The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

May 27, 2008

Patrolling the state budget

One week ago in Oconto, I met state Sen. Dave Hansen (D–Green Bay), who made a valid point about those of us who believe government spends too much money.

Hansen correctly pointed out that there are many people who advocate that government spend less money, without saying what they specifically prefer less government spending.

Some would argue, also correctly, that that is a job for our elected officials. But lest I be accused of hypocrisy, I’m willing to take up the challenge. I should point out that this is a challenge that already has been taken up by Jo Egelhoff, proprietor of FoxPolitics.net and now candidate for the Assembly. Egelhoff has questioned the scope of four-year-old kindergarten, which, thanks to a veto from Gov. James Doyle, now must be offered to all students within any school district that offers it, instead of targeting it to students who would benefit the most.

My proposed budget cut would not only save money, but provide a particular and popular function of government much more efficiently:

Eliminate the Wisconsin State Patrol.

The State Patrol is an odd function of state government, because the State Patrol is not really a law enforcement agency in the same way that county sheriff’s departments are, or for that matter state police departments in other states. The State Patrol, which is part of the state Department of Transportation, “enforces criminal and traffic laws, conducts criminal highway interdiction programs, and helps local law enforcement agencies with traffic safety, civil disturbances and disasters (natural and man-made).” In other words, the stormtroopers of the state highways enforce the laws created by the busybodies in Madison and Washington, including mandatory seat-belt laws at a time when any idiot ought to realize they are safer wearing belts than not, to ridiculous levels, such as, in one case I was told by a trusted source, ticketing someone for driving 3 mph — yes, 3 mph — faster than the speed limit. The State Patrol also operates the state’s truck weigh stations, which rarely seem to be open whenever I drive past them.

State troopers (the State Patrol is authorized to have 399 of them) are sworn police officers, but they have no police responsibilities that aren’t related to motor vehicles, and they are legally subordinate to the county sheriff. (Like all bureaucracies, though, the State Patrol is looking to grow itself, having created a K–9 unit for which it had no legislative authorization. And like other bureaucracies, the State Patrol has a public relations arm that distributes news releases and creates pretty-looking reports in which it takes credit for things for which it doesn’t deserve credit, including a drop in traffic crashes.)

The State Patrol might have more of a reason for existence if its jurisdiction were limited to the state’s four-lane highways, the most traveled roads in the state, but that is not now the case. There is no evidence that crime in Wisconsin (particularly crime of a statewide nature) is at such a level as to warrant expanding police powers to the State Patrol, either. It would be helpful if the State Patrol did its job better as well, in contrast to their apparent performance during a large snowstorm that stranded motorists on Interstate 39/90 for up to 12 hours this past winter.

Other than inspecting tractor–trailers and operating the State Patrol Academy, there is nothing the State Patrol does that county sheriff’s departments don’t do, and could do more efficiently with dollars the state currently spends on the State Patrol. That is already occurring in one place, in fact: The State Patrol is really the State-Except-Milwaukee-County Patrol, because the State Patrol has no responsibilities to patrol Milwaukee County freeways, and if they don’t patrol the freeways of the largest metropolitan area in the state, what is their purpose?

Interestingly, I've talked to a lot of people about this idea — elected officials, political observers, and taxpayers. I've yet to have a single person say that this was a bad idea, particularly the part about giving the money the state spends on the State Patrol to county sheriff's departments. (Perhaps that State Patrol PR arm isn't working so well after all.)

At this point, I’d like to tell you that the state spends X dollars on the State Patrol. I can’t do that, because the State Patrol’s budget is well hidden within the Department of Transportation budget. I do know that county sheriff’s departments, which are responsible for their own counties instead of the whole state, would spend dollars being used on the State Patrol more wisely. In fact, that already happens in Milwaukee County, which gets $3 million in state fund to patrol Milwaukee County freeways.

In a previous state budget, Doyle proposed creating a state police force under the Justice Department, which would have combined the State Patrol, the Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation, and the Department of Administration’s Capitol Police and State Fair Park Police. Such a department perhaps could include the University of Wisconsin police departments on the Madison, Oshkosh, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Parkside, Platteville, Stout and Whitewater campuses. (I’ll pause while you mull over that bureaucratic snarl.)

That is one of those ideas that seems good in theory until you consider one fact: That statewide police department would be run by the Attorney General. Doyle, who was elected attorney general in 1990, and his one-term successor Peg Lautenschlager grossly politicized the Justice Department as Democrats seem to want to do. The history of Democrat Kathleen Falk, a former associate attorney general and public intervenor (the taxpayer-funded anti-development bottleneck that no longer exists), indicates that that would have continued had Falk not (fortunately) lost to Republican J.B. Van Hollen in 2006. Doyle and Lautenschlager did nothing to assist actual working law enforcement, but did wander off into areas that, whether or not you agree with their positions, were not about law enforcement. (Doyle, for that matter, spent most of his 12 years in office running to replace Gov. Tommy Thompson. Van Hollen seems content to use DCI officers as personal bodyguards during the upcoming Republican National Convention.)

Either the State Patrol should have its responsibilities expanded, or it should be disbanded. In an era of state budget crises but not rampant statewide crime, the latter is the preferred route.

4 comments:

Terry said...

You are so "under-informed" and "over-opinionated" that the only thing that I got out of this article was your lack of respect for the state patrol. The fact is that despite the fact that the major responsibility of the state patrol is to enforce traffic, they have the highest drug arrest record of any agency in the state of WI. That includes all of the Sheriff's Departments and other agencies in the state.

The state patrol have drugs dogs makes more sense then many other agencies that are doing the same thing. They are on the highways where the drugs are being transported. They also work the scales and trucking industry where there is also a lot of drugs being confiscated.

My observation differs from your my friend. I think that the Wisconsin State Patrol is one of the most professional agencies in the state and a source of pride. You reference to the Troopers as "storm troopers" shows that you have little respect for anyone in law enforcement. When you are done chewing up the state patrol you will find some other agency to complain about.

Check you data and figures. You are so far off base you are not in the ball park. But, then why confuse the issue with facts!

Tom said...

Steve,

You are way off of base. I can not imagine that someone of your position could be so foolish to not realize what the state patrol means to us. The job of the state patrol is to support local law enforcement. They do a fine job at that and many of our local sheriff's departments would be in big trouble without them. Also consider the number of times they are brought into local sheriff's departments to assist with expert traffic investigation and to assist with local events. Obviously, no one likes the idea of getting a speeding ticket. However, if you drive highway 41 you would quickly realize that there are many out there that need a speeding ticket. I travel at 70 and people drive by me and give me nasty gestures. The average speed is about 80 miles per hour. I would advocate for more Trooper out there slowing things down.

I agree with Terry that your obvious disrespect for law enforcement makes you look like you have a bone to pick. As a matter of fact Steve, it appears that you disrespect everyone in government. Or, perhaps it is just that you have no respect for anyone.
I agree with Terry when he comments that the state patrol is the most professional organizations in the state. Your inability to see how they fit into the system is not a reason to get rid of them. I do not think there is a need for a law change or expansion. They are doing well as it is and have been for years.

I think we need to see your name on the ballot for Governor so that you can fix all the shortcomings you point out. Or, perhaps you are just satisfied to sit back and take shots at what other people are doing?

F.M.

Francis said...

Steve,

You are way off of base. I can not imagine that someone of your position could be so foolish to not realize what the state patrol means to us. The job of the state patrol is to support local law enforcement. They do a fine job at that and many of our local sheriff's departments would be in big trouble without them. Also consider the number of times they are brought into local sheriff's departments to assist with expert traffic investigation and to assist with local events. Obviously, no one likes the idea of getting a speeding ticket. However, if you drive highway 41 you would quickly realize that there are many out there that need a speeding ticket. I travel at 70 and people drive by me and give me nasty gestures. The average speed is about 80 miles per hour. I would advocate for more Trooper out there slowing things down.

I agree with Terry that your obvious disrespect for law enforcement makes you look like you have a bone to pick. As a matter of fact Steve, it appears that you disrespect everyone in government. Or, perhaps it is just that you have no respect for anyone.
I agree with Terry when he comments that the state patrol is the most professional organizations in the state. Your inability to see how they fit into the system is not a reason to get rid of them. I do not think there is a need for a law change or expansion. They are doing well as it is and have been for years.

I think we need to see your name on the ballot for Governor so that you can fix all the shortcomings you point out. Or, perhaps you are just satisfied to sit back and take shots at what other people are doing?

F.M.

Aaron Kramer said...

1 - Can we have some indication here about the connection these posters have with the State Patrol? Are you a member of the agency, or connected in some way?
2 - I do not interpret this column as a lack of respect for law enforcement. On the contrary, I would say it is a valid and pointed argument that NOTHING should be off the table when discussing taxes and spending.
3 - I have nothing against the state patrol. I just wish we could get past the passions. I see a similar resistance to such ideas as combining counties (or eliminating some such as Milwaukee County) and eliminating some mandates and property taxes. Just my two cents...
Aaron Kramer
Mayor, Ripon, WI