Friday, March 31, 2006

April Could Be Another Banner Month for Medicare Part D

Today is the day special protections expire for Medicare Part D recipients, making April the first month the plan will run on its own since it began at the start of January.

January, as most will remember, didn't go too well. The early troubles are what prompted the creation of the special protections.

Seniors were being automatically enrolled in the program on January 1 and in many cases the plan they were placed into didn't cover the medications they needed. The special protections were designed to ensure all participants would get their prescription drugs despite any problem with plan coverage.

While the intention was the use the past two months to fix the system and get participants into the appropriate plans, some fear short-term fixes will fall apart when the special protections are dropped after today.

And according to an attorney for a nonprofit Medicare advocacy group in California: "The fear is many people are unaware the drugs they are currently taking are not covered by their plan."

Many people have been urging President Bush to extend the special protections, but he has declined to do so. Tomorrow will be the last day the federal government provides any money to cover prescriptions not normally covered by the participant's plan.

It appears if the program falters like it did in January, either the participants will be on their own or states will need to step up and handle the resulting problems alone.

The San Francisco Chronicle has the full story.

All Hail the Market!: The Wisconsin Health Plan

I’ve been meaning to write a post urging critics of government employee health plans to get on board with broader reform of the health care system.

If even half of the energy conservative activists put into recall elections and tax reduction measures could be directed toward true health care reform, it would benefit all citizens in the state and likely reduce the overall amount of public money going toward health care.

I was going to use the Wisconsin Health Plan as an example of specific legislation that could be championed—but after reading a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report on it from December 2005, I’m not so sure.

There are two main issues with health care, although the two aren’t mutually exclusive: cost and the (rising) number of uninsured.

While the WHP does an excellent job dealing with the uninsured problem by virtually ensuring coverage for all Wisconsin residents, the cost issue does not appear to be significantly affected.

The basic idea of the WHP is that all employers and employees in the state will pay an assessment toward a fund that will be used to provide health insurance to nearly every Wisconsin citizen under the age of 65. The amount of the assessment will be determined by how much the employer pays in wages and how much the employee pays in social security taxes.

Unfortunately, the plan does nothing to address the problems of the multiple payer system we currently employ for health insurance. In fact, the plan reinforces the multiple payer system by allowing any and all insurance companies (as long as they meet certain quality requirements) to participate. The idea that’s driving this is the belief that competition in the marketplace is always the best way to achieve lower costs.

In health care, however, this is simply not the case.

The WHP authors have made claims that the plan would reduce the overall cost of health care in Wisconsin. The actuarial report acquired by the authors demonstrates this reduction in cost, but in its review of the WHP, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau challenged some significant assumptions made by the actuaries in their analysis.

According to figures provided by the Wisconsin Hospital Association for 2004, there are a variety of discount rates given by health care providers to the various insurers. The discount is based upon the notion that people who are part of an insurance plan together have more purchasing power than an individual who seeks health care alone.

It’s similar to the idea of buying in bulk. You get a cheaper rate because you’re purchasing a larger amount.

The various discount rates reported by the WHA were 61% for Medicare, 72% for Medicaid, 42% for other public sources, 23% for commercial insurance companies, and 5% for other payers.

When the actuaries hired by the WHP authors completed their analysis, they used discount rates of between 40% and 45% in their calculations of cost, despite the fact that the plan would use commercial insurance companies that typically only get a discount of around 23%. Clearly, this actuarial assumption significantly reduces the overall cost projections of the plan.

A large reason plans like Medicare are able to get such significant discounts is that they have more people, which translates into more purchasing power, which makes for lower costs overall. Plus, overall administrative costs--which are estimated at almost 1/3 of total health care costs--are less when there are fewer insurers. This is the power of a consolidating the number of payers in the system—something that the WHP does not do.

The reason the WHP could not viably reduce the number of payers in the system is because the move would be antithetical to the notion of a competitive marketplace—a notion that carries significant political influence through the business community.

According to the marketplace theory, the more companies that are out there competing, the more costs will go down. But as the discount rates released by the Wisconsin Hospital Association make clear, that is not the case for the health care system.

Before I get critiques that I’m pushing socialized medicine, that’s actually not what I’m suggesting. In fact, I’ve said before that Canada is not a good model for health care in the United States.

France, on the other hand, does provide a usable model because it employs a public-private hybrid system that simultaneously provides a single-payer and multiple-payer system. While we have a public-private hybrid now in the US, the single-payer part is only open to seniors and those who qualify for options like Medicaid or VA benefits.

Overall, while the Wisconsin Health Plan does an excellent job of addressing the uninsured problem in Wisconsin, its effect on cost is not clear because it relies upon the multiple payer system that’s fueled by a misdirected belief in the universal promise of the marketplace.

We need to get beyond beliefs like this if we’re serious about addressing health care costs in Wisconsin and the US, which undoubtedly have a significant impact on increasingly-strapped public revenues.

Good Discussion on Milwaukee County's Fiscal Troubles

I've received quite a bit of traffic for my recent post "Rock : Scott Walker : Hard Place" (located here). I encourage everyone who is interested to visit or revisit the post and check out the comments.

The post was visited by an anonymous commenter with firsthand experience working on the Milwaukee County budget. She/he raised some good points from the conservative point of view on the situation, and I did my best to respond from the progressive point of view.

All-in-all, I think the discussion is a pretty good one. Like I said, take a look if you're interested.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

More Comments on the Secretive Hearings

As I noted below, there are a few more interesting tidbits from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article today that details the secretive hearings on the revenue amendment.

The most interesting of all is that amendment co-author, Wisconsin Senator Glenn Grothman, made the comment that the earliest this bill could come before the Wisconsin voters is November 2008.

Previously, Republican supporters hoped the amendment would pass the current legislative session, next year's session, and then wind up on a statewide ballot in 2007. It sounds like things might not be going too well in the attempt to muster legislative support for the amendment.

I can't imagine the authors of the marriage amendment ever felt this much resistance, especially considering their own party is in firm control of both the Senate and the Assembly.

Also, in my post below I noted that Grothman probably preferred the invitation-only hearings because he only had to hear those opinions he likes. That, to be fair, isn't accurate because there are certainly anti-amendment speakers who are invited to these hearings.

But what the lack of publicity surrounding these supposedly public hearings does suggest is that Grothman doesn't want to generate more bad press for the amendment.

To be sure, the meeting held yesterday in Germantown--the one largely kept from the media and the public--featured speakers from local government. Since the opposition to the amendment from local officials is well-known, perhaps Grothman didn't want the cameras there while invited speakers were railing against the amendment.

According to the JS article on the Germantown hearing: "Municipal and school officials from across the state have expressed their opposition to the amendment, saying it threatens services, economic development and school quality. The measure was almost unanimously denounced at Wednesday's hearing."

There is going to be another invitation-only hearing on the amendment next week. This one will feature speakers from special interest groups, presumably like the pro-amendment business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. It will be interesting to see if the media and the public are notified of that one.

Hearings on Revenue Amendment Now Sercretive, Too

Apparently it wasn't good enough to just hold invitation-only public hearings on the proposed amendment to restrict public revenue in Wisconsin.

Now the authors of the amendment are moving toward invitation-only hearings without the pesky word "public" in them.

According to the invitation sent out by Wisconsin Senator Glenn Grothman, there was no intention of informing the news media or the public about the existence of a hearing on the revenue amendment held yesterday in Germantown.

Grothman explained: "To be honest, we learned a lot more from the invitation-only meeting."

Since the only true public hearing on the amendment had opponents outnumbering supporters nearly 8 to 1, perhaps what Grothman meant is that he hears a lot more of what he likes at hearings where he gets to invite the speakers.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has the full story here.

There are a few more interesting tidbits in the story, but I have an all-day meeting to attend for work. I'll comment more during the lunch break.

Milwaukee County Files Important Lawsuit

A $100 million lawsuit filed by Milwaukee County yesterday against the actuarial company that gave support to the infamous county pension deal of 2000 is significant. If the county can recoup that money, it would go a long way toward helping its fiscal position.

I have no idea how long these cases usually take, but considering the Mercer Human Resource Consulting firm generates annual revenues of $12 billion, I imagine it has plenty of time and money to spend on its defense.

What’s really amazing in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article on the lawsuit are a couple of quotes that come toward the end.

When the pension deal was making its way through the approval process back in October 2000, the county personnel director at the time, Gary Dobbert, explained to the Pension Study Commission how the plan would be cost-neutral based upon the actuarial projections of Mercer.

If there would’ve been any hints at the time that the plan wouldn’t be cost neutral, it’s likely it would’ve been shot down by the Pension Study Commission. As it was, the plan passed the commission by a narrow margin and then went on to pass the county board shortly thereafter.

A Mercer actuary, Dennis Skelly, was present at the meeting with the Pension Study Commission. Skelly later testified that he wasn't aware his firm had ever investigated the cost-neutrality of certain important aspects of the pension plan--he claimed to be "surprised" when Dobbert made this assertion before the Pension Study Commission.

So when asked by investigators why he didn’t speak up at the October 2000 meeting and correct Dobbert, he explained that he “didn’t want to make Dobbert look stupid.”

And if that one doesn’t get you, try this one on for size by another one of the Mercer actuaries, Glenn Soderstrom, who did choose speak his mind at the Pension Study Commission meeting.

Soderstrom bluntly promised the commission in October 2000: “There is some degree of uncertainty, but I am convinced I will never come to you and tell you, ‘Supervisor, please pony up $20 million next year.’ You would have the right to kick me in the rear end on that account because I think we would have warned you about the potential and surprises.”

As it turns out, after the pension deal was brokered the Pension Board only had to ask the county supervisors for $20 million once in 2003.

The next year it had to ask for $44 million.

Where do you suppose he should let us kick him for that one?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

What Local Officials Are Really Saying About the Revenue Amendment

An article in today's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel about the negative local government reaction to the proposed constitutional amendment to restrict public revenue in Wisconsin is not surprising.

It is not surprising because numerous local officials and the organizations that represent them have released press statements denouncing the amendment since it was announced less than two months ago.

What is surprising is that some amendment proponents are actually trying to make it out like local officials support this amendment.

A recent press release by the corporate special interest and pro-amendment group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce was titled: "People Are Talking About the Wisconsin Taxpayer Protection Amendment...And They Are Saying Good Things."

The release provides statements of support from a total of six local leaders (one retired): New Berlin School Board member Art Marquardt, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas, Superior City Council vice president Kevin Norbie, former Antigo Mayor Michael Monson, and Monona City Council member Lisa Nelson.

This display of six local leaders by the WMC can hardly hold a torch to the 64 municipal officials and 45 county officials who have signed formal statements opposing the amendment, plus the opposition by the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, and the Wisconsin County Executives and Administrators Association. And this doesn't even include the many more who have spoken out against the amendment in newspaper articles like the one in the JS today.

There is no doubt local officials are talking about the revenue amendment--what they're saying, however, is anything but good.

Corporate Redecorating of Our Public Schools

An article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel this morning highlights an unfortunate trend for many of our public schools in Wisconsin. It discusses the selling-off of naming rights for school facilities to corporate donors.

In the past it seemed to be good enough to collect a large amount of modest donations from citizens and businesses alike to fund the restoration or construction of facilities in places like public schools, but now apparently school districts are looking for that solo home run donation.

And while there used to be simple, elegant plaques recognizing the various donors for a project, now the entire name of the area is being dedicated to the big corporate donor.

While these big donations certainly don't need to come from corporate donors, the reality is that corporations are in many cases the only entities that have the funds to serve as a sole donor. In an elementary school in New Berlin, for example, the commons area will now be known as InPro Commons Area after a $150,000 donation by the InPro corporation.

While these naming rights donations don't necessarily spell the immediate end of public facilities as we know them, they do highlight some disturbing trends.

One, they distract from original purpose of public facilities, which is to benefit the public and the public alone. When an entire facility or area of a facility is named after a corporate donor, it becomes more about advertising than recognition.

In contrast to simple plaques that acknowledge donors for their gift, tying donations to naming rights suggests there is more at stake for the donor--specifically, there is a return expected.

That makes it an investment, not a gift.

Two, by turning their attention to seeking big donors ahead of a large number of smaller ones or even additional public revenue, school districts are setting themselves up for relying on the funding from these types of donations in the future.

According to the New Berlin school district, for example, anything and everything is up for sale. As the vice president for the New Berlin school board explains: "We're not going to turn down somebody who wants to put their name on any of our buildings."

The more this becomes the norm for school districts, the more reliant upon it they will become. And as anyone in finance can tell you, with funding comes control.

I just wonder how long it will be before control becomes one of the investment demands.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

New Strategy on Revenue Amendment?

In a recent press release on the proposed constitutional amendment to restrict public revenue in Wisconsin, the pro-amendment group Wisconsin Property Taxpayers, Inc. appears to be trying out a new PR strategy.

The purpose of the release is to criticize the UW Board of Regents for claiming the amendment would cut state funding to the UW System. The WPT release challenges this by claiming the amendment would actually allow the state to increase overall revenue from year to year—the increase would just need to be within the rate of inflation plus population growth.

So if we’re to get this straight, the tactic of the WPT is to justify the amendment by claiming that at least it doesn’t totally shut down the ability of the government to annually increase revenue? How generous.

According to the WPT release, it isn’t difficult to see how the amendment would likely have zero impact on the UW System. It reads: “You don’t need a Ph. D. to figure out what the amendment would or would not do to or for the University System. Simple reading comprehension skills are all that’s necessary.”

Thankfully our UW System is training students to not only comprehend a single source, but also engage in analysis that takes a variety of sources into consideration before coming to conclusions. When we take on this higher-level activity, the WPT perspective doesn’t come out too well.

Since the purpose of the amendment is to restrict public revenue, it isn’t difficult to prove that the state government would have less money overall to spend under the amendment. But just to get an idea of how much less, the LFB completed a report earlier this month that showed the amendment cutting nearly 15% from the 2003-2004 state budget if enacted twenty years earlier.

So unless we are to believe that the state legislature would still decide to spend the same amount on the UW System in 2003-2004 despite having 15% less to spend overall, there is no question that the amendment would decrease the amount of state funding dedicated to the UW System--which would subsequently increase UW tuition for students and parents at even sharper rates than the past few years.

As the WPT release noted, if the amendment would in fact decrease state funding to the UW System, “the Regents’ concern and opposition to the amendment would appear to be warranted.”

I guess we can score one for the Regents.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Science vs. What I Happen to Think

This article from the Appleton Post-Crescent is troubling. What's concerning is not that there are people out there who dismiss the negative health effects of secondhand smoke--but rather that this belief is apparently having a significant impact on public policy.

The scientific and medical communities are as united as possible on this: secondhand smoke leads to deadly, debilitating diseases. Thirty-plus years of research all points to that conclusion.

For goodness sake, even the tobacco industry admits there is a connection between secondhand smoke and poor health. According to the Phillip-Morris USA website: "We...believe that the conclusions of public health officials concerning environmental tobacco smoke are sufficient to warrant measures that regulate smoking in public places."

The similarities between the doubt expressed about secondhand smoke and Big Oil's continuous attempts at muddying the waters concerning global warming couldn't be starker.

According to a recent ABC News report (which certainly isn't the first time it was suggested), despite the near universal belief about the negative effects of global warming in the scientific community, oil companies and their buddies (read: the current White House) have undertaken a campaign to plant seeds of doubt in public's awareness of global warming.

Since those who oppose environmental regulations are unable to challenge the facts of global warming--similar to the opponents of smoking regulations who cannot contend the facts of smoking, first or secondhand--the tactic of choice has been to simply create doubt about how unified scientists are on the subject.

Perhaps the most blatant recent piece of evidence for this assertion in terms of global warming is when a few months ago former oil lobbyist Phil Cooney, who at the time was conveniently serving as chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, was caught overtly changing the meaning of reports on global warming put together by scientists. And the fact that Cooney had absolutely no scientific background or training didn't stop him. While he didn't explicitly change facts in the report, he did alter wording to make the conclusions seem more ambiguous about the dangers of global warming.

But another big piece of evidence pointing to a concerted misinformation campaign by Big Oil comes from a 1998 memo by the American Petroleum Institute, the oil lobby group. The memo reads: "Victory will be achieved when … average citizens recognize uncertainties in climate science."

So much for debating the facts.

Bought Any Steel Lately?

If you have, you probably have noticed that the cost has risen 23% in the last year alone—that’s to go along with similar increases in the cost of other related major construction materials.

If you haven’t, then you’re like every other consumer in Wisconsin.

Steel, of course, is not among the items in the normal “basket of goods” purchased by consumers in this state or any other one, which is what determines the consumer price index. To be sure, it’s unlikely you’d ever hear the line: “Honey, could you please remember to stop and pick-up some steel on your way home from work today?”

But for governments, steel is among the materials necessary for new construction, particularly involving transportation infrastructure. Anyone who has driven through the Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee recently can attest to that.

The problem with sharp increases in the cost of construction materials like steel not being included in the consumer price index is that the proposed constitutional amendment to restrict public revenue in Wisconsin uses the rate of inflation to limit the growth of government. It’s a situation of comparing apples to oranges, but the state Republican proponents of the amendment don’t seem to care much.

According to the estimates some conservatives are tossing out, the government would be allowed to increase at an annual rate of 4% under the amendment. Construction costs--which are increasing at annual rates higher than 20%--would alone do governments in under the amendment’s strict growth formula, although they are not the only costs that deviate from the inflation rate.

I wonder how Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce would react to the requirement that all of its construction company members limit the increase in their prices to 4% per year. I mean, the thought alone smacks of commie pinko socialism, does it not?

Rock : Scott Walker : Hard Place

Scott Walker has claimed numerous times in the past that he won’t run for Milwaukee County executive again after 2004, but his tune has changed markedly since dropping out of the gubernatorial race. Just days after bowing out of the race for governor, Walker now says there is a “good chance” he’ll run again for county exec in 2008.

Xoff has predicted there’s something in store for Walker in exchange for essentially handing the Republican gubernatorial nomination to Mark Green this past Friday. I tend to agree. I think the “good chance” line is just that—a line.

To be sure, Walker cannot stay in Milwaukee County because what needs to be done there is exactly what he’s built his political reputation on opposing—an increase in taxes.

Walker is so fearful of a tax increase on his watch that he vetoed a proposal to create a committee to merely study the idea earlier this year and also suggested he would oppose any referendum to send the question to the county voters this fall (so much for letting the people decide).

Earlier this month, Walker took the bold move to come clean about the fiscal problems facing the county and ask the state for a bailout. But the plea was to no avail—state legislators quickly reminded him that there’s little money on their end, too.

The only other tactics Walker has demonstrated he’s willing to use for the impending fiscal crisis are to cut services and blame his predecessor for the problems.

With most government operations in the county already working on bare-bones budgets and, in many cases, falling behind on needed projects such as maintenance, there’s little hope for wringing more life out of the county government.

And blaming Tom Ament for the county’s woes is growing old quickly. While Walker could apparently get away with referencing Ament repeatedly when discussing the fiscal crisis in his 2006 State of the County address—four years after taking office—I can’t imagine he’ll be able to get away with the same much longer. If he runs in 2008 and wins reelection, that’ll be six years in office and counting.

So for Walker there are really three options:

  1. Get on board with or at least get out of the way of a tax increase to maintain the fiscal integrity of the county.
  2. Continue to fight any and all tax increase proposals and, if successful, ride the wave into fiscal insolvency for the county.
  3. Leave the county executive position and maintain he did everything in his power to control taxes, but the tax-and-spend liberal base in the county just couldn’t control itself.

The most likely of those options is the third, although any of them are certainly possible.

Walker came into office under a strict mantra of not only freezing taxes, but also decreasing spending and the size of the county government. Both of the other two options would involve breaking that mantra by either overseeing an increase in taxes or clearly demonstrating that the mantra is flawed.

Unfortunately for Walker and his mantra, he came into office at a time when the economy was in the dumps, which throughout history has proven to be a time when government spending and growth is most needed. Walker didn’t heed that historical advice and now the county government is on the verge of fiscal collapse.

Even the conservative hero Ronald Reagan spent big when the economy was down—the difference being, of course, you can spend on credit as an executive at the federal level, a luxury not afforded to county executives in Milwaukee.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens to Walker in the coming months. He may be moving on to a position in some administration or he may be gearing-up for another election campaign of some kind.

Either way, I just don’t see him willingly sticking around Milwaukee County much longer.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Study Urges Expansion of Same-Sex Adoptions

A study released this week by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute concludes that "adoptions by gays and lesbians holds promise as an avenue for achieving permanency for many of the waiting children in foster care."

The study represents one of the broadest ever conducted on gay and lesbian adoption and parenting. The conclusions of the report were based upon findings that children raised by gay and lesbian parents are comparable to those raised by heterosexual parents in terms of social and psychological adjustment. The study urges the broadening of parenting rights for gay and lesbian people in the US, most importantly as couples. Many same-sex couples understandably shy away from adoption because they are not allowed to do it together.

The findings are unsurprising considering that the American Psychological Association, the American Psychoanalytic Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have all come to similar conclusions in the past.

But in light of the recent decision by four Catholic bishops in Massachusetts to stop participating in state adoption services because they were required to consider same-sex households, it seems useful to reinforce the findings again.

Bush to Ignore Part of Law He Just Signed

Do we even live in a democracy with checks and balances anymore?

The Boston Globe reports today that President Bush recently decided that he doesn't need to inform Congress of the FBI's activities, which is a provision required by the Patriot Act.

Sure, he just signed the reauthorization of the Patriot Act this month, but apparently he didn't like the oversight part of it. So why not just wipe it away?

According to the Globe report:


The [reauthorization of the Patriot Act] contained several oversight provisions intended to make sure the FBI did not abuse the special terrorism-related powers to search homes and secretly seize papers. The provisions require Justice Department officials to keep closer track of how often the FBI uses the new powers and in what type of situations. Under the law, the administration would have to provide the information to Congress by certain dates.

Bush signed the bill with fanfare at a White House ceremony March 9, calling it ''a piece of legislation that's vital to win the war on terror and to protect the American people." But after the reporters and guests had left, the White House quietly issued a ''signing statement," an official document in which a president lays out his interpretation of a new law.

In the statement, Bush said that he did not consider himself bound to tell Congress how the Patriot Act powers were being used and that, despite the law's requirements, he could withhold the information if he decided that disclosure would ''impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative process of the executive, or the performance of the executive's constitutional duties."

Bush wrote: ''The executive branch shall construe the provisions . . . that call for furnishing information to entities outside the executive branch . . . in a manner consistent with the president's constitutional authority to supervise the unitary executive branch and to withhold information . . . "

The statement represented the latest in a string of high-profile instances in which Bush has cited his constitutional authority to bypass a law.


I cannot believe that the liberatrian wing of the GOP is letting Bush get away with this authoritarianism. How can they expect to be taken seriously as a group concerned about the government's intrusions into people's lives when they have hardly lifted a finger at blatantly intrusive and unconstitutional activities like this one?

Ovadal Calls Sykes a Psycho

If anyone wants to see just how extreme the proponents of the marriage and civil unions ban in Wisconsin can be, you should check out this op-ed by Pastor Ralph Ovadal in which he goes off on Charlie Sykes. The op-ed is titled: "Sykes Goes Psycho Again."

In the comments made just before the op-ed begins, Ovadal actually challenges how conservative Sykes really is by putting the term in quotes before Sykes' name.

Yikes. I didn't think it was possible to get more conservative than Sykes.

If that doesn't tell you how far out there Ovadal is, then just take a look at the graphic on the top of the op-ed screen. I wonder if Ovadal fashions himself in the manner of the figure from the image.

It's creepy, to say the least. I can only imagine how comfortable Sunday School must be for the kids at Pilgrims Covenant Church.

I wonder what the reaction on the right side of the blogosphere will be to this one. My best guess is that it'll go untouched by most.

If only the left could get away with such a brash commentary on the "blogfather" of the right.

Conservative Spin on Revenue Amendment Opposition is Unconvincing

Opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment to restrict public revenue in Wisconsin has come fast and strong. Coming just as quick, but lacking the strength, is the conservative spin on this opposition.

After the first true public hearing on the amendment in Pewaukee had opponents outnumbering supporters nearly 8 to 1 earlier this month, conservative commentators claimed that it was “public employees” who were the main contributors to the imbalance.

And as more and more formal statements come out denouncing the amendment, conservatives continue to claim the thrust of the opposition is by people who maintain their livelihood through the government.

Just two days ago, for example, nearly sixty local officials from around the state signed a letter to state legislators denouncing the revenue amendment as a reckless fiscal idea for local governments in Wisconsin.

The response from conservative blogger Owen at “Boots and Sabers” was typical: “So far, the opposition to the TPA is coming from government officials and groups that feed at the government teat, which justifies the need for the TPA in the first place.”

This spin, however, hardly describes the opposition to the amendment.

In the letter from local officials, for example, over half of the signatures come from individuals who serve on municipal councils—people who took up their positions as a call to public service, not as a means for financial gain.

Indeed, most council members only get paid around $5000 per year, but often less, for what amounts to a significant time commitment. Many communities are struggling to find candidates to fill their council positions as a result.

The same could also be said for groups like the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, the United Council of UW Students, the UW-Stevens Point Student Association, and the UW Board of Regents, all of whom have released statements opposing the amendment and whose members hardly are in their positions for financial gain.

In fact, what members of municipal councils, school boards, and student associations do rely upon are votes. If there was a feeling that coming out against the revenue amendment was going to cost them support from constituents, opposition would surely be less intense.

What’s more, there are a number of non-governmental organizations that have come out in opposition to the amendment, such as the League of Women Voters, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, and the Greater Wisconsin Committee. Not to mention the many newspapers from around the state who have denounced the amendment in their editorials.

Perhaps what conservative proponents of the amendment should be most concerned about is the lack of support for restricting public revenue.

The staunchest support for the amendment comes from Republican state legislators (although not all of them) and special interest groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and Americans for Prosperity. The support from the WMC is particularly important, though, as it is the biggest spending lobby group in the state, and so far it has shown a willingness to dole out thousands of dollars for advocacy ads in favor of the amendment.

But in terms of grassroots support for the amendment, the list is less than impressive. Only Wisconsin Property Taxpayers, Inc. and a group called Freedom Works stand out as non-governmental groups to release formal statements in favor of the amendment.

And Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, which is the biggest and most influential taxpayer group in the state, has exclaimed that the bonding provision in the amendment “doesn’t seem to be in keeping with basic accounting and economics.”

The debate on the revenue amendment certainly isn’t over. But if the first month is any indication, this amendment may be heading toward the same fate as its twin pretty soon.

UPDATE: This post was edited at 12:30pm to reflect that the Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance does not take formal positions on legislative items.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Medical Malpractice Bill Becomes Law

Governor Doyle decided yesterday to sign the bill capping pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice cases in Wisconsin. There was some speculation as to whether Doyle would in fact sign the bill, after vetoing a similar measure this past December.

The difference with this bill is that the cap is set at $750,000, as opposed to $450,000 for adults and $550,000 for children in the December bill.

I do think this move is in Doyle's best political interest, but I also think it's a bad move for Wisconsin. I've discussed why before (here, here, and here) , so I won't get into it much in this post.

I'll just note that I think the cap will do little if anything for physician insurance premiums in the state, while it will significantly harm Wisconsinites who are seriously injured as a result of a medical procedure gone bad.

Not to mention it fundamentally takes the decision of granting pain and suffering awards out of the hands of the people who serve on our juries. I happen to think a jury of peers is a better place for that power than a one-size-fits-all statute.

Two of the three legal experts Doyle consulted about the bill seem to think it'll stand up before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. I'm not so sure (although I'm no legal expert).

Cosmo Quiz: The Secret NSA Wiretapping Program

In the spirit of the quizzes put together by Cosmopolitan magazine to provide advice to readers who want to figure out more about themselves regarding certain issues of importance, I’ve devised a quiz on the secret NSA wiretapping program ordered by President Bush in 2001.

The directions are simple. As you answer each question, just follow the prompts either to the next question or to a suggestion about what your overall feelings for the program might be based upon your responses.

Question #1: Do you believe the Executive Branch of the federal government should have the exclusive authority to determine on its own who it wiretaps for foreign intelligence information?
YES – Go to Question #3
NO – Go to Question #2

Question #2: Do you approve of how the Executive Branch was conducting surveillance through the secret NSA wiretapping program ordered by President Bush in 2001?
YES – Go to Question #1
NO – Go to Question #4

Question #3: Do you believe a balance of powers should exist between the various branches of the federal government in a manner that provides each branch with the ability, right, and responsibility to check the activities of the other branches?
YES – Go to Question #1
NO – Go to Suggestion #1

Question #4: Do you support the right of the president to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance during times of war and peace as long as that surveillance takes place within the guidelines required by law?
YES – Go to Question #5
NO – Go to Suggestion #2

Question #5: Do you believe the Congress should formally reprimand President Bush for ordering the secret NSA wiretapping program without the direct approval or binding oversight of either the legislature or the courts?
YES – Go to Suggestion #3
NO – Go to Question #6

Question #6: Do you believe the Congress should begin a formal investigation of President Bush’s initiation of a secret NSA wiretapping program without the direct approval or binding oversight of either the legislature or the courts?
YES – Go to Suggestion #4
NO – Go to Question #3


Suggestion #1: It appears you don’t believe in the fundamental principle of checks and balances upon which the American government was largely founded. This certainly doesn’t preclude you from living in the United States nor does it mean any of the rights of citizenship should be taken from you. However, if you find yourself at odds with many more of the founding principles of this nation, you may be simply more comfortable in a country that openly celebrates a governmental foundation of authoritarianism. I hear parts of China can be nice—and there you’d also get to remain in a highly capitalistic society.

Suggestion #2: Apparently you approve of preventing the Executive Branch from engaging in an activity that works to protect our national security. That said, please immediately contact the NSA—it would like to start conducting surveillance on you now.

Suggestion #3: It appears you approve of censuring President Bush for initiating a secret NSA wiretapping program without any oversight or approval from the other two branches of the federal government. If you feel like taking the next step and moving your feelings into action, a good place to start is by calling your US senator and asking her/him to support the censure resolution proposed by Senator Russ Feingold.

Suggestion #4: It appears you approve of the US Congress undertaking a formal investigation of President Bush pertaining to his order to initiate a secret NSA wiretapping program without any oversight or approval from the other two branches of the federal government. Unfortunately for you, the prospect of a congressional investigation on this issue was already rejected earlier this month by the Republican-controlled Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Better luck next time the president breaks the law. Feel free to return to Question #5, if you'd like.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

No Gender Stereotyping Here

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has an article today about how single-sex classrooms are starting to catch on around Wisconsin. The state legislature recently passed a bill allowing for the creation of single-sex programs in Wisconsin public schools, and some districts are poised to take full advantage should Doyle decide to sign it.

I think there are good points on both sides of the single-sex classroom debate, but overall I would say I lean against the initiation of single-sex classrooms and programs.

Although after being a teacher I can see how separating male students and female students could be useful in some instances in the classroom, I think it's more important that students learn to work and thrive in situations where they may not be 100% comfortable.

After all, if white parents claimed their kids do better in racially exclusive situations--or even if some studies demonstrated this--I can't imagine people would be considering segregating classrooms based upon race. Instead, the claim would be made that it's important people work together through their differences in an attempt to make the classroom as reflective as possible of the diverse world outside of the school.

Many single-sex classroom opponents also argue that dividing male students and female students would lead to stereotypes about the two sexes being written into the curriculum for each.

And it was on this note that the JS article really caught my attention.

After claiming how proponents of single-sex classrooms flatly reject the notion that separating male and female students would lead to stereotypes in the curriculum, the article writes this about a comment made by Arrowhead South Campus Principal Gregg Wieczorek, one of the districts on the verge of initiating same-sex classrooms if the bill becomes law:

"Wieczorek said the curriculum and teacher will be the same for both sections, but the teaching approach might differ. Hypothetically, the girls might read 'Romeo and Juliet' in English, while the boys might read 'Julius Caesar,' he said."

Apparently the choice of reading lists is an aspect of teacher approach, not curriculum.

The JS article doesn't get into any more on the comment, but I can only imagine that single-sex classroom proponents would not exactly embrace that line in defense of their claims that stereotypes couldn't possibly work their way into the curriculum. In fact, I would say it kinda shoots their defense out of the water.

Map of Iraq War Referendums in Wisconsin

Below is a map pinpointing the 31 different communities around Wisconsin that plan to hold a referendum on the Iraq War next month.

What's really interesting to me is the mix of urban, suburban, and rural areas of the state that are holding referendums. This was also pointed out in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article on the referendums in this morning's paper.

I was particularly surprised to see all of the referendums taking place in the northwest part of the state--which is predominantly rural and, I would think, relatively conservative, especially on war issues. It'll be interesting to see the results of the referendums in terms of their geographic location. I'll re-post this map on April 5 after the referendums take place to show that.

I should note that I use the term "pinpoint" loosely. I put this map together late last night after not finding something like it already on the web. I have no doubt I'm off a bit on the exact location of some communities, but the map nevertheless demonstrates the overall geographic disbursement of the referendums.

Iraq War Referendums: Coming Soon to a Community Near You

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has an article today about the 31 communities around Wisconsin that are holding referendums this spring on the Iraq War. The questions vary in each community, but all deal with bringing the troops home.

Some conservatives have lashed out at these referendums, claiming they're unpatriotic. This is absolutely ridiculous.

First, since when is wanting our troops to come home quickly and safely unpatriotic?

Second, if you're going to call American citizens unpatriotic for voicing an opinion about bringing our troops home safely and soon, then what do you say to the 72% of American troops currently stationed in Iraq who, according to a Le Moyne College/Zogby International poll from February 2006, think the US should exit Iraq within the year?

Another objection to the referendums is that they have no place on a local government ballot. This is an objection worth considering. After all, what is the purpose if local governments hold no jurisdiction over our nation's war policy?

A sound answer to that is to get the public's voice heard. Since that's obviously not happening at the national level, it's reasonable to mobilize at the grassroots level and petition local government (which doesn't have the luxury of being able to ignore constituents like the federal government does).

In this sense, the referendums act very much like an opinion poll--except the referendums clearly carry more weight because of the government sanctioning of them.

I'll post a map soon showing the disbursement of the referendums around the state.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

All Hail the Market!: Linking Test Scores to Teacher Salaries

The Marshfield News Herald has an article today about the growing idea in Wisconsin and around the country that teachers should receive salary bonuses based upon how their students score on state-mandated standardized tests.

While the idea has not caught on as policy anywhere in Wisconsin quite yet, the article notes that there are formal proposals out there.

Teacher unions tend to be against merit-based pay because of how difficult it is to judiciously spread around the love. Indeed, even within individual schools there's great variation in the applicability of such a system.

How could an Art teacher, for example, be expected to earn bonuses when there is no standardized test for Art? And even within subject areas that have a standardized test associated with them, such as English or Social Studies, there is a significant difference between a teacher who mostly teaches AP students and those who teach exclusively non-AP students.

But the unfairness to teachers does not fully explain why tying teacher pay to student performance is the use of state-mandated standardized testing at its worst. Tying standardized tests scores to teacher pay fundamentally shuts down academic freedom and local control in the classroom--unless, that is, the teacher chooses not to care about getting salary bonuses.

I get into more on that issue here.

I hope the connection of teacher pay and standardized test scores remains nonexistent in Wisconsin. But if what's happening around the country in the wake of No Child Left Behind is any indication, as the issue of how to most efficiently increase teacher salaries arises in the future, this manner will likely become the preferred way for school districts around the state.

That way, from the district's perspective, you get to take out two birds with one stone. You can focus on improving your standardized test scores, which No Child Left Behind explicitly ties to your funding, and simultaneously offer your teachers a competition-driven compensation system.

All hail the market!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Daily Howler on Milwaukee School Voucher Program

Starting tomorrow, the liberal blog "The Daily Howler" will be covering the Milwaukee school voucher program, specifically in response to John Tierney's op-eds in the NY Times supporting the program.

Bob Somerby, the editor of The Daily Howler, is a former school teacher turned journalist turned topical comic. He's been focusing his blog coverage lately on low income education, which is the context in which he turns his attention toward the Milwaukee school voucher program.

The Daily Howler coverage on the program, which will run two full weeks, should be well worth the read. I'll comment on what I think is the best of the coverage here.

Revenue Restrictions Amendment Tally (Update)

Last Update: 4/27/06 at 8:40am

Oppose Revenue Amendment
  • County Officials Against TPA (March 23, 2006)
Sen. Robson also released a statement on April 13, 2006--which can be found here--listing all of the organizations that oppose the revenue amendment. Many on the list are also identified in this post, but a good number are not. The Robson list is based on public statements, testimony at public hearings, and registrations with the Ethics Board.

Another list of organizations opposing the revenue amendment is here. Many are also on my list and Sen. Robson's, but some are not.

Support Revenue Amendment

This list is intended to keep track of all formal public positions on the revenue restrictions amendment proposed by conservative Republican state legislators on February 9, 2006.

The only statements tallied here are formal press releases made by politicians and political organizations and organizations who have filed lobbying papers with the State Elections Board, not simply statements provided in a newspaper account, for example.

The list will be updated as new statements are made. If there are statements that I miss, feel free to identify them in the comments section or by emailing me at

The Curiosity of a Liberal

Charlie Sykes has come out with his tally on how conservative bloggers feel about the proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions in Wisconsin.

The right side of the Cheddarsphere appears to be fairly split on the amendment, although I would say it's leaning slightly toward opposing it.

Here's the final tally:

6-leaning for

This brings up a couple questions on my end:

  1. If conservative bloggers are leaning against this amendment, why did it pass with near unanimous Republican support in two consecutive sessions of the state legislature?
  2. Since the right side of the Cheddarsphere maintains close to universal support for the proposed constitutional amendment to restrict public revenue in Wisconsin, why is that amendment having such a tough time gaining Republican legislative support (not to mention the similar measure, TABOR, which failed in the past)?

I'm just curious.

Side-Note: Ann Althouse was included in Sykes' tally as one of the opposed, although I'm not sure she would consider herself a conservative. I'm not saying she's a liberal, either. Rather, it appears she revels in her independence from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

Side-Side-Note: I'm still waiting for Charlie Sykes' explanation for why he's undecided on the marriage and civil unions ban despite agreeing with all of the reasons to oppose it.

JS Editorial Misses Its Own Point

I appreciate the overall point made in an editorial today in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which urges a broader debate on the proposed constitutional amendment to restrict public revenue in Wisconsin. Considering the effect of this amendment on public services and programs in the state is a very important piece--I would argue the most important.

But in coming to that conclusion, the editorial falls prey to conservative rhetoric on this issue--and subsequently misses its own point.

Repeating what an article in a JS article falsely stated last week, the editorial claims that a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report demonstrates that if the amendment went into effect twenty years ago, "the state would have collected $1.9 billion less in taxes in 2003-'04, a 14% cut."

This is simply untrue.

The report actually says that if the amendment went into effect twenty years ago, the state government in Wisconsin would have lost $1.9 billion in public revenue in 2003-2004.

So, ironically, the LFB report does exactly what the editorial asks people involved in the amendment debate to do--that is, focus on the effect of this amendment on the government's ability to provide needed services and program.

It's troubling that the editorial didn't even abide by its own argument. I'm really starting to wonder how many people actually have bothered to read the LFB report (it's only 12 pages, at least a quarter of which are tables).

It just goes to show, however, how thick the conservative rhetoric is surrounding this amendment, not to mention just how poised and ready the proponents are for a PR battle if this amendment should ever reach the ballot.

If they can't win the debate with substance, they'll gladly turn to the easier battle over perception. Sykes and Belling, start your engines.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Both Brookfield Mayoral Candidates Oppose Revenue Amendment

While the race for the position of Waukesha mayor presents candidates on opposite sides of the constitutional amendment to restrict public revenue, both of the candidates in another Waukesha County mayoral contest openly oppose the amendment.

Current Brookfield Mayor Jeff Speaker and his challenger, Alderman Cindy Kilkenny, explain that the amendment would take away local fiscal control when what is really needed is more of it.

Both Speaker and Kilkenny come from local government backgrounds, as does Larry Nelson who is the Waukesha mayoral candidate opposing the revenue amendment. The one mayoral candidate who supports the amendment, Ann Nitschke, is currently a state Republican legislator. As I mentioned yesterday, it'll be interesting to see if she changes her tune if elected to local government office.

Scott Walker’s MKE Column Only Based on Reality

MKE, the Milwaukee-based weekly, has a point-counterpoint on the proposed constitutional amendment to restrict public revenue in Wisconsin. The “point” is by Republican gubernatorial candidate and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. The “counterpoint” is by Milwaukee Alderman Mike D’Amato.

I’m only a couple paragraphs into Walker’s column and I’ve already spotted two false statements. (And this is without even going into the fact that Walker focuses solely on taxes in his column, while the proposed amendment is really about revenue.)

False Statement #1: “Taxpayers in Wisconsin live in one of the top five highest-taxed states in the country, and that burden is growing at a pace faster than personal income.”

Actually, a January 2005 report (see page 64) by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau shows that between 1982-1983 and 2001-2002 Wisconsin on average ranked over 10th in total state and local taxes per capita. Never in the twenty-year period did Wisconsin ever rank lower than 7th (and the state only hit that low mark once).

What’s more, a conference held at the UW-Madison La Follette School of Public Affairs in January 2005 found that Wisconsin currently ranks 15th in the US in terms of total tax and fee burden.

Regarding taxes in relation to personal income, Walker is also off the mark. The LFB report shows that the level of state and local taxes relative to personal income was lower in 2001-2002 than it was in all of the previous twenty years listed.

And, corroborating this, the findings of the La Follette School conference showed that income taxes in Wisconsin relative to personal income actually decreased from 1992 to 2004, while sales taxes and property taxes remained steady over the period in relation to personal income.

False Statement #2: “Too many people and too many jobs are moving out of my county - and out of our state - because of the high tax burden.”

According to the findings of the La Follette School conference, local taxes do not play a significant role in where people live. Rather, location is determined more by overall cost of living, which is lower for Wisconsin than all of our neighboring states with the sole exception of Iowa.

The rest of the column doesn’t appear to have any more blatantly false statements, but Walker really runs with the false notion that Milwaukee County residents are fleeing because of taxes.

While it’s true Milwaukee County’s population did decrease by 2% between 1990 and 2000, most of those people certainly didn’t leave southeastern Wisconsin entirely. In fact, populations in the counties surrounding Milwaukee spiked with the 2000 census. Washington County jumped 23.3%, Waukesha County went up 18.4%, Ozaukee County increased 12.9%, and the population of Racine County increased by 7.9%. Surely more considerations went into those moves than taxes; after all, aren’t we to believe taxes are too high in those other counties, too? Indeed, the proposed amendment impacts the entire state, not just Milwaukee County.

Walker then writes the following, which brings him really close to False Statement #3: “In contrast, I proposed four straight county budgets that did not increase the property tax levy from the previous year. The migration of people and jobs leveled off, and we are still fighting to hold the line on taxes.”

While it’s true Walker proposed budgets without increases to the property tax levy, it’s also true that the property tax rate in Milwaukee was decreasing before Walker ever entered office—including the time during which county residents were supposedly fleeing due to high taxes.

According to figures gathered by the UW-Extension, Milwaukee County’s property tax rate has decreased by 10.2% over the past ten years, which ranks the county 64th in the state in terms of property tax levy growth in the last decade out of 72 counties.

And it really depends on how you define “leveled off” when arguing about county migration levels on Walker’s watch. In fact, the Milwaukee County population decreased by 1.3% between 2000 and 2004, which is slightly lower than the 2% of the previous decade, but that decrease could hardly be attributed to Walker’s fiscal policies--which continue to help bring the county closer and closer to fiscal insolvency.

And the MKE column by Walker was limited to 300 words. I can only imagine the web of fictions he could spin given more space.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

US Health Care Quality Ratings Released

The RAND group just published in The New England Journal of Medicine one of the largest studies of health care quality ever conducted.

The good news is that the quality of health care received by Americans is pretty much the same regardless of race, class, gender, or age.

The bad news is that the quality of health care received by all Americans isn't very good.

According to the study, Americans only receive about 55% of recommended health care.

In the words of Dr. Steven Asch, chief author of the study, "It doesn't matter who you are. It doesn't matter whether you're rich or poor, white or black, insured or uninsured. We all get equally mediocre care."

If nothing else this suggests that comprehensive health care reform is necessary in the country, and, more specifically, there aren't really any models to go off here in the US. It's not like we can turn to the care of some specific racial, socioeconomic, gender, or age group in the country and use it as an example. Every group is struggling in terms of health care.

What we need is to do is completely overhaul the US health care system. And, quite frankly, the best place to look for how to do this is overseas. I've discussed before how France is an excellent model. There are certainly others to consider, as well.

Throughout US history you'll find discussions of American "exceptionalism." Academic historians often work to challenge many of these notions, and rightfully so, but I think there's no doubt that the structure of the US health care system today is exceptional among industrialized nations.

It just happens to be exceptionally bad.