May 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.
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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
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.
A Wisconsin state of mindFebruary 10, 2011Gov. Scott Walker has now delivered his first State of the State address to the people of Wisconsin, sending a message that fundamental changes in government are underway. With a new majority party in control of both houses of the legislature and the mandate delivered by the electorate, the governor is poised to set a new tone of governance as the chief executive officer of the state. It is a new way of thinking, with the goal of creating a new state of mind for our great state.In the last month alone, the way of doing business here at the State Capitol has certainly changed. The legislature has heard the call from the governor to focus and move expeditiously on a series of bills to help businesses grow and create jobs. To date, 10 special session bills have been introduced, with half of them already adopted and signed into law, and others on the way to being enacted. The work will continue, as the priority for this legislative session for both the governor and legislature is recharging the private sector and rebranding Wisconsin’s image to attract companies and keep companies here.
E-filing saves time, moneyFebruary 03, 2011The Internet has brought research, shopping, music and news into our homes, and made it available at our fingertips 24 hours a day. People can also pay bills, watch live video of the legislature, and do their banking all using their home internet connection. In addition, tax filers can also use the Internet to file their tax returns online as a way to not only save money, but to get your refund money faster. Since 1999, Wisconsin tax filers have had the option to pay their taxes online. In response to the growing demand for this convenience, and the cost-savings it provides, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue (DOR) has made filing a Wisconsin personal income tax return both easier and cheaper. The DOR expects about three million tax returns this year and more than 75 percent of those will be e-filed, making Wisconsin a national leader in e-filing.
2011 state of the districtJanuary 27, 2011On Feb. 1, Gov. Scott Walker will deliver his first “State of the State” speech, an annual occasion of reflection on where the state has been, where it is now, and where it may be headed over the next two years. The speech generally remains focused on the positive, but also touches on the challenges facing Wisconsin. The last few years have been difficult for many, and the citizens of the state expect the new governor and legislature to respond proactively.The majority of people I represent in the 11th Senate District are encouraged by the recent changes in state government and what lies in store for the new session. The voters called for a new direction in government, and we intend to deliver on their mandate to create jobs, lower taxes, reduce government inefficiencies, and pave a new road to economic recovery. Meanwhile, the communities in the 11th Senate District remain poised to help re-energize Wisconsin’s new economy. Waukesha County continues as one of our fastest growing regions and undoubtedly is a primary economic engine of the state and is home to several national and internationally-known companies. But with a slow down in the economy, Waukesha County businesses are feeling the brunt of national and global economic pressures and doing all they can to keep pace in a changing world market. An expanding population is creating local road, highway, and other infrastructure concerns as well.
Kedzie announces assignments, new staffJanuary 06, 2011Madison — “The focus of the next legislative session will be stabilizing Wisconsin’s economy and putting people back to work — I look forward to my new committee assignments to aid in that effort,” said State Sen. Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn) as incoming Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald announced the remainder of the committee assignments for the 2011-12 session. Kedzie has already been named chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee, which he believes will have an impact on job growth in the private sector. In addition to that, Kedzie has been named vice-chair of the Senate Judiciary, Commerce, Utilities, and Government Operations Committee, and member of the Senate Agriculture, Forestry, and Higher Education Committee. Kedzie has served on all three committees to some capacity in previous legislative sessions. “There has been a great deal of discussion about reforming government, particularly agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources and Commerce Department. We have obligation to examine any sensible initiatives to streamline those departments and realign their attention to creating jobs, rather than creating more onerous regulations,” Kedzie said.