- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 5

Gov. Scott Walker’s evolving views on corn-based ethanol

In the jagged terrain of ethanol politics, Gov. Scott Walker, presidential candidate, is finding it hard to find his footing. And hard not to look politically opportunistic to people who follow this issue.

Walker has shifted his position on the federal ethanol mandate, telling an Iowa audience in March that he would support the federal Renewable Fuel Standard but might phase it out in the future. The program requires transportation fuel sold in the U.S. to contain a minimum amount of renewable fuel - usually ethanol made from corn.

Count us as ethanol skeptics. Ethanol is more expensive to produce and in some cases takes more energy to produce than is saved, though it does cut tailpipe emissions.

There also is a potential effect on the food supply as corn is diverted for ethanol production. We have long supported renewable fuels - and renewable energy of all kinds - but ethanol is an imperfect solution.

And, as the Journal Sentinel’s Jason Stein noted in an article Monday, the mandate divides Wisconsin corn farmers and biofuel makers from dairy farmers worried about the price of feed and makers of small engines whose products won’t work with higher ethanol blends. Those blends aren’t approved for use in motorcycle engines, either, which is why the American Motorcyclist Association opposes the spread of the E15 blend that is 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline.

The ethanol mandate was aimed at reducing American reliance on imports of oil and was based on the idea that ethanol would be better for the environment while helping corn producers in the Midwest including Wisconsin.

But more domestic production of oil, higher fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles and a reduction in miles driven have all combined to make the use of ethanol less urgent.

U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Menomonee Falls Republican, has proposed a bill that would revoke the current government approval for E15 fuel pending further testing.

We support the bill and wonder if it isn’t time to eliminate the mandate altogether.

As Walker courts voters in the Corn Belt, he shouldn’t lose sight of his principles, which would seem to dictate that he also support the end of the mandate.

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Wisconsin State Journal, May 6

70 mph speed limit won’t compromise safety

Traffic safety engineers will be in the driver’s seat when Wisconsin raises its maximum speed limit to 70 mph.

That makes Assembly Bill 27 easy to support.

The state Senate should approve the bill today, allowing the state Department of Transportation to increase the speed limit on interstates and freeways from 65 mph to 70 mph.

Only divided highways with entrance and exit ramps - not at-grade crossings - will be eligible for the modest change. And traffic engineers must study and agree the small increase makes sense.

The DOT signaled at a public hearing earlier this year that it’s open to 70 mph on major roads outside cities.

“Based on prior safety investigations and analysis of various state highway corridors, establishing a maximum speed limit of 70 mph on rural interstates and many four-lane freeways represents an appropriate and reasonable limit for traveling motorists,” said DOT Assistant Deputy Secretary Tom Rhatican.

Higher speeds don’t automatically increase danger. The variation of speeds among traffic is key. And a higher limit that better reflects how fast most drivers are going can reduce tailgating and other aggressive driving.

A 70 mph speed limit also should allow law enforcement officers to concentrate on truly excessive speeders.

As Rep. Paul Tittl, R-Manitowoc, a lead sponsor of AB 27, has noted, most vehicles on rural interstates are already traveling 70 mph or a little faster. So increasing posted limits would simply reflect reality and could smooth traffic flow.

Critics of the change fear traffic will speed that much faster than it already is. But when Wisconsin raised its limit from 55 mph to 65 mph on more than 500 miles of divided highways in 1996, the average speed of vehicles increased by just 4 mph, according to the DOT. That suggests a 5 mph increase in posted limits today would have an even smaller effect.

Insurance companies, which know how to weigh risk, have registered in favor of AB 27 or are neutral, according to the Government Accountability Board. Tourism and lodging interests favor the change.

Only AAA Wisconsin is actively lobbying against the bill, fearing more crashes involving trucks.

But overall, states such as Illinois and Iowa experienced a drop in road fatalities after they raised their speed limits to 70 mph. And Wisconsin is the only state between New York and Oregon that’s still at 65.

AB 27 will do more good than any harm by getting people and products where they need to go in less time. In addition, more fuel-efficient vehicles will offset any decline in gas mileage.

Best of all, traffic engineers will have the final say to ensure safety. The state Senate should advance this reasonable proposal.

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The Journal Times of Racine, May 6

State should stay committed to open records

The rash of police shootings across the country in the past several months has spurred public demands for answers and more accountability for police departments.

And, once again, technology is there with an answer: Equip police officers with body cameras.

For the most part, it’s a good answer. Body cameras give police - and citizens who have contact with them - visual evidence of what occurred during their encounter and in most cases would put an end to the “he said, she said” arguments that sometimes end up before district attorneys, disciplinary boards and judges and juries.

Police departments around the country have been moving speedily to equip officers with body cameras to film their encounters with their officers, spurred in part by President Barack Obama’s proposed $263 million plan for police body cameras and training.

This is a good initiative that will have multiple good effects. It will often exonerate police officers who are wrongfully accused of brutality - and we are convinced that will be the case a vast majority of the time - and it will also uphold the rights of citizens who are sometimes brutalized or even killed at the hands of law enforcement. It will also temper the interactions between police and citizens when both know they are on “Candid Camera.” That soothing effect alone may be worth the price of body cams.

But - and yes, there is always a but - the expanded use of this technology also poses new and thorny questions about the use and distribution of police cam videos.

In Seattle, where they began testing body cameras in a pilot program involving a dozen officers in December, police asked themselves what to do with such video and they responded by doing what many Americans do - they put it on You Tube. Next year, the department intends to equip 600 officers with body cameras.

In nearby Bremerton, Washington, Police Chief Steven Strachan also tested body cameras with his officers, but is now holding off on buying them because he fears the state open records laws would require him to turn over video footage to anyone who asks, create privacy problems and run up administrative costs for his 71-officer department.

In other parts of the country, the issue of police body cameras is already starting to trigger political debates: Over public records laws and the public’s right to know versus concerns over privacy issues of citizens who are caught in embarrassing police footage - even in their own home when police come knocking. It even raised personnel issues for officers themselves.

As Chief Strachan put it: “Our view is we don’t want to be part of violating people’s privacy for commercial or voyeuristic reasons. Everyone’s worst day is now going to be put on You Tube for eternity.”

There’s much to be said for that argument and we’re sympathetic to it. That use of body-camera footage would be beyond the pale - and we share his fears that there would always be an audience for that kind of trashy material.

But in other parts of the country, police and legislators are seeking new laws to ban distribution of police-camera videos, call them investigatory evidence, and exempt them from public records laws altogether.

That goes too far in the other direction, and would defeat the purpose of giving the public solid evidence of what went on in a disputed police encounter. That’s a legitimate public concern, and one that should prompt disclosure under state open records laws; that is, after all, what video is: A record of what happened.

Some states wrestling with the new body-cam scenarios are suggesting giving police departments the ability to deny a citizen’s request for a police video under certain circumstances, but then allowing the citizen to appeal to a judge. If that can be a speedy proposition that is short of a full-blown lawsuit, that might have some merit.

Wisconsin, already struggling with other open-records law questions prompted by metadata expansions and other technological information changes, should add this to the “To Do” list when state Attorney General Brad Schimel convenes his proposed summit on open government laws late this summer or early next fall.

Our laws should be clear to police officials and other government officials so that they can do their duties. And they should be clear to citizens, media and interest groups of all sorts so they know what information, including videos, they are entitled to see in a timely manner.

The state should keep its commitment to open government and open records whenever and wherever possible when it serves the public interest - and it should work harder to keep that commitment in the face of body cameras and other new technology.


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