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Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials

May 13, 2019

The Capital Times, May 10

Now’s the time for Republicans like Howard Marklein and Todd Novak to keep campaign promises to support public education

The Republicans who form the majority on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee are moving to eliminate revenue streams that would pay for a proposal by Gov. Tony Evers to increase funding for K-12 schools statewide. This commitment to steer more state money toward rural and urban schools was a central premise of the campaign that Evers ran in 2018, when he defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

It was also a central premise of campaigns run by a number of Republicans who sought to distance themselves from their party’s record of cutting education funding during the Walker years. At this critical point, it is vital for these Republicans, who campaigned as supporters of public education, to put the promises of their campaigns ahead of petty partisanship.

The Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee have made this pettiness their watchword. They have moved to scrap proposals by Evers to expand acceptance of federal Medicaid funding and to increases taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has determined that the Republican play would short the governor’s budget by $1.4 billion over the next two years.

That’s roughly the amount that Evers wants to spend to shore up schools that desperately need the money — especially rural schools.

This brings us to legislators such as state Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Reps. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, and Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City. All three of these southwestern Wisconsin Republicans ran re-election campaigns last year in which they acknowledged the need for more support for rural schools.

They were right. And the emphasis they placed on support for public education helped Marklein and Novak win tough races in districts where Democrats were surging. Even as these Republicans were securing re-election, Evers swept southwestern Wisconsin. The Democrat carried every county in the region except Lafayette, and there he came within 200 votes of winning.

Now, Marklein, Novak, Tranel and other Republicans who ran in 2018 as supporters of rural schools and public education need to keep their campaign promises. They need to work with the governor, either in support of the responsible revenue proposals Evers has put forward, or in a sincere effort to identify alternative sources of funding. This is especially true of Marklein and Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, who both serve on the Joint Finance Committee.

Wisconsin is a divided state politically. But the 2018 election results sent a clear signal that voters want to support public education. For Republicans such as Marklein, Olsen, Novak and Tranel, this is the time to recognize and respect that signal. And to keep their campaign promises.

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Wisconsin State Journal, May 12

Note to GOP: Taking federal Medicaid money makes financial sense

The Republican-run Legislature last week took more than 100 of the Democratic governor’s proposals out of his state budget request.

That’s not surprising. The GOP was never going to allow higher taxes on manufacturers, who regularly back Republicans in elections, and who have enjoyed lots of tax breaks from conservatives at the statehouse.

Republicans were never going to allow a significantly higher minimum wage, marijuana possession, or a cap on enrollment in the private-school voucher program, which are perennial wedge issues for partisans on both sides.

Republicans who control the Legislature’s budget committee also removed dozens of non-fiscal policy items from Gov. Tony Evers’ budget that had little or nothing to do with spending money, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. That was a welcome move. Non-fiscal policy should stand on its own merits as individual bills, rather than being tucked into a giant state budget to avoid scrutiny and tough votes.

This includes legislation to create a nonpartisan and neutral process for drawing voting districts after the 2020 census, similar to Iowa’s good-government model for fair maps. Ending gerrymandering has long been a priority for our editorial board, regardless of which political party is in charge. And we will continue to advocate for it as stand-alone legislation.

We’re happy to see the GOP warming to a modest increase in the state gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in more than a decade. The extra revenue will allow Wisconsin to finally fix its crumbling roads, which rank among the worst in the nation.

The biggest mistake Republicans have made so far, as they begin to change Gov. Evers’ $83.5 billion budget proposal, is their rejection of hundreds of millions of federal dollars for a Medicaid expansion benefiting low-income residents who would gain access to better health care coverage. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which doesn’t play political games with its numbers, has estimated the state could have saved more than $1 billion since 2014 had it taken the Medicaid money.

If the Republicans aren’t moved by calls to improve health care for the less fortunate, they should at least respect the financial incentives for the state. The state could collect hundreds of millions of dollars if it expands Medicaid in the coming two years, and free up additional state money for other purposes.

Republicans in other parts of the country have taken the federal dollars. Wisconsin’s Legislature should, too.

Claims that that federal stream of funding will run dry have proven false. And that was the main Republican argument against accepting more money.

Both partisan sides in this debate now have dueling studies speculating on the pros and cons of a Medicaid expansion. The health care industry is complicated, and expectations don’t always pan out.

Yet this much is clear: The state under Republicans has turned down lots of federal money in a variety of ways, largely for political reasons — and that needs to stop. As the state budget process moves forward, the GOP should make the financially smart decision to expand Medicaid and improve the health of Wisconsin families.

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The Journal Times of Racine, May 9

All state corrections officers should get a raise, not just some

Being a corrections officer is not for everybody. It’s one of those jobs that qualified applicants must be lured to — specifically, with better pay — so as to lure such applicants away from jobs that don’t involve being literally locked in with people who have been sentenced to prison.

So while we understand Gov. Tony Evers’ motivation in giving Department of Corrections employees a temporary raise, we share Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ concerns about how the raises are being distributed.

Last week, Evers authorized temporary raises of up to $5 an hour to workers at six state prisons, none of which are in Racine County. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that guards and sergeants at Columbia, Dodge, Green Bay, Taycheedah and Waupun correctional institutions, as well as at the Lincoln Hills youth prison, will receive the additional pay.

“While providing raises for our correctional officers is the right thing to do, cherry picking which facilities receive the benefits is fundamentally unfair and creates unnecessary animosity in a system that already needs reform,” said Vos, R-Rochester. “There are three corrections facilities in my district and every one of the hardworking officers deserves to be compensated for the incredibly important work that they do.”

We believe the raises can, and should, vary according to merit and the hazardousness of the position. But our elected officials are right to be discussing raises for such work: People who can find a less hazardous job than corrections officer are probably going to do that, so the state is going to have to pay better, especially in a time of record-low unemployment.

Overtime hours, turnover and vacancy rates in the state’s prison system rose dramatically over the past five fiscal years, according to a report by state auditors late last month.

DOC Secretary-designate Kevin Carr said in a letter to auditors that unless the agency can get control of vacancies things probably won’t change.

“Until the vacancy rates of our institutions are decreased, overtime will continue to be the reality for many employees,” he said.

The total number of paid overtime hours within DOC institutions grew 50.7% from fiscal year 2013-14 to fiscal year 2017-18, auditors found. Of the $397.5 million the state spent on DOC wages in fiscal year 2017-18, nearly $53 million, or 13%, went to cover overtime hours worked mostly by security personnel.

Auditors found the turnover rate for guards grew from just under 18% in 2013-14 to 26% in 2017-18. The vacancy rate for security personnel, including guards, more than doubled over the five fiscal years, from 6.7% to 14%. As of June 2018, the end of the 2017-18 fiscal year, four prisons had vacancy rates of 20% or higher. Three of those four were maximum-security institutions.

The report notes that perceptions that prison jobs aren’t safe and low pay are likely fueling the turnovers and vacancies.

Evers’ budget calls for spending an additional $23.8 million to implement a pay progression system for guards, sergeants and psychiatrists within DOC and the state Department of Health Services.

Raising the starting wage for Wisconsin guards to $17.90, the median starting wage for guards in surrounding states, would cost about $30 million, the report indicates. But when you’re spending $53 million annually on overtime, $30 million is a bargain.

DOC is attempting to retain workers through training academies at six institutions where guard applicants work alongside guards and job fairs at its prisons, auditors noted.

Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, co-chairman of the audit committee, said in a statement that DOC needs better data to determine the effectiveness of its worker retention programs.

“The goal is still to reduce staffing vacancies, turnover and instances of excessive overtime,” Cowles said.

Sen. Cowles has a good point. When, for example, $18 an hour turns into $27 for each hour of overtime, raising the starting pay for guards to $20 per hour starts to look better and better to prospective employees, and to taxpayers.

Gov. Evers should give all DOC guards and sergeants a raise, especially since those raises appear to have the backing of Speaker Vos. Then, he and the Legislature should work together to find ways to retain a sufficient number of employees to cut back on all the overtime.