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.
March 29, 2012I've never been a big fan of many of the so-called Hallmark holidays. These are the holidays whose origins can be traced back to marketing departments rather than some historical person or event. I suppose I might feel differently if I were more organized. Recognizing "sweetests" administrative professionals or even bosses aren't bad ideas, it's just that I have a hard enough time keeping track of birthdays and the more traditional holidays. Not content with having a single day, a number of organizations have appropriated an entire week or even month to promote their causes. A few of my favorites include National Prune Breakfast Month (January), Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month (February) and National Ghostwriters Week in March. If I sound cynical, I don't mean to be. A few of the awareness weeks and months actually do have an impact. One of these, National Sunshine Week, is the topic of this week's column.
While we've experienced our share of sun this winter, Sunshine Week, which took place earlier this month, actually refers to transparency in government. Transparency is the ease with which citizens can see what their government is doing. In fairness to Prune Breakfast Month, Sunshine Week has gained a little higher profile, in part, because the press makes a collective effort to promote it. Since a big part of their job is to keep track of government, they have a vested interest in making sure they have access to the most information possible. As a result, many newspapers highlight the week with stories on the topic. A few will send out reporters as sort of "secret shoppers" to make information requests of various governments and report on the results.
Two major safeguards ensure that local governments provide transparency. They are the open meetings and public records laws. With limited exceptions, state law requires that government meetings be open to the public. Disagreements can arise, from time to time, between local governments and the public or press as to when a meeting may be conducted in closed session. While there are some gray areas, in general, the law on open meetings has been made clearer by court decisions, over the years. The same cannot be said, in my opinion, of the public records law. In the 20 years that I have been responding to information requests, the law on the subject seems more complicated than ever. In circumstances like these, I am sometimes critical of the state for providing laws that are less than clear, but I don't think the state is really the culprit here. Changing technology and an increased awareness of privacy have combined to create uncertainty in this area.
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Recent Legislators at Work
Regulatory reform bill receives senate approvalMarch 15, 2012MADISON — The Wisconsin State Senate gave final approval to Senate Bill 326, a major regulatory reform measure authored by Sen. Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn) and co-authored by Rep. Jeff Mursau (R-Crivitz), which streamlines various waterway permits issued by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and removes many of the burdensome regulations placed on pier owners.Kedzie said lawmakers and the DNR worked together for more than a year on the bill, which he believes will help the private sector create jobs by providing more clarity and certainty in the overall permitting process. In addition, he says the pier regulations enacted a few years ago were causing frustration and confusion across the state, leaving property owners wondering if their pier was or was not legal. SB 326 repeals much of the regulations placed on existing piers.
Preserving commitment to long term careMarch 08, 2012Often times, as we grow older, we may not be able to physically do what we used to do. For many of our aging population, and those with physical and developmental disabilities, common activities such as personal care or simple home tasks are difficult to accomplish. While much of this needed help may come from family members, some comes from professional caregivers, which some may simply not be able to afford. To address that concern, Wisconsin enacted a new long-term care system called Family Care back in 1998. Family Care was created to better serve frail older adults and adults with physical or developmental disabilities. Specifically, Family Care was designed to provide cost-effective, flexible, and comprehensive long-term care to foster individual independence and quality of life, while also recognizing the need for interdependence and support. The program began in five counties in 1999 and has since grown to 57 counties. In addition to Family Care, Wisconsin’s Medicaid program also includes traditional Medicaid, BadgerCare Plus, and SeniorCare. Since 1999, public assistance programs have greatly expanded, and in fact, one of every five Wisconsin residents is on some type of Medical Assistance. There are currently more than one million enrollees in the state’s Medical Assistance programs, and the numbers continue to rise. Obviously, this expansion has a significant impact on the state’s finances.
Restoring intent of programsMarch 01, 2012MADISON — The Wisconsin State Senate gave its final approval to senate Bill 368, the State Wetlands and Mitigation Program (SWAMP) initiative authored by Sen. Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn), which revises the original Wetland Mitigation Program, a bill he co-authored in 1999.Kedzie said Bill 368 restores the original intent of the program, and maintains a balance between environmental protection and economic development.“Twelve years ago, the wetland mitigation program was created to provide an option for the DNR to utilize for proposed projects which may impact a marginal wetland — the intent was to use the program for the benefit of both the environment and economy,” Kedzie said. “Over the last 10 years, I have monitored the performance of the program, and believe reasonable changes are needed in order to uphold the original legislative intent — Senate Bill 368 meets that goal.”
Cracking down on drunken drivingFebruary 23, 2012We all know how dangerous drunken driving can be. Seeing memorials on the roadside of a drunken driving crash, or reading about a drunken driving incident in the newspaper are reminders that driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is dangerous, and at times, deadly. Unfortunately, drunken driving in Wisconsin is far too common. A 2009 national study found that Wisconsin had the highest rate of drunken driving in the nation. That year, 238 people were killed and almost 4,000 others were injured in alcohol-related crashes. Approximately 45 percent of all fatal traffic accidents that year were alcohol related. Over the last few years, the Legislature has taken steps to address this on-going problem, but more needs to be done. To that end, I have authored three pieces of legislation this session relating to drunk driving. The first, Senate Bill 379, would prohibit a person whose driver’s license has been suspended or revoked for a drunken driving offense from purchasing or leasing a motor vehicle. The prohibition would only apply during the period of time when the suspension or revocation is in effect. Any person who violates this prohibition would be subject to additional fines and penalties.
Filling skills gap in WisconsinFebruary 16, 2012As the Legislature looks at more ideas to grow jobs in a state traditionally known for manufacturing and agriculture, it is clear we are heading in the right direction. Wisconsin’s economy is on the upswing, and Wisconsin’s fiscal condition has significantly improved. The unemployment rate is falling, and last year, Wisconsin gained a net total of more than 21,000 jobs. But we know there is still much work to be done to improve those numbers. Currently, we are hard at work on a number of items to help grow jobs in our state. One consistent message from companies and small businesses is about the skills gap that exists between available jobs and qualified workers. While there are job openings available across the state, it can be difficult for companies to find qualified workers with the skills necessary to fill those positions.
Honoring Wisconsin’s fallen heroesFebruary 09, 2012In the Senate last month, we had the privilege of honoring three of the state’s heroes, Wisconsin’s fallen soldiers. Their families came to the State Capitol where all Senators gathered together to show their respect. One of the three fallen soldiers was from the 11th Senate District, and it was an honor for me to meet the family and express our collective gratitude for the sacrifice made on behalf of our nation.In the Wisconsin Legislature, we honor these military personnel through a Fallen Solider ceremony. It gave me great pride to co-author the protocol for this ceremony in 2005. The protocol ensures the State Senate appropriately honors Wisconsin’s heroes in a manner that is consistent and dignified for both Legislators and families, and in which the Legislature pays tribute to the brave men and women who have fought and died for our country. The procedure involves Joint Resolutions honoring deceased military personnel, law enforcement officers and firefighters. When a member of the armed forces has been killed in the line of duty, the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs notifies the Senate, and a Senate resolution honoring the member’s service is drafted. Such resolutions and corresponding ceremonies are offered only if the family of the soldier approves.
What to do about contingency fundsFebruary 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.
Wisconsin back on trackFebruary 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.
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.