Wisconsin State Journal, Jan. 21
Keep WEDC's focus on jobs
State leaders shouldn't forget why they created the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. in the first place.
WEDC was pitched four years ago as a nimble and narrowly focused replacement for the lumbering state Commerce Department.
WEDC was launched to concentrate on jobs and business expansion. It wouldn't be distracted, as the old Commerce Department had been, by odd and unrelated duties such as inspecting carnival rides, certifying plumbers and tracking underground fuel tanks.
WEDC stumbled badly after Gov. Scott Walker rushed it into place in 2011, trying to fulfill his lofty campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs. WEDC lost track of some loans. It didn't follow careful financial policies. WEDC suffered turnover and personnel spats. Audits continue to suggest ways it must improve.
So it might be tempting to scrap the agency.
But significantly, WEDC's mission has been steady and clear: to help entrepreneurs and businesses sell more products and hire more people. That charge shouldn't change. The concept of WEDC is a strong one. What failed was its execution.
So folding WEDC into another state agency with different goals and duties isn't justified, especially when WEDC has improved the state's responsiveness to business people and expanded their reach around the globe.
Gov. Walker just proposed combining WEDC with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority in his State of the State speech.
Yes, both of these agencies have the words "economic development" in their titles. So some overlap exists.
But WHEDA's core duty has been affordable housing. It helps first-time homeowners get financing. It helps developers find loans for housing projects with lower-cost units.
WHEDA helps small business people and farmers, too, with their finances. But combining WHEDA with WEDC could alter the latter's laser-like focus on jobs.
Moreover, any savings from a merger would be tiny, perhaps a couple of top jobs.
The Legislature should be skeptical. It might be good politics to get rid of the WEDC name, which has been damaged by mistakes. But saddling WEDC with more duties and complication sounds like a retreat toward the old Commerce model.
Gov. Walker's second term could give WEDC more time to prove itself and keep its attention squarely on business and jobs. The Legislature shouldn't allow the state's flagship economic development effort to be diluted.
Press-Gazette Media, Jan. 21
State should increase tobacco prevention funding
Everyone knows that tobacco use isn't good for your health.
However, let's just review, for the sake of driving home our point, some facts from the American Lung Association:
— Tobacco use is the No.1 cause of preventable death.
— Wisconsin sees 7,240 deaths a year attributable to smoking.
— The economic costs of smoking are $3.66 billion for health care expenses and lost productivity.
Yet in the last year, the state of Wisconsin has neither gained ground nor lost it in preventing people from taking up, or stopping, smoking.
The American Lung Association on Wednesday released its State of Tobacco Control 2015, giving Wisconsin mixed grades on its efforts to reduce tobacco use.
Wisconsin was graded in four areas. It received an A for smoke-free air, thanks largely to the workplace smoking ban. It received a B for "tobacco taxes," as the state charges $2.52 per pack, which is between the high of $4.35 in New York and the low of 17 cents in Missouri.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that the state received F's for "tobacco prevention and control program funding" and "access to cessation services."
The reason for those grades are pretty simple:
— The state spends $5.3 million and gets $2.3 million in federal funding for tobacco control programs, but this is only 13.2 percent of the level ($57.5 million) recommended by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.
— Wisconsin invests only $1.28 per smoker on the "state quitline," compared with an average of $3.65. States that had higher grades spent much more on quitlines, took the federal Medicaid expansion and have a private insurance mandate for other cessation provisions.
Wisconsin's efforts are not as bad as some states that received F's across the board, such as Alabama. Our adult smoking rate is 18.7 percent, which is the national average and within 9 points of the goal of 10 percent by 2024.
Smoking rates for our high school (10.7 percent) and middle school (1.6 percent) students continue to decrease despite an increase in the use of smokeless tobacco and "little cigars."
The American Lung Association calls on the state to increase funding for tobacco prevention and control programs to the CDC-recommended level, prevent electronic cigarette protections and/or exemptions, and include outdoor spaces, multi-unit housing and college campuses in the state's tobacco-free policies.
Smoking and other tobacco use aren't illegal, but they shouldn't negatively affect the lives of those who don't use them.
As the new Legislature begins work, we believe it should look at increasing funding for prevention efforts, maybe not to CDC levels, but the current 13.2 percent is woeful. The best way to quit smoking is to not start and the prevention efforts can help with that.
We also oppose bills that would give electronic cigarettes exemptions for use in smoke-free workplaces. Expanding the tobacco-free policy to outdoor spaces is more problematic. The scope of such a bill would need to be carefully examined and even then it might be a hard sell.
La Crosse Tribune, Jan. 21
Citizens United no cause for celebration
Birthdays are usually a cause for celebration but we can't help feel a little glum today.
It's the fifth birthday of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. And as we feared, the legal decision hailed by supporters as a victory for free speech has opened up the floodgates of outside election spending with less transparency.
Elections today involve shadow groups who dominate the airwaves with attack ads and innuendo. Super political action committees can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and individuals. These groups, according to OpenSecrets.org, spent more than $600 million in the 2012 election cycle.
While super PACS are required to disclose their donors, other tax-exempt organizations do not. Spending by these dark money organizations accounted for nearly $300 million in 2012. Independent campaign expenditures went from $205.5 million in 2010 to $1 billion in 2012.
The Supreme Court in its ruling held that independent expenditures do not pose a threat to quid pro quo corruption. That might be true if all of the spending were transparent. But when millions of dollars flow through a maze of groups and organizations that operate like legal money launderers and campaign commercials drown out the voices of candidates, the potential for corruption — and for overseas money to influence our campaigns — is great.
This is not a conservative or a liberal issue. Both sides have used the court ruling to their advantage. But it must be fixed with complete transparency. If you want to engage in free speech, then come into the light. Any citizen who donates even a dollar to a candidate must be disclosed, but it's OK for nonprofits to spend millions in secret. That hardly sounds like equal rights.
Unfortunately attempts to pass disclosure laws in Congress have been opposed by Republicans. So we're left with elections influenced by big money without transparency.
That's no cause for celebration.
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