its fifth birthday, the county’s involvement in caring for its elderly dates back much further. Our current skilled care program can trace its roots to 1852. That year the County Board voted to levy a tax of one-and-one-half mills on each dollar assessed for the purpose of establishing a poor farm to care for all individuals who were unable to care for themselves. In an era before pensions and Social Security, many of the poor were also, not surprisingly, elderly. During the past century, the county’s poor farm evolved into at least four distinct programs including a hospital, nursing home, human services department and farm. The county eventually sold the hospital and got out of the farming business in 2001 opting, instead, to rent its tillable land to a farmer.
Redrawing lines in stateJuly 28, 2011Every 10 years, Wisconsin gets a makeover. This makeover is the process by which senate, assembly and congressional districts are geographically adjusted and boundary lines redrawn in order to maintain equal representation throughout the state. The law requires redistricting to occur every ten years and the Legislature has the constitutional charge to redraw the maps to coincide with U.S. Census Bureau information. Any new redistricting map will apply to legislative offices filled starting at the next general election in November, 2012 and remain in effect for the next 10 years. How Americans are counted has become as important as how many are counted. With demographics changing, the stakes are always high, as control of state and federal houses can be affected by redistricting. In Wisconsin, responsibility for redrawing legislative and congressional district lines rests with the state Legislature, although Congress has the right to regulate and modify state plans. The courts may also weigh in if the Legislature can not agree to a new map, as was the case in the last three decades. However, with Republicans currently holding the majority in the Legislature, such disagreements were avoided and the new maps were recently approved.Since 1973, Wisconsin has had 33 Senate Districts and 99 Assembly Districts. An odd number of districts exist in order to reduce the likelihood of tie votes in the Legislature. Each district is divided evenly based on the state’s population as estimated by the Census Bureau. For instance, the population of each Assembly District is about 57,000 residents, and each Senate District, comprised of three Assembly Districts, is estimated to have about 172,000 residents.
Wisconsin’s new law on right to carryJuly 21, 2011Earlier this month, Wisconsin became the 49th state which allows law-abiding citizens to carry a firearm while concealed. This matter has been under consideration by the Legislature for many years now, garnering support from both Republicans and Democrats alike. The bill signed into law on July 8, received broad bipartisan support and brought closure to a chapter in Wisconsin’s history on a widely-debated issue. Since enactment, many have asked questions regarding the new law, which I would like to answer in this column.First and foremost, any Wisconsin resident wishing to carry a firearm while concealed must receive a permit to do so from the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ). While the bill was signed into law this month, the bulk of it will not go into effect until early November. That delay is necessary for the Department to work through the particulars of the application process, which will include a background check of the applicant. Permits will cost about $37 and the fee for the background check will be about $13. A nonresident of Wisconsin who holds a concealed carry permit from another state which the DOJ recognizes as a state with similar standards as Wisconsin will not be required to apply for a Wisconsin permit, so long as their out-of-state permit is in good standing. Second, as a part of the permit application process, the applicant must provide documentation to the DOJ regarding their firearms training. Such training could include completion of the hunter safety course offered by the Department of Natural Resources, a firearms safety course offered by a state or national organization that certifies firearms instructors, a firearms safety course offered by a law enforcement agency, or a firearms safety training course offered by a state or nationally certified firearms instructor. Members or former members of law enforcement, the military, or a person who holds or has held a concealed carry permit in good standing in another state also satisfies the training requirement provision.
Wisconsin surges as others stumbleJuly 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.
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.