Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials

Wisconsin State Journal, Aug. 5

Let them smoke pot — for medical use

In general, we’re not keen on looking to Illinois for leadership and direction on, well, almost anything.

But Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn did the right thing last week when he signed into law a bill that approves medical marijuana for Illinois residents, making our neighbor to the south the 20th state, along with the District of Columbia, to legalize pot for medical purposes.

Wisconsin should step up and do the same, an act that would give our residents who suffer from many debilitating conditions the same relief that is available now in nearly half the country.

Another Midwest neighbor, Michigan, approved medical marijuana five years ago. Other states made the leap as far back as the late 1990s.

From Maine (1999) to New Mexico (2007), from Alaska (1998) to Massachusetts (2012), the medical marijuana movement is taking hold.

And why not? Cancer patients, back pain sufferers and scores of others who deal with chronic illnesses from glaucoma to HIV report finding relief from marijuana use, whether the legal or illegal versions of the plant.

Many of those patients lined up last week to tell their stories as Quinn signed into law the four-year trial program in Illinois that will start Jan. 1.

The Illinois plan calls for strict controls on both growers and users of medical marijuana. The rules vary from state to state, and Illinois appears to have among the tightest controls in the nation.

Of course, those rules that regulate how much and when and how users can obtain the medical pot are too loose for opponents of the plan and too tight for supporters.

Which probably means the rules are about right.

Four years ago, state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, and then-state Rep. Mark Pocan, a Madison Democrat now serving in Congress, tried for a medical marijuana bill in Wisconsin.

That proposed bill led to public hearings but fizzled in committee. But a new effort to make pot legal for medical use in Wisconsin may not be far off.

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, told The Capital Times last week she and Erpenbach plan to introduce another bill this fall.

“It would be fairly tightly controlled,” Taylor said. “Given that, I would hope some Republicans would support this.”

We would, too. Wisconsin is way past due on approving medical marijuana

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Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, Aug. 5

School calendar should be decided locally

The Republicans who control the governorship and both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature won their majority status at least in part because of their party’s traditional claim that they are the party of limited government.

Another of Gov. Scott Walker’s trademark slogans is that under his administration, “Wisconsin is open for business.”

But when it comes to local school districts deciding when they should start classes for a new school year, these two objectives come into conflict.

In this case, local control should prevail and local school boards should have sole discretion to decide when classes should start.

Under current law, fall classes cannot start before Sept. 1. This law was passed at the request of tourism interests who can’t afford to lose their school-age summer employees while the vacation season is still in progress. But a bill circulating in the Legislature (SB-288) would eliminate that requirement effective with the 2014-15 school year.

Some educators believe that a shorter summer vacation would reduce the learning loss students experience during the classroom layoff. Some also believe that while it can be as hot or hotter in late August than it is in early June, students are fresher at the start of the school year and more easily absorb instruction than they do once the first heat of June arrives.

Also, the WIAA sets its fall sports calendar irrespective of Sept. 1, so many high school athletes have to quit or curtail their summer jobs by mid-August anyway.

School board members come from their communities and presumably are sensitive to the local needs if tourism is a key driver of the economy and the resulting taxes that help operate the schools. It seems logical that school board members in Wisconsin Dells, Hayward, Eagle River, etc., might conclude that even if they favor an earlier start to the school year that businesses and tax collections would suffer if high school students all had to quit their summer jobs while they were still badly needed by their employers.

Conversely, school boards in communities where tourism is not significant might see the benefits of an earlier school start for the reasons previously mentioned.

Tourism industry advocates point to a 2008 study by St. Norbert College that said 70 percent of parents favor the later school start, possibly so they can get in a late-summer getaway, or simply because they feel a pre-Sept. 1 start is too early. Hopefully, school board members have a sense of how members of their particular community feel on the matter and take those opinions into account when setting the school calendar.

It boils down to local control, and it seems the party that champions local control would leave the school calendar up to the individual school districts.

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HTR Media of Manitowoc, Aug. 3

Tougher drunken driving proposal has merit

The time has come to admit we are too lax on drunken driving in Wisconsin. That admission alone, however, will do little to alleviate the problem. Action is required.

Wisconsin remains the only state that treats first-offense drunken driving as a civil rather than a criminal offense.

Critics of get-tough legislation say the state cannot afford to crack down any more on drunken driving because of prohibitive prosecution and jail costs. That was again the mantra last week when a pair of Republican lawmakers introduced three bills to toughen penalties for OWI offenses.

Rep. Jim Ott of Mequon and Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills propose changing third and fourth OWI offenses from misdemeanors to felonies, creating mandatory sentences ranging from six months in jail to three years in prison for injuring someone in a drunken crash, and imposing a mandatory 10-year prison sentence for killing someone while driving drunk.

The state Department of Administration projected changing third and fourth offenses to felonies would drive up prosecutors’ costs by $1.1 million annually. Other aspects of the proposed legislation would add $158 million to $226 million in annual jail and prison operating costs, according to the Department of Corrections.

Ott and Darling counter that the estimates are overblown because they are based on current caseloads, and fewer people would drive drunk with the harsher penalties. They say the cost in lost lives and injuries is too great to allow lax OWI penalties to continue.

State Department of Transportation statistics indicate there were nearly 2,800 fatal crashes and 40,000 injury crashes involving alcohol between 2002 and last year.

We believe that first-time OWI offenses should be treated as misdemeanor crimes in Wisconsin. A criminal record can serve as a deterrent to those who might think about getting behind the wheel drunk a second time. The current penalty is akin to an expensive speeding ticket and does little to dissuade second offenders.

Prosecutors should have discretion on whether to charge repeat offenders with a felony or misdemeanor crime, depending on the severity of the offense, history of the individual involved and other factors. Felony charges should become the norm in most cases when a third or fourth offense is involved because the pattern of dangerous behavior is generally firmly established at that point.

Discretion also should be allowed prosecutors when a death is involved related to driving drunk. Things are not always as they appear on the surface in OWI deaths. Extenuating circumstances can at times be a factor, and attorneys should be allowed to take them into consideration when recommending sentences.

The 10-year minimum proposed in such cases by Ott and Darling, however, is not a bad starting point if the Legislature should decide to impose mandatory sentences.

They have proposed legislation which died in the past. We believe the two lawmakers are onto something, even though their proposals need some tweaking. The Legislature should follow their lead and first consider the human cost in its assessment of the impact of drunken driving, then worry about the dollars.

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