Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov. 19
Don't dismantle WEDC — but fix it
State legislators last week completed their task of dismantling the state Government Accountability Board. Legislators never hesitated: The dismantling bill was written and passed by both houses quickly and with little real discussion. Republican leaders were eager to wreak their vengeance on the nonpartisan board, largely because of its involvement in the John Doe investigations of the last several years and a handful of other issues.
It's too bad legislators haven't shown the same urgency in dealing with the problems at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., which have been more worrisome than any of the issues revealed by the audits of the GAB. Serious changes are needed at WEDC, and although legislators have said they're working on making those changes, their work seems to lack the same urgency that they brought to the job of tearing apart the GAB, the state's elections and ethics watchdog agency.
On Thursday, the Journal Sentinel reported another apparent miscue at the state's top jobs agency: The Legislature's budget office and attorneys have concluded that WEDC officials awarded $21 million in tax credits to companies but likely lacked the legal authority to do so. The finding by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau came in a private Aug. 19 letter to the WEDC.
Other state attorneys from WEDC, the Department of Justice and the Department of Administration disagree, so the question is in legal limbo for now.
Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chairman of the Legislature's budget committee, said Tuesday that he didn't believe WEDC had intentionally violated the law or had run the program any differently than it had been under the former Department of Commerce, the Journal Sentinel reported. But Nygren added that state law may need to be clarified because WEDC's interpretation of it could end up tying the hands of future legislators and governors.
"It is something we're looking at addressing and clarifying," Nygren said of the dispute over the law. That echoed the sentiment of GOP leaders in a meeting with the Journal Sentinel Editorial Board and reporters last week: Nygren, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) told the board they were working on proposals to overhaul WEDC in light of past problems at the agency. They should get to it.
They also said they were hoping to get Democrats on board with reforming the agency. We urge Democrats to join that effort, and we urge both sides to keep politics out of it. There's an opportunity here for a bipartisan effort to fix an agency that can help create an atmosphere for growing much-needed jobs in the state.
We also think Gov. Scott Walker's concept of what WEDC should be remains sound. The agency was created in 2011 as a replacement for the Department of Commerce. Walker's idea was to develop a quasi-public agency more streamlined and better able than previous efforts to promote economic development, in part by giving incentives to companies to expand and create jobs.
That can still work, and changes can be made within the current structure to ensure that the agency can do its job properly and with appropriate oversight. Dismantling another agency is not required. But changes are — and they need to be made now.
Wisconsin State Journal, Nov.22
Minimum wage needs a raise
The president's labor secretary came to Wisconsin on Thursday to call for a higher minimum wage.
Thomas Perez, who leads the U.S. Department of Labor, is right that people working hard at full-time jobs shouldn't live in poverty.
But going to a minimum wage of $15 an hour — as the union-backed group hosting Perez's talk in Milwaukee suggested — is unrealistic and would cost too many low-wage jobs.
It's not just Republicans —including the party's field of presidential candidates in Milwaukee earlier this month — warning about the negative impacts of a steep increase.
So are some Democrats and many economists, including Alan Krueger, President Barack Obama's former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. He just wrote in the New York Times that a $15 minimum wage would "risk undesirable and unintended consequences."
He's right. Doubling Wisconsin's and the nation's $7.25 hourly rate, even over a few years, could spook the economy. Moreover, $15 an hour totals more than $30,000 a year, which is twice the poverty level for a single parent and child, for example.
A smaller raise, though, makes sense. The $7.25 rate hasn't budged in six years, even though the economy has markedly improved since the recession. Wisconsin's unemployment rate, for example, is now down to 4.3 percent. And Madison's is below 3 percent.
A decent raise in the minimum wage closer to $9 or $10 an hour, phased in over time, would help lots of working people struggling to get by. It also could help employers reduce turnover, as Krueger noted.
"If the minimum wage is set at a moderate level, it does not necessarily reduce employment," he wrote. "While some employers cut jobs in response to a minimum-wage increase, others find that a higher wage floor enables them to fill their vacancies and reduce turnover, which raises employment, even though it eats into their profits.
"The net effect of all this," he concluded, "as has been found in most studies of the minimum wage over the last quarter century, is that when it is set at a moderate level, the minimum wage has little or no effect on employment."
But $15 an hour "strikes me as a risk not worth taking," Krueger added.
Leading Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson claimed at the Milwaukee GOP debate this month that "every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases." But fact-checkers quickly dispelled his sweeping statement.
Fellow GOP presidential candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich was more pragmatic, which was welcome.
"An economic theory is fine, but you know what?" Kasich told Carson and the others on stage at the Milwaukee Theatre. "People need help."
Ohio has an $8.10 minimum wage for most employers that's indexed to inflation.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has proposed a $9-an-hour federal minimum wage as a compromise in the U.S. Senate. But Democrats, previously insisting on $10.10 an hour, now want a $12 rate.
Rather than both political parties using the issue to impress their most partisan voters — and doing nothing — they should agree to a decent, gradual increase to around $9 an hour. It would help lots of single mothers and young people, who will spend the extra income to improve the larger economy.
Washington should be able to get this done.
The Journal Times of Racine, Nov. 22
State doesn't seem to be taking CWD seriously
As hunters return from the first weekend of gun deer season, those coming back with a kill and a taste for venison will obviously want to know that the deer they shot is free of chronic wasting disease.
The state has made it harder for hunters to have that verification, though.
The number of tests is dwindling while prevalence of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin grows and neighboring states fight to control it, Department of Natural Resources officials said.
The DNR has half the CWD testing budget it had last year and enough resources to analyze tissue from 4,000 carcasses, down from 7,500 last year, Tami Ryan, the agency's wildlife health section chief, told the Wisconsin State Journal in a Nov. 16 report.
The state is following wishes expressed by the public in dozens of forums since the disease was discovered near Mount Horeb in 2002, Ryan said.
"Many different iterations of public input have shaped our protocol from being very aggressive in the beginning to then monitoring and now not monitoring but doing surveillance to give the information to hunters who want it," Ryan said.
More than half the state's 72 counties are now considered affected by CWD because cases have been found in or near them.
Last year the DNR stopped using the term "CWD management zone" for the southern Wisconsin region encompassing the worst infestations.
If you stop using the term "CWD management zone," does that mean you're no longer managing it?
"In the absence of having any management strategies or tools to deal with it, it is basically an endemic area," Ryan said. "We know it's there and it's not likely to go away. That's what endemic means: It's here to stay."
The state this year ended in-person registration at locations where DNR staffers solicited samples. Hunters are required to register via telephone or computer.
Critics are worried about what the disease will do to the deer herd over time.
"It is going to spread further and further out and eventually have an impact on the number of deer in the state," said George Meyer, a former DNR secretary who is now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. "What is really troubling to me is that the biologists in the department know this is the case but they are not allowed to talk about it and not allowed to bring forth proactive measures to deal with it."
CWD prevalence in the Wisconsin has doubled since the state became less aggressive in 2007, while in Illinois, where officials continued to reduce the herd in diseased areas, there has been no increase, University of Illinois researchers found in a 2014 study.
Meanwhile, Michigan natural resources managers last week announced they are distributing bumper stickers and putting up billboards near the Wisconsin border with the Upper Peninsula to remind hunters of restrictions on bringing deer back from infected states and provinces.
So, Michigan doesn't want people bringing deer in from Wisconsin, but here in the Badger State we act as if we don't have a problem.
This all seems odd bordering on reckless, both from the standpoint of DNR policy and hunters' attitudes toward testing. It would seem to be in the interest of deer hunters to be more vigilant about CWD, not less.