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The no-tax burden PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 06 July 2016 16:57

The rigid ideology practiced by Wisconsin’s governor and legislature has exacted a high price from state taxpayers in legal expenses to defend the dubious constitutionality of laws regulating union rights, legislative districts, voter ID and clinics that perform abortions. In the latest example, taxpayers will have to pay attorney fees of $1 million or more as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmation of a federal court decision declaring Wisconsin’s law restricting abortion clinics unconstitutional.

The anti-tax ideology that Gov. Scott Walker clings to even in situations where it defies reason is costing Wisconsin residents in another way—in the toll levied on the state’s economy and its individual citizens by the failure to fund road maintenance and repair.

The delay of necessary road work is impacting the people of Wisconsin with vehicle accidents, injuries, repairs and the frustration and financial cost imposed by highway and street congestion. And the outlook is for more of the same—only worse.

There is no plan to address the highway funding shortfall, except the governor’s proposal to borrow an additional $850 million as a partial catch-up. Legislators of both parties oppose the idea because the state is already so deep in highway debt that more than 20% of the transportation fund is being spent per year on debt service.

Meanwhile the obvious, effective, fiscally responsible and easy solution to the problem remains barricaded by the governor’s opposition and veto power: raising the gas tax.

Wisconsin’s fuel tax has not changed in more than a decade. It has not been indexed for inflation since 2006, meaning that it has been decreasing in real terms every year. The improved fuel efficiency of vehicles has further diminished gas tax collections.

Aside from the governor, it is hard to find much opposition to a fuel-tax solution to the state’s road problems. The transportation secretary the governor appointed, Mark Gottlieb (a former mayor of Port Washington), has recommended a gas tax increase; legislators, business leaders and economists support it. It would not be surprising to find that a large percentage of the drivers who would have to pay it favor a modest gas tax increase to alleviate some of the frustrations they face on the state’s roads.

A 5-cent-per-gallon fuel tax increase would go a long way toward getting deferred maintenance and construction projects moving faster. An analysis by former UWM economics and business professors shows that a 10-cent increase would balance the transportation budget.

The governor refuses to consider this revenue source because it is spelled t-a-x, even though it is a tax in name only. It is really a highway user fee.

When it comes to road funding, anti-tax purity is an indulgence Wisconsin can’t afford. The state is failing to keep pace with other midwestern states in economic growth—growth that requires a smooth-running, up-to-date transportation infrastructure.

With job creation also lagging behind neighboring states, Wisconsin is missing out on the auxiliary benefit of investment in transportation infrastructure—the type of economic stimulus economists consider most effective. Road projects accomplish needed work that benefits the public while generating good paying jobs and employer profits.

Much has been made of the major freeway and highway widening projects that have been delayed by the funding shortfall. Transportation spending is heavily skewed toward this new construction in Wisconsin, and critics have said, with justification in some cases, that these projects are too grandiose or altogether unnecessary. 

The impact of lagging highway work, however, is felt most by drivers on local roads, which carry more than 40% of the state’s highway traffic but receive only 30% of state road funding. Municipalities need state aid to keep their streets, highways and roads in safe driving condition; Wisconsin is failing to meet that responsibility.

In explaining his unyielding position on taxes, Gov. Walker asserts that all taxes are burdens on citizens. Some certainly are. But rather than imposing a burden, a reasonable fuel tax increase would relieve burdens, the burden of the cost of excessive debt and the burden of traveling on inefficient, uncomfortable and, in many cases, dangerous roads.

Long live the farms of Ozaukee PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 29 June 2016 17:17

The county with the smallest land area in Wisconsin; rapid population growth (more than doubled in the last 50 years); the highest per capita income in the state; urban sprawl fueled by rampant residential and commercial development with municipalities claiming large tracts of rural land to expand their borders.

That is Ozaukee County.

But so is this: A county that devotes half of its land to farming.

Everyone has heard about the decline in agriculture as a contributor to the state’s economy, so the statistic that 50% of the land in the county is used for farming is probably surprising to many. But it should also be heartening. In fact, it’s a statistic that should be protected as a key contributor to the quality of life in Ozaukee County.

Though it is true that relatively few people now work in agriculture here, many Ozaukee residents care about farming, judging from the thousands who showed up for Breakfast on the Farm Saturday at Bob and Cindy Roden’s dairy farm near Newburg. Besides a hearty breakfast, the visitors got a bit of an education in 21st century farming.

One aspect of agriculture they probably didn’t hear about is the one that is its most important influence on the future of Ozaukee County: Farming is a bulwark against the theft of open spaces by unchecked development.

Most of the open space of the Ozaukee County countryside is farmland. Seen from the many miles of county and town roads that crisscross the county, these fields present more than broad vistas. During the growing season, crops of hay, oats, wheat, corn and soybeans offer views of undulating carpets of green. At harvest time, they turn the landscape golden.

Because not all of the land of farms is tillable, agriculture also preserves features that add natural character to the countryside, such as woodlots, areas of rocky outcroppings and banks of waterways.

The value of farming as a counter to urban sprawl is recognized by the Ozaukee County government with a farmland preservation program that offers tax credits and other incentives to keep farms in business. 

These inducements are not giveaways. Even with the tax breaks, farms more than pay their way with taxes because their service demands on local government are small compared to residential or commercial land uses.

Ozaukee County farming contributes more than open space preservation. As a part of the great American agricultural enterprise, it helps feed this country and some of the world beyond, while adding more than $60 million a year to the county’s economy.

In a society that has a high regard for small business owners (just listen to politicians extoll their virtues), Ozaukee’s farms are quintessential small businesses with operators who exemplify the admired traits of hard work and entrepreneurial courage.

The term “corporate farm” has become somewhat of a pejorative label, but the fact is that virtually every farm in Ozaukee County is a corporate farm, albeit many of them small corporations. Folks of a nostalgic bent may prefer to think of farming in images of cows lowing in the pasture and red wooden barns and windmills dotting the countryside, but today’s farms are businesses that have to evolve and grow—especially grow—to survive.

Farming can be in conflict with the environment in numerous ways, including tilling practices that deplete topsoil, overuse of chemical fertilizers and negligent handling of the tremendous volume of natural fertilizer farm animals produce, and the bigger the farm the bigger the conflict.

There are responsible ways to deal with these problems, and most Ozaukee farmers practice them. A few Ozaukee farms meet the definition of CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations with huge confined dairy herds. With this factorylike version of farming, the consequences of any lapses in environmental protection measures are potentially so severe that stringent enforcement of state regulations is essential.

Many would hope, with good reason, thatCAFOs do not proliferate here. The reality is, however, that farms of all sizes are fast leaving those fond pastoral images to history. 

That’s a price worth paying to keep farming alive and well as the guardian of our open spaces.

Anxiety in a risky business PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 22 June 2016 21:31

Trying to make a living by fishing on Lake Michigan is risky business. We’re not referring to the big lake’s potential for violent weather. That can be a hazard, but fisherfolk are generally well prepared to deal with it. The risks that most endanger the fishing business do not come from nature. They’re manmade.
    By all accounts, charter sport fishing operations based in Port Washington and elsewhere on Lake Michigan are having a banner season, with big catches of salmon and plenty of happy customers. But last week a shadow appeared over this sunny fishing scene—a proposal to significantly reduce the stocking of chinook salmon.
    The recommendation to cut chinook stocking by 62% next year came from the Lake Michigan Committee representing fishery management agencies of the four states that border the lake.
    The president of the Port Washington Charter Captains Association told Ozaukee Press what he thought of the recommendation in no uncertain terms: “They’re going to put us out of business. It’s pretty simple—less fish, less business.”
    Although it’s true that a reduced population of the lake’s biggest gamefish could have a negative effect on the charter fishing business, the matter is far from simple. The intent of reducing chinook numbers is not to constrain the sport fishing industry, but rather to improve its long-term prospects for success.
    The goal of the stocking cutback would be to increase the lake’s population of prey fish, chiefly the alewife. Chinook salmon are the most voracious consumers of alewives in the lake.
    The alewife population has been free falling. The decline was so drastic last year that alarmed freshwater scientists likened it to the start of the alewife crash that devastated Lake Huron sport fishing in 2003. A recent University of Michigan report predicted that Huron’s salmon population will never recover.
    With ironic timing, alewives announced their continued presence in waters around Port Washington about the same time as the chinook recommendation came out by dying in greater numbers than have been seen in recent years. There are floating rafts of the corpses and decaying alewife remains on beaches, accompanied by their distinctive odor.
    This is of mild interest, but seeing it as evidence of an alewife comeback would be akin to believing that a cold winter means global warming isn’t happening. The federal government’s trawling survey covering many miles of Lake Michigan in 2015, including sweeps by a 40-foot wide net in the waters off Port Washington, found some of the smallest numbers of alewives since the species’ population peaked about 40 years ago.
    The angst over the possible stocking cutback reflects the shaky state of the lake’s ecosystem, which in some ways is like a human-built house of cards. Move or change one element and the whole affair starts teetering.
    Salmon have to be stocked to sustain a fishery because they don’t naturally reproduce in large enough numbers. The alewives they need for food are threatened because the plankton alewives need for nourishment is being consumed by the billions of quagga mussels that cover the lake bottom.
    Imported in the ballast water of ocean-going ships, the alien mussels don’t belong in the lake. For that matter, neither do alewives, herringlike saltwater fish that colonized the lake after entering through the Welland Canal. Their numbers at first were controlled by native lake trout, but then lake trout were all but wiped out by the sea lamprey, which also invaded via the Welland Canal. Salmon were introduced to feed on the alewives that had reproduced in such extreme numbers they became a blight, fouling beaches, marinas and harbors.
    And the beat goes on: humans trying to adjust the balance of a lake that their actions, whether accidental or intended, knocked out of kilter.
    The worries of the business owners and workers in today’s version of the Port Washington commercial fishing industry are understandable. Their livelihood is at risk. Yet knee-jerk opposition to a chinook stocking cutback should be reconsidered.
    Reducing the chinook population wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster for charter fishing. Other species, especially coho salmon, could increase in numbers without competition from chinook, according to Wisconsin DNR fishery managers. Chinook may be the most prized trophy fish, but the smaller coho provide most of the action and have been the mainstay of this season’s successful start.
    If the case is made at hearings the DNR will hold next week that the prey fish population is truly on the brink of collapse, the chinook cutback would look more like a move to keep charter fishing operators in their risky business, rather than put them out of it.

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