Wisconsin State Journal, Oct. 29

Congress should leave 401(k)s alone

Simplifying the federal tax code is long overdue.

But Congress won't accomplish that goal by increasing taxes on retirement savings.

Wisconsin's two U.S. senators are right: Our leaders in Washington should reject any proposal that hikes taxes on 401(k) contributions.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, correctly noted last week that Social Security is already facing a major shortfall in funding by 2034, as the ranks of retirees continue to grow. So doing anything that might discourage workers from saving money on their own would be a mistake.

Johnson said last week he "wouldn't touch" 401(k) plans as Congress considers changes as part of a larger tax code overhaul.

"This would be the worst time to dis-incentivize people from saving for their retirement," Johnson said.

He's right.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who leads the House Ways and Means Committee, confirmed Wednesday he's considering changes to 401(k) plans and other retirement accounts as part of a sweeping tax reform bill he's close to unveiling.

News reports suggest Brady and his Republican colleagues who run Congress are considering a plan to sharply reduce the amount of tax-deferred income American workers can put in 401(k) accounts. The accounts delay taxation until retirement — when presumably rates will be lower — and often include a contribution from employers.

Instead of workers putting as much as $18,500 tax-free into their 401(k) accounts next year — with workers age 50 and older allowed to save as much as $24,000 — the GOP tax bill could dramatically reduce the allowable amount to just $2,400 annually.

Given a chance to dismiss this bad idea, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, wouldn't rule out such a move last week as part of his party's larger tax package. That's disappointing.

Republican President Donald Trump initially and emphatically tweeted Monday that no changes will occur to 401(k)s. He even typed the word "NO" in all capital letters and used an exclamation point. But as often occurs with the erratic and untrustworthy president, his conviction didn't last long. By Wednesday, he was saying he didn't want the change to "go too far," and that "maybe we'll use it as negotiating."

Johnson's opposition is significant because the GOP Senate has few votes to spare, and Johnson has shown a lot more backbone on fiscal issues than Trump.

Moreover, opposition to scaling back retirement incentives for some 50 million Americans is bipartisan.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, and others quickly opposed talk of dismantling the 401(k) system.

"The idea from Republicans to make it more expensive for Wisconsinites to save for retirement as a way to help pay for tax cuts for the top one percent is a bad deal," Baldwin said.

She's right that Trump and his party's desire for a large tax cut shouldn't be accomplished by taxing people more for saving money. Nor should it come at the risk of increasing the national debt.

The goal of tax reform should be to simplify a convoluted and unfair system. Ryan and the GOP-controlled Congress should leave middle-class 401(k) plans alone.


USA Today Network-Wisconsin, Oct. 27

Police body cam footage access is a matter of transparency, accountability

Earlier this month, police agencies across the state supported a bill moving through the Legislature that would allow most body camera footage to be withheld under the state's open records law.

Under the proposed measure, all video from police body cameras would be exempt from the open records law except for video that involves injuries, deaths, arrests and searches.

Lawmakers who sponsored the bill have said the measure would protect the privacy of people captured on camera and establish guidelines for police agencies that use the technology.

While that sounds good on paper, in real life the legislation would limit the public's access to footage, and that's something we vehemently oppose.

Withholding police body camera footage threatens accountability and makes it more difficult for a law enforcement agency to protect itself from false accusations. The more transparency the better.

Our organization used body camera footage to report on the action police took prior to and after the shooting death of Michael L. Funk during a December 2015 hostage situation in Neenah.

Body camera footage released by the Department of Justice revealed that a sergeant told officer Craig Hoffer not to go back to the scene after he was struck in the helmet by a bullet. Hoffer ignored the sergeant after hearing gunshots and was one of two officers who then shot and killed Funk, who was one of the hostages. The city is now facing a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Funk's widow.

Similarly, we used body camera footage released by the DOJ in reporting on the 2016 shooting death of Kole Knight in New London. Officer Brody Erickson turned his body camera on when he got out of the squad car, as the New London Police Department's policy recommended at the time. Officer Ryan Denu, who shot and killed Knight from the driver's seat of the vehicle, didn't turn his camera on.

Following Knight's death, New London police revised their policy. It now recommends that officers turn their body cameras on before they arrive at a scene or make a traffic stop, rather than waiting until they get out of their squad cars.

The legislation's argument for privacy, while admirable, is moot. Police agencies can already protect the privacy of victims and bystanders in video footage. The Appleton Police Department blurred the faces of bystanders and victims in video released after officer Stephanie Wiener and passer-by Andrew Maltbey were shot by a theft suspect in May 2016.

Furthermore, authorities find ways to keep video out of the public eye while still toeing the legal line — even under the current system, where police body camera footage is subject to open records law.

Authorities refused to release body camera footage following the Appleton shooting death of Jimmie Sanders in May. The Post-Crescent Editorial Board advocated for the release of the footage, in the name of transparency and accountability. More than six months later, it still hasn't been released by the Outagamie County district attorney because of a pending court case.

The bottom line here is that law enforcement agencies are accountable to the communities they serve, and this legislation undermines it, tipping the balance of power and sowing seeds of mistrust.

The Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety will take up the legislation on Tuesday. We recommend lawmakers prioritize the transparency and accountability their constituents deserve by opposing the bill.


Beloit Daily News, Oct. 27

Right, wrong and Robin Vos

Words matter, and Wisconsin's Assembly Speaker Robin Vos chose the wrong one. Referring to three Republican senators and their behind-the-scenes dealings with Gov. Scott Walker, Vos called them "terrorists." In an interview with WISN television he said, "That's what they are. You don't hold somebody hostage for your own personal needs."

Vos belatedly apologized — too little, too late.

The three senators are Steve Nass, from this region, in Whitewater; Chris Kapenga of Delafield; and Duey Stroebel of Saukville.

"The people of Wisconsin have a sacred comprehension of the evils associated with terrorism since this country was attacked on September 11, 2001," Nass said in a news release. Of Vos's choice of words Nass went on to say, "It is beyond outrageous for anyone, especially a person serving as Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, to label as a 'terrorist' another person for simple public policy disagreements."

Obviously, Nass is right. We are a nation that has experienced loss of innocent life from terrorism. Members of our armed forces lie in graves from fighting terrorists. The world remains under threat of terror. Never trivialize that term as a mere political flourish.

Lost in the name-calling furor, though, is Vos' point — which is a good one, he is angry with the three senators — and Walker, and Senate leadership — for striking a secret deal allowing the budget to pass with their votes, while the governor agreed to use his line-item veto to X-out their objections later.

Vos says, with some justification, the budget might have failed to pass if that cloakroom plan had been made public. There were high tensions between Republicans in the Assembly and Senate over budget differences, and the backroom deal left Vos feeling blindsided, for good reason.

It isn't often we have found much common ground with Speaker Vos, especially on a topic involving secrecy. He's right, though, on the objectionable nature of the deal to win the three senators' votes, even while he's wrong with the cringe-worthy "terrorists" comment.

This is, however, in character for the cast running Madison the past few years. They are not friends of transparency, and seldom miss an opportunity to prove it.