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Editorials
Thanks for the federal interference PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 03 June 2015 17:37

This federal tax and mandated state spending show that sportsmen and tree huggers have common cause in conservation

The elected officials currently in charge of the government of the state of Wisconsin have made clear their disdain for the federal government and taxes. They’ve demonstrated the former by rejecting more than $5 billion in federal money to expand Medicaid and build a high-speed railroad line and the latter by refusing to rely on taxes to meet critical needs, such as paying for road maintenance.

    But they are sure to make an exception in the next few weeks when a big check arrives from a federal program that is funded entirely by taxes, a substantial portion of which are paid by Wisconsin residents, and mandates millions of dollars in spending by the state.

    The program is named Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration and Sport Fish Restoration. This year it will give Wisconsin $36.5 million for conservation, and will require the state to match 25% of that amount.

    You won’t hear this federal intrusion into state government being bad mouthed in Madison, because even the most obtuse politicians have learned that the people of Wisconsin support taxing and spending on conservation.    

    The program is funded by federal excise taxes on boat fuel, fishing tackle, archery equipment, firearms and ammunition and is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    This federal aid was established by Congress in 1937 to fund programs for conservation of wildlife habitat, but over the years it has supported the preservation of natural resources and outdoor recreation in other ways and has benefitted every American who appreciates nature and the outdoors.


    The director of the program, Dan Ashe, put it like this: “These funds are the cornerstone of state-based efforts that are critical to the preservation of America’s wildlife and natural resources. . . . providing opportunities for the next generation of Americans to get outdoors, experience our wild places and learn the importance of conserving our natural heritage.”

     The success of the program illustrates a phenomenon state politicians bumped into this spring when Gov. Scott Walker’s budget sought to shut down the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program: Hunters and fishermen and environmentalists are kindred spirits when it comes to protecting the state’s natural resources.

    Led by a diverse aggregation of conservation minded groups including land trusts and hunting organizations, public reaction was so opposed to shutting down the program that has protected endangered forests, waterways and prairies that the Legislature is moving to reject the governor’s budget proposal and renew stewardship funding.

    The defense of the Stewardship Program and the popularity of the wildlife and fish restoration program show that the groups that might be categorized as sportsmen and tree huggers are not exactly strange bedfellows. When it comes to the environment, whether they value it for hunting and fishing or merely to pass through as hikers or birdwatchers, they have a common cause in supporting government action to protect it.

    As an ironic aside, it is interesting to note that the federal wildlife and fish program will distribute more money to the states this year than every before thanks in part to the surge in firearms sales.

    There may be a few hard cases in the political crowd that has demonized federal authority over states who object to the wildlife restoration program, but they wouldn’t dare say it out loud. For the people of Wisconsin know this is a federal law, tax and mandate that help ensure that our great outdoors will remain great.



 
Own the lighthouse PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 27 May 2015 16:49

Port aldermen made the right move in starting the process to acquire the lighthouse; now organizations and citizens should join the effort

It was refreshing to hear members of the Port Washington Common Council talking at their May 19 meeting about acquiring something of value for the public, rather than, as at some other recent meetings, selling public property such as a harborside parking lot and some parks.

    To their further credit, the councilmen didn’t just talk about it, they acted, voting to take the first step toward city ownership of the Port Washington lighthouse.

    It was the right thing to do, and it deserves strong support from the community in every way, especially in the financial way.

    This is an urgent matter. The lighthouse is up for grabs. The federal government has made it official that it is ready to give it away or sell it. If a government agency or non-profit organization does not step up to take ownership, it could be sold to a private buyer. The city can’t let that happen.

    The 80-year-old lighthouse, as we noted in an editorial last year when the first signals of an imminent federal decision appeared, is Port Washington’s most recognizable symbol, officially in its logo and wayfinding signs, and informally in its prominence in popular images—photographed, painted and imagined—of the city. The distinctive tower standing on a massive concrete base with arched portals for waves and walkers to pass through is a destination for the thousands of residents and tourists who transit the half-mile long north breakwater each year to visit it.

    The city needs to be in control of the structure that is so much a part of its identity. Under private ownership, there would be no standards for maintenance or the appearance of the lighthouse (though its navigational functions would still have to meet federal requirements).

Last week’s council vote authorized the city to submit a letter of interest in acquiring the lighthouse. After July 14, the city and any other interested parties will have 90 days to apply to become the owner of the lighthouse.

    As a government entity, the City of Port Washington could acquire the lighthouse at no cost if the transfer is approved by the General Services Administration. There would be a substantial cost, however, in dealing with deferred maintenance. The federal government hasn’t lifted a finger to maintain the lighthouse in decades. At a minimum, painting of the rusting steel structure and replacement of broken portholes will be needed.

    The city doesn’t have a stash of unspent tax revenue lying around, so the funds will have to come from other sources. The good news is that taking care of the lighthouse is a project well suited to a community effort. The cost will be significant, but it won’t be a million-dollar blockbuster. Small contributions will make a difference.

    It’s not too soon for a community organization, or several of them, to gear up to adopt the lighthouse, or for individuals to form a new non-profit group, one that might be called something like Friends of the Port Lighthouse or the Port Washington Lighthouse Preservation Society.

    Since it was built in 1935, it has been called the Port Washington lighthouse. Now it is time to make that true in every way, with official ownership by the City of Port Washington and emotional ownership by citizens dedicated to keeping the lighthouse an enduring symbol of a community whose past, present and future are inextricably linked to its place in the world as a Great Lakes port of call.



 
The high cost of gas-tax phobia PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 13 May 2015 15:11

Ideological obstinance to increasing the state’s gas tax will cost taxpayers dearly as interest expense mounts on growing highway debt

Tax phobia is getting expensive for Wisconsin residents.

    Tax phobia, also known at tax demonization syndrome (TDS), is a condition that afflicts elected officials, rendering them unable or unwilling to raise or add a tax, even when it would benefit the public, even when it would save taxpayers money in the long run.

    The condition is in full bloom in Madison, where it has caused paralysis in the executive and legislative branches of state government concerning the urgent need to raise money to pay for road maintenance and new road construction in Wisconsin.

    The most logical, most efficient and fairest way to do this is to increase the gas tax. But that is a no-no. Perish the thought that a member of the Republican majority in the Legislature would let a tax increase appear on his or her resume.

    The only alternative on the table is the governor’s proposal that the state borrow $1.3 billion in the next two years to pay for roads. There being no such thing as free money, this would leave taxpayers on the hook for another huge jolt of interest on top of the already heavy load of debt on highway borrowing.

    If the Legislature goes along with the borrowing plan, 23 cents of every state dollar spent on highways will go to debt service. It’s the price of tax phobia, and taxpayers are going to pay it.

    Highways should be paid for on an as-you-go basis, preferably with user fees. The gas tax functions as a user fee. It’s not perfect—electric cars, for example, don’t pay it. Perfect would be a fee based on miles driven, but until a fair and practical way to count those miles is found, the gas tax is an acceptable alternative.

    That’s why it was a key feature of the highway funding plan developed by Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb. As a former Port Washington mayor and alderman and Republican member of the state Assembly, Gottlieb has experience in both the executive and legislative branches of government, but apparently has not contracted TDS.

    Gottlieb proposed raising the gas tax by about 5 cents a gallon. The average annual cost per car would be only $27, but it would raise enough revenue to eliminate the need for much of the highway borrowing the state is now facing.

    His financing plan, a comprehensive document that offered a plethora of alternatives to borrowing, also put forth the good idea of allowing the DOT to require vehicle owners to report odometer readings when they renew registrations. The purpose would be to gather information to formulate a per-mile road fee for the future, a true user fee that would be the fairest of all highway-funding means.

    The governor asked his transportation secretary to prepare the funding plan, then promptly ignored it, and it is now for all intents and purposes dead. The gas tax feature was no doubt the poison pill.

    Tax phobia is undermining federal highway financing as well. Congress has thus far refused to renew the Highway Trust Fund that expired last summer. The trust fund gets its revenue from the national gas tax. Almost all Republican members of Congress have signed a pledge not to raise taxes authored by an anti-tax lobby.

    Meanwhile, America’s roads are deteriorating at substantial cost to the economy and individual citizens. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the cost to Wisconsin alone of the failure to provide federal funding for road maintenance is $2 billion a year.

    You can add that to the other costs, including the looming jump in road borrowing debt service, that Wisconsin taxpayers are facing because of tax phobia.

    It’s hard to know what it would take for sufferers to get over TDS, but we offer the examples of two revered Americans in the hope it might help. One is President Ronald Reagan, who in 1982 asked Congress to raise the gas tax, which it did with strong Republican support. The other is Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote in a 1904 Supreme Court opinion, “Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society.”

    And, we will add, the price we should pay for safe, well maintained roads.


 
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