The Chippewa Herald, Chippewa Falls. Jan. 31, 2013.
Don't restrict access to open records
Citizens should not have to pay a tax to obtain information from public officials.
Yet that is exactly what a draft bill in the Wisconsin Assembly would propose by allowing government agencies to charge for time spent deleting confidential information from documents.
Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, wants to undo a state Supreme Court ruling last year that prohibited records custodians from charging requestors for redaction expenses. That settled a lawsuit from a 2010 opens-records request made by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which asked for reports as part of an investigation of the Milwaukee Police Department and how it classified crime data.
The newspaper sued after the police department demanded $4,000 to cover redaction time after it already had provided 100 copies of reports for free. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Wisconsin's open-records law allows custodians to charge only for reproducing, photographing, locating and mailing records.
We must remember that all records in Wisconsin are presumed open unless there is a specific statutory exemption. The number of records that would require redaction for confidential reasons is limited.
Bies and bill supporters argue that taxpayers should not bear the costs of redaction. But there is no indication that complying with requests creates widespread undue burden or expense. It is reasonable that public officials should spend some of their time being held accountable to the public. It's part of their job.
In the Journal Sentinel case, the newspaper found that police had misreported thousands of violent crimes, failed to correct the problems and failed to disclose them. Those findings were later confirmed by a consultant hired by the city, but only after the newspaper released its findings.
Examinations and scrutiny of public documents is a crucial part of democracy's system of checks and balances. Government serves its citizens best when it is done in the open, for all to see. Openness and access is for all citizens, not just journalists.
Our concern — and something all Wisconsin citizens should be concerned about — is that the change in law would make it convenient for custodians to throw an outrageous redaction fee as a roadblock to release public records. It would be far too easy under the law change for public officials who don't want records released to say that a highly paid attorney must review the records for redactions — even if they're not required — and quote a ridiculous charge, hoping that the requestor will simply go away.
Sadly, it's not uncommon that our requests for public documents are ignored, delayed or challenged under existing law. This redaction change would only add another layer of unnecessary obstruction.
We — that's all of the taxpayers in Wisconsin — already have paid for that document because we paid the salaries and the benefits of the person who created it. Changing the law as proposed would be a high price to pay for our right to know and certainly not the spirit of openness our state is known for.
Green Bay Press-Gazette. Jan. 30, 2013.
Boy Scouts of America must change policy
The Boy Scouts of America on Monday signaled that it is considering removing its exclusion of gay Scouts and leaders.
Any policy change would be left up to the religious and civic groups that sponsor Boy Scout units because the BSA said it "would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents."
First of all, it's a good, if timid, first step. The organization's reassurance that it wouldn't "dictate a position" seems ironic since the BSA had no problem dictating to units, members and parents that Scouts and leaders could be excluded based on their sexual orientation.
Second, the move, though commendable, doesn't go far enough. Leaving the policy up to the sponsors to address the issue could still result in some Scouts and leaders being excluded.
For now, though, this is a step in the right direction for an organization with more than 2.6 million youths taking part in Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers.
It's also somewhat surprising because in July the BSA reaffirmed its ban on gay Scouts and leaders.
Some critics have said changing the policy might make for uncomfortable situations at the annual National Jamboree and among Scouts and leaders on the local level.
They need to deal with it. The BSA currently gives Scouts youth protection training, requires parents to talk to their sons about how to be safe and requires all leaders go through youth protection training every two years.
The BSA can also provide Scouts and leaders the training needed to address questions about sexual orientation that might arise.
Many states have legalized gay marriage, and gay troops may serve in the military. The Boy Scouts of America would not be out of line in acknowledging this growing move toward acceptance.
In his inauguration address earlier this month, President Barack Obama reinforced that acceptance. "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well."
The Boy Scouts of America video extolling the attributes of its youth says a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent. Those are wonderful attributes and can be applied to all youth, regardless of whether they are straight or gay.
For many kids in Scouting, the pre-adolescent and adolescent years are stressful and confusing enough without an organization that offers them great opportunities for leadership and adventure making things even more stressful and confusing with an exclusion based on sexual orientation.
The BSA's national executive board is expected to discuss the change at its meeting next week. The board needs to step up and end the debate, which could be done quite simply by adopting a simple policy that says, "The Boys Scouts of America does not discriminate based on sexual orientation." Period. End of discussion.
Beloit Daily News. Jan. 30, 2013.
Bipartisan start on immigration
Nothing like throwing up a big test right away for the new Congress to determine if the partisan warriors learned anything from November's election results.
A bipartisan group of senators — that's right, we said bipartisan — has proposed a sweeping immigration reform plan to deal with the issues, including how to treat the estimated 11 million illegal aliens believed living in this country.
The plan, say the senators, will provide a way to secure the border, allow expansion in the guest worker program, crack down on employers through tougher verification requirements and design a pathway for those already here to seek citizenship.
The proposal comes from a group of eight senators — Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, along with Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Charles Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
Last November, the Republican ticket went down in flames largely because it scored so poorly with key (and growing) demographic groups — women, African Americans, young people and, yes, Hispanics.
In the aftermath of the election sensible Republicans were outspoken in urging the party to increase its outreach, embracing what Ronald Reagan called the big-tent philosophy. Essentially, that means easing up on the purity test, in which those who stray from the most conservative message are all but drummed out of the party.
Smart Republican leaders — count governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana among them — have urged the party to stop insulting segments of the population and crack down on the wingnuts and their nasty rhetoric.
Lest Democrats think they draw a free pass, remember all the polls show Americans hold Congress in near-complete contempt. That, Democrats, means you, too. The people want those they pay very, very well to work together and get things done.
So here's an immigration plan built by a bipartisan group of Senate luminaries. What kind of reaction will it get?
Mind you, this is not intended to be a blanket endorsement of this or any other plan. There's way too much fine print to digest, and no doubt plenty of room for compromise.
But this much is clear: America has ignored the problem for many years, allowing the issue to become more and more difficult to solve. Comprehensive reform has been proposed before — notably by President George W. Bush — without success.
At first glance, this proposal touches all the important bases — border security, guest worker papers, the wink-and-nod culture in the private sector to secure cheap labor, and options for the millions already here illegally. Three principles seem crucial:
1. Any country has the right to control its borders. It all starts there.
2. Whether officials looked the other way in the interest of cheap labor or cozying up to a future voting bloc, the see-no-evil approach is unconscionable. Real penalties must be in play for failing to verify immigration status.
3. America will never deport 11 million people. So the country must figure out what to do with them, and do it in a fair and positive way.
To all those willing to see, it's obvious Republicans have more skin in this game than Democrats. The future asserted itself in November, and it's a future more promising for Democrats than Republicans unless the conservative party manages to change the dynamic. Working for a reasonable, positive resolution of immigration issues would be a solid start toward maintaining a competitive two-party system within tomorrow's demographic trends.
The word likely to be tossed around, derisively and dismissively, is "amnesty."
It's not about amnesty. No one in their right mind is for amnesty.
It is about a comprehensive solution to a thorny problem, one which deals with all aspects of the issue. These eight senators have made a good start, by showing something can be brought forward without partisan rancor. Let's see if their colleagues can find the same spirit.
Wisconsin State Journal. Jan. 31, 2013.
Don't divvy up state's electoral votes
Add U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, to the list of Republican leaders skeptical about changing how Wisconsin awards its electoral votes for president.
"I like being spoiled as a Wisconsin voter," Ryan told the State Journal editorial board during a meeting Tuesday. "I'd hate to be a flyover state."
This follows similar concerns from Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
"One of our advantages is, as a swing state, candidates come here," Walker just told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We get to hear from the candidates. That's good for voters. If we change that, that would take that away. It would largely make us irrelevant."
So let's drop the blatantly partisan idea by some in the GOP to divvy up Wisconsin's 10 Electoral College votes based mostly on the winner in each congressional district. Instead, Wisconsin should stick with its winner-take-all tradition. That is how virtually every other state does it.
Yes, in close elections, the Electoral College has occasionally handed victory to a presidential candidate who didn't win the national popular vote. But awarding electoral votes based largely on congressional districts would only make that problem worse.
Just look at the 2012 presidential race: Barack Obama won the popular vote by 4 percentage points nationally and by 7 percentage points in Wisconsin. So our state awarded the Democratic president all 10 of its electoral votes, and he won a significant majority of the Electoral College nationally.
But if all electoral votes had been allocated based mostly on the winner in each congressional district, Obama would have won only half of Wisconsin's electoral votes. And according to an Emory University analysis, Obama would have lost the White House.
That's partly due to Democratic voters being concentrated in urban areas. But in Wisconsin, it's also a consequence of the GOP-run Legislature rigging congressional district maps to favor their candidates.
As the GOP nominee for vice president last year, Ryan's voice should carry considerable weight, especially in Republican circles. He knows better than anyone how national tickets fawn over swing states. Wisconsin shouldn't give up the national limelight for such a flawed scheme.