Tag Archives: Washington County Daily News

Elect Hagedorn to protect Wisconsin’s conservative revolution

Here is my full column that ran yesterday in the Washington County Daily News.

Wisconsin’s era of conservative reform came to an end with the election of Gov. Tony Evers. With a liberal governor, the conservative majorities in the Legislature are relegated to a rearguard action to defend the magnificent gains made in the last eight years. But the Legislature’s rampart might be flanked if Wisconsin’s liberals are able to seize control of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. They could do that next year unless Judge Brian Hagedorn is elected to the court this April.

When Scott Walker was elected in 2010, Wisconsin’s liberals made it clear that they could not abide the will of the people and allow conservatives to govern. A familiar pattern emerged: Republicans legally pass conservative legislation into law; liberals sue; Dane County judge invalidates conservative law; after appeals, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturns the Dane County judge and allows the law to take hold. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has consistently thwarted the liberals’ attempt to overturn conservative laws through the courts, so the liberals are determined to get the court back under their control.

Right now, four of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court Justices are judicial conservatives. That means that they think the role of the court is to strictly interpret the law as written and respect the rights and responsibilities of the other two branches of government to enact the will of the people through legislation. By contrast, three of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court justices are judicial liberals, meaning that they take a more expansive view of the role of the court to enact their own wills to right wrongs, as they define them, with little regard for judicial restraint.

One of those three judicial liberals, Justice Shirley Abrahamson, is retiring and the election this April is to replace her. At first glance, this may appear to be a relatively inconsequential election. The balance of the court is not on the line. If the people of Wisconsin elect a judicial liberal, the balance of the court will remain the same. If the voters elect a judicial conservative, then the judicial conservatives strengthen their majority to a 5-2 split. Without much on the line, why worry, right?

The key is to look to April of 2020. In that election, incumbent Justice Dan Kelly will likely run for reelection. Kelly is one of the judicial conservatives on the court. The challenge for Kelly is that the presidential primary will be on the same ballot. President Donald Trump is unlikely to face a serious primary challenger, so Republican turnout will be light. Meanwhile, the Democratic primary for president portends to be hotly contested, so Democratic turnout will likely be massive. That does not bode well for a conservative judicial candidate on the ballot. Kelly faces a steep uphill climb that has nothing to do with him, and everything to do with the rest of the ballot.

If Wisconsin’s voters replace Abrahamson with another judicial liberal and retain a 4-3 judicial conservative majority, it is exceedingly likely that the election of April 2020 will flip the court to a judicial liberal majority. If that happens, liberals will sue to overturn every conservative law passed in the previous decade and have the Supreme Court on their side. They cannot turn back the clock through the representative democratic process, so they will turn to the courts instead. Act 10, concealed carry, school choice, the repeal of prevailing wage, the Wisconsin REINS Act, voter ID, right to work, castle doctrine — all of it is at risk if judicial liberals gain control of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court.

That is why Wisconsin must elect a judicial conservative to the Supreme Court this April. That judicial conservative is Appeals Court Judge Brian Hagedorn.

Hagedorn has served in a number of legal capacities since graduating from the Northwestern University School of Law. After three years in private practice, he worked as a law clerk for Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman before going to work as an assistant attorney general. He worked as Gov. Scott Walker’s chief legal counsel from 2011 to 2015 during the time when many of Wisconsin’s most significant reforms in generations were passed into law. Since 2015, Hagedorn has been serving as a judge on Wisconsin’s Court of Appeals.

Hagedorn’s judicial philosophy is one of restraint and humble respect for the individual rights and the will of the people. As he says, “justices wear neutral robes, not capes.” That is exactly the kind of attitude Wisconsin needs on the court to protect our liberties and uphold constitutional laws that were dutifully passed by the representatives of the people.

Elect Hagedorn to protect Wisconsin’s conservative revolution

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Log on or pick up a copy for the whole thing. Here’s a sample:

The key is to look to April of 2020. In that election, incumbent Justice Dan Kelly will likely run for reelection. Kelly is one of the judicial conservatives on the court.The challenge for Kelly is that the presidential primary will be on the same ballot. President Donald Trump is unlikely to face a serious primary challenger, so Republican turnout will be light. Meanwhile, the Democratic primary for president portends to be hotly contested, so Democratic turnout will likely be massive. That does not bode well for a conservative judicial candidate on the ballot. Kelly faces a steep uphill climb that has nothing to do with him, and everything to do with the rest of the ballot.

If Wisconsin’s voters replace Abrahamson with another judicial liberal and retain a 4-3 judicial conservative majority, it is exceedingly likely that the election of April 2020 will flip the court to a judicial liberal majority. If that happens, liberals will sue to overturn every conservative law passed in the previous decade and have the Supreme Court on their side. They cannot turn back the clock through the representative democratic process, so they will turn to the courts instead. Act 10, concealed carry, school choice, the repeal of prevailing wage, the Wisconsin REINS Act, voter ID, right to work, castle doctrine — all of it is at risk if judicial liberals gain control of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court.

That is why Wisconsin must elect a judicial conservative to the Supreme Court this April. That judicial conservative is Appeals Court Judge Brian Hagedorn.

Gov. Tony Evers’ SOS

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday. Stay warm out there!

Gov. Tony Evers took to the Assembly chamber last week to give his first State of the State speech. Evers had a difficult challenge ahead of him. Thanks to his predecessor and the legislative majorities who were just re-elected, the state is in historically good shape, but Evers had to redefine success in order to justify his radical agenda. As we enter an era of divided government in Wisconsin, Evers’ speech was infused with rigid liberal dogma delivered in a confrontational tone. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the speech, however, is how he blundered his way into a completely avoidable controversy.

One of Evers’ campaign promises was that he would withdraw Wisconsin from an ongoing lawsuit regarding Obamacare. That suit is suing to invalidate Obamacare on the grounds that the individual mandate is unconstitutional (it is) and has made good progress in the lower courts. Since several states are involved in the suit, Wisconsin’s withdrawal will not have a measurable effect on the outcome of the case, but withdrawing would be a symbolic gesture to Evers’ radical liberal base.

Knowing that Evers intended to fulfill this promise, the Legislature passed a law in December that requires the governor to gain legislative approval before withdrawing the state from ongoing legal actions. It was a way for the Legislature to add a check to what was a unilateral power of the executive branch.

Governor Evers knew all of this when he declared in his State of the State speech, with great fanfare from the liberals in the room, that “I’m announcing tonight that I have fulfilled a promise I made to the people of Wisconsin by directing Attorney General Kaul to withdraw from a lawsuit … .”

While it made for a great applause line for liberals, Evers was declaring that he had instructed Kaul to withdraw from the Obamacare lawsuit. It is important to note that Evers used the past tense, meaning that he had already issued the instruction to the attorney general. Evers announced this in a statewide, televised speech even though he knew that it was no longer legal for him to unilaterally withdraw from the lawsuit.

Quickly after the speech, Republicans pointed out the error in Evers’ declaration and the attorneys from

the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau reiterated the meaning of the clear language of the law that Evers could not order the attorney general to withdraw from the Obamacare lawsuit.

Within days of Evers’ speech, he had to walk back the order to comply with the law and Attorney General Kaul has dutifully requested that the Legislature approve withdrawing from the lawsuit. The odds are that such approval will not be forthcoming.

Evers’ reaction is quite telling. In a statement to the Wisconsin State Journal, Evers claimed that he understood that the action would require legislative approval and said, “So in my worldview — and I know that’s not everyone’s worldview — there’s nothing inconsistent with what I said and what’s actually going to happen.”

Evers is trying to create an alternate reality where he was in the right. The problem with that is he did not say it in an off-the-cuff remark. He made a formal declaration in his State of the State address. Presumably, such a formal speech had been vetted, reworked, and fact-checked by his staff and himself multiple times before it was delivered. He is an educator by profession and had ample time to write the statement in a way that people could understand his meaning without having to divine Evers’ worldview.

There can only be two rational explanations for Evers’ blunder, and refusal to own up to it. Either Evers is simply a liberal activist who will run roughshod over the law in pursuit of his agenda unless he is checked, or he lacks the competence necessary to write a coherent speech — much less run a state.

Either way, for those of us who were hoping, despite our political differences, for honesty and competence in the Evers governorship, this early bungle does not bode well for the next four years.

Gov. Tony Evers’ SOS

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Check it out online or pick up a copy. It’s about Evers’ abortive and illegal effort to withdraw the state from the Obamacare lawsuit. Here’s a part:

Evers is trying to create an alternate reality where he was in the right. The problem with that is he did not say it in an off-the-cuff remark. He made a formal declaration in his State of the State address. Presumably, such a formal speech had been vetted, reworked, and fact-checked by his staff and himself multiple times before it was delivered. He is an educator by profession and had ample time to write the statement in a way that people could understand his meaning without having to divine Evers’ worldview.

There can only be two rational explanations for Evers’ blunder, and refusal to own up to it. Either Evers is simply a liberal activist who will run roughshod over the law in pursuit of his agenda unless he is checked, or he lacks the competence necessary to write a coherent speech — much less run a state.

Either way, for those of us who were hoping, despite our political differences, for honesty and competence in the Evers governorship, this early bungle does not bode well for the next four years.

 

Another case of misplaced priorities

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

Faced with a mediocre state report card, a systemic decline in enrollment, and pressure from better-performing neighboring schools, the West Bend School Board has decided that they will ask the voters to hike property taxes and spend $74 million on … buildings. One could hardly have conjured a more flagrant example of misplaced priorities.

On the April ballot, the voters of the West Bend School District will be asked to borrow $47 million (with an estimated payback of $74 million) to build a new Jackson Elementary School building and make a hodgepodge of renovations to the high school building. There is no legal requirement that the district spend the borrowed money on the stated purpose once the borrowing is approved. They could spend the money on anything they want, which is why many school districts have ladled fat onto their referendums so that they could pay for myriad pet projects. But for the sake of argument, let us take the West Bend referendum at face value and assume that they will only use it for its stated purpose.

Jackson Elementary is advertised as the oldest school building in the district, but that is a stretch of the truth. One small part of the building is from the original construction. Most of the building was added on over the decades. The school educated as many as 528 kids in the 2008-09 school year, but a combination of reconfiguring the middle schools and the decline in aggregate enrollment eroded the student enrollment to 370 kids in the 2017-19 school year. Enrollment projections show that enrollment will continue to decline 10 percent to 20 percent over the next decade. In short, much of the space in Jackson Elementary is underutilized and unneeded.

The Jackson Elementary building is 59,176 square feet, or about 160 square feet per child. The draft design for a new building is a whopping 85,000 square feet, or about 230 square feet child at the current enrollment. The industry standard for elementary kids, according to the information provided by the school district, is 134 square feet per child. The school is already much bigger than needed and the plan is to build an even bigger one.

It is worth noting that despite the lamentations about Jackson Elementary being a dump of a school, it boasts the second-highest performance of any elementary school in the district. Clearly, what happens inside the building is more important than the building itself. Building a massive new fancy building is more about soothing the vanity of School Board members and staff than it is about educating kids.

In the high school building, there is a list of wants that the school board wants to borrow money to pay for and a few routine maintenance items that have been neglected for years. They are all things that were predictable expenses that should have been budgeted and completed as a matter of routine, but they were willfully ignored. Now the School Board wants to put the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars into debt to make up for years of poor fiscal management.

The School Board has failed to exercise the power given to it by Act 10 to properly manage its budget to improve education. They abandoned the fledgling merit pay system for teachers implemented by the previous superintendent in favor of a blanket $1 million pay increase for teachers. Merit pay may or may not save money, but it will improve education by recruiting and retaining better teachers. Much like the district’s curriculum, the district’s compensation plan for teachers is geared toward punishing excellence, excusing failure, and rewarding mediocrity. The district gets exactly what it is paying for.

Six years ago, an innovative School Board started a charter school in the district to offer diversity in educational experiences for kids. Over the past couple of years, the district has orphaned that effort. The current School Board is well down the path of killing it or, if they can’t, moving it into an existing building. Fortunately, due to declining enrollment, several of the district’s buildings have ample space.

The School Board still pays an exorbitant amount for staff benefits, has too many administrators compared to other districts, and wastes money on duplicative high school staffs. Like the compulsive gambler, the School Board is perpetually claiming poverty and trying to borrow money when the root of the district’s alleged financial distress is the unavoidable consequence of their own decisions.

While School Board members are obsessing over putting their names on a plaque in the new building, even more time and money is being wasted on things that will not improve education for a single kid. One can always tell what is most important to people by where they spend their time and money. The parents in the West Bend School District are waiting for educational excellence to be a priority for the School Board.

Another case of misplaced priorities

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. I start digging into all of the reasons why voters should vote against the referendum that the misguided West Bend School Board put on the April ballot. Here’s a piece:

Faced with a mediocre state report card, a systemic decline in enrollment, and pressure from betterperforming neighboring schools, the West Bend School Board has decided that they will ask the voters to hike property taxes and spend $74 million on … buildings. One could hardly have conjured a more flagrant example of misplaced priorities.

[…]

While School Board members are obsessing over putting their names on a plaque in the new building, even more time and money is being wasted on things that will not improve education for a single kid. One can always tell what is most important to people by where they spend their time and money. The parents in the West Bend School District are waiting for educational excellence to be a priority for the School Board.

 

Transportation spending is a matter of priorities

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News this week.

During the deliberation about Wisconsin’s current budget, the most contentious issue was about whether or not we should increase spending on the state’s transportation infrastructure. One reason that the debate was so heated is because with Wisconsin’s segregated transportation fund, increasing spending means an unpopular increase in taxes. As we begin debating Wisconsin’s next budget, transportation spending is again a hot issue, but the lines of battle need to move.

The state of Wisconsin first segregated the transportation fund from the general fund in 1945, some 22 years before the Department of Transportation was created. Wisconsin has several taxes and fees that shovel money into the transportation fund including gas taxes, registration fees, fees on rental vehicles, airline property taxes, railroad property taxes, outdoor advertising revenue, etc. The two primary transportation funding sources are the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.

All of these funding sources have one thing in common. They are meant to serve as a proxy for usage. The underlying philosophy of transportation funding in Wisconsin is that people who use Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure more should pay more for it. The difficulty is that as the technology of transportation has advanced and diversified, usage proxies like fuel consumption have become less valid.

Setting aside for the moment the debate over whether or not Wisconsin needs to spend more on transportation (we do not), in the current paradigm, if Wisconsin wants to spend more, then we need to raise existing taxes or find new ones. Neither of those options has been popular.

Several states have implemented toll roads to generate more revenue, but the idea has been almost universally rejected in Wisconsin. The idea of a tax on actual mileage has been floated in Wisconsin and elsewhere, but the thought of the government tracking our vehicles is distasteful.

The friction between the opposition to increased taxes grinding against the push for more transportation spending is what creates the heat for the political debate. The friction is misplaced. The heart of the debate is centered on the supposition that only the people who directly use Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure should be the ones to pay for it. That is why the transportation fund is segregated and that is why all of the supporting taxes and fees are targeted at people who use the transportation system. The supposition is flawed.

Everyone in Wisconsin benefits from Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure irrespective of how much they actually use it themselves. Every Wisconsinites benefits either directly or indirectly from the commerce that relies on our transportation infrastructure, the goods and services delivered to our homes and retailers, the accessibility of emergency services, and so much more. The person who does not own a car and has everything delivered to their home benefits just as much as the avid driver who is on the road several times a day.

If everyone benefits from our transportation infrastructure, why are we getting twisted around the axle of who pays for it? Shouldn’t we all pay for it? Wisconsinites have long since agreed that we all benefit from, and all should pay for, education, law enforcement, environmental protections, etc. It is time for transportation to join the club.

While some taxes and fees are designated for transportation needs and lawmakers are constitutionally prohibited from spending that revenue on other needs, the spending for transportation can come from any source. Over the years, it has been quite common for the budget to transfer tax revenue from the general fund to the transportation fund to supplement the spending. In the current budget, over $82 million was spent on transportation from the general fund.

If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation in the next budget, there is no need to raise taxes, implement toll roads, or create new taxes. All they have to do is designate more money from the general fund. The taxes and fees that feed the transportation fund create a spending floor, but lawmakers can spend as much as they want above and beyond that by using the general fund.

The rub is that the general fund, fueled by income, sales, and other taxes, is what is used to fund all of the other state’s priorities like education, environmental protection, law enforcement, and so much more. If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation from the general fund, they will need to explain why transportation needs the money more than all of the other budget needs. In other words, lawmakers will need to prioritize transportation spending along with all of the other needs of the state.

This is part of the normal budgeting process. Budgets are statements of priorities. There is always an infinite list of spending needs and wants and a limited amount of money to go around. Lawmakers are elected and paid to set those priorities and make the hard choices on behalf of their constituents.

The segregation of transportation funding all of these years has let lawmakers off the hook from the responsibility of prioritizing transportation spending. By having designated taxes for transportation, lawmakers could just spend every dollar generated by those taxes without having to explain why putting a dollar into concrete is more important than keeping a felon locked up or paying a teacher. The debate should not be about which transportation taxes need to be increased to support more spending. The debate should be about why spending more money on transportation is more important than spending that money on something else.

Wisconsin does not need to spend more on transportation infrastructure, but if lawmakers think it does, they do not need to raise taxes. They can easily use the general fund to increase spending and explain to the taxpayers why it is a priority. That is their job.

Transportation spending is a matter of priorities

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. I point out that the lines of battle over transportation funding/spending are in the wrong place. We don’t have to raise taxes to spend more on transportation. If people think we need to spend more (I don’t), then they just need to prioritize it over other needs like education, prisons, etc. It about priorities and one of the biggest priorities should be to NOT raise taxes. Here’s a part:

If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation in the next budget, there is no need to raise taxes, implement toll roads, or create new taxes. All they have to do is designate more money from the general fund. The taxes and fees that feed the transportation fund create a spending floor, but lawmakers can spend as much as they want above and beyond that by using the general fund.

The rub is that the general fund, fueled by income, sales, and other taxes, is what is used to fund all of the other state’s priorities like education, environmentalprotection, law enforcement, and so much more. If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation from the general fund, they will need to explain why transportation needs the money more than all of the other budget needs. In other words, lawmakers will need to prioritize transportation spending along with all of the other needs of the state.

This is part of the normal budgeting process. Budgets are statements of priorities. There is always an infinite list of spending needs and wants and a limited amount of money to go around. Lawmakers are elected and paid to set those priorities and make the hard choices on behalf of their constituents.

The segregation of transportation funding all of these years has let lawmakers off the hook from the responsibility of prioritizing transportation spending. By having designated taxes for transportation, lawmakers could just spend every dollar generated by those taxes without having to explain why putting a dollar into concrete is more important than keeping a felon locked up or paying a teacher. The debate should not be about which transportation taxes need to be increased to support more spending. The debate should be about why spending more money on transportation is more important than spending that money on something else.

 

 

Hazy sunshine in local government

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. I share my uneven experiences with Open Records Requests with three local governments. Here’s a part:

What have we learned about the ability for a Wisconsin citizen to peer into the workings of our government?

First, if a government wants to be obstinate, there is not much that a citizen can do about it. While the city of West Bend and Washington County were appropriately responsive and cooperative, the West Bend School District and board members threw up multiple roadblocks including ignoring requests and imposing an unnecessary and exorbitant fees. As a private citizen, all one can do is sue the government at great personal expense or file a complaint with the district attorney or attorney general. Historically, neither agency has ever been aggressive in enforcing open records laws. Government looks out for government.

Second, all three governments are doing a poor job of retaining and making available public records to occur outside of government-provided technology. In our modern age, it is not uncommon for public officials to communicate with citizens, vendors, lobbyists, employees, and others through multiple digital channels including SMS, social media, and various chat technologies. In fact, this is becoming commonplace with the ubiquitousness of personal devices.

If those public officials are using those technologies, they are creating a public record that should be open to public scrutiny for a reasonable amount of time. Otherwise, it is far too easy for our government officials to conduct themselves as angels in their official email while hiding their corruption in their personal devices. Every government needs to take the proactive step to implement policies regarding the preservation and retention of public records irrespective of format.

Wisconsin has great laws regarding open records, but they are only as good as government officials are willing to obey and enforce them. We still have work to do to ensure that our government is open and accountable.

 

Conservative leadership works

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

Most often, good government is boring government. For the better part of a decade, the goings on at the city of West Bend have been boring. The city has paid off debt, kept spending and taxes down, increased the fund balance, improved the city’s bond rating, controlled costs, etc. — all while maintaining and improving essential services and tackling a couple of big projects. Boring? Yes. But it is precisely the kind of boring that is the hallmark of good government.

At the dawn of the current decade, West Bend was in trouble. The city had been transitioning from a vibrant manufacturing and commercial center to more of a mixed economy. The presence of county government, MPTC, UWWC, and other government entities helped insulate some city residents from the worst of the Great Recession, but the private sector was hit hard. Unemployment peaked at 14.1 percent and wages were down.

City government was struggling to make ends meet. In 2010, the debt service of almost $6 million per year to make payments on $80 million in debt consumed over 23 percent of the city’s operations budget. The city’s unassigned fund balance was floating at about 11 percent — well below the standard of 17 percent that the Government Finance Officers Association (GFAO) considers the benchmark for fiscal stability. City leaders at the time were using debt as a crutch to maintain bloated spending without raising taxes in a community that has always been resistant to tax increases.

West Bend needed a change. West Bend needed leadership.

Following the Great Recession, many local residents, many of whom were energized by the Tea Party movement sweeping the nation, began to look to their own communities. In West Bend, strong conservatives began running for local office with an eye to infusing city government with conservative leadership. Conservatives like Tony Turner (2008), Ed Duquaine (2010), Steve Hutchins (2011), Randy Koehler (2011), Kraig Sadownikow (2011) and others challenged more liberal incumbents and won with a strong conservative agenda.

As 2019 dawns, the residents of West Bend can see the results of several years of conservative leadership. For several years, the city has been steadily paying off debt without adding to it. This has brought the $80 million debt down to $53 million — a 34 percent reduction in total debt. The payments on that debt have dropped from $5.94 million in 2010 to a budgeted $3.74 million in 2019. That is a drop from 23 percent of the city’s operations budget to just under 15 percent and has freed up $2.2 million in budget that can now be spent on city services instead of debt.

Meanwhile, the Unassigned Fund Balance, which used to sit at a paltry 11 percent, is now a healthy 25 percent. The increase in this fund balance above the recommended floor of 17 percent is one of the driving factors behind the city’s improving bond rating.

Through all of this, the city has kept spending flat. In 2019, the city of West Bend’s Operations Budget will be $25.25 million. That is $0.1 million decrease from the 2010 budget. Accounting for inflation, the city has been reducing spending while reducing debt and taxes. Meanwhile, city services are as good as ever, downtown is thriving, and the city’s private sector economy is blossoming.

None of this happened by magic. Mayor Sadownikow and the conservatives on the Common Council have accomplished this by making smart, conservative decisions over and over again while not succumbing to chattering spenders constantly in their ears.

For example, in 2012 there was a legitimate need to renovate and expand the city hall and city police department, which are in the same building. Ideas ranged from building a new facility for the police department to moving city hall into downtown to renovating the existing building. The price tag ranged into the tens of millions. In the end, city leaders took the prudent step of doing just what they needed to renovate the existing building at a cost of $8.6 million. Some of the aldermen even picked up some hammers to volunteer their labor for part of the demolition to control costs. It wasn’t a flashy new building, but it served the needs of the community.

Another seemingly small decision with big dividends was getting employee benefits under control with the power of Act 10 and negotiating with the fire and police unions. For example, for years, part of the West Bend contract with our firefighters allowed them to convert sick leave to health insurance payments when they retired as early as age 52. While it made sense when health insurance was cheap decades ago, it had ballooned into a $17 million unfunded liability for city taxpayers.

Through negotiations and cooperation with the firefighters union, the city began pulling back that obligation in 2013 and are eliminating it in 2019. City taxpayers will honor the obligation for older employees, but replace it with a funded Post Employment Health Plan for new employees. This will completely eliminate the city’s unfunded liability bomb with the next generation of city firefighters while still providing for their post retirement needs.

Good local government is not about fancy new buildings, flamboyant politicians, or flashy initiatives. It is about good decisions, rooted in common sense and humble restraint, consistently made for the long term benefit of the community. The city of West Bend is doing it right.

Conservative leadership works

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. For those who say that I never have anything good to say about government, well…

Most often, good government is boring government. For the better part of a decade, the goings on at the city of West Bend have been boring. The city has paid off debt, kept spending and taxes down, increased the fund balance, improved the city’s bond rating, controlled costs, etc. — all while maintaining and improving essential services and tackling a couple of big projects. Boring? Yes. But it is precisely the kind of boring that is the hallmark of good government.

Read the rest by picking up a copy or signing up online!

Evers begins to stock his cabinet

Here’s my full column from the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

Governor-elect Tony Evers is deep into his transition to power and has begun to announce his choices to fill his cabinet. While none of the picks are surprising, they do confirm the kind of governor that Tony Evers intends to be.

To run the Department of Administration, Evers has chosen Joel Brennan, the CEO of the Milwaukee’s Discovery World Science and Technology Museum. Brennan is an old Democratic operative who previously ran Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s campaigns for governor and mayor. Brennan’s brother-in-law is also a co-chair of Evers’ transition team. Brennan’s deep roots in Wisconsin’s Democratic political structure will put a firm stamp on the Department of Administration.

Evers has chosen Preston Cole to run the Department of Natural Resources. Cole currently works as the commissioner of neighborhood services under Mayor Tom Barrett and has been a member of the DNR’s board since 2007. Garnering praise from Governor Scott Walker, Cole has a degree in forest management and a long history of involvement with environmental management.

Sara Meaney has been chosen by Evers to run Wisconsin’s Department of Tourism. Meaney currently works as the chief marketing and development officer at Milwaukee Film. Meaney has a background in Milwaukee’s arts community and is a member of the Greater Milwaukee Committee.

Evers has picked Kevin Carr to serve as secretary of the Department of Corrections. Carr is a United States marshal who previously worked for the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office for 30 years.

Brad Pfaff has been selected to run the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. Pfaff is another old-time Democratic political insider who worked for Congressman Ron Kind, U.S. SenatorHerb Kohl, as a political appointee in the Obama Administration, and has run for state office as a Democrat in the past.

Evers has chosen Rebecca Valcq to chair the Public Service Commission. Valcq is a lawyer and partner at Milwaukee’s Quarles and Brady law firm. She also spent 15 years working for We Energies as a regulatory attorney.

Mark Afable is to be Wisconsin’s insurance commissioner, pending Senate confirmation. A graduate of Marquette Law, Afable is currently the chief legal officer for American Family Insurance in Madison.

Evers’ most controversial Cabinet choice to date is for Craig Thompson to run the Department of Transportation. Thompson is the executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin. In that role for the last decade, he has been a vocal and aggressive lobbyist on behalf of road builders and unions to spend more money on transportation. Thompson’s selection is the strongest signal yet that Evers will push for a massive increase in spending, and the taxes to fund that spending, in the next budget.

Each of Evers’ cabinet choices will have to meet the approval of the Wisconsin state Senate, which remains firmly in Republican control. Under the new rules signed into law a couple of weeks ago, a cabinet appointee who fails to receive confirmation by the Senate will not be allowed to continue to serve in that office or be reappointed. As such, Evers will need to work with the Senate majority to ensure that his choices will gain approval.

In looking at the list of Evers’ appointments so far, one thing really sticks out. Except for Pfaff, every appointee is from Milwaukee or Madison. This makes complete sense when one considers how Evers won the election. His narrow victory was thanks to overwhelming liberal turnout in Dane and Milwaukee counties. The Democratic power base is increasingly concentrated in these two counties, so it stands to reason that a Democratic administration would be filled with operatives from these geographies.

The political divisions in Wisconsin, like in the rest of America, are increasingly along the lines of rural vs. urban instead of left vs. right. At least for the next four years, Wisconsin’s urban interests are going to be in control of the executive branch.

Evers begins to stock his cabinet

My column in the Washington County Daily News this week is about Tony Evers and his cabinet choices. Here’s a little piece.

In looking at the list of Evers’ appointments so far, one thing really sticks out. Except for Pfaff, every appointee is from Milwaukee or Madison. This makes complete sense when one considers how Evers won the election. His narrow victory was thanks to overwhelming liberal turnout in Dane and Milwaukee counties. The Democratic power base is increasingly concentrated in these two counties, so it stands to reason that a Democratic administration would be filled with operatives from these geographies.

The political divisions in Wisconsin, like in the rest of America, are increasingly along the lines of rural vs. urban instead of left vs. right. At least for the next four years, Wisconsin’s urban interests are going to be in control of the executive branch.

Avoid the pension bomb

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

Last week, this column advised that the next state budget strengthen the state’s financial foundation by moving state government employees from a defined benefit (pension) plan to a defined contribution (401(k) or IRA) plan. This week, let us delve deeper into why this would be good for state employees and Wisconsin’s taxpayers.

One of the great ticking budgetary time bombs in our nation is the looming unfunded pension obligation. State and local politicians have promised government retirees much more money than they have actually budgeted. In total, the unfunded pension debt for all state and local governments is almost $1.4 trillion, based on research by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

This means that taxpayers around the nation are on the hook for $1.4 trillion to be paid to retirees that has not been set aside. That bill will come due and taxpayers will be forced to pay the debt by raising taxes, reducing government services, reneging on their promise to retirees, or, most likely, all of the above. Out-of-control pension debt has already bankrupted several cities, including Detroit, and is pushing several states, like Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut, to the brink of insolvency. Pension plans are a relic of the past. They are from a time when it was difficult for regular people to access the investment markets and people living to 80 was unusual. Pension plans have bankrupted some of America’s largest companies and are now impacting governments. That is why only 19 percent of private-sector workers still have a pension while 87 percent of government workers have one.

Thanks to the sound budgetary management of Wisconsin’s politicians of both parties, Wisconsin is not facing an immediate crisis. As of 2016, Wisconsin’s pension obligation is about $93 billion and the Wisconsin Retirement System is about 99 percent funded, leaving a relatively small deficit of $853 million.

It is precisely because Wisconsin is in a fiscal position of strength that we should make changes for the future now. Remember that every pension bomb is the result of people with good intentions making bad decisions. Wisconsin is not immune from the blowback of human nature. Waiting until we are in a crisis before making changes will only lead to poor decisions and bad consequences.

The benefits to taxpayers of moving Wisconsin’s government employees to a 401(k)-style retirement plan are huge. First and foremost, it eliminates the potential of the pension bomb blowing up Wisconsin’s budget. Since the pension fund is almost fully funded, it will take some sound management to make sure it is properly drawn down to pay out the pensions of everyone currently under it. Meanwhile, taxpayers will not have any unfunded obligations to new employees or employees who choose to switch to the new plan.

Second, eliminating the pension will help encourage a healthy turnover of employees. Since a retiree’s pension is calculated based on their final average earnings and years of service, too many government employees hang on long after their passion for the work has waned. At the other end of the scale, Wisconsin’s pension plan allows employees to retire as early as age 50 with full benefits. This leaves taxpayers paying for a retiree for another 30 to 40 years while also paying a replacement employee. A 401(k) plan, in which the employee owns their retirement fund and can take it with them whenever they want, is a benefit to taxpayers and the employee.

For Wisconsin’s government employees, moving to a 401(k) or IRA plan has even more benefits. Perhaps the greatest benefit is that employees would own their retirement funds and not be subject to the problems of future politicians. The possibility of having benefits reduced or eliminated due to lack of money is not a hypothetical scenario. It has happened to thousands upon thousands of workers in our nation as private and public pension plans have slipped into insolvency. By taking ownership of their own retirement funds, employees are only subject to the amount of risk they choose to take on.

Furthermore, government employees would no longer feel a need to be a slave to their pension. They are free to move on to a different job in the private sector whenever they choose without negative consequences. Employees will also be able to choose the investment portfolio that most closely matches their tolerance for risk. If they want to be super safe, that’s great. If they want to risk for potentially more return that’s great, too. Government should always lean in favor of empowering individuals to make their own choices.

Also, unlike pensions, 401(k) and IRA plans have the ability to create generational wealth. Pension benefits cannot be passed on to the next generation. When the employee and their spouse die, the pension dies with them. The unused balance of 401(k) and IRA plans can be passed on when the owner dies. This helps facilitate generational wealth creation for Wisconsin families.

By moving Wisconsin’s government employees to a 401(k) plan now, the state can honor its obligations to employees and retirees under the current pension plan, provide a fantastic benefit for new employees, and protect future generations of taxpayers from a debt bomb exploding in their wallets.

Avoid the pension bomb

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here’s a taste, but go pick up a copy!

Pension plans are a relic of the past. They are from a time when it was difficult for regular people to access the investment markets and people living to 80 was unusual. Pension plans have bankrupted some of America’s largest companies and are now impacting governments. That is why only 19 percent of private-sector workers still have a pension while 87 percent of government workers have one.

Thanks to the sound budgetary management of Wisconsin’s politicians of both parties, Wisconsin is not facing an immediate crisis. As of 2016, Wisconsin’s pension obligation is about $93 billion and the Wisconsin Retirement System is about 99 percent funded, leaving a relatively small deficit of $853 million.

It is precisely because Wisconsin is in a fiscal position of strength that we should make changes for the future now. Remember that every pension bomb is the result of people with good intentions making bad decisions. Wisconsin is not immune from the blowback of human nature. Waiting until we are in a crisis before making changes will only lead to poor decisions and bad consequences.

Public input on the next state budget

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday. I don’t have any illusions about Evers actually listening to my view, but he asked for public input…

Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Lt. Gov.-elect Mandela Barnes have announced they will hold four public listening sessions before Christmas to get the public’s input on the upcoming state budget. The four sessions will be today in Green Bay, Wednesday in Wausau, Dec. 18 in La Crosse and Dec. 19 in Milwaukee.

Since all four sessions begin during working hours and, like most tax-paying Wisconsinites, I work for a living, I will not be able to attend and give the incoming administration my thoughts in person. This column will have to suffice.

As the Legislature and governor begin the process of crafting the next state budget, they must do so with the understanding that Wisconsin is not immune from the economic winds blowing across the nation. While the underlying economic metrics remain strong, several leading indicators, including the wild movements in the stock market, foretell a looming recession within the next year or two.

Since Wisconsin uses a biennial budget, it is likely the next recession will come during the budget our elected officials are about to write. They must write that budget understanding recessions always lead to a decrease in state tax revenue while making higher demands on state services like welfare and Badger-Care. To that end, the overriding objective of the next state budget should be to reduce spending, reduce taxes and continue to pump money into the state’s rainy day fund, because rainy days are in the forecast.

From a revenue standpoint, the state of Wisconsin is in great shape. Thanks to the series of tax cuts that Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislators have delivered over the past few years, tax revenue is flowing into state coffers at historic levels. There is no shortage of money for politicians to spend.

While the Republicans have done a tremendous job in the previous few budgets, they have failed to reduce spending. Despite claims to the contrary, every single state budget for the last generation or more has spent more than the previous budget. Granted, the Republicans did not increase spending as much as the Democrats wanted to, but they increased spending nonetheless.

The vast majority of state spending is spent on a handful of budget priorities. One cannot seriously reduce spending without looking to the big budget items. The first area Evers and the Legislature should look is at education spending.

In the previous state budget, the state massively increased state spending on K-12 education. The data continues to show that once fundamental needs are met, spending more money on schools does not improve educational outcomes for the kids. Smarter spending does. The state should reduce overall spending on K-12 education while helping local districts develop more focused curricula through the Department of Public Instruction. The goal should be to use data-driven initiatives to improve actual outcomes. The goal should not be to see who can spend the most money.

Furthermore, the most recent state testing data shows that Wisconsin choice schools are outperforming government schools, and they do so for a lesser cost. The next state budget should further expand school choice to push money and kids to schools that provide better outcomes for those kids.

The other large state education expense is the UW System. Here again, the state should reduce state spending to force the needed reforms that UW officials refuse to take. Enrollment is in steep decline across the UW System except for their flagship university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Yet the campuses are still overbuilt and there are too many of them for too few students. The state budget should reduce UW spending, continue the tuition freeze, and encourage the UW regents to consolidate and streamline the system’s structure.

The next state budget should also move the Wisconsin Retirement System from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. Even though the WRS system is one of the few solvent state pension funds, a few years of bad decisions could change that and force the state into a miserable state like Illinois. Wisconsin should get ahead of the curve and give government employees a retirement plan more in line with what the vast majority of taxpayers have. Not only would this have the benefit of erecting a backstop against budgetary ruin, but it would encourage a healthy turnover of government employees who are not wedded to their pension.

The next state budget should also cut transportation spending and enact reforms to get more “road for our buck.” Some of the reforms in the bills passed by the Legislature last week take positive steps in this direction. Other Midwestern states manage to spend far less than Wisconsin per mile of road and have higher quality ratings. Now that the megaprojects in southeast Wisconsin are nearing completion, Wisconsin needs to rein in spending.

I could go on for another dozen columns. The state budget has no shortage of unnecessary or wasteful spending. If Evers and the Legislature do not reduce spending before the tax revenues fall during the next recession, the citizens of Wisconsin will be left footing the bill for their neglect when they can least afford it.

Public input on the next state budget

My column for the Washington County Daily News is in print and online. Go get a copy! Here’s a taste:

Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Lt. Gov.-elect Mandela Barnes have announced they will hold four public listening sessions before Christmas to get the public’s input on the upcoming state budget. The four sessions will be today in Green Bay, Wednesday in Wausau, Dec. 18 in La Crosse and Dec. 19 in Milwaukee.

Since all four sessions begin during working hours and, like most tax-paying Wisconsinites, I work for a living, I will not be able to attend and give the incoming administration my thoughts in person. This column will have to suffice.

As the Legislature and governor begin the process of crafting the next state budget, they must do so with the understanding that Wisconsin is not immune from the economic winds blowing across the nation. While the underlying economic metrics remain strong, several leading indicators, including the wild movements in the stock market, foretell a looming recession within the next year or two.

Since Wisconsin uses a biennial budget, it is likely the next recession will come during the budget our elected officials are about to write. They must write that budget understanding recessions always lead to a decrease in state tax revenue while making higher demands on state services like welfare and Badger-Care. To that end, the overriding objective of the next state budget should be to reduce spending, reduce taxes and continue to pump money into the state’s rainy day fund, because rainy days are in the forecast.

From a revenue standpoint, the state of Wisconsin is in great shape. Thanks to the series of tax cuts that Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislators have delivered over the past few years, tax revenue is flowing into state coffers at historic levels. There is no shortage of money for politicians to spend.

While the Republicans have done a tremendous job in the previous few budgets, they have failed to reduce spending. Despite claims to the contrary, every single state budget for the last generation or more has spent more than the previous budget. Granted, the Republicans did not increase spending as much as the Democrats wanted to, but they increased spending nonetheless.

The vast majority of state spending is spent on a handful of budget priorities. One cannot seriously reduce spending without looking to the big budget items. The first area Evers and the Legislature should look is at education spending.

Legislature has a full plate for the holidays

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday. As the sun rises on Wisconsin, I’m happy to see that the legislature is getting most of this done. Good work!

This week the Wisconsin Legislature will begin an extraordinary session as its final act before a new Legislature takes its place next year. The political backdrop of this session is that while the Republicans will retain firm control of both houses of the Legislature next year, the voters elected Democrats to every statewide office. An era of divided government is about to begin.

In anticipation of this new era, Republican leaders in the Legislature have introduced a slew of proposals designed to secure the successes of the past few years and put some protections in place to safeguard the state from overreaches from the Executive Branch. The proposals run the gamut from simply codifying rules that are already in place, absorbing recent court rulings into statute, pulling power back into the legislative branch and changing how elections work. A few of the proposals are more interesting than the rest.

Earlier this year, a United States Supreme Court ruling allowed states to collect sales taxes on internet purchases. Under law, the state is required to collect the tax, but to offset the tax increase by reducing the state income tax by an equal amount. This would keep the aggregate tax burden on Wisconsinites constant. One of the proposals would clean up the process for making this happen and accelerate the potential income tax decrease into 2019 instead of 2020. This makes it take effect in line with both years of the state’s biennial budget. The Legislature should absolutely pass this proposal.

In another proposal, the state would create a standalone presidential primary and move it earlier in the year. The reasons are twofold. First, by moving the presidential primary earlier in the election cycle, it makes Wisconsin more relevant in that process. Second, by creating a standalone election for the presidential primary, it prevents non-partisan state and local elections on the April ballot from being overwhelmed by the partisan presidential primary. The Legislature should pass this change.

The actual reason for the extraordinary session is to pass an aid package to encourage Kimberly-Clark to keep their factories, and the jobs that go with them, open in Wisconsin. For all of the reasons I outlined in a column in this space in July, the Legislature should not pass this proposal.

One proposal would require that the Legislature be included in defending the laws it writes if those laws are challenged as unconstitutional. In recent years, liberals have adopted the tactic of suing the state over every law Republicans passed by claiming that the law is somehow unconstitutional, and then shopping for a friendly radical liberal judge to issue an injunction. It is the job of the state attorney general to defend the state in such actions, but the incoming attorney general, Josh Kaul, is an acolyte of Eric Holder and has made no secret about the fact that he will use his office as a weapon to advance the radical liberal agenda. This proposal would ensure that the state’s laws are adequately defended against legal challenges and should certainly be passed.

Yet another proposal would prohibit a person from serving in an appointed position if the state Senate had rejected their appointment during the confirmation process. It would seem common sense that this is already the case, but it is not. Under law, the governor can appoint a person, the senate can reject that appointment and the governor can keep the person in the job indefinitely in a provisional capacity. This proposal would make it clear that once an appointee is rejected, they may no longer stay in the job. This should be passed.

Several other proposals codify which IDs are acceptable for voting, ensures that people will be required to remain sober in order to obtain welfare, writes into law rules that prevent illegal aliens from getting a Wisconsin driver’s license, provides legislative oversight when the state seeks federal approvals or waivers, requires state agencies to periodically report their spending to the Legislature, oblige the Department of Corrections to provide the Legislature a report on who is pardoned, make it easier for overseas citizens to vote and other relatively mundane things.

While every proposal must be evaluated on its own merits, almost every one of the proposals should be passed by the Legislature and signed into law by outgoing Gov. Scott Walker. The conservative revolution in Wisconsin has come to an end. Now it is time for Republicans to protect the gains we made.

Legislature has a full plate for the holidays

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online today. In it, I offer some opinion on some of the proposals being offered in the Wisconsin legislature’s extraordinary session. Pick up a copy to read the whole thing!

This week the Wisconsin Legislature will begin an extraordinary session as its final act before a new Legislature takes its place next year. The political backdrop of this session is that while the Republicans will retain firm control of both houses of the Legislature next year, the voters elected Democrats to every statewide office. An era of divided government is about to begin.

In anticipation of this new era, Republican leaders in the Legislature have introduced a slew of proposals designed to secure the successes of the past few years and put some protections in place to safeguard the state from overreaches from the Executive Branch. The proposals run the gamut from simply codifying rules that are already in place, absorbing recent court rulings into statute, pulling power back into the legislative branch and changing how elections work. A few of the proposals are more interesting than the rest.

[…]

While every proposal must be evaluated on its own merits, almost every one of the proposals should be passed by the Legislature and signed into law by outgoing Gov. Scott Walker. The conservative revolution in Wisconsin has come to an end. Now it is time for Republicans to protect the gains we made.

On guns, taxation, and tyranny

Here is my column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

Governor Elect Tony Evers has begun to select his staff and he is choosing people from the far Left of the political spectrum. This indicates that Evers does not have any intention of compromising with the Republican-led legislature. Evers plans to govern from and for the radical Leftist base that elected him. Radical Leftist doctrine dictates that Evers must seek to restrict gun rights and raise taxes. Wisconsin made a lot of progress on both of those issues under Governor Scott Walker, so it is a good time to go back to basics and remember why gun rights and lower taxes are important.

When the Founders of our great nation enshrined the protection of the individual right to keep and bear arms in the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, they did so for a single reason: to preserve the ability of the people to throw off a government that has become despotic.

When the Bill of Rights was written, the American experiment in self-governance was still in its infancy. The soldiers’ wounds were still healing from the long war of secession from the Great Britain and the dead were still being mourned by their families. Newly minted Americans had paid a heavy price to throw off one despotic government and knew that it would take just as much blood if they had to do it again.

The Right to Keep and Bear Arms does not exist for the purpose of hunting, shooting sports, or even self-defense. It exists, as the Declaration of Independence says, so that, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.” Throwing off a government requires an armed populace, which is why every tyrannical regime in the history of humankind has disarmed its citizens.

Americans are free because they are armed, and they are armed because they are free.

One of the principal powers granted to any government is the power to tax. At its best, a good government will collect taxes from the citizenry and use it for things that are for the general good, and for which the private sector is ill-equipped to do. The obvious things that fit this kinds of use of tax dollars are the military, law enforcement, large infrastructure needs, border enforcement, etc. At its worst, a bad government will collect taxes from the citizenry and use them to enrich favored people, oppress other people, or just waste the tax money. Welfare, corporate cronyism, wasteful government spending, etc. are examples of bad governance.

A totalitarian government can be a good government, but it is illegitimate without the consent of the governed. Conversely, a representative government can be a bad government when a tyranny of the majority fleeces a minority for its own gain.

In a totalitarian government, the power to tax is absolute and people must pay what the autocrat demands, or suffer consequences ranging from confiscation to imprisonment to death. In a representative government, the only difference is that it is not a single autocrat demanding the tax, but the majority of citizens. The consequences of refusing to pay a tax in a representative government is the same as in a totalitarian government.

Governments, whether totalitarian or representative, are the only entity in a civil society with the legal power to commit violence. That violence is directed against enemies of the nation in the form of a military, and it is directed against citizens of the nation who disobey the laws set forth by the government. The power of government is based on applied violence.

Oppressive taxes are not only a drain on our economy and fuel for bad government, but it siphons the ability of individuals to pursue their own happiness. Every dollar a government spends is a dollar that was taken from someone who can no longer use it for their own needs and wants.

Over the next several years, we can expect the Evers Administration to make a strong push to restrict gun rights and raise taxes. State legislators and the citizens of Wisconsin must see through the toxic rhetorical gas and fight for principles of more gun rights and less taxes.