By Roger Utnehmer
An Occasional Attempt
To Restore Civility to Our Civic Discourse
President and CEO
April 19, 2017
Talking tough is often better politics than public policy. Take taxes, crime, judicial pay and drug testing welfare recipients.
Few in state government today are bold enough to advocate a long-overdue increase in the state gas tax. Like the minimum wage, the gas tax should again be indexed to inflation. Doing so will avoid the bi-annual debates about crumbling roads and bridges while facing a billion dollar transportation fund deficit. No Tax Increases pledges make for good politics and terrible public policy.
Legislators who are brave enough to support raising the minimum wage to a moral threshold of decency and index the gas tax to either the consumer price index or inflation are statesmen(and women.) Unfortunately, in what has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Koch Brothers, The American Legislative Exchange Council and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce formerly known as the State of Wisconsin, far too few politicians are “no tax increase pledge FREE.” As a condition of support, candidates promise to never vote for a tax increase. Their power and influence as independent-thinking lawmakers is limited by such pledges. It’s part of why we are in the divide in which we find ourselves today.
For years politicians have demagogued criminal justice issues by exploiting prejudice and ignorance of facts. True leaders are smart, not just tough, on crime. Minimum sentencing has filled our prisons beyond reason and taxpayers’ ability to pay. But it was good politics.
Restorative justice, more funding for public defenders, higher salaries for District Attorneys, their assistants and judges and justices would be a good start to make Wisconsin smarter on crime rather than tougher. Wisconsin circuit court judges and supreme court justices are among the lowest paid in America. Assistant district attorneys are paid as low as $49,000 a year at a time when a typical law school graduate leaves school with more than $100,000 in debt.
A Department of Corrections commitment to vocational training, drug and alcohol counseling and greater prisoner access to families will reduce the cost of operating Wisconsin prisons. When it costs more to run our prison system than our universities are spending priorities are distorted.
The most recent egregious example of political pandering is drug testing welfare recipients. We have lost our sense of decency as a people when innocent children could be punished for the sins of their parents. That is exactly what would happen if food stamps are denied because of the drug abuse of a mother or father.
Wisconsin faces a paucity of political leadership committed to the common good. It takes money to educate our children, keep roads and bridges safe, rehabilitate offenders, attract law enforcement and judicial personnel and provide a safety net to the least among us. Next time we look in the mirror a good question to ask ourselves is if we are more compassionate and decent than many of our politicians. My guess is that with little reflection the answer will be yes.
That’s my opinion. I’d like to hear yours.