- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Janesville Gazette, Jan. 7

Do not oust state’s high-court justices before terms end

Irony filled Monday’s Associated Press photo of Gov. Scott Walker again taking the oath of office. Overseeing the ceremony was Shirley Abrahamson, chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

Now back to work, Walker’s fellow Republicans are itching to exercise their conservative chops. They control both houses of the Legislature and believe Walker will sign most any bill they pass. They’d like Abrahamson to be as good as gone.

When she was appointed in 1976, Abrahamson became the first woman on the high court. She won election in 1979 and has been re-elected since. She has served longer than any justice in state history. She is highly intelligent but also can be abrasive. She leads the court’s liberal minority. Conservatives blame her for using her position to play politics and delay certain cases. Many also blame her for dysfunction that hit an embarrassing low in 2011 when an argument between conservative Justice David Prosser and liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley got physical.

At the least, Republicans want Abrahamson ousted as chief justice. They would do so by amending the state constitution. The proposal would let the justices, rather than longevity, determine who leads the high court. Republicans passed this legislation in 2013 and must approve it again in this session. If they do so soon, it could go to voters in a statewide referendum April 7.

A reasonable argument can be made for that measure_no pun intended.

However, another proposal that would remove Abrahamson from the court seems undemocratic. Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, wants a mandatory retirement age for justices of 75 but claims he’s not trying to nudge out Abrahamson. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he’s only trying to uphold the state constitution. An old provision required judges to step down soon after turning 70. Voters in 1977 amended the constitution to let the Legislature set a retirement age. But for some unexplained reason, it has never done so.

Here’s the thing. Abrahamson is 81. Yet voters in 2009 elected her to another 10-year term knowing her age. Speaking of playing politics, if lawmakers arrogantly pass legislation that, instead of grandfathering sitting justices, would oust her before her term ends, they might anger voters who support the will of the people. Suggestions in recent years that justices should be appointed rather than elected have riled liberal and conservative residents alike. They cherish the opportunity to choose justices in the voting booth.

Here’s another thing Republicans should consider: Bradley will seek a third term in April, and Rock County Judge James Daley is challenging her. Conservative groups are lining up behind Daley. However, he’s 67. If he’s elected and lawmakers mandate retirement at 75, he would have to step down three years before his term concluded.

In recent decades, life expectancies have surged amid improving medical care. With age comes the knowledge and wisdom to make intelligent decisions about the types of complex issues these justices must consider.

The high court is supposed to serve as our nonpartisan, independent branch of state government. Still, it’s worth debating whether a retirement mandate of 75 or 80 is appropriate for justices. But if Republicans approve a measure to oust Abrahamson before her term ends, it might backfire on them at the polls.


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jan. 3

Time, once again, to keep an eye on Wisconsin’s legislators

Legislators officially return to work in the state Capitol on Monday but the haggling and agenda-setting commenced about the time the last balloon was popped at Gov. Scott Walker’s victory party in November. With control of both sides of the building and the governor’s office, Republicans have made clear: They intend to push aggressively for conservative priorities.

They have every right to do this. They won the elections that gave them the keys to power.

But we do hope they show more restraint than normal for this group. The early indications are not hopeful on that score. Republicans have indicated they intend to pass an unnecessary right-to-work bill, blow up the Government Accountability Board (that’s the state watchdog agency that keeps an eye on elections and political ethics) and send packing a liberal chief justice of the state Supreme Court whom many of them consider an annoyance.

Oh, and they’ll need to close a looming budget deficit that may total as much as $824 million.

Here’s our take on a few of the ideas that have surfaced so far:

Right -to-work: Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) has said right-to-work would be a priority. Republicans will argue that changing the law to prohibit employers from making deals with private-sector unions to require workers to pay dues will be a boost for the state’s economy. They’ll argue that it’s about freedom for the worker. Both arguments are wafer thin. There is little evidence that right-to-work by itself makes much difference in job creation in a state despite the inflated claims of the advocates. But there is ample evidence that right-to-work tends to depress working class wages. As for that other argument, freedom - freedom for whom?

GAB: Republicans are still in a snit over actions taken by the state’s elections and ethics watchdog during the John Doe investigation of their standard-bearer’s campaign and are using a recent audit of the agency to argue it should be “reformed.” The audit found that officials sometimes waited years to review whether felons had voted and did not promptly audit electronic voting equipment. The board also failed to impose late fees on candidates and political groups that hadn’t filed timely campaign finance reports. The GAB should take steps to fix those problems. But a return to the bad old days of partisan-controlled ethics and elections boards is a very bad idea. What do citizens want: A lap dog or a watchdog?

Supreme Court: Republicans are considering a measure that could push out Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson as chief and another that would set a retirement age for judges that could remove her from the court altogether. Both proposals, on their face, deserve a discussion. But the changes, if enacted, should not retroactively overturn an election - which is what the Republicans seem to have in mind by targeting Abrahamson. This is, potentially, a troubling power play that could raise constitutional issues.

State Budget: A new analysis by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau illustrates the fiscal challenges that our slow-growth state still faces: Over the next two years, the cost of keeping current services will outrun tax collections by about $824 million, according to bureau estimates. Walker and legislators can head off the worst of the shortfall by acting quickly to close the budget hole in the first year. That would be the best fiscal medicine. It’s worth noting that this estimate is actually rosier than earlier ones. As such things go, this should be a relatively easy fix.

Transportation funding: The state needs a sustainable plan to pay for infrastructure. It doesn’t have one now. Walker’s transportation secretary unveiled a plan in November that called for boosting taxes and fees by $750 million. We question the need for that much spending, given the demographic trends in Wisconsin. Especially when the plan is so light on anything other than roads. Wisconsin needs a better transit strategy for its cities. You won’t find it in this blueprint.


La Crosse Tribune, Jan. 4

Minnesota is winning the border battle

The governors of Wisconsin and Minnesota each presented their versions of new year’s resolutions in various media interviews last week. The comparison paints a stark contrast of where the states are headed in 2015.

Which approach is better? As we enter the new year, Minnesota is clearly winning by a long shot.

First, a little review. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker were both elected in 2010. They both inherited an economic mess that was the product of a nationwide recession. They took decidedly different paths to deal with large deficits.

Walker - facing a 9.2 percent unemployment rate and a $3.6 billion deficit - and the Republican Legislature made massive spending cuts to public education and required most public employees to pay more for their health care and pensions. Some tax credits for lower income residents were reduced. Business tax incentives were added, and taxes were cut nearly $2 billion through a combination of income and property tax reductions.

Dayton grappled with a $5 billion deficit and after a grueling fight with Republicans that resulted in a government shutdown in 2011, the state balanced its budget in part by borrowing against its commitment to education aid. After the 2012 elections when Democrats took control of the Legislature, taxes were raised on the wealthiest Minnesotans and tobacco taxes were increased.

Walker’s tax plan reduced the highest rate for the wealthiest Wisconsinites from 7.75 to 7.65 percent and brought slight relief to all income levels. Dayton’s plan created a new rate of 9.850 percent for the top 2 percent of Minnesota’s wealthiest. His plan also increased tax credits for renters - the opposite of Wisconsin, where those tax credits were reduced. Dayton also signed a $508 million tax cut in 2014 of which $232 million was aimed at the middle class and $232 million was earmarked for the elimination of some business taxes.

Minnesota has increased its minimum wage to $9.50 an hour and has it indexed to increase with inflation. Walker has said he does not support raising the minimum wage.

Minnesota took Medicaid money and created its own health care marketplace, reducing the number of uninsured residents. Wisconsin rejected federal money, instead tweaking coverage to put some 80,000 people into the federal exchange. That cost the state an estimated $206 million over the past two years and an estimated $460 million through 2020.

The business-friendly policy embraced by Walker has resulted in private-sector job growth that continues to lag behind the national average. The latest 12-month period numbers that ended in June show Wisconsin 32nd in the nation in job growth. Minnesota was 26th. Minnesota’s jobless rate in November was 3.7 percent. Wisconsin’s was 5.2.

How else do the states compare? Forbes ranks Minnesota as the ninth best state for business, No. 7 in economic climate and No. 2 in quality of life. Wisconsin is ranked 32nd, 27 and 17 on the same measures. The cost of doing business in Minnesota is 0.2 percent below the national average. Wisconsin is 1.7 percent above the average. The median household income in Minnesota is about $60,000. It’s just below $52,000 in Wisconsin.

Clearly the ideology of both governors and legislatures steered the course. Walker is one of the nation’s most conservative governors who has eagerly embraced policies and ideas driven by the American Legislative Exchange Council. Wisconsin has become a national laboratory for ALEC policies. Dayton and the DFL have taken a more traditional liberal approach of taxing the rich, but then aimed tax cuts at the middle class as soon as the economy improved.

While Wisconsin faces an estimated $2 billion deficit - including a $750 million deficit in transportation spending - Minnesota has a $1.2 billion surplus. Minnesota has the luxury of being able to invest in its state; Wisconsin faces some challenging spending decisions.

The needs in the states are similar. Both have long-neglected transportation needs. Dayton has a very specific plan of raising gas taxes to pay for transportation. Walker has declined to say whether he would support any tax increases to pay for Wisconsin’s transportation needs.

The governors have vastly different views on funding education. Under Walker, Wisconsin has been a leader in cutting education spending. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analyzed state school funding from 2008 through 2014 and found that Wisconsin ranked No. 2 in the nation - behind only Alabama - with a $1,038 spending per student decrease. Minnesota was one of a handful of states that actually increases spending during that time - just barely - by $30.

Minnesota will use $246 million of its surplus to pay the last of $2.8 million that was taken from school funding during the recession. That puts the schools back to normal state funding. Walker will not say whether public schools or the UW System - which took a $1.2 billion funding cut during Walker’s first administration - will receive additional money.

Minnesota certainly benefits from the economic catalyst of the Twin Cities, while Wisconsin has to drag along the economically challenged Milwaukee. Conservatives also will say that Walker has made progress on turning around a state with a tax-hell reputation and would have made even more progress without the uncertainty of a recall election. And they will say there will be longer-term consequences for Minnesota’s tax increases.

But what about jobs? An analysis done by Menzie Chinn, a University of Wisconsin economist, measured private nonfarm job growth in four states - California, Wisconsin, Kansas and Minnesota - that elected new governors in 2010. Wisconsin and Kansas are ALEC-friendly. Minnesota and California are not. Minnesota was ranked 46th and California ranked 47th on an ALEC-economic index that measures taxes, public employees per capita, minimum wage and right-to-work law - among others. Yet those states grew more jobs than Kansas (ranked 15th) and Wisconsin (ranked 17th).

Chinn compared ALEC rankings to all 50 states and found the same correlation. States that received a higher ALEC ranking on how it was expected to perform economically based on 15 policy areas had worse economic growth when it comes to creating jobs.

Which state is in better shape as we head in 2015? Economic measures of income and employment clearly favor Minnesota. At least Wisconsin has the Packers.

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