Pacing Of Wisconsin Legislature Is Concerning

Wisconsin citizens can be excused if they have felt a sense of whiplash the past few days while reading and pondering the work of their state legislature.  While each person can have a varying sense of what needs to be prioritized by our elected officials there can be no disagreement over the fact legislators, by the pacing of their actions, send strong messages about what interests they are protecting and for whom they are really working.

Drunk driving in the Badger State makes for far too many horrific headlines.   Every session there are pleas from the public for tougher and more meaningful laws.  While over time stricter laws have passed there is one measure that seems unable to muster its way to a touchdown.  Wisconsin remains the only state that does not penalize a first-time drunken-driving offense as a criminal charge.

The Wisconsin State Journal editorialized on the need for smarter and tougher drunk driving laws this weekend. 

Unfortunately, top Republican leaders in both houses — Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester — are resisting another sensible bill, AB 18, that would make a first offense for OWI a misdemeanor crime. The proposal, championed by Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, would bring Wisconsin in line with the rest of the nation, and give hundreds of thousands of drivers more reason not to risk getting behind the wheel after drinking lots of alcohol.

The Wisconsin Tavern League continually makes sure that Wisconsin is the only state where a first-time drunken driving  offense is not a real crime.  Just slap the wrist of the first-time offender who drinks and drives, and all is supposed to be fine.

It is not all fine.  The headlines over the many years prove what is happening on our roadways.  As noted in the editorial more than 20,000 people are convicted for drunken driving each year in Wisconsin. Nearly 3,000 people are injured in alcohol-related crashes, and close to 200 people lose their lives.

Meanwhile those who drink water and wonder what chemicals and toxins come out of their tap continues to grow. 

Wisconsin wastewater plants were built to keep pollutants out of the environment, but state regulators have come to realize the facilities may be spreading hazardous industrial chemicals (PFAS) in ways that increase health risks.

Lobbyists for manufacturing concerns including the paper industry have urged lawmakers to go slowly and carefully examine PFAS regulations before acting.

A water quality task force announced by Vos in January has held public hearings and plans to schedule one on PFAS, said chairman Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville. Novak said he hopes the panel will roll out proposed legislation on at least some water pollution problems this fall or winter. He said he couldn’t predict how PFAS would be addressed because it hasn’t been discussed.

The fact we still have far too lenient rules regarding how political campaigns receive money means that the well-funded business community can work legislators far more adroitly than the average person filling a glass of water at the sink.

We are very aware that when the statehouse feels a need to put on thruster rockets and make speed with legislative initiatives they can do so–as last December proved.   The Republican majority called an extraordinary session.  It was most concerning as it was timed after an election which changed leadership in the governor’s office, and prior to the time the victor could sign or veto bills from that session.  The whole effort was designed to undermine what the citizens had stated with their ballots only weeks prior.

At that time elected officials proved that speed mattered.  But when drinking water concerns are raised, or the decades-long fight to curtail first-time drunk drivers is pressed for action we can plainly see citizens just wind up waiting.

What ties all these issues together is a severe lack of enough independent-minded legislators in Madison to get the people’s work done.  Too few who asked for the responsibility of leadership care to look at the facts and propose or support bills dealing with what voters are most concerned about.  Instead, some legislators allow themselves to be brow-beaten and threatened with political opposition at election time, or told they will be denied campaign cash.  Like wilting flowers in the afternoon sun timid elected officials seek the safe route, but not the high road when it comes to working on the pressing needs of our state.  

Some will say that is ‘just politics’.  But that flies in the face of the facts.  Every other state has a hard line when it comes to first time OWI’s.  Nineteen states have set PFAS limits or guidelines for PFAS in water.   Those results show that more partisanship than policy making takes place under the dome in Madison.  And the average citizen loses out as a result.

Wisconsin Natural Resources Board Should Again Select DNR Secretary

Wisconsin had a rich and proud tradition of having the Department of Natural Resources Secretary appointed by the Natural Resources Board.  Starting in 1927 the Natural Resources Board worked to insure that the loftier goals of managing the state’s resources should be kept from the hands of any governor.  But in 1995 Governor Tommy Thompson claimed that power as his own within the executive branch.   There had been high hopes that Governor Jim Doyle, once a critic of the change, would over-turn the decision during his time in office.  But Doyle also embraced the power to make the selection.

For many years this issue has percolated among those who seek to remedy an issue that can be seen as an over-reach by governors.  The concern about the political games over the selection process by governors, from both parties, is something that more of the state should consider as the election for our next governor nears.

I was heartened by the words of Democratic candidate Tony Evers in a recent debate for his desire that the secretary to again be an “independent appointment”.  Conservationists stateside surely applauded.

We should all cheer this desire by Evers.  On the face of the issue itself the board should have the responsibility to make the selection.  By making the change a sound governing process could be achieved.  But there is another reason we should give two-thumbs up for our next potential governor.  Relinquishing power and control is hard for any executive branch to do, which is one reason it is important to be judicious about granting powers in the first place.   So there is something most old-fashioned and welcoming in hearing Evers make the issue a campaign topic.

I have never viewed this issue as a partisan one from the time I started railing about it in the mid-90’s.  Instead, it is a process question that cuts to the core of how our state government functions.  We need to remove the temptation from a politically minded person, be they Democrat or Republican, to use this selection to sway policy for anything other than what is in the best interest of the natural resources we treasure.

Who among my readers does not feel, regardless of  which political party sat in the East Wing, that outside special interests did not try to sway the selection of DNR secretary in a governor’s cabinet?  Who among the conservationists in our state does not believe that this process has not placed politics ahead of sound resource policy at critical junctures?

Some will argue that the rationale for making the change while a Democrat is in office is less compelling.  I strongly disagree.  There is no sound policy reason that this change should not be made.  For decades our state benefited by the board making the selection of DNR Secretary.  Only pure politics undid that process, and only pure politics is preventing the return of the board from again making the selection.

Wisconsin Wolves Need Protection With Endangered Species Act

This letter appeared in the Wall Street Journal today and is most worthy of a read–if you care for facts about wolves in Wisconsin.

Regarding Cori Petersen’s “Wolves Attack Wisconsin With Washington’s Help” (Cross Country, July 28): The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) own statistics show that even with the continuing recovery of the state’s wolf population, the confirmed instances of wolves preying on livestock decreased 29% in 2016-17 from 2015-16, and decreased again in 2017-18. Nonlethal prevention is more effective, and scientific studies overwhelmingly demonstrate that randomly killing wolves increases conflicts with livestock. The USDA adds that wolves and all other native carnivores combined account for less than 1% of the livestock inventory losses in the Great Lakes region. Health problems, birthing complications and weather are the real culprits.

When wolves in the Great Lakes region lost Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections between 2012 and 2014, trophy hunters, trappers and houndsmen killed almost 1,500 wolves in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.

A 2014 Wisconsin DNR survey of nearly 9,000 residents, heavily weighted to rural areas, found that the vast majority value their wolves and don’t want to see them trophy-hunted or trapped. The rest of us value wolves too, according to studies and demonstrated by the exponential growth of wildlife-watching tourism in America.

Wisconsin’s wolves are a prime example of how a strong ESA is critical to ensuring that rare species aren’t subjected to irresponsible killing, threatening them with extinction.

Kitty Block

Acting President and CEO

Humane Society of the United States


Mainstream Wisconsin vs. Governing Conservatives

It has been quite a week for watching the evolution of ideas in the Wisconsin State Legislature while also following the actual governing practices of elected officials.   If you love politics, as I do, it was a whirlwind of a week.  If you care about policy, (place me in that camp, too) it was a most unsettling turn of events day after day.

Wisconsin has long been touted for our clean air and water along with a driving desire to make sure we do what is possible to pass those foundations to future generations.  But that seemingly took a hard right turn with the news Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel concluded a court settlement with 3M Co, following repeated violations of requirements to capture airborne particles from their northern Wisconsin plant, without any fine.   It was breathtaking–no pun intended–considering that the company did not comply with reporting the breakdown of equipment.   Or that the Justice Department’s environmental unit had pushed for a fine up to $1 million.

The message this sends to the business community is that circumventing pollution controls does not lead to fines which were designed to prevent actions which harms our environment.  For state residents who care about this place we call home it was a shocking reminder of how far adrift some state leaders are from the folks who talk about this issue at the dinner table.

When it came to ideas that were just hard to fathom as to why they ever surfaced none matches what State Representative May Felzkowski and State Senator Dave Craig concocted over new gun legislation.  Hidden handguns could be carried without a license, and licensed concealed carry permit holders could pack heat in places where they are currently exempt, such as schools, unless signs show such an act is prohibited.   The bill would remove the requirement that a person be licensed who wished to carry a concealed weapon.

I talk with a lot of people about politics and issues over the course of a year and I can honestly say there has not been one single conversation where someone has registered the need to have even more lax gun laws in the state.  What I do hear is the growing recognition that over recent years the political tensions in our nation have increased along with more people snapping faster and making rash and at times deadly choices.   Adding ways to allow guns to be more easily mixed into these personal dynamics seems like a very foolish undertaking. 

Our state has a long and rich tradition of clean and open government.  Over the recent past, however, there have been steps taken to undermine the process of governing; a process which is designed to prevent political over-reach and allow for diverse voices to be heard in the policy making process.  One example of a backward step is the naming of the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources by the governor.  My concern on this matter falls on both parties who have allowed this practice to continue.

But this week we witnessed another lapse in judgment over process when Republican State Senator Steve Nass allowed for a paper ballot to be used when his committee approved a bill relating to high-capacity- wells.  Locally I have made my objections known to my neighborhood association over their use of email votes as opposed to the open give-and-take the board should use when casting a ballot.   In both cases the lack of open debate which clarifies a person’s position, and perhaps even an attempt to sway other committee members, is lost when voting as a group is removed.

Wisconsinites may have a wide array of views on the issues of the day but win or lose everyone can agree an outcome was fair if the process of government is not manipulated.   Nass may not like the glare of the media and the concerns of the voters about the well issue.  But when one enters politics those are just the results of being in the arena.  To shut down a part of the process because it gets too intense is not acceptable.

Republicans continually announce they are so in touch with the average taxpayer, and looking out for the best interests of the state.  They want to convince us they know how to handle the levers of power in Madison.  But this week has demonstrated there are major concerns with their judgment and who they are really looking out for at the end of the day.  Carrying water for corporate farms, the cash-rich NRA, and major industries may play well at GOP political fundraisers.  But the average citizen looks at it all and wonders how did we get so far removed from the ideals our state once embraced.

Scott Walker’s Attempt To End DNR Magazine Not About Small Governemnt

Everyone who reads about the idea put forth by Governor Scott Walker to cease publishing Wisconsin Natural Resources, the magazine produced by the Department of Natural Resources, understands the motive behind the move.  It has nothing to do with being interested in small government, but instead has everything to do with attempting again to undermine the science surrounding climate change.

In a statement about this controversial idea, Walker’s spokesman Tom Evenson said, “It is not the government’s role to produce magazines that duplicate what is available in the private market.”

One more time the talking points of small government is tossed about as an argument, as if there is any credibility that limited approaches to governing has ever entered the discussions during Walker’s time in the top statehouse job.   From mandating how school boards must deal with teacher contracts, or reducing the control women have over reproductive rights, to academic freedoms there is proof with policy after policy which demonstrates an attempt to use the levers of government to implement conservative goals.   So to pretend that undermining the DNR magazine is all about small government is simply a joke.

What can not be disputed is the degree to which the Walker administration has went out of their way to undermine the science of what we see when it comes to climate change.   The winters of my youth in Hancock, Wisconsin where the fond memoires of snow plows on rural roads creating white banks more than half-way up a telephone pole, or the changes in planting zones in the seed catalogs all are proof of what is happening to our weather patterns.  You know it.  I know it.

Sadly, former editors of the magazine have told of the censoring by the Walker administration of topics allowed to be reported, and even the words to describe the reason for the changes we are experiencing.   As was reported in the Wisconsin State Journal “our changing climate” replaced the more accurate terms “climate change” and “global warming” in the publication.  On top of all the other ways Walker has already worked to deny this science underscores why the attempt to end the magazine is just another kick at the can.

I did have to smile, however, as the story about the magazine gains state-wide traction and the attempt by Walker to stress the small government angle continues.  We might recall that another small government type, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, desired to start a state-run taxpayer-funded news outlet aimed at competing with the institutionalized media.    When it comes to those who speak the most about small government it is always best to dig a little deeper and very soon the truth is exposed.

There is no economic justification for this publication to cease operations.  Using the latest science to explore issues through this magazine that are relevant to our state is most appropriate.  Encouraging citizens to be better informed seems a most useful tool of government.  As we look at the lay of the land politically it is very evident that disseminating more information is needed.  Any effort to curtail that effort is short-sighted and needs to be ditched.

Scott Walker Playing Presidential Campaign Politics With UW System

Stopping for gasoline this past weekend outside of Madison led to my hearing a blunt conversation about Scott Walker’s proposed budget as it pertains to the UW System.  As I walked into pay a lively back-and-forth was underway about the slashing effects the budget cuts would have on the UW-Madison, a respected school worldwide.

One man commented with passion that he had cast a vote for Walker last November but never dreamed the governor would take such a thoughtless approach to the UW System.

“Do you have buyer’s remorse?” I asked.

“I did not think he would use our state in this way to further his presidential ambitions,” the man responded.

There were many things I could have said, but I really wanted to hear what this self-described Republican thought about the matter that is now roiling the state.  He was not pleased about being “bamboozled”.

I could have told him to get in a line of countless others who also failed to think clearly about their cast ballots.

In Sunday morning’s Up Front With Mike Gousha there was talk about how this item of college cuts was playing inside the Republican caucus under the dome.  The question that needs to be asked that would give more of a precise read of what is happening would be what are the constituents of GOP members writing and saying about the matter.  That is where the tire meets the road and will tell us much about how Joint Finance evaluates the budget.

There is no way Walker’s attack on the UW System is playing well across this state regardless of whether someone voted Democratic or Republican in the last election for governor.  No one is missing the fact that Walker is using his budget to play to a less than educated crowd in states where he needs to have an early and successful showing if he is to make hay with delegate selection.

When it comes to conservative primary voters there are two themes that always play well.  The first is to never allow science to be the basis for making policy.  With that in mind Walker has proposed slashing the Department of Natural Resources science and research bureau.   The current budget language would cut 18.4 positions.   If there are no changes that would mean a 31% cut in total budgeted positions and a reduction of nearly 20% of the positions now filled in the bureau.

Walker not being willing to address the topic of evolution while in London is also the type of anti-science discourse that plays to a type of primary voter who will be important for winning the GOP nomination.

The second way to play to conservatives is to bash higher education.  After all colleges and universities–so goes the rhetoric– are just filled with latte-drinking, progressive, effete, uppity, elitist types who read books with big words.  To clear the education-bashing bar Walker’s budget calls for a 13% cut in state aid across the university system for a total decrease of $300 million over the next two years.   With calculated tricks over tuition increase limitations Walker has potential to truly damage one of our most prized educational institutions.

That enlightened minds following a college education are a central component to a vibrant and well-functioning democracy seems lost on Walker and those who place their political ambitions ahead of the greater needs of the people they profess to represent.

The man at the gas station, I strongly suspect, is indicative of a very wide swath of this state who can not seem to understand that their votes when not thoughtfully used can have awful consequences.  Now they are unhappy.  The question that will take months to answer is how much attention will the legislature give to those constituents who are demanding a more rational approach to higher education and how much water will they carry for ‘our little scholar’ who has Potomac Fever?

I would not want to place my savings on any outcome given the crowd in control under the dome.

Richfield Dairy Project Can Move Forward in Adams County, Coloma Area

After much controversy and litigation a judge ruled this past week that the Richfield Dairy Project can proceed forward.  An administrative law judge confirmed that state permits issued to Milk Source for the construction of the Richfield Dairy in Adams County are legal.  But added in the ruling was that the Department of Natural Resources does have the obligation to consider the cumulative effects of local water supplies when issuing high capacity well permits.

Administrative Law Judge Jeffrey Boldt ruled that the Department of Natural Resources failed to consider the accumulated effects of groundwater use when the agency reviewed an application for a high-capacity well for a $35 million dairy farm.

Boldt says the DNR “took an unreasonably limited view of its authority” and failed to adequately consider “basic science” when it evaluated an application for a high-capacity well in Adams County in central Wisconsin.

The DNR is reviewing the ruling and the mega-farm operator is not stating they are ready for constriction at this time.

In his ruling, Boldt agreed that the DNR could approve the company’s application for a waste permit, which is required for the farm to properly handle the manure. Plans have called for 4,200 cows.

He also approved the farm’s high-capacity well permit. But based on scientific testimony in the case, Boldt reduced the amount of groundwater the farm could pump by 28% to 52.5 million gallons annually.

Milk Source was pleased that Boldt agreed the farm should be permitted and did not dispute the limit on water use. But it stopped short of saying it is ready to proceed with plans at Richfield.

The company has tied up capital on other projects, including two farms in Michigan, a spokesman said.

“This is a very important decision for us, and we are happy to have it after a three-year wait,” said spokesman Bill Harke.

At the end of the day the voters in Adams and the Coloma area who are concerned about the environment and the politics of mega-farms need to come to grips with how they vote.  One can not pick conservatives for office and then expect a political culture in Madison to operate–be it in the legislature or at the agencies–for the needs and goals of environmentalists.

Mega-Farm Near Coloma In Adams County Gets Favorable Court Ruling

Another step forward in the constant back-and-forth surrounding the placement of a 4,300 daily operation in Adams County, and smelling distance of Coloma, Wisconsin.

As I have stated over and over, the people of this area vote Republican and then complain that stronger environmental laws are not on the books, or ones that would allow for local units of government to have stronger levers to use when a mega-farm wants to set up shop.  This area has demonstrated with the candidates they vote for that they do not like ‘big government’.  They are now seeing the short-sightedness of their votes, and I must say it is amusing to watch.

Is it good policy to have mega-farms?  That is a separate question.  The one thing that is clear is the lastest court ruling is a favorable one for Milk Source.

Family Farm Defenders, Friends of Central Sands, Pleasant Lake Management District and some private landowners filed lawsuits against the DNR after it issued permits to Milk Source for the construction of two high-capacity wells on the Richfield property and a Wisconsin Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit. The groups consist of property owners from a nearby lake, as well as citizen groups that object to the project.

In a decision issued July 20, Dane County Circuit Judge John Markson ruled the DNR failed to sufficiently evaluate the environmental effects of pumping 131.2 million gallons of water per year. He sent the issue back to the DNR so that officials could provide a “factual investigation of sufficient depth to allow a reasonably informed preliminary judgment and the opportunity for public comment about the environmental and cumulative effects of the high capacity wells operating at 131.2 million gallons per year.”

The DNR analyzed the impact of pumping 52 million gallons of water per year, Harke said. The company plans to submit a request to modify its high-capacity well permit to include an annual cap on the amount of water.

Markson rejected a request to deny the DNR the ability to change the requirements for the Wisconsin Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit. He also denied a request for a contested case hearing, stating it was a moot issue.

Harke said the judge’s decisions were a good step forward for the process.