February 02, 2012This week, Gov. Scott Walker delivered his State of the State address. This is an annual event when all members of the Senate, Assembly, Supreme Court, and Constitutional officers gather together to hear the governor report on the condition of Wisconsin. The State of the State speech is both a reflection of the past year and a plan for the year ahead. As I have discussed in previous articles, many accomplishments have been made, and Wisconsin is a ship turning its course.
Coming into 2011, we were faced with a challenge of reining in a multibillion dollar deficit left behind by the previous administration and Legislature. Wisconsin was drowning in debt, unemployment flirted with double-digit numbers, and taxes and government spending were both too high. Something drastic needed to be done in order to correct our course and get back on the road to economic recovery.
After a very long and tumultuous 2011, I believe in 2012, we are headed in the right direction. The state budget was balanced without raising taxes or using one-time money or dramatically increasing our debt. The unemployment rate, now at 7.1 percent, is the lowest it has been in the last three years, as companies are expanding and hiring, and adding more jobs across the state. Local school districts now have the ability and flexibility to manage their budgets, maintain classes, and offer faculty and staff additional merit and performance pay.
| (click for larger version)|
February 02, 2012A recent county finance committee meeting provided the inspiration for this week's column on dealing with the unexpected. Despite careful budget planning, ever so often, our county is confronted with an unanticipated expense. Two such expenses were addressed at the meeting.
With the exception of the game of Monopoly, when you may be lucky enough to draw the "bank error in your favor" card, financial surprises are rarely good ones. As is the case in personal budgeting, few people plan for the water heater to fail or for the roof to spring a leak. Local government finances work the same way. In addition to these calamities, a host of other bad things can happen that were never envisioned when the budget was put together. Bridges get hit by trucks. A complicated criminal investigation may put a hole in the sheriff's budget.
With the cost of care at the Mendota Mental Health Institute running about $1,000 per day, just a few individuals requiring treatment at the facility can cost our Health and Human Services Department $1 million a year. The only good news in all of this, as far as taxpayers are concerned, is that the county has to deal with these surprises with the cash it has on hand. We can't mail out a second tax bill, say in June, to supplement the original property tax levy. Careful planning by our managers minimizes unbudgeted expenses. When they do occur, however, the county has several options.
| (click for larger version)|
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
Stopping Obamacare in WisconsinJanuary 26, 2012Over the course of the past year, our state has seen many significant changes. From the reforms implemented by Act 10 which gave local and state government the tools to budget responsibly, to the state budget bill that closed the gap in the over $3 billion deficit that was inherited from previous sessions, we were able to put Wisconsin on a new path. We took a new approach. Instead of asking taxpayers, the ninth highest taxed in the nation, to continue to foot the bill for a ballooning government; we put on the brakes and put our state back on the right track.According to Chief Executive Magazine, Wisconsin moved to 24th, up from 41st in 2010 for best states to do business in. Wisconsin’s improvement was the biggest jump in the nation and in the history of the magazine. In addition, 94 percent of Wisconsin CEOs think our state is now headed in the right direction.
Wisconsin’s big boardsJanuary 19, 2012The election results are in, sort of, for the upcoming 2012-14 term of the Walworth County Board. Tuesday, Jan. 3, marked the deadline for most supervisory candidates to file their nomination papers with the county clerk. By “sort of” being in, I mean that you will still have to wait until April to find out the winners of the elections. The nomination papers, however, are results, in and of themselves, to the extent that they add to the debate regarding the ideal size of county boards.Wisconsin has more than its share of government compared to other states. When it comes to county board size, Wisconsin leads the pack. Recent figures I’ve seen placed 10 Wisconsin counties on the top 12 list of largest county boards in the nation. Of the 26 largest county boards in the U.S., 21 are located in Wisconsin. Nearly 10 percent of all county board members in the country reside in Wisconsin.Since boards are often averse to reducing themselves, the state provided a mechanism for citizens to do the job. In 2006, the legislature passed Act 100, which directed that the question of board size be put on the ballot if a sufficient number of signatures were collected. Act 100 impacted boards in two ways. Voters in a number of counties, including Walworth, were successful in reducing the size of their boards. In the case of our county, a 2007 referendum reduced the board from 25 to 11 supervisors.
Moving Wisconsin forward in 2012January 12, 2012As the new year begins, many of us take time to reflect on where we have been, and contemplate on where we may be headed. We make resolutions regarding our personal or professional lives in order to improve ourselves and the world around us. It is no different here in the Legislature, as we prepare for the final stretch of the 2011-12 legislative session. Looking forward, several major items may soon advance as a continuation of our jobs and economy agenda. As chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee, I have had the opportunity to review various regulatory issues under current law which may be impeding economic growth in Wisconsin.
A historic year in reviewDecember 29, 2011Without question, 2011 has been quite a year for Wisconsin state government. Significant and necessary reforms have been implemented to effectively change the manner in which state and local governments operate, putting Wisconsin in the national spotlight time and again.These reforms have reshaped Wisconsin government, as the governor and Legislature worked towards a mutual goal of restoring fiscal stability in the budget, improving the state’s image for job creation, and acting on long-standing legislative issues. These are some of the accomplishments and highlights of the session this past year:A Balanced Budget
Director will be missedDecember 22, 2011Our public works director, Shane Crawford, has put in his last snowplowing season. Shane, Walworth County’s deputy county administrator-central services, recently accepted a position with Madeira Beach, Fla., where he will take over as that city’s manager. Shane leaves with our best wishes as he takes on that new challenge early next year. He is leaving some big shoes to fill having, in many ways, defined the position which he will be leaving.Just prior to Shane’s arrival in 2004 the county had merged its highway and facilities departments into a single public works department. While this move may not seem like a big deal today, it was controversial when it was first implemented. The two departments had a different history and culture.
Impact of truth, half-truthsDecember 08, 2011One feature carried by a number of daily newspapers never ceases to amaze me. Every few days these papers will rate the accuracy of statements made by various state and national officials. So many of the statements end up in the “lie” category that when a mere “half-truth” is told, I seriously consider making a campaign contribution to that politician who is at least half-honest. What amazes me is not that empirical evidence often contradicts the particular statement, but that the falsehood has no real impact in the minds of many voters. In this current divisive political climate, it seems that many people will follow their party regardless of the statements made by its leaders. In the reader blogs that invariably follow the story, supporters of the “lying” politician accuse the newspaper of bias while his or her detractors gloat. In the next issue, the other side is caught in a lie and the roles are reversed.
Tiny increase to tax levyDecember 01, 2011Walworth County has a new budget for the upcoming year. County Supervisors approved the 2012 budget at their Nov. 8 meeting. To support the spending called for in the plan, the board levied $60.8 million in property taxes. That amount was essentially the same as last year’s levy, increasing just 14/100ths of one percent. The poor economy, changes in Madison and planning for the future are themes that shaped the 2012 spending plan.• Poor economy. Since the 2008 banking meltdown, there’s been very little good news as far as the county’s economy is concerned. In fact, it seems that bad news has virtually doubled since 2007, the year before the national housing bubble burst.
Program tackles drunken driversNovember 17, 2011Walworth County’s Intergovernmental Cooperation Council met on Oct. 25 to discuss a number of important issues facing the county. Among the topics addressed by the council, whose members include the chief elected officer of each town, city and village in the county as well as the county board chair, was an explanation of a new drunk driving treatment court by Circuit Court Judge David Reddy.It isn’t unusual to pick up a newspaper and read that someone in the state has been arrested for having driven drunk, numerous times, over the past five or 10 years. I’m not sure what the record is, but it is often hard for me to imagine how someone could have even had the opportunity to acquire seven or more convictions, in a relatively short period of time. Drunk drivers pose some obvious risks to the traveling public, in terms of the lives and property destroyed by their behavior. A lesser known, but still serious danger, is the one posed to taxpayers. A large percentage of beds in county jails and state prisons are occupied by drunk drivers. The cost of housing these offenders requires a greater share of tax dollars each year. Our experience here in Walworth County is no exception.
Protecting children from felons in schoolNovember 10, 2011In 1995, officials at a Wisconsin school discovered one of its’ employees had been convicted of a felony for throwing hot grease on a child. When they learned of the employee’s conviction and the reason for the felony, the employee was fired and the school rejected a request to rehire the individual. However, the state’s Labor and Industry Review Commission ruled the firing was discriminatory, per Wisconsin’s Fair Employment Act, and in effect, required the school to rehire the felon. Wisconsin law prohibits schools from taking into consideration a person’s felon history when hiring, unless the felony substantially relates to the job. In essence, felons are a protected class. While school officials believed the conviction did relate to the job, the commission believed otherwise and said the school unlawfully refused to rehire the felon based upon his conviction record.In its’ ruling, the commission said, “the Legislature did not choose to exempt schools from the conviction record provisions of the Fair Employment Act.” Wisconsin’s Fair Employment law states it is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees and job applicants based on age, color, disability, marital status, military status, pregnancy or childbirth, race, sex, and other factors, including arrest and conviction records. The purpose of the law is to protect the rights of people to seek and obtain employment free from unlawful discrimination.
So long cursiveOctober 27, 2011I don’t always agree with new initiatives in education, particularly when they involve scrapping fundamental skills under the theory that new technology has made them obsolete. Cursive writing appears to be the next discipline on its way out. Like the ink well and writing slate, an increasing number of schools are taking the position that new devices, like iPads and smart phones, have made longhand obsolete. More than 40 states no longer require cursive writing to be a part of school curriculum. As justification for the omission, educators cite the lack of available class time. If new subjects are to be added to the curriculum, others need to be dropped. One solution to this dilemma would be to increase the number of days students are in school. U.S. students spend far less time in school than their counterparts in many other countries. Unfortunately, it appears that instructional time may actually be decreasing. To deal with shrinking budgets, schools in at least 17 states have implemented four-day school weeks.