The Sheboygan Press. Dec. 12, 2012.
Building state's reserve fund a worthy goal
One of the major debates sure to split along partisan lines in the Legislature early next year is what to do with an estimated $467 million in reserves the state treasury is forecasting headed into the 2013-15 state budget.
At this point, it's hard to know which way the Legislature should go because of what's going on in Washington. The "fiscal cliff" of federal tax increases and budget cuts scheduled to kick in Jan. 1 if Congress doesn't act has everyone waiting and wondering. If those cuts occur, Wisconsin and every other state can expect less federal aid next year. That would mean the $467 million reserve and probably more would be needed just to maintain the status quo, never mind giving employees raises or adding new spending.
But if Congress again kicks the can down the road, then the immediate crisis is prevented and states will have more short-term certainty.
The Legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker have two considerations as they start to craft the biennial budget early next year.
First, most state workers haven't had a pay raise in four years, during which they also had to start paying 5.9 percent of their pay toward their pensions and also saw their health insurance premiums go up.
Second, Wisconsin has not socked away enough money during good times to help weather recessions. According to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, when the 2007-08 recession started, Wisconsin was the state with the second-smallest budget reserve relative to spending (1 percent), better only than Arkansas, which had no reserve at all. That compares with Iowa's 15 percent reserve and Minnesota's almost 6 percent. The $467 million reserve estimate amounts to 3 percent of the $14.36 billion the state has budgeted to spend this year, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Another consideration is Walker's desire to further cut local property taxes and provide some relief in income taxes as well.
Although Republicans also hold majorities in both houses of the Legislature and need not compromise, they should. One message from the Nov. 6 election is that gerrymandering works when done right. The other message is that voters want their lawmakers to work together for the betterment of all, not just for special interests and narrow agendas.
Yes, we need to build up our reserves, and Walker's budget discipline has helped move the needle in the right direction. But the real lesson from the last 10 years is that the time to build a healthy reserve is when the economy is strong, which Wisconsin lawmakers of both parties failed to do.
That requires discipline as well, because there's never a shortage of individuals and groups clamoring for the state's money.
Building a reserve is crucial to help ensure we can continue to provide health care and education, especially for the poor, when tax collections go down and jobless rates go up.
Kenosha News. Dec. 12, 2012.
A welcome trend: fewer traffic deaths
Highway deaths were down 1.9 percent nationally in 2011 to 32,367, the lowest number of traffic fatalities since 1949.
Wisconsin didn't follow the trend. Traffic fatalities in Wisconsin were up 10 from 572 to 582 in 2011, an increase of 1.7 percent.
But Wisconsin, like the nation as a whole, is doing much better at traffic safety than just a few years ago. The 582 deaths that occurred in 2011 is 20 percent below the 724 recorded in 2006, and it is 9.6 below the average for the previous five years.
Part of the reason for the national decline in traffic fatalities is people are driving less, but the decline in fatalities has been greater than the decline in driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported Monday that last year "saw the lowest fatality rate ever recorded, with 1.10 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled."
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said "As we look to the future, it will be more important than ever to build on this progress by continuing to tackle head-on issues like seat belt use, drunk driving, and driver distraction."
Fatalities caused by distracted driving rose 1.9 percent in 2011, but officials believe that the increase can be attributed to increased awareness and reporting. Injuries from accidents attributed to distracted driving declined 7 percent in 2011.
Deaths in traffic accidents involving drunken drivers dropped 2.5 percent in 2011, but still claimed 9,878 lives, 31 percent of the total. In Wisconsin, the percent of fatalities in which alcohol was involved has been higher than that, ranging from 34 percent to 42 percent from 2006 to 2010.
A more surprising statistic, however, regards seat belt use. Nationally, more than half — 52 percent — of drivers and passengers who died in traffic accidents were not wearing seat belts. In the fatal accidents that occurred at night, 62 percent of the victims were not wearing seatbelts.
Most people wear seat belts, but Wisconsin's observed rate of seat belt use tends to trail the national rate by 6 to 10 percentage points. The national rate in 2010 was 85 percent.
Improved vehicle safety is a factor in the reduction in traffic fatalities, government officials say, along with improved driver behavior, but there is clearly more room for improvement in driver behavior. That's especially true in Wisconsin where the fatalities would almost certainly decline further with less drinking and driving and more seat belt use
The reduction in traffic deaths has to be appreciated, but more than 30,000 lives lost each year is still far too many.
The Post-Crescent, Appleton. Dec. 12, 2012.
Jobs-match program sounds good, but execution matters
t's a simple problem: Unemployed workers aren't being matched with jobs.
Hopefully, there can be a simple solution, too. The issue has been vexing Wisconsin's manufacturers for years as they try to recruit workers with the skills necessary to help them produce quality products.
The state Department of Workforce Development could soon be working on a software system that notifies workers collecting unemployment checks of appropriate openings. At the same time, the department hopes to overhaul its antiquated and difficult-to-use unemployment insurance system.
Both of the changes are necessary, and the department's initial concepts are good.
We're skeptical, however, about the execution. The state doesn't have a solid track record when it comes to software.
The University of Wisconsin spent $26 million on a payroll system that it later dropped. After spending millions on a voter registration system, the state severed ties with the developer that didn't deliver a program after three years. Another $28.2 million was wasted on an Integrated Tax System. The Medicaid Management Information program cost millions more than was budgeted.
With the state's tight budget and so many people looking for jobs, the system's overhaul can't run over budget and it must work as promised.
Whatever program the state selects, it must be easy to use for everyone, including older workers. Jonathan Barry, Department of Workforce Development deputy secretary, said the program could be available through smartphone apps. That's a good idea — as long as the website works well, too.
For an unemployment insurance program, clarity is vital. The state's current system is disastrously complicated and unfriendly to all users.
Obviously, price is an issue as well. We get stuck with a crummy multimillion-dollar program and have to start over.
A system that connects workers with jobs would obviously benefit the state. But it must be useful.
Beloit Daily News. Dec. 12, 2012.
The will to win. Do we have it?
News item: "A new intelligence assessment of global trends projects that China will outstrip the United States as the leading economic power before 2030."
And another news item: "Students in the U.S. perform better than the global average, but still lag behind many of their peers in Asia and Europe, an international study found. Fourth-graders have improved their scores in reading and math over the past four years. But progress seems to fall off by eighth grade, where math and science scores are stagnant. Kids in countries like Finland and Singapore are outperforming American fourth-graders in science and reading. By eighth grade, American students have fallen behind their Russian, Japanese and Taiwanese counterparts in math, and trail students from Hong Kong, Slovenia and South Korea in science."
These two subjects are inseparable. The United States has no hope of retaining its economic edge if it can't prepare future generations to compete and win.
The first order of business is for Americans to stop acting as if holding education to higher standards is a choice. It's not. It's an imperative.
That would move the discussion to the next level: (1) What are the benchmarks and strategies for success? and (2) What are the consequences for failure?
Beloit Memorial High School Principal Tom Johnson's recent call for higher standards makes clear the necessary strategies for addressing the problems in America's schoolhouses. Public education must expect more, increase rigor and make no excuses.
There's no mystery in that. All those connected to the system know what success looks like. They know where to set the bar.
It's the second part that gets dicey. No one likes the sound of the word "consequences."
And that, we submit, is the beating heart of America's slippage in international competitiveness.
The easy reaction is to blame the schools. Lousy and lazy teachers and administrators. If only America had better educators all the kids would be like those in Lake Wobegon: Good looking, above average and we'd beat the socks off those foreigners.
There is some truth there, but only some. As schools became more unionized the typical protections were locked in place. Getting rid of weak performers can be such a headache it has been easier to just shuffle people around from one building to the next. Likewise, incentives for the very best are stifled by compensation plans that flatten earning power. Rewards matter, and should match performance, not just diplomas or years on the job.
Logic suggests, in any organization at a given time, there will be a few outstanding performers, several average performers, and a handful that amount to deadwood. That word again — consequences: For the outstanding, rewards commensurate with performance; for the average, incentives and training to move toward outstanding; and for the deadwood ... a quick exit.
Anything less amounts to not taking seriously the challenge of change.
Believe it or not, the schoolhouse should be the easiest part to fix. Raising standards for all — administration, teachers and students — is do-able. So is initiating some kind of sorting process to help direct the best and brightest toward achieving their full potential, while helping provide guidance and market-driven skills where vocational training may be indicated.
The bigger nut to crack: A society that has become undisciplined and disinterested, but expects rewards regardless of performance. That's why Americans are more likely to whine about their standing vis-a-vis foreign competitors than they are to demand a rigorous response of themselves.
Resent it all you want, but the world is Darwinian. Whine to your heart's delight, but a loss is a loss, and being overtaken and surpassed by others will produce harsh and unpleasant results.
Disengaged, indifferent parenting. Emotional outbursts to any accountability. Mindless distractions and obsessions with video games, social media, celebrity culture. Excessive worry over self-esteem. Bending objective standards to fit cultural differences. All these and more developments are indications of a society that doesn't want to compete or be held individually responsible for results. Schools can't fix any of that. That kind of change takes place — or not — at home.
What will it take to get America back on top? Keep score. Reward winning. Demand better performance, at every level, when results fall short. Apply accountability in all things.
The formula is obvious. What's not obvious is whether Americans possess the will to achieve excellence anymore.
One way or another, we will find out.