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Wisconsin State Journal, Nov. 9

Congressional cakewalks cheat voters

Two of Iowa's four congressional districts were competitive in last week's election.

Iowa's 1st and 2nd districts were decided by 2.4 and 5 percentage points, respectively. And Iowa's 3rd District was won by 10.6 percentage points.

None of Wisconsin's eight congressional races were as close as that.

In fact, even an open seat in Wisconsin's 6th Congressional District — pitting the state Senate's most conservative member against a moderate Democrat — didn't produce a real contest. State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-Campbellsport, defeated Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris by a 16-point difference to replace the retiring and moderate U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac.

Wisconsin's closest race for Congress among eight contests was in the 3rd District, in which U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, easily defeated his GOP opponent by 14 percentage points — despite a Republican wave of victories across the nation.

So why is Iowa so much more competitive, giving its voters real choices? The answer is relatively simple: Iowa doesn't let its politicians rig voting districts to favor one political party or the other.

Iowa assigns the task of drawing congressional districts to a nonpartisan state agency. So its maps are neat and fair. All of Iowa's congressional district boundaries follow county lines, and neutral mapmakers are forbidden from considering the impact on incumbents.

In sharp contrast, Wisconsin's redistricting process after each major census is marked by partisan scheming. Top lawmakers in the majority party huddle in secret with computers to analyze and shape legislative districts to their party's favor, based on past voting results.

Often this means the incumbents of both major political parties gain safer seats. That's because the majority party tries to pack as many of the opposition party's voters into seats the majority party hasn't traditionally won. That leaves any remaining competitive seats leaning the majority party's way, helping it to stay in power.

This is easiest to see at the congressional level. Rather than following county lines, as Iowa's four district boundaries do, Wisconsin's congressional districts snake all over the map, contorting into odd shapes.

After the 2010 census, for example, majority Republicans surgically removed the Democratic-leaning cities of Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids from the 7th Congressional District, making it easier for vulnerable freshman U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Weston, to hold his seat in 2012. Despite a huge year for Democrats in statewide races that year, Duffy beat a well-known state senator and former television anchor by 12 percentage points. And in last week's election, Duffy won by 20 points.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Kind also benefited from the change. Kind's 3rd District gained the Democratic turf that Duffy lost. So Kind just won re-election by 14 percentage points, despite last week's Republican wave. Back in 2010 — before the maps were redrawn — Kind won by just 4 points.

Yet Republicans are happy because they still hold a 5-3 advantage on House seats, which is unlikely to change.

Wisconsin should adopt Iowa's nonpartisan process for drawing voting districts.

Top Republican lawmakers remain adamantly opposed. But bipartisan support is growing for this good-government reform.


La Crosse Tribune, Nov. 9

Falling wages are hurting Wisconsin

Gov. Scott Walker wasted no time after his re-election Tuesday doing what he does best — getting out in Wisconsin to talk about his priorities.

One of those priorities, the governor said Thursday during a visit to Western Technical College's welding laboratory, is to make sure there are plenty of good-paying, high-quality jobs that can provide for middle-class families. And there needs to be more training that connects the student and the employer.

Walker is correct. A recent study by Marc Levine at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development found that much of the state's job growth has been in jobs paying $12.50 an hour or less. That's been happening since 2000 and was exacerbated by the Great Recession. The middle-wage occupations paying between $12.50 and $25 an hour accounted for 90 percent of the job loss.

Even if there were an increase in the minimum wage — which is not going to happen under Republican control — the economic job trends in Wisconsin are foreboding. The study shows that several occupations that were considered middle-wage jobs in 2010 have now fallen into the low-wage category.

Wages for the much-touted skilled labor jobs are going down. And evidence would suggest that the skills gap doesn't even exist.

In the category of welding — which often is cited as the example where there is a shortage of workers — the inflation-adjusted median hourly wage fell by 6.5 percent between 2010 and 2013. A study done by Levine in 2013 challenges that there is even a skills gap for welders, pointing out that average weekly hours in Wisconsin were down 4.3 percent since 2000. If there was a demand for more welders, employers should be paying overtime.

Real wages for welders in Wisconsin have declined since 2000, contrary to the law of supply-and-demand. Meanwhile, in states such as Wyoming, North Dakota and Alaska, the demand for welders has resulted in real wages increasing by more than 20 percent.

Levine's recent study released in October doesn't give us much hope that Wisconsin's transformation into a low-wage economy is going to change anytime soon. The study says of the 15 occupations projected by the Department of Workforce Development to grow the most between 2010 and 2020, all pay wages lower than $12.50 an hour and six are under $10.

The only middle-wage occupations on the growth list are registered nurses, truck drivers, office clerks, customer service representatives and medical secretaries. Welders are not even on the list.

Walker chose to make his training talk at several visits around the state Thursday while eschewing an invitation to attend the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents meeting. When asked why he made that choice, Walker said it doesn't do any good for the state to educate students and train employees in which there are no jobs.

It's disappointing that state Republicans appear to have picked up where they left off with their relentless attack on UW System and disparaging liberal arts degrees. A recent report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities shows that half of all social service jobs are filled by liberal arts majors.

Sadly we'll need those jobs even more because the demand for services will increase if we continue down the depressing path of becoming a low-wage state.


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov. 10

Brad Schimel giving the right priority to fighting heroin

Last month, we urged whoever won the attorney general's race to give a high priority to the state's effort against the growing heroin plague in Wisconsin. Last week, winner Brad Schimel said he'll do exactly that — as he promised to do during his campaign — when he takes office.

Currently the Waukesha County district attorney, Schimel said he would seek to aggressively expand enforcement, treatment and prevention efforts on heroin — actions that he said probably would require additional funding from taxpayers.

"We're going to hit them by land, air and sea," Schimel said of drug dealers and those who are spreading addiction through the state.

That's great tough talk on dealing with dealers, and it's necessary, but Schimel also will be putting resources into treatment and prevention efforts, which are just as necessary as enforcement. Schimel, who was instrumental in developing drunken driving courts in Waukesha County, knows full well that treatment and special courts targeted at drugs and drinking can play key roles in curbing this scourge.

Schimel won't be starting from scratch. Under outgoing Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, the Department of Justice started a statewide heroin prevention awareness campaign named the Fly Effect Heroin Prevention Campaign. It's one of the best things Van Hollen did in office.

According to the campaign's website, "Since 1995, the number of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 who have tried heroin has increased by more than 300%. And according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, more than 75% of people who try heroin once will use the drug again."

And in Wisconsin, the website says, "The number of heroin cases processed by the state crime lab has steadily increased in almost every Wisconsin county throughout the last three years. So have the number of heroin-related deaths, rising about 50 percent last year to 199, according to a recent survey (2013) of county coroners. By comparison, Wisconsin averaged 29 such deaths each year from 2000 to 2007."

Heroin poses a threat to every community and every family in the state. The department's campaign, coupled with laws that were pushed by Rep. John Nygren, can help curb that threat. Schimel unveiled a plan during his campaign that he called the STOP Heroin initiative, which stands for "Support Teaching Opiates Prevention." The plan called for increased training, better coordination with other states and more aggressive prosecution to combat heroin abuse.

He'll need help from the Legislature to achieve his goals. And the Legislature has so far given bipartisan support to the efforts to curb heroin use. This certainly is an issue that offers common ground in a bitterly divided state. We hope that bipartisan support continues and that Schimel is given the tools he will need.

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