- Associated Press - Thursday, August 21, 2014

Post-Crescent of Appleton, Aug. 21

State must address life-expectancy gap

The news is grim - and a horrible reflection on Wisconsin.

We’re the only state in which the gap in life expectancy between white residents and black residents has grown.

A study the journal Health Affairs looked at the gap across the nation and by state in 1990 and in 2009. Nationwide, white men lived 8.1 years longer than black men in 1990, and 5.4 years longer in 2009. Among women, the gap was 5.4 years in 1990 and 3.8 years in 2009.

But in Wisconsin, the gap among women increased by 1.6 years, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and stayed the same among men, with an overall increase.

The report doesn’t get too far into what factors lead to the life-expectancy gaps or why Wisconsin’s increased while every other state’s decreased. But the state’s Department of Health Services and Department of Children and Families should.

The numbers by themselves should serve as a wake-up call to government officials and health care providers throughout the state. Beyond that, we have a lot to do to figure out what’s going on.

No doubt, there are a lot of factors that could be involved - poverty; poverty in Milwaukee, in particular; access to health care; the cost of health care; the quality of health care; and more.

But it’s going to take some exploration to find out. It’s an effort that needs to be made.

This should be viewed as a statewide embarrassment by those of us who live here and, especially, those who are seeking office in state government.

This problem - and it doesn’t get any more serious than life expectancy - is getting worse. We have to address it, now.

Wisconsin is only state where difference between blacks, whites is getting worse


The Journal Times of Racine, Aug. 20

It’s worth kicking the tires on wheel tax

When it comes to funding government projects, taxes are as unpopular as they are necessary. No one’s enthusiastic about their taxes going up, but eventually it’s recognized that taxation is the way the project is funded.

One method that some Wisconsin communities are turning to as a means of funding road projects is an additional vehicle registration fee, what’s known as a wheel tax.

The wheel tax is one of the few options local governments have to raise money exclusively for transportation-related purposes.

Four Wisconsin jurisdictions have a wheel tax in place: Milwaukee, Janesville, Beloit and St. Croix County, the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported Sunday. Besides Milwaukee - which has a $20 per vehicle fee - the fee costs motorists an additional $10 annually per vehicle. There is no limit on how high the fee can be, although historically no government body has exceeded a $20 annual fee.

Wisconsin law allows any town, village, city or county to collect an annual wheel tax in addition to the regular fee paid for a vehicle, according to the state Department of Transportation’s website. The DOT collects wheel taxes for a municipality or county, keeps an administrative fee of 10 cents per vehicle and sends the rest to the municipality or county.

However, the tax is so unpopular that since it became an option to cities in 1967 and counties in 1979, only nine governments have imposed it. Chippewa County could become the tenth on Sept. 12, when the County Board votes on imposing the additional tax. The board initially discussed the topic at its Aug. 12 meeting, the Leader-Telegram reported.

“Dependable road transportation costs money,” said Chippewa County Administrator Frank Pascarella, who proposed the tax.

Might such a tax be worth considering for the City of Racine or Racine County? One of its merits is that it would be an alternative to raising property taxes to fund road repair. It more closely resembles a user fee in that those who make the most use of the roads, motorists, pay it.

It has proven less than popular in Eau Claire County, the Leader-Telegram reported. Its County Board rejected a proposal to adopt a wheel tax by a 21-8 vote in 2007. The tax was rejected in committee in 2008 and has been brought up as an option as part of the annual county budget process each year since by County Administrator J. Thomas McCarty. McCarty would not say if he will recommend the tax again this year for the 2015 budget.

“Bottom line, it has been brought forward as a revenue stream since the 2008 budget cycle,” McCarty said. “Clearly, I think that County Board members have heard from constituents that they don’t want another tax, regardless of what it is for.”

Pat LaVelle, an Eau Claire County supervisor and a member of the county Highway Committee, called the wheel tax “the most unfair tax there is.” LaVelle believes the tax is unfair because it fails to tax all vehicles: Those that weigh more than 8,000 pounds, along with motorcycles, RVs and dual-purpose farm vehicles would be exempt from the fee. “It penalizes someone who drives a small car,” LaVelle said. “If they would make it fair for everyone, I would say go ahead and do it.” Despite funding difficulties because of the past severe winter, LaVelle said he doesn’t believe a wheel tax is the right solution. “As far as funds for our roads, we are kind of in trouble,” LaVelle said. “We’ve had to borrow the last couple of years more than we wanted to, but we will get money to plow the roads one way or another.”

It’s the kind of trouble felt here in Racine County, especially this year in the wake of a harsh winter. On May 1, The Journal Times reported that the City of Racine Public Works Department was scrapping annual curb and gutter work so it could focus manpower and resources on street patching. Facing a much bigger list of street repairs than it expected last fall, the department has decided that it would spend the one flexible portion of its budget - $190,000 for materials - on asphalt for potholes.

A $10 per vehicle wheel tax was implemented in 2008 in St. Croix County, where Highway Commissioner Tim Ramberg told the Leader-Telegram it has been a saving grace. “Once our residents understood it came right back into our community, people supported it,” Ramberg said, noting at first there was some resistance to the fee. Last year the tax raised $750,000 for St. Croix County. “It’s a great tool,” Ramberg said, noting the quality of roads in St. Croix County has improved since the tax took effect.

It’s August now, but budget season is approaching for municipal and governments. Also, winter is coming.

A wheel tax is an option worth considering as local governments seek to provide services as efficiently as possible, especially in a time when the attitude in Madison is “don’t keep looking here for help.”

It might be unpopular, but it couldn’t be less popular than a toll road. We’ll keep those south of the border, thank you.


Sheboygan Press, Aug. 19

Petri ethics case matters, right to the end

It will be at least 45 days - and probably longer - before we find out if Rep. Tom Petri will face sanctions for alleged ethics violations.

The timing will cause some to question whether it really matters what the House Ethics Committee ultimately decides. After all, the Sixth District representative is retiring after 35 years in Congress and will be replaced in January, following the general election in November. The two most common punishments for ethics violations are censure or expulsion. Does either matter if Petri has only a few months left in office anyway?

The answer is an unequivocal yes.

The independent Office of Congressional Ethics studied Petri’s case for several months before referring it to the Ethics Committee. Both are seeking to determine if Petri broke House rules by going to bat for Oshkosh Corp., a defense contractor in his district, while owning hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock in the company.

Petri’s advocacy allegedly helped Oshkosh retain a $3 billion military contract and escape Pentagon cuts. The value of his investment in the company grew by 30 percent as he advocated for its interests in Washington. House ethics rules generally prohibit members of Congress from profiting from their official actions.

Petri knows this is a big deal despite his lame-duck status in the House. His reputation is on the line. He shelled out $140,000 in May and June to a law firm representing him in the ethics investigation, according to campaign finance reports.

While the probe could have an impact on Petri personally, the importance of the investigation goes beyond the fall-out for one member of Congress.

Congress already is in need of major rehabilitation in the eyes of the American public. The latest congressional approval rating is just 13.6 percent, according to averages compiled by Real Clear Politics of several national surveys. Regaining the trust of the electorate certainly cannot come on the wings of yet another proven ethics violation, particularly by a lawmaker who has established a reputation of serving with quiet distinction for more than three decades.

The outcome also is important to Petri’s party. The four Republican candidates vying for the congressional seat in the Aug. 12 primary were careful not to lean too heavily on Petri in their campaign efforts, fearful of potential backlash should the ethics probe prove harmful in the long run.

State Sens. Glenn Grothman and Joe Leibham (whoever is declared the winner of the primary after an expected recount) would presumably like to rely on Petri’s reputation and strong GOP influence in the district as they head toward the November election against Democrat Mark Harris, the Winnebago County executive. That will only be possible if Petri is cleared of ethics violations.

Petri said he is “confident that the committee will find that I acted properly, and that I reasonably sought, relied on, and followed the committee’s advice and that I complied with House rules.”

Time will tell.

One thing is certain. It is not a matter of indifference. The outcome matters to Petri, his district and to the nation.

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