- Associated Press - Monday, August 29, 2016

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Aug. 28

On voting, defending the indefensible

Now that state Attorney General Brad Schimel has dropped his efforts to block the start of early voting in Madison and Milwaukee in September, the contours of the election cycle are finally shaping up.

Schimel, a Republican, lost a decision before a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals last week, which decided not to prevent the state’s largest cities from allowing early voting next month. Under a law devised by Republicans, early voting would not have been allowed until late October.

The portion of the law that dealt with limits on early voting was struck down in July by U.S. District Judge James Peterson, who ruled that the limits infringed on the voting rights of minorities. Schimel appealed. But after the one-page ruling by the appellate court - all three judges were appointed by Republican presidents, by the way - Milwaukee and Madison are free to kick off voting in a few weeks. The ruling also means that the cities will be able to have multiple voting sites.

We urge Schimel to stop defending this blatantly partisan effort to tamp down the votes of the opposing party. Get-out-the-vote efforts in urban areas, including early voting, have been successful at getting more people to the polls to exercise their right. That’s what the Republicans fear most, we suspect, not the supposed strain on clerks who have to monitor and process the votes.

Limits on early voting, like the state’s voter ID law, are solutions looking for a problem (fraud of the kind that would be prevented by an ID is practically non-existent).

Voting is a fundamental American right. We should make it easier, not harder, to vote. Schimel can do his part by refusing to continue defending the indefensible. He should stop defending this law.


Wisconsin State Journal, Aug. 28

State ethics panel gets first big vote wrong

The state Ethics Commission didn’t take long to disappoint - or to show that most of its members are driven by politics more than fairness.

The commission, in its first high-profile vote last week, sided with more money in politics. In fact, the commissioners are going to be providing those dollars out of their own pockets.

The Ethics Commission voted 4-2 against a ban on members giving campaign donations to the same politicians they are supposed to police.

We already knew that most of the commissioners would be loyal to the top lawmakers who appointed them to the commission. The weak and politically connected commission replaced the much stronger and nonpartisan Government Accountability Board on June 30.

But by allowing commissioners to donate to political campaigns, the new commission is further harming its public image. It isn’t even trying to appear fair and impartial when enforcing ethics, lobbying and campaign finance laws.

Credit commissioner Pat Strachota, a former Republican Assembly majority leader, for getting it right. She favored a ban on campaign donations along with commissioner Robert Kinney, a Democrat and former Oneida County circuit judge.

State law forbids staff members for the Ethics Commission from donating to political candidates and causes. The retired judges who sat on the former Government Accountability Board also refrained from giving money to politicians.

Similarly, sitting judges and judicial candidates are barred from making or soliciting contributions in support of a political party’s causes or candidates.

So Strachota assumed a similar rule would apply to her as a commissioner in charge of overseeing the ethical behavior of candidates.

That makes good sense. And Kinney agreed.

“We have, right now, people claiming that elections are rigged,” Kinney said. “We don’t want to create a situation where there’s less confidence in government, less confidence in fairness, less confidence in nonpartisanship.”

Unfortunately, that already happened when the Republican-run Legislature disbanded an independent GAB in late June. The GAB had been carefully insulated from partisan politics and had the power to launch investigations without lawmakers’ approval.

The much weaker Ethics Commission is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of top politicians and the governor. To investigate lawmakers, it has to ask potentially the very same lawmakers for money to fund the probe - a glaring impediment to accountability.

Nonetheless, Strachota and Kinney were right to try to reassure the public that the new Ethics Commission deserves a chance to show it can be fair and deserving of public confidence. Banning political donations would have been a good way to start to show its members would at least try to settle disputes in an even-handed way.

Instead, a majority of the Ethics Commission - including Peg Lautenschlager (fined a decade ago for ethical lapses after driving drunk in a state vehicle), Mac Davis, Katie McCallum and David Halbrooks - decided they can be as political and biased as they want.

It’s a sad beginning for a panel that’s supposed to rise above politics to promote the public good.


Post-Crescent Media, Aug. 26

Wisconsin can make ride safety searchable

If you want to read restaurant reviews before you check out a new place, you go to Yelp. If you want to verify the credentials of a doctor before you book an appointment, you go to Healthgrades.

But if you want to check the safety record of a Wisconsin amusement park or ride before you send your teenager, you can’t.

It does not have to be this way. Wisconsin should seize the opportunity to be a leader in ride safety and transparency by improving its injury tracking and making that information available to the public. And it should start imposing penalties for ride operators that fail to address safety issues or report injuries.

Wisconsin’s lack of enforcement of traveling carnival rides and fixed amusement park rides is appalling.

The state Department of Safety and Professional Services’ system of having companies self-report injuries and deaths on their rides is a disservice to Wisconsinites. Our reporting identified numerous incidents never reported and therefore never investigated.

Right now, there is little incentive for shady operators to do the right thing. Their paying customers have no clue about the safety record of rides that are hurling them through the air.

Our extensive analysis found that the state has no unified tracking system for amusement ride injuries and does not make it easy for parents to check on operators. The numbers aren’t insignificant. Two people died and at least 75 were injured on state amusement rides in the past decade.

The state’s system is so bad that we couldn’t even find a record on the horrific death of a teenager at Lifest in Oshkosh in 2007. And it’s a death the state investigated.

The time to develop a new, public system is now so Wisconsinites have information before next summer.

Dr. Gary Smith, president of the Child Injury Prevention Alliance, says better data nationally is the only way to improve safety - it’s needed to identify where the problems are and what steps can be taken to intervene.

The database would not only provide information about operators, it would serve as an educational tool. About one-fourth of injuries in Wisconsin occurred while people were getting on or off a ride.

Plus, municipalities and nonprofit groups that host carnivals would be able to research the records of operators before hiring them.

In addition, for the Department of Safety and Professional Services to show that it is serious about improving the safety, it must enforce forfeitures for companies that have violations time and time again.

The state’s method of dealing with operators it is concerned about is to follow them around the state and charge them for inspections.

Brian Molenda, whose 10-year-old daughter Brianne was knocked out on a tea cup ride at Mt. Olympus in 2013, was pretty disgusted to learn the state’s process lacks teeth.

“I don’t know what the point of (inspectors) coming out and certifying a ride is if they can’t do anything in the State of Wisconsin,” Molenda told a reporter. “It’s like you’re running through a process, but there’s no reason to do it if you can’t enforce it.”

For safety to improve in Wisconsin, the Department of Safety and Professional Services must use its authority to increase pressure on companies. Ride operators who fail to make fixes required by safety bulletins (similar to vehicle recalls), fail to report injuries and fail to make fixes despite repeated orders from state inspectors should have to pay up. State statute allows the department to impose forfeitures for violations, but the agency chooses not to.

Without Wisconsin making improvements to its injury tracking and enforcement, the people who died on rides will have died in vain.

Let’s not have another decade where we have to tell dozens of injured people - and God forbid the family members of anyone else who dies - that Wisconsin could have done something to prevent these tragedies but simply didn’t bother.

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