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Start draining the swamp by draining the ethanol tanks PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Tuesday, 21 November 2017 18:46

“I will drain the swamp.”
    Donald Trump’s catchy and cleverly memorable slogan encapsulating a promise to rid Washington of the special interest lobbies that wield influence and money to bend government policy in their favor helped get him elected president.
    A year later, the swamp remains full to its slimy brim.
    So we have a suggestion for the president as a surefire way to start to make good on his pledge. Tell the American people: “I will drain the tanks.”
    The ethanol tanks, we mean.
    The ethanol mandate—federal law forcing the manufacture of a biofuel that helps no one except businesses that profit from it—is a stinky hunk of corporate welfare dripping with swamp ooze.
    The ethanol mandate proposed for 2018 will require the production of 19.24 billion gallons of the fuel, almost all of which will come from corn. This is testimony to the power of the swamp, because there is no doubt remaining that every one of those billions of gallons will do more harm than good.
    The last glimmer of a rationale for the ethanol mandate was that, in spite of all of its negative trappings, it might at least be a bit of hedge against global warming by providing an alternative to fossil fuel. Our own University of Wisconsin-Madison has now exposed that as either wishful thinking or propaganda from the swamp.
    A study by the UW Department of Geography published last week showed that ethanol contributes significantly to the carbon emissions that cause global warming. The research found that the cultivating of more than 7 million acres of land expressly to grow corn to meet the ethanol quota released a massive amount of carbon into the atmosphere.
    The researchers calculated that the carbon emissions caused by tilling land to produce corn for ethanol is equivalent to 20 million additional vehicles driving on American roads every year.
    The UW findings add an exclamation point to the litany of reasons the ethanol mandate should be scrapped. First among them is that it hurts taxpayers and consumers.
    The more than $12 billion given annually by the federal government to ethanol producers and growers of corn for ethanol in tax breaks, direct cash payments and crop insurance subsidies takes tax dollars away from other needs—infrastructure for one—and adds to the deficit.
    The ethanol mandate penalizes consumers with rising food costs by driving up the price of corn needed for livestock feed and as an ingredient in numerous food products.
    At the same time, it reduces the food supply needed for a hungry world. American farmers grow 40% of the planet’s corn. Thanks to the ethanol mandate, a steadily increasing amount of it is being used to power internal combustion engines instead of feeding starving humans.
    In creating a huge artificial demand for ethanol, the mandate has become an environmental blight, causing vast areas of prairies, wetlands, pastures and farmland once used for crops more benign than the soil-depleting, fertilizer and pesticide-dependant corn to be converted to corn production.
    For good measure, ethanol is a lousy fuel. Even when it makes up only 10% of a gallon of gasoline it can make car and truck engines less fuel efficient and prone to corrosion and is harmful to small gas engines.
    The ethanol mandate is a bipartisan sin, supported by Democrats and Republicans. It could once be said in defense of the members of Congress who enacted the mandate in 2007 that they at least had a plausible reason, which was to lessen America’s need for foreign oil. That reason is now null and void. The U.S. is essentially tied with Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer and dependence on imported petroleum is no longer an issue.
    Well, then, what is President Trump doing about draining the part of the swamp occupied by the ethanol lobby? Nothing. Actually, less then nothing.
    He instructed Environmental Protection Agency  chief Scott Pruitt to not just support the 2018 ethanol quota but to consider increasing it. We can’t help wonder whether either one of them sees the irony in crippling or killing effective environmental protection regulations, as they have been doing relentlessly, while bestowing their blessing on one that is demonstrably harmful.                     The swamp rules.
    Drain the swamp.
    Start by draining the tanks.       

Insult on top of injury for frugal school districts PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 15 November 2017 18:08

It’s a pity Gov. Scott Walker and a delegation of influential members of the Wisconsin Legislature did not attend the Oct. 25 meeting of the Cedar Grove-Belgium School Board.
    No one expected them to be there, of course. Some of these powerful politicians might never even have heard of the school district that serves the residents of two small villages and the surrounding rural area in northern Ozaukee County and southern Sheboygan County.
    Well, maybe some of them read the news story about the meeting in Ozaukee Press. That might have opened their eyes a bit. In the article by Belgium reporter Mitch Maersch, board members voiced angst over the plight of small school districts that seemed so deeply felt it was almost palpable.
    “Do you think the legislators even understand what they’re doing?” Board President Chad Hoopman asked at one point. The answer from Kris DeBruine, the district’s business manager, was succinct: “No, they don’t.”
    The dialogue took place at a special meeting called to approve the budget and tax levy. The board accomplished that, with the result that school taxes will be slightly lower next year. But the process was painful nonetheless because it was affected by the profound unfairness of state mandates on public school funding.
    The unfairness is that small school districts like Cedar Grove-Belgium that for years demonstrated spending restraint are forced to subsist on far less funding per student than big districts with histories of extravagant spending.
    The state revenue limits on school districts are based on the level of per-student spending in effect in 1993. Districts that were frugal have been penalized ever since with more stringent revenue limits than the big spenders. DeBruine gave the example of the Nicolet High School District of Glendale. It operates with state and local tax revenue of $19,000 per student per year, about twice as much as the limit for Cedar Grove-Belgium.
    Especially galling to the CG-B board members was the fact that a measure of relief from this glaring inequity was in sight before it was snatched away. The budget approved by the Legislature in September raised the revenue limit for low-spending districts. The increase, described by its sponsor, Rep. John Nygren (R-Marquette), as “an opportunity to correct a long-term inequity in our K-12 funding system,” was about to become law—and then the governor vetoed it.
    The severely tilted revenue playing field also makes it harder for low-spending districts to deal with the erosion of public school funding caused by the Legislature’s expansion of the private school voucher program.
    The same budget that in the end gave no help to beleaguered low-revenue districts increased voucher amounts and raised the income limit, making more families eligible for taxpayer-paid private school tuition subsidies. Public school districts in effect pay the subsidies by having to forfeit state aid for every student from the district who attends a private school with vouchers.
    The voucher program will cost the Cedar Grove-Belgium district $112,000 in state aid this year.
    “Really,” the business manager explained accurately, “the local taxpayers are paying for the vouchers.”
    The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that the voucher program will shift as much as $800 million in state funding from public schools to private schools over the next decade.
    Wisconsin public schools have taken one hit after the other during the Walker years. For the first time in his tenure, state aid to public schools was increased in the new budget. It’s long overdue, but at $200 per student it does little to make up for the prolonged squeeze on public school funding and has no effect on the skewed revenue limits.
    Members of the Cedar Grove-Belgium School Board could give state officials an earful about that. Actually, they did. The governor and legislators just weren’t there to hear it.

Social media can be hazardous to truth PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 November 2017 16:00

Free speech has limits.
    The classic exception frequently cited in academic discussions before the invention of the internet as an example of harmful speech undeserving of protection by the First Amendment was crying “Fire!” falsely in a crowded theater and causing dangerous panic.
    In the internet age, the equivalent of “Fire!” is shouted many times every day, and often panic ensues. This happens on social media, where anyone is free to say anything—true or false, innocent or malicious, benign or harmful.
    Social media giants Facebook and Twitter are under fire in Congress for allowing their platforms to be used by Russia to influence the American presidential election with a massive disinformation campaign, but there is a telling example of the consequences of misleading social media communication much closer to home.
     The example is a story of how panic, or at least “mild hysteria,” as a police spokesman characterized it, resulted from rumors spread on social media by Port Washington High School students and some of their parents that caused more than 100 students to skip school on Oct. 27.
    The story illustrates not only the pernicious effect of bogus information broadcast by social media, but also the power of the likes of Facebook to drown out accurate information disseminated by trusted institutions.
    It started, fittingly, with social media posts by a Port High student who called himself “Mr. Yeah” on Snapchat, which led to an exchange with other students, including the comment, “I’m going to kill myself Friday night at 11:59 p.m. and the auditorium.” (Police said he meant to type “at” the auditorium.)
    The post was brought to the attention of school administrators and police, who tracked down Mr. Yeah, arrested him and put him in the county jail.
    Authorities quickly determined the threat was not legitimate. High school Principal Eric Burke said that based on the police investigation it was clear that the incident amounted to “a student being inappropriate with social media.”
    Nevertheless, both school and police authorities took pains to allay any fears the incident might have raised. The Port Washington Police Department issued a press release and the high school sent an email to parents, both messages clearly explaining the situation and reporting the fact that the student who was responsible for it had been arrested and was in jail.
    This well-handled outreach to the community occurred on Wednesday, Oct. 25. Overnight, rumors and statements that seemed deliberately false, including made-up claims that police had arrested the wrong person and that the culprit who made threats was on the loose, spread over social media. By Thursday morning the high school and police department had to deal with parents demanding to know if it was safe to send their children to school. The high school principal sent another email to parents stating flatly: “There were no threats to students or our school.”
    Yet more than 100 students, about 15% of the student body, did not show up for classes on Friday.
    Police Captain Michael Keller said officers interviewed some of the students who started or passed along rumors on social media. “They admitted they didn’t know what they were talking about,” he said. “A lot of this was caused by students using social media, which got parents worked up, and all of a sudden we had a bit of mild hysteria on our hands.”
    Though this may seem like small stuff at a time when false information spread on the internet can destroy reputations and skew elections, it is a vivid display of how easily irresponsible use of social media can become a negative force.
    Social media, whose place in society is now about as certain as death and taxes, are not going away, but their empowering of misinformation has to be addressed.
    Facebook and Twitter have some culpability, especially in allowing their networks to be vulnerable to propaganda, but so too do the users of social media, including those who without malicious intent share the misinformation, rumors and the concocted false narratives that inspired the term fake news.
    The reason for the existence of the internet is to inform, and yet much of the responsibility for the damage to truth caused by social media falls on users who are poorly informed, gullible and unable or unwilling to separate fact from fiction.
    It has been suggested that the energetic exchange by the Port students of wild rumors born in fantasy rather than any semblance of fact was an internet-era ploy by teenagers to facilitate playing hooky. That is almost a comforting explanation; after all, scheming to find a legal way to legally skip school has been a time-honored tradition for many generations of students.
    But we have to ask: What were the adults thinking? Concern about their children’s safety is certainly understandable, but did more than 100 sets of parents really buy into rumors that had no more reason to be taken seriously than that they appeared on Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat?

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