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On a roll: Wisconsin Senate passes another labor reform bill

Wed, 02/08/2017 - 16:46

MADISON, Wis. – Another big win for Wisconsin taxpayers comes again at the expense of big labor.

DECONSTRUCTING BARRIERS? The Wisconsin Senate on Wednesday passed a bill reforming Wisconsin project labor agreement laws. The bill, proponents say, would open up competition and save taxpayers money. Opponents say the bill will lower wages and restrict local control.

Hours before Republican Gov. Scott Walker delivered his biennial budget address Wednesday, the GOP-controlled Senate advanced Senate Bill 3. The legislation would end the requirement of project labor agreements tied to public works projects.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald called the bill’s passage the latest example of the Senate leading on labor reforms in Wisconsin.

“From the passage of Right to Work to the repeal of the prevailing wage for local governments, we have taken great strides in encouraging open markets and removing government policies that artificially drive up costs,” the Juneau Republican said in a statement.

The bill now moves to the Assembly for consideration.

That’s where the reform legislation was introduced in December by state Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield.

While critics call the legislation a losing proposition for unions and local control, proponents say it has been taxpayers that have lost under unnecessarily costly project labor agreements. So has the free market, with many non-union contractors opting to stay out of the artificial bidding process.

PLAs are agreements between owners of construction firms and construction unions. Under current state law, firms bidding to work on a public construction project can be required by municipalities and school districts to enter into collective bargaining with the unions, hire workers through union hiring halls, and pay union wages and benefits. This applies to contractors whether they normally use a unionized workforce or not.

Among other things, PLAs may also prescribe wages, set uniform work rules covering overtime and working hours, and supersede all other collective bargaining agreements.

“We’re basically eliminating the ability for a municipality to require that a contractor enter into a project labor agreement for collective bargaining around labor and labor wages,” he said.

Hutton pointed to studies showing that project labor agreements can increase the cost of projects by as much as 18 percent by reducing the number of eligible contractors.

“The vote in the Senate was encouraging and a step in the right direction in creating government neutrality within the construction industry,” the lawmaker told Wisconsin Watchdog on Wednesday. “This law will encourage greater participation in the bid process and provide all construction firms within our state the opportunity to compete for state projects.”

PLA laws have been put to the constitutional test.

In 2011, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa upheld a gubernatorial executive order that prohibited the state and local governmental units from entering into a PLA and from requiring the use of a PLA on a project of public works, according to a Wisconsin Legislative Council memo. The court drew on an executive order signed by President George W. Bush which “specified that the federal government could neither require nor prohibit the use of a PLA on a federal or federally funded construction project.”

Bush’s order was superseded in 2009 by President Barack Obama‘s executive order encouraging federal agencies to consider requiring the use of a PLA on a project-by-project basis.

“The order states that it does not require nor preclude the use of a PLA on a project, but that in a large-scale construction project an agency may require the use of a PLA upon consideration of a number of factors, including economy and efficiency in procurement, labor-management stability, compliance with safety and health regulations, equal employment opportunity, labor and employment standards, and consistency with law,” the Legislative Council memo noted.

More recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld a Michigan law that bars governmental units from entering into project labor agreements, but also prohibits governmental units from discriminating against bidders on public works projects based on whether the bidder has entered into a PLA.

press release from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers praised a PLA signed last year by the Milwaukee Bucks for the construction of their new arena.

“Study after study shows that projects built under PLAs are more likely to be completed on time, within budget and with the highest level of quality construction,” the release said.

State Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, co-author of the PLA reform bill, in December said the government should not be in the business of “choosing winners and losers, particularly at the expense of taxpayers.”

“Government-mandated project labor agreements obstruct open, impartial and competitive bidding on construction projects,” she said.

In 2015, Wisconsin became the 25th right-to-work state. The bill was immediately challenged by unions. Last year, the Legislature passed reforms of Wisconsin’s longstanding laws requiring contractors to pay artificially set wages in order to compete for government construction projects.

In other business, the Senate also approved Senate Bill 10, with bipartisan support.

The bill would allow possession of cannabidiol (CBD) oil without a prescription in Wisconsin with a written certification from a Wisconsin-licensed doctor that the CBD oil is for treatment of a medical condition.

Wisconsin school choice advocates cheer DeVos confirmation, liberals jeer

Tue, 02/07/2017 - 22:32

WAUKESHA, Wis. – When Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote Tuesday to approve the appointment of Betsy DeVos as the nation’s education secretary, school choice supporters in Wisconsin cheered the news while opponents said they would keep watch on DeVos.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in a statement said he was pleased to support President Donald Trump’s controversial nominee in Tuesday’s historic vote.

“No child, regardless of background or ZIP code, should be denied the opportunity to receive a first-rate education,” the Oshkosh Republican said. “I appreciate Ms. DeVos’ commitment to providing families with options for their children’s education…”

DeVOS CONFIRMED ON PARTISAN VOTE: Sen. Tammy Baldwin voted against school reform advocate Betsy DeVos’ nomination for secretary of the Department of Education, while Sen. Ron Johnson voted for Trump’s pick. Vice President Mike Pence cast the deciding vote.

At the time of her nomination, DeVos was chairman of the American Federation for Children, a national school choice advocacy group, and a philanthropist who had been active in the school choice and charter school movements. Already targeted by teachers unions afraid of her support for education reform, a rocky confirmation hearing gave Democrats hope of blocking her confirmation. But only two Republicans, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Susan Collins of Maine, voted against DeVos. With the vote evenly split 50-50, Pence  cast the deciding vote in her favor.

Gov. Scott Walker, who also serves as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, predicted that DeVos would work with the states to improve education.

“Secretary DeVos will fight to ensure every child has the opportunity to reach his or her potential in the classroom, and will stand with parents who want to have the final say on where their children go to school – not government bureaucrats,” Walker said in a statement. “We congratulate Betsy DeVos on her confirmation as America’s next Secretary of Education and look forward to working with her.”

Democrats see Devos’ confirmation as an assault on the traditional public education system and a loss for their teacher union allies.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin joined with her fellow Democrats to vote against DeVos following an all nighter of attack speeches to mostly empty chairs.

“I voted against Betsy DeVos’ confirmation because she lacks the public education experience and qualifications for this job. I believe Wisconsin students, teachers and parents deserve better,”  Baldwin said on her Facebook page following the vote.

Wisconsin school choice proponents were thrilled.

The Wisconsin Coalition of School Choice Advocates, comprised of School Choice Wisconsin, Hispanics for School Choice,  the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and Wisconsin Federation for Children, issued a joint statement saying that they were hopeful DeVos could now turn her attention to “the pressing needs” of America’s school children.

“Mrs. DeVos has been intimately involved in education reform efforts here in Wisconsin,” the coalition statement said.  “Her continued focus will be on supporting those innovative leaders who excel.”

“As leaders in Wisconsin education, we are excited about her commitment to sending more power and flexibility back to the states so that we can have a greater say in education policy,” the coalition added.

The John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy said DeVos is “the right person to drive the change we need.”

“It is exciting that someone as committed to education reform and educational options for parents like Betsy DeVos is now in charge of our nation’s school system,” said Brett Healy, president of the Madison-based think tank. 

The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the state’s largest teachers union and a large backer of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin, posted a statement from National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García.

“We are going to watch what Betsy DeVos does. And we are going to hold her accountable for the actions and decisions she makes on behalf of the more than 50 million students in our nation’s public schools,” García said. “America is speaking out. Betsy DeVos needs to listen. The hundreds of thunderous rallies, the flood of phone calls, and the deluge of millions of emails in opposition to the DeVos’ nomination deny the Trump administration a mandate to take over our public schools.”

The vote to confirm DeVos also caused a stir in the ostensibly non-partisan race for Wisconsin Superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction.

 “Ms. DeVos has a great opportunity to help schools across the nation by reducing regulatory burdens that take the focus from students and teachers,” candidate John Humphries said in a statement. “She can also support states like Wisconsin by providing additional support for school choice while leaving it to states to focus on results and accountability for all schools.”

SEE RELATED: Betsy DeVos confirmed as education secretary

That caused the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, a beneficiary of teachers unions’ financial support, to attack Humphries despite the non-partisan nature of the election.

“It’s a part of our progressive traditions to invest in public education to create a pathway to the middle-class and beyond for all of our young citizens,” party chairman Martha Laning said in a statement. “Which is why it is deeply troubling to see state Superintendent candidate, John Humphries, celebrating the confirmation of someone like Betsy DeVos who owes her nomination to multiple campaigns destroying public education and huge donations to the very Senators who confirmed her.”

Lowell Holz, another candidate for DPI superintendent, also praised DeVos.

“Congratulations to Secretary DeVos on her confirmation by the US Senate today!” Holz said. “Her intellect and leadership will serve the expansion and longevity of school choice well in Wisconsin and nationwide. Today’s news is a positive development for the future of America’s children.”

DPI Superintendent Tony Evers did not plan on issuing a statement, according to DPI communications director Tim McCarthy, and the Evers re-election campaign did not respond to a request for a comment. Holtz, Humphries and Evers face each other in a nonpartisan primary election Feb. 21. The top two candidates will face off in the April 4 general election.

Chancellor of troubled UW-Platteville looking for new job

Tue, 02/07/2017 - 18:12
Part 13 of 13 in the series 'Troubled' Campus

MADISON, Wis. — University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s chancellor is searching for a new job, looking to leave an institution of higher education troubled by allegations of discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

Chancellor Dennis Shields is one of three finalists for president of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Last week Shields met with students, staff, faculty, administrators, the Board of Trustees and community leaders, according to a Wright State press release.

JOB SEARCH: UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields is a finalist for a top administrative position at Wright State University. He presides over a campus troubled by lawsuits, investigations and allegations of discrimination and retaliation.

“I want to be at an institution that is fully committed to the student experience,” Shields told students. “I think institutions like Wright State are the portal to the middle class and a thriving life, much more so than the research ones and Ivy Leagues. We’re educating the masses. If we do our job well, then this country is going to thrive.”

He has served as Platteville chancellor since 2010, and looks to leave amid multiple allegations of wrongdoing as charged by a professor Shields removed from campus last month.

That professor, University of Wisconsin-Platteville whistleblower Sabina Burton, could lose her position as associate criminal justice professor, pending the outcome of of an investigation.

In early January, Shields sent Burton a letter advising the professor that he was “initiating the dismissal process” against her.

“I am instigating an investigation. I will provide further information about the investigation as soon as possible,” Shields wrote. “I expect you to give your full cooperation to the investigator.”

Later in the month, Burton was ordered to clean out her office while the institution’s police chief stood by.

RELATED: Chancellor moves to fire UW-P whistleblower professor

Shield’s job hunt follows news that Interim Provost Elizabeth Throop is leaving for an administrative post at Frostburg State University in Maryland following the spring semester.

The latest complaint against Burton was filed by Throop and Melissa Gormley, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Education. Throop is a defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit that Burton previously filed against the university.

The case is now at the appeals level after a lower court said Burton’s case did not meet standards laid out by civil rights law. Burton alleges Throop repeatedly retaliated against her after the professor tried to help a female student who said she was sexually harassed by a male criminal justice professor.

Last month, a judge from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Burton’s case. The court learned that the university was moving to fire the tenured criminal justice professor pending the findings of the University Wisconsin System-led investigation. That’s important because the lower court rejected Burton’s claims that she was retaliated against, asserting that while the university did take adverse actions against her, the actions were effectively “petty slights,” noting that Burton received tenure during the four years in which she claims discrimination and retaliation.

Burton said she faces losing her tenured teaching position based on bogus claims fueled by administrative animus.

“That’s material. Those are damages,” Burton said.

The appeals court will take all of the oral arguments and accompanying court documents in the case under advisement, but a final decision could be as much as 18 months from now.

UNDER INVESTIGATION: UW-Platteville Criminal Justice Professor Sabina Burton says the investigation that could lead to her dismissal is the clearest evidence yet that administrators have retaliated against her for exercising her rights.

Meanwhile, there is the messy business of the investigation against Burton, her pending Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints against the university, and a new federal lawsuit against administrators, university grievance board members and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.

In July 2015, the EEOC issued Burton a right-to-sue letter related to her second EEOC complaint on retaliation and discrimination. The agency determined that grounds exist for a discrimination claim.

The investigation was announced a little over a month after Shields dismissed another complaint against Burton and a counter complaint, noting the “complaints do not warrant disciplinary action or further investigation.”

In that probe, Shields hired a private investigator to question Burton at her home. Burton provided evidence showing the allegations made against her were false and told Wisconsin Watchdog the probe was a means to push out a vocal critic of Shields’ administration.

Shields, who has been criticized by faculty and students for his handling of other misconduct allegations, informed Burton that if the administrators’ allegations are true, they would warrant “Burton’s dismissal.”

Among other offenses, the complaint alleges Burton behaved “unprofessionally,” including “involving students into your personal concerns.”

The chancellor asserts Burton has broken trust with her colleagues. Administrators complain about a website Burton and her husband, Roger Burton, operate. They charge that universitycorruption.com includes confidential personnel information in the form of audio recordings and transcripts. Burton says she has invoked her right under Wisconsin law to record Criminal Justice Department meetings as evidence for her case. Her website includes a raft of court documents, including depositions.

Burton counters that she “never acted badly at work in any way,” and that she was “always civil” to her colleagues. Any of her complaints or grievances were done in writing, she said. And she says she has evidence to definitively refute claims that she shared her secure university email account.

In Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigative series, “Troubled Campus,” Burton Burton claims administrators took away a grant, committee seats, and effectively stalled her professional career after she spoke out about the handling of a sexual harassment complaint. She claims she was physically threatened by an acting Criminal Justice Department chairman, was defamed by an instructor, and saw her health rapidly deteriorate in a four-year campaign of harassment and retaliation.

UW-Platteville officials and representatives from the UW System have declined to comment on the personnel matters.

Petra Roter, senior special assistant to the vice president for Academic and Student Affairs for the University of Wisconsin System Administration, was tapped to investigate the UW-P administrator complaints against Burton. She plans to meet with the professor on Thursday, according to an email.

Roter previously served as vice chancellor of Student Affairs for the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. She also served as co-chair of the UW System Sexual Assault and Harassment Task Force, which just published its report.

Burton said she’s looking forward to meeting with the investigator, and that it will be “a huge relief to be able to speak the truth.”

For now, she misses her classroom and her students. She said the support she has received from UW-Platteville students she sees around town has been incredible.

The criminal justice professor said she is learning as much as she can about counter-terrorism and other policing subjects. She expects to be back in her classroom bringing her expertise to her students.

“I am using this as a kind of sabbatical that Shields has given me,” Burton said. “I want to come back stronger, not weaker.”

This map shows how far-reaching — and debt-ridden — government broadband has grown

Tue, 02/07/2017 - 06:48

MORE BUST THAN BOOM: The map shows numerous government broadband projects saddled with debt.

 

The Taxpayers Protection Alliance Foundation has launched a website where users can view the litany of municipal broadband projects saddled with millions in debt.

The map shows more than 200 projects funded by taxpayers, many of them deep in financial arrears and several more that failed, either sold off for deep discounts to private providers or leaving taxpayers on the financial hook for the debt.

“Overwhelmingly, these government-owned and taxpayer-funded networks leave budgets in the red due to underestimated buildout costs, subscriber rates falling far short of projections, and issued bonds straining local budgets for years to come,” the website says.

Some choice examples:

  • Sun Prairie Utilities in Wisconsin is shackled with more than $9.3 million in debt, which isn’t likely to be paid off soon because it has only 200 customers. The website notes that the network, in operation for 17 years, owes $46,623 per customer before construction costs are paid off.
  • Orangeburg Broadband in South Carolina isn’t doing much better — just 300 subscribers, although Orangeburg County has more than 92,000 residents. Although the network received $14 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture it’s, still saddled with more than $4.6 million in debt.
  • AccessEagan in Eagan, Minnesota, started as a relative bargain compared with most networks, with $1.5 million in taxpayer funds allocated to initial construction costs. But expansions and increased operational costs have grown that number — the network is now nearly $7.4 million in debt.

TPA points out that in all the locations documented on the website, private internet services are available.

“These networks … unfairly compete against private businesses,” the website says. “Worst of all, these projects have proven to put taxpayer dollars at risk, leaving hardworking constituents to foot the bill, often at a steep cost.”

TPA President David Williams told Watchdog.org he hopes the site will educate the public about how far-reaching and financially burdening government broadband projects can be.

“Finally people will see the truth about these taxpayer-funded networks,” he said. “All that glitters is not gold, and in the case of these networks it is fool’s gold.”

Latest data show Tomah VA hospital improving in opioid prescriptions, veteran satisfaction

Mon, 02/06/2017 - 14:01
Part 42 of 42 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. — Despite reports of ongoing painkiller prescription practices and health care delivery concerns at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the scandal-plagued hospital has noted considerable improvement over the past 18 months, according to new data obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

IMPROVING TOMAH?: New data show strides being made on opioid prescriptions at the Tomah VA Medical Center. But problems linger, insiders say.

The facility, described by veterans as “Candyland” because of its practice of overprescribing opioids, has seen pronounced declines in highly addictive painkiller prescriptions, according to a Tomah VAMC fact sheet. While the numbers fluctuate, the report snapshot found:

  • A 48 percent reduction in the amount of veterans receiving both opioids and benzodiazepines, the class of highly addictive sedative and muscle relaxant drugs.
  • A 49 percent decline in the number of veterans receiving greater than 100 morphine equivalent milligram daily dosages.
  • A 73 percent drop in the number of vets receiving greater than 400 morphine equivalent milligram dosages.

“Each veteran’s case is looked at individually through the Opioid Safety Initiative Committee and Academic Detailing at the (Veterans Integrated Services Network),” said Tomah VA spokesman Matthew Gowan.

The Opioid Safety Initiative is a “comprehensive effort to improve the quality of life for the hundreds of thousands of veterans suffering from chronic pain,” according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Launched in October 2013 in Minneapolis, the initiative aims to lower opioid dependency by alleviating patient pain through non-prescription methods.

The Tomah VA Medical Center’s alarming opioid over-prescription practices led to the August 2014 death of 35-year-old veteran Marine Jason Simcakoski, according to multiple federal investigations into the hospital.

Dr. David Houlihan, the facility’s chief of staff, was fired in late 2015 following investigative reports and whistleblower accounts of painkiller addiction abuse and retaliation against employees who dared bring the problems to light. Last month, a state board stripped Houlihan of his medical license and declared the physician referred to as the “Candy Man” ineligible to practice medicine in Wisconsin.

RELATED: Tomah VA’s “Candy Man” stripped of license

Also last month, the VA named Victoria Brahm to lead the troubled medical center. Brahm has served as acting director since October 2015.

While VA officials are praising Brahm for her leadership and celebrating her appointment, sources inside the medical center say prescription drug abuse and other health care delivery concerns remain a problem.

“While this has changed some ways drugs are processed, the problem with over-prescribing and veterans’ abuse of medication still lingers,” a source who works at the hospital told Wisconsin Watchdog. The source asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

“We have many veterans who lash out at the pharmacy and pharmacist and technicians who see the dispensing practices as insane,” the source added.

In December, an employee who works in medicine at the veterans hospital said the amount of painkillers still being prescribed is “insane.”

“I know people who have worked here for many years; the problems still persist. They’re putting a good face on it, but they are doing nothing,” the insider said. “They took away the Candy Man, but other providers still are pushing medications.

Last month, Gowan said the VA’s Opioid Safety Initiative has been very successful, although hospital officials hear criticism on “both ends of the spectrum.”

“We have some who say, ‘You’re just stoning veterans out of their minds over here,’ and then you have others who say, ‘You’re just taking needed medications away from veterans,’” Gowan said. “It’s really more something in the middle. Each veteran is being looked at by multiple teams. We’re talking about prescription practices attempting to deal with people suffering with chronic pain plus mental health issues.”

Nationally, the number of risky dosages of opioids prescribed to veterans has dropped by double digits, according to a study published in the Journal of Pain.

As the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation reported last month, “Over a two-year period, high-dose opioid prescribing declined by 16 percent, and very-high-dose opioid prescribing dropped by 24 percent.”

“The number of patients receiving both opioids and sedatives, which can be lethal when combined, dropped by 21 percent,” the institute reported.

The study examined the Opioid Safety Initiative across all of the nation’s 141 VA hospitals.

Gowan noted other quality data since October 2015:

  • More than 90 percent of veterans at the Tomah VA hospital report they were “completely satisfied” or “satisfied” with the timeliness of their appointments.
  • In 2016, 98.5 percent of completed appointments were within 30 days of the veteran’s preferred date, 90.3 percent were within 7 days and 17.2 percent were same-day appointments. During the same time frame, average wait times for completed appointments were 2.4 days for primary care, 5.7 days for specialty care and 1.8 days for mental health care.
  • In fiscal year 2016, Tomah improved its quality ranking from 77 to 41.

Bill would punish Wisconsin local governments for failing to follow the law

Fri, 02/03/2017 - 16:31

MADISON, Wis. – Strange that there needs to be a law demanding local governments follow the law.

But such is life in the Age of Trump.

NATION OF LAWS: State Rep. Janel Brandtjen, this week introduced a bill that would allow citizens to sue local governments that do not follow state and federal laws.

State Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R- Menomonee Falls, this week introduced a bill that would penalize cities, towns and counties for creating policies that do not comply with state and federal law.

The legislation would allow a Wisconsin resident or a group of residents to file a lawsuit against any governmental body that violates the law.

Brandtjen’s bill arrives as the Milwaukee County Board on Thursday passed (12-6) a so-called anti-discrimination resolution that is a scathing denouncement of President Donald Trump and his executive order that would punish cities that do not follow immigration laws.

The resolution, authored by Milwaukee County uber liberal, Sup. Marina Dimitrijevic declares that Milwaukee County will welcome undocumented immigrants. That ultimately means the county wishes not to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement efforts to bring illegals, particularly those convicted of crimes, into custody. The resolution urges Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and his deputies not to assist ICE agents.

Clarke has said he will continue to cooperate with ICE, despite the wishes of Dimitrijevic and other supervisors who supported her measure that Milwaukee County serve as a sanctuary for illegal immigrants. Dimitrijevic also has sought the creation of a county legal defense fund for undocumented individuals.

RELATED: Milwaukee County supervisor’s resolution asks taxpayers to pay for illegals’ legal defense fund

Brandtjen’s bill isn’t specifically aimed at Wisconsin communities like Milwaukee with policies and resolutions encouraging defiance of federal law, but its effect is clear.

“You have to follow federal law,” the second-term lawmaker said. “We are a nation of laws, and all of us from supervisors to mayors to state representatives, we take a state oath that we are going to uphold the law.”

Brandtjen said Wisconsin and other states are in this strange situation of having to pass a law demanding government officials follow the law because of what she described as the “selective enforcement” of the Obama administration.

“Selective enforcement is really a dangerous process of dipping our toes into the waters of anarchy,” she said.

The bill establishes cash penalties for local governments that fail to follow state or federal law. Fines range from $500 to $5,000 per day of violation, depending on the size of the local government.

At Thursday’s County Board meeting, Dimitrijevic declared that the county is not afraid, and that it would not be bullied by the Trump administration.

But the county stands to lose as much as $1 million in federal grants should it fail to follow federal immigration laws, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

Deanna Alexander, one of six supervisors to vote against the resolution, last week called the measure an “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink resolution,” and “divisive, wasteful nonsense.”

“Under a false banner of valuing all people, it carelessly drives a wedge against anyone willing to give the new president an opportunity to help our nation and further polarizes our political climate,” Alexander said in a statement. “The resolution misleads the public with political rhetoric that would make it seem as if the White House has threatened citizens’ rights in every area of their lives — a claim that is simply not true and appears to be a County Board attempt at developing ‘alternative facts.’”

Brandtjen said the time is now to open up discussions about the pros and cons of laws and their enforcement, and she hopes her bill will help drive some of that conversation. But the lawmaker said a nation of laws cannot turn its back on the law.

“We deserve consistent enforcement of the law, and it is the job of the legislature to draft laws that provide that structure,” Brandtjen said in a statement. “This bill is just common sense. We are a nation of laws; otherwise what are we doing here?”

Judge to decide if summary judgment is to be made in McAdams case

Fri, 02/03/2017 - 09:37

MILWAUKEE — After being banished from the classroom more than two years ago by Marquette University, professor John McAdams appeared in a Milwaukee County courtroom Thursday to ask Judge David Hansher to let him teach again.

“I’m not sure which way the judge is leaning. He certainly asked some good questions, both from Marquette and my lawyers, so we’ll see,” McAdams said after the hearing.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM: Marquette political science professor John McAdams hopes Judge David Hansher will allow him to teach again.

During the hearing, Hansher considered competing motions for summary judgment. If he does not grant either side’s motion, the case will be tried before a jury starting June 19. Whatever the ruling, Harsher said he expects his written decision to be appealed.

McAdams is suing Marquette University after being suspended for a blog post he wrote on his website, Marquette Warrior, in November 2014. The post criticized philosophy instructor and graduate student Cheryl Abbate for telling a student she would not allow discussion of viewpoints critical of same-sex marriage in her class at the Catholic university, saying such beliefs would be perceived as homophobic.

The student, unnamed in the lawsuit, recorded the conversation and gave it to McAdams. McAdams then posted a transcript of the conversation and linked to Abbate’s personal webpage.

The university moved to fire McAdams after the blog post went viral and Abbate received disturbing email. Abbate left Marquette shortly afterward to begin a doctoral program at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

McAdams, a nationally recognized expert on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, appealed to a faculty committee, saying the academic freedom mentioned in his contract protected his First Amendment right to free speech. The committee issued a report in January 2016 recommending unpaid suspension for McAdams through the fall 2016 semester.

However, Marquette President Michael Lovell added three additional requirements to be met before McAdams can be reinstated. The requirements, listed in a Jan. 12 letter, said McAdams would have to accept the judgment of his peers, commit to the standards of higher education at Marquette, and acknowledge that his blog post was reckless and incompatible with Marquette’s mission. He also is expected to express regret for the alleged harm suffered by Abbate.  

Lovell’s actions have landed Marquette University on a list of the Ten Worst Universities for Free Speech, as ranked by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

In a letter last April, McAdams refused to accept the faculty committee’s recommendation and to comply with the additional demands made by Lovell. He continues to be suspended, but not fired, and is unable to access the funds in his retirement account.

McAdams has said that no financial offer could induce him to drop his lawsuit seeking reinstatement. “It really is a matter of principle. I’m not going to let the bastards get rid of me,” McAdams said in an interview last month.

RELATED: Marquette prof recognized for being ‘unintimidated’

McAdams’ attorney, Rick Esenberg, chief counsel and president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said he was looking forward to Hansher’s decision on the motion for summary judgment.

“I think it’s clear in this case that whatever the limits that might exist in academic freedom and freedom of speech, Professor McAdams was well within the protected zone,” Esenberg said after the hearing. “Marquette has not identified any rule or standard Dr. McAdams violated.”

Marquette’s legal counsel, Ralph Weber, declined to comment.

During the hearing, Hansher played the audio of the student’s recording and asked if Abbate had been “set up” by the student. Weber said that because the the recording started before the conversation started, and because the student denied recording the conversation, it was a set-up. In addition, the student was a member of an organization that looked for liberal bias in the classroom.

“How to loop that, how it all comes together is, Dr. McAdams actually sent an email to students at Marquette urging them to record professors, telling them that one-party records are legal in Wisconsin,” Weber said.

“There’s absolutely nothing in the record to indicate that Dr. McAdams had anything to do with this,” Esenberg replied. “There’s nothing in the record in the case [showing] that, prior to this conversation between Abbate and the student, Dr. McAdams sent some kind of email asking students to make recordings.”

After the hearing, McAdams acknowledged that he sent an email to students, but that it was sent on Sept. 12, 2016, nearly two years after the student recorded Abbate.

RELATED: Marquette says John McAdams’ suspension to continue until he apologizes

As for whether the recorded conversation was a set-up, Esenberg replied that there was nothing in the record to indicate what the student was thinking.

“It doesn’t matter because the issue here is John McAdams’ speech and the broad contractual commitments to protect it that Marquette made,” he said.

Hansher asked Weber about the weight Marquette University is asking the court to place on the report by the faculty committee and university statutes, and whether they should be given the same deference as a government agency.

“There is an incredibly detailed set of specifications about how discipline is handled,” Weber said. “And so, at the university, both sides agree in the contract that, in so long as those procedures are followed without material departure, then it’s valid.”

Esenberg said the mission of the university to engage in free inquiry affects the issue of how much deference is to be given to the faculty committee and the university statutes.

“At a university, why would anyone need a guarantee of free expression and academic freedom?” Esenberg asked rhetorically.

“Who would those guarantees protect you from? The answer is, they protect you from the administration, they protect you from your colleagues,” he added. “They guarantee you can say things that are unpopular. You can say things that other people, most don’t like. And they’re not going to discipline you for it.”

Mainstream media burned by own bias again in Beloit College hate crime story

Fri, 02/03/2017 - 05:30

MADISON, Wis. –The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and much of the mainstream media just got badly burned in their rush to report apparent hate crimes on the Beloit College campus.

HATE CRIME HOAX: Beloit College student Michael Kee, 20, was arrested this week after police say he confessed to spray-painting racial slurs on a dorm wall. The incident, which turned out to be a hoax, originally was reported as a hate crime.

In many ways, once again, they burned themselves with their own biases.

There was plenty of overheated coverage this week of an apparent hate crime that turned out to be bogus – as has too often been the case in this era of knee-jerk journalism.

On Monday, news outlets across Wisconsin – and the nation – posted the story that “two Beloit students in residence halls were targets of hate crimes.”

Beloit College officials first reported that an anti-Semitic note was placed under a student’s door last Friday. Early Monday morning, an anti-Muslim threat was found spray-painted on another student’s residence hall door, and a swastika on a nearby wall.

Beloit security reportedly discovered the words, “Die,” “Sand nigger go home,” and #Muslimban in red paint on the student’s door on the second floor of the college’s Bushnell Hall.

Before police had identified any suspects, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel seemed to have one in mind: President Donald Trump.

“The anti-Muslim threat comes as chaos continues to build around the country over President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries,” a staff reporter wrote.

The implication, essentially the same as the overt accusation from the left, is that Trump and his executive orders are stirring up mass racism and violence in America.

Once again, an alleged hate crime disappeared in the face of facts, and the mainstream media were left holding their bag of bias.

On Wednesday, another Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter was forced to report:

“A Beloit College student admitted fabricating an incident in which a swastika, anti-Muslim and ethnic and racial slurs were spray-painted on a dorm room door and a nearby wall,” the story stated.

Turns out 20-year-old Beloit College student Michael Kee confessed to spray-painting the racial slurs. Kee, who originally reported the incident to police, was arrested on charges of obstruction, disorderly conduct and criminal damage.  He allegedly told authorities he saw the way the campus community came together after the first reported hate crime incident and he wanted in on that action.

So did the mainstream media, chomping at the bit to report on an act of “racism and intolerance” in the Trump era.

Just like it did in the case of the 18-year-old Muslim woman who made up a story about being attacked in December by three white men screaming “Donald Trump!” on a Manhattan subway. Just like it did in covering the phony story of a University of Michigan female student who falsely claimed she was attacked by a white man who threatened he would set her on fire if she did not remove her hijab. And in the case of the openly bisexual senior at North Park University in Chicago who claimed she received a homophobic note and hateful emails following Trump’s presidential election victory. False, too.

As in the Beloit College story, each of the “hate crimes” were reported with the narrative of a “rising tide” of Islamophobia, homophobia, bigotry and intolerance ushered in by President Donald Trump.

Investigation finds abuse, law-breaking, no retaliation at Madison Social Security office

Thu, 02/02/2017 - 17:19
Part 54 of 53 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – Managers at a scandal-plagued Social Security Administration office committed time and attendance abuses, engaged in questionable hiring practices, and failed to provide proper oversight, according to a federal investigative report obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

THE WHISTLEBLOWERS: Several Social Security Administration employees have told Wisconsin Watchdog of widespread misconduct and retaliation at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review in Madison and Milwaukee .

SSA’s Office of the Inspector General “fact sheet” states the law was broken at the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review and that managers held whistleblowers to significantly stricter standards than other staff.

Yet, the lengthy investigation seems to have found no acts of retaliation committed against the ODAR employees who brought widespread allegations of corruption – including fraud, nepotism, harassment and retaliation – to light.

“Most of the issues with the Madison HO (Hearing Office) identified through this investigation were attributable to poor management, inconsistent application of agency policies and lack of critical management oversight,” the report states.

But the problems go beyond “poor management” and lax oversight.

Misconduct encouraged

“Time and attendance abuses by the HOD (Hearing Office Director) and the GS (Group Supervisor) violated both law and regulations and set a tone for the office that misconduct by certain employees will be tolerated and, in some instances, encouraged,” the document asserts.

The synopsis of what sources say is expected to be a more comprehensive report, without naming names refers to Laura Hodorowicz, the hearing office director who in August was removed from the Madison office by armed guards and stripped of her management position, according to multiple sources. And it refers to Group Supervisor Wayne Gentz, who also was escorted out of the building and relieved of his management position.

Hodorowicz is accused of leading a “culture of corruption and cover-up” at the Madison office, a culture that whistleblowers allege “goes all the way to the top.”

Multiple employees have said the office director has been the subject of several investigations into her conduct in Madison, and when she held the same position in Milwaukee. Each time, they say, her cadre of loyalists testify on her behalf. And, sources say, they are rewarded for their loyalty.

Deborah Holland, a former Madison ODAR staff member and a whistleblower, sent a detailed report to the inspector general alleging that Hodorowicz led a corrupt system of based on punishment and rewards.  Holland asserts Hodorowicz’s openly hostile henchman, Gentz, has served as enforcer. Former Chief Administrative Law Judge Tom Springer long accepted misconduct because he benefited from the widespread nepotism in the office, Holland alleges. And former Chicago Regional Attorney Deborah Giesen, who was supposed to protect employees from harassment and intimidation, covered up for her long-time friend Hodorowicz, Holland claims.

No retaliation here?

The OIG fact sheet notes that after Holland disclosed the allegations to multiple sources, SSA took “personnel actions that adversely affected her, including the relocation of her duty station and reassignment of her duties.”

Administrators stripped Holland of her group supervisor position and had armed guards escort her out of the office.

Yet, according to the OIG, Holland was not retaliated against.

The same apparently goes for Celia Machelle Keller, the lead case technician who lost teleworking privileges soon after she was compelled to testify in an office sexual harassment case. Keller says she was harassed, ostracized and routinely punished after she blew the whistle on multiple incidents of alleged misconduct.

“The agency countered with evidence that all of its actions were legitimate, non-retaliatory and consistent with business necessity,” the fact sheet notes. SSA administrators deny specifically targeting Keller.

But at the same time, the fact sheet states: “We did not substantiate any clear instances of reprisal against Holland and Keller; however, we know that both employees were held in strict interpretations of all agency policies, while other employees, including other GS (Gentz) in question, were not.”

That would appear to be disparate treatment, and that would be a violation of federal policy and the law.

TROUBLED OFFICE: The Office of Disability Adjudication and Review is responsible for hearing claimant cases on Social Security disability benefits. The offices in Madison and Milwaukee have been accused of widespread misconduct and due process violations.

Hiring manipulation

Holland’s report to the IG, as noted in Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigative series, “Deadly Delays,” notes that nepotism was a huge problem in the Madison office.

Hodorowicz hired the adult children of Bill Allen, an ODAR employee who refused to testify against her in a hostile work environment claim, a staff member with inside information told Wisconsin Watchdog last year. Office records also confirm the hirings. Following an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, the supervisor’ son, Jason Allen, provided testimony helpful to Hodorowicz’s cause; Hodorowicz then hired Jason Allen’s wife, the source said. And Hodorowicz hired the daughter of a close friend. The wife of Gentz, Hodorowicz’s chief ally, also was brought in to do administrative work. As were the family members of administrative law judges.

“She hired those people in violation of hiring rules. Rather than hiring disabled veterans or other qualified applicants, (Hodorowicz) manipulated the hiring rules to hire employee family members as rewards,” the source said.

The OIG found the same.

“Hiring decisions in the Madison (Hearing Office) were largely unchecked by ODAR management, leaving (Hodorowicz) free to populate the office with friends and family members of current employees, increasing perceptions of favoritism and diminishing employee morale and focus on the agency’s public service mission,” the fact sheet stated. “Hiring practices in the Madison HO, which often included the manipulation of vacancy announcements to achieve a desired end, attempted to dissuade applicants from pursuing certain positions, which ran afoul of protections intended for all candidates for federal positions.”

The investigation did not substantiate allegations that the hearing office director offered financial compensation in exchange for employees’ silence concerning misconduct, according to the fact sheet. But Madison ODAR employees “reported a divisive office where civility was in short supply and compliance with agency policies was sporadic.”

No ‘systemic biases’

Finally, investigators found no evidence that Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss engaged in “systemic biases,” despite the fact that Pleuss’ hearing notes referred to claimants as attractive,” innocent-looking, and “buxom.” In one case, he noted that a “young, white (woman)”appearing before him “looks like a man.” And the judge characterized an African American woman as “Very black, “actually a gorilla-like appearance.”

“The ALJs use of inappropriate hearing notes and writing instructions, known to many employees and managers for years, went unreported and unaddressed until the behavior was brought to the attention of the media,” the report notes.

RELATED: Social Security judge demanded $65,000 expanded bathrooms

Wisconsin Watchdog first made Pleuss’ notes public in a story last June.

OIG adds that Pleuss retired at the end of 2016. At present, the administrative law judge is entitled to the generous retirement benefits afforded by the federal government – at taxpayer expense.

Senate action

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin this week sent a letter to SSA Acting Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill, urging the new administrator to “take appropriate action to ensure the hearing office in Madison and each of the Social Security Administration offices in Wisconsin are safe places to work for employees and provide high-quality service to taxpayers.”

“According to OIG, problems at the Madison hearing office are attributed to poor management, inconsistent application Social Security’s policies and a lack of management oversight,” Baldwin wrote. “In this environment, hiring decisions were largely unchecked; time and attendance abuses violated both law and regulations; and the agency took action against whistleblowers who disclosed internal corruption and a complete deterioration of work setting.”

“Moreover, an administrative law judge’s use of racist and sexist descriptions of claimants in hearing notes and writing instructions went unreported and unaddressed for years, despite managers being aware of his abhorrent behavior,” Baldwin added.

Baldwin seeks assurances from the agency that the Madison office will get its act together and that the whistleblowers will be protected moving forward.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, chaired by U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, in June launched an inquiry into the ODAR offices in Madison and Milwaukee. A committee official said staff is reviewing the inspector general report and supporting materials and expects to be brief by the IG’s office in the coming days.

In her message last week to agency employees, Berryhill asked that SSA employees continue to focus on the agency’s mission.

“Despite any changes that may occur, our focus remains the same – providing service that is efficient, compassionate and balanced while protecting the integrity of our programs,” the acting commissioner wrote.

What happens next in Madison is not clear.

The OIG did not respond to a request for comment, but it has delivered copies of the report to the Social Security Administration, according to the fact sheet. OIG also sent a copy of investigative records to the federal Office of Special Counsel.

Marquette official who schemed to keep out Ben Shapiro event attendees being ‘reprimanded’

Thu, 02/02/2017 - 08:17

WAUKESHA – To stop Marquette University students from seeing conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, an official with Marquette University’s Center for Gender and Sexualities Studies tried to encourage people to grab up the free tickets and then not show up.

“I just got off the phone with one of the directors of diversity on campus,” Chrissy Nelson, the center’s program assistant, wrote in a Facebook post first reported by Emily Jashinsky of Young America’s Foundation. “The suggestion I received and will be promoting is to go the mission week events that day, reserve a seat through eventbrite as a student (to take a seat away from someone who would actually go) and not protest the day of.”

NEW PROTEST TACTIC: Marquette University employee Chrissy Nelson attempted to prevent students from seeing a speech by conservative political pundit Ben Shapiro by encouraging protesters to grab all of the free tickets.

The Facebook post has since been deleted. Nelson did not respond to requests for comment.

Shapiro, a nationally syndicated columnist and radio talk show host, was invited by the campus student organization Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). The controversial speaker frequently draws protests, including at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where approximately 20 demonstrators interrupted the speech with insults, chants of “Safety! Safety! Safety!” Campus police just looked on as the protesters repeatedly attempted to disrupt the event.

Marquette University already has a reputation for being inhospitable to free speech. In 2016, the university was on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s list of Ten Worst Universities for Free Speech because of its suspension of Professor John McAdams over a blog post he wrote in November 2014. On Thursday, the case goes before Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge David Hansher, who will consider motions from McAdams’ attorneys and Marquette University for summary judgment in the case.

But Marquette officials are distancing themselves from Nelson’s plan to prevent students from hearing Shapiro speak.

“She does not at all speak for the center or for the university,” Angelique Harris, the director of the center where Nelson is employed, told Wisconsin Watchdog. “That is not at all what we’re doing at the university because we do feel and do believe in freedom of speech, etc. And so she’s being reprimanded and we’re dealing with her internally.”

Harris also said she had “no idea” who gave Nelson the idea. “Again, this is just a staff member posting on social media about stuff that I am not aware of taking place or happening, or that other university officials are aware of either,” Harris said.

Brian Dorrington, the Marquette’s senior director of communication, explained in a statement to the Marquette Wire, “We have addressed this issue internally and will work to make sure that interested attendees have an opportunity to see Ben Shapiro on February 8.”

Organizers of the sold-out event believed that the ticket grab by protesters that Nelson advocated will not be effective and that students would be able to see Shapiro. The organizers were going to screen for those people who said online that they planned to protest the event.

RELATED: Left rage attempts to trump free speech at UW-Madison

“We are pretty confident that those people will be kept out,” said Joe Diamond, a student at Marquette and the recruitment director for YAF on campus. “And then anyone who wanted to get in, that otherwise would not have been able to get in, will be let in.”

In response to President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from seven countries identified by the Obama administration as possible sources of terrorism, Marquette issued a statement saying, “We are steadfast in our commitment to serve all as a welcoming learning community that is open to people from a wide variety of backgrounds, perspectives and national origins.”

Shapiro’s appearance and the expected backlash from the campus left will test that commitment from Marquette on Wednesday night.

Tammy Baldwin takes down political video that appears to have violated Senate ethics rule

Wed, 02/01/2017 - 17:58

MADISON, Wis. – U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, without comment, has removed video of her interrogating President Donald Trump nominee Tom Price during a Senate committee confirmation hearing earlier this month after Wisconsin Watchdog reported that Baldwin appears to have violated Senate ethics rules.

The Madison Democrat pulled the 1 minute, 27-second video clip Tuesday, a day after the story broke. Several videos of Baldwin peppering the Health and Human Services secretary nominee with questions, however, remain on Baldwin’s Twitter account.

BUSTED? Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s political handlers removed video of the Madison Democrat grilling Trump nominee Tom Price. The video was taken down one day after Wisconsin Watchdog reported that Baldwin appeared to have broken a Senate ethics resolution on Senate video usage.

Baldwin’s office has not returned several calls seeking comment. A spokesman for the Senate Rules Committee, too, has failed to answer Wisconsin Watchdog’s questions regarding the senator’s use of Senate video.

Baldwin’s handlers on Jan. 19 posted the video clip of the senator grilling Price about his position on Medicaid prescription drug price negotiations during the Jan. 18 Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

A clip on Baldwin’s Facebook site declared, “A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer should not be this difficult,” a dig at Price’s answer. The clip suddenly disappeared Tuesday.

RELATED: Tammy Baldwin appears to have broken Senate video rule

Use of Senate video clips for political purposes runs afoul of a 30-year-old ethics resolution in the Senate Manual, which contains the “standing rules, orders, laws, and resolutions affecting the business of the U.S. Senate.”

“The use of any tape duplication of radio or television coverage of the proceedings of the Senate for political campaign purposes is strictly prohibited,” states the 1986 resolution on television and radio broadcast of Senate chamber proceedings.

“….(A)ny tape duplication of radio or television coverage of the proceedings of the Senate furnished to any person or organization shall be made on the condition, agreed to in writing, that the tape duplication shall not be used for political campaign purposes.”

Baldwin’s handlers grabbed one of the videos from MSNBC, but news networks received the feed from the Senate. The Senate does not allow any recorded use of hearings or other Senate business for political purposes.

Wisconsin Republicans earlier this week criticized Baldwin for breaking the rules while political grandstanding. On Wednesday, an official from the Republican Party of Wisconsin blasted Baldwin for “trying to cover up the controversy.”

“It should be no surprise that Senator Baldwin is trying cover up this controversy instead of answering to Wisconsin voters,” Alec Zimmerman, press secretary for the Wisconsin GOP, said in an email.  “After nearly twenty years of talk in Washington, Senator Baldwin thinks that the rules no longer apply to her.”

Baldwin, who served 14 years in the House as the Second Congressional District’s first female and openly gay representative, was elected to the Senate in 2012. She is up for re-election next year.

In another clip sent out on Baldwin’s Twitter account, the senator hits Price on Republican plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“If you repeal the #ACA, the impact is not narrowly confined to Medicaid and the individual market, it has impact on every American,” the tweet quoted Baldwin from the Senate hearing session.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in 2015 was forced to take down a presidential campaign video because it, too, appeared to violate the Senate’s rule on video usage.

The video, titled “Rand Paul: Filibuster for the Fourth Amendment,” used video footage and audio from the Kentucky Republican’s long Senate floor speech about government surveillance, according to a story in CQ Roll Call. The Senate Rules Committee took immediate action.

“Use of any duplication of television coverage of the proceedings of the Senate for campaign purposes is strictly prohibited,” Senate Rules Committee spokesman Brian Hart wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call at the time. “The Rules Committee advised Senator Paul’s office and they agreed to take the video down.”

Social Security judge demanded $65,000 expanded bathrooms

Wed, 02/01/2017 - 12:53
Part 52 of 52 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – The Social Security judge accused of sexual harassment and deciding disability claims on how attractive he thought the claimant before him was, once demanded the construction of $65,000 expanded bathrooms at the expense of his fellow Madison office staff members.

BATHROOM BATTLE: Social Security Administration Judge John Pleuss, who retired last month under a cloud of scandal, once pushed for $65,000 expanded bathrooms while staff members were forced to forego bonuses.

Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss pestered Social Security Administration Region 5 officials to build the expanded bathrooms for administrative law judges even as case workers and other staff members in the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review missed out on annual bonuses because of the 2013 federal budget sequestration, according to emails obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

“Also, I have it on good authority that there will be no bonuses for any of the staff members this year,” wrote Madison Administrative Law Judge Joseph Jacobson in a May, 15, 2013, email to his colleagues.

“I think there will be some hard feelings if they don’t get bonuses yet the judges get to build their bathrooms,” Jacobson added, in an email arguing against Pleuss’ seemingly relentless campaign for the expanded ALJ bathrooms.

Indeed there were lots of hard feelings from staff members who were not only squeezed out of bonuses but literally squeezed out of needed space because of Pleuss’ bathroom obsession.

As Jacobson noted in the email, the expanded bathrooms would – and eventually did – significantly reduce the reception area. The designs turned the space into a small room, rather than an open space, Jacobson wrote.

“We measured the other day and found that the mail/sign in area won’t fit in there anymore, nor will the copy machine. These items will have to be moved into the ALJ hallway, which is the only area wide enough to house them,” Jacobson wrote.

“This will certainly impact the receptionist’s duties as she will have to leave the area to make copies and sort mail, which will probably mean another employee will have to cover for her during these times,” the judge added.

Pleuss was well within his rights to demand the expanded bathrooms, according to internal communications.

As he noted in defending his effort, SSA Region 5, headquartered in Chicago, agreed that there “should be bathrooms with two stalls each in the northwest corner of the office in June 2010,” before the Madison office opened.

“This agreement was based on official agency policy concerning the number of restroom facilities for the number of employees,” Pleuss wrote to his colleagues in a June 2013 email.

The office, located on Madison’s Beltline Highway, was originally built and leased to the agency without the specified bathrooms. Emails show the agency promised to expand the bathrooms upon further buildouts. That did not happen. Pleuss filed a grievance demanding more stalls, the agency resisted, until finally the union got involved and the administrative law judge won.

Jacobson noted that one can lose while winning.

“First, I do understand the importance of holding management’s feet to the fire when it comes to agreements they’ve made with the unions.  In this case they screwed up by not providing the number of bathroom stalls that were agreed to.  It appears they’ve admitted to that (not altogether willingly) and are ready to fix the problem.  In essence, they’ve been ‘called out,’ beaten by the union, and now must fix the problem,” Jacobson wrote.

“However, I also believe that even if you have a legal right to something (as we do here), you don’t necessarily have to exercise that right. Granted, the bathrooms aren’t optimal and sometimes the situation can be annoying, but I just don’t feel it’s a good use of government money to change something that’s adequate but suboptimal, especially in difficult economic times.”

In a tone deaf defense, Pleuss said the expanded bathrooms would be a blessing.

“The expanded bathrooms will benefit all employees in the office, especially those who are involved in hearings, want to use the restrooms quickly between hearings, and don’t want to encounter claimants or representatives on their way,” the judge wrote.

He said he regretted staff “misgivings” about his demands.

Emails also show Pleuss demanded, and received, permission to move the adjudicators’ bench a couple of feet because he didn’t like how he was perched in front of claimants. The request cost taxpayers $12,000, according to internal communications.

TROUBLED AGENCY: The Social Security Administration is at the center of several federal investigations into allegations of due process abuses, corruption and retaliation.

Pleuss’ bathroom battle is one of many examples of an administrative law judge who often acted as if he were above the rules and frequently demanded special privileges, according to Social Security Administration sources. He was ill-mannered and behaved like a “jerk” to many at the Madison office, multiple sources told Watchdog.

More so, Pleuss is accused of mishandling personally identifiable information of claimants, demanding special treatment for his wife, a hearing monitor at the office, and of poor professional performance.

Pleuss retired at the end of 2016 under a cloud of scandal.

RELATED: Social Security judge accused of deciding cases on sex appeal retires

As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in its series, “Deadly Delays,” Pleuss is accused of sexually harassing staff members and writing inappropriate comments about claimants seeking Social Security disability benefits.

Pleuss, in his case files, described claimants as “attractive,” innocent-looking, “buxom.” In one case, he noted that a “young, white (woman)”appearing before him “looks like a man.”

“Obese, young, white (female) skimpy black top,” he wrote of another claimant.

“Very black, African looking (female),” the ALJ wrote, and parenthetically he added,“(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”

In one document, Pleuss wrote, “I’ll pay this lady when hell freezes over!”

In another of Pleuss’ “writing instructions” to his legal assistants, the judge approved a female claimant’s appeal for disability payments, calling her “credible.” He also noted “she looks like she was ‘rode hard and put away wet.’

Pleuss and managers at the Madison ODAR facility have been at the center of multiple federal investigations following allegations of widespread corruption, misconduct and retaliation. Sources say SSA’s Office of the Inspector General  is compiling both administrative and criminal investigative reports.

Internal communications also accuse Pleuss of compromising claimant personal information.

“Just a reminder to make sure that any evidence that you have copied or notes that you have made or ANYTHING with a claimant’s name or SSN on them be put in the Large Shredding bins around the office and NOT the blue Recycle bins (if you are concerned about recycling, rest assured that the paper in the shredding bins is recycled after having been shredded,” wrote former Chief Administrative Law Judge Tom Springer in a February 2014 email. “I send this reminder because one of ‘us’ put a good sized pile of paper in a Recycle bin instead of a shredding bin last week and one of the employees noticed it and pulled it out.”

A follow-up email named Pleuss as the guilty party. The email noted that claimants’ Social Security numbers and other confidential information, in Pleuss’ handwriting, were easily observable on top of the recycling bin.

Pleuss’ productivity had long been in question. In a region report on the Madison office’s “Strengths and Challenges,” Pleuss’ performance was listed as a challenge. For instance, in fiscal  2014, Pleuss issued the smallest average number of dispositions per day, by far. And he was projected to issue the fewest number of decisions, again by far.

Social Security Administration sources say Pleuss constantly pulled down the Madison office’s performance numbers.

Pleuss has not returned multiple requests for comment. An Social Security Administration spokesman repeatedly has said the agency cannot discuss personnel matters.

One source described Pleuss as a “prima donna who threw temper tantrums and tried to get staff members fired because they would stand up to him.”

“It wasn’t just the sexual stuff. This really was about his abuse of power,” the source said.

Dissent growing in Robin Vos’ House

Tue, 01/31/2017 - 18:20

MADISON, Wis. – Assembly Speaker Robin Vos likes to crack the political whip, Capitol insiders say.

The Rochester Republican who has served as speaker of the Republican-controlled Assembly since 2013 is not a man who countenances dissension in the ranks, according to multiple sources. Like legislative leaders past and present, Vos has a big bag of carrots, but he prefers to wave a very big stick.

POWER POL: Capitol insiders tell Wisconsin Watchdog that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, is cracking down on dissent in the Republican ranks, particularly on the thorny issue of state transportation funding.

“If you have to choose between ruling by fear or respect, Robin truly chooses the fear,” a legislative official with knowledge of Vos’ leadership style told Wisconsin Watchdog.

In the bare-knuckles arena of transportation spending, sources say Vos is cracking the whip perhaps harder than ever before.

The speaker has said “everything should be on the table to fix” Wisconsin’s $1 billion transportation budget shortfall, including a hike in Wisconsin’s gas tax – already among the highest in the nation.

Earlier this month Vos conceded it’s unlikely that an increase would fly, given Wisconsin Republican Party standard bearer Gov. Scott Walker’s opposition to tax hikes.

But after last week’s audit showing the Wisconsin Department of Transportation wasted billions of taxpayer dollars, Vos and the “revenue enhancement” gang hit the spin cycle, simultaneously castigating the agency and demanding lawmakers give it more money.

“The legislative audit is yet another independent report that illustrates construction delays are driving up costs unnecessarily, our road conditions are only getting worse and a long-term solution is needed,” he said in a statement. “It’s clear Wisconsin is trying to do too much with too little and taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth.”

In other words, throw more money at an agency that lowballed transportation project estimates, failed to factor in inflation and repeatedly allowed materials and processes that significantly drove up costs.

RELATED: Lawmakers: Fix DOT failures with more taxpayer money

Vos, who has in many ways helped lead Wisconsin’s conservative revolution of the past six years, finds himself in the same political bed as tax-and-spend liberals like Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, and ultra-liberal Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. In December, Soglin said he would extend an olive branch to Vos because “at least in the narrow area of transportation – with roads and highways – he seems to get it.”

What Vos has gotten of late is what sources say he hates most: dissension from some members of his caucus.

“D.O.T needs substantial reforms before we provide additional money,” said Assistant Majority Leader Rob Brooks, who broke with the speaker publicly after the audit. Brooks made his comments last week on his Facebook page, noting that the transportation debate will have “long term repercussions.”

“Immediate reforms must happen now so that we can actually invest in our infrastructure and know the money is being spent wisely. I support giving more aid to local municipalities and counties where the money will be spent appropriately on needed projects until the State gets needed D.O.T reforms in place,” Brooks added.

Brooks said the Legislature needs to get down to the work of repealing the state’s prevailing wage law, removing federal dollars and all of the expensive strings that go with them for local projects, implementing strict design standards focused on “needs and not wants,” and focusing on maintenance and replacement before looking at expansion. He also said the state needs to do away with competition-killing Project Labor Agreements, as outlined in a bill Brooks sponsored this session.

ROAD WARRIOR: Vos put out a video late last year pitching the need for increased transportation spending. From the back of an ambulance, the speaker attempted to make the case that bad roads are putting the lives of emergency services workers and their patients in peril.

Vos is willing to back such reforms, Capitol insiders say, if Republican members give him what he wants. And what Vos wants is transportation “revenue enhancements.”

“What ultimately it comes down to is, these are ideas (DOT Reforms) as conservatives we should be able to be in agreement on, but everything is going to be hostage to a gas tax increase,” one source said.

Multiple Capitol sources tell Wisconsin Watchdog that Vos made Assembly membership on the Joint Finance Committee, the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing panel, contingent on support of a gas tax hike.

Other insiders said that Vos, during a post-election caucus on committee assignments, threatened to remove Republicans from the  real scene of lawmaking – the closed-door party caucus.

“He said, ‘just because you’re an elected Republican does not mean you have a right to be a member of our caucus discussions,’” one Capitol insider said. “What he meant to say was, “If you say things that are embarrassing or contrary to the team, you can be asked to leave and not allowed back in.’”

Vos communications director Kit Beyer says the claims are “patently false.”

Legislative officials who spoke to Wisconsin Watchdog stand by their accounts.

Politics by its very nature comes with a certain amount of disagreeable things. As 19th century Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck is credited with saying, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” Whipping and wheeling and dealing are how politics gets done in Madison or Washington, D.C., or most seats of government for that matter.

But insiders say Vos has taken a keen liking to the whip, especially on the transportation issue this session.

“He creates this atmosphere where you are always looking over your shoulder,” one insider said.

Members are afraid to speak up for fear of losing committee chair posts, or that the speaker will work to hold up or kill their bills, sources say.

Some of the more outspoken members — on transportation and other key issues — found themselves on the outside looking in this session.

Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere was left out of a committee leadership post. He told the Wisconsin State Journal in December that Vos made his message clear that “conservative dissent will not be tolerated and is likely to be dealt with harshly and swiftly.”

Jacque could not be reached for comment for this story, but in a statement last month he said he is “proud to continue fighting for Wisconsin taxpayers and the pro-life cause.”

“To the extent I have been and will be ‘punished’ for my efforts on their behalf, I will wear it as a badge of honor,” the fourth term lawmaker said.

State Reps. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls, also were excluded from committee leadership roles. Vos has said there were only so many positions to go around due to historic numbers of Republicans in the majority, but Brandtjen told the Wisconsin State Journal that it appeared her public positions cost her.

One Capitol insider said going into caucus has become a “forgone conclusion,” that dissenting voices are beaten up and consensus and loyalty are demanded over individual principle.

And good conservative policy only means as much to Vos as the campaign dollars it brings into Vos’ power base, sources said.

When conservative lawmakers demanded movement on a prevailing wage bill last session, Vos’ watered down version did not fly. The speaker was not happy, sources said.

“He lamented that (lawmakers) wanted to take up prevailing wage on top of right-to-work legislation because that meant (the Assembly) just blew a $300,000 hole in the RAAC (Republican Assembly Campaign Committee) budget,” the insider said.

UW-La Crosse chancellor ‘condemns’ Trump in letter to students

Mon, 01/30/2017 - 17:41

MADISON, Wis. – A state Senator took aim Monday at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse for a politically charged message sent to thousands of students, faculty and staff.

Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, said multiple constituents alerted him to an email sent from UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow and other senior administration staff regarding President Donald Trump’s recent immigration policy executive orders.

CAMPUS POLITICS: State Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, takes issue with a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse letter critical of President Donald Trump’s immigration policy executive order.

“The email condemns our President for the policy he believes will keep Americans safe,” Stroebel said.

Stroebel represent Senate District 20 in southeast Wisconsin. UW-La Crosse is not in Stroebel’s district.

Trump’s order sparked a firestorm of protests and stranded travelers around the world. It bars refugees from anywhere in the world from entering the United States for 120 days. Syrian refugees are prohibited indefinitely. And the order keeps out for 90 days travelers from the terrorism-sponsoring nations of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday that Trump is doing what he promised he would do on the campaign trail: pause entry of individuals from countries where terrorism thrives until the federal government gets a handle on its problem-ridden vetting procedures.

“We’re not willing to be wrong on this subject,” said the Kenosha native. “President Trump is not willing to take chances on this subject.”

Stroebel said Gow’s email to students, faculty, staff and retirees makes no reference to the seven countries that either sponsor terrorism or harbor terrorist training facilities.

“At the end of the day, I support broadening the education possibilities for citizens from around the world at the University of Wisconsin System Schools regardless of country of origin or religious beliefs,” the senator said. “Nonetheless, senior administration staff should not take public opinions on policy with the intent to influence the view of students. After all, a plurality of Wisconsinites voted for the current administration.”

In November, Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win the Badger State since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

‘SHOCKED’: UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow wrote in an email to students and employees that he is “shocked and saddened” by Trump’s immigration order.

Gow could not be reached for comment Monday evening, but he did respond to Stroebel’s request for information. The chancellor estimates the email went out to as many as 13,000 people. In the email Gow said that, “except where required by law, UWL police do not assist in immigration enforcement or deportation of any individual, and do not inquire about or record immigration status when performing their duties.”

Here is Gow’s message:

Dear students and colleagues:

Like so many of you, the UWL leadership team and I are shocked and saddened by President Donald Trump’s order prohibiting refugees and people from certain predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Here at UWL we do not discriminate based on a person’s religion or country of origin, and it is very troubling to see the leader of our country doing exactly that.

At such an unsettling time, we are writing to reaffirm our University’s commitment to support our international students, faculty, and staff, and our commitment to the values of international collaboration and engagement. Our students, faculty, and staff from around the world are an integral part of our campus community, and play a crucial role in our educational mission.

Likewise, we want to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring a safe and inclusive campus environment for all individuals, regardless of their national origin, citizenship/immigration status, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability and other significant aspects of individual and cultural identity.

And we also want to let you know that our university will maintain the privacy of information about the citizenship/immigration status of all individuals, except where required by law or authorized by the individual. Please know that, except where required by law, UWL Police do not assist in immigration enforcement or deportation of any individual, and do not inquire about or record immigration status when performing their duties.

We will continue to monitor developments and do our best to provide guidance and support to affected individuals and the university offices providing relevant services to them. Our Offices of International Education and Engagement, Human Resources, and Counseling Services are available for those needing various kinds of support. 

Opinions differ on whether it’s ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ at Tomah VA

Mon, 01/30/2017 - 16:44
Part 41 of 41 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. – The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has named Victoria Brahm to lead the troubled Tomah VA Medical Center.

Brahm has served since October 2015 as acting director of the southwest Wisconsin hospital once described as “Candyland” for its opioid prescription practices.

NEW BOSS: Victoria Brahm, director of the Tomah VA Medical Center, discusses a report that hundreds of veterans had been exposed to infectious diseases at the hospital late last year. Brahm was brought in to “fix” the troubled medical center.

While VA officials are praising Brahm for her leadership and celebrating her appointment, sources inside the medical center say prescription drug abuse and other health care delivery concerns remain a problem.

Brahm stepped into the acting leadership role following months of turmoil at the Tomah facility.

Earlier this month, a state agency took away the medical license of Dr. David Houlihan, the former chief of staff and acting medical director at Tomah. Houlihan, who was known as the “Candy Man” after multiple federal investigations found he overprescribed painkillers, was fired in November 2015. He is prohibited from practicing medicine in Wisconsin again, and Houlihan’s disciplinary action will be entered into a national physicians database.

RELATED: Tomah VA Medical Center’s ‘Candy Man’ stripped of license

The initial story, broken by the Center for Investigative Reporting, documented the death of a 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran who died in August 2014 of a toxic cocktail of prescription medications while at the hospital.

Brahm was brought in as a “fixer.”

One source who works at the hospital told Wisconsin Watchdog that many of his fellow employees read the recent news about Houlihan as a step in the right direction, but much at the facility is still in need of fixing.

“While this has changed some ways drugs are processed, the problem with over-prescribing and veterans’ abuse of medication still lingers,” said the source, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “We have many veterans who lash out at the pharmacy and pharmacist and technicians who see the dispensing practices as insane.”

Matthew Gowan, USN (Ret.), public affairs officer for the Tomah VA medical center, said there is no doubt in his mind that quality of care and veterans’ satisfaction with their care have improved under Brahm’s leadership.

He said the VA’s Opioid Safety Initiative has been very successful, although hospital officials hear criticism on “both ends of the spectrum.”

“We have some who say, ‘You’re just stoning veterans out of their minds over here,’ and then you have others who say, ‘You’re just taking needed medications away from veterans,’” Gowan told Wisconsin Watchdog Monday. “It’s really more something in the middle. Each veteran is being looked at by multiple teams. We’re talking about prescription practices attempting to deal with people suffering with chronic pain plus mental health issues.”

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, the VA official said. It’s an individual treatment plan to fight both pain and addiction.

“I see nothing but a bright future for Tomah and firmly believe in our collective team,” Brahm wrote Friday to the medical center’s employees in an email obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.“Will there be some tasks we have to face? Sure, and we’ll continue to pursue the ‘harder right’ and do what’s best for our nation’s heroes that we have the honor of serving.”

Not everybody was that optimistic.

Ryan Honl, a former Tomah VAMC employee and federal whistleblower, said the “foxes who protected Houlihan” are now officially in charge of the hen houses at Tomah.

Honl and others have been critical of the VA for bringing in Brahm to lead the medical center.

In a sworn deposition released last year, VA regional office Network Director Renee Oshinski, said that before the Tomah scandal broke, Brahm had received significant evidence of opiate abuse. Brahm, who was the regional office’s nurse executive at the time, determined that there was no truth to the reports, according to the deposition.

“I was astounded that they were all unsubstantiated,” Oshinski told investigators from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, as reported in the Daily Caller.“With the number of things here, I would have thought there would have been some partially substantiated or whatever. I mean, just based on the number, that it’s not a normal response that we would have.”

Myriad federal investigations and media accounts have since proved valid the whistleblower reports of abuse inside the medical center.

“An ongoing look at Dr. Houlihan’s prescribing practices” was “something that Vicki Brahm and Donna Leslie (VISN 12 Pharmacy Executive), were involved in” as part of their duties in the regional office, Oshinski said in the deposition.

Oshinski said Houlihan and Brahm worked closely on hospital matters.

“Dr. Houlihan would choose to call (Then-VISN 12 Network Director) Dr. Murawsky [the regional office’s director] or Vicki Brahm,” she said under oath.

On Friday, Oshinski was “pleased to announce” that Brahm was officially selected as director of the Tomah VA hospital.

Tammy Baldwin appears to have broken Senate video rule

Mon, 01/30/2017 - 12:35

MADISON, Wis. — In her haste to make political hay, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin appears to have violated a 30-year-old Senate ethics rule.

Baldwin used video from a Senate committee confirmation hearing earlier this month on Tom Price, President Donald Trump’s nominee for Health and Human Services secretary.

POLITICAL PURPOSES? U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, appears to have broken a Senate rule after posting on her political social network account video of her grilling President Donald Trump nominee Tom Price during a Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month.

Baldwin’s handlers pulled a 1 minute, 27-second video clip of the Madison Democrat peppering Price with questions about his position on Medicaid prescription drug price negotiations during the Jan. 18 Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing and blasted it out on her political social networks.

A clip on Baldwin’s Facebook site declares, “A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer should not be this difficult,” a dig at Price’s answer.

In one tweet, Baldwin includes a 57-second clip showing she “pressed #Price to commit to ensuring substance abuse treatment will be covered.” The senator included the hashtags #PriceHearing and #OpioidEpidemic in the tweet.

In another clip sent out on Baldwin’s Twitter account, the senator hits Price on Republican plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“If you repeal the #ACA, the impact is not narrowly confined to Medicaid and the individual market, it has impact on every American,” the tweet quoted Baldwin from the Senate hearing session.

Use of Senate video clips for political purposes runs afoul of a 30-year-old ethics resolution in the Senate Manual, which contains the “standing rules, orders, laws, and resolutions affecting the business of the U.S. Senate.”

“The use of any tape duplication of radio or television coverage of the proceedings of the Senate for political campaign purposes is strictly prohibited,” states the 1986 resolution on television and radio broadcast of Senate chamber proceedings. “….(A)ny tape duplication of radio or television coverage of the proceedings of the Senate furnished to any person or organization shall be made on the condition, agreed to in writing, that the tape duplication shall not be used for political campaign purposes.”

Baldwin’s handlers grabbed one of the videos from MSNBC, but news networks received the feed from the Senate. The Senate does not allow any recorded use of hearings or other Senate business for political purposes.

Baldwin’s D.C. staff did not respond Monday to Wisconsin Watchdog’s requests for comment.

Republicans criticized Baldwin for ignoring Senate rules so that she could showcase her political grandstanding on her social network accounts.

“Senator Baldwin is such an elite, out-of-touch politician, she no longer thinks that the rules apply to her,” said Alec Zimmerman, press secretary for the Republican Party of Wisconsin. “After nearly 20 years in Washington with nothing to show for it, it’s fitting that all she can do is put out videos on what else but more talk.”

Baldwin, who served 14 years in the House as the Second Congressional District’s first female and openly gay representative, was elected to the Senate in 2012. She is up for re-election next year.

A spokesman for the Senate Rules Committee could not be reached for comment Monday.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in 2015 was forced to take down a presidential campaign video because it, too, appeared to violate the Senate’s rule on video usage.

The video, titled “Rand Paul: Filibuster for the Fourth Amendment,” used video footage and audio from the Kentucky Republican’s long Senate floor speech about government surveillance, according to a story in CQ Roll Call. The Senate Rules Committee took immediate action.

“Use of any duplication of television coverage of the proceedings of the Senate for campaign purposes is strictly prohibited,” Senate Rules Committee spokesman Brian Hart wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call. “The Rules Committee advised Senator Paul’s office and they agreed to take the video down.”

Milwaukee County supervisor’s resolution asks taxpayers to pay for illegals legal defense fund

Fri, 01/27/2017 - 17:24

MILWAUKEE –The liberal Milwaukee County Board’s uber liberal, Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic. wants county taxpayers to pay for a legal defense fund for illegal immigrants.

The board’s Health and Human Needs Committee this week discussed a sweeping resolution simultaneously declaring Milwaukee a “safe place” for illegal immigrants and flipping off new President Donald Trump and his executive order stripping federal funds for so-called sanctuary cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration laws.

SCREW-YOU RESOLUTION: Liberal Milwaukee County Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic is pushing an ‘anti-discrimination’ county resolution that also serves as a diatribe on Donald Trump. Her substitute proposal calls for the county to set up a legal defense fund to save illegal immigrants from deportation.

Milwaukee County will “not be bullied,” the “anti-discrimination”resolution declares.

It is a resolution of heated rhetoric, but has no teeth.

So Dimitrijevic authored a substitute resolution with a provision that calls for the establishment of a legal defense fund to be used by the county to defend immigrants who face deportation. It also demands the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department refuse to assist the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in enforcing immigration law. In other words, it asks the sheriff to break the law.

An accompanying fiscal note in the resolution says the costs of such a program at present are unknown.

“How can we be approving this if the costs are unknown,” asked conservative Supervisor Deanna Alexander.

Alexander said the resolution might sound innocent on its face, but it isn’t.

“(Dimitrijevic) is asking other county employees, ‘We want to create a way for Milwaukee County taxpayers to pay for attorneys for illegal immigrants so they won’t get deported … I’m not sure how to do it, please write me a report so I have a road map on how to do this,’” Alexander told Wisconsin Watchdog Thursday on the Mark Belling Show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN.

The full County Board takes up the original resolution Feb. 2. Dimitrijevic has said she will bring back her substitute resolution at the meeting.

And she will do so without the benefit of another public hearing, Alexander said.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has blasted the characterization of Milwaukee as a “sanctuary city,” but he says illegal immigrants “will not be persecuted” in his city.

That appears to mean they will not be deported.

The Milwaukee Police Department’s policy is not to inform federal immigration officials of the whereabouts or behavior of any suspected illegal immigrant unless the individual has been arrested on a serious criminal charge.

The board’s resolution goes beyond immigration and serves as a political tirade against the new Republican president, who this week said the United States will get to work on building a wall at its border with Mexico — one of Trumps major campaign promises.

Alexander called the county board measure an “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink resolution,” and “divisive, wasteful nonsense.”

“Under a false banner of valuing all people, it carelessly drives a wedge against anyone willing to give the new president an opportunity to help our nation and further polarizes our political climate,” Alexander said in a statement. “The resolution misleads the public with political rhetoric that would make it seem as if the White House has threatened citizens’ rights in every area of their lives — a claim that is simply not true and appears to be a County Board attempt at developing ‘alternative facts.’”

More so, Alexander said, the Milwaukee County Board just made it through another difficult budget in which county vehicle owners are forced to pay a $30 wheel tax to fund expanding government operations.

“We were told by the administration, by (Milwaukee County Executive) Chris Abele and the department heads, ‘Hey, we’re struggling to meet the needs of the county given all the current policies, so we need to have a wheel tax,’” Alexander said. “If we knew that months ago, why would be looking at something like this?”

“We have a heroin epidemic, we have crime in our streets, we had riots last summer. We have so many issues with law enforcement and crime and needs in our city and repairs in our infrastructure, and we’re talking about looking for extra money somewhere from the taxpayer to pay for attorneys for illegal immigrants?” Alexander asked.

Humphries: Let parents choose how to fix schools

Fri, 01/27/2017 - 16:36

State Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate John Humphries has unveiled a plan that would allow parents whose children attend the lowest-performing schools to decide what kind of changes they want to make. 

“We’ve created a proposal system where we identify the lowest performing 5 percent of low-income schools,” Humphries told a group of voters Thursday at Coffee Makes You Black, a coffee shop on Milwaukee’s North side. “We accept proposals for those schools based on something called an RFP [request for proposal] process, that will have some quality standards put right into [it] so that we know that students will be getting high-quality curriculum from skilled staff members.”

TRUSTING PARENTS: State School Superintendent John Humphries proposed Thursday to allow parents at failing schools to choose through an RFP process how to make their schools better.

The RFP process would allow “school teams” to make proposals to the parents about reforms. Proposals to run all or part of a school could come from voucher or charter school operators or from a school district itself. Parents then would decide among the competing proposals, or choose to keep the school as is.

Humphries’ plan is similar to the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program (OSPP), which the state legislature created to turnaround up to five failing schools in the Milwaukee Public Schools district. That program stalled after the commissioner, appointed by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, resigned, citing the unwillingness of MPS to work with the reform program.

State Superintendent for Public Instruction Tony Evers declared that no schools in MPS were eligible for the OSPP for the 2017-18 academic year because of changes in the state school report cards. There are currently 42 schools in MPS serving 24,447 students that are ranked as “fails to meet expectations.”

Humphries’ plan does not rely on Abele to implement the turnaround program, nor would it create a commissioner to oversee the schools that are part of the RFP process. Instead, it would leave the decision-making in the hands of parents, while funding participating schools at current levels.

“Right now voucher and charter schools are getting a much lower rate of funding to educate the kids that we’re talking about,” Humphries said. “Our proposal would raise the funding levels to the same levels that MPS is getting, so that we spur more ideas and more creativity.”

Humphries also said there would be a pay-for-performance model so all the funding would not flow to the school right away.

“The state would withhold some of that funding and reward the schools that are having the best results, giving them more opportunities to expand and support their programs,” Humphries said.

Humphries said the RFP process would be guided by the Department of Public Instruction to give the parents the best options. If a consensus among the parents could not be reached on which proposal is best, the school could be split in a school-sharing arrangement between parents who want to keep the existing school and those preferring one of the proposals. An example of such a school shared between two programs would be the Carmen-Pulaski partnership in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

The proposal was quickly attacked by the progressive group One Wisconsin Now as being an attempt to get financial support from school choice groups. “So it’s no surprise that today we see another version of the same old plan to take more of our public tax dollars and send them to less accountable private schools,” said Scot Ross, the group’s executive director said in a press release. “Not because the results for students are any better, but because he wants the money of the private voucher school industry for his campaign.”

Humphries’ plan was also criticized by his opponent in the superintendent race, Lowell Holtz, who said the proposal process was getting ahead of getting community support for change first.

“The last thing the children of Milwaukee and Madison need is another plan from a bureaucrat who has never lived in their neighborhood,” Holz said in an email Thursday. “We need a collaborative leader that will work with parents and community leaders to identify the problems and provide guidance and resources to solve the problems.”

RELATED: DPI superintendent candidate proposes changes to school report cards

Holtz, Humphries and Evers face each other in a nonpartisan primary election Feb. 21. The top two candidates will face off in the April 4 general election.

State Rep Dale Kooyenga, author of the bill creating the OSPP and vice chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee, applauded Humphries addressing the problem of failing schools. “The status quo is unacceptable,” Kooyenga said in an email to Watchdog. “I look forward to working with stakeholders at DPI and across the state to address Wisconsin’s lowest performing schools.”

Evers’ re-election campaign did not respond to requests for a comment. MPS spokesman Denise Calloway said she needed more details about the proposal before commenting.

 

Lawmakers: Fix DOT failures with more taxpayer money

Fri, 01/27/2017 - 12:49

MADISON, Wis. – Now that a state audit has found the Wisconsin Department of Transportation cost taxpayers billions of dollars through incompetence and waste, members of a strange group of legislative bedfellows insist they know how to fix the addled agency: Throw more money at it.

Immediately after the state Legislative Audit Bureau released its long-awaited review of the Wisconsin DOT, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos issued a press release simultaneously castigating the agency and demanding lawmakers give it more money.

WHAT’S NEXT? A scathing audit showing the state Department of Transportation cost taxpayers billions of dollars in overruns and other wasteful practices has generated plenty of heated response from lawmakers.

“The legislative audit is yet another independent report that illustrates construction delays are driving up costs unnecessarily, our road conditions are only getting worse and a long-term solution is needed,” the Rochester Republican said. “It’s clear Wisconsin is trying to do too much with too little and taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth.”

Vos again pointed to the Assembly’s “common sense solution” to the DOT’s funding woes, including a “a corresponding increase in transportation revenue in order to begin addressing the long-term solvency of the transportation fund.”

If that means an increase to Wisconsin’s gas tax, already one of the highest in the country, Vos and his “everything-on-the-table” approach to transportation “revenue enhancements” may still be barking up the wrong tree.

Gov. Scott Walker has said he has no interest in gas tax hikes or vehicular fee increases without corresponding budget cuts elsewhere in state government.

The audit found DOT failed to take into account the costs of inflation when pitching projects between 2006 and 2015. That failure, the unnecessary use of more costly materials and a raft of other wasteful practices cost taxpayers more than $772 million for the 19 major projects noted in the audit. Another 16 projects, ongoing as of last August, have jumped from the original combined cost estimate of $2.7 billion to an anticipated $5.8 billion — more than double the original estimate.

“When a major highway project is considered for enumeration, DOT provides the Governor and the Legislature with an estimate of total project costs, but such estimates were incomplete, in part, because they did not take into account that inflation would increase project expenditures over time,” the report states.

Conservative lawmakers were in no mood to reward an agency that is accused of purposefully underestimating projects costs in its sales pitches to the Legislature.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg, fired out a statement saying tax revenue will not fix DOT’s problems.

“The audit, as expected, outlined numerous possibilities for the legislature to act to ensure the Wisconsin DOT runs efficiently. We know projects are coming in way over budget. This is not acceptable,” Stroebel said.

“It is not the time to raise the gas tax or transportation fees – especially before any of these concerns have been addressed,” the senator added.

State Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafied, who also has been critical of the call for “revenue enhancements” by his Republican colleagues in the Legislature, said the audit highlights the need for significant reform within the agency.

“A lack of accountability and transparency have led to costly overruns on projects, which is unacceptable moving forward,” Kapenga said.

The senator noted the audit’s 24 recommendations to “right size” DOT’s expenses. Kapenga agrees with Stroebel, that the place to begin is cleaning up the mess the agency has left.

“To fix the problems outlined in the audit, the Legislature should focus on implementing the Bureau’s recommendations and other major solutions to our spending problem. This, along with other significant cost-saving opportunities, provides a clear focus for the legislature moving forward,” Kapenga said. Those cost-saving opportunities include reforms to the state’s prevailing wage law and project labor agreements, now under consideration in the legislature.

A crisis state?

The audit does note the “proportion of state highways rated in good condition decreased steadily from 53.5 percent in 2010 to 41.0 percent in 2015.” That point is adding fuel to the fire of the “enhanced revenue” argument.

While much has been made about DOT budget shortfalls by lawmakers backing tax increases and their road builder friends and benefactors, the department has seen annual spending on roads climb 190 percent since fiscal year 1997. Last year, the agency spent $2.1 billion on road projects, a sizable amount of that wasted expenditures, according to the audit.

The larger concern, according to state Rep. Keith Ripp, chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, is the “long delays in construction plans.” The Lodi Republican says the delays result in escalating costs and fewer completed projects. So, the argument goes, the state desperately needs more taxpayer cash to save taxpayer cash in the long run.

That’s the same argument coming from the left, albeit with much more politically accusatory language. This is the Republican’s fault. This is Walker’s fault, according to Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.

“The Republican leadership’s neglect of our roads is as inexcusable as it is unacceptable. Our crumbling infrastructure is costing taxpayers and hurting our economy. This is yet another hurdle for our struggling middle class and our slow job creation,” Barca barked in a press release.

“The GOP has let the taxpayers of Wisconsin down,” the Democrat added. “We are in a crisis state, and we need to take immediate action.”

Barca apparently wants what Vos wants in this case – more money for more road construction as soon as possible. Wisconsin road builders would very much like that, too. They have been pretty generous to lawmakers trying to get that message across.

Barca’s campaign has pocketed at least $3,275 since 2007 from contributors tied to road construction, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. More than a third of that money has come in since 2014. Vos’ campaign has taken in at least $13,000 from donors in road construction since 2005, with $7,500 of that contributed since 2014.

Stroebel said now is the time to reform, not to demand more money from taxpayers.

“I came to Madison to shrink the size of government and lower the tax burden,” the senator said. “This audit provides several ways to do just that within our Department of Transportation.”

Is it time Wisconsin adopted a flat tax?

Thu, 01/26/2017 - 22:01

MADISON, Wis. – A Madison-based free-market think tank says it’s time for Wisconsin to think flat. 

The John K MacIver Institute is pitching a flat state income tax of 3 percent, starting with the next biennial budget. The plan, called The Glide Path to a Flat Tax, could be fully implemented by 2025, if the Legislature and the governor agree to go flat.

“Now is the time to have a serious conversation about what exactly the tax system in this state should do, and what it should look like,” Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, told Wisconsin Watchdog on the Vicki McKenna Show on NewsTalk 1130 WISN.

FLAT TAX: MacIver Institute President Brett Healy says now is the time for the state to move towards a three percent flat income tax rate.

Wisconsin currently has a progressive state income tax with four brackets. The bottom bracket tax rate of 4 percent is the fourth highest among the 33 states that have a progressive income tax, according to the report. The top bracket income tax rate of 7.65 percent is the ninth highest rate among the 43 states that have an income tax.

Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature have cut taxes since taking control in 2011.

“But the sad fact is that with all of that progress, all of that hard work to cut taxes by $4.76 billion, it really hasn’t moved us out of the highest-taxed state rankings,” Healy said, pointing out that Wisconsin dropped from 15th to 16th using December 2016 census bureau data.

The Tax Foundation puts Wisconsin at the fourth highest in the nation for state and local tax burdens, the highest in the Midwest. The same Tax Foundation study also found that Wisconsin’s state and local taxes take up 11 percent of all personal income in Wisconsin every year.

“We believe that if you’re serious about leapfrogging Wisconsin ahead of our competition here in the Midwest, if you’re serious about fundamentally changing the fiscal trajectory of our state, and if you want to provide tax relief for all of our citizens and our businesses, we should consider a 3 percent flat tax,” Healy said.

“This is the time to think big and bold,” Healy said. “Many fiscal conservatives in the state have been wondering ever since Act 10, and the wild success that was, what is the next Act 10 for Wisconsin?”

Healy warned that Wisconsin’s liberals are going to complain that everything is going to fall apart if the state moves from progressive to flat income tax.

“But, as we learned from Act 10, their rhetoric doesn’t match reality,” Healy said. “And if you take a look at what we’re proposing, a 3 percent flat tax over eight years, or four budgets, it’s a very manageable situation.”

But would a flat tax generate enough revenue to cover the costs of doing state business.

“A lot of the costs to government, and I use costs with finger quotes, could be captured through normal economic growth,” Healy said.

SEE RELATED: Wisconsin cracks top 10 on national economic competitiveness ranking

In 2012, an analysis by the liberal Wisconsin Budget Project quoted the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s claim that the bottom fifth in income pay 9.4 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the top 1 percent pay 6.7 percent. A revenue-neutral move to a 4 percent flat tax would have increased the amount paid by the lower 60 percent of earners. 

“Cutting income tax rates for top earners and raising them on bottom earners would further increase the gap in the share of income that low earners and top earners pay in state and local taxes,” the analysis said.

HIGH TAX STATE: The Tax Foundation’s latest ranking puts Wisconsin at the fourth highest state and local tax burdens in the nation and the highest in the Midwest.

However, the MacIver plan is not revenue neutral and would lower the bottom rate from 4 percent to 3 percent, meaning everyone would get a tax cut.

“Further, any sort of sweeping clean of the tax code helps the poorest the most – after all, only those who are well off are able to spend money on lawyers and accountants for the purposes of tax compliance,” the MacIver Institute report states.

In addition, Healy said the MacIver Institute’s plan keeps two tax credits, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Homestead Credit. “So we added in those two tax credits because they do mainly help the working class poor in the state,” Healy said. “But we’re hoping that overall we can have a robust and honest, genuine conversation about how the tax code should look for future generations.”

The plan has piqued the interest of a powerful state lawmaker.

“The MacIver report convincingly lays out the fact that states realizing economic growth are also states with a low tax burden. We are working with a talented team of citizen legislators to move Wisconsin in the direction of a simpler, fairer tax code with lower rates,” Rep. Dale Kooyenga, vice chair of the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which controls the state budget process, said in a statement Wednesday.

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