Wisconsin State Journal, Feb. 7

Yes, please, increase the gas tax for better Wisconsin roads

Gov. Scott Walker last week said he's open to raising Wisconsin's gas tax for the first time in more than a decade.

That's good, because Wisconsin's transportation system definitely needs more investment. Wisconsin's roads are the worst in the Midwest, according to a state audit, and nearly the worst in the nation.

We just hope the governor is serious this time about collecting more revenue for highway repairs and improvements. In the past, he hasn't followed through — even when his demand to offset any increase with reductions in other state taxes has been granted.

Gov. Walker sees an opportunity for more money from the federal government in President Donald Trump's $1.5 trillion plan to improve America's infrastructure. As outlined in his recent State of the Union speech, President Trump envisions $200 billion in higher federal spending on transportation needs, with the rest of the $1.5 trillion coming from state, local and private sources.

Gov. Walker told reporters last week he's willing to raise the state's gas tax if that will help leverage more money from the federal government for construction work here in Wisconsin. But he added his familiar caveat that any increase in fees on motorists much be offset by tax cuts elsewhere.

That last requirement should be easy to fulfill. After all, the governor just proposed a $100-per-child tax credit in his recent State of the State speech. And if that isn't enough, the governor during his speech touted $8 billion in tax cuts he has delivered during his two terms in office. Most of those savings went to manufacturers and industry. But some went to ordinary people who got breaks on their income and property taxes.

So the burden on taxpayers is already down, leaving plenty of room for a modest increase in the state's gas tax, which is really just a user fee on motorists to help pay for roads.

Wisconsin's gas tax has been 32.9 cents per gallon since 2006 — despite rising construction costs due to inflation and heavier traffic. The state's other major source of income for roads, a $75 vehicle registration fee on most vehicles (though hybrids pay more), hasn't increased since 2008.

To get by, Gov. Walker and the Republican-run Legislature have borrowed billions of dollars in recent years, including $400 million in the current state budget.

That's not sustainable, because more and more road revenue will be eaten up by higher debt payments.

Raising the state's gas tax is the simplest solution to ensuring a fiscally sound future. Other options for a better transportation system include electronic tolling on the interstates (which would bring in more money from tourists and trucks) or a mileage-based charge (which would treat most vehicles the same, regardless of the fuel they consume).

What doesn't make financial sense is more borrowing for roads while highway conditions continue to deteriorate. We hope the governor is finally getting serious about paying for better roads with real money.

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The Capital Times, Feb. 12

Sen. Tammy Baldwin delivers for state farmers

The bipartisan Senate budget agreement that was cobbled together in order to avert a federal government shutdown was flawed in many ways. But it contained a lot of good news for Wisconsin farmers, thanks to U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.

Baldwin recognized the urgency of the moment, noting that "our farmers are facing a very difficult year" and recognizing that "Washington has been far too slow to recognize the challenges facing our agriculture economy." She sought to shift the dynamic by embracing innovative proposals and working across party lines to build alliances with senators from other farm states.

Baldwin's flexibility and commitment made the senator from Wisconsin a critical player in a loose coalition of farm-state senators that did not let the budget negotiators forget that dairy farmers in states such as Wisconsin have been hurting for a number of years — as prices have dropped and market conditions have worsened.

Baldwin and her allies got a lot. The budget deal includes an investment of more than $1 billion in the safety net for dairy farmers, adjusts policies to benefit small dairy farms, provides more protections for farmers who are hit by drops in prices and increases in feed costs, and waives administrative fees for beginning, veteran, and underserved farmers.

By securing "much-needed relief for our dairy farmers," Baldwin said, as the agreement was worked out, "we are doing right by them and Wisconsin's rural economy."

True enough, but there's more to it than that. Because the rural economy is such a vital component of the state's overall economy, Baldwin's focus on improving conditions for our dairy farmers benefits all of Wisconsin.

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La Crosse Tribune, Feb. 11

Removing public notices is lousy policy

As we wrap up another legislative session in Madison, there's another push to bring more secrecy to your government.

The wrong-headed notion of taking public notices out of newspapers — where citizens have found everything from city council and school board minutes to other government proceedings for more than a century — and putting them instead on government websites (at least, that's the promise) was a bad idea the last few times legislators brought it up.

It's still a bad idea.

We've written this editorial and testified against such legislation several times, so pardon us if you've heard these words.

But, this is an issue of democracy, so they bear repeating.

The looming legislation — Assembly Bill 70 — is much the same as previous attempts. In that spirit, here's what we wrote 370 days ago in this space:

For more than two centuries, governments in this country have paid newspapers to publish public notices about the actions of government.

Without a third-party, independent source providing the information, there is no accountability, no check-and-balance to make sure that government is posting all the public notices it is required by law to post.

Besides, relatively few people actually use government websites compared to newspaper websites — and relying exclusively on individual government websites does nothing for people who don't use computers.

Most Wisconsin residents continue to rely on the printed newspaper for information about their local elected governments, as they have for decades.

For those who choose not to use computers, it remains the best source.

For those who use computers, there's already an invaluable resource at your fingertips.

Since 2005, newspapers in Wisconsin have been digitally archiving every public notice published in every newspaper in our state every day. Today, there is a database with more than a decade worth of information posted on a website that's free to use, www.WisconsinPublicNotices.org .

Wisconsin newspapers collect that information daily, archive and maintain it free of charge. That database is very user-friendly — searchable by city, county, newspaper, ZIP code and key word.

This service is provided to citizens, courts and local government free of charge because newspapers in Wisconsin have made a substantial investment to provide and maintain the service for the sake of transparency and public trust.

Businesses throughout the state use www.WisconsinPublicNotices.org to learn about projects they may wish to bid on. Just ask a contractor how efficient it would be to — every day — log onto the website of every local government in Wisconsin. Eliminating the usefulness of that website wouldn't be good for business in our state.

So, is this a big money-maker for newspapers — and are newspapers gouging government by charging an exorbitant rate for publishing notices?

That rate barely covers the cost of processing and printing the information. Besides, the rate is regulated by the state — the Department of Administration, to be specific. Most states don't regulate the rate that newspapers can charge for the service.

To give you an idea how regulated the process is in Wisconsin, just look at the portion of the statute that regulates the type used to print notices: "All legal notices shall be in Arial type face. A standard line shall be 6-point leading without spacing between the lines, and 11 picas in length."

In fact, it was the newspaper industry in Wisconsin that agreed on a standard type face to help the DOA cut down on its administrative workload. The Legislature approved of that streamlining without opposition in 2012.

The process of publishing public notices is more regulated in Wisconsin than in most states. With that said, only one state — Utah — briefly eliminated the requirement of publication, and it was a failure.

It's also important to note that government isn't the sole bearer of the cost of publishing legal notices. In many cases, the cost is passed along by the government agency to those who are seeking government action.

Taking public notices of any kind out of newspapers is just another attempt by government officials to curb government transparency in Wisconsin.

And, 370 days later, we strongly believe it's still a bad idea for democracy.