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Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials

January 2, 2019

The Capital Times, Jan. 2

Preston Cole is right choice to head DNR

Gov.-elect Tony Evers provided vital insight into his approach to governing when he tapped Preston Cole to head the state Department of Natural Resources. A forester by training, and a skilled administrator of environmental and public works programs, Cole is literally known as “the tree guy.”

He got that title years ago because his knowledge of Wisconsin’s woodlands and plants was so great that anyone who had a question about trees was directed his way. Over time, however, it became clear that he knew just as much about protecting air and water, balancing the interests of farmers and their neighbors, and finding common ground for rural and urban communities in a rapidly evolving state.

A member of the state Natural Resources Board who was appointed in 2007 by former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and who has served as the board’s chairman under outgoing Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, Cole has a proven track record of working across lines of partisanship and ideology to focus on the essential work of an agency that is charged with conserving and managing Wisconsin’s precious natural resources. And as the first African-American chairman of the board, he stressed the importance of outreach to every community in every corner of Wisconsin.

Cole has a sense of mission when it comes to this work.

In an interview several years ago, he stressed this fact: “I have a strong conservation ethic deeply rooted in the traditions that my parents taught me — to leave the land better than I found it.”

This regard for the land and for the conservation ethic that preserves and strengthens it makes Cole an ideal fit to head the DNR, an essential state agency that takes as its mission a charge: “To protect and enhance our natural resources: our air, land and water; our wildlife, fish and forests and the ecosystems that sustain all life. To provide a healthy, sustainable environment and a full range of outdoor opportunities. To ensure the right of all people to use and enjoy these resources in their work and leisure. To work with people to understand each other’s views and to carry out the public will. And in this partnership consider the future and generations to follow.”

Evers chose well. So how could anyone have a problem with putting an able and experienced forester in charge of an agency that was neglected and undermined during the past eight years, as politicians who cared more about campaign money than the environment sought to tip the balance in favor of out-of-state interests that saw Wisconsin’s countryside merely as a place to exploit?

Many Republicans, including Walker, hailed the pick.

Unfortunately, there were a few legislative Republicans, such as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, of Rochester, and state Rep. Scott Krug, of Nekoosa, who seemed to be upset that Cole is from Milwaukee. Vos griped generally about the fact that the initial Cabinet picks by Evers were Milwaukeeans, while Krug complained specifically that it was “not very encouraging” to have a DNR secretary from the state’s largest city.

That’s pathetic.

These continual efforts to divide Wisconsinites based on region, and along urban-versus-rural lines, are embarrassing. To suggest that a Milwaukeean is somehow an inappropriate pick to head the DNR reveals a deep and disturbing ignorance and insensitivity with regard to the state and its values.

Ultimately, we expect that Vos and Krug will join other Republicans — including Walker and former DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, who has been effusive in her praise of Cole — in respecting the wisdom of the choice Evers has made.

Preston Cole is a Milwaukeean, and he has served the city well — as the city forester, environmental services superintendent, director of operations for the Department of Public Works, and commissioner of the Department of Neighborhood Services. He’s been a champion of efficient management, fiscal responsibility and transparency for decades in one of the nation’s largest cities. It’s no surprise that he has been awarded the National Urban Foresters Medal of Honor, and that he has earned wide recognition for his visionary efforts to get young people in cities across the country engaged with forestry and conservation.

Cole grew up on a small farm, joined Future Farmers of America as a youth, and remains an active outdoorsman. He hikes the state parks. He hunts ducks, geese and pheasants. Few officials have embraced the whole of Wisconsin as warmly and well as Cole did as chair of the Natural Resources Board. And he will extend that embrace as DNR secretary.

Cole will do this as a leader who recognizes the “Wisconsin Idea” values that have historically defined the DNR. He shares the governor-elect’s determination to reassert the role of science in decision-making by the agency. Cole will do this by respecting the expertise of DNR staffers and welcoming their input. As he says: “I will represent those natural resource managers, those scientists to give them the life that they so deserve to add value to the conversation on natural resource management.”

That’s precisely the message that should be coming from the DNR secretary. Tony Evers made the right choice when he tapped Preston Cole.

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Leader-Telegram, Dec. 28

Misplaced frustration

Whether filing for taxes as an individual or business, you are entitled to take any and all deductions. If you feel your property tax assessment is inaccurate, you can challenge it.

A recent story in the Leader-Telegram quoted Eau Claire’s finance director, Jay Winzenz, stating, “This is the same thing they are doing all over the state ... the same cast of characters,” noting certain large commercial retail property owners are trying to reduce their property tax bills using loopholes, ultimately shifting the burden to other taxpayers.

That’s quite a mouthful of misplaced frustration. The truth is, it would be hard to find any business person who wouldn’t take advantage of every opportunity to reduce their tax burden. It’s also fair to say that by reducing a business’ tax burden, it’s able to reduce the need to raise prices to consumers.

Real frustration should be directed at the state level where Republican leadership has refused to allow a vote on closing the “dark store tax loophole.” Until the vote is allowed, we won’t know the results, and until the issue is resolved by the state legislators, frustration will mount locally.

Consider who to be frustrated with: the major retailers who employ thousands of Wisconsin residents throughout the state, who provide an excellent shopping experience and reasonable pricing, or the elected officials who continue to hold the dark store tax loophole vote hostage?

According to The Associated Press, in the November election, voters in 23 Wisconsin jurisdictions backed advisory referendums on a proposal to close the so-called dark store tax loophole. Legislators should at least bring it to a vote and put an end to this controversy.

Until that time, it would be nice to understand how local government will reduce its expenses rather than passing the additional tax burden onto homeowners or small business.

Taking every opportunity to reduce personal or business tax burdens should be celebrated, not attacked.

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Wisconsin State Journal, Jan. 2

Congress still must ban bump stocks

Now that the Trump administration has moved to ban bump stocks, lawsuits are underway. Congress should cut them off by passing an overdue legislative ban.

Bump stocks give legal semi-automatic firearms the functionality of illegal machine guns. They used to be a niche product among gun enthusiasts. Then the shooter in the Las Vegas massacre used them to maximize his rate of fire and the carnage. He killed 58 people and wounded nearly 500. Suddenly, everyone knew about bump stocks.

Federal law bans fully automatic weapons but allows Americans to purchase semi-automatic ones. In practice, that means a shooter must pull the trigger each time he wants to fire a round with a legal gun. The speed of one’s finger limits how fast a weapon can fire.

Sensible limits on firearms and better school security won’t solve every shooting, but they will stop some.

Bump stocks are a workaround. They use the recoil of the weapon to “bump” it off the shooter’s shoulder and back against the trigger finger after every shot. Squeeze once and release leaden fury until you let go or run out of rounds.

When clever people find a way to circumvent the clear intent of the law, elected officials usually patch the law — unless it’s related to guns. Fear of the gun lobby among most Republicans and some Democrats prevents reform. That’s why the gun-show loophole remains, allowing criminals to dodge background checks before purchasing firearms, and why Congress didn’t act to close the bump-stock loophole last year.

So President Donald Trump took the lead with an administrative rule.

Gun rights zealots are apoplectic. Wisconsin Gun Owners, the state’s “no-compromise gun lobby,” declared, “The Trump administration and the ATF paved the way toward total confiscation of all firearms in America by issuing an executive fiat to ban bump stocks. Just like that, with the stroke of a pen, your gun rights were crushed.”

Restricting one device that converts legal weapons into illegal ones is a far cry from crushing gun rights, but nuance has never been a strong suit for gun rights absolutists.

The problem is that administrative rules aren’t as strong as laws, and this one could be vulnerable in court. Staunch gun advocates are right that the machine gun ban, as currently written in federal code, doesn’t explicitly forbid bump stocks. That’s because no one knew what a bump stock was when the law passed. They exist specifically to get around the law.

Rather than wait to see if the courts agree, Congress should update the law. Bump stocks violate the intent of the law. They also should violate the letter of it. With Trump, a Republican, on board and Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives, this could be a bipartisan win to set the tone going forward.

Closing a loophole to prevent the next mass shooter from firing far faster than he should won’t make lawmakers weak on gun rights. It would just make them strong on common sense.

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