Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials
The Capital Times, March 6
Let’s start with bipartisan commitment to water quality
Water is Wisconsin’s most precious natural resource. It is to this state what gold once was for California, what oil still is for Texas. Water defines, enlivens and enriches this state.
Forget about Minnesota, with its “10,000 lakes.” Wisconsin has more than 15,000 lakes, 43,000 miles of rivers and, according to NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management, 820 miles of Great Lakes shoreline. “Wisconsin also has 5 million acres of wetland,” according to a Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine report from several years ago. “And that just scratches the surface. Below our feet Wisconsin has a buried treasure — 1.2 quadrillion gallons of groundwater. It is hard to grasp just how much water is stored underground unless you look at how much we use every day.”
Unfortunately, as Dave Strifling, the director of the Water Law and Policy Initiative at Marquette University Law School reminded us, “Wisconsin has its share of water problems, too, including many lead water service laterals, widespread well contamination, and battles over diversions from the Great Lakes.”
This is one of the reasons why Gov. Tony Evers has declared 2019 as “The Year of Clean Drinking Water in Wisconsin.”
Evers made that designation in order to highlight some of the challenges that academics and environmentalists have been sounding the alarm about. As the governor noted in his State of the State address: “According to the Department of Health Services, 1.7 million Wisconsinites depend on private wells for water, and 47 percent of these wells do not meet acceptable health standards. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we have an estimated 176,000 lead service lines across our state. Removing lead service lines could cost over $2 billion. But Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that for every $1 we spend on replacing lead drinking water lines, we will see a 133 percent return on our investment in higher lifetime earnings and better health outcomes.”
To that end, Evers announced just weeks after taking office that he would be signing an executive order to designate a person at the Department of Health Services “to take charge on addressing Wisconsin’s lead crisis and to help secure federal funding for prevention and treatment programs.”
Now, with his 2019-2021 biennial budget plan, Evers proposes to make safe drinking water “a top priority in Wisconsin (by) authorizing nearly $70 million in bonding to address water quality, from replacing lead service lines to addressing water contamination across our state.”
The governor has developed a fiscally and socially sound budget, which would accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid, hike aid for public schools, and make desperately needed investments in the renewal of the state’s infrastructure.
But, as Evers reminded us, “roads and bridges are only a small part of the infrastructure challenges facing our state.” Investments in water quality sustain the natural infrastructure of our state. They are absolutely vital.
Legislators must not allow the inevitable partisan wrangling over this budget plan to undercut the commitments that the state’s new governor is making in this regard. Republicans in the Assembly and Senate will air plenty of differences with the Democrat who is now in charge. But water quality need not be a divisive issue.
It was good news when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he will form a water quality task force following reports of contaminated wells across southwestern Wisconsin.
After a November survey by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Geological Survey of 301 private wells in southwest Wisconsin’s Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties determined that 42 percent of those wells exceeded federal standards for bacteria or nitrates, people in southwest Wisconsin expressed valid health concerns. State Reps. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, and Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, asked for the creation of a water quality task force. Vos, R-Burlington, embraced the idea.
We commend Vos for his serious response to a serious issue. He and his colleagues can and should maintain this responsible approach as part of the budget deliberations.
We recognize that Evers and Vos will be on opposite sides of plenty of budget issues. We know that Democrats and Republicans have many budget debates ahead of them. But they should agree to agree on water quality.
Wisconsin State Journal, March 10
Stop playing games with FOIA rules
The U.S. Department of Interior announced last week it plans to end protections for wolves in Wisconsin.
The federal agency also makes decisions affecting American Indian casinos, of which Wisconsin has many. It doles out millions of dollars in grants for conservation and wildlife programs.
So Wisconsin residents have a strong interest in knowing what the department is doing.
Unfortunately, Interior officials don’t like the public asking questions and requesting documents. The federal agency recently proposed rules to restrict how journalists, interest groups and ordinary citizens may seek public information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Newspapers and other advocates for open government are objecting to the Interior Department’s unnecessary and unlawful restrictions. So is a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and representatives. Wisconsin’s entire congressional delegation should oppose Interior’s proposal to discourage and complicate public inquiry.
The Interior Department’s restrictions would hide the email addresses of public workers who handle public information requests, making it easier for government officials to dodge scrutiny and accountability. Instead, the public would be directed to “electronic portals,” which limit what can be requested and have a history of losing information.
The proposed rules also would give Interior officials more reasons to deny requests for information, such as those “requiring research.” This would make it easier for secretive bureaucrats to deny just about any FOIA request.
Another unjustified restriction would be a “monthly limit for processing records,” with language allowing Interior officials to charge higher fees for public information. The new rules would replace the words “time limit” with “time frame,” an obvious attempt to extend deadlines for turning over documents.
A coalition of 40 news organizations has strongly objected. So has a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including U.S. Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; House Oversight chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland.; Senate Appropriations leader Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.; and Senate Finance member John Cornyn, R-Texas.
“The proposed rule appears to restrict public access to DOI’s records and delay the processing of FOIA requests in violation of the letter and spirit of FOIA,” the lawmakers wrote last week. “Rather than clarifying DOI’s FOIA process, the proposed rule would make the process more confusing and potentially expose it to politicization and unnecessary litigation.”
Interior officials have complained about a “surge” in FOIA requests. But that’s mostly because former Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, wasted public money and resigned amid scandal.
That’s no excuse to clamp down on the public’s right to know. If anything, it warrants greater transparency.
Today is the start of Sunshine Week, when journalists and many other advocates highlight the need to shine light on government institutions and decisions. To help mark this important week, the Interior Department should withdraw and rethink its offensive restrictions on public information.
The Journal Times of Racine, March 10
Find a road to agreement
Find a road to agreement.
That’s the challenge for new Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, and the GOP-controlled state Legislature.
Evers rolled out the framework for his administration with his proposed $83 billion state budget plan last month and, as expected, GOP eyes rolled over many of the proposals and some Republicans bristled.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Evers’ plan was a “1,000-page press release, not a budget. A lot of the items that the governor ticked off, I think are kind of the best hits of the Democrat Party.”
No, we didn’t expect a kumbaya moment over the budget, but sooner or later — and we hope it’s sooner — we expect Democrats and Republicans to come together to do their jobs and give the state a new two-year budget that both can live with.
Where to start ... where to start? We suggest it would be with the state’s transportation budget. Gov. Evers has proposed an 8-cent-a-gallon increase in the state gas tax to 41 cents per gallon. He would couple that with the elimination of the state’s minimum markup law — for gasoline only — which requires retailers to mark up the price of gas 9.18 percent above the average wholesale price, or about 14 cents a gallon.
That offset, Evers said, would make it possible for state motorists to pay less at the pump than they do now.
We think that’s a great idea and a good place to start budget compromises, because Evers actually took that proposal from Assembly Republicans, who floated a similar plan in 2017. What better place to start the budget ball rolling than with a plan advanced by the opposing party?
The Assembly GOP plan unfortunately went nowhere in the face of opposition by then-Gov. Scott Walker, who broke out in hives anytime a tax increase of any sort was mentioned.
Walker preferred instead to increase state borrowing to fund state roads and kick the day of reckoning down the road. Today that heightened use of borrowing means that 21 cents of every dollar the state allocates for roads goes to pay off debt and not to build roads, buy asphalt and concrete, or pay construction companies.
Evers’ plan would raise $485 million for Wisconsin’s transportation needs over the next two years and part of that, according to new state Revenue Secretary Peter Barca, a former Democratic legislator from Kenosha, would be used to reduce that debt level and to boost road aids to local municipalities.
Evers has also proposed returning to indexing the gas tax for inflation — a device that we fought bitterly against for years until the Legislature finally dropped it in 2005. We still oppose it because it gives legislators cover from voting for a tax increase because it can come automatically. If our roads need more funding — and they do — then legislators have to take the hard vote that raises those taxes or find the money elsewhere.
The state budget battle will heat up considerably in the weeks and months ahead, but a good place to find agreement and start that conversation is with Wisconsin’s transportation needs, where there are already some shared ideas between Democrats and Republicans.