October 20, 2011As a former volunteer firefighter, I have seen homes, businesses, memories, and dreams go up in smoke. Each year, thousands of people die in fires across the nation — more than all natural disasters combined. Most of those deaths, about 85 percent, occur at home. But there are strategies you can use in your home to keep your families safe. Some of those tips are highlighted in National Fire Safety Week observances nationwide.
Last week was National Fire Prevention Week. Fire Prevention week was established to commemorate the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire and the Peshtigo Fire, both of which occurred on Oct. 9, 1871. Although the Chicago Fire was the most famous fire burning on that day, the Peshtigo Fire was larger and more devastating. That blaze roared through Northeast Wisconsin, burning 16 towns, killing 1,152 people, and scorching 1.2 million acres before it was done.
On the 40th anniversary of those fires in 1911, the Fire Marshals Association of North America decided the occasion should be observed by informing the public about the importance of fire prevention. Since 1922, National Fire Prevention Week has been observed on the Sunday through Saturday period in which October 9 falls. In the U.S., Fire Prevention Week is the longest running public health and safety observance on record.
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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
Back to work, WisconsinOctober 13, 2011Recently, the Governor announced a “Back to Work Wisconsin” special session, requesting the Legislature to continue working on job creation initiatives and focusing on more than two dozen bills, authored by Republicans and Democrats alike. While the Legislature is currently in its regular session discussing and acting on a myriad of bills, this special session call will place a significant demand on the Legislature’s efforts to stabilize and stimulate the state’s economy, and put people back to work. A special session is similar to a regular session of the Legislature, but differs in that a special session is initiated by the governor through an executive order, which may list one or more specific issues. Authorized by the Wisconsin Constitution, a special session allows the governor to take on a greater role in directing legislation by setting a time and agenda for the lawmaking bodies. However, while the governor sets the tone and timeframe of the special session, the Legislature has the ultimate decision as to the product that comes out of the special session.The special session and the Legislature’s regular session may convene on the same days, as may happen this Fall, making for an extremely busy time in Madison. As numerous bills on a variety of topics work their way through the legislative process, the Legislature is now also focused on the special session bills. The “Back to Work Wisconsin” Special Session bills center on proposals to create greater access to investment and venture capital, streamline various government regulations, better develop the skills of the state’s workforce, provide tax relief for economic development measures, improve the state’s transportation and infrastructure, and provide certainty in litigation. Although these are special session bills, they will still move through the normal legislative process in both houses.
Think you’ve got it?October 13, 2011If you have ever thought about serving on the Walworth County Board, consider attending an informational meeting on the subject, which will be held next month. It may seem early to be thinking about the spring election now, but those seeking a seat on the 2012-14 Board of Supervisors can begin circulating nomination papers in December. While incumbents have a good idea about what to expect during the next term, the goal of the meeting is to provide basic facts about board service to citizens who may not be as familiar with the organization.The meeting will be conducted in a workshop format, to provide those contemplating a run for the County Board with an overview of Walworth County government and a discussion of the time commitment that will likely be required of new supervisors. The two-hour class is not a “how-to” seminar on running for public office but, rather, a preview of what a supervisor might expect to experience if elected to the board. In addition to outlining the wide range of services provided by county government and highlighting some of the legal rules under which supervisors must operate, the workshop will address the relationship between the board and other elected and appointed officials, and review the committee structure.The idea for the workshop originated in 2007, in anticipation of the board’s reduction from 25 to 11 members, which took place the following year. Incumbents, at the time, were concerned the smaller board would result in a significantly greater workload for each supervisor. They felt it was important to apprise anyone considering service on the next board of the time commitment that would likely be required. Since no one knew exactly what to expect on the downsized board, it was necessary to estimate the time that would be required. Those estimates, themselves, were controversial at the time. A point of contention during the debate over downsizing was whether the resulting workload would be manageable. Some felt opponents of downsizing were overstating the amount of time that would be required.
Work of legislature is work of committeesOctober 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.
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.