Green Bay Press-Gazette, Aug. 6
Redaction compromise promotes greater transparency
Those who believe in transparency and open government received good news in the last week when the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities negotiated an agreement to end the practice of redacting certain information in arrest and accident reports.
They have come up with a vehicle/driver information request form for the media and public to use when seeking information protected by the Driver's Privacy Protection Act. Also, the league encouraged municipalities to use the form "to allow for release of law enforcement reports without redaction of DPPA-related information" while municipal and media groups seek further clarification from the appeals court.
Central to the case is the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which requires states obtain consent before they release information obtained from the Division of Motor Vehicles, such names, addresses and makes of vehicles.
The controversy arose in August 2012 after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Illinois man's lawsuit that the DPPA was violated when a parking ticket listing personal information was left on his vehicle's windshield.
Legal counsel for Wisconsin counties and municipalities began advising their law enforcement agencies to redact that information from reports for fear of violating the DPPA.
It was a unique reaction because no other state started this practice in the wake of the ruling. In fact, it was a hassle for many law enforcement agencies, which had to spend more time blacking out information on reports released to the public and media.
We applaud those groups that reached the compromise in the name of transparency. Sure, it helps us in our newsgathering efforts, but it affects everyday people, like the Sheboygan Falls woman who spent 13 days trying to get the name of the driver who crashed into her daughter's car, and it removes the accidental anonymity for those who break the law, like the driver who was traveling 80 mph in a 25-mph zone and struck and killed a woman last year in Wausau.
This information should be public for the good of society, not to protect those who cause serious injury, and sometimes death.
But the practice of redaction hasn't ended yet as municipalities and counties are having their lawyers go over the compromise.
In the meantime, it's time for state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to weigh in on the matter and reaffirm an informal opinion he issued in 2008.
He wrote, in part, that personal information "obtained from the state DMV and contained in law enforcement records may be provided in response to a public records request unless the public records balancing test or statutory prohibitions other than the DPPA preclude disclosure."
In other words, the presumption should be that this information is public and that only under certain situations would it be private, not the other way around, as it is now.
We'd like Van Hollen to use his statewide standing to clear up the matter and erase any confusion over the agreement reached by the WNA and the league. It would help speed up the process of getting back to full disclosure of information that the public is entitled to under an open, democratic form of government.
Wisconsin State Journal, Aug. 7
More health care coverage, though not enough
Wisconsin expanded health insurance coverage faster than Minnesota and most of the Midwest over the last year, new Gallup research suggests.
That's mostly good news, though Wisconsin can and should do better.
Gov. Scott Walker's rejection of federal money to expand Medicaid didn't help the cause. Yet the Republican governor's decision not to set up a state-run insurance exchange is looking better, given the trouble Minnesota has experienced with its MNSure website.
The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index has been asking people across the country a simple question: "Do you have health insurance?" Poll results released this week suggest states that accepted two major provisions of the Affordable Care Act were doing better at expanding coverage than those states that resisted.
The uninsured rate decreased 4 percentage points, to 12.1 percent, in states that accepted federal money to expand Medicaid and that set up their own state insurance exchanges.
That was almost twice as much progress as the states that refused the money and failed to set up exchanges. Those states that resisted Obamacare saw their uninsured rates decrease by 2.2 percentage points, to 16.5 percent.
Yet Wisconsin did better than most of its neighbors who cooperated with the Obama administration on health care reform. Wisconsin shrunk its uninsured rate 2.1 percentage points to 9.6 percent. That was faster progress than Minnesota, which saw its uninsured rate fall 0.7 percentage points to 8.8 percent.
Wisconsin also outpaced and stayed ahead of Iowa and Michigan — which accepted the Medicaid expansion and launched state exchanges. Only Illinois gained more ground, though it still has many more uninsured adults than our state.
"Wisconsin's improvement — that might be significant," Dan Witters, research director for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, said Wednesday. "That's nice improvement for a state that has not embraced either of the two major mechanisms" of the Affordable Care Act.
Though Walker rejected the federal dollars to expand Medicaid for those just above the poverty line — and hasn't come close to his goal of moving at least 90 percent of them onto the federal exchange — he did guarantee state BadgerCare coverage for everyone below the poverty line.
Witters noted that some benefits of the Affordable Care Act — such as letting young adults stay on their parents' insurance into their 20s — will help every state improve, regardless of state actions.
Wisconsin and Minnesota now have some of the lowest uninsured rates in the nation, so they have less ground to cover.
Yet more progress should be possible when the federal exchange reopens for registrations this fall. Witters also predicted more Republican-run states will accept the Medicaid expansion as the Obama administration allows more leeway with federal rules.
Walker should be trying to get more Medicaid dollars just as governors in the GOP states of Utah, Indiana and Pennsylvania are.
Obamacare's success hinges on more than just insurance coverage. Health care reform is supposed to ease the soaring cost of medical care.
So far, the reforms have been worth it. More states, including Wisconsin, should strive to help Obamacare improve and succeed.
La Crosse Tribune, Aug. 3
Keep tech colleges under local control
There are two words often used to describe the political philosophy of many state Republicans and some Democrats as well: local control.
We expect that those words will come up many times in the fall elections, representing a belief that smaller units of local government know what is better for their constituents.
If only our state leaders would practice what they preach. Because a special committee studying the Wisconsin Technical College System has a not-so-transparent mission to get rid of local district boards and create another state bureaucracy. That's a bad idea for Wisconsin, particularly for western Wisconsin.
Here's the purpose of the Joint Council Legislative Study Committee which met recently. "The Special Committee is directed to review the current governance model of the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) in the interest of transferring governance responsibilities of local district boards to the state WTCS Board and examine the current funding model for the WTCS with a preference toward reassigning current local property tax revenue to a broader state tax source."
We have long maintained that the state should come up with a fairer and more equitable means of funding education — both K-12 and technical colleges — rather than the heavy reliance on property tax. That is simply long overdue. But that can be done without changing local control.
Wisconsin's technical college system was the first in the nation when it was formed in 1911. It has always been locally governed. Local district board members are selected through a public, merit-based process. Local economic partnerships are formed. The result is a system responsive to the needs of local employers and citizens, being able to adjust classes and courses to meet local needs.
The system works in the 11-county Western Technical College district. More than 93 percent of Western graduates are employed within six months of graduation. More than 80 percent stay working in Wisconsin. They earn an average of $15.77 per hour when they find a job related to their studies and earn 58 percent more than their starting salaries after just five years. Some 1,200 alums of Western have started their own business.
If people in our region were unhappy about the local control they certainly would not have approved an $80 million referendum in 2012. If there are other systems not working in the state, fix them at the local level. There's no need to apply a big government solution to fixing something that isn't broken.
Yes, there should be a concern about local property tax increases that have gone up steadily in the past 15 years — Western's tax levy has gone from about $19 million to about $40 million from 1999 to 2014. At the same time, state aid dropped from $11.8 million to just under $5 million, including a $2 million cut implemented by Republicans in 2011 that was part of Gov. Scott Walker's budget. Technical colleges had little choice but to ask taxpayers to fund more when the state was cutting a big chunk of their revenue.
This year the state took a large step in the takeover process when the Legislature voted to replace $406 million in local property tax college funding with state funding. While that represents a property tax break — Western's share of the average property tax bill will decrease by $89 per $100,000 of property value — the state will have to find the funds to replace $15 million in property taxes for Western.
We have major concerns that technical college districts will lose flexibility and the ability to respond to local needs if the state takes over control. That will certainly not help train employees and prepare more people for the workforce, which should still be the primary mission of the technical colleges.
Can Wisconsin find a better way of paying for technical colleges? Absolutely — start by having the courage to reform the overall taxing structure of the state. There's no need to wreck a system that's worked well for more than 100 years to accomplish that.