Thanking the State Supreme Court for adopting a rule that proves my point
It's time to start appointing our State Supreme Court judges. After the high court adopted a rule this week making it OK for justices to stay on cases involving even those who contribute significant sums of money to their campaigns, I can see no other way for us to regain some sliver of trust in the impartiality of the system.
With this decision, it becomes impossible for the public to know whether or not a judge is making a decision based on the rules or on the pocketbook. Without even the appearance of objective judges, there can be no trust. Without trust, what use is the law?
Justices Michael Gableman and Annette Ziegler may be pleased as punch about the decision, as they have both come in for intense scrutiny in regards to influence from big donors. That scrutiny, it would seem, is not at all without merit. One of those major contributors helped write this very law:
The rules were written by the Wisconsin Realtors Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a business lobbying group that spent millions to elect Justices Annette K. Ziegler and Michael Gableman.
So it doesn't matter what the truth of any one case is at this point; the issue has been so thoroughly muddied by both the authors and the public perception of the rule as to render it useless. If we want an even close approximation of impartiality, and a court worth trusting, then we need to develop a system of appointments. We can model it on the methods used for choosing Supreme Court Justices letting the governor nominate someone who must then be approved by the Legislature. That would maintain checks and balances while avoiding the increasingly costly, dirty, and ultimately image tarnishing process of regular elections.
The tide of undue corporate influence on the elections of our public officials has been allowed to rise too high. We have to act now to stem it, otherwise only the rich will find justice, and the rest of us will have to trust in pure chance.
Big wins for trains and bicycles in Wisconsin
Some news cycles are better than others in terms of the balance between good and bad. The above I would categorize as bad, but the following is definitely a breath of fresh air:
Wisconsin will receive $810 million in federal stimulus money to establish high-speed passenger rail from Milwaukee to Madison and to study the possibility of extending it to the Twin Cities.
We've been pushing for light rail to connect the major Midwestern cities for years, so when this announcement was made last week, many a public transportation advocate in the state was surely seen to punch the air in celebration. It will take a few years before the whole system is up and running, but we're apparently in a good position to get things moving pretty quickly, since much of the infrastructure already exists. The biggest debate is likely to be the location of the main Madison train station. So far proposals include everywhere from the airport to something downtown and even the empty lot of the stalled Union Corners development.
Wherever the station (or stations) ends up being, the rail line will likely prove to be a boon to the state's economy and environment. I know several people who currently commute between Madison and Milwaukee, and not only would being able to hop a train be better for their mental health and wallet, it would help lessen the traffic on the interstate. Plus, I know I'll be far more likely to head into Milwaukee to catch a show or visit friends, and I suspect the same can be said of many Milwaukee residents wishing to visit our fair city. It's win-win.
And since we're already on the good news train it's worth pointing out a new, first-of-its-kind study released yesterday and conducted by graduate students at the UW-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. The report shows that recreational cycling "generates $1.5 billion in economic activity a year in Wisconsin."
That puts bicycling on par with things like deer hunting (which brought in $1.4 billion) and ahead of even snowmobiling ($250 million). Furthermore, the study suggests that "increasing nonresident bicycling by 20 percent has the potential to increase economic activity by more than $107 million dollars and create 1,528 full-time-equivalent jobs, mostly in retail, lodging and food service."
Bikes are good business. They're also pretty low-impact in terms of the environment; quiet, fun, and can even be an inexpensive and easier to maintain alternative to owning a car. Riding a bike is good for your health, too. I could go on and on, but honestly a full list of benefits would just be unwieldy. Suffice to say that studies like this are crucial in terms of putting hard numbers behind the claims bicycle nuts like me have been making for years. Now we can point to the research when we invade the capitol building looking for legislators to back more comprehensive funding and planning for bike infrastructure.
Having sunk Milwaukee, Walker eyeballs Wisconsin as a whole
I would find this whole saga funny if it weren't for the fact that Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker really and truly does want to run the whole state now. And if he hadn't helped to thoroughly trash Milwaukee's own government along the way.
In response to a recent study by the nonpartisan Public Policy forum that shows the county is in extreme peril, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorial board took the very serious step of calling for a complete dissolution of the current government.
I don't know what the best solution to Milwaukee's dire circumstances is, but I do know that Walker has been too much a part of the problem to then trust with the position he now seeks: governor.
It reminds me of those all-too frequent cases where an employee is promoted beyond their actual skill level. Just because someone has been around for awhile doesn't automatically mean that they'd make a good manager. That seems to be what Walker is banking on, though, hoping that we'll forget or just fail to notice the complete fiscal and institutional meltdown he helped to create in Milwaukee County.
James Rowen of the Political Environment blog gets it right:
Walker's been County Exec for nearly eight years, and came into office as the reformer who would fix the County's woes in the wake of a pension scandal that cost the previous Exec and a host of supervisors their positions.
Yet Walker was unable or unwilling to get a handle on the county's financial problems, in part because his real agenda - - his major distraction - - was motorcycling around the state in search of the governorship, and using the Milwaukee position to step up and into the Governor's office.
Of course, no one outside of the blogs seems willing to call Walker on his actual record. Even the MJS editorial referenced above, which takes the extremely bold position of calling for an entire governmental structure to be dissolved, never one mentions the name of that government's leader (that would be Walker).
These questions need to be asked. The citizens of Wisconsin deserve to know the truth about each of the candidates for governor. Especially one with such an atrocious record as Walker, who now proposes a series of corporate tax breaks that would likely double the state's budget deficit, from $2 to $4 billion.
That's not someone I want running a sandwich shop, let alone the entire state government.
Feingold and the filibuster: BFFs 4eva
A questioner at a recent town hall meeting asked Sen. Russ Feingold if he would support a move to repeal the rule that requires a supermajority of 60 senators to pass legislation without the opposition being able to resort to a filibuster. Feingold stated that he opposed such a change, which apparently surprised MJS columnist George Wagner. Wagner argues that Republican obstinance has rendered the rule useless, since they've been stubbornly unwilling to meet "ethical senators" like Feingold in the middle.
While I agree that the Republicans of the past decade or so have proven themselves to be mostly useless, childish, fear-mongering dimwits (not all, but most), I don't think doing away with the filibuster is the way to deal with the problem. Power in the Legislative branch ebbs and flows over time, so the side that any one of us agrees with more is likely to end up as a minority from time to time. The filibuster gives them a chance, even against overwhelming odds, to get their opinion out into the open and maybe even stop legislation they disagree with from going through. It's one of the tools we use to prevent a tyranny of the majority.
But things up on Capitol Hill are a mess these days, and it shouldn't take 60 votes just to pass even the most trifling of bills. What to do, then? How about we actually elect Democrats that still possess a spine and a moral compass? Democrats (or Independents, or any other party) willing to stand up and fight for legislation that they believe in, and that their constituents want, even against difficult odds and the potential of losing donors? Now there's a novel idea.
Ed Garvey wonders why the UW is renting out its good name to the right-wing Wisconsin Policy Research Institute when it partners with them on conducting political polls. Damn good question.
Man, screw bacterial meningitis. A UW student is currently in critical condition with the illness and those who came into contact with that student have been notified and put on antibiotics.