October 06, 2011There is an old saying, perhaps just among legislators, that it would take a year for the Legislature to make instant coffee.
It is adage that offers a glimpse of how the legislative process works, and how a slow, deliberative process is often necessary in our form of government. Within this legislative process is the laborious task of reviewing, discussing, revising, and potentially voting on literally hundreds of bills submitted to various Assembly and Senate committees. While seemingly tedious at times, it is an essential component in order to produce the most sound public policy.
Generally speaking, most of the work of the Legislature is done in committee. It is at the committee level where the public, organizations, state agency officials, and experts are all able to provide their thoughts and opinions expressing support or opposition to a bill.
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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
Administrator’s budget workSeptember 22, 2011Labor Day for me usually means just that, a fair amount of labor as I put the finishing touches on the county’s 2012 budget. After weeks of number crunching and meetings with county staff, the first draft of next year’s spending plan, known as the county administrator’s budget, is traditionally presented to the County Board on Thursday following Labor Day.The final piece of the budget, that I always vow I will finish before the holiday weekend, but never do, is a letter to County Board supervisors that accompanies the budget materials. The budget letter, as it has come to be known, is an attempt to describe, in words, what all the numbers mean and to explain the overall strategy that the budget hopes to accomplish. The budget letter has grown considerably over the years. The first one that I wrote to accompany the 2002 budget was three pages. Last year’s ran 18 pages and this year’s, well, it’s not done yet, but I still have a good seven or eight hours before my final “drop-dead” deadline. Despite consistently missing my pre-holiday deadline, one lesson I have learned over the years is the time it takes to physically produce the materials that comprise the administrator’s budget. After struggling with bulky printers and jammed copiers one year, minutes before the board meeting, I now allow a full business day to produce all of the documents. When I occasionally forget this rule and suggest a few last minute changes, the panicked expressions of staff members, furiously copying and assembling all of the paperwork, remind me that at a certain point I have to leave well enough alone.The budget letter has grown, over the years, in part, based on the demands for information. Supervisors, swamped with all of the documents comprising the $150 million spending plan, use the letter as a starting point to learn what is being proposed. The media, likewise, gravitates to the letter, at least in early stories, to inform the public about the budget. When the board makes its decisions in November, the letter is revised and included in the county’s “Budget in Brief.” That pamphlet, which provides a snapshot of county finances, is used as a handout for school and civic groups throughout the year. Finally, we have noticed that the letter is used by financial analysts who evaluate the county’s credit-worthiness. While these analysts examine many other financial documents to prepare our bond rating, the budget letter helps them put county finances in context. Two major factors shaped this year’s budget.
Telemarketers bewareSeptember 15, 2011The telephone rings. You pick it up, only to have a telemarketer on the other end. Even the thought of an unwelcome phone call causes many people to cringe, and it has happened to all of us. From telemarketing calls to junk mail, unwanted text messages to spam email, it seems solicitors are coming up with more and more ways to contact us. Not only are unwanted calls and mail bothersome, they are also time consuming, and some may even be frauds or scams. One common soliciting call is a fundraising telephone call from nonlocal law enforcement and firefighter groups. While appearing to be for a good cause, most calls for police and fire fighter groups are not made by local officers. Even though it may seem like the caller is a police officer or firefighter, the solicitor is often a professional fundraiser. Professional fundraisers can, and often do, legally keep 75 percent or more of the money collected from such calls. Other calls may be from a state police or fire association labor union. When a labor union collects money, it is divided between the professional fundraiser and the labor union, not the local department. If you receive such a call and are interested in donating, you may want to get specific information from the caller, including the true name of the charity, the actual location, and primary purpose, all of which must be disclosed by the caller, per Wisconsin’s charitable solicitations law. Information about such charities can be found on Wisconsin’s Bureau of Consumer Protection Web site at datcp.wi.gov/Consumer/Consumer_Protection.
Keeping teens safeSeptember 08, 2011It’s that time of year again. Teachers and students across Wisconsin are pouring into classrooms and schools to begin a new year. A new school year is an exciting time, often bringing new beginnings for parents, students and faculty. As Wisconsin students head back to school, it is imperative they have a safe environment in which to learn. A safe school involves safe classrooms, lunchrooms, playgrounds, and for older students, even safe sporting areas and after school activities. Students of all ages should feel secure when on their school campus and school administrators should have the tools they need to create safe school environments, including alcohol-free school campuses. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), numerous studies have shown that students who do not feel safe or who are not free of the effects of drugs and alcohol cannot achieve their full academic potential. Two years ago, a situation was brought to my attention which has led me to examine current law regarding alcohol-free school campuses. Under the law, all underage persons (those under the legal drinking age of 21) are prohibited from possessing or consuming alcohol beverages, unless the person is accompanied by his or her parent or guardian. Current law also prohibits a person of any age from possessing or consuming alcohol beverages on school premises, unless written permission is obtained from the school administrator.
Keeping a community safeSeptember 01, 2011The calendar may say that we still have a month of summer to go, but for me, fall officially started when I took my daughter back to college. Some things haven’t changed since my folks dropped me off at school three decades ago. Haggard parents and younger siblings still tote boxes of clothes, books and food up endless flights of stairs. Parking, carts and elevators remain in short supply at most colleges. Students still feel compelled to cram extra furniture into a room that already looks crowded with two standard-issue beds and desks. My daughter and her roommate are probably still trying to squeeze an old couch and two easy chairs into theirs. One thing that has changed is the kind of electronics being carried in. Stereos and record albums, which were the time-wasters of my generation, have given way to gaming systems and iPods. With the possible exception of the sales floor at Best Buy, I have never seen as many giant, flat-screen TVs in one building. It’s always a little sad to say goodbye after the summer but, for me, that sadness is tempered by the euphoria I feel when I get back to the car and realize that I don’t have to live in the chaos and clutter of that dorm room for a year. After the hugs and a few tears, I gave my daughter the same advice that my dad would always give to me: “Remember what you’re here for, kid.” So far she has.Being on campus made me think about higher education, in general. The institution, even in my lifetime, used to be held in much higher esteem. Historically, we would turn to professors to invent life-changing products and cure diseases. When “B” movie monsters like Godzilla or Mothra ran amok, one of the first persons called to the scene was a professor, who invariably knew the creature’s weakness. We trusted the advice of professors because, in general, they were smart people who had spent most of their lives studying a particular issue. Higher education has taken a lot of hits in recent years. Some argue that professors don’t teach enough classes or they are not to be believed because they have a political bias. Some of this criticism is undoubtedly true. I know I wouldn’t feel real good about writing out the tuition check if my daughter were taking a class from that professor who compared 9/11 victims to Nazis. On the other hand, it is always dangerous to paint with too broad of a brush. A few suspect academicians have caused a segment of society to discount the scientific method, entirely. Convinced that all research is biased, these folks are more likely to support programs that they believe or hope will work, rather than trusting the results of research based on statistical evidence.
Wisconsin’s new job incubatorAugust 25, 2011As the Legislature moves into the second half of the 2011-12 session, our focus continues to be doing what we can to help stabilize the economy and create jobs. Earlier this year, a significant component of that effort was initiated to effectively change the state agency Commerce Department into a public-private entity more focused on the commerce of our state. Many believed the old Commerce Department had become too much of a job regulator rather than job incubator; and with the state on shaky economic ground, the time was right for a much-needed change. To that end, Special Session Senate Bill 6 was adopted and enacted into law, creating the new Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC.) The charge and the mission of the WEDC will be to develop and implement economic programs to assist companies seeking to invest and create jobs in Wisconsin. The new law also directs the WEDC to support new business start-ups and business expansion and growth in Wisconsin. This is a fundamental shift in the agency, which previously devoted less than 20 percent of its staff time and resources to creating jobs. Individuals, communities and businesses alike will benefit from the variety of services offered by the WEDC. From business development to community development, export assistance to attracting global investment, the resources offered are extensive. For instance, the Division of Global Ventures targets the world’s leading companies for investment in the state, marketing the state internationally in order to help grow Wisconsin’s economy both here and abroad.
Are you ready to take over the county?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:
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.