The Capital Times, Nov. 22

No Wisconsinite working full time should live in poverty

Wisconsin's legislative Democrats have been structurally disempowered by the most crooked of political maneuvers. Despite the fact that Wisconsin voters are just about evenly divided politically — out of almost 3 million votes cast for president last year, barely 22,000 separated Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton — both chambers of the Legislature are dominated by the Republicans, who gerrymandered district lines to eliminate competition and prevent fair elections. The GOP controls the Assembly with 64 seats to the Democrats' 35. In the Senate, the split is 20-13.

The federal courts have weighed in, labeling Republican gerrymandering as the unconstitutional assault on democracy that it is. Now the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the Wisconsin case and Democrats are hopeful that the 2018 election cycle might produce honest maps and the prospect of election results that would represent the will of the people — as opposed to backroom deals.

There is reason to hope that the high court will rule on the side of representative democracy, and that there will be immediate action to redress the legitimate grievances of Wisconsinites who have objected to the warped and dysfunctional politics of recent years. But we recognize that, even with new lines, Gov. Scott Walker will still call on out-of-state billionaires to pour money into the campaigns of his legislative allies.

So we have no illusions that the restoration of fair elections in Wisconsin will come easily.

This reality creates a duty for the Democrats that they have not always risen to meet.

Legislative Democrats have every right to gripe about the unfairness of their circumstance. But they must do more than that. They must be a functional opposition party that spells out an absolutely distinct vision of where Wisconsin must go if it is to meet the challenges of the future.

Two months ago, Assembly Democrats signaled their desire to get out of the rut the party has been in by electing a new leader for their caucus: state Rep. Gordon Hintz. A dynamic 43-year-old progressive, Hintz has already brought needed focus and energy to the job with his objections to the crooked Foxconn deal, which steers $3 billion toward a scandal-plagued multinational corporation headquartered in Taiwan rather than supporting businesses that have roots in Wisconsin.

But Democrats have to do more than simply reject the failures of judgment and duty that have extended from the one-party rule of Walker's Republicans. They must be for something big.

How big?

How about a guarantee that Wisconsinites who work full time will never again live in poverty?

That's what state Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, and state Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, are proposing with LRB-0287, a proposal to increase Wisconsin's minimum wage to $15, index wages to inflation, and allow political subdivisions to enact a local minimum wage.

This is a necessary response to depressed wages in Wisconsin — an issue that has grown increasingly acute as Walker and his allies have attacked unions and undermined commitments to ensuring that workers are treated with respect in the workplace. A 2015 study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts determined that between 2000 and 2013 Wisconsin saw the largest decline in middle-income households in the entire country. The reason for this is clear: According to the Center on Wisconsin Strategies, roughly a quarter of Wisconsin workers are employed in so-called "poverty-wage" jobs — meaning that even if they work full time, the wages are so low that they do not earn enough to keep a family of four out of poverty.

Wisconsin has an economic problem. Sargent summed it up when she said: "Wisconsin families are working hard every day — working eight hours a day and 40 hours a week — and still living in poverty. That's unacceptable."

This legislation addresses the problem. But it also does something else. It makes a moral commitment to the people of Wisconsin — and to the future. The Assembly and Senate Democratic caucuses should welcome and embrace that commitment by putting the proposal at the center of their advocacy — in the state Capitol and on the 2018 campaign trail.

In so doing, they should proudly and aggressively link economics and morality.

Pope Francis spoke an absolute truth when he said, "Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at how to make a profit, that goes against God." Leaders from other faith traditions echo those sentiments, as do secular leaders who apply a moral lens to economic questions.

In this season of Thanksgiving, there is much talk about caring for those who do not have enough to get by. But talk is cheap. Action matters. And political action is necessary.

Legislators of both parties have failed Wisconsin by not moving more aggressively to raise the minimum wage and end the abomination that exists when full-time workers are cheated out of a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.

Sargent and Wirch are offering Democrats an opportunity to address that failure clearly and unequivocally. We would hope that Republicans would join the Democrats in promoting wage hikes for workers. But if the Republicans maintain their slavish devotion to the moneychangers who choose to impoverish workers in the pursuit of profiteering, then the Democrats will have identified their party as the champion of economic common sense and moral duty. History tells us that such championship can be stronger than even gerrymandering and the legalized bribery that the billionaire class extends to its legislative serfs.


Wisconsin State Journal, Nov. 26

U.S. Senate sticks up for Great Lakes protection

Congress is wisely reversing President Donald Trump's rash and irresponsible attempt to cut $300 million in annual funding for Great Lakes restoration.

A key Senate committee last week included the money in a spending bill for 2018. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, helped lead the bipartisan effort to restore the funding as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Well done.

The House of Representatives previously voted to bring back all of the money the president tried to eliminate last spring. So now the full Senate, including U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, should finalize the $300 million as part of any spending plan Congress sends to the president.

Trump doesn't have the power to issue line-item vetoes, so the money should be safe if it's included in a larger proposal.

The Great Lakes are facing dire threats that can't be ignored, including a possible invasion by giant Asian carp that threaten to destroy sport fishing in Lake Michigan and, by extension, inland Wisconsin rivers and lakes.

The Great Lakes also need help against toxic pollution, farm and urban runoff, and declining wildlife habitat.

As Baldwin noted last week, it's not just the natural environment that's at stake. It's Wisconsin's economy, which relies on water, tourism and outdoor recreation for business and jobs.

President Trump, a New Yorker, doesn't seem to understand that importance of the Great Lakes. But here in the heartland, our Great Lakes — and the thousands of Wisconsin waterways that flow into them — are central to who we are. They provide millions of people with fresh water to drink. They help attract millions of visitors. They are a beautiful and invaluable natural resource for the entire Midwest.

So they definitely deserve federal attention to help ensure their health and sustainability.

The recent discovery in the Wisconsin River of five Asian carp — which can grow as large as 100 pounds and crowd out native sport fish — is a stark reminder of how important and fragile our waterways are. A dam by Prairie du Sac, about 40 miles northwest of Madison, prevents the invasive species from moving farther up the Wisconsin River, thank goodness.

But fear is growing that the voracious fish will get into Lake Michigan via man-made Chicago canals. And from there it could spread upstream.

In some stretches of rivers south of Wisconsin, Asian carp, which escaped from Southern fish farms decades ago, have virtually eliminated native species such as walleye and bass.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has for years provided some hope for preserving our rich supply of fresh water in and around Wisconsin. The federal dollars leverage far more money from local governments and Canada for lake projects.

This cooperation has helped reduce algae blooms that foul shorelines and deprive fish of oxygen. It also has helped clean up toxic waste from industrial sites, city sewers and farms.

Great Lakes restoration must remain a high priority in Washington, D.C., regardless of who sits in the White House.


The Journal Times of Racine, Nov. 27

House tax bill hits middle-class students hard

The standard deal offered to graduate students is a simple one: In exchange for their labor, either as a student instructor or a research assistant, graduate-school tuition is waived.

One of the provisions of the House of Representatives tax reform bill — the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, approved Nov. 16 — would regard the value of that graduate-school tuition as income. Meaning it would be taxed, even though that dollar amount does not appear on the grad student's final payroll statement of the calendar year.

More than 145,000 graduate students are attending college for free, according to an estimate by the American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 college and university presidents across the country. For these students, who are often living on minimum-wage stipends, working long hours, studying and attending classes, repealing the tuition tax break could have dire financial consequences.

For Dacen Waters, 26, who is in his fourth year of pursuing a doctorate in physics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the House bill would impose about a $7,000 tax increase, The New York Times reported Nov. 15.

The Mellon College of Science grants students an annual stipend of $29,400 and a $43,000 tuition waiver. Under the current proposal, their taxable income would rise to $61,000 from $19,000. That would effectively cut students' net stipend by nearly $10,000 a year.

"I already feel like I'm less of a student and more of an employee," said Waters, who says that his day mostly consists of research. "And that includes living paycheck to paycheck. If I had to absorb this, I definitely wouldn't be able to continue pursuing a degree."

He said such an increase would force him out of school, and possibly out of a career. "It's pretty unheard-of to do anything in physics and not have a doctoral degree," Waters said.

Not every graduate-school program is as expensive as Carnegie Mellon's, of course, and private-school tuition is consistently higher than tuition at public universities. But the graduate-school premise — tuition is waived in exchange for your labor — remains the same, public or private. The House bill would take the grad student, a minimum-wage employee in terms or real income, and tax him or her at the rate of someone with considerably higher take-home pay.

Doesn't seem like fair tax policy, does it?

According to the ACE, more than 60 percent of the students who would be affected are in science, technology, engineering or mathematics — research fields that have drawn the praise of Republicans, including President Donald Trump, in recent months.

The Association of American Universities, which represents 60 research universities, including Carnegie Mellon, said the tax plan threatened the viability of their doctoral programs. The universities award nearly one-half of all American doctoral degrees and 55 percent of those in the sciences and engineering.

The AAU president, Mary Sue Coleman, said the tax proposals "will have dire consequences for Americans who rely on research universities for undergraduate and graduate education."

The stated objective of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is to bolster the middle class. When it comes to middle-class students looking to improve their job and income prospects by attending graduate school, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act denies middle-class students — especially those who attended public school for kindergarten through 12th grade, as opposed to private school — that opportunity by pricing them out of the market.

This would be a simple supply-and-demand question if we were talking about a Rolls-Royce or a Cartier watch. But we're not.

Should graduate school be, in effect, restricted to American students whose parents can afford to pay all of their college expenses or, in this case, pay the steep tax bill that would result in this provision staying in the final version of the tax legislation?

Are we willing to accept the "brain drain" that would result from access to grad school becoming even more restricted to foreign students, their education subsidized by their home governments, studying at American universities but taking that new knowledge back home instead of putting it to work here?

The Senate tax bill, up for a vote this week, leaves out most of the higher-education provisions of the House bill.

When the two bills reach the reconciliation stage, we urge House Speaker Paul Ryan and his colleagues to drop the higher-ed provisions from consideration in the final bill sent to President Trump for his signature.

Let's make sure aptitude and achievement remain the only requirements for students who wish to pursue post-graduate degrees.