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
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.