Sunday, February 24, 2008

"No Way" Is No Way To Run A State

Why has Wisconsin turned into such a sourpuss? What's with this penchant for saying "No" all the time?

Wisconsin is headed towards being the ashtray of the Midwest, as we have failed again this year to enact a smoking ban in bars and restaurants, while neighboring states have made the move.

And we aren't permitted to have modern urban rail as a transportation option, as Chicago has had for years, and the Twin Cities is now enjoying.

Now our GOP--lead (sic) State Assembly is scheming various ways to kill the Great Lakes Compact, a regional water management agreement already adopted by four of the eight Great Lakes states, with others to follow, to help preserve a shared resource that makes up 20% of the world's fresh surface water.

We're looking like a backward, obstinate state that is a far cry from Progressive Wisconsin, the public policy laboratory that had a national reputation for good and innovative government.

Where the emphasis was on figuring out a way to say "Yes" to progress rather than reflexively saying "No."

It's more than coincidence that Waukesha County is the center of much of this negativity, having killed Milwaukee's light rail planning and now threatening to derail an entire eight-state, two-nation water conservation pact - - all to better serve powerful highway and land development interests.

Money in the political process, from the local level to the State Capitol, is the major barrier to a healthy Wisconsin agenda that puts common resources first.

The rise in special interest influence statewide - - and there is plenty of bi-partisan blame to go around on this one - - has given the restaurant and tavern lobbies enough sway in the legislature to overwhelm public sentiment that wants smoke-free dining.

It's why the highway lobby can find water-carriers at every level of government: they are even persuading Waukesha County to pledge $1.75 million in local funds to help build an interstate interchange to serve a privately-owned proposed shopping mall at Pabst Farms - - a mall literally planned in a farm field that has redefined itself from a so-called regional destination with upscale shops, fancy restaurants and other amenities to a big-box cluster in a glorified strip mall.

And into which your state transportation department, unwilling and unable to embrace rail transit in the region, has agree to spend nearly $22 million of our tax dollars to get the interchange done pronto.

The same special interest hegemony holds true for the damn-the-public interest Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which is leading the fight against the Great Lakes Compact (though 80% of the public has said in recent polling it wants) and is also trying to win a roll back of clean air standards in southeastern Wisconsin despite a growing number of dirty air days this winter.

(UPDATE: The alert for unhealthy levels for particulate matter in the air from the weekend has been extended into Monday for the entire state. Hat tip to The Racine Post blog for the graphic).

Are we Wisconsin, or LA/Midwest?)

This is the same WMC by the way, that couldn't defeat two-term incumbent Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, so then poured millions into electing an ethically-challenged mouthpiece to the State Supreme Court last year.

And the WMC appears to be headed down the same road in this year's Supreme Court election, too - - details from Paul Soglin, here - - boosting a candidate whose initial appointment to the state judiciary has a odious back-channel flavor - - details from Cory Liebmann and One Wisconsin Now (OWN) here.

All to reify, or perhaps embed into the law being the better phrase, their bottom-line self-interest through the rulings of activist justices elected with WMC resources.

(Disclosure: I sit on a OWN board but play no role in its Supreme Court candidates' research or publication.)

You would think business, civic and education leaders would recognize that retrograde, unhealthy and just plain selfish state policy-making gives Wisconsin demerits as parents consider sending their kids here for an education.

Or that graduates, new business owners, tourists and retirees would begin to see Wisconsin as undesirable compared to other states, including our neighbors.

Recent visitors here are regularly shocked that smoking is still allowed in restaurants and bars. The frequent dirty air alerts got their attention, too.
And the state is pushing commercial expansion in the Kenosha area, and tourism in Door County. But doing it amidst air pollution that can bury dangerous particulate matter deep in your lungs - - some of which is there because we keep pouring billions into highways and intentionally withhold funding for rail alternatives.

How contradictory is that?

Study after study shows that an urban revival is underway nationally, but you can't pull that off in Wisconsin without rail.

Study after study shows that health is a major social and personal concern. But you can't attract and retain people if your public policies kiss off clean air, pleasant recreation indoors and out, and water conservation - - along with respecting the environment and the rights of neighboring states.

If Wisconsin's Assembly Republican leaders succeed in torpedoing the Great Lakes Compact, Wisconsin will go from good regional partner to pariah, the State that took "Smart" out of Smart Growth.

"No Way" won't keep Wisconsin moving forward, keeping up with the state motto and the statute of Miss Forward on the State Capitol dome.

It's no way to run a state.


Anonymous said...

"Why has Wisconsin turned into such a sourpuss? What's with this penchant for saying "No" all the time?"

I'd argue it is because the Democratic party has slowly lost its progressive edge, and the history of progressive politics is lost with each new generation. If there is no continual discussion of the progressive Wisconsin idea, it gets lost.

A series of big losses to Reagan and Bush I left the party reeling. The Democratic party moved toward the Republican party when Clinton was president. There just doesn't seem to be a big difference between the two parties anymore.

Instead of good politics, arguing the progressive agenda, Democrats used the Republican game plan of "taxes are evil and we can cut them more than they can" strategy in order to get votes.

In Wisconsin, the loss of Nelson and Proxmire didn't help. Nelson was certainly the more progressive of those two, but Proxmire was fairly progressive in the area of open government, keeping money out of elections and holding elected officials accountable.

Jim, you probably could explain better than anyone. Doesn't it seem like the mid to late 70s is when the down swing came? There simply wasn't anyone to carry on after Nelson. It's actually somewhat surprising that Feingold was elected to regain a bit.

Well, had a good 30 to 40 years of the Wisconsin idea through the Democratic party. Sometimes I wonder if the Progressive party wouldn't have been better off in the long run by not joining the Democratic party. Just stay a minority party and if possible manage to prevent any one party from having the coveted 50% control of a governing body. Probably would have been squeezed out by the dominant parties by shady electioneering. In the long run the same result.

If there is a rebirth of progressivism in Wisconsin, it will probably be in the same fashion it happened first time around--separate from the major parties.

James Rowen said...

Thanks, Dan;

I expanded the original posting a bit.