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Wisconsin editorial roundup: on college costs, drone bans and union declines

The AP

Higher ed proposals will help, but much more is needed to hold down college cost

Wisconsin State Journal, Jan. 31

A key Assembly committee just endorsed a package of modest yet worthy bills to make college more affordable.

The full Legislature should approve them, understanding much more must be done so students aren’t saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

The bills, which cleared the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities last week, would give a larger tax break to thousands of people paying back student loans. Lifting a $2,500 cap on a tax deduction for borrowers won’t save them a lot, but it will save some.

The bills also would provide more financial help to technical college students, including “emergency grants” for unexpected expenses, such as car repairs. That could prevent some students from quitting classes when trouble strikes.

The bills will connect more students to internships for real-life experience.

One of the most important measures the committee advanced would require colleges to provide students with better information about the debt they’re taking on. A financial reality check should persuade more students to streamline their course loads or work more hours at part-time jobs to borrow less.

Good counseling is a must, too, so fewer students go down academic paths only to find out — after considerable time and expense — it’s not for them.

Republicans have supported the bills, as do UW and technical college officials. Democrats voted against them at committee, saying the legislation didn’t go far enough. We get the point. But the bills represent progress. They deserve bipartisan support.

Gov. Scott Walker’s tuition freeze, in place since 2013, has saved students a lot of money. But the freeze was coupled in the latest state budget with a $250 million cut in state aid to UW System schools.

Wisconsin is one of the few states reducing aid to higher education, which isn’t a path to prosperity. Wisconsin needs to invest in its colleges to compete in a global economy and secure more good-paying jobs.

Even with the governor’s tuition freeze, the cost of higher education is a much heavier load than it used to be. At UW-Madison, for example, students pay twice as much today for tuition, housing and related expenses — nearly $25,000 — than their peers did three decades ago, when adjusted for inflation.

And the erosion of state aid has forced UW to draw down its reserves. That’s not all bad, since they were high. But our universities need some reserves for stability, just like a private company.

The next state budget should prioritize younger generations, rather than handing out still more tax cuts.

Democrats have prioritized legislation allowing students to refinance their education loans. That’s a needed change Republicans should embrace.

More private donations for tuition are helping pay for college. And schools such as Madison Area Technical College are striving to make two years of instruction free for lower-income students.

But bigger ideas are needed. Leaders should explore a “pay it forward” model where students get free college, then pay a percentage of their salaries after graduation to offset the cost.

Universities must aggressively pursue technology to deliver instruction more efficiently.

The current system of higher and higher cost for young people can’t continue.

Decline of unions isn’t good news for Wisconsin

The Capital Times, Jan. 30

There undoubtedly was some high-fiving among Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators and their corporate campaign contributors over the news that union membership has plummeted in Wisconsin over the past two years and is now far below the national average.

That may be good news for plutocrats, but it’s terrible news for working people and Wisconsin’s middle class.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that just 8.3 percent of workers in the state now belong to a union, which is down from 11.7 percent in 2014. Nationwide roughly 11.1 percent of working people belong to an organized labor union.

The big drop in union membership — estimated to be roughly 83,000 workers in little more than year — helps explain why Wisconsin’s economic recovery continues to trail the rest of the country. The figures are even more stark when compared to 2010, the year Scott Walker was first elected governor. More than 14 percent of Wisconsin workers belonged to unions then.

Unions may not be the be-all and end-all, but they’ve historically strengthened the country’s middle class, winning wage hikes and benefits for workers so they could support their families and share in the nation’s wealth, and making sure employers provided safe and healthy workplaces. Unions never did represent a majority of American workers, but they provided the benchmarks that nonunion employers used to keep their workers happy so they wouldn’t be tempted to form unions themselves.

It’s not coincidental that the biggest gains in the middle class occurred during the heyday of unions. And it’s also not coincidental that the middle class has suffered in recent years as union membership has eroded. The result has been an alarming increase in the gap between the rich and poor.

That’s been a particular problem here in Wisconsin. A Pew Charitable Trust report from last March showed Wisconsin with the largest decline among the 50 states in the number of middle class families. In 2000, 54.6 percent of Wisconsin families fell into the category of middle class, but that was down to 48.9 percent in 2013. The real median household income in our state had fallen 14.7 percent during that time.

While the drop in union membership has coincided with lower wages and fewer benefits, the upper classes have done well.

So we shouldn’t be happy that unions have taken big hits as a result of the Republicans’ attacks on public employees and teachers and the enactment of a right-to-work law, which hampers private unions.

No, we should be sad for the economic health of Wisconsin and worried about its future.

Regulate drones, but don’t ban them

The Journal Times of Racine, Jan. 30

“Star Wars” might be big at the box office, but drone wars are cropping up all over the country, including Wisconsin.

The latest initiative to drive the electronic beasts from the sky comes from Madison where Republican legislators are pushing a bill to fine people who fly a drone over a state correctional institution $5,000.

According to news reports the legislation follows a series of cases in which smugglers flew drugs, pornography and other contraband over prison walls. Last summer, according to an Associated Press report, a drone dropped a package of marijuana, heroin and tobacco into a prison yard in Ohio, triggering a fight among inmates. Other such instances have cropped up in Oklahoma, Georgia, Maryland and South Carolina.

We have previously called for regulations of drones, so we were all ready to jump on the bandwagon and back the legislative effort headed by state Sen. Richard Gudex, R-Fond du Lac, to stop this potential airborne crime wave.

Then we read a story that in Denver legislators rejected an ordinance to curb private drone use —for the third straight time.

It even rejected a watered-down version that would have banned only drones used to deliver contraband to prisons after opponents pointed out that prison contraband delivery is already a crime by any means.

“It’s really not a necessary bill,” said Vic Moss, owner of a suburban Denver photography business and a drone enthusiast, according to an AP report.

We would suspect that Wisconsin has similar prohibitions on sending contraband into a prison.

Disturbing, as well, is a provision in Gudex’s proposed legislation that would allow local municipalities and counties to establish areas where drones cannot be flown and to set fines of up to $2,500 for violations. We have no idea where that would go.

California bans paparazzi from using drones on private land, Arkansas bans drone voyeurism and News Hampshire bans their use for hunting, trapping and fishing.

We have previously endorsed the need for regulation of drones in order to make sure our skies are safe for air travel.

But we have also suggested that the current Federal Aviation Administration regulations that prohibit drone flights within five miles of an airport are too stringent. That rule essentially makes the entire city of Racine a no-fly zone.

Moreover, there are potentially many good uses for drones — from the delivery system posed by Amazon or their use in spotting forest fires to use by insurance companies in checking damage to roofs or other property _ and even to detecting potato diseases by flying them over fields to find stressed out plants. And, of course, hobbyists love them.

While air safety is important for commercial and private planes and there are other legitimate concerns for things like privacy and individual rights, the stampede of proposed regulations and bans should slow down until reasonable plans can be made.

Drones are not inherently evil and they need a little air space.

Made available via The AP.

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