- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sept. 29

Congress should save U.S. Export-Import bank

General Electric Co. may well have ulterior motives for ceasing to make engines in Waukesha. The decision, which the industrial titan blamed on congressional failure to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, also may be about corporate taxes, as some conservatives have claimed. The Canadian corporate rate is 15 percent, far lower than the U.S. rate. Such decisions often are multilayered.

But losing the grease for deals provided by the Ex-Im Bank is surely part of the problem.

The decision will cost Waukesha about 350 jobs and comes on the heels of an earlier GE decision to shift 500 jobs from four U.S. states to Europe and China so that the production of turbines and generators would be eligible for export aid. The jobs from Waukesha will be moved to a new $265 million engine factory to be built in Canada over the next 20 months. GE says that the decision will not be reversed.

There’s a chance that Congress may come to its senses. House Speaker John Boehner, who will be on the job for another month, may have a chance to bring bank reauthorization to the floor, where it likely would pass with a combination of Democratic and pro-business Republican votes. Boehner should do so while this window of opportunity remains open. The leading candidate to replace Boehner, Kevin McCarthy of California, is an opponent of the bank.

The bank’s fate has rested in the hands of conservatives in the Republican caucus who see the bank as an example of “crony capitalism” and are willing to sacrifice U.S. jobs to make a rhetorical point. The bank’s charter expired June 30.

Keep in mind, the conservatives aren’t making an argument about government waste. The Ex-Im Bank is a tiny agency as measured against a $3.5 trillion federal government. The Ex-Im Bank had a total operating budget in 2013 of a mere $90 million, the Congressional Research Service reports. And it costs taxpayers nothing to operate; the cost of running the bank is paid by fees and interest charged to its private customers. In 2014, the bank returned $675 million to federal taxpayers.

The Ex-Im Bank was created in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It makes loans and provides loan guarantees and credit insurance to help foreign buyers purchase American-made products. The bank estimates it supported about $27 billion of U.S. exports last year. About 40 percent of those exports involved small businesses.

“We believe in American manufacturing, but our customers in many cases require Export Credit Agencies financing for us to bid on projects. Without it, we cannot compete, and our customers may be forced to select other providers,” GE Vice Chairman John Rice said in a statement.

But opponents of the bank, including U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, have called the bank’s work “corporate welfare.” The bank is an example, they argue, of a cynical partnership between big business and big government to do deals that otherwise wouldn’t get done.

“Congressman Ryan remains opposed to the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. He feels there are better ways Congress can promote economic growth,” Ryan’s office said in a statement, mentioning Republican hobby horses of the tax code and “burdensome regulations.”

When the bank’s charter was last reauthorized in 2012, all four Democrats in Wisconsin’s congressional delegation along with Republican House members Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble supported the bank. Sen. Ron Johnson and House members Ryan, Jim Sensenbrenner and Tom Petri opposed reauthorization.

While Republicans stand on principle, other nations have no qualms about helping domestic industry succeed through export-import financing. What Ryan and others are suggesting is unilateral disarmament.

“We can’t just unilaterally withdraw in a global economy. It would be a withdrawal simply for ideological reasons,” Ribble said. “Conservatives have this ideology that government should leave it to the private sector, but there are types of exports where the private sector won’t pick up the financing of that business. Companies will be forced to leave the country and take jobs to countries where there is export-import bank financing if we don’t offer it.”

Which is what GE has said it will do.

As Boehner wraps up his tenure in Congress, there may be an opportunity to salvage the bank. Congress should take this opportunity before more jobs in Wisconsin and elsewhere are lost.

___

La Crosse Tribune, Sept. 27

Turn focus to state’s crumbling roads

Yogi Berra was right. You can observe a lot by watching.

Just observe the priorities of the Wisconsin Legislature. It continues to focus on social issues that may or may not need fixing.

Meanwhile, observe the priorities of the Wisconsin Counties Association, which met in La Crosse last week. The counties association knows exactly what needs to be fixed - Wisconsin’s crumbling roads.

Seventy percent of the state’s roads are rated mediocre to poor by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

How do we rate nationally? Only two states - Illinois and Connecticut - rank lower.

We should be ashamed.

The counties association and the state’s Transportation Development Association unveiled the “Just Fix It” campaign during the conference here.

The Tribune published a photo of County Hwy. YY to accompany the story - a 41-year-old stretch of road that officials say has “alligatored.”

It’s wonderful when we have to make up words to describe how lousy our roads are.

That road won’t be fixed at least until 2020, under the current schedule.

County highway Commissioner Ron Chamberlain says county roads need $90 million of work - and the budget last year was $5.68 million.

That math doesn’t work. The alligators are winning.

Chamberlain said more than half of the county’s 285 miles of road need replacing. You can pick a letter in the alphabet, and whether it’s HD, DS or just about any other letter, you can bet that road needs work.

Let’s remember that this didn’t just happen.

Ten years ago, legislators ignored warnings and took the easy way out when they stopped raising the gas tax with inflation. This year, they rejected Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to borrow $1.3 billion for roads and instead approved $850 million. And they made sure that, despite funding shortfalls, there wouldn’t be delays in big projects in southeast Wisconsin.

Even some of the Republicans from our area voted against the budget - in part because of the way the Legislature thumbed its nose at the transportation needs of western Wisconsin.

Once again, the Legislature kicked the can down the road - and it fell into a pothole.

___

Beloit Daily News, Sept. 28

The sweet spot is in the middle

The talking points emanating from the political ramparts in Madison are predictable.

Republicans will insist the civil service reforms they are proposing are necessary because it’s absurdly hard to hire and fire and manage public employees since they have a laundry list of protections and requirements that unproductively tie the hands of their bosses. They also will argue that government workers are treated as a privileged class with protections far beyond what prevails in the private sector.

Democrats will call this yet another politically motivated attack on Republicans’ hated target, government workers, who tend to lean left and vote against conservatives. They’ll remind the majority party that part of the argument Republicans made for Act 10 was that unions were not needed because workers could count on civil service protections. And they’ll insist it opens the door to political cronyism and corruption if the rules come down enabling politicians to feather their nests by handing out jobs willy-nilly to supporters.

A little history is in order. Civil service rules to limit political influence in filling government jobs did not spring to life with the Declaration of Independence or ratification of the Constitution. In fact, it was a long hard slog before politicians finally conceded such reforms were necessary.

For many years in America’s history government employment depended on the spoils, or patronage system. When Democrats were in office they more or less cleared the decks and brought in new employees throughout government who were distinguished by their allegiance to the party. And when Republicans won on Election Day they followed suit, booting out Democrats and filling the government with their own people.

Training, competence and professional performance were not the touchstones of government service. Political partisanship mattered above all else.

The result, not surprisingly, was sloppy government and, on frequent occasions, corruption as government agencies became lapdogs for the party in power. The first to seriously try to change the dynamic with deep reforms for civil service was President U.S. Grant, America’s hero of the Civil War. His efforts were only marginally successful, because politicians of both parties may have wanted to be seen as being on the side of good government - but preferred a different reality. A modern civil service system did not emerge until much later, under the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt.

In our view, both sides in the Madison debate have strong points to consider.

Government rules do need to be changed to give additional flexibility to management. It takes too long to hire. And it takes too long to fire. The result is often path-of-least-resistance management, because bucking the system to deal with employee issues can be too time-consuming and exhausting.

In another proposal related to conditions of employment for government workers, changes are proposed to alter retirement terms, extending the minimum age to 57 from 55 for most workers and to 52 from 50 for public safety personnel. Retirement benefits would be calculated on the average of the last five years of employment, rather than three. The plan is drawing loud complaints as another dastardly deed against public employees, but let’s keep it in perspective. It’s still a much better deal than the vast majority of taxpayers can hope to find at their jobs.

Other reforms are intended to establish some “you’re outta here” red lines. Get caught watching porn on government time and equipment? Outta here. Get caught stealing from taxpayers? Outta here. Most citizens will agree with that.

At the same time there are good reasons why strict civil service rules were enacted to protect workers (and citizens) from the self-serving excesses of political patronage.

Political parties loved patronage. It was the consummate carrot-and-stick system. Vote for us and do whatever you’re told, you get a nice job and a fat paycheck. Cross the party and you’re out on your butt.

Of course, that would be fine if citizens could trust politicians and count on their honesty, goodwill, fair play and constant devotion to the interests of all the people over themselves, their party cronies and their financial donors.

Right. We don’t trust them either.

So the only reforms worth considering are those that scrupulously scrub the process of any potential partisan fingerprints. American government has been down this road before, and if politicians leave themselves room to corrupt the system with patronage it’s a sure-fire bet they will do so. Government exists to serve the people and be loyal to their interests and needs, not the schemes of any party in power. Any whiff of political opportunism in the reform process should draw immediate and vehement opposition from the people.

Change is good and Wisconsin’s civil service system could use some. But wild swings from one extreme to another almost always are bad. The sweet spot’s somewhere in the middle of this debate. Find it.

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