Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials

Posted October 17

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 16

Judge calls out DMV on voter ID

U.S. District Judge James Peterson made the right call last week when he ordered the state to provide additional information to the public about how to get voting credentials but chose not to halt the state's voter ID law. The law should be ended permanently — it's completely unnecessary — but doing so with less than a month to go until election day would have caused confusion at the polls.

Instead, Peterson offered a temporary solution to mend the system, which was the best he could do at this point.

At issue is how to provide IDs under the law for the small cohort of people in Wisconsin who have trouble getting them because they don't have birth certificates or because they have other problems documenting their identity.

Such people are thrown into a petition process that Peterson has called a "wretched failure." As he noted, prospective voters haven't a clue what to expect from the process, and the Division of Motor Vehicles has failed to make clear how the process is supposed to play out.

Based on audio recordings made public recently, DMV employees didn't know how the process was to work, either. The recordings found DMV workers providing inaccurate or incomplete information about the ability to get an ID if you don't have a birth certificate. Peterson has ordered the state to investigate, and on Thursday said the state should provide cards that clearly explain the process and update the information as needed.

The judge also said the state would need to do further outreach to reach people who have the most challenges. He asked for weekly reports on the administration of voter ID in the state.

"Close court supervision of the reform process is going to be necessary," Peterson said. "It's not going to be easy. It is a very complicated beast of a system that is really going to have to be carefully evaluated."

Indeed, it should be monitored.

The best solution, though, would be to slay this "complicated beast."

Voter fraud is almost nonexistent, and voter ID does nothing to deal with the most common forms of fraud.

Here's what voter ID really is — it is nothing more than a tool for political attack.


Wisconsin State Journal, Oct. 12

State should grant UW Regents' modest budget request

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank is right: It's time to reinvest in Wisconsin's universities after a $250 million cut in the last state budget.

The governor and Legislature should include the UW Board of Regents' modest request for $42.5 million in additional funding over the next two years. That's about a 1 percent increase in taxpayer support for the 2017-2018 school year, and a 2 percent increase in 2018-2019.

Continuing Gov. Scott Walker's tuition freeze makes sense, too, given the high cost of college and the need for more graduates in Wisconsin's workforce.

The Regents just approved flat in-state tuition for one more year, followed by an increase no greater than inflation. A two-year extension of the freeze would be better, with an additional $7.5 million from the state to offset the absence of higher tuition in the 2018-19 school year.

Lots of state lawmakers from both political parties sound supportive so far of the Regents' request. That's good to hear. The $42.5 million increase would be for all University of Wisconsin System schools, not just UW-Madison.

Along with the governor, the Legislature should remember that state support for higher education has been slipping for decades. When adjusted for inflation, state support is the lowest it has been in the UW System's more than 40-year history, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

It's time to turn that around. Other states were investing in their universities as Wisconsin leaders were imposing a giant cut.

UW tuition for in-state students has been capped since 2013. The cap was welcome because it followed years of annual growth of more than 5 percent. And student debt had doubled over 30 years, even when adjusted for inflation.

But state leaders went too far with cuts to UW System after learning about high reserve funds. Those reserves have been significantly reduced over the last two budgets. And higher education has taken a real hit, affecting students and the state's workforce.

UW-Madison, for example, eliminated 420 positions and laid off 50 employees over the past year as part of $50 million in cuts, Blank just reported. Many hourly jobs for students that provided income and experience are gone. And fewer advisers and classes can mean longer stays in college, increasing cost.

"Our peers, our competitors, are investing in new programs, new research centers, new educational experiments and opportunities," Blank said. "The result is, we've slipped in the past two years."

She's right.

Wisconsin is facing a shortage of skilled and educated workers because its population is graying and because it doesn't attract and keep enough college graduates. To compete and succeed in the global economy, more investment in higher education is required.


The Journal Times of Racine, Oct. 17

Whether DNR or EPA, keep the state's water clean

Is there a problem in Wisconsin with lax enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act? Federal regulators spent some time in Madison last week to find out.

The regulators were in the Madison headquarters of the state Department of Natural Resources, scrutinizing files related to 47 water pollution permits the DNR has issued.

The Environmental Protection Agency probe is aimed at determining whether the federal government should take the extreme step of revoking the state's authority for enforcing those laws in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Oct. 9.

Typically, states make changes to avoid the embarrassment of being stripped of their environmental authority, said Emily Hammond, a George Washington University law professor who co-authored a study of federal investigations like the one now targeting Wisconsin.

"There does seem to be ... kind of a matter of pride that they would rather keep it in their control rather than have it be taken over by the federal government," Hammond said.

So far, the Wisconsin case is moving more quickly than most, probably because it is based largely on previous citizen complaints and EPA scrutiny that produced a 2011 list of 75 water protection deficiencies the state was directed to fix within two years, Hammond said.

The EPA recently said it was satisfied that six deficiencies were remedied. It listed 11 in the early stages of rulemaking, and 18 as still needing "future" action, including five fixes DNR implemented without formal approval. The remainder are in a late stage of rulemaking or review.

Another factor that could help the EPA move quickly is a state audit released in June documenting shortcomings in DNR regulation of wastewater released by industry, sewage treatment plants and animal feedlots, she said.

"It's a strange dance, but somehow the threat and the possibility that the state program could be taken over does seem to prompt action," she said.

The Wisconsin petition was filed a year ago by the Madison-based environmental law firm Midwest Environmental Advocates and 16 state residents.

The nonprofit has taken the DNR to court over water pollution permits issued to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) like the ones in Kewaunee County, where about one-third of tested drinking-water wells are contaminated by bacteria associated with manure.

If one in three well-water sources are contaminated, that sounds like a problem to us.

State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, hasn't heard from the EPA, but he is open to making statutory changes if they are needed to make state laws consistent with federal law, his spokeswoman Myranda Tanck said on Oct. 7. She said Fitzgerald wouldn't comment on the DNR budget before seeing Gov. Scott Walker's proposal, which is due early next year.

The state audit of DNR wastewater programs found that inadequate staffing was behind many problems. Elected officials have eliminated 15 percent of the department's full-time staff in the last two decades.

Last month, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp proposed shifting the equivalent of four positions to CAFOs, saying it would allow the DNR to properly regulate the feedlots.

The EPA considers its current investigation informal, the State Journal reported. The last time the state faced a loss of authority over a pollution program — in 2002, regarding air pollution — the EPA won the cooperation of Wisconsin's elected officials only after putting them on formal notice.

Candidates for office, and their surrogates, make political hay out of blasting "Washington bureaucrats" and "interference from Washington." One way to keep the federal government out of state-government business is to enforce federal laws. Especially when it comes to clean water.


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