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An anti-free speech decision PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 27 January 2010 15:22

It’s debatable who wins from the Supreme Court’s ruling on political ads, but there’s doubt about who loses—the American people

Big wigs of the national Republican party were reported to be hoping the U.S. Supreme Court would rule that corporations can spend as much money as they want to elect or defeat candidates. The court did exactly that last week in a decision that may prove to be a classic validation of the aphorism about being careful about what you wish for. The impact of this radical ruling will affect candidates of every political stripe, Republicans as well as Democrats, and while those who benefit from the decision will vary from election to election, those who lose most will always be the same: the American people.

Reacting to the decision, State Sen. Mike Ellis, a Republican from Neenah, said, “I think it’s a sad day for democracy.”

Ellis had just seen a bill that would prevent corporations and unions from spending their funds to influence elections in Wisconsin, which he sponsored and which was passed by the State Senate two days before the court ruling, rendered null and void.

Wisconsin is just one of many states whose efforts to resist the corrupting influence of unrestrained spending on elections will be frustrated by the court’s decision.

The high court discarded long-standing precedents in ruling that the government may not prohibit political spending by corporations on behalf or against election candidates. The 5-4 court majority based the decision on the contention that the Constitution gives corporations the same First Amendment rights as people.

This is a novel and creative interpretation of the Constitution by a panel that includes several justices who were described as strict constitutional constructionists when they were appointed. The Constitution does not mention corporations, which are organizations created under state laws for the sole purpose of making money.

Holding that the freedom of corporations to spend money to influence elections is equivalent to the right of people to speak to support or oppose candidates is in reality an anti-free speech decision that will have the practical effect of diminishing the First Amendment rights of citizens—for the voices of individuals will have less chance to be heard amid the din of unrestricted political advertising by corporations.

The decision opens a spigot at the end of a pipeline of money from companies and labor unions (also freed from spending restrictions by the court) that will deluge election contests. If there is one indisputable axiom of American politics, it is that money gets results.

It does that not just by getting candidates elected or defeated, but by influencing representatives in office. Consider the bludgeon the court decision gives lobbyists, who can now say to members of Congress and state legislators: Vote our way or the corporations or unions we represent will spend whatever it takes to defeat you in the next election.

This is political corruption, but the justices in the majority obviously don’t get that. No wonder U.S. Sen John McCain criticized the “extreme naivete” revealed by members of the court in hearing the case that led to the decision.

Wisconsin has had a law on its books for 104 years banning corporations and unions from spending their money on ads aimed at electing or defeating candidates.

That law, like the potential law passed by the State Senate last week, has been voided by the Supreme Court. Perhaps the best the Legislature can do now is salvage the part of the Senate bill that requires disclosure of the names of those who pay for election ads.

At least then the public would know who’s trying to buy an election.

Phase out emissions testing PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 20 January 2010 16:10

Southeast Wisconsin’s air is still being made unhealthy by engine exhaust, but emissions tests are not an effective way to deal with the problem

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation recently shut down the only vehicle emissions testing facility in Ozaukee County to save money. Better the DOT had cut back the entire emissions testing program in southeast Wisconsin to save money.

If that sounds like environmental heresy, consider this:

Emissions testing makes much less difference in air quality than it did when the program was started 25 years ago. Vehicle exhaust systems then were primitive compared to those of 21st century automobiles, with emission controls that were prone to failure and tampering. Testing caught and stopped polluters.

Computer controlled engines and exhaust systems on cars and light trucks built in recent years are reliable and virtually foolproof in meeting higher federal standards for clean air. More than 90% of all vehicles tested in southeast Wisconsin pass emissions tests. We’ll venture a guess that the pass rate for the newest vehicles tested, 2007 models, is just about 100%, and doesn’t fall off much for other vehicles of recent vintage.

Meanwhile, the vehicles most likely to have defective emissions systems are not even being tested. Since 2008, vehicles built before 1996 have been exempt from emissions testing. This reduces the financial cost but adds an air-quality cost. The DOT admits that these—roughly one-fourth of the cars and light trucks in operation—are the most likely polluters and that until most of them are off the roads, perhaps by 2018, according to the DOT, failing to test them will cause air pollution from vehicles to increase in the region.

A cynic beholding this state of affairs, in which the vehicles most likely to be polluters are ignored while vehicles that rarely have malfunctioning exhaust systems are tested every two years, might be tempted to say the emissions testing program is mainly for show.

If so, it’s an expensive show. The program costs millions of dollars a year. This is paid by vehicle owners in registration fees and gas taxes and in the dollars, time and aggravation expended to drive to and wait at emission testing facilities.

Which brings us to Ozaukee County’s status as the only county in the seven-county emissions testing region that does not have a test site. Ozaukee County vehicle owners must drive to West Bend or Milwaukee, a round trip for some of more than 40 miles—ironic miles adding emissions to the atmosphere for the purpose of taking an unnecessary test meant to limit harmful vehicle emissions.

State Rep. Mark Gottlieb of Port Washington and other legislators are promoting a good solution: Let emissions tests be conducted by private automotive service outlets. This will work because one of the charms of new automobile engine technology is that the test is a simple plug-in evaluation that most private service providers are able to handle. The DOT is said to like the idea, so relief could be here soon.

The new convenience should ameliorate some of the irritation over the testing program, but it will still amount to a large expenditure of public money on a program that is of questionable effectiveness.

That’s not to say air quality is no longer a problem. On the contrary, southeastern Wisconsin continues to have some of the most unhealthy air in the nation, and the federal Clean Air Act properly mandates that Wisconsin take steps to deal with it.

Vehicle emissions are responsible for part of the air quality problem (though not the largest part), but new car technology has rendered the way Wisconsin tries to deal with it largely obsolete. The sensible move to allow testing at local car service businesses should lead to phasing out of emissions testing for cars equipped with modern exhaust technology.

It is time to acknowledge that the unhealthy air created by internal combustion engines is caused more by too many cars on our roads with properly functioning exhaust systems than by a few that can’t pass an emissions test. The solution is not more testing—it’s engines that don’t burn fossil fuel.

Local lake defenders PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 13 January 2010 17:17

Because every voice in defense of the Great Lakes helps, the County Board should endorse committee’s resolution on stopping invading carp at Chicago

It’s a genuine grass-roots effort, but it might be more appropriate to call it a “water-trickles” effort. We’re referring to the Ozaukee County Environmental Land Use Committee adopting a resolution that supports closing the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to keep Asian Carp out of Lake Michigan.

It may be a stretch to think that a tiny unit of government in a Wisconsin county could impact a decision that will be made by the United States Supreme Court or another branch of the federal government, but every voice raised in defense of the lake helps in some way, if only to persuade others to join in a chorus that could get so loud it can’t be ignored.

The resolution supports the legal battle by several Great Lakes states, recently joined by Wisconsin, to close the Chicago canal’s outlets to Lake Michigan and also urges Congress to deal with the problem. It deserves approval by the full County Board at its next session.

Of the myriad threats to the future of the Great Lakes, the Asian carp is currently looming largest. These 50 to 100-pound invaders have made their way from the Mississippi River up the Illinois River and Chicago canal and are now a few miles from the lake, held back only by an electric barrier that is susceptible to failure.

If the bottom-feeding carp establish a population in the lake, it is believed they could wipe out valuable native and introduced fish by vacuuming up the plankton the other species need to survive.

Acting on the belief that only closing the Chicago canal’s portals to the lake will stop the carp, Michigan filed a lawsuit to reopen an old Supreme Court case involving Chicago’s diversion of lake water through the sanitary canal. The suit asks for an injunction forcing the Army Corps of Engineers to cut the canal off from the lake.

The injunction should be granted. The canal is a man-made link between the Great Lakes and watersheds that are rife with invasive species. Keeping it open adds to the likelihood of the world’s greatest freshwater resource, already battered by a host of non-native predators, falling victim to an ecological disaster.

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was not always a menace to the lakes. For many decades, in fact, it was a friend of the Lake Michigan environment. While cities on all of the lakes polluted the water with untreated or poorly treated sewage (Milwaukee being a prime offender), Chicago kept its wastewater out of the lake, shunting it down the canal. To this day, the lake water off the harbor and beaches of the largest metropolis on the Great Lakes is some of the cleanest anywhere.

Closing the canal outlets wouldn’t affect that, but it would have an economic impact. Barge traffic between the Mississippi and the lake depends on the canal.

Economics almost always play a role in environmental battles. The cost of doing the right thing for the environment is often perceived as too big a price to pay. But in this case, the economic argument favors protecting the lakes’ ecosystem. The loss of barge transportation revenue is minuscule compared to the cost of degrading the lakes as a recreational resource. In Ozaukee County alone, sport fishing—which could be destroyed by Asian carp predations—has an annual economic impact measured in millions of dollars.

Putting a price tag on the lakes’ future, however, threatens to trivialize the problem. This is too important to be considered in terms of dollars and cents. It’s better to consider protecting the Great Lakes a moral responsibility.

We have to wonder whether the Obama administration gets that. After heartening Great Lakes’ advocates early on with its pledge to do whatever is needed to keep new invasive species out, it has sided with Illinois in the canal court case.

Far from the White House, in the Ozaukee County Courthouse, some government officials do get it. The Environmental Land Use Committee’s initiative recognizes the imperative to protect a precious resource to which Ozaukee County is inextricably tied. May this trickle of sensible responsibility to the freshwater environment become a powerful stream of opinion demanding the door be shut to intruders that could ruin the lakes.

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