Wisconsin State Journal, Aug. 9
What the Wisconsin Supreme Court doesn't want you to see
For two decades, Wisconsin was a shining example of what an open court system could be. The state Supreme Court was one of the few in the nation that conducted deliberations in public.
Now that experiment in good government is over.
In June, justices voted to close the doors. No longer will residents get to watch them argue about arcane judicial policies and codes of ethics. They will make those decisions in secret, and the people can just live with whatever they decide, no questions answered.
It was the end of an era in which transparency built trust and allowed voters to make informed decisions when a justice came up for re-election every 10 years. Since the 1990s, Wisconsinites have been able to watch the state's legal luminaries thoughtfully consider both complex and mundane issues.
Granted, often wisdom and restraint were absent. Justices were sometimes no better than churlish children in a schoolyard. They insulted and berated each other. There was even a physical altercation.
They weren't building trust. They were undermining it. Transparency caused embarrassment.
Most people in similar circumstances would identify the problem as the behavior and work to change it. They might seek to develop a more collegial environment where justices could disagree respectfully, even across ideological lines. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia couldn't have been much further apart ideologically, but they developed a famously close friendship. Surely, Wisconsin's justices could strive for courtesy if not friendship.
Wisconsin's justices aren't most people. They identified transparency as the problem, not their behavior. So last month they changed the rules. Justices Pat Roggensack, Annette Ziegler, Michael Gableman, Rebecca Bradley and Daniel Kelly supported moving their bad behavior behind closed doors. Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley wisely opposed it.
To be clear, these are not deliberations in lawsuits and criminal cases argued before the court. This is not like a jury going into a room to hold a frank conversation that decides the fate of a defendant.
This is more like lawmakers in the Capitol writing laws. The justices are deliberating about policies and the ground rules that affect anyone caught up in the Wisconsin legal system, not specific cases.
Voters can send a message that they expect better from the state's highest court. Wisconsin's system of electing judges has serious problems, but in this case it could serve the people well.
Justice Michael Gableman has announced he will not seek re-election in 2018. At least three people have already declared their candidacy, and others could join them.
We will ask the judicial candidates about this decision and whether they support the public's right to watch their government at work.
Voters should do the same and think twice before supporting someone who endorses secrecy over the public's right to know.
The Journal Times of Racine, Aug. 9
State can't afford to muff homeless veteran aid
Second chances are always nice.
Especially when a million dollars is at stake.
Wisconsin veterans dodged a figurative bullet last week when the federal Department of Veterans Affairs told the state it would get a reprieve over the denial of $1 million in annual federal funding used to run a program for homeless veterans.
The cuts, announced earlier this summer, would have taken away housing benefits for 57 state veterans who are staying on the campuses of veterans' homes here in Dover and also in King.
But late last week, the DVA said it will give Wisconsin a year to change the structure of its homeless veterans assistance program to qualify for continued federal aid in the years to come.
Some states changed their homeless veterans assistance programs this year in order to assure continued funding. But Wisconsin DVA officials didn't take that route — apparently believing Wisconsin's program wasn't at risk.
"We were not in danger of losing all funding. It's not the attitude that came from the VA. Our understanding of everything was we were fine. In our minds, there was no reason to change anything," Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Daniel Zimmerman said.
That turned out to be a big oops when the Wisconsin DVA was told earlier this year it was losing a large chunk of federal support.
Whether this was a dropped ball by state officials, a matter of miscommunication, fallout from a change in federal policy or a combination of the three — it's a good warning for the state going forward.
Some said Wisconsin should have seen it coming — that the changes in program funding eligibility standards were telegraphed four years ago and that programs like Wisconsin's, which were based on "service-intensive traditional housing," were least likely to be funded.
"I thought it was fairly clear," Kathryn Monet, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, told a Milwaukee newspaper. "A lot of providers saw that (funding change) and said, 'OK, the writing is on the wall.' "
Wisconsin veterans officials apparently need a course in reading wall writing. They missed the clues, and it took a flurry of response and appeals to Wisconsin congressional representatives — and then the federal DVA — before Wisconsin got a one-year pass to improve the effectiveness of its programs and reapply for DVA funding.
That's a $1 million "phew" — and one we probably won't get again. The Wisconsin DVA needs to make sure it understands and follows federal guidelines, and double-checks with federal officials and those from other states to make sure we get this right.
There's many a slip between cup and lip, and Wisconsin homeless-veterans programs don't need another million-dollar dribble. Put us on sippy-cup alert.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Aug. 11
DNR should have the authority to regulate waste from large farms
The Wisconsin Dairy Business Association has filed a lawsuit that would, if successful, take Wisconsin in the opposite direction of where it needs to go in regulating large dairy farms.
The result could be more pollution of the state's waters, including vital groundwater sources on which many rely for clean drinking water, from dairy herds that are getting ever larger.
The lawsuit says the state Department of Natural Resources is overstepping its authority by requiring dairy farms with 700 or more cows to obtain a wastewater permit, the Journal Sentinel reported. Federal regulations require a permit only when there is a discharge of manure and water into streams and the state is going too far, the group says.
The problem is that direct discharge into streams rarely happens, but manure and water can still enter the state's waters via farm runoff and groundwater.
Take Kewaunee County, home to nearly 100,000 cows, where residents have for years struggled with polluted wells and manure runoff.
Kewaunee County Supervisor Lee Luft told the Journal Sentinel that while the dairy association's press statement dealt with managing rainwater, the larger issue is the group's contention that large farms in most cases would not be required to obtain a wastewater permit.
"If anyone really believes the Dairy Business Association and its members were interested in finding solutions to our problems, their suit should put an end to that," Luft said.
And this is not just one county's problem: The number of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in Wisconsin has grown by 400 percent from 50 in 2000 to 252 in 2016, agency figures show, and has played a key role in growing milk production as farm numbers fall, the Journal Sentinel reported.
There is reason to believe the suit could succeed and expose more residents to the possibility of manure-related pollution.
In a formal opinion last year, state Attorney General Brad Schimel said the DNR lacked the authority to deny well applications even if an irrigation well posed harm to nearby streams and lakes. Schimel based his opinion on a 2011 law that limits the power of state agencies by requiring them to first obtain approval from the Legislature before imposing regulations.
With that law, the Legislature left the door open to environmental harm. It's all the excuse that some need to escape reasonable state regulation.
We hope the group loses in court.
But there's another option. We're not going to hold our breath, but legislators could make the suit moot by expressly giving the DNR the authority it needs to do its job: protecting the state's vital natural resources from environmental harm.