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Short shrift for knowledge PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 28 December 2016 16:25

If the term “knowledge economy” is accurate, it is no wonder that Wisconsin is underachieving compared to other Midwest states.

The term is frequently used to describe these economic times in which innovation, research and a well educated workforce are essential to the ability of regions and states to compete and thrive.

The government of Wisconsin, where job creation lags well behind that of neighboring states, continues to demonstrate hostility to the public education that is an essential element in a knowledge economy.

That hostility is evident in a list of actions and attempted actions by the Legislature and the governor that includes: some of the most drastic cuts in state funding for K-12 public schools in the nation; cuts totalling $362 million in state funding for the University of Wisconsin system since 2012; the governor’s attempt to rewrite UW’s mission statement to resemble that of a vocational school; the Legislature’s attempt to do away with teacher licensing.

Now the threat by some Republican legislators to deny additional funding for the university system if UW-Madison does not cancel a course they don’t like can be added to the list.

The title of the course, an elective, is “The Problem of Whiteness.” It deals with racism, which would seem to be a relevant topic. The spokesman for the objecting legislators, State Rep. Dave Murphy of Greenville, says the course must be eliminated because it would add to “the polarization of races in our state.”

But Murphy is on the hunt for more than polarization in his bid to wield veto power over the UW curriculum as a representative from a Fox Valley city about the size of Port Washington. He said he has instructed his staff to examine other courses to see if “they’re legit.” The legislator, who has some clout as chairman of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, indicated that funding will suffer if the university refuses to honor his definition of “legit” courses.

Regardless of his threats, it is unlikely the university, which is governed by the Board of Regents, not the Legislature, will bend to interference from officials who were not elected to police the course offerings of the UW system. Academic freedom is not so easily sacrificed at a university famously dedicated to the “fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

Yet the threats expose a vindictive streak in the Legislature and suggest the possibility that previous cuts in UW funding were meant to punish the public university where diversity of thought has flourished for 169 years.

There is no question that the effect of the cuts has been punishing. The fall of UW-Madison from the top five U.S. research universities, where it has been ranked for 44 years, is widely attributed to budget cuts caused by reduced state funding. 

The drop in the status of this world-class university could have economic reverberations far beyond the world of academia. The UW system contributes $15 billion a year to the state economy, a substantial part of which is tied to research. While doing that it provides a first-class education for young men and women who will be the key to the state’s economic future. 

The UW budget for the next two years calls for $42.5 million in increased state support so it can attract and retain the best teachers and researchers and improve neglected facilities on its campuses.

Now some legislators are saying UW might not get any of it if its courses don’t pass their “legit” test.

How that works out will be a clue to whether Wisconsin is going to have a knowledge economy or a know-nothing economy.

Outlier in a lakefront picture PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 21 December 2016 19:46

Astonishing, jaw-dropping, shocking. 

Those were some of the words used by the Ozaukee Press readers we’ve heard from to describe the picture that spanned the full width of the front news page of the Dec. 8 issue. 

The picture was an architect’s computer-drawn image of the Port Washington lakefront looking west from an elevated viewpoint offshore showing the buildings proposed by Ansay Development.

The astonishment felt by some readers derives from the sheer size of the development—blocks of row houses, apartments and an expansive restaurant and retail building. That’s understandable; the proposal is a radical change for an old neighborhood that consists mostly of small houses.

It is also an inevitable change. Most of the land that would be occupied by the buildings proposed by Ansay is privately owned and, thanks to its proximity to Lake Michigan and the marina, is now too valuable to not develop.

Done right, the new use of that marina district land will be good for Port Washington. Projected to add tens of millions of dollars in valuation to the tax base, it would also substantially increase the downtown residential population to support a vital and appealing business district.

Questions have been raised about the height of the restaurant/retail building and some of the design aesthetics of other buildings. These must be addressed, as well as the issue of whether a competing developer should be chosen for a city-owned parcel of land in the district.

In the meantime, the picture created by Ansay Development’s architectural firm has done more than open eyes to the future of the marina district—it has performed a public service by graphically exposing the harmful folly of the city government’s relentless drive to crowd an entertainment complex called the Blues Factory onto a piece of land owned by the public at the edge of the north slip marina.

In the Ansay drawing, the Blues Factory is shown not in detail but as a mass that is an accurate depiction in shape and scale of the factorylike building designed to house the complex. The picture makes obvious what the many people in the city who oppose the Blues Factory have said from beginning: It does not belong at the water’s edge.

The dense development that is coming to the marina district makes the Blues Factory site more valuable than ever as open space protecting the public’s visual and physical access to the water—the only such space in the entire marina district development.

The picture also exposes the specious nature of the claim repeated by the mayor and aldermen that the Blues Factory is worth the sacrifice of open lakeside land because it is needed as a “catalytic” development that will encourage other investment.

The Ansay plan proves that the true catalyst for development is the appeal of the lakefront and that no encouragement from a controversial, financially risky music venue is needed.

If anything, the Blues Factory, even beyond the aesthetic damage it would do, would be a negative influence on lakefront development. The row houses in the Ansay plan had be designed to be taller than they would have been without the the monolithic Blues Factory building across the street. Even so, harbor views from the houses would be obstructed by the brick facade of the complex, hardly an appealing prospect for would-be buyers of luxury lakefront homes.

City officials have important work to do in ironing out the details of the historically huge lakefront development that is imminent. A prerequisite should be meeting with the Blues Factory’s designated developer and working with him to dissolve the agreement to sell him the north slip site. 

With the Blues Factory out of the picture, that drawing of the future lakefront would look much better.

Pennies to raise millions for roads PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 14 December 2016 17:47

If the government of the State of Wisconsin ever sees the light and adopts the obvious, sensible and responsible means of paying for road repair and building and other transportation needs, some of the credit should go to a Republican legislator from Delafield.

State Sen. Chris Kopenga earned that recognition last week by brilliantly making the case for increasing the gas tax to help deal with the state’s transportation funding crisis.

We should point out here that Kopenga didn’t mean to do this. He’s not a fan of the gas tax and, in fact, appears to be a bitter foe of anything spelled t-a-x.

Yet in a conference call to news organizations, including Ozaukee Press, he unintentionally revealed the beauty of the gas tax as a highway funding device by pointing out that a one-cent increase in the tax would yield $33 million a year in desperately needed transportation revenue.

Kopenga is so rigid in his anti-tax mentality that he thinks the large tax revenue number, calculated by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, is an argument against a gas-tax increase. If the senator had done the math, it might have dawned on him that it is the opposite—it is proof that a modest increase in the gas tax is an effective, easy-to-bear means for the state to meet some of its neglected transportation obligations.

Here’s the math: A Wisconsin automobile  owner who might be considered typical—driving 10,000 miles a year in a vehicle that gets 20 miles per gallon—would pay only $5 a year as his or her contribution to the $33 million that a one-penny-a-gallon gas tax increase would raise.

The state Transportation Fund is so far in the hole as a result of the obdurate refusal of  Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature to consider revenue-raising remedies that it would take more than a one-penny gas tax hike to make a significant dent in the deficit, but with more than 2.5 million motor vehicles registered in the state, an increase of a few cents per gallon could put the transportation funding on much firmer footing.

As an alternative, Kopenga and State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), who joined him in the conference call and voiced a similar intolerance for a gas-tax increase, want the state to go into more debt—as much as half a billion dollars more—to replenish the Transportation Fund. 

The notion that no tax increase is acceptable, regardless of how effective it would be in meeting a vital need for the people of Wisconsin, is far removed from a rational view of government responsibilities. When applied to transportation funding, it is ironic as well, because the borrowing alternative favored by anti-tax crusaders is a surefire way to inflict tax pain.

Wisconsin taxpayers are obligated to pay the interest on highway debt. That interest bill has the effect of a tax. With the half-billion more in highway debt, 25% of the highway fund would have to be spent on debt service instead of on roads. In contrast, by law 100% of gas tax revenue is spent on transportation needs.

Gas tax opposition is another manifestation of the ideology of starving government to shrink it trumping practical solutions to meeting the public’s needs. 

A refreshing take on road funding by local elected officials who are more interested in serving their constituents than burnishing images as anti-tax warriors can be found in the opinion piece on this week’s Ozaukee Press op-ed page written by the directors of organizations representing the state’s counties, municipalities and towns.

Under the headline “Forget ideology and politics—just fix Wisconsin transportation,” the writers draw attention to the burden the state’s deteriorating roads are putting on communities and the physical and economic well being of their citizens.

Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb confirmed the size of that burden last week when he told the Legislature that under the governor’s borrowing plan the number of roads in poor condition would double in the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, the benefit of putting to use the perfectly accurate math that proves that a few pennies in added gas tax would raise millions to put roads in good condition remains locked away by anti-tax zealots who consider it heresy.

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