So Raise The Damn Gas Tax All Ready!

Wisconsin continues to debate how to increase funds for transportation (in Wisconsin that translates to build more freeways) as gas tax revenues continue to fall as cars get more fuel efficient or don’t use gasoline at all. Instead the governor continues to put highway construction on the credit card or extends the completion dates for major projects (which increases their costs through inflation and often overlooked, loss of utility and increased travel times for users) to balance the transportation budget.

There have been a number of discussions in the legislature around increasing the gasoline tax, vehicle registration and just recently, converting state freeways into toll roads.

Of course Governor Walker continues to stick to his no tax increase pledge by threatening to veto any gas tax increases if they aren’t balanced by tax cuts in other areas. This brings up a number of points. If gas increases are balanced against other tax cuts, those paying increased gas taxes aren’t necessarily the people getting the new offsetting tax cuts. I can’t imagine that will make drivers very happy.

And second, how is reducing other taxes to balance gas tax increases not essentially the same as using general funds to pay for transportation? And isn’t using general funds for transportation now verboten? I am sure many of you can either correct me on that or support my statement.

So about those toll roads…that is a very very slippery slope. Somebody is going to have to spend the initial capital to build the infrastructure to measure and collect tolls. Where’s that money going to come from? Wisconsin already doesn’t have the funds to fix the roads, build new ones, etc….how can it add tolling facilities? (this all assumes the federal government would permit the conversion of freeways to tollways…not unlikely under the President Trump regime)

But the talk is that private investors would pay for the new infrastructure…and then reap benefits from the tolling. And how many years would it take to implement? If we look at the Zoo interchange, years maybe decades. Hmmmm. Who controls the fees and determines the profit margins when private enterprise controls public utilities?

But if you are going to be ‘Open For Business’, you had better have first rate infrastructure, not just a low tax rate…businesses need to get their employees to work on time, need to get their raw materials to their businesses, and need to get their finished products to market. Subpar streets, roads and highways don’t work for them.

So for the quick and dirty, the current Wisconsin gas tax is 30.9 cents a gallon. Take a quick 5.1 cent increase and gas tax revenue jumps 16.5% and takes a lot of stress off of the transportation budget. Increase it 10.1 cents and it’s an increase of 32.7%. When I first suggested this gas in Milwaukee was around $2.00 a gallon and even now at $2.29, a 5 or 10 cent hike isn’t going to be that discernable.

You want some simple background into the issue, please read Ernst-Ulrich Franzen’s article on the resignation of the Secretary Mark Gottlieb from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation…he apparently got tired of speaking truth to power.

Ceding Federal Lands to the States

Over the last decade or so…as a part of the Bundy federal lands grazing incidents and their takeover of federal lands in Oregon…the subplot was state’s rights and federal lands should be ceded to the states. Well those conversations seem to be coming up again since the Donald Trump win on November 8th.

First, ceding federal lands to the states under these conditions is giving into terrorists…something that the US have vowed never to do.

But on what I perceive to be legal and historical grounds, the state’s have no rights to the federal lands within their borders. Because they are federal lands. They belong to me and you and every other citizen of the United States and not just to the residents of Oregon or Wyoming or South Dakota. They are held to benefit all of us as a nation not to the individual states.

And then there is the fact that most of those federal lands have been owned by the United States before any of those states even came into existence. What right do the states have to pre-existing domain?

But I fear that this will come to the forefront sometime during a Trump regime…and it must not be permitted to happen. Federal lands should be held in perpetuity for the common good.

Added 12/21/16: From the NY Times: It’s Our Land. Let’s Keep It That Way.

House GOP Continues To Practice Medicine Without a License

I didn’t know that getting elected to Congress was a fast track to being able to play doctor. They finally have passed a funding bill to address the Zika virus in the United States but added some pretty unusual addendums…and of course prescribed how the funds could be directed.

The House passed a proposal that allocates $1.1 billion to fight the Zika virus — just over half the amount the Obama administration requested four months ago to stop the epidemic.

Democrats are furious that Republicans short-changed the president’s funding request. They are particularly upset that the bill excludes $50 million in requested funds for maternal and child health and blocks supplemental funds from going to Planned Parenthood for birth control services. The bill mandates that the Zika funds be prioritized for mosquito control programs, vaccines and diagnostics, leaving no resources for contraceptives or condoms (emphasis mine).

So instead of allowing health professionals take whatever actions they deem necessary, the House is dictating what they can and can’t do? BTW: do we even have a viable vaccine yet?

But never fear:

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the bill would sufficiently address the crisis.

“It is a responsible plan that assures the administration will continue to have the needed resources to protect the public,” he said.

I wish there was a responsible plan to protect the public from House Speaker Paul Ryan.

And the White House response:

“It is clear that once again, Republicans have put political games ahead of the health and safety of the American people, particularly pregnant women and their babies,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “This plan from congressional Republicans is four months late and nearly a billion dollars short of what our public health experts have said is necessary to do everything possible to fight the Zika virus, and steals funding from other health priorities.”

One more time the House GOP is slow to react to a looming health issue…some parts of the country are months into the mosquito season already…and then take a strange turn and blunt the ability of our health care providers to do their jobs effectively (remember Ebola?).

How The Dems Have To Run Locally In Wisconsin

I have seen any number of suggestions around the internet about the state party platform for the Dems in the Fall 2016 local elections. Most of them focus on the big ideas that are the big ideologies of the party. But Wisconsin has elected Governor Scott Walker three times and handed him a Republican majority in both houses under the dome in Madison. So running on the repeal of Act 10 and Right to Work etc…aren’t going to play in most of the state and the Democrats may continue its role as the minority party.

So on the eve of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s state convention, let me suggest a couple of planks that should be hammered home across the state…things that will read as less partisan and more Wisconsin.

JOBS: one of the things that the GOP has promised to provide and said they were laser focused on the past two election cycles is jobs. And they have failed miserably to produce any…Wisconsin lags almost every state in job growth and is far behind many of our Midwestern neighbors. So the GOP is particularly vulnerable there.

INFRASTRUCTURE: There is no county or community in Wisconsin that isn’t hurting for help in repairing or replacing infrastructure. Local roads, bridges, sewers, parks, you name it…are begging for upgrades. Yet all the GOP has managed to produce is major interstate expansions that waste money and in some cases are boondoggles…complete sops to their road building contributors. Wrap the JOBS issue around this as well.

EDUCATION: the last round of budget cuts to public education (local elementary and high schools) along with the expansion of the statewide voucher program has even rural districts in red counties crying foul. Get behind supporting local public schools again in a way that makes local sense. Build on the issues around state interference in local controls as well.

CLEAN WATER: From the blind eye as private wells and spring fed bodies of water dry up due to high capacity commercial wells in north and central WI to fecal contamination of wells from huge industrial livestock farms in Door and Kewaunee counties to the demands for Lake Michigan water from Waukesha and eventually surrounding environs to the under-response to lead pipe issues throughout the state (and the incredible underfunding in Milwaukee) …there is plenty of opportunity to unite local governments in working for the right to fresh water throughout the state.

The other issues can come later…we have to win first!

The power of a primary challenge

Last week a good friend of mine from Eau Claire, a long time member of the Sierra club, got an email from an acquaintance out in Utah. The tone of the email was pure excitement. After more than ten years of citizen lobbying, 3rd congressional district Democratic Rep Ron Kind had finally signed his name to America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. The Act would protect roughly 9.5 million acres of Utah wilderness from mining, oil and gas exploration and other developments. According to my friend, everyone in her environmentalist circle was stunned. Why had Kind suddenly signed onto the bill? She thought she knew.

She promptly wrote Myron Buchholz, who is running in the Democratic Party primary against Ron Kind on August 9th, an email:

” Many of us environmentalists have contacted Ron over the past ten or more years to urge him to co-sponsor “America’s Red Rock WildernessAct”. Seems all it took to persuade him was a Primary opponent. Thanks, Myron.”

So why would Ron Kind, an 18 year incumbent with over $1,000,000 in his campaign war chest, and the full resources and support of the DCCC if needed, be fearful of a primary challenger with no elective office experience who is running a shoe string budget campaign? I’ll tell you why.

In the April 5th Wisconsin presidential primary, roughly 72,000 people voted for Bernie Sanders in the 3rd congressional district. Roughly 45,000 voted for Hillary Clinton. Buchholz has been clear from the start that he’s a ” Berniecrat”, inspired to run by Sanders extraordinary campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency. Kind has been very clear and unyielding in his support for Clinton, endorsing her before the Wisconsin primary and pledging his superdelegate vote to her.

So in this most unlikely election season it appears almost anything is possible. If you haven’t already made a contribution to the Buchholz campaign, please do. Kind has been the most prominent Democrat in the US House of Representatives advocating in favor of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Who knows; maybe he can be persuaded to reconsider?

So about that dam vote…

Over at The Political Environment, James Rowen has a great piece noting the County Board’s decision to spend even more taxpayer money on the Estabrook Park dam, which many residents believe should be torn down.

That sound of water running surrounding the Milwaukee County Board’s decision preserving the broken obstruction known as the Estabrook Dam and deciding against letting the Milwaukee River flow naturally to Lake Michigan is more taxpayer money being flushed down the drain.

As the link Rowen provided notes, the board’s most recent decision will push the full cost of renovating the Estabrook Park dam to nearly $3.4 million, a figure that’s nearly double the cost of demolishing it.

The board’s Nov. 9 approval of the fish passage amendment pushed the full cost of renovating the 1930s-era dam to nearly $3.4 million, or double the expense of demolishing it. Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb Sr., a longtime advocate of dam repair, sponsored the amendment.

In his veto message, Abele asked the board to sustain his veto so that he could prepare a financing plan for dam demolition early next year.

Abele called demolition fiscally responsible since it is estimated to cost $1.7 million.

“Removal of the dam is the best and most effective fish passage,” Abele said. He reminded supervisors that removal was supported by the Milwaukee Common Council, Shorewood Village Board and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.

It’s also notable that the board’s action to combine veto overrides of additional funding to repair the Estabrook Park dam and cuts to the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department met with disapproval from a number of supervisors who felt the measures were best left voted on separately.

Republicans reveal self-serving selves

Sometimes it pays to read the documents posted on the Wheeler Report, the long-time reporting service for state politics. That’s where I ran across this gem, a letter from the Assembly Republicans to the head of the Office of Refugee Settlement. In a self-satisfied and self-serving letter they ask that Wisconsin not be required to accept Syrian refugees.

Ironies abound in this letter. Let’s parse the language.

  • Among other reasons for rejecting Syrian refugees, the Republicans say “it is not a time to open our doors to individuals who may pose security risks or instill an unnerving sense of fear in our citizens.”

I do have to ask, where is this concern for an “unnerving sense of fear in our citizens” when this same group of legislators pass laws giving more people the right to carry concealed weapons? Where is this concern when members of the Republican caucus seek to remove the UW-System’s authority to prohibit concealed carry on campus? One must conclude that only some citizens’ fears count to them.

  • The letter goes on to extol Wisconsin’s excellent schools (note, not public schools), and the care we take of our “most vulnerable” citizens, “while encouraging self reliance.” 

From what I’ve seen, the Assembly is certainly complicit in prioritizing the needs of others over the needs of Wisconsin residents in many areas. CAFOs get preference over the need for clean water. Politicians’ desire for contributions is preferred over the public’s right to know who is contributing to their campaigns. Manufacturers get preference on taxes.

  • The Republicans opine, “The federal government should not prioritize the needs of others over our own residents.”

In the instance of refugees, the federal government is precisely the entity who has the power to prioritize the needs of others over the needs of Wisconsinites.

Most amazing of all, though, are these sentences:

  • “In the Wisconsin State Assembly, our main focus has been moving our state forward by training workers for high demand skilled positions and preparing our children for higher education and the workforce.”

Let’s get a count of the bills considered by this assembly and see just where the focus has been. It has not been on job preparation and education.

  • “As representatives of Wisconsin, our job is to be good stewards of our state tax dollars.”

Extraordinary sessions? WEDC? More bonding for highway construction that will be paid out of general tax revenue? Refusal of Medicaid money? That is not good stewardship.

  • “Our decisions are based on what is best for all of Wisconsin and we do not welcome any additional strain by the federal government on our state budget.”

If their decisions are based on what is best for Wisconsin, then why are 20 percent of Wisconsin’s wells polluted by nitrates? Why are lakes and streams drying up? Why did the populace oppose by a wide margin the changes in election finance making it so much more difficult to follow the money? Why don’t the Republicans actually consider putting money into local road repair, rather than superhighway construction? Why won’t they consider accepting more Medicaid money?

It doesn’t take much digging to get to the smug and self-satisfied, but ultimately hollow, values in the Wisconsin Republican leadership. It’s like they never learned to share when they were kids, and make decisions based on selfishness: What’s mine is for me, mine and my contributors, not for you, and definitely not for “others.”

What We Can Look Forward To As Wisconsin Is Open For Mining Business.

Yes I know that the Gogebic Taconite mine never materialized. But the end goal of neutering environmental regulations remains intact and at some point when taconite prices are again on the rise, someone will propose opening a mine at that site.

But beyond the deflowering (pun intended) of the beautiful watershed and potential to pollute Lake Superior…we may have decades to continue to enjoy their largesse when they are gone…something along these lines:

It will take many years and many millions of dollars simply to manage and not even remove the toxic wastewater from an abandoned mine that unleashed a 100-mile-long torrent of heavy metals into Western rivers and has likely reached Lake Powell, experts said Thursday.

Plugging Colorado’s Gold King Mine could simply lead to an eventual explosion of poisonous water elsewhere, so the safest solution, they say, would be to install a treatment plant that would indefinitely clean the water from Gold King and three other nearby mines. It would cost millions of dollars, and do nothing to contain the thousands of other toxic streams that are a permanent legacy of mining across the nation.

The Gold King delay illustrates a problem dwarfing the 3 million-gallon waste plume accidentally released by contractors working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: There are about 500,000 abandoned mines nationwide, and only a fraction have been dealt with, despite decades of effort.

EPA has estimated the cost of cleaning up abandoned mines nationwide, not including coal mines, at between $20 billion and $54 billion.

They’ve since become legacies of the industry’s boom-bust cycles, in which companies fold up operations when metals prices fall, leaving behind sources of toxic wastewater that chronically leave rivers barren and taint drinking water supplies.

Of the abandoned mines in the U.S., more than 48,000 had been inventoried through the BLM’s Abandoned Mine Lands program, which began after new federal laws focused on environmental protection in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s.

But only about one in five of the inventoried mines is being cleaned up or requires no more action. More than 38,000 await further analysis or work, according to the bureau.

Sounds like we have an opportunity for a jobs initiative here…$54 billion worth! Even if we get Americans to spend the money do you think we can get Americans to do the work?

Republicans taking us back a century or two

Wow, where do these guys come from? Today I’m talking about Tom Tiffany and Andre Jacque, two of the most misguided legislators to hold office in Wisconsin in many years.

Let’s start with Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst). The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published a piece about him recently, calling him a “lightning rod on environmental issues.” It’s a good article, well worth your time, and chronicles Sen. Tiffany’s efforts to “ease” environmental regulations (make that erase) in order to allow GTAC to mine in the Penokees, his role in overriding county-level shoreline zoning protection in the budget, and his successful effort to cut funding for scientific research in the DNR, including reducing the number of scientists who work there. Richard Thiede, the president of the Iron County Lakes and Rivers Alliance covers these issues much more thoroughly in a guest post at the Woods Person blog. The details show Sen. Tiffany’s absolute disregard for the people he represents.

But the most interesting part about the MJS article is Sen. Tiffany’s response to his placement on the 2014 “Dishonor Roll” of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. “‘That’s a badge of honor,’ Tiffany said. He dismissed the League as ‘out of the mainstream.’ The award hangs on the wall of his Capitol office.”

What a statement! A badge of “honor” to be noted as one of the worst legislators in the state in terms of protecting the environment. Most people, even conservatives, want to be seen as protective of the world around us, but not Tom Tiffany. Of course, this attitude squares with Sen. Tiffany’s views: the EPA is “radical,” the role of humans in global warming isn’t settled, natural resources (i.e., mineral and forest resources) must be “fully utilized” no matter the impact on air and water quality (and tourism). (Interestingly, Tiffany and his wife ran an excursion boat on the Willow Flowage for twenty years, on water where the DNR spent millions of dollars on land purchases. Seems he’s all done with that.)

Now Tom Tiffany sees himself as an “agent of change,” and believes the state should curtail conservation land purchases, embrace sand mining while limiting local governments’ ability to regulate it, increase logging in state forests, and “discipline” the scientists in the DNR. In other words, Wisconsin should go back to pre-statehood days.

Rep. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) only wants to send Wisconsin back to the 1930s.. He has introduced a bill that would curtail significant portions of Wisconsin’s biological research, and would force scientists from the University of Wisconsin and the Medical College of Wisconsin to take their research, and their research dollars, outside the state. As described by the Legislative Reference Bureau, Jacque’s bill, which is scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday, August 11, at 10:00 am, “prohibits a person from knowingly and for valuable consideration acquiring, receiving, or otherwise transferring a fetal body part in this state. A fetal body part is a cell, tissue, organ, or other part of an unborn child who is aborted by an induced abortion. The bill also prohibits a person from knowingly providing, receiving, or using, for experimentation, a fetal body part in this state, regardless of whether the provision, receipt, or use is for valuable consideration.” (Emphasis added.)

Two points are critical here.

  • Federal law already prohibits the sale of fetal tissue for profit.
  • Fetal cells and fetal tissue have been used in scientific research since roughly the 1930s, and in federally-funded research since the 1950s. Federally-funded research is subject to review by an federal ethics panel. This bill as written prohibits such research. At UW alone the cells are used by more than 100 scientists in $76 million worth of grants.

Rep. Jacque does not seem to understand what his bill does. A similar bill did not pass the legislature in 2011. According to an article in the Wisconsin State Journal  Rep. Jacque “said he changed the bill to allow use of the cells,” but the plain language of the bill does not do that. (This is the proposed language: 146.345 (1) (ag) “Fetal body part” means a cell, tissue, organ, or other part of an unborn child.”) Playing mad scientist, the representative also concluded that if researchers want to create new cell lines, they can use tissue from miscarriages. (He should try asking a woman who has just miscarried for permission to use that tissue … ) Rep. Jacque also callously dismisses the claims of the University of Wisconsin as to the extent of research performed using fetal cells and fetal tissue. “For his part, Jacque said of UW’s estimates on potential lost research dollars, ‘I’m sure that’s exaggerated, but they can use any numbers they like.'”

Now Rep. Jacque has suggested that there might be changes to the bill to make it more acceptable, but if he doesn’t understand what he has done, how can he make meaningful changes?

Remarkable. Rep. Jacque wants to set back research to the pre-1930s, and Sen. Tiffany wants to turn back environmental protection to the 1850s. Where do these guys come from anyway?

Scott Walker’s budget to cut funding to fight water pollution by 16%

In yet another example of how awful Gov. Scott Walker’s latest biennial budget is for the State of Wisconsin, a new report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes his most recent budget cuts funding to fight water pollution by 16%.

As worries grow about water pollution caused by runoff from streets, yards and farm fields, Gov. Scott Walker’s next budget calls for nearly 16% in spending cuts in programs that attack the problem.

Combined with how lax the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been in regards to enforcement actions against polluters since Gov. Walker took office, this latest revelation shows that the foxes truly are guarding the henhouse when it comes to the protection of Wisconsin’s environment.