A Late Budget Ain’t a Polished Budget

The Wisconsin Assembly passed a budget over two months late, and the delay hasn’t made it any less of a rush job.

Fill in the Blanks

The budget restricts towns’ ability to regulate gravel mines, with stunningly sloppy language like this:

Create a provision … to prohibit a political subdivision .. from enforcing an ordinance if any of the following applies: (a) a statutory provision expressly prohibits the political subdivision from enforcing the ordinance; (b) the ordinance logically conflicts with a statutory provision; (c) the ordinance defeats the purpose of a statutory provision; or (d) the ordinance violates the spirit of a statutory provision.

Clearly, the Joint Finance Committee couldn’t be bothered to actually write out their legislation. Instead, they expect municipalities to imagine what the committee members would have written.

No Gas Tax, Just a No-Gas Tax

Rather than taxing fossil fuel consumption, which could have addressed the deficit and the environment with one stone, the committee approved a fee for hybrid and electric vehicles.

Don’t get me wrong, there will come a time when non-polluting vehicles need to support more road maintenance. Just like there will come a time when houses with solar panels will need to support the grid. But we aren’t there yet, and we need to incentivize ways that people can use less combustible fuel. Roads right now aren’t buckling under Priuses, they’re buckling under eighteen-wheelers.

Bike Paths Are Not Coming For Your Land

The budget also included prohibitions against towns seizing or condemning land to construct bike trails. Conservative groups touted this as a win for property owners.

But the property right this defends is the right to have your property depreciate. I haven’t been able to find any evidence of municipalities abusing their current options. If they did, the state could have a more direct, contiguous bike network.

For example, the trail that ought to connect Madison to Milwaukee ends abruptly a few miles short in Cottage Grove due to private property in the way. These issues sometimes get solved by routing a path the long way around, at greater expense and inconvenience to the community. Take the Oregon Rotary Trail for instance, which traces three sides of a rectangle around someone’s property.

And whatever your views are on whether cities should have the right to seize land for infrastructure projects, it’s not right to prohibit it when it comes to bike paths while still allowing it for roads. Bike paths can accommodate more people at less cost, with environmental and health benefits. And they take less of your land to build.

If 3 Billion Dollars Didn’t Scare You…

By now, anyone following Wisconsin politics probably has some opinion about whether the state should be handing out $3,000,000,000 to a Taiwanese corporation for the promise of some jobs. If you support the plan, you’ll probably say “It’s going to be 13,000 jobs!” If you’re not a supporter, you might point out that the number Foxconn promised is closer to 3000.

My take on the hand-out, in brief, is that putting $3 billion on one horse is irresponsible. We could more effectively grow our economy by investing in the university system to draw talent to the state; people who will start businesses or bolster the companies that might create jobs.

As Steven Verburg points out, once the $3 billion has been paid out and thousands are working there, the state will have that much less leverage when it comes to enforcing air and water quality standards for the 25 years it will take for the state to see a net return on that money.

That’s assuming that we’ll have a DNR inclined to enforce environmental standards. Cathy Stepp recently left her position at the DNR (with a lax record of allowing manure from CAFOs into the water supply) to join the EPA, with the likely goal of making that agency less effective. In the short term, Scott Walker will get to appoint someone even less qualified.

Yet, there’s more to the Foxconn package that makes it even worse.

Before we get to the bizarre things that have been tacked on, we need to be familiar with Wisconsin’s judiciary hierarchy:

Wisconsin State Judiciary
Circuit Court: 249 judges, with jurisdiction by county (mostly)
Court of Appeals: 16 judges, with jurisdiction by district (1/4 of the state)
Supreme Court: 7 justices, with statewide jurisdiction
All publicly elected.

The Right to “Super-Appeal”

A prevision was just added to the Foxconn incentive bill to allow Foxconn to appeal any lawsuit directly to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, skipping the Court of Appeals.
This exclusive right to “super-appeal” also puts a stay on the lower court’s ruling. That means even if the Circuit Court decided against Foxconn, they don’t have to comply unless the Supreme Court takes the case and rules against them. This puts the burden on the Supreme Court to reinforce any Circuit Court rulings against Foxconn.

A specific corporation will be explicitly named in law as having rights above and beyond any other Wisconsin companies or any of Wisconsin’s human beings. This is not normal.

We don’t know yet what the Wisconsin Supreme Court thinks of having their docket be determined by Foxconn. But we do know the Wisconsin Supreme Court no longer make their deliberations public. Nor to the the publicly-elected justices recuse themselves when a case involves a campaign donor.

In other words, the highest court in the state is up for bid. Foxconn has a free pass to skip the lower courts, giving them extraordinary power. If a citizen, another company, or perhaps even the state of Wisconsin itself ends up in court against Foxconn, they’ve probably already lost.

Here’s how it plays out: let’s say Foxconn takes billions of gallons of water from Lake Michigan and dumps it back in with all sorts of chemicals added. Maybe the DNR sues. A circuit court judge tells Foxconn to stop. Foxconn appeals, and gets to keep doing what they want while waiting for the Supreme Court to take the case.

And, maybe this isn’t Foxconn’s first appeal. Maybe they’ve filled up the Supreme Court’s docket for the next several years. Or maybe the justices handle the extra caseload by changing their rules, so that they don’t need to have in-person hearings and deliberation, they can just submit their verdict and move on.
Yup. That’s a broken system.

That’s why we need to make it clear to our representatives and state senators, our neighbors, and our media that this provision threatens the independence of each branch of government.That’s not a partisan concern.

And this underlines the importance of the Supreme Court elections. Tim Burns and Rebecca Dallet have already announced their candidacy for the next election.
We need to pay attention to lower court elections as well — in the Court of Appeals, Dane County is grouped with everything west of Dodge and south of Clark County. And Dane County alone has 17 elected circuit court justices. If you search news for Dane County Circuit Court, you can get a sense of the issues they rule on and how consequential their decisions are.

Profile: Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos

By Madelon Wise

Robin Vos.

You’ve heard the name, but perhaps, like me, you know nothing about him. He has been in the news lately because of his rather public quarrel with Scott Walker over transportation in the 2017-2019 state budget. Vos has stated publicly via a Twitter exchange with Governor Scott  Walker that he fundamentally disagrees with Walker’s stance on whether to tax gasoline. Vos is in favor of the tax, whereas Walker staunchly refuses to implement it. Although the two very conservative Republicans have long agreed on most issues, the fissure on transportation continues.


Vos has been a Republican member of the Wisconsin State Assembly since 2005, representing the 63rd district (which includes the communities of Rochester, Burlington, Town of Burlington, Yorkville, Dover, Union Grove, Mount Pleasant, and Sturtevant). Vos is the co-chair of the Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee, along with Senator Alberta Darling.

The State Assembly is the lower house of the Wisconsin Legislature. Together with the smaller Wisconsin Senate, it constitutes the legislative branch of Wisconsin’s government. Every citizen of Wisconsin is represented by two legislators, elected by the people in their area: one in the Assembly, and one in the Senate. Robin Vos is the Speaker of the Assembly, meaning he was elected by the other representatives.

Before joining the Legislature, Vos was a congressional district director and legislative assistant,  a member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents (1989 to 1991), and a member of the Racine County Board (1994 to 2004). In his home town of Burlington, Vos is a busy member of groups like the Rotary Club (past president), Racine/Kenosha Farm Bureau, Knights of Columbus, Racine County Republican Party, Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce, Union Grove Chamber of Commerce, and Burlington Chamber of Commerce.

Outside Politics

Outside of politics, Vos is the small business owner of RoJo’s Popcorn. The name of the popcorn company brings to mind another right-wing politician, but as far as I can determine Vos did not name his company for his buddy Ron Johnson. Remember the “cookie law” that attempted to ban people from selling homemade baked goods from their kitchens? Vos introduced this law, although it was struck down as unconstitutional by a Lafayette County judge. Apparently, he doesn’t want anybody else selling snacks.

While his wife sells the popcorn, Vos serves on several committees, including the Committee on Assembly Organization (Chair), Committee on Employment Relations (Chair), Committee on Rules, Joint Committee on Employment Relations (Co-Chair), Joint Committee on Legislative Organization (Co-Chair), Joint Legislative Council, Committee on Assembly Organization (Chair), Committee on Employment Relations (Chair), Committee on Rules, Joint Committee on Employment Relations (Co-Chair), Joint Committee on Legislative Organization (Co-Chair), and the Joint Legislative Council.

ALEC & Past Legislation

Robin Vos is the current ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) public sector co-chair of Wisconsin, along with Representative Scott Suder and Koch lobbyist Amy Boyer. The must-read ALEC Exposed: The Hijacking of a State put out by the Center for Media and Democracy, describes ALEC in this way:

“ALEC brings elected representatives together with lobbyists from global businesses to approve cookie-cutter legislation – that often benefits those same corporations – for introduction in state capitols from Madison to Montgomery to Tallahassee, regardless of the distinct traditions and interests of the constituents in each state.”

The report goes on to document how ALEC distributes money through a complicated “scholarship fund,” keeps secrets, buys legislators, pays no taxes, and has been at the helm of the systematic reddening of our once-liberal state. The legislation brought forth by ALEC has been implemented in most states, strategically putting forth an agenda that made a Donald Trump presidency possible. An open records request revealed the names of donors, and the top contributors include AT&T, the drug manufacturer trade group PhRMA, T-Mobile, Kraft, Exxon Mobil, US Tobacco, and of course, the Koch brothers and other right-wing groups, foundations, and trade groups.

Through ALEC’s backing, Vos has introduced numerous pieces of legislation, including a Voter ID bill, which was temporarily struck down but upheld on appeal. and the “Health Care Freedom Amendment,” a joint resolution for a constitutional amendment that prohibited the legislature from requiring individuals to obtain health insurance.

Of major bills sponsored or co-sponsored by Vos, the only surprise was WI SB10, “definition of tetrahydrocannabinols and the use of cannabidiol.” This bill passed, ensuring that children with seizures could use a plant substance to help with their illness.

Current Legislation

Presently in committee is Assembly Bill 299, “regarding the free expression within the University of Wisconsin System, providing an exemption from rule-making procedures, and granting rule-making authority.” Cutting away the legalize, this bill would penalize “boisterous,” “unreasonably loud” protest behavior at campus events. Students who speak out or protest at events could be expelled. The “Campus Free Speech Act” was produced by the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based think tank whose operations are underwritten by some of the largest right-wing funders including the Koch and Walton foundations.

Another Vos-proposed piece, WI SB216, would lower wages for private sector employees working on public projects. This bill is also in committee.

What Vos opposes is as interesting as what he favors. He’s spoken against LRB-2248/1, the Compassionate Choices Act, introduced on March 8, 2017, by State Senator Fred Risser (D-Madison) and Representatives Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton) and Sondy Pope (D-Cross Plains).

The proposal is modeled after Oregon’s “death with dignity” law, passed in 1997. California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington also allow the practice. The lawmakers behind Wisconsin’s bill cited a May 2016 Gallup poll that found 69 percent of Americans believe doctors should be able to painlessly end a terminally ill patient’s life if requested.

I hope you have enjoyed learning, along with me, about Robin Vos.

After completing this research, I have a clearer idea of how and why my beloved state has changed so drastically.

What’s Wrong With 3.1%?

The Wisconsin unemployment figure is historic, but not the complete economic picture.

In May, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development calculated the unemployment rate to be 3.1%. This is a percentage we haven’t seen since 1999, so naturally people with a stake in it are taking credit.

But what does it really mean for the economic and social success of our state?

Standard Caveats

Regardless of which direction they’re trending, or who’s attributing them to whom, bear in mind that unemployment numbers are calculated by polling. You only count as “unemployed” if you aren’t employed when they call, are available to be employed, and have trying to get employed. It doesn’t count those who work part time, seasonally, or have given up on the job market.

Just Following the Trend

Unemployment has been trending downward since the Great Recession, and Wisconsin has mostly just been paralleling that trend, consistently, about one percent below the national average. You could attribute that one percent however you want. Maybe it’s the role of agriculture in our economy. Regardless, it’s not new, and it’s not Governor Walker’s accomplishment.

Lagging in Population Growth

At an estimated growth rate of 1.61% over the past 6 years, Wisconsin is ranked 38th, and is far below the national average of 4.66%. The state’s birth rate is middling; the real cause here is emigration. Wisconsin was recently ranked the 7th in proportion of outbound moves to inbound.

A lot of the state is actually losing population, with Menominee and Dane counties as clear exceptions. We’re losing talent and tax revenue. When people move away, and we all know people who have, their knowledge and training goes with them.

Open Only For Big Business

Wisconsin has been on a streak of ranking dead last in startup activity according to the Kauffman Index, by a significant margin. This means we’re placing a disproportionate share of our economic eggs in a few baskets, relying on large companies for more of our job growth rather than building the economy from the ground up. We’re entirely too vulnerable to the next  Oscar Meyer pulling up stakes.

This is entirely in line with the Koch’s “jobs” strategy, as carried out in their legislature. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) has been giving out large lump-sum grants with little accountability, and Wisconsin’s labor standards have become so lax that China’s disastrous Foxconn is looking at moving here. This dependence on large employers is bolstered by limited non-employer insurance options, right to work, and an active crusade against unions. Madison is the exception in this metric too, and Dane County overall has been leading the state in job growth.

Be Careful What You Wish For

A shortage of one thing can often be a surplus of another. A seller’s housing market and a low rental vacancy rate can be a housing shortage. Low unemployment can be a shortage of workforce, and an excess of unfilled positions, holding back our economic growth.

This isn’t to say that higher unemployment would be better for the state, just that it’s a situation that might not be great for service and retail jobs struggling to cover all their shifts, or for the hiring manager trying to replace someone about to retire.


In 2010, I scoffed at Scott Walker’s claim that you could “create jobs” just by changing the tax rate, or handing out grants to large companies. And I don’t believe it now either. Whether a company comes to our state or leaves it depends on much more than those two items on the balance sheet. It depends on whether there’s a plentiful labor pool to recruit from, what it’s like to live here, and how much it costs to do so.

It’s not all about attracting those “whales” either. The surest way to land the next Land’s End or Harley is to help businesses get started here.


Courtesy of https://medium.com/@IndivisibleMad.  Nicholas Davies is a local member of, and regular contributor to, Indivisible Madison.

Medicaid Under Attack

The Affordable Care Act (ACA, or ObamaCare) significantly expanded Medicaid, ensuring that over 95% of children nationwide were covered by health insurance.  Pediatricians celebrated this occasion because it ensured that children would have easy access to their primary care providers, subspecialists, and therapists without forcing families to choose between medical care, food, and shelter. Unfortunately, this great achievement has not been celebrated by President Trump or Republicans in Congress, as evidenced by the American Health Care Act (AHCA, or TrumpCare) passed by the House of Representatives, the budget proposal submitted by President Trump’s administration, and the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA).

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly opposed the AHCA and the BCRA.  Two of the most significant concerns voiced by the AAP regarding both bills is the harm to individuals with pre-existing conditions and the significant decrease in Medicaid spending that would lead to millions of Americans losing their health insurance. These concerns, unfortunately, were ignored.

Members of the AAP were vocal in opposing the AHCA, with significant concerns about how this would harm children and families. Despite AAP activity at the federal level we saw that this administration is declining to recognize the importance of children’s health insurance with the release of President Trump’s requested budget.  In this budget, we see large cuts to Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in addition to cuts suggested by the AHCA/BCRA.  In the year 2016, over 500,000 children used Medicaid or BadgerCare Plus (Wisconsin’s version of CHIP). Decreasing federal assistance and leaving Wisconsin to make up the remaining funds will force the state to decrease the amount of individuals able to receive Medicaid or BadgerCare, significantly increasing the uninsured and underinsured population.

As a neonatology fellow who takes care of many babies who require these insurances, I’m incredibly concerned about the possibility of families being uninsured or underinsured and trying to make ends meet.  Many of the infants who are discharged home from the NICU have follow-ups not only with their pediatrician, but other specialists and therapists. They have medications and follow-up imaging studies that all cost significant amounts of money.  This would harm the family unit if not covered by insurance.  

While there will be many changes to the budget prior to approval from both the House and the Senate, we need to remain vocal and require that our government put children first. With the many different controversies surrounding President Trump’s administration, it is important to continue to tell your Senators to oppose the Better Care Reconciliation Act.  We should also tell our elected representatives to support a federal budget that does not harm children and low-income families.

Featured image by Martin Falbisoner is licensed under CC BY SA 3.0

Walker’s Big Gamble

UPDATE: On June 15th the budget committee unanimously rejected this portion of Walker’s Budget described below!

Governor Scott Walker has released his two-year budget for review and has been touring the state touting his per-pupil increase in education included in this budget. Walker claims this budget is a “significant investment into K-12 education,” but his speeches never address what the budget is really about: shifting the burden of goods and services to the state’s working classYes, the per-pupil spending is receiving a $648.9 million increase, but this increase relies, in part, on the assumed millions in savings when changing the 250,000 state public workers insurance to self-insurance – which is a big gamble.

Wisconsin currently has one of the most competitive health markets in the country, which has resulted in the state’s ability to keep the premium increases below the national average. Currently, the state provides 17 health plans by paying for the state workers’ premiums. The state would like to change to self-insurance, which has the individualism rhetoric loved by Republicans, but it means the state will pay for medical procedures and costs directly instead of paying for premiums. There will still be four middle-man insurers because some providers will be merging, and some will not be able to compete with larger entities.

North Carolina shifted to self-insurance in 2014 and expected to save millions, but instead, the state found itself with a $200 million deficit. But we don’t have to look as far as North Carolina. Wisconsin’s first experiment with the self-insurance model resulted in dramatic cost increases of 22% and 30% in 1981 and 1983, respectively.  And industry analyst Deloitte Consulting found that if the switch to self-insurance were to happen today, it would cost the state of Wisconsin $100 million per year

Governor Walker’s decision to switch to self-insurance is not supported by the Wisconsin Association of Health Plans. Under his plan, the state will be reorganized into just four different regions with a local insurance provider, potentially stripping public workers’ freedom to keep their current physicians. So why is Walker aggressively pushing this self-insurance model? The switch to self-insurance will procure short-term benefits that he is hoping will boost his reelection bid in 2018. It will save money through skirting taxes and fees from the ACA, which will keep costs down temporarily while insurance claims build up and the state pays them out. Costs will be kicked down the road to gain political capital now.

Manitowoc Country is the only county in Wisconsin that has already made the shift to self-insurance for its public workers. The jury is still out on this policy because it was only instituted on January 1 of this year. Enjoy a reading of the liabilities the insurance does not cover. Some of the interesting ones include liabilities against pollution, acid rain, asbestos, mold, fungi, or lead.

Now that we have debunked the supposed savings the self-insurance model will create, let’s move onto the nuances of the actual education budget. The $60 million savings Walker is assuming will be garnered from this self-insurance model will then be funneled to an increase in per-pupil funding, but there are more strings attached. The increase in funding will only be made available to those districts that meet pension and healthcare savings requirements from Act 10, and whose teachers pay at least 12% of their healthcare costs out-of-pocket.  This greatly impacts Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), as they do not require employees to contribute towards their healthcare premium.  In order to receive the increase in per-pupil funding, MMSD would have to change this policy.

Not only is the budget bad for the public education system in Wisconsin, but Walker increases the per-pupil funding for voucher-school students more than public-school students. Walker is increasing public K-12 school per-pupil aid by $6,703, private K-8 voucher school per-pupil aid by $7,757, and private 9-12 voucher school per-pupil aid by $8,403. Voucher schools do not have the same accountability requirements that public schools have.

This budget does not seem in line with the most recent election in Wisconsin. This past Spring Election, Wisconsin voters, resoundingly, chose to keep incumbent Tony Evers as the State Superintendent over Holtz – the candidate known for favoring voucher schools. The Spring Election also showed that Wisconsinites DO prioritize public education:  all 12 school referendums passed, and the public approved increases in property taxes to fund public schools. This is something we have seen repeatedly during Walker’s tenure as governor. More school districts are forced to use referendums to raise the necessary funds to keep their schools running. In fact, there was a 10-year high of 150 school funding referendums in 2016. This budget is another example of Walker shifting the costs of public education onto the teachers, public state workers, and working middle class of Wisconsin.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Tradition, or Bad Habit?

Tradition isn’t a valid reason to undermine democracy.  Both Speaker Vos and State Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald have recently made appeals to ‘tradition’ while defending gerrymandering in Wisconsin.  In fact, ‘tradition’ is the only defense they offer for their intentional disenfranchisement of Wisconsin voters.  

Tradition prohibited minorities, women, and non-landowning citizens from voting.  Once laws changed, calls to tradition supported other voting restrictions like poll taxes and literacy tests.   History will group the voter suppression perpetrated by Vos and Fitzgerald together with these unconstitutional and illegal practices.

Partisan gerrymandering promotes partisan politics.  I’ve heard many times already this year how tired people are of political divides.  Removing partisan politics from redistricting entirely will help mend these divisions.  Senate Bill 13 and Assembly Bill 44 would achieve this goal by putting non-partisan boards in charge of redistricting.

Defending unconstitutional maps in court also costs tax payers a substantial amount of money.  The law firms hired to defend our district maps typically charge $800 an hour.  The entirety of the amount paid to the lawyers comes out of tax payers’ pockets.  

Vos and Fitzgerald should hold a hearing on SB13 and AB44 and listen to the opinions of the people of Wisconsin.