December 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
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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
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.
Fire prevention: The life you save could be your ownOctober 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.
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.