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Pennies to raise millions for roads PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 14 December 2016 17:47

If the government of the State of Wisconsin ever sees the light and adopts the obvious, sensible and responsible means of paying for road repair and building and other transportation needs, some of the credit should go to a Republican legislator from Delafield.

State Sen. Chris Kopenga earned that recognition last week by brilliantly making the case for increasing the gas tax to help deal with the state’s transportation funding crisis.

We should point out here that Kopenga didn’t mean to do this. He’s not a fan of the gas tax and, in fact, appears to be a bitter foe of anything spelled t-a-x.

Yet in a conference call to news organizations, including Ozaukee Press, he unintentionally revealed the beauty of the gas tax as a highway funding device by pointing out that a one-cent increase in the tax would yield $33 million a year in desperately needed transportation revenue.

Kopenga is so rigid in his anti-tax mentality that he thinks the large tax revenue number, calculated by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, is an argument against a gas-tax increase. If the senator had done the math, it might have dawned on him that it is the opposite—it is proof that a modest increase in the gas tax is an effective, easy-to-bear means for the state to meet some of its neglected transportation obligations.

Here’s the math: A Wisconsin automobile  owner who might be considered typical—driving 10,000 miles a year in a vehicle that gets 20 miles per gallon—would pay only $5 a year as his or her contribution to the $33 million that a one-penny-a-gallon gas tax increase would raise.

The state Transportation Fund is so far in the hole as a result of the obdurate refusal of  Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature to consider revenue-raising remedies that it would take more than a one-penny gas tax hike to make a significant dent in the deficit, but with more than 2.5 million motor vehicles registered in the state, an increase of a few cents per gallon could put the transportation funding on much firmer footing.

As an alternative, Kopenga and State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), who joined him in the conference call and voiced a similar intolerance for a gas-tax increase, want the state to go into more debt—as much as half a billion dollars more—to replenish the Transportation Fund. 

The notion that no tax increase is acceptable, regardless of how effective it would be in meeting a vital need for the people of Wisconsin, is far removed from a rational view of government responsibilities. When applied to transportation funding, it is ironic as well, because the borrowing alternative favored by anti-tax crusaders is a surefire way to inflict tax pain.

Wisconsin taxpayers are obligated to pay the interest on highway debt. That interest bill has the effect of a tax. With the half-billion more in highway debt, 25% of the highway fund would have to be spent on debt service instead of on roads. In contrast, by law 100% of gas tax revenue is spent on transportation needs.

Gas tax opposition is another manifestation of the ideology of starving government to shrink it trumping practical solutions to meeting the public’s needs. 

A refreshing take on road funding by local elected officials who are more interested in serving their constituents than burnishing images as anti-tax warriors can be found in the opinion piece on this week’s Ozaukee Press op-ed page written by the directors of organizations representing the state’s counties, municipalities and towns.

Under the headline “Forget ideology and politics—just fix Wisconsin transportation,” the writers draw attention to the burden the state’s deteriorating roads are putting on communities and the physical and economic well being of their citizens.

Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb confirmed the size of that burden last week when he told the Legislature that under the governor’s borrowing plan the number of roads in poor condition would double in the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, the benefit of putting to use the perfectly accurate math that proves that a few pennies in added gas tax would raise millions to put roads in good condition remains locked away by anti-tax zealots who consider it heresy.

Privatizers target public schools PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 07 December 2016 17:14

It is all but certain that attempts will be made in the next four years to privatize Social Security and Medicare. Look for public schools to be added in some way to that privatizing to-do list.

The person Donald Trump has chosen to be the next U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is a crusader empowered by her family’s vast wealth who is bent on changing public education as America knows it by diverting funding from public schools to voucher and charter schools.

The nomination makes the egalitarian American imperative of universal education more vulnerable than ever to the forces of politics and ideology.

The ideology is all too familiar. Like those who want the private sector to take over the essential safety nets of Social Security and Medicare, the adherents of public school privatization want free-market organizations to take charge of education.

Wisconsin residents have seen plenty of this as the Legislature, following Gov. Scott Walker’s lead, has cut public school funding while steadily increasing the amount of taxpayer money given to voucher and charter schools.

Ozaukee Press readers were exposed to a novel justification for this short-changing of public schools in a recent letter to the editor from state Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville). Stroebel wrote that taxpayers of Ozaukee County and the rest of his district should be thankful that state education money is being spent on voucher schools in Milwaukee because without those schools the state would have to send more aid to the Milwaukee public school system.

“The money has to come from somewhere,” Stroebel wrote, “in this case local school aid.”

No, it does not have to come from local school aid. The state’s obligation to fund public education is not supposed to be some sort of zero-sum game in which one school district’s gain is another’s loss. All public school districts deserve a fair share of state education aid regardless of how much tax money the Legislature sends to private schools.

Wisconsin’s public schools have suffered some of the deepest cuts in state education spending in the nation. Meanwhile, taxpayer funding for voucher students in Wisconsin has increased by 14%.

School privatization zealots don’t seem to understand, or refuse to face, the fact that the institution of public education is strongly supported, in fact admired, by the American public as an essential function of a democratic society.

That was proven in Wisconsin’s November election in which 88% of 55 school district referendums were approved by voters—voters who agreed to pay higher property taxes for the betterment of their public schools.

That astonishing number of referendums—totalling more than $800 million for facilities and operational spending—needed to keep schools functioning effectively is a clear indication of the financial squeeze put on public schools by the combination of reduced state aid and state-mandated limits on local tax levies.

Even some of the most devoted proponents of public education agree that school choice, in the form of charter schools managed by responsible nonprofit organizations and well-run non-public schools whose students qualify for tax-supported vouchers to pay for tuition, should have a place in the education mix. 

That place, however, should not be created at the expense of public schools.

There is no dearth of success stories about individual charter and voucher schools that have excelled in inspiring children to learn. Yet promoters of choice schools have generally oversold their ability to improve education overall, even in cities where public education has struggled.

The most notorious example is the city of Detroit, where education privatizing advocates persuaded officials to allow wide-open competition by for-profit choice schools to educate the city’s children. The result of what has been described as a Wild West of cutthroat competition was academic achievement worse than that of underfunded public schools.

One of the architects of that disaster was Betsy DeVos, the soon-to-be secretary of education.

A time for national service PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 30 November 2016 17:15

When Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office as president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2017, it will be exactly 56 years since 17 of the most remembered words in presidential oratory were spoken.

John F. Kennedy, in his presidential inauguration address on Jan. 20, 1961, challenged his fellow Americans to: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

The words seem older than that half century plus six years; they sound alien, as though spoken in a foreign language, in the political atmosphere that abides now in the nation and resulted in the remarkable 2016 presidential election outcome.

Trump’s victory can be seen as a strident call by aggrieved voters for their country to do more for them. 

Citizens of a democracy have every right to demand that their government act in ways that help them make their lives better, and this certainly includes enacting policies that address economic anxiety.

And yet for a country to claim to be great—whether that be “great again,” in Trump’s words, or “still great,” as Hillary Clinton put it—there has to be something in its character more noble than a what’s-in-it-for-me outlook.

That noble element of the American character surely exists among its young citizens. It is the responsibility of the nation’s leaders, most of all its president, to inspire national service as an expectation of citizenship and to ensure that opportunities for that service, along with appropriate incentives and rewards, are available for all who are willing to serve their country as volunteers.

National service opportunities exist in the military services, the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. The latter, which organizes volunteers to work on projects dealing with domestic needs, requires a major expansion. It currently has slots for only 75,000 volunteers. That should increase many fold, as should the college scholarships provided for those who serve.

A promising idea for further expanding opportunities for national service is to create a national service reserve and enlist millions of 18 to 30-year-old Americans into its ranks. Members would be trained in many skills and could be called on by state and local leaders to serve when a need arises, say in the aftermath of a national disaster.

It would be a long shot to expect President Trump to issue an inspirational call in his inaugural speech for volunteer service to help make America great again. There is no record of Trump having performed any sort of public service as he pursued fortunes as a real estate mogul and reality TV star. What’s more, he might find the concept of a national service reserve unappealing because it’s Hillary Clinton’s idea. 

Still, the awesome dimension of the presidency has inspired a broader understanding of America’s responsibilities in unlikely subjects before. 

Dare we hope that the election winner who made many promises to those who asked what their country could do for them will ask for something for the country in return?

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