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The current wrecking crew in Madison offers a potpourri of bad policy, goofiness, and recipes for future problems. The only good news out of Madison is that the Governor and Legislature are no longer always unified. There is division among the faithful. Here is a short list of issues in the news.
On June 1, Walker signed a bill that weakens regulation of high capacity wells. Senate Bill 76 eliminates DNR review of existing permits for high capacity wells when they are repaired, replaced, or sold in a real estate transaction. High capacity wells pump 100,000 gallons or more a day. Users include large farms, concentrated feeding operations (CAFOs), food processors, fracking sand facilities, and industrial operations. This comes on top of earlier decisions to ignore the cumulative impact of multiple high capacity wells on water resources in any local area. Homeowners, small businesses, and other users of water will be left with the consequences when ground water is depleted and local streams, springs and lakes are affected. But Republicans, as usual, look after the short term interests of big agriculture, big business, and campaign contributors.
Lead In Water
Another news report says Milwaukee has a lead problem similar to Flint, Michigan. A Reuters news agency examination of lead testing results across the country found almost 3,000 areas with poisoning rates higher than Flint. Milwaukee was one of them with some neighborhoods having 33 percent of the children testing high for lead. Milwaukee has 70,000 old residential lead service lines. Although the city treats the water with an anti-corrosive material to reduce lead, it can still leech into the drinking water. Lead is known to inhibit childhood brain development and persist in the body. To be fair, this crisis can not be attributed to the current administration. This has been a well known problem ignored by everyone for decades. But it does illustrate the way shortsighted policy eventually comes back to harm people. Will the current administration act on this public health problem or will it blame the victims when they grow up cognitively impaired and unable to compete well in the dog-eat-dog free market economy? A hint may be that Walker is talking about “welfare reform.”
Whenever Republicans need a campaign issue, beating up on the poor (or teachers, unions, or public employees) is usually a successful strategy. Walker says in his weekly newsletter, “In Wisconsin, we want to empower people to move from government dependence to true independence.” How does he plan to do this? He proposes to “remove barriers to employment and build skills through hands-on job training.” All this has been attempted for decades with Republicans opposing the efforts or under funding the programs. Although Walker says this is not a punitive agenda, it will include drug testing. Welfare recipients are not more likely to abuse drugs than the general population and drug testing in the past has proven largely a waste of money. But drug testing is a staple of Republican faith-based policies. It appears Walker's concern is just more campaign posturing.
The Self Insurance Gamble
Attacking public employee benefits is another campaign staple. Walker is pushing a self insurance scheme to change the way state employee health insurance is handled. Instead buying insurance the state would pay the health care bills directly. This shifts the risks from the insurance companies to the state. Properly done this is not a bad idea. A single payer, state run program could save money by cutting out the insurance middlemen. Many other states and large companies are self-insured. But the Walker proposal uses insurance companies to administer the program. It is based on actuarial estimates from one consulting firm, claiming large savings that are not readily verifiable. A number of Republican legislators are opposing the plan because of the increased risk to taxpayers, cash reserves needed, and unverified actuarial numbers. The risk and uncertainty of self insurance is too much for even anti-government, anti-worker conservatives. Republican Assemblyman, John Nygren, admits that former savings were created “on the backs of state employees and agencies.” Walker is threatening that failure to pass the flawed plan will result in premium, co-pay and deductible increases for public employees. Once again public employees are going to pay the price.
State Budget and Transportation Funding
Republican factions are not agreeing on the state budget. Legislative leaders have rejected dozens of non-monetary policy items from the budget. The Milwaukee Journal says this has not happened in at least 24 years! One wonders what motivated this sensible action? They also pulled the entire transportation plan from the budget. The state has a $1 billion deficit in transportation funding and a backlog of needed repairs. Walker has pledged to not raise gas taxes. Some Republicans are choking on his plan to borrow $500 million for roads. Needless to say, no one is talking about alternatives to the automobile. While Minnesota moves ahead with light rail and restoring train service to Duluth, Wisconsin stays firmly mired in the last century. Nor are they actually solving the perennial budget problems. The budget mostly pushes problems off to the future.
Then there is the crazy gun legislation. Currently, anyone who carries a concealed weapon must obtain a permit and get training. State law allows the open carry of weapons without a permit. Guns are not allowed in schools. Senate Bill 169 would do away with these requirements. Wisconsin would become a “constitutional carry” state where almost anyone could carry firearms without a permit and with no firearm safety training. The bill also allows persons to have a gun while picking up children at schools. School districts and private organizations could still prohibit firearms on their property. Even Walker doesn't see a need for this craziness. What could possible go wrong with guns everywhere, even in schools? Few of the real issues facing the citizens of Wisconsin are being addressed. The high cost of healthcare, lack of family supporting jobs, college costs, and affordable housing get little serious action. Although the budget proposes better funding fro schools it is contingent on the self insurance “savings.” The games and charades continue. As one bumper sticker says, “If you are not outraged you are not paying attention.”