10 big ideas to help fix Wisconsin’s problems that we uncovered in 2018
SOLUTIONS TO GERRYMANDERING, DEAD-END POLITICAL BICKERING, RECKLESS DRIVING, THE WORKER SHORTAGE AND MORE … 10 PROVEN IDEAS THAT WORK
What you’ll learn if you read this story:
One year ago, we began converting what were then opinion pages to the Ideas Lab. Instead of writing editorials and columns, we now examine ideas to solve problems and put them to the test based on independent evidence. This story recaps the 10 most important things we learned during 2018 that could help Wisconsin citizens — from how to fix gerrymandering to how to promote civil political discussions to smart ways to deepen Wisconsin’s labor pool.
We launched the Ideas Lab in late 2017 as an antidote to the harsh, and too often unproductive, political commentary we were seeing.
And so for the past 12 months, we’ve instead reported on solutions to and best practices for pressing problems facing Wisconsin.
What have we learned?
Here’s our top 10 findings:
Yes, we can talk in Wisconsin, after all
After a nasty, race-baiting election filled with harsh rhetoric, political shenanigans and social media mischief, you have to wonder if Americans have lost their minds.
Turns out, though, if you get people in a room — even if they disagree politically — they can still have a reasonable discussion.
Turns out, in fact, that most people still want to talk.
I looked into methods used around the country (including in Milwaukee) to promote civil dialogue and found encouraging signs.
The Journal Sentinel, WUWM-FM (89.7) and the Millennial Action Project along with the Zeidler Center for Public Discussion co-sponsored two events last fall featuring the Zeidler approach. Zeidler uses facilitators to lead small groups, setting ground rules and refereeing discussions. The groups included self-indentified Republicans, Democrats and independents.
“Zeidler facilitators help maintain a safe space for discussion; they are not participants but rather leaders of the dialogue. They keep anonymous notes of the discussion and also keep the time so that everyone gets an equal chance to be heard. Afterward, the center often publishes a report highlighting major themes and some individual contributions to the dialogue. …
” ‘In the last event, people got up at the end and said, ‘I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more diversity in my group but then we went around at the end and I was just shocked that I was sitting with the enemy the whole time,’ said Katherine Wilson, executive director of the Zeidler Center. ‘More than one person said that, and to me, that’s a total win.’ “
Red-light cameras could work in Milwaukee*
*If we avoid Chicago’s mistakes.
Milwaukee has a problem with reckless driving, and some have argued the city should use cameras to electronically monitor dangerous intersections and automatically issue traffic citations for drivers who ignore the law. You run a red light, you get a ticket. Right now, cameras are banned under state law.
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According to my story, the research, including a close examination of Chicago’s controversial red-light camera program, suggests red-light cameras work. But city planners have to do their homework and deploy cameras at intersections that are prone to serious crashes. If they are installed at intersections that don’t have a problem, the public tends to think they were put there simply to nab drivers who sneak through a yellow light.
“Basically, what we have found is that the red-light cameras can work, but they only work where they are needed,” said Dominique Lord, a professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M University who co-authored a study of Chicago’s red-light camera program at the behest of the Chicago Tribune in 2014.
How to make voting easier in Wisconsin
After Wisconsin lawmakers passed a measure in a lame-duck session in December to limit early voting, I wondered: What if, instead, politicians did everything in their power to make voting easier? What would that look like?
The result was a list of six things we could do to encourage voting.
No. 1 on the list:
Automatic voter registration. Now approved in 15 states including Illinois and Michigan, citizens are automatically registered when they do business at a state agency — such as the Department of Motor Vehicles. It’s an “opt-out” system, so unless you explicitly say “no,” you’re in.
The evidence from early adopters such as California and Oregon suggests it works. New registration quadrupled initially in Oregon after it allowed voters to register through the DMV beginning in early 2016; overall the state’s registration rate climbed 10 percentage points.
Immigrants are one solution to Wisconsin’s labor crunch
Wisconsin faces a demographic time bomb as baby boomers flood into retirement in the coming years. Business leaders and employers are concerned about what the future holds in a state with fewer people of prime working age and a relatively low birth rate. It’s a challenge that may be compounded by the opening of the massive new Foxconn factory in Racine County.
Is more legal immigration an answer?
Kurt Bauer, president of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business lobby, thinks so.
“We need to retain every born-and-raised Wisconsinite we can,” he told me last spring. “And we also need legal immigration at really all skill levels. Of course, we need Washington’s help to make that happen.”
Would more immigration deny jobs to native-born people in the state? The evidence suggests that wouldn’t happen.
“Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California, Davis, argues that the impact on wages is near zero, and a 2016 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found little effect on overall wages and employment prospects for native-born workers. The small effect the study did find was concentrated among prior immigrants or native-born workers who hadn’t graduated from high school.
“That study also found that immigration ‘was integral to the nation’s economic growth’ and helped the U.S. to avoid ‘problems facing stagnant economies created by unfavorable demographics.’ Japan, a nation with a long history of closing itself off to the rest of the world, suffered through years of microscopic growth.”
We can end gerrymandering in Wisconsin
In 2011, Wisconsin Republicans carved up the state like a Thanksgiving turkey and locked in their natural advantage for a decade. The state’s gerrymander was so extreme that a federal court case challenging it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which then punted it back to a lower court.
Wisconsin is far from alone, and it’s hardly just Republicans who like to choose their own voters. Democrats in Maryland gerrymandered a Republican congressman out of his district (another case that ended up with the high court, too), and Dems in New Jersey tried to push through a constitutional amendment recently that would have given politicians greater control over the process. They were beaten back by citizens concerned about voter rights.
There is a solution. Since 1980, a nonpartisan arm of the Iowa General Assembly has drawn that state’s maps. The result has been few fights and cleaner, more equitable maps.
As Ed Cook, a lawyer for the Iowa agency, told me earlier this year: “There generally tend to be more new legislators the election following redistricting.”
Fight crime: Get to know your neighbor
OK, it’s not quite that simple but research shows that what crime expert Patrick Sharkey calls “urban guardians” play a key role in making neighborhoods safer.
“Sharkey’s research drew on data from 264 cities over a 20-year period; it found that in a city of 100,000 residents, each 10 additional groups ‘focusing on crime and community life’ led to a reduction of 9% in the murder rate, 6% in violent crime overall and 4% for property crime.”
That includes nonprofits such as Safe & Sound, which works to build stronger bonds between neighbors and law enforcement. But it also includes the humble block club.
I spoke with James and Josephine Key, a son and mother team who have been keeping an eye on their Buffum Street block in Milwaukee for years. They help organize cleanups, encourage neighbors to plant flowers and cut the grass — and each August pass out hundreds of backpacks filled with school supplies.
Even more important: They have taken on a chop shop down the street and pushed the cops to deal with drug dealers.
Katie Sanders, Safe & Sound’s executive director, shared a Medical College of Wisconsin study of the group’s effectiveness. It found Safe & Sound had been able to boost “collective efficacy” — a sense of shared trust and commitment to the community — in six of eight neighborhoods and that its efforts appeared to have reduced crime.
The sheer number of block club meetings might have been the one thing that mattered most, she said.
11 questions could save a woman’s life
We’ll never know, but there is reason to believe that Sara Schmidt might be alive today if Calumet County sheriff’s deputies had given her a “lethality assessment.” The 11-question assessment aims to determine whether a woman is at grave risk as a result of domestic violence. Schmidt, a 40-year-old mother of three, was killed by her husband, Robert, in January.
In an October article, Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin wrote:
“One way to better assess the risk is by asking better questions. The Lethality Assessment Program, developed by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, is a series of 11 questions officers ask victims when they respond to a domestic violence call or take a report of domestic violence … proponents of the tool say the data behind it speaks volumes. For example, researchers found that women were 20 times more likely to be killed by their partner if their partner had threatened to use a weapon on them or had hurt them with a weapon.
“Although Sara Schmidt may not have believed her husband’s violence would turn deadly, the survey would have flagged her case as high-risk. … Sara could have spoken with an advocate, who would have explained why she was in danger. She would have been asked to set up an appointment with the agency the next day.”
Do needle-exchange programs work?
With the opioid crisis still killing hundreds of people in the region each year, some advocates say it’s time to expand needle-exchange programs to help stop the spread of infectious disease. UMOS, the Sixteenth Street Clinic and the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, which offers both mobile and on-site services, offer the only needle exchange services in Milwaukee.
But although advocates stand behind the programs, freelancer Edgar Mendez found in his November article that the evidence for them is mixed. A study of studies conducted by Stephen Davis, assistant professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, was inconclusive.
“From an empirical standpoint we can’t know how effective they are in reducing hepatitis C,” Davis told Mendez.
Curiously, similar programs in Europe seem to be effective, suggesting that other factors are at play in the U.S., including policing tactics and paraphernalia laws.
What about supervised injection sites?
In Canada and Europe, officials have allowed supervised injection sites for people to use heroin or other drugs. The idea is that by allowing people to shoot up in a safe place without fear of arrest, they will be more likely to seek treatment eventually — and less likely to overdose.
Rory Linnane of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, reporting from Toronto, visited a site in that city and also reviewed studies and talked with experts to learn what the centers could mean for Wisconsin. As of now, they are not allowed although officials in Madison have been looking into the idea.
Do they work?
“A spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said while the sites are “relatively new concepts” with limited evidence, data from other countries show they’re safe, decrease overdoses, are cost-effective and do not increase crime.
“In places where supervised injection sites have been operating for years, research has shown the sites lead more people into treatment.”
Training Wisconsin prisoners pays off
With a healthy economy sucking up workers — and with Foxconn’s massive new plant under construction — employers continue to worry about finding enough bodies to keep the economy humming. One answer: Training prisoners prior to release so they are job-ready once they return to society.
The evidence is clear: Even a little training behind bars goes a long way.
“An analysis conducted by researchers at RAND Corp. in 2013 (and updated this year), found inmates who participated in prison education programs had 43% lower odds of being reincarcerated after release from prison compared to those who did not participate in these programs. The RAND study, which was an analysis of dozens of research papers going back years, found that the odds of a prisoner finding a job after release were 13% higher if they had received at least some type of prison education. If the prisoner participated in a vocational training program, the odds were even better — 28% higher compared with prisoners who did not take part in an educational program.”
Wisconsin has poured millions of dollars into expanding prisoner education in the current budget, and the idea has bipartisan support.