Tag Archives: Washington County Daily News

Respecting the Hunt

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Sorry for being a bit late posting it. I was, predictably, hunting. Here you go:

It is the end of November and we all know what that means — Thanksgiving and the kickoff of the Christmas season. In Wisconsin, it also means that it is the annual nine-day gun deer season. Our state and local governments have been tinkering with the regulations in recent years — mostly for the better — but the gun deer season continues to be an integral part of Wisconsin’s heritage.

At the most mundane level, Wisconsin’s deer hunters provide a vital service to the state by controlling the population. Deer are responsible for millions of dollars of crop damage every year and thousands of vehicle accidents. According to statistics compiled by State Farm last year, Wisconsin is sixth worst in the nation when it comes to accidents involving deer, elk, and moose with the odds of hitting a deer in the state 1 to 77. The national average for automobile damage after a collision with a deer was $3,995 last year. From this perspective, keeping Wisconsin’s one-million-strong deer population in check is a necessary function.

But Wisconsin’s deer hunt tradition is so much more than just a utilitarian community service. It is a tradition that binds families, friends and fellow Wisconsinites. Throughout Wisconsin, hunters spread out into the woods to commune with nature and each other. Then they return to their homes, their buddy’s shed, their local tavern or elsewhere to swap stories, tell lies and engage in endless speculation about where to find the elusive Turdy Point Buck.

Every family and group has their own unique traditions and communities. For some, the deer hunting tradition unites generations where grandparents teach their grandkids and kids soak up time with their parents. For this reason, perhaps, the legislature decided to waive the minimum hunting age in Wisconsin. Up until a week ago, children had to be at least 10 years old to participate in a mentored hunt where the mentor and child must stay within arm’s length of each other and share a gun. The new law allows children of any age to participate in a mentored hunt and to carry his or her own gun.

The new law allows kids to get into the field and learn the craft of hunting with their mentors (usually their kin) earlierif their parents choose. Thirtyfour other states already do not have a minimum hunting age. While seemingly minor, this change to Wisconsin’s law is another step in the ongoing trend in Wisconsin to push more decisions and control back to the people and out of the hands of government. After all, who is in a better position to decide the maturity and skill of a child — their parents or the government? And who has more of a vested interest in the safety of that child — their parents or the government?

While Wisconsin has been encouraging and nurturing the state’s deer hunting culture, West Bend has acknowledged the practical need to allow hunters to thin the deer herd within the city limits. Up until last week, the city forbade hunting within the city limits. The problem is that without any natural predators, the deer continue to breed and the herd grows. This has resulted in an increase in people crashing into deer with their cars causing property damage and injuries.

In order to help thin the West Bend herd, the Common Council passed a resolution to allow very limited hunting in two of West Bend’s parks. Under the new ordinance, the city will issue 20 nuisance permits for bow hunters to hunt deer in Lac Lawrann Conservancy and Ridge Run Park for four days in January. Anyone wanting to participate will have to pass a proficiency test. Then the city will hold a lottery to award the 20 permits to anyone who applied and passed the test. A committee will decide some of the finer details of the actual hunt, but it will be highly regulated with the focus being the safety of the hunter and any citizens who may venture into the two parks.

Such onerous restrictions seem a bit overwrought given Wisconsin hunters’ tremendous safety record — especially bow hunters — but they are reasonable measures meant to assuage the fears of some of the city’s citizens. Over time, the regulations will undoubtedly be adjusted to balance the need for safety with the need to manage West Bend’s deer herd.

There is an expression from my alma mater that is apropos to Wisconsin’s rich deer hunting heritage: From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. And from the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.

Indeed.

State should standardize access to police body cam videos

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Actually, it was online yesterday, but I was busy. Here you go:

Technology has always pushed the boundaries of culture and it often takes time for the law to catch up. As body cameras become more common for police, the management of that footage has largely been left to individual law enforcement agencies. The Wisconsin State Assembly has passed a good bill to govern the public’s access to law enforcement body cam footage that the state Senate and governor should quickly enact into law.

The use of body cams by law enforcement has been expanding mainly due to the public’s pressure to do so. Americans grant a lot of power in our police and extend a lot of trust that they will use that power appropriately on our behalf. But that trust is not absolute and in the wake of a series of high profile incidents where a law enforcement officer killed a citizen under questionable circumstances, many members of the general public pushed for police to wear body cams to help discern the truth in such incidents.

On the other side of the coin, many law enforcement officers asked to use body cams under the belief that while a body cam video might indict a cop doing something illegally, it might also exonerate a cop who is wrongly being accused of committing a crime. Now that many law enforcement agencies are using body cams, the results are predictably varied. What we are finding is that the body cam footage of controversial incidents rarely conclusively show the “truth,” and a jolting video rarely quells the controversy.

While the use of body cam footage may not be the antidote to controversy that many had hoped, body cams have become a useful tool in the routine business of law enforcement. The question remains: now that we have thousands of law enforcement officers going about their work while recording themselves and all of the people around them, who is allowed to see those recordings?

In general, the video recorded by law enforcement’s body cams are public records. That means that upon request, the law enforcement agency must give that video to anyone who asks unless there is a compelling government interest not to do so. Our common law has always set a fairly high bar for withholding public documents, so the end result is that 95 percent of requests for police body cam video are granted.

The presents a problem in balancing the public’s right to know with the individual’s right to privacy and protection under the Fourth Amendment. While policies for when law enforcement officers activate their body cams vary, most of them are recording whenever they are engaging a member of the public for any reason. This means that even when an officer is engaging a citizen who has not committed a crime, which is the vast majority of the time, that engagement may be recorded and released on the internet for everyone to see.

For example, if an officer responds to an elderly person’s fall in his or her home, that could be recorded and released. If an officer responds to a woman who was raped, that encounter could be recorded and released. If an officer helps a person who slid into a ditch, that could be recorded and released. While some of these incidents are benign, releasing the video of the encounter could be embarrassing for the citizen, or worse, used by someone to harass or further traumatize a victim of a crime.

Rep. Jesse Kremer’s (R-Kewaskum) bill seeks to set some reasonable standards for when law enforcement body cams must be released and when they should be kept confidential. Under the bill, footage would be considered an open record and available to the public if it was taken in a public place and involved a death, assault, arrest or search. If one of those actions occurred in a place where a person had a reasonable expectation of privacy, then the footage could only be released if all of the people involved agree.

Under Kremer’s bill, police body cam footage would still be available for any legal action, civil or criminal, but only footage of actual or suspected criminal behavior could be released to the public. This strikes a reasonable balance that allows the public to continue to have general oversight of police in the most serious encounters, but protects the public from malcontents using police videos for harassment, bullying, preying, or just feeding their creepy voyeurism.

This bill was passed on a bipartisan voice vote in the Assembly and now sits in the Senate awaiting action. The Senate should pick up Kremer’s torch and carry it to Gov. Walker’s desk.

Special election for the 58th Assembly District

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

After Rep. Bob Gannon’s untimely death in office, the citizens of the 58th Assembly District must go about the task of filling his seat. To that end, Gov. Scott Walker has called for a special election.

When a legislative seat is unexpectedly vacated, the governor has wide discretion on when to call a special election. The governor could have waited for the April ballot, but given that the April election is for non-partisan offices, it is sensible to hold an election on a different date for the 58th Assembly District.

The special election is coming up very quickly. The primary election will be Dec. 19 and the general election will be Jan. 16. Two candidates have already announced that they are running for the office, but potential candidates have until Nov. 21 to file their nomination papers.

The 58th Assembly District is overwhelmingly Republican. Glenn Grothman, now Congressman Grothman, held the seat from 1993 until 2005, when he challenged incumbent Republican Senate Leader Mary Panzer, in a primary and soundly defeated her. Grothman was replaced by the equally conservative Rep. Pat Strachota. When Strachota retired from office in 2014, several conservative candidates stepped forward to vie for the seat.

During the partisan primary election of 2014, Bob Gannon, Sandy Voss and Tiffany Koehler battled it out for the Republican nod. Tellingly, nobody even tried for the Democratic nod even though it was an open election without an incumbent on the ballot. That is an indication of how Republican the district is.

Bob Gannon won that primary with 51.3 percent of the vote and went on to win the seat unopposed in the general election. Gannon won reelection unopposed last year. As Republican as the 58th Assembly District is, the primary election on Dec. 19 will really determine who will go to Madison to represent the district.

The two candidates who have stepped forward already offer a quality choice for the voters. The first is Steven Stanek, who announced his candidacy the same day that Walker announced the special election.

Stanek is a Republican from West Bend. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Stanek owns and runs Direct Disposal Services of Wisconsin.

He is married with three teenagers and has been heavily involved in local clubs and youth athletics. Stanek is committed to focusing on fiscal responsibility, jobs and public safety. This is not Stanek’s first foray into politics as he was the campaign manage for Republican Jeff Fitzgerald when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2012.

The second candidate is Tiffany Koehler of Slinger, who ran in the primary against Gannon in 2014 and garnered a strong 27.7 percent in that election. Koehler spent 14 years in the U.S. Army as a combat medic and mental health specialist. After graduating from Cardinal Stritch University, Koehler spent many years working in the mental health field in the private sector with several organizations.

Most recently, Koehler has been serving as a legislative aide to the late Rep. Gannon, her former primary opponent. Koehler’s political positions will sound very familiar to conservatives in the 58th. She believes in less government, less taxation, more freedom and reducing government’s footprint.

While there is still time for other candidates to enter the race, the voters of the 58th Assembly District are already presented with two quality candidates from which to choose. The primary election is six weeks away, so voters will have to make an effort to get to know the candidates so that they can make an informed choice.

As a side note, local election clerks are always in need of volunteers to work at the polls. This is especially the case for a special election. If you are able to help facilitate our election process, please consider calling your local clerk for more information on how to become an election day poll worker.

The legacy of Russian influence

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

Harry Hopkins was an energetic and tireless social worker who helped shape much of the world as we know it today. His work in New York in the early 1930s attracted the attention, and then the friendship, of New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor.

When Roosevelt moved to the White House, he called upon Hopkins to be one of the principal architects of the New Deal. Throughout the decade, Hopkins grew to become one of Roosevelt’s closest advisors and was probably the most influential person throughout Roosevelt’s administration except for Mrs. Roosevelt.

When World War II began, Roosevelt called upon Hopkins again to be Roosevelt’s personal emissary in high-level diplomatic discussions with Britain and the Soviet Union. Hopkins was appointed to administer the famed LendLease program and was a permanent fixture in the White House throughout the war.

One aspect about Hopkins’ work during the war had sought explanation from historians. He was energetic and consistent about advocating for the Soviet Union even to the detriment of the U.S and other allies. Hopkins greatly directed Lend-Lease resources to the Soviets, strongly pushed Stalin’s demands for a second front, dismissed the fact that the Soviets massacred 22,000 Poles in the Katyn Forest, and generally tilted every scale he could put his finger on in favor of the Soviet Union.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the release of many of the Soviet archives has begun to offer some explanation for Hopkins’ behavior. He was almost certainly a Soviet agent. The only real remaining question is to what extent. The first indication came when Oleg Gordievsky, a senior KGB defector, recalled a lecture in which another KGB office bragged that Hopkins was the Soviet’s most important agent during the war.

The confirmation came when New York Senator Daniel Moynihan forced the release of The Verona Papers — a trove of decades’ worth of coded messages from Soviet agents in the U.S. to Moscow. Those documents revealed a message from Agent 19 to Moscow about a highlevel conversation between the Western Allies. Scholars have deduced that Hopkins was the only person in a position to share the details of that conversation. The evidence points to the fact that Hopkins was not just a zealous friend of the Soviet Union, he was an active agent for their interests.

We do not want to think that there was a traitor so close to the central nervous system of American power — especially during war. We do not want to think that Joseph Stalin’s hand was at work shaping American policy. But facts are facts whether we want to believe them or not.

It took half a century for the facts about Hopkins’ treachery to come to light. Evidence of another high-level treachery is coming to light much sooner for former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Here are a few facts that have been reported by The Hill and others:

 Former President Bill Clinton was paid $500,000 in 2010 by a bank controlled by the Russian government for a 90-minute speech to Renaissance Capital in Russia and then had a meeting with Vladimir Putin. This happened right after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been in Russia and was actively working on a variety of follow up items for Russia after those meetings.

 One of the issues Hillary Clinton worked on was her department’s approval of a deal whereby a Russian nuclear company purchased a Canadian uranium company to control 20 percent of America’s strategic uranium reserves.

 Around the same time, a Canadian uranium magnet involved in the deal donated about $145 million to the Clinton Foundation, whose main purpose has been to support the Clinton’s lavish lifestyle rather than any meaningful charitable purpose.

 Another issue was for another Russian company that used to sell recycled uranium to the U.S., but needed a new market as their deal was ending.

 A third issue was to arrange for a group of venture capitalists from Silicon Valley to travel to Russia to look for ways to create a Silicon Valley in Russia.

 Also in 2010, the FBI broke a Russian spy ring that had been trying to get access to the State Department for a decade. They had recently gained access to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton through a Democratic donor before the FBI arrested them.

 Since 2009, the FBI had also been investigating a huge bribery and kickback program inside a Russian nuclear energy company with a division in America. As part of that investigation, the informant overheard numerous conversations from Russians about their efforts to influence the Clintons.

A kind, if naïve, reading of these facts might excuse them away as independent and unrelated events that were each conducted with the utmost propriety. After all, we do not want to believe that there could have been someone working for the benefit of the Russian government at the highest level of our national government. But at some point, the accumulation of facts point to only one reasonable conclusion whether we want to believe it or not.

Wisconsin’s surplus

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

Huzzah, huzzah! The State of Wisconsin finished its last budget with a $579 million surplus. That is great news both in real and in political terms, but it also gives some perspective to some unpleasant truths.

There is no reason to understate the fact that $579 million is a lot of money. A lot. If Wisconsin had ended the budget with a $579 million deficit, it would have been considered a crisis and woeful example of incompetent fiscal management. But the fact that it is a surplus confirms the converse. Namely that the state of Wisconsin is in terrific fiscal health and its finances are being competently managed.

What is perhaps more important is that this budget surplus is merely one in a string of recent budget surpluses. Gov. Scott Walker and the legislature have been managing the state budget successfully for almost a decade and it is not going without notice around the nation. Just last week, Both Fitch Ratings and Kroll Bond Rating Agency upgraded the state’s bond rating to AA+. Fitch noted that, “the fiscal 2011-2013 budget marked a turning point, with extensive structural budget actions and the resolution of several lingering fiscal challenges.”

Fitch’s commentary is a heady tonic as Walker gets ready to officially announce his run for a third term in office. Whichever Democrat wins the nod to challenge Walker in the general election will have to make the case that budget surpluses are bad and the state’s bond rating is too high.

Walker and the legislature must now decide what to do with the surplus. There is a very easy answer to that: give it back to the taxpayers — $579 million is almost exactly $100 for every man, woman, and child in the state. Taxpayers would no doubt appreciate a $100 credit for each member of the household on their state income taxes next year. In any case, given the fact that the legislature just completed the new budget, which is balanced and not reliant on a surplus from the previous budget, they should reject the urge to spend it on things whose priority failed to garner funding in the current budget.

While $579 million is a fortune in real terms, it is only a small fraction of the state budget. The previous state biennial budget was $72,635,547,000. The $579 million surplus was, then, is about 0.8 percent of the entire amount. The 2017-2019 budget that just passed the legislature projects to spend $75,590,563,100. The surplus is only 0.77 percent of that budget.

It is worth remembering some of the heated debates that raged over the budget and delayed its passage by months. One of those debates was over the fictional budget shortfall for transportation that was estimated at anywhere between $400 million and $1 billion depending on who one asked. In order to fill that budget gap, the legislative Republicans separated into three camps.

The first camp was headed by Speaker Robin Vos and some Assembly Republicans who wanted to raise taxes to spend more on transportation. The second camp was represented by the Senate leadership and wanted to borrow more to cover the shortfall. The third, and smallest, camp of Republicans wanted to delay or reprioritize transportation projects to spend within the money already available.

In the end, the Republicans struck a compromise that did a bit of everything. They increased taxes on people who drive electric and hybrid vehicles, reprioritized some projects and borrowed a lot of money. In hindsight, that entire debate could have been rendered moot had they just prudently managed the resources available as they did demonstrated in the previous budget.

That fact raises the question, why were any Republicans ever even proposing a tax increase? Why any of them proposing more borrowing? Why were some of them so unwilling, in the context of a $76 billion budget, to reprioritize spending to fill what amounts to less than 1 percent of the state budget? Republicans should rightly be commended for their fiscal management these recent years, but some of them have drifted very far from their conservative moorings if they are reaching for tax increases and debt as a measure of first resort.

A $579 million surplus may be a lot or little depending on the perspective, but there is no argument about it being a good thing for Wisconsin. The taxpayers are continuing to reap the rewards of the conservative revolution begun at the dawn of this decade.

Trump acts on Obamacare

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

President Trump, frustrated with Congress’ failure to repeal Obamacare, has begun to take unilateral action to reintroduce market forces into the health insurance market and pick at the pillars of Obamacare. His actions are a great first step.

Before getting into the specifics of Trump’s actions, we must note that the continued concentration of power in the presidency is abhorrent and an existential threat to liberty. That concentration has been progressing for decades, but greatly accelerated during the President Obama’s terms. Whereby Obama bragged about governing with a “phone and a pen,” Trump is exercising that same arbitrary authority. And while Trump’s most recent orders are good policy, the same power can and will be used for bad policy and worse. The fact remains that so much arbitrary power — the power over the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans and trillions of dollars — should never be concentrated in the pen of one person.

Obama used that arbitrary authority to implement Obamacare and make changes to our health care insurance market — sometimes in ways not legal. Trump is using that same arbitrary authority to make different changes to our health care insurance market.

Trump’s first executive order was a series of directives to various cabinet agencies and tweaks to find ways to allow more health insurance options and more flexibility in the health insurance market. The first directive was to the Labor Department to find ways to allow small businesses and individuals to collectively buy insurance through association health plans.

Allowing small businesses and individuals to group together — particularly if they are allowed to do so across state lines — would allow them to gain more purchasing power, better rates and in some circumstances, alleviate them of many of Obamacare’s regulations by shifting their plans under federal regulation instead of state regulations.

The second thing Trump’s order did was to allow people to buy more kinds of short-term health insurance plans. Obama limited these plans to 90 days, but allowing people to by plans for up to a year provides much more flexibility to people between jobs or open enrollment periods.

The third thing Trump’s order did was allow employers more ways to give employees tax-free money to pay for health care expenses elsewhere. In the past, some employers that did not provide health insurance could instead give their employees money to buy insurance on the individual market through a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA). Obamacare forbade this accommodation and Trump’s order allows it again.

These series of changes are all positive and allow for more flexibility and competition in the health insurance market. It was Trump’s second action, however, that really undercut Obamacare. When the Obamacare law was written, the lawmakers knew that it would dramatically increase the cost of health care insurance. It sought to address that by shifting costs to the taxpayers in two primary ways. The first way was to give subsidies to people buying Obamacare policies if they couldn’t afford it through a tax credit.

The second way was to mandate that the insurance companies providing Obamacare policies cut what they charge health care providers — even if those cuts results in a loss to the insurance company. This was done with the understanding that the taxpayers would pick up the losses of the health insurance companies, but the Obamacare law never appropriated any money for such subsidies. Lawmakers at the time were justifiably fearful of being accused of subsidizing the profits of big health insurance companies, so they did not appropriate the money. President Obama picked up the ball and began illegally giving the health insurance companies subsidies to prop up their profits beginning in 2014.

Trump is ending this illegal practice. Ironically, all Trump is doing is following the law as written. The result is that the insurance companies are still required by law to keep their billings lower — sometimes below costs — but they will not get a check from the taxpayers to cover those losses. They will be forced to either pass those costs on to policy holders through massive premium increases, or exit the Obamacare exchanges. The structural flaws of Obamacare will no longer be covered up with billions of taxpayer dollars illegally funneled to insurance companies.

Obamacare has already failed America. Trump is just trying to mitigate and hopefully reverse some of the damage.

The human cost of civil liberties

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

Living in a free society rooted in individual liberty and the rule of law is not for the frail or fragile. There are considerable personal and societal human costs, but the alternative is despotism, the human costs of which history has demonstrated to be substantially more severe. 

When the Constitution of the United States was written, it rested, and continues to rest, on the principle that sovereignty resides in the individual. Those individuals can bind together as a people to form a government. The people then grant the government specific powers to exercise on behalf of the people for the common good. The Constitution was written to define the structure of the national government and then grant that government specific powers. It was understood that the national government could not exercise any power not specifically granted to it by the people in its founding document. Because of that understanding, many of the founders thought that a Bill of Rights was superfluous.

Fortunately, other founders disagreed and insisted on a Bill of Rights to make it crystal clear to that there are certain rights of the people that are absolutely inviolable. The end result was the first 10 amendments of the Constitution which were drafted, debated and passed by many of the same people who signed the Constitution.

The Bill of Rights was specifically written to protect individuals from the arbitrary coercive power of government and it has protected Americans for more than 200 years. But those protections do not come without cost. Many of them result in mayhem and deaths that could have been prevented in a more authoritarian state without a Bill of Rights.

For example, many of the protections in the Bill of Rights allow criminals to remain free to brutalize their fellow citizens. The Fourth Amendment says that people have a right to, “be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” This requires that the police have a reasonable suspicion that someone has committed a crime and follow due process in order to search someone’s person or property. Sometimes criminals are able to hide behind these procedures and commit more crimes while the police are unable to act.

The Eighth Amendment says in part that, “excessive bail shall not be required.” This amendment is why alleged murders and rapists are able to bail out of jail even when the evidence is overwhelming that they are guilty. Sometimes, those murderers and rapists continue to wreak havoc while on bail until the judicial system can finally process them.

The Sixth Amendment says in part that a criminal on trial has a right to, “be confronted with the witnesses against him.” This is the right that forces the government to present witnesses to an accused criminal, thus allowing the accused to take retribution against those witnesses or even murder them to halt the trial, as happened recently with a drug lord in Milwaukee.

All of these individual protections that keep criminals on the streets are rooted in the philosophy that “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer,” as written by William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England in 1765. While a noble and high standard to set for a government to deprive an individual of his or her rights, it also necessitates that our government lets a lot of very violent people roam our streets because the government cannot reach that standard.

Beyond protecting possible criminals, our Bill of Rights also forbids our government from punishing thoughts or actions that do not violate someone else’s rights. The First Amendment prohibits the government from punishing someone for exercising their religion, peacefully assembling, speaking, petitioning the government or proclaiming thoughts in the press. That comes with a cost. People are free to preach hateful religions, glorify violent thoughts and images, whip up a mob into a murderous rage and much more. America has seen a lot of murders, assaults, damaged property, and even wars that could have been prevented had it not been for the First Amendment.

Then there is the Second Amendment, the favorite target of the left after every murderous rampage committed with a gun. The Second Amendment protects individuals from the government restricting or prohibiting their ownership and use of weapons. While the use of weapons in our society is overwhelmingly positive and a vital backstop against tyranny, there are also times when weapons are used to maim and kill innocent people.

It is not always easy or safe living in a free society. It requires vigilance, effort, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to accept consequences for one’s own actions and the unpredictable actions of others. It is much easier and safer to live under an authoritarian government – as long as you do and think what your government tells you.

Republicans tackle tax reform

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

In an attempt to rise from the ashes of their failure to repeal Obamacare, the Republicans in Washington are forging ahead with an ambitious tax reform plan. While it remains to be seen if Congress can accomplish anything substantial under Republican management, this tax reform plan needs to get done.

There are substantial political obstacles for any real reform of the federal income tax system. The first political obstacle is that the United States’ federal income tax has become so progressive that any real reform of it will be lambasted by political opponents with the old tired rhetoric that it “benefits the rich more.” And that rhetoric will be largely true if the benefit is measures in real dollars.

As of the latest figures from the Tax Foundation, the so-called “rich” pay the vast majority of the taxes — and they pay a disproportionate amount of taxes compared to their share of income. The top 10 percent of income earners earn 47 percent of the aggregate adjusted gross income while they pay 71 percent of the overall income tax burden. The top 50 percent of income earners earn 89 percent of the aggregate adjusted gross income while they pay 97 percent of the overall income tax burden.

Looking at the numbers from the alternate perspective, the bottom 50 percent of income earners earn 11 percent of the aggregate adjusted gross income while they pay 2.75 percent of the overall income tax burden. Our federal income tax system is beyond progressive. It is redistributory. It is almost a mathematical impossibility to reform the federal income tax system without disproportionally benefitting the upper half of income earners.

The second political obstacle to tax reform is the throng of lobbyists and special interests in Washington who will fight against reform. While the average American and business owner yearns for a simple and fair tax system, the lobbyists and special interests thrive in the system’s complexity. For every tax exemption, loophole, credit, and shelter, there is a constituency that will fight tooth and nail to protect it. Any attempt at simplifying the tax code will run into a withering fire from K Street.

Despite the obvious political obstacles, the Republicans are seeking to simplify and flatten the tax code. There are many components to the plan, but the thrust is very straightforward and sensible. They want to lower the overall rates while removing almost all of the loopholes.

Under the plan, the individual income tax framework wouldbe reduced from the current seven tax brackets to just three brackets with rates of 12 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent. But while reducing the number of brackets and the rates, the plan would eliminate all tax exemptions except for those for home ownership, charitable giving, retirement savings and higher education. The plan would also increase the child tax credit and the standard deduction.

As a point of comparison, the current highest tax rate is 39.6 percent, but the effective average tax rate of the 1 percent is 27 percent after all of the deductions, credits, and loopholes. Under the plan, even though the highest rate would be lowered to 35 percent, the effective tax rate will most likely increase due to the elimination of most of those loopholes.

For business taxes, the Republicans’ plan would lower the corporate tax rate from a ridiculously high 35 percent to 20 percent — slightly below he world average. The plan would also eliminate almost all of the loopholes that corporations use to avoid paying income taxes.

Perhaps more importantly, the Republicans’ reform plan would decrease the top tax rate on small businesses from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. Since most businesses in America are small businesses whose profits are taxed at the individual tax rate of the owners, they are usually paying a much higher rate than corporations, although corporate profits are taxed twice.

Finally, the Republicans’ plan would switch to a territorial system for taxing overseas profits of American companies, which is more in line with the majority of industrial nations. This would encourage American companies to bring home and spend the estimated $2.6 trillion in cash that they are currently holding overseas to shield it from confiscatory taxation.

Year after year, Americans have clamored for a simpler, fairer, less burdensome tax system for our businesses and our own incomes. The Republicans’ tax reform plan would go a long way toward delivering that kind of system. It is also the Republicans’ last chance to deliver on one of their big promises before the next election. For the sake of the American people, let us hope that the Republicans can overcome the obstacles and pass their plan into law.

 

Wisconsin Legislature still has a lot of work to do

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

At long last, the Wisconsin Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker have completed the Foxconn deal and the budget. They can now get to work on other important priorities.

The biennial budget is the most important piece of work the Legislature does. Historically, both parties decry the presence of nonfiscal policy items in the budget but both parties do it. The reason is simple. The Legislature must pass a budget, so the easiest way to get various policy items passed it to buckle it to the budget.

This time, the Joint Finance Committee, led by Republicans, stripped all 83 nonfiscal policy items out of the governor’s budget in April. While a few of those items made their way back into the budget, like the repeal of the prevailing wage law for state contracts, many of those items were important conservative reforms that were set aside while leadership suggested that they be brought up as individual bills. The Legislature can now get to work on passing those individual bills as well as other conservative initiatives that are left undone. In no particular order, here is an incomplete list of things that the legislature should pass without undue delay.

 The Legislature could save the taxpayers a lot of money by making some very simple reforms to state employee benefits to bring them more in line with what the taxpayers experience. One area in need of attention is in the health insurance plan that state employees enjoy. As John Torinus pointed out earlier this year, the state’s under-managed health plan costs the taxpayers an exorbitant $23,000 per year per employee.

For comparison, the cost of the average employer-provided health insurance policy for a family in America last year was $18,142, according to the Kaiser Employer Survey. If the state would actively manage health insurance to bring it to the national average, it would save taxpayers almost $317 million per year while still providing a very generous and salubrious benefit. If the state went one step further and required state employees to cover 40 percent of the premiums, it would save taxpayers $787 million per year. That pays for a lot of education and roads.

 Another neglected area is the crime that is ravaging the state’s urban areas. Rep. Joe Sanfelippo and Sen. Leah Vukmir proposed a series of eight bills that would do things like strengthen penalties for carjacking and give judges more latitude to impose longer prison sentences on juvenile crooks. These bills are a start, but more needs to be done to ensure that prosecutors and judges are enforcing laws as the people expect them to.

 One small item that was stripped from the budget is to allow University of Wisconsin students to opt out of allocable segregated fees that go to controversial and divisive organizations. As a simple matter of freedom, students who are attending an university for an education should not be forced to fund organizations with which they disagree.

 One item that has already progressed a little this month is a bill to reform Wisconsin’s civil asset forfeiture law. Current law allows the government to seize property from people even if they have not been convicted of a crime. This is blatantly unconstitutional and encourages the worst types of corruption by government officials. Reforming this law to restrict the government to only being able to seize property upon a criminal conviction is necessary for the preservation of liberty.

 Another bill that is already seeing some progress is a bill that would liberalize Wisconsin’s concealed carry law to bring it more in line with our national and state constitutional protections. Twelve other states already have so-called permitless or constitutional carry without any adverse effects. Without any pressing government interest to restrict our right to keep and bear arms, the Legislature should act to expand liberty instead of continuing to put shackles on it.

The list of things left undone by the legislature is much longer than the space in this column allows, but the above is a start. There is much more work to do and the delay in passing the budget has left the legislature with a tight legislative calendar. The Foxconn bill proved that the Legislature can do big things in a small amount of time when they have a will to do so. There is still ample time to get a lot done if the legislature has the will to do so. Pray that they do.

 

Sen.Tammy Baldwin to face a tough re-election

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

The next big election is 14 months away, but the electoral combatants are already sallying onto the field. Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin will be seeking her second term and the liberal backbencher is facing a formidable challenge.

Baldwin’s resume is notable for its remarkable lack of achievement. Born and bred in the belly of liberal Madison, Baldwin was first elected to the Dane County Board during law school in 1986. She graduated from law school in 1989, worked as a lawyer for three years, and then became a full time politician in 1992 when she was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly. In 1998, Baldwin was sent by Madison to Washington as their representative in the House of Representatives, and was then swept into the U.S. Senate by the Obama wave in 2012.

It is difficult to serve in public office for more than 30 years, get elected to higher offices, and not have a single achievement to one’s credit, but Tammy Baldwin has accomplished that incredible feat. The secret to Baldwin’s success is that she is gay and a liberal’s liberal who reliably supports every leftist idea proffered. This attracts gobs of money from every liberal/socialist/Marxist PAC and activist group throughout the nation.

Most recently, she gave her fullthroated support to complete socialist health care in the failure of Obamacare. This is particularly ironic given that Baldwin callously ignored repeated cries for help from abuse taking place at the Tomah VA Medical Center. Why would anyone want to hand over more control of our healthcare to politicians like Tammy Baldwin?

Without Obama on the ballot next year, Baldwin is vulnerable to a credible challenge. So far, two formidable and well-funded Republicans are vying for the opportunity to be the senator that Wisconsin deserves. There is still time for more candidates to enter the fray, but the window is closing.

Kevin Nicholson is a Marine combat veteran who now works in the private sector. Nicholson defines himself as a social and fiscal conservative who is pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-strong national security, etc. Running for office for the first time, Nicholson relishes his status as an outsider who can attack the liberal redoubts in Washington.

Nicholson does, however, have a nagging problem in his resume. He used to be a vocal, activist Democrat. When he was in college, Nicholson served as the chairman of the College Democrats and was eventually the national president for the College Democrats of America. At that time, he was pro-choice and spoke at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

Of course, Nicholson would not be the first person to convert from liberalism to conservatism with the advancement of age, life experience and wisdom. Some of the best-known, thoughtful, and stalwart conservatives in the nation used to be liberals.

The other Republican seeking to challenge Tammy Baldwin has no such history to overcome. Wisconsin State Senator Leah Vukmir has been a proven, reliable, accomplished conservative Republican for more than a decade. Vukmir is a registered nurse who worked as a nurse for more than 20 years before running for the Wisconsin Assembly in 2002 to replace Scott Walker. Vukmir was then elected to the State Senate in 2010.

Vukmir has been one of the driving forces in the Wisconsin conservative movement for her entire tenure in office. She has been instrumental in advancing school choice, tax reform, education reform, healthcare reform and every other pillar of the conservative agenda. It is difficult to name a conservative issue in which Vukmir was not a staunch defender and advocate. All the while, Vukmir has maintained her career as a registered nurse.

While I don’t doubt the sincerity of Nicholson’s conservative conversion, there is no need to put it to its first political test in the crucible of Washington when there is already a proven conservative candidate in Leah Vukmir. She has been a granite conservative throughout all of the tempests in Madison and would serve Wisconsin well in the U.S. Senate.

Wisconsin’s conservative reformation draws to a close

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

After weeks of delay and intra-party wrangling, the Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Finance Committee has passed the state’s biennial budget. It now heads to the Assembly, and then to the Senate, for final debate and passage. Assuming that it passes largely as currently written, which is expected, this budget is the muffled whimper that marks the end of Wisconsin’s conservative reformation.

When Wisconsinites elected Scott Walker as governor in 2010, they ushered in a new era in Wisconsin governance. Walker brought to Madison a governing philosophy steeped in the modern conservative movement. 2011 marked the beginning of a Wisconsin conservative reformation that was unprecedented in the state’s history.

In 2011, Walker and the legislative Republicans were aggressive and ambitious in advancing a conservative agenda. They touched the third rails of state politics and slew dragons. In a short span, Walker and the Republicans enacted transformational changes in Wisconsin including welfare reform, massive regulatory reform — especially in the DNR, expanding Second Amendment rights, expanding educational choice, freezing tuition at the University of Wisconsin and, of course, enacting Act 10. The hundreds of reforms made since 2011 have truly made Wisconsin better for citizens and businesses.

Voters have rewarded Republicans with electoral success. The voters defended Walker’s conservative agenda by reelecting him during the recall election and again in 2014. Republicans have maintained their majorities in both houses of the legislature for most of this decade as the conservative wing of both caucuses has grown. Even the Wisconsin Supreme Court has moved to be more conservative. Wisconsinites have shown their support for the conservative reformation time and time again at the ballot box.

But along the way, Wisconsin could not escape from its tradition of big, expensive government. While Republicans have been making tremendous progress in many areas, they have continued to spend more every budget. The current 2017-2019 proposed budget that the JFC just passed spends $76.02 billion. That is a 4.8 percent increase in spending over the previous budged.

The proposed 2017-2019 budget spends a full 23 percent more than the last budget signed by Gov. Jim Doyle. On a per capita basis, Doyle’s last budget spent about $10,868 per Wisconsinite while the new budget spends $13,131 per person — a 21 percent increase in per capita spending by state government in seven years. All of the Democrats’rhetoric about “austerity” and “cuts” are pure myth. The truth is that Wisconsin’s Republicans have increasedspending every single budget. To be fair, Doyle increased state spending 28 percent during his tenure. The Republicans did not increase spending as much as Democrats, but they were certainly not shy about increasing spending.

There are a few items in the new budget that conservatives will like. For example, UW tuition will continue to be frozen, but the budget spends more on UW to offset that. The state property tax will be eliminated. This saves taxpayers about $90 million per year. Able-bodies childless adults will be required to work or train and be subject to drug tests in order to receive Badgercare benefits. The prevailing wage law will be rescinded for state projects. The alternative minimum tax will be rescinded.

Those are very small potatoes in a stew full of massive hunks of new spending meat and bitter debt increases. The Republicans have seemingly lost the nerve to make the big, necessary reforms that Wisconsin still needs. The Republicans still control the entire law-making apparatus of government, but are about to pass a budget that is reminiscent of something from 2005. It spends more and tinkers around the edges, but is primarily designed to not offend anyone before the next election.

Where are the big ideas? Where is the cut or elimination of the state income tax? Where is the reformation of how Wisconsin builds and maintains its transportation infrastructure? Where is the fundamental reform of education? Where is an actual reduction in the size and scope of state government? Even the marginally more aggressive items that Walker suggested in his budget, like a “backto- school” sales tax holiday or a broad cut in income taxes, were rejected by legislative Republicans. Many of them went to Madison with a passion for Conservative reform, but now only have passion for getting reelected.

Rep. Bob Gannon (R-West Bend), who has said that he will not vote for this budget, was correct when he commented, “this budget is much better than a democrat governor or legislature would have proposed, but it is also not a conservative piece of work. Your government is in a growth mode.”

Indeed. And that growth is smothering the conservative reformation in its sleep.

Stepp leaves a proud legacy

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

Cathy Stepp, the now former Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, has resigned to take a job at the Environmental Protection Agency. In doing so, Wisconsin is losing a truly transformational leader who has left Wisconsin better than she found it.

Wisconsin’s DNR is a massive agency with a huge mandate. Its two primary roles are to manage the state’s natural resources (forestry, hunting, fishing, etc.) and enforce environmental regulations (building permits, enforcement actions, etc.). In order to appreciate the impact Stepp had on the DNR, we must turn back the clock to what it was like before she took the helm.

The DNR will always be a controversial agency because its role is often to find balance between two vital, but occasionally competing, goals. This creates an inevitable friction. The first goal is that Wisconsinites want a clean and sustainable environment for generations to come. The second goal is that those same Wisconsinites want to use that environment for recreational and commercial purposes.

For many years under both Republican and Democrat leadership, the DNR had come to heavily focus on environmental protection to the detriment of the economic and personal interests of the citizens of the state. The environmental enforcement arm of the DNR had been weaponized to take an adversarial posture against Wisconsinites and their businesses. DNR officials viewed their role as to impede any activity that had any negative impact on the environment. It seemed that many of them would rather have had a line of unemployed Wisconsinites look at a pristine prairie from a distance than allow a business to build a factory for them to work in.

When Gov. Scott Walker appointed Stepp to run the DNR in 2011, the environmentalist activists who held sway in the DNR derided her qualifications. After all, they said, she was a business owner and former politician who did not even have a degree in natural resources. It turns out that is exactly what the DNR needed.

Upon taking office, Stepp implemented business principles and methodologies to improve the workflow of the organization. She implemented a Lean Six Sigma concept that helps organizations refine and streamline processesto better outcomes. The public has seen the benefit of these progressive reforms in the form of a faster, easier, more transparent permitting process; the ability for citizens to get many hunting and fishing permits online and register their harvest via a smartphone; and easier access to public lands.

More important than the changes to policies and procedures within the DNR, Stepp guided the agency through a shift in culture and mindset. She has repeatedly said that she DNR should be a “permitting agency, not a prohibiting agency.” This change in philosophy did not permeate the agency without yelps from entrenched interests and bureaucrats who liked to wield the regulatory bludgeon, but it did seep into the language and attitude of the DNR.

The DNR now does a much better job of acting as a partner with businesses and people to properly manage the use of our cherished natural resources while mitigating any negative impact on the environment. As partial evidence of this, fines to businesses are much less frequent since Stepp took office because the agency is proactively working with polluting businesses on mitigation and abatement techniques instead of just hammering the business with a fine for violating. More carrots and fewer sticks have proven to be healthier for the environment and the economy.

Wisconsin’s next DNR secretary would do well to continue and accelerate the reformation of the DNR. Top on his or her list should be to advocate to split the agency into two — a natural resource management agency and a regulatory enforcement agency. This is a reform that Stepp opposed, but would be the next, natural step in modernizing the agency(ies) to be more nimble and effective.

Stepp will be missed, but Wisconsin will continue to benefit from her tenure at the DNR for years to come.

 

Sleaze and corruption on the West Bend School Board

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

Several weeks ago, I raised serious concerns regarding the capricious, unethical and arguably illegal process by which the West Bend School Board created, and then appointed, two high school principals. After receiving 444 pages of public documents from the school district, those concerns have been confirmed and heightened.

As a brief background, West Bend had two high schools with one principal. The district was working on hiring that principal when, in a matter of days and with virtually no public input, the school board split the administration into two principals — one for each high school. Then the school board appointed two existing district employees to those positions without posting the jobs, accepting applications, conducting interviews or engaging in anything that resembles a typical hiring process. The entire fiasco was government at its worst.

Now we get a look at the new principals the school board appointed, and there are some alarming red flags. Ralph Schlass was appointed principal for West High School. Schlass has been an administrator in the district since 1999 and has served in various roles — most recently as an assistant principal for West. His tenure and performance evaluations indicate that until recently, Schlass was a relatively pedestrian employee going about his job. Then, in 2015, his performance began to deteriorate.

In December 2015, Schlass was accused of threatening and intimidating teachers regarding a petition being circulated. He was accused of telling a group of teachers something akin to, “I am the person who does your performance evaluations. If I find your name on that petition, I won’t be happy. … I am telling you, don’t sign it.”

Schlass denied making that statement, but a statement to that effect was corroborated by several staff members. Schlass was suspended three days without pay in January 2016 and told to refrain from actions that “engages staff in a threatening or intimidating manner.”

In July 2016, Schlass was put on a one year Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). A PIP is a plan given to an employee who is underperforming. It is usually meant as a “shape up or ship out” employee performance tool. The PIP indicated that, among other things, Schlass, “has inconsistently demonstrate(ed) leadership for student learning,” “failed to consistently support staff development” and “failed to follow policies, rules, regulations and routines.”

Schlass was combative through the year and accused the process of being “discriminatory, arbitrary, and capricious.” After March, he stopped completing the documentation required by the PIP. At the end of June, the recommended outcome for Schlass after the PIP was to “remain on a Performance Improvement Plan.”

Three weeks after that recommendation, Schlass was promoted by the West Bend School Board to be the principal of West Bend West High School.

The new principal of West Bend East High School is Darci Vanadestine. Vanadestine joined the district as an assistant principal in 2014 and was promoted to director of teaching and learning a year later. Unlike Schlass, Vanadestine’s employment history is impeccable and reflects career of progressive growth and advancement.

Vanadestine is so well regarded that in June she applied to be the high school principal — when there was to be just one. After a rigorous interview process, indications were good for Vanadestine. On July 14, she was informed that the district was checking final references and the superintendent would follow up the following week. On July 20, Vanadestine found out “through a posting” that the school board was going to meet that evening to “hear public comments on the reconfiguration of the HS configuration.” Several hours later, the school board voted to have two principals instead of one and, as a consequence, eliminated Vanadestine’s job.

The next morning, July 21, Vanadestine was told by the superintendent that he recommended her for the job to be principal of both high schools on July 18. The superintendent then told Vanadestine that the board had split the position into two principals and instructed them to give her one of the jobs. On July 23, Schlass and Vanadestine were introduced as the new principals and their contracts were ratified Aug. 14.

Vanadestine writes, “This is not the job I originally applied for and knowing that my current job was eliminated due to the decision to have two principals I struggled greatly with the poor ethics and lack of process with the appointment.” Indeed. Any ethical person would.

Although it was necessary, the point of this narrative is not to dwell in the employment histories of either Schlass or Vanadestine. The point is that through their unscrupulous and erratic actions, the West Bend School Board has chosen to promote one male employee who had been suspended and flagged for poor performance and deprive a female employee of the larger job for which she was eminently qualified and had been recommended. Such actions are not only an incredible disservice to the children of the district who deserve the best possible leadership, but they erode employee morale, sow distrust with the citizens and expose the taxpayers to considerable legal liability.

School Board President Tiffany Larson did not respond to repeated requests to comment on the board’s actions.

In an effort to “show my work,” here are a few of the public documents that were mentioned in this column:

Here’s the letter where Schlass was suspended.

Whenever you do an open record’s request like this, the person involved is informed and allowed to include any commentary. Here is Schlass’ letter that he included. I would note that while he blames the former superintendent, he was suspended under the former superintendent, but put on a PIP under the current one.

Here is Sclass’ PIP conclusion.

Here is Schlass’ official reflection about his performance plan.

Just like Schlass, VanAdestine included a note with her released documents. Here is Page One and Page Two.


Finally, I want to emphasize again what I said in the column. It isn’t really about Schlass or VanAdestine. They are both just district employees doing their work to the best of their abilities, I’m sure. But diving into their employment histories was necessary to show why the school board’s actions were so egregious. This new majority on the school board that ran on a platform of “transparency” and “running the district like a business” is running it like Enron. I truly hope that the board members reassess their actions and live up to the rhetoric they used to get elected.

 

Close the Deal

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

After weeks of wrangling and a few modifications, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed a $3 billion incentive package for Foxconn to build a massive new plant in Wisconsin. Now it is up to the State Senate to follow the Assembly’s lead and bring Foxconn to Wisconsin.

To fiscal conservatives who desperately want a small, inexpensive, unintrusive government, the thought of massive corporate welfare to incent businesses to locate in Wisconsin is rather repugnant. Ideally, Wisconsin’s government would create an environment of low taxes, reasonable regulations, good infrastructure, etc., to make Wisconsin such an attractive place for business that taxpayer incentives would be rendered unnecessary.

But that is not the state we live in yet and the taxpayers have shown time and time again that they are willing to dole out corporate welfare if it for the overall betterment of Wisconsin. The measure has long since ceased to be, “should government do it?” It is now, simply, “is it a good deal for taxpayers?” The deal that Gov. Scott Walker and his staff negotiated with Foxconn and which was substantially passed by the State Assembly, is a good deal.

The structure of the Foxconn deal is relatively simple if the numbers are enormous. In exchange for Foxconn investing $10 billion in construction costs and eventually employing up to 13,000 people, Wisconsin taxpayers will give the company up to $2.85 billion in income and franchise tax credits and an additional $150 million in sales tax relief for construction materials. The total “cost” to taxpayers would be about $3 billion in waived taxes over 15 years.

In order to analyze any deal, you must weigh cost against benefit. In this case, the cost for taxpayers is $3 billion in waived taxes over the next 15 years. That is only really a cost in the eyes of a politician. Remember that if Foxconn does not build in Wisconsin, it will never buy the construction materials for which the state would have received $150 million in sales taxes. And if Foxconn does not build in Wisconsin, it will never generate the net income that would generate the $2.85 billion in income taxes. If Foxconn does not build in Wisconsin, the $3 billion in waived taxes will never exist. The only way that anyone can claim waived taxes to be a “cost” is if they presume that it was the government’s money in the first place.

The one caveat to that is that the bill passed by the Assembly does permit the state to grant tax credits to Foxconn in the form of a refund even if Foxconn does not have a tax liability. In this way, the incentives wouldfunction much like the Earned Income Tax Credit.

If this happens, it would indeed be a cash outlay from the taxpayers to Foxconn. We must demand vigilance from the state administrators of this deal to watch Foxconn closely to ensure that they are meeting their obligations to receive tax credits.

On the other side of the ledger, what benefit does Wisconsin get for its $3 billion in waived taxes? Foxconn is committing to spend $10 billion in construction costs to build a massive new facility. Most of that money will be spent in Wisconsin and employ thousands of Wisconsinites. After the facility is built, Foxconn will continue to spend hundreds of millions every year in Wisconsin to maintain and run the facility.

Foxconn also plans to directly employ 13,000 people at the facility at an average wage of $53,900. A facility of this size would also generate an estimated 22,000 supporting jobs. That is a tremendous number of Wisconsinites earning a family supporting wage. That is an enormous number of people buying homes, buying cars, buying groceries, going to entertainment events and spending money to live their lives in Wisconsin. The return on investment should not be measured in cash paid to the tax collectors, but in the cash put in the pockets of tens of thousands of Wisconsinites.

Beyond the direct investment by Foxconn, this deal would facilitate the transformational introduction of an entire industry to Wisconsin. Wisconsinites can reasonably expect that other manufacturers and supporting industries will follow in Foxconn’s wake to locate in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is standing at the precipice of a generational economic boon if we only have the courage to jump.

Is the Foxconn deal a risk? Of course it is. Any commercial enterprise is a risk. Wisconsin’s government must be vigilant in holding Foxconn to their commitments, and the deal is structured to cease taxpayer support if Foxconn reneges. But the cost of doing nothing is far greater for the future of Wisconsin than the cost of this deal.

The State Senate must step forward with their colleagues in the Assembly and close this deal. Wisconsin is waiting.

Wisconsin continues to REIN in government

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

With all of the news emanating from Madison about the wrangling over the state budget and the Foxconn incentive package, one could be excused for missing the fact that the legislature passed, and Governor Walker signed into law, one of the most significant government reforms since ACT 10. The Wisconsin REINS (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) Act is a significant reform for preventing the inexorable bloating of government.

When we all learned about government in Civics 101 — or from Schoolhouse Rock — the process seems fairly simple. The legislature passes a bill and then the executive signs it into law. But that is only part of the process. Laws, as written, are usually written rather broadly. It is then up to the bureaucracy in the Executive branch to take that law and put it into action. They do this by interpreting the law and creating all of the detailed rules and regulations to promulgate and enforce it. It is the necessary and proper role of the bureaucracy.

Throughout the decades, however, as the size and scope of government has grown, so has the bureaucracy and its power. Too many unelected bureaucrats deep in the bowels of state government have taken it upon themselves to use their regulatory latitude to advance their own agendas. Protected as civil servants and relaxed in the knowledge that elected officials come and go as the bureaucracy remains, these bureaucrats passed massive and costly regulations with barely a hint of legal authority to do so.

When the Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker swept into power in 2010, one of the first reforms they made was to restrict the power of the bureaucracy with 2011’s Act 21. This law narrowed the rule making authority of state agencies and injected some more oversight by the governor and the Legislature into the rule-making process. It also importantly allowed state rules to be challenged in any of Wisconsin’s 72 counties — not just liberal Dane County.

The REINS Act is the next advance in moving power away from the bureaucracy and into the hands of elected officials. The REINS Act accomplishes three major reforms.

First, the REINS Act increases public input into any proposed rule. The law now requires that an agency get affirmative approval from the governor of a scope statement describing the statutory authority for the rule and the impact of the proposed rule on people. After approval, either chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) may require that the agency open a comment period and hold a public hearing. All public input must then be included in the published rule analysis.

Second, the REINS Act puts up an additional barrier if a proposed rule will cost more than $10 million for people to comply with it. Under the new law, if a proposed rule is projected to cost businesses, local governments, and individuals more than $10 million during a two-year period in compliance costs, then the agency must halt all work on the rule. The only ways for the new rule to then proceed is for the legislature to enact a bill specifically authorizing the rule or for the rule to be rewritten to bring the compliance costs below $10 million.

Third, the REINS Act authorizes the JCRAR to permanently suspend a proposed rule by majority vote if the committee objects to it for a statutory reason. For example, if the committee decides that the agency lacks statutory authority to create the rule, then the committee can stop them from doing so. Of course, the committee can always be overridden by the full legislature.

The growth of government happens in many ways. Some of it happens through big laws debated and passed by the legislature. But much of it happens deep below the sightline of the public and hidden from scrutiny in the greasy gears of the bureaucracy. The REINS Act goes a long way toward injecting light and accountability into our state government. Congratulations to Gov. Walker and the Legislature for passing this important reform.

West Bend School Board earns detention

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

You can see the signs all around. The Wisconsin State Fair is in full swing. The first Packers preseason game is this week. You can’t drive three blocks without finding the stand full of delicious sweet corn for sale. The signs are undeniable. Summer is coming to an end, and that means that school will be back in session in a few short weeks. But while the kids have been enjoying their summer, the West Bend School Board has been very busy running roughshod over any semblance of good governance.

In less than a week, the West Bend School Board abandoned the search for a new principal for the West Bend High Schools, restructured the administration into two high school principals and appointed two people to be those principals. Let’s look at the timeline.

Sometime late in the day on July 19, the School Board gave notice of a special meeting to happen the next day at 5 p.m. Special meetings are rare and usually only called for emergencies, but the opaque agenda referenced “review and consideration of high school administrative assignments.”

At the meeting on the 20th, two board members were absent and the attendance was sparse. Board President Tiffany Larson read a lengthy prepared statement saying that they wanted to create two high school principal positions out of the one. After a short 35 minutes and only board member Monte Schmeige asking any serious questions, the majority rammed through the decision. West Bend now has two high school principals. Several things are untoward about this.

First, this was the first time the issue had been addressed at a public meeting and the school board was already acting on the move. There had been no public outcry for the change and the issue of two principals was not even mentioned in the superintendent’s list of concerns identified after canvassing the community, teachers, parents and students. The School Board acted on a significant change to the district’s structure in a special session with no notice and without inviting any public discussion.

Second, Larson and Schmeige both referenced that the board did discuss the issue of two principals in a closed session earlier in the week. Closed sessions are only allowed to discuss very specific things like personnel issues and legal matters. Also, the agenda for that closed session did not reference a change to the organizational structure. Such a discussion in closed session would appear to run afoul of Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law. One of the principles of good governance is for our elected representatives to conduct their business in public view.

Third, the decision appears to have been made with no research, thought or planning. Nobody on the board asked the superintendent for his input during the meeting. The board did not share any cost estimates (yes, it will cost more), reporting structure, job descriptions, ideal candidate qualifications, etc. Either the board acted rashly in utter ignorance of the impact of their decision, which would be an abominable act of incompetence, or they had vetted these issues in private, which would have been a violation of the principle of open government.

Two business days after the special session in which the School Board created the two principal positions, the board appointed two district assistant principals, Ralph Schlass and Darci VanAdestine, to be those principals. Once again, the board has acted in complete opposition to any sense of good governance, transparency or propriety. And in this case, they have likely exposed the district and the taxpayers to significant legal liability.

Normally an employer like the school district would initiate a defined and legal hiring process whereby they post the positions, solicit applications, filter down to final candidates, conduct interviews and then make a selection. The purpose of such a process is to ensure that the employer finds the best possible person for the position and to make sure the process is fair, thus insulating the employer from accusations of discrimination. By scrapping a real hiring process in favor of a snap appointment, and by completely bypassing the superintendent and human resource processes in place, the School Board has made itself the hiring manager and is engaging in exceedingly risky behavior.

Why were Schlass and VanAdestine selected? Is the board clairvoyant that they know these two people to be the best possible people to lead the high schools? Do any of the board members have a personal relationship with either of them? Were minorities given a fair shot at the jobs? What process was used to decide on these two? Who was involved in that process? Given that the board members did not discuss who to appoint in open session and these two were presented as a fait accompli, when did they decide on these two? Why were other district employees not considered? Did either of these appointees have any disciplinary issues in their current roles?

Incidentally, I have asked the School Board president for insight and filed several open records requests to answer some of these questions. So far, nobody has seen fit to illuminate the process. The school board seems intent on obfuscation and obstruction despite duplicitous protestations to the contrary.

It is entirely possible that having two high school principals is better than one and that Schlass and VanAdestine are the best people to lead our high schools. But the citizens of the West Bend School District will never know. The School Board’s insistence on abandoning any normal, deliberative, competent, open process has robbed the public of ever knowing for sure and has disavowed any expectation of good governance.

The final act in this bad school play is that the School Board is planning to ratify the contracts for Schlass and VanAdestine at the regular meeting on Monday. They still have the opportunity to correct course and allow for an open, fair, and legal hiring process to commence. They should seize that opportunity.

 

Wisconn Valley is open for business

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go.

It is almost impossible to overstate how important the recently announced Foxconn deal is for Wisconsin. Economically, culturally, and politically, it is the biggest deal for Wisconsin in a generation.

The economics of the deal are astounding. Foxconn is a Taiwanese company that manufactures thousands of products all over the world. Its revenues exceed $136 billion per year and it employs well more than a million people all over the globe. The plant planned for Wisconsin to build advanced screens will be huge, but it will not even be Foxconn’s largest.

At 20 million square feet, the planned Foxconn facility in Wisconsin will be one of the largest in the world. It is estimated that Foxconn will spend $10 billion to build and equip the new facility and they have committed that $5.7 billion of that will be spent in Wisconsin. The construction alone will support 10,000 construction jobs for four years and 6,000 additional indirect jobs.

That’s just to build it. The ongoing economic impact is even more massive.

Foxconn estimates that the facility will eventually directly employ 13,000 people and indirectly employ an additional 22,000 people at an average wage of $53,875 plus benefits per year. They plan to spend $4.26 billion per year to supply the facility with about a third of those purchases happening in Wisconsin. All told, the facility is estimated to have at least a $7 billion annual impact on Wisconsin and generate an estimated $181 million in annual tax revenues. All of these estimates were done by Ernst & Young.

Economically, this single facility will have a generational impact on Wisconsin on the scale of some of the other major manufacturers of Wisconsin’s storied past. Culturally, it will have a similar impact.

Wisconsin has a proud legacy in making things. Manufacturing has been a pillar of the state’s economy for over a century. Due to many trends outside of the state’s control like automation, globalization, trade policies, etc., the state’s manufacturing sector has been eroding for years. Since 2006, Wisconsin shed 45,598 manufacturing jobs as other sectors grew. The state boasts some terrific manufacturing businesses, but as a sector, it has been in decline in the state.

The drain of manufacturing out of the state has not only drained jobs, it has drained neighborhoods, towns, and communities of their vitality. The Foxconn plant plugs that drain and pumps new manufacturing jobs, money, and investment into the state. It is also almost certainly the beginning of a flow of companies investing in Wisconsin. Wisconsin has made its mark again as a global center for high-tech manufacturing. Other companies will undoubtedly follow Foxconn’s lead.

The political impact of Foxconn is also substantial. There is no dispute that Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican leaders deserve a tremendous amount of credit for brokering the deal to bring Foxconn to Wisconsin. As the legislature goes into a special session this week to finalize and pass the incentive package, it appears that the state is getting a bargain. In a perfect world, taxpayers would not have to compete to lure businesses with tax incentives and corporate welfare, but that is not the world we live in.

Taxpayers are offering Foxconn about $3 billion in mostly income tax credits over 15 years and a $150 million sales tax exemption. Bearing in mind that this is mostly exemption from taxes that would not have been collected anyway without Foxconn locating in Wisconsin, it is a good deal and the taxpayers will reap a substantial return on their investment. Furthermore, the credits are tied to Foxconn’s actual performance in creating jobs and making capital investments in Wisconsin. If Foxconn fails to live up to its commitments, the taxpayers are not obligated to extend the incentives.

It must be acknowledged, however, that the Foxconn deal would not be happening had it not been for Walker and the Republican transformation in Wisconsin over the last seven years. Decisions like Foxconn’s consider hundreds of factors that are outside of the realm of politics. Conservatives often remind that government do not create jobs, but they create an environment in which business can flourish and create jobs. Walker and the Republicans have created just such an environment. Things like a balanced budget, regulatory reform and right to work combine with a general business friendly attitude to create an environment in which businesses can succeed. The Foxconn decision is not just the result of an agreement on an incentive package. It is the culmination of years of decisions making Wisconsin a better place to do business.

The Foxconn deal may have guaranteed Walker’s third term, should he choose to run for reelection, but more importantly, it has affirmed the correctness and importance of the conservative policies he has advanced. Now we must continue and accelerate those policies to capitalize on the momentum.

Protecting the right to Pokemon Go

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

The summer of 2016 will be remembered for many things. It was the summer when America came to grips with the fact that Donald Trump was the Republican candidate. It was the summer when terrorism swept across the world from Nice to Dhaka to the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It was the summer of Brexit when Britain voted to leave the European Union.

It is also the summer of watching hordes of people stumble through public places staring at their smartphones as they tried to capture animated creatures in the augmented reality of Pokemon Go. While the Pokemon Go craze has come and gone, it has left some interesting legal ramifications in its wake.

During the Pokemon Go phenomenon, the leaders of Milwaukee County became frustrated that so many people were wandering through public parks playing the game. The huge influx of people enjoying the public parks damaged landscaping, left trash, and sometimes disrupted other visitors. Rather than just enforce the existing rules against such damaging and disruptive behavior, Milwaukee officials decided to go after the businesses that make games like Pokemon Go. In January, the Milwaukee County Board passed an ordinance that required the companies who created virtual and location-based augmented reality games to get a permit and post a $1 million certificate of insurance in order for people to play their games in the park.

On its face, the ordinance was ridiculous and unenforceable. The fact that the users of a game might damage flowers in a county park hardly makes the producers of that game responsible, nor should a county be able to arbitrarily restrict access to public property for people engaging in legal activities. But the Milwaukee Common Council is not known for its logical dexterity. In response to the ordinance, a company called Candy Lab Inc., which makes a different augmented reality game, sued the county.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge J.P. Stadtmueller issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Milwaukee County from enforcing its ordinance saying that it likely violates the First Amendment. This might be the first time in the nation’s jurisprudence that First Amendment protections have been expressly extended to augmented reality games.

In his ruling, Stadtmueller systematically dismantles Milwaukee County’s ordinance and all of its flaws. He says in part, “the Ordinance thus dooms itself in its failure to provide ‘narrowly drawn, reasonable, and definite standards’ to guide the County officials who must apply it,” and that the game in question, “contains the least minimum quantum of expression needed to constitute protectable speech.” In a final slap at Milwaukee County officials, the judge states, “the Ordinance is revealed for its strangeness and lack of sophistication.”

This ruling is a good reminder that while technologies change, constitutionally protected rights do not. In his ruling, Stadtmueller correctly cites and earlier case, Brown v. Entm’t Merchs. Ass’n, in which the Supreme Court clearly stated that, “whatever the challenges of applying the Constitution to everadvancing technology, ‘the basic principles of freedom of speech and the press, like the First Amendment’s command, do not vary’ when a new and different medium for communication appears.”

That statement is a recognition of the fact that rights are endowed upon individuals. Our right to free speech is inherently individual and deserving of protection irrespective of the medium of transmission. The men who wrote our Constitution likely never envisioned telephones, the internet, or Pokemon Go, but they did not need to in order for the protections they wrote to apply. The right is to be protected. The technology is irrelevant.

This same principle applies to other rights as well. We also have a right to keep and bear arms (which is actually a more specific declaration of our broader right to property). And while our founders never envisioned the complexity or sophistication of modern firearms, they did not need to. The right is to be protected. The technology is irrelevant.

Our Constitution is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a living document. It does not need to be. Its brilliance rests in the understanding that human rights live in the bosom of each and every person. We must protect those rights whether they are being exercised with a quill, pen, keyboard, smartphone, musket or AR-15.

Ceding the grand debate

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. I should note that while I lament the fact that we Americans have by and large ceded this debate, I do want the Congress to pass a healthcare reform bill that mitigates the damage as much as possible. I’d rather take a partial win than no win at all. Here it is:

As the U.S. Senate appears to be in the final throes of a bill to significantly change some of the worst aspects of Obamacare, it is appropriate to return to some fundamental truths that have been lost in the debate.

Health care is not a right. One of the philosophical underpinnings of Obamacare is the Marxist assertion that health care is a right, and as a right, should be protected and managed by the central government. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The greatest single definition of rights can be found in our own nation’s Declaration of Independence which states in part, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights … .” Rights are universal, unalienable, inviolable, equal and are the sole birthright of each individual. Since rights rest in the soul of each individual, every right can be exercised by every individual even if they were the last person on earth.

For example, everyone has a natural right to speak their conscience. The exercise of that right requires neither license from a government nor assistance from another person. The right to keep and bear arms is also a right. It is also a right inherent in the individual that can be exercised without any outside interference or assistance.

Health care is not a right. One certainly has the right to practice health care on oneself, as that right rests in the right to own one’s own body, but at the point that one’s health care requires the assistance of another individual, it ceases to be a right. No right can impose an obligation or duty on another individual.

One has a right to speak one’s conscience, but that does not obligate anyone to listen. One has a right to keep andbear arms, but that does not impose a duty on others to manufacture and supply one a gun. One has a right to control one’s own body, but that does not entitle one to the time, knowledge and skills of a doctor. An individual can always exercise a right, but at the point that such exercise imposes upon another person, it ceases to be a right and instead slips into the realms of commerce or coercion.

It is an important distinction because if we extend the definition of rights to include obligations on others, we are sanctioning slavery. When someone says that they are entitled to free universal health care, what they are really saying is that they want our government to use the threat of violence and imprisonment to force another person to surrender the fruits of their education, training, knowledge, time, materials and skills. The assertion that health care is a right is an inherently violent call to enslave others for the service of the collective.

Until the recent past, Americans had accepted that that the delivery of health care was a matter of commerce where free people would engage in an exchange of goods and services to obtain health care services. As a people, we had confidence in the capitalist economic principles that had led to the most efficient and productive allocation of scarce resources in all areas of commerce — including health care. It is upon these principles that America has been built and has become the most prosperous people in the history of human existence.

Yet in a pique of frustration and stupidity, we have abandoned those proven economic principles and embraced an ideology of serfdom by allowing our federal government to dictate the terms of our health care system. The debate occurring in Congress right now is simply over the details and costs of those terms. As a people, we have ceded the grand debate and are now fighting over the scraps of a squandered American legacy.

Recalling Barrett

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

It is easy for most people in Wisconsin to look upon the troubles in Milwaukee from a distance, lament the immense waste of money and opportunity, pity the victims of crime, cluck our tongues in disapproval and hope their troubles remain confined by the city’s borders. Yet while Wisconsin’s direction is increasingly divergent from Milwaukee’s trajectory with the blossoming of other communities, Milwaukee remains Wisconsin’s largest city. Its gravity still tugs the rest of the state.

Milwaukee’s problems are not new. Like many other Rust Belt cities, the shifting economy coupled with dreadful local leadership has drained the city of much of its vitality. Since 2004, Milwaukee has been led my Mayor Tom Barrett, and under Barrett’s leadership, Milwaukee has suffered.

It is gloomy to recount the statistics, but recount them we must. Between 2004, when Barrett was sworn in, and 2014, the last year for which the FBI has tabulated statistics, the overall violent crime rate in Milwaukee has increased almost 90 percent. The aggravated assault rate is up 263 percent. Robberies are up; burglaries are up; motor vehicle thefts are up.

While Milwaukee has benefitted from a resurgence in downtown development, the majority of the city is languishing under an economic malaise that rivals that of Detroit. This is especially true for Milwaukee’s black citizens. In 2015, the most recent year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has data, the unemployment rate for black Milwaukeeans was 17.3 percent compared to 4.3 percent for white Milwaukeeans. The income gap is one of the largest in the nation with the median household income for black families being $25,600 compared to $62,600 for white families. Milwaukee is considered one of the worst cities in America for black people for good reason.

While Barrett has been referred to as a “caretaker” mayor due to his lack of robust leadership, his caretaking certainly seems inadequate given Milwaukee’s decline. And yet, the people of Milwaukee have elected and reelected Barrett four times. In the most recent election in 2016, he was reelected with 70 percent of the vote. Despite the fact that Barrett has been desperately trying to get out of the city by running for governor three times, Milwaukeeans seem satisfied with his governance. One can forgive those of us who live outside of Milwaukee for having difficulty mustering compassion for Milwaukee’s wellbeing when Milwaukee’s voters appear to have so little regard for it.

However there is a growing, diverse, and energetic group of Milwaukeeans who have had enough. A group calling themselves “Save Our City. Milwaukeeans Can’t Wait” — a descriptive if unwieldly moniker — has announced plans to launch a recall effort against Barrett. The group is headed by Allen Jansen, a resident of the city’s south side who has supported the mayoral campaigns of Joe Davis and Bob Donovan. The group’s treasurer is Darryl Farmer, a member of the Black Panthers Party and controversial resident of the city’s north side.

Although newly announced, the group is already garnering wide support from a varied range of Milwaukeeans who are dissatisfied with Barrett for everything from lead pipes to crime. The groups lists four reasons for their effort to recall Barrett.

First, they allege that Barrett’s misplaced priorities of using tax dollars for the construction of a downtown trolley instead of focusing on health, public safety, education, etc. constitutes malfeasance in public office.

Second, they allege official misconduct on the part of Barrett in that he pursued an agenda that personally benefitted his campaign donors.

Third, they allege dereliction of duty because Barrett failed to fulfill his obligation to sufficiently protect Milwaukeeans from crime.

Fourth, they allege that Barrett endangered public health by not acting to replace Milwaukee’s lead lateral pipes.

Of course, none of these allegations are new. Milwaukeeans knew of these failures before they reelected Barrett last year by an overwhelming margin. Yet perhaps the fact that such a coalition of Milwaukeeans has coalesced for change is a ray of hope for a city desperately in need of competent leadership.

Barrett has responded to the recall effort by saying that he welcomes a conversation about Milwaukee’s future. Well, then. Let us have that conversation.