Wisconsin State Journal, April 19
Lawmakers should adopt a better state budget
The Legislature's budget committee is off to a decent start at improving Gov. Scott Walker's flawed state spending plan.
Keep going, lawmakers.
The Joint Finance Committee began its work of reviewing and refining Walker's 2015-2017 budget proposal last week by removing some of the most offensive policy items that had little if anything to do with spending money.
The committee refused to give the University of Wisconsin System a blanket exemption from the state's open records law for research that isn't patented or published. That will help protect the public, which deserves to know, for example, if its universities are experimenting with dangerous pathogens.
The legislative committee also stopped the governor from weakening the Natural Resources Board, whose authority dates back nearly a century.
Non-fiscal policy should stand on its own merits as separate bills with public hearings and specific votes, rather than being stuffed into the state's $68 billion budget, which limits scrutiny and citizen input.
The Joint Finance Committee didn't go far enough in pulling policy out of the budget. It purged 14 of the 49 non-fiscal items identified by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. That's something the full Legislature should address if the committee doesn't.
Yet the Joint Finance Committee — led by Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills — appears determined to find reasonable savings while maintaining important priorities.
The committee endorsed further reductions to the secretary of state's office, which has virtually no duties. It also shaved higher grants for broadband service. The governor wanted to increase annual grants from $500,000 to $6.5 million, helping rural areas compete in the digital world. Yet the committee's commitment of $3 million a year still represents a big hike.
Any increase in the budget must be justified and weighed against Gov. Walker's attempts to cut state support for K-12 public schools and the University of Wisconsin System.
The Joint Finance Committee should heed the sentiments expressed in last week's Marquette Law School poll. The statewide survey found that 78 percent of respondents oppose the governor's $127 million cut to K-12 schools. And about 70 percent don't like Walker's proposed $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System.
At a time when Wisconsin's economy is finally doing better, state leaders should be investing in education so our state can produce and attract more of the knowledge-based jobs of the future.
Gov. Walker is all but running for president and wants to impress conservative voters in early primary states by refusing to raise taxes. But liberal borrowing for roads in the governor's budget is fiscally irresponsible. Lawmakers should insist on higher user fees for drivers instead.
The committee has weeks of budget work ahead. So far most of its changes are an improvement.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 23
Gov. Scott Walker's shifting views on immigration
So just what exactly is Gov. Scott Walker's position on immigration policy?
That is very hard to say, based on the governor's meandering comments on the issue in recent weeks as his presidential ambitions have fully enveloped him.
The latest: Walker suggested to uber-conservative talk show host Glenn Beck earlier this week that he supports limiting legal immigration in an attempt to protect workers. "The next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that's based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages," Walker said. He mentioned discussions he had had with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate's Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, who has frequently voiced concern about the effects of increased legal immigration.
This comes after Walker backed away from previous support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — what some members of his party like to call "amnesty." In early March, Walker told Chris Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday, that "my view has changed." Now, he said, a pathway to citizenship shouldn't be considered until the U.S. secures its borders and toughens enforcement.
Adding to the confusion: A closed-door dinner in New Hampshire, where The Wall Street Journal, citing three sources, said the governor had backed a path to citizenship. Walker's aides quickly replied that the governor "does not support citizenship for illegal immigrants." But he has said he doesn't want to deport those undocumented workers who are already here, which he knows is impossible.
So what about a pathway to legal residency for those already here illegally? On this, the governor is about as clear as an April sky in Milwaukee. Which is to say — not very.
Here's what the governor should do: He should find the courage of his convictions and support smart policy that gives the millions of illegal immigrants already here a chance to come out of the shadows. He should listen to what other, thoughtful Republicans have had to say on the issue — people such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (who backed reform before himself backing away) and U.S. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Perhaps Walker will find his sea legs on this issue eventually. Or maybe he'll keep flopping about the deck as he tries to persuade voters that he really, truly believes whatever it is that he believes.
Racine Journal Times, April 22
Restore funding for Citizens Utility Board
Once again, GOP legislators are using a bazooka to try to kill a pesky gnat or two.
The gnats in this case are citizen watchdog groups that argue for the public interest on issues like electric utility rate increases, power plant siting, renewable energy and the routes for power lines.
On a 12-4 party line vote last week, the Joint Finance Committee voted for a provision to end ratepayer funding for the Citizens Utility Board and to decrease support for a handful of other such groups like Renew Wisconsin, the Sierra Club, Clean Wisconsin and Save Our Unique Lands.
State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who co-chairs the powerful Joint Finance Committee that made that budget cut, said it would save money for electric ratepayers.
"If the $1.3 million isn't in the budget, then it's not going to be paid for by the ratepayers of the state of Wisconsin, and I think that's a win for taxpayer," Nygren said.
Nygren must have graduated from the penny-wise, pound-foolish school of economics.
What the cut would do is gut the budget of a small but effective citizen watchdog group that says it has been able to save state utility customers nearly $3 billion by advocating against a coal plant and by intervening in the rate cases that utilities file. CUB says that in 2014 it helped reduce bills to utility customers by $161 million.
It is perhaps not surprising that the citizen watchdog cuts came at the behest of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, a business lobbying group. Nor is it surprising that the chief executive of We Energies, the state's largest utility, is vice chairman of the MMAC board.
We Energies maintains it has taken no position on the CUB cuts. Some would see that as two saddles, but the same horse.
Remarkably, Steve Bass, MMAC vice president of government affairs, said his group lobbied the Joint Finance Committee on the issue, because its members were concerned about rate increases. "It's hard to justify to them why a single Madison-based special interest group was getting a $300,000 (annual) subsidy out of their rates for their (CUB's) office, operations and salaries."
Special interest group? Yes, that interest would be the public interest; the everyday ratepayers who can no more muster the expertise or hire the high-priced experts to advocate for them when rate cases and other utility issues come before the state Public Service Commission.
The MMAC-backed attempt to defund CUB and other watchdog groups would not level the playing field — it would bulldoze it and clear the path for business groups and state utilities to march ahead, unimpeded by pesky concerns of residential ratepayers.
As Republican lawmakers get ready to put together the final state budget, they should ask themselves this question: Do they think everyday ratepayers should have a place at the table to give their views on rate cases and other utility issues?
We would argue the answer to that should be yes, and the Legislature should restore this funding.