Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. March 17, 2022.
Editorial: Science hall funding a must for Legislature
Tommy Thompson, the outgoing president of the University of Wisconsin System, was lauded this week as one of UW-Eau Claire’s biggest cheerleaders during his tenure. A portion of the new science building will be named in his honor.
Let’s hope there’s a building to bear the name.
Plans for a new science hall at the university aren’t new. Phillips Hall, the current facility, has significant deficits. It doesn’t fit what the university needs now, and there’s only so much retrofitting that can overcome the gaps caused by technology’s advance.
Then there’s the fact basic safety standards have advanced considerably over the past 60 years. The current building simply does not have the systems to properly protect life and property. A February 2020 fire in the building sent shudders down officials’ spines because of how much it highlighted the need for improvements.
Oddly, the Wisconsin Legislature funded half of the project, leaving the remaining $100 million plus for a later budget. Despite the opportunity to finish the funding, the Legislature has not yet done so. The delay is not justifiable, nor is it sensible. Rare indeed is the case in which waiting multiple years winds up saving money.
Beyond that, there’s the reality that continuing with outdated infrastructure reduces the university’s ability to appeal to prospective students. The partnerships between the university and local businesses — notably the Mayo Clinic — should be a significant incentive to enroll. But those advantages are being kneecapped by a lack of funding.
Thompson correctly called the planned science building “an investment in the future … an investment in economic development.” There can be little argument on the points. Few disciplines have the capacity to influence the future the way science and medicine do.
A century ago, the country was still building telephone lines to connect communities. Today businesses use VOIP systems to run their phones through the internet. The first successful organ transplants are less than a century old. Today more than 40,000 transplants take place annually in the United States alone.
There are far more examples of how science and medicine have changed how we live compared to just a generation or two ago than we have the time or space to write. It takes intentional obliviousness to challenge the fundamental point. Yet the officials who hold the power of the purse have, as yet, not fulfilled what should be a basic duty with regard to a project all agree is needed.
Demolition to make way for the new building is slated to begin this year. Work on the new building is in the design phase. But the $147 million funding gap remains.
The hope is that Legislators will include the funding as part of the next budget. Failure to do so would be more than a black eye for Wisconsin. It would send a deeply undesirable message about the value the state attaches to both science and education itself.
Neither science nor medicine are, as we’ve noted before, courses of study that leave parents scratching their heads wondering what their children will do with their lives. There is no shortage of rewarding careers in both the fiscal and philosophical senses. These are core subjects, skills upon which much of modern life depend.
We want to see the university continue to attract top students. Doing that requires attracting the best possible instructors. And both students and faculty take a hard look at the resources available at a school before deciding to commit a significant portion of their futures to that institution. That is why this project is so important. It’s not just a matter of what the school can offer today. It’s about what it will be able to offer in the future.
Thompson’s support of the state’s universities continued a long tradition of service to Wisconsin. He certainly deserves the honor being given with the naming at UW-Eau Claire.
It would be a true shame if the Legislature failed to ensure that honor was completed in due course.
Wisconsin Valley Media Group. March 20, 2022.
Editorial: Brewers again eyeing taxpayers’ wallets
Much of southeastern Wisconsin is getting giddy again now that a new Major League Baseball labor agreement has been reached.
That means a slightly delayed season opener for the Milwaukee Brewers is now slated with an away game against the Chicago Cubs on April 7 and the long-awaited home opener against St. Louis at American Family Field on April 14.
We’ve pined for the whistling fastballs and the crack of the bat once again. We’ve missed the iconic call of Bob Uecker exhorting a Brewer hit to “get up, get up, get outa here – gone!”
We long for a stadium brat with kraut and Secret Stadium Sauce.
And, yes, we’ll help fill the stands as we hope the Brewers can make a run for the pennant — and maybe, just maybe, a chance to get to the World Series. We love baseball, and, yes, we’re fans.
But while the Brewers will be swinging for the wall, there were reports last week that Brewers’ owners — Mark Attanasio and others — may soon be swinging for taxpayers’ wallets.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel carried a speculative story last week that it’s a “fair assumption” the Brewers will seek upwards of $100 million in public financing help for future renovations of American Family Field.
What? Didn’t the five-county, 0.1 percent sales tax that pumped $605 million toward the construction and later upgrades of then-Miller Park just expire two years ago? That tax, according to the newspaper, cost residents of the five counties in the taxing region – Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington and, of course, a rankled Racine—$342 per person over the 26 years of the tax.
The regional sales tax — which, in 1996, cost the job of a Racine state senator; George Petak was recalled after he flipped his vote in favor of the taxing district — had its sunset in 2020 after the Stadium District Board determined the construction debt was paid off and the Legislature and Gov. Tony Evers concurred.
The Stadium District Board relied on a consultant’s report that an $87 million reserve fund was sufficient to maintain and upgrade American Family Field to the evolving standards of other MLB stadiums, according to news reports.
The Brewers then asked for a more detailed analysis of improvement and maintenance costs, but the Stadium Board declined.
So, now, according to the news reports, the Brewers management is conducting its own study, which is expected sometime this summer.
Here’s the deal: Construction of then-Miller Park cost $392 million. The Brewers contributed $90 million. The city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County kicked in $18 million for adjacent infrastructure support, the state DOT tossed in $36 million to rebuild highways and the rest came from the regional sales tax.
Consider, too, that Attanasio bought the Brewers’ franchise in 2005 for $223 million. Today the franchise is worth an estimated $1.22 billion. That should be worthy of a line of credit to spiffy up the ballpark.
But, perhaps, the most disheartening paragraph in the MJS story was this one: “Looming in the background is the possibility that the Brewers could leave Milwaukee after the team’s ballpark lease ends its initial term at the end of 2030.”
For a city and state that already lost one MLB team — the Braves, to Atlanta in 1965 — those words have a ring of fear.
That’s possible — and we’ve seen it play out in city after city as NFL, NBA and MLB owners shop for better deals. And cities across the country go along with this blackmail-ish technique to bolster civic pride and boost their local economies with spinoff fan spending for rooms, restaurants, bars and the like. That includes Milwaukee, where $250 million in public financing helped build the $524 million Fiserv Forum for the Bucks. That public financing includes a $2 per ticket surcharge for Fiserv Forum events that is expected to generate $60 million over 30 years.
In Phoenix, home of the Diamondbacks, the municipal bonding package is to be paid off in part by a 9 percent sales tax on game tickets, concessions and beer, team merchandise in the ballpark district. That makes sense, because it puts the costs on the backs of fans, and not on taxpayers who don’t go to the ballpark.
Those are approaches the Brewers might want to consider as they prepare their request for more public taxpayer support. But if we see the words “five-county sales tax” anywhere in the Brewers consultant’s report, we’re out of here.
We won’t play ball with that around here.
Racine Journal Times. March 16, 2022.
Editorial: Government records belong to the people
“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote those words in 1913, in an article for Harper’s Weekly. Nearly 110 years later, they remain a touchstone for the concept that government records belong to the people, not the government.
This is Freedom of Information Week, and today is Freedom of Information Day. We’re using this space to discuss the vital importance of government records being made public.
It’s a simple concept: If a government agency refuses to make its records public, it’s a reasonable presumption that that agency is trying to hide something, whether merely embarrassing or plainly illegal. The federal Freedom of Information Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, requires full or partial disclosure of unreleased information and documents controlled by the federal government upon request.
At the state level, the Wisconsin Open Records Law, enacted in 1982, is a series of laws intended to guarantee that the public has access to public records of government bodies at all levels. The Badger State defines “record” as any document, regardless of physical form, that “has been created or is being kept by” an agency. In general, “any requester has a right to inspect any record.”
Bill Lueders is president of Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a private watchdog agency. On Thursday, Lueders announced the winners of the Council’s annual Openness Awards, or Opees.
Christine Brenann, who asked to see the records of communications between Fond du Lac officials and backers of a park redevelopment project. When the city asked her for $6,888 on top of the $1,000 she had already paid to locate these records, she balked. “Her experience helped raise public awareness of abusive location fee costs and led to better methods for archiving records in Fond du Lac,” Lueders wrote in a news release announcing the awards.
The Winnebago County District Attorney’s Office, which has charged the Town of Omro for open records violations.
Douglas Oitzinger, a city of Marinette alderperson in the city of Marinette, who filed suit against his fellow council members, alleging that they had improperly gone into closed session to discuss water supply options. “This is about open government,” he told the local paper. “That’s all it’s about.”
The WFIC also has awarded a “Nopee,” as in “No Friend of Openness,” to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and his appointed investigator, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, for their slowness in regard to releasing records of Gableman’s probe of the 2020 Wisconsin election.
“What exactly is Gableman, a former state Supreme Court justice, doing for the $676,000 in taxpayer funds that Vos, the speaker of the state Assembly, agreed to pay him?” Lueders wrote. “Neither Gableman nor Vos seem to want people to know, despite a judge’s finding that their “denials, delays, and refusals” violate the records law. In fact, so few records have been provided in response to records requests that there is speculation that records are being destroyed. So is the state’s tradition of open government.”
Speaker Vos and Mr. Gableman can, of course, make a case for being unworthy recipients of the Nopee by taking a stronger stand in favor of transparency and making more of the probe’s records publicly available.
This newspaper regularly files Open Records requests to investigate the activity of local government agencies. Any citizen can do the same.
Because the records of government belong to all of us.