This online reference journal isn’t just going to be all dry facts and pie charts and choking down dry pie crusts and stuff like that. No, sometimes things bother me to the point that I sit myself down and write a legislator to let them know exactly how incompetent I feel they are. I mean, not knowing something like that has really got to gnaw at them, right? Anyways, as I write these things, I’m going to go ahead and post them here too. Below is the latest letter I’ve written to my state Rep. Dean Knudson, an affable oaf of a fella, the sort of guy who actually honestly sincerely seems to believe in the magic of voodoo economics. Bless his heart, you almost don’t know whether to box his ears and berate him or just give him a Christian side hug and tell him not to worry his little head and everything will be all right.
State Representative Dean Knudsen
PO Box 8953
Madison, WI 53708-8953
May I call you Dean? From the familiar tone of your letter to me, I feel conducting our correspondence using first names as wholly appropriate. You really come across as the kind of guy I could have a beer with, perhaps at one of our state’s fine taverns or sports venues.
Imagine my delight at being asked to weigh in with my opinion on the issues of the day, especially in this era when it has become commonplace for disinterested legislators to subcontract their job of crafting law out to third-party think tanks of dubious distinction and spotty (at best) track records.
Now, I hope you’ll forgive me if this letter is a little more than you would care to read. You asked that, given the fact that you have to vote yes or no, you should like me to limit my reply to these two options. Now, I’m sure someone esteemed as yourself, having attained such a high position in the august seat of power that is the Wisconsin State Legislature must have the intellectual interest in learning the reasoning and hearing the supporting arguments that form the foundation of your constituent’s opinions; after all, not all opinions are arrived at with the same degree of prudence and contemplation. You’ll forgive me, I hope, if rather than filling out your issue-encompassing eight question survey, I take a few moments to jot down a rough outline of my opinions for you:
In your first question, you asked which of the following methods ought to be used by state lawmakers to balance the budget. Mind you, as a pragmatist, I would have liked to check the box indicating “Combination of all the above”, however, I worried that between my mailing and your receiving this letter, some nefarious ne’er-do-well might intercept it and misconstrue its meaning, thinking that I would favor some ridiculous ratio as 99% spending cuts, 0.5% tax increases and 0.5% increased borrowing. Obviously, it would be nice to assume that such an extreme simpleminded policy proposal of the sort I just delineated could be dismissed out of hand. But sadly, Mr. Knudsen, these are sad and troubling times we live in, and I just don’t feel safe taking something like that for granted. I mean, in a world where a woman can be considered pregnant a full two weeks before conception, it makes a man question even his most taken for granted concepts of reasoning and logic.
At the top of your spring newsletter you offered a quote from President Barack Obama: “The last thing we want to do is raise taxes in the middle of a recession”. Mr. Knudsen, from our perspective here in Wisconsin, I can understand your mistaken perception that we are in the middle of a recession; I mean, have you seen the latest job numbers? Wisconsin, long lauded for its well educated and hard working labor force, leads the nation in job loss. No small wonder the people have gotten all “recall-y” lately!
Now, I’m not going to go into a long economic screed on what methods need be employed to turn around Wisconsin’s sagging economy; I merely ask that we take a level-headed, calm and rational view at the numbers. Clearly, no thinking person can argue that what we’ve been doing for the past year has been working. In fact, quite the opposite seems to be true: it has been an unmitigated train-wreck (sorry, I hate to bring up a sore subject like trains). Our Governor Walker said at the start of his term that we ought to judge him by how well his economic policies work. Who would have thought that taking hundreds of dollars every month out of the pockets of tens of thousands of middle class people as we were coming out of a recession would be so disastrous? Oh well, live and learn, as they say. And our property taxes did indeed go down, to the tune of an average of 50 dollars per year! That’s like a couple of cups of coffee a month. OK, that’s a bit underwhelming, but I’m sure our Governor meant well.
Your second question asks about the possibility of a property tax freeze, turning the issue of whether or not to raise property taxes over to a direct election, rather than having citizens vote elected officials to office to make these decisions; you know, sort of how things are typically done in a democratic republic. While this example of elected representatives cowardly dodging the hard work they were elected to do is commendable, I think I can do you one better: start all elected officials off with a base salary of zero dollars per year, with each pay raise approved only by voter approval. Feel free to share this idea on the floor – I think we’re on to a winner here.
The third question I will quote verbatim, as it is quite technical: “Do you support requiring state employees to contribute 5.8% toward their pensions and no less than 12.6% toward health insurance?”
Now Mr. Knudsen, I would never accuse you of being disingenuous, so I hope I’m safe in assuming that you are grossly misinformed and/or very incurious about the facts. Perhaps you have not taken the time to read the literature you received from the state regarding public employee compensation. Compensation, in case you aren’t familiar, is a tricky word that basically means what someone gives you in order that you will do the work for them that they want you to. I don’t know, you may have many more important things to do than to figure out what your health coverage liability is if, Heaven forbid, a family member comes down with cancer or twisted ankles or dementia. I thought I’d bring a particularly salient portion from the “Careers” section of the state of Wisconsin Dept. of Employees Trust Funds web page to your attention:
The fringe benefits offered to State of Wisconsin employees are significant, and are a valuable part of an individual’s compensation package.
I’m sure that right now you are as shocked as I was when I first came across this information. I know that certain members of the Wisconsin legislature have an aversion to math, but I hope that you are not among them, because it can be helpful in illustration. See, if “X”=salary and “Y”=benefits, total compensation (there’s that tricky word again!) would equal X+Y. By forcing teachers (who I’m sure you will agree are among the hardest working citizens we have. Well, maybe not as hard working as moms. But here I just had a thought: what about teachers who are moms? The mind boggles.) to use part of their salary to pay for their benefits, what we produce is in actuality a pay cut. Allow me to illustrate: Before Act 10, compensation (don’t panic, stay with me) is X+Y. After Act 10, compensation (it gets less scary the more familiar you become with it, right?) is X-(X x 0.058)-(X x 0.126) + Y. Of course, I’m oversimplifying a little here, but if you’re having trouble following this, don’t be afraid to ask a teacher for help. That’s what they’re here for.
On to question four. Would I support the creation of a scholarship for special needs kids to go to the school of their choice, public or private? In a word, no. Not with my tax dollars. We may or may not be in a middle of a recession here, for Pete’s sake.
Question five addresses the issue of tenure in a rather unlettered and confused way. If there’s one thing I have heard repeatedly – not to mention loudly – it is that government tends to mess things up when it inserts itself in issues it knows little to nothing about. On the whole, I am not against a balanced proposition that takes all of the factors you mention (length of service, classroom effectiveness, and educational degrees of teachers) into account; what worries me is the people who are determining what constitutes “classroom effectiveness”. I’m referring to yourself and your colleagues here, Mr. Knudsen. I would indeed sleep easier if I knew that the folks determining, to borrow a phrase, “is our children learning?”, were themselves required to demonstrate at least a passing familiarity with math, science, literature, and the like. Questions on the kind of legislator test I’m envisioning would be of the simple “yes-or-no” variety – quite a bit like your survey, actually! Sample question might run along these lines:
Approximately how old is planet Earth?
A) 6,000 years old
B) What are you serious? It’s like 4,000,000,000 years old
Name the scientist who discovered radium.
Where do babies come from?
A) After a female’s egg is inseminated by the male’s spermatozoa, the fertilized egg gestates in the female’s uterus for a period of approximately nine months.
Question number six mentions that tuition has been capped at 5.5%, and asks whether the UW system should have increased flexibility in determining the tuition rates charged. Since all tax increases are bad, I’m going to have to assume the same holds true for tuition increases.
Your penultimate query asks about restoring the tax reciprocity between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Sure, why not?
Your final question asks my opinion regarding construction of a new Stillwater bridge, nominally to increase activity for the local area. I say yes, with three caveats:
The biggest benefactors of this increased activity contribute in a meaningful way to the funding.
Call it the Houlton bridge. Have some Badger pride. Let Stillwater be associated with the crappy old one.
If care is taken to mitigate any environmental damage to the St. Croix river. Call me a dreamer, but I like the idea of being able to eat the fish I catch.
Well, Mr. Knudsen, that about covers it. If you made it this far, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to either read this or have it read to you. But before I let you take your leave, you did have one other question at the bottom of your 2012 Legislative Survey. You asked me to rate, on a scale from one to five (five being highest) yourself, Governor Walker, and Barack Obama.
With regards to Mr. Obama, who, judging by the fact you chose to feature a quote of his so prominently in your newsletter, you obviously hold in the highest esteem, I’m afraid I can’t agree with you completely. True, he passed the Ledbetter Act and killed Osama bin Laden, but I just am frankly disappointed with the way he bailed out Wall Street while placing no restrictions to ensure that they wouldn’t just turn around have reenact their little economic meltdown shenanigans all over again in a year or so. I guess he deserves around a three.
On to Governor Walker. He is simply the worst Governor we’ve ever had by a long shot. It’s not even close. Even by his own standards, he is a self-admitted abject failure. It’s a shame you don’t allow for negative numbers on your scale.
As for you, Mr. Knudsen, I honestly don’t know. I remain completely unable to name even one thing you’ve accomplished. There is a graphic entitled “Wisconsin’s Checklist” on the back of your newsletter, with all manner of vague notions listed and then checked off, but no indication as to who deserves the credit – or blame – for these purported actions. But if you made it this far in my letter, why don’t you just go ahead and mark yourself down for a “2”.
Badgitator (Ed. note: not actual name)