Ryan J. Owens: Wisconsin’s leaders should work together on three issues

The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.

Tommy Thompson used to say: “Good policy makes for good politics.” How right he was. He worked to generate common sense reforms, and he produced results for Wisconsin. Voters rewarded him with a record four victories as Governor. In 1994, he won 71 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties—and he still regrets losing that one county.

As Wisconsin is now in the post-midterm evaluative period, our citizens are asking: How can our current leaders emulate Tommy’s approach? How can our leaders deliver results?

Elected officials should begin by working on a series of issues in desperate need of reform. These include criminal justice reform, transportation reform, and energy reform. Not only are these worth pursuing on policy grounds, they will provide political dividends.

Criminal Justice Reform

One immediate area where Republicans and Democrats can work together is on criminal justice reform. Governor Walker recently touted it as a priority; Governor-elect Evers has concurred with Walker’s push.

It’s just not economically feasible to spend so much money on corrections. It costs roughly $30,000-$40,000 to support a prisoner for one year. As the number of prisoners skyrockets, those dollars add up quickly. We simply cannot afford to imprison so many people. Treat harshly those who deserve it. But for others, we should be more judicious.

One way to reduce our corrections costs is to make sure that those who leave prison do not recidivate. It’s a hard truth but many people who depart prison later return, either because they have no means to survive upon exit or because crime is their only feasible option. It’s also likely that many learn bad habits while in prison. Thankfully, the data tell us that prisoners with job skills who obtain post-prison employment are significantly less likely to recidivate than prisoners without such skills or such jobs. They contribute much more meaningfully to society.

Why not ask government to work alongside private employers to create job training programs for appropriate prisoners? Employers could train rules-following prisoners so they “hit the ground running” when they depart prison. Allow them to teach prisoners skills, grant them certificates, and help them obtain employment upon exit from prison. They will pay Wisconsin back. And we will benefit in turn.

With historically low levels of employment, businesses find it hard to hire. Increasing the labor pool could help. If our elected leaders could work together on this issue, they could reduce prison costs, reduce recidivism rates, and improve society.

This is not just pie-in the-sky stuff. A handful of companies currently use this approach, and their results have been staggeringly successful. What is more, even deeply conservative states like Texas and Tennessee have adopted criminal justice reforms. There is bipartisan consensus on this issue. We can and must do better. And we can do it together.

Transportation Reform

Another area where Republicans and Democrats must absolutely work together is on transportation reform. It’s no secret that Wisconsin’s roads need work. But paying for those road repairs is not cheap. Our leaders must be open to alternative ways of funding highway projects. These are tricky political issues that might be tough to solve, but with discussion and analysis, we can come to consensus.

We can make Wisconsin the envy of the country by getting out in front of transportation changes. What if Wisconsin worked with Uber or Lyft to obtain government contracts to support access to fixed route services like trains and buses? Getting people to and from those stations would address the first mile/last mile problems that plague current transit operations. This could help rural and urban areas. Wisconsin could lead the way.

Another way of linking portions of the state to growing jobs would be to revisit railways in Wisconsin. A high-speed rail system could help link Wisconsin workers with Wisconsin jobs. Not many years ago, the state addressed the possibility of a light rail project from Kenosha to Milwaukee. If that rail was in place today, it would pull up to Foxconn’s doorstep. But the subsidies issue was cumbersome and the project stalled. Lawmakers must re-examine ways to make such a system work. Indeed, if the state can solve the last mile problem with transportation services like Uber or Lyft, we could help the market place link employees to employers across the state. We always talk about expanding the workforce. With such transportation reforms we can also talk about moving the workforce to meet its needs.

Energy Reform

Many Wisconsinites demand an energy policy that is increasingly self-sufficient and cleaner. Battery powered cars can supplement many gas-powered vehicles. Solar and wind power provide reasonable alternatives for businesses and residential customers. Costs are down dramatically, with equally dramatic returns on investment. For many businesses, renewable sources make more sense. They are clearly worth pursuing. Methane produced from cows fuels thousands of Wisconsin homes already. Our leaders should cultivate these energy sources. Younger voters are serious about this issue and will flock to whichever party addresses it.

It’s not just young people who benefit from these energy reforms. Civil libertarians who want to be “off the grid” will applaud them. Small businesses may prefer them, as they may be less reliant on market forces outside their control. And not to be overlooked, a localized energy policy will appeal to people tired of dealing with morally bankrupt tyrants in the middle east, for no other reason than that we need their oil. Let’s be rid of them.

Wisconsin leaders who devise a guilt-free and American-heavy energy policy will not only make good policy, they will reap electoral benefits.

If, as Tommy said, good policy makes for good politics, let’s hope our elected leaders get together and make some good politics. They would be wise to focus on these three issues.

–Owens is a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is the director of the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership.

 

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