Wisconsin Must Stop Muzzling Its Taxpayers
Wisconsin citizens are losing their right to participate in major decisions - - and it is our state government that is shutting them up.
This is a bad development, and getting worse.
It has taken the intervention of a federal agency to force Wisconsin officials to conduct a legitimate public comment period on the plan to spend nearly $2 billion to rebuild and expand I-94 from Milwaukee to Illinois without a penny for a train component.
Before the Federal Highway Administration told the state to add 25 days to the comment period, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation had scheduled the comment period to run from mid-November to December 31, right in the middle of a busy holiday and vacation season.
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Why should Wisconsinites have to beseech a federal agency to get Wisconsin officials to play fair and stand behind open, participatory government?
This is the second time in recent memory that a Wisconsin state agency has stifled public participation in an important policy discussion.
In the fall of 2006, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources received, then forwarded to the seven other Great Lakes states, an application from the City of New Berlin for a diversion of water from Lake Michigan.
The DNR did not disclose the existence or transmission of the application. That was done by one of the other states - - Michigan - - because it has a statute requiring such applications be disclosed.
Wisconsin has no such law, but the DNR certainly could have done so had it trusted the people with the information.
When New Berlin submitted an updated application earlier this year - - Michigan and some of the other states having trashed the initial application as inaccurate and inadequate, despite the DNR having touted it to the other states - - the DNR grudgingly scheduled a comment period, but didn't go out its way to publicize it, and didn't schedule a public hearing on either the first New Berlin application, or the second.
It put notices on its website, and let it go at that.
Granting New Berlin's diversion request could set a precedent across the Great Lakes region, destroy efforts to have all eight Great Lakes states approve a water supply and conservation Compact and adopt state laws to bring about common standards and diversion procedures.
Despite these valid concerns, the DNR is keeping public input into the diversion issue at a minimum, much the way that WisDOT is trying to shut the public out of a meaningful role in what will be the largest publicly-funded project in state history.
And one that, if handled differently, could finally integrate commuter rail and highway improvements at a time when fuel prices are rising and awareness of air pollution, climate change and disgust with dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels is peaking.
WisDOT should be encouraging this exact public debate - - not setting up comment periods that coincide with the time of the year when people are most distracted.
And the DNR needs more public participation in its policy-making, not less, as it subjects its reputation to slow-but-steady self-destruction.
Just a few days ago, the Superior Daily Telegram took a heavy shot at the DNR and Matt Frank, the agency secretary, over the release of a questionable study crucial to the prosperity of a port city on one of the Great Lakes.
Without full disclosure and public participation, good government in Wisconsin is threatened by the very agencies spending our money to preserve and protect the public interest.
That contradiction is absolutely not sustainable.
In the state that has enshrined "sifting and winnowing" in its teaching traditions, codified Open Meetings and Open Records access, given birth to the Progressive Party, and approved a constitution that requires all the state's waters held in permanent public trust, there is only one word for this trend towards governance by bureaucratic fiat: