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  • OPINION: Easy to get on, hard to get off

    Posted by Chris Conley

    I will be away from the office on Friday, March 26. My weekend Train Blog will be posted a day early.

    -Chris

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The Government Accountability Board reported that there are 70,000 names on Wisconsin’s voter rolls that don’t match. The addresses and names on the voter lists don’t match information in other data-bases. A name gets flagged if the voting record shows “John Q. Smith, 110 Main Street, Wausau” but a driver’s license or a telephone record shows “John Q. Smith, 45 Elm St, Stevens Point.”

    In most cases, there’s no mischief going on here. John Smith may have moved to Stevens Point and hasn’t updated his voter registration information. Or he moved to Wausau and hasn’t updated his driver’s license. I’ve moved a half-dozen times in my life, and I’ve never notified City Hall of the change. Packing up and getting the electricity turned on are more top-of-mind when moving than registering to vote. I suppose it’s possible that I’m still registered to vote in White Plains, New York or Laconia, New Hampshire, or Fairfield, Connecticut, even though I haven’t cast a ballot in any of those places in years.

    None of this is a problem until someone has it in their heart to commit election fraud. I’m not talking about cases where someone votes twice. Think big scale, where corrupt party bosses are in cahoots with unethical poll-workers where large blocks of the dead and the moved away mysteriously cast ballots. We’ve seen some districts, usually in inner-cities, where voter turnout is miraculously high. When you hear of 80 and 90-percent voter turnout from certain neighborhoods, be suspicious. The number of move-aways is much higher than the 10 or 20-percent who didn’t vote.

    We’ve made it much easier to get onto the voter rolls than it is to take people’s names off it. And accurate voting rolls are part of the architecture that needs to be in place for fair elections. States that have 70,000 unmatched names that could potentially cast fraudulent votes are an invitation to tampering.

    This problem is about to get worse. State lawmakers are debating an expansion of the ‘motor voter’ bill, where people would automatically be registered to vote when they have contact with state agencies. The end result will be many people on the rolls twice, and lots of confusion on Election Day as addresses and names don’t match up. Showing photo ID at the polling place would solve most of these problems. Or having county clerks only handle voter registration. But both of those ideas have been fought as being unreasonable barriers to voting.

    Chris Conley
    Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau
    3.25.10

  • OPINION: The drunk lawmaker should stay

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) For my next act, I will defend the drunk-driving state lawmaker.

    A state expulsion committee doesn’t have the votes to remove Jeff Wood (I-Chippewa Falls) from office. He will likely get to serve out his term, and then face trial on three O-W-I charges. While I think Wood is a lousy excuse for a state leader, I also believe he should not be removed from office by his fellow lawmakers.

    Why shouldn’t Wood be removed? Because the process isn't right, and the process that we used today could be misused tomorrow. The overriding reason is that he was picked by the voters. And we should hesitate when elected officials try to undo decisions that have been made at the ballot box.

    I’ve proposed the ‘Conley Rule of Public Service’ for candidates who run afoul of the law: “If the voters wouldn’t support a candidate today based on what they know now, the elected official should resign.” Wood's resignation would be welcome. But he won't.

    But I’m not sure my law applies to Jeff Wood. He’d faced a marijuana charge before his last election, and the voters of Chippewa Falls picked him as their representative in Madison anyway.

    Jeff Wood is a public disgrace. If you watch the police dashboard cameras, he was a danger on the roads. He admits to a substance abuse problem, and has sought treatment. He should face the criminal penalties for his crimes. But to remove someone from office who was the people’s choice sets a dangerous precedent. There is a proper procedure for circumstances like this: a recall. If Wood is suddenly unacceptable to the people in his district, they, not the legislature, should remove him from office. And if there is no one in Chippewa Falls willing to start a recall petition, then they have the state representative they deserve.

    Chris Conley
    Operations Manager-Midwest Communications, Wausau
    3.24.10

  • OPINION: Healthcare and the mid-terms

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) – I’ve blogged about this before, and the recent events in the healthcare debate haven’t changed my mind. Republicans are overplaying what will happen in the mid-term elections in the wake of healthcare reform.

    Reasons?

    First, the health care bill will never be more unpopular than it is now. President Obama speaking tour will boost public opinion. And some of the most popular benefits take effect immediately. Remember, the “good stuff”—like not being dropped for preexisting conditions – are front-loaded in the bill. The “bad stuff” – tax increases and new regulations – don’t come until four and five years from now.

    Second, while voters were disgusted by the political process, they are also realists. Undoing an entitlement program is almost impossible. Republicans campaigning on repealing healthcare reform are flat-out lying. They would not be able to repeal it. The GOP won’t have a two-thirds majority to override President Obama’s certain veto. Even if Republicans get control of congress and the White House in 2012, they’d need 60 votes in the Senate to repeal less they appear hypocritical over the current reconciliation debate.

    Finally, time is working against the Republicans. The President controls the political agenda, and he will put other matters on the nation’s plate over the next eight months. For Republicans Election Day can’t come soon enough. For Democrats time will heal some, but not all, of the wounds.

    So what will happen?

    I still think there will be substantial Democrat losses this November. Dems who flip-flopped on healthcare will be beaten. Those who hail from swing-states in boarder districts will be voted out. But Democrats in safe seats will survive this. If I was going to bet, Republican gains will not be big enough to control either house of congress.

    Chris Conley
    Operations Manager-Midwest Communications, Wausau
    3.24.10

  • OPINION: Wisconsin lost to who?

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) I worked in Ithaca, New York for three years. And I followed the Cornell Big Red… the team that knocked the Wisconsin Badgers out of the NCAA tournament on Sunday.

    The first thing you should know about Cornell is that it’s an Ivy League school. And the thing you should know about Ivy League schools is that they don’t give out athletic scholarships. Every student who’s there got in on their academic credentials. For them to beat a team like Wisconsin – where almost everyone is on athletic scholarship – is inconceivable.

    During my time in Ithaca, I was a Cornell football season ticket holder. The quality of football was poor… and they played only other non-scholarship teams. Basketball is different where a handful of good players can carry a team.

    So what happened Sunday? Cornell jumped out to an early lead. Cornell’s shooting was lights-out in the second half. Wisconsin’s outside shooting was poor. Still, the bottom line is the eggheads beat the jocks. How often does that happen?

    Chris Conley
    Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau
    3.22.10

  • TRAIN BLOG: A tale of two stations

    Posted by Chris Conley

    TRAIN BLOG (WSAU) Talk about a grand arrival.

    When your train arrives at Grand Central Terminal, passengers spill out of the coaches onto a dark and gloomy platform. But as they walk through the station gates into the main hall, and a breathtaking space awaits. The station’s high-arched ceiling shows the sign of the zodiac. Sunlight streams through the station’s four-story-tall windows. The room is full of brass fixtures, carved marble and limestone, and grand staircases.

    In a bygone era when cross-country travel took place by train, this was your first impression of New York City. You instantly knew you were somewhere big and important. A sculpture of the Greek god Mercury sits atop the station’s exterior clock. It wasn’t lost on travelers a few generations ago that Mercury’s wings signified that this was the fastest way to travel. I can imagine the red carpet of the 20th Century Limited being rolled out each night as luxury passengers made their way to Track 46.

    When I began traveling by train myself, I’d spend some extra time walking around the station before heading to the subway out to Brooklyn. From the Oyster Bar, to the Stationmaster’s office, to the information booth with the jeweled clock, this was a fascinating place. The click-click-click of the giant Omega board showing trains departures is one of those distinctive railroad sounds that sticks with you forever, like the smell of brake grease or the wail of a train whistle.

    I was always happy to arrive in New York at Grand Central. When heading back to Connecticut, I always felt I was leaving something behind when I left.

    Across town, eight blocks down and five blocks over, was Pennsylvania Station – or what was left of it. The old Penn Station was every bit as grand as Grand Central, until it was surrendered in 1966. The tracks are still there, underneath 7th and 8th Avenue. But the station itself is now in the basement of Madison Square Garden. Part of the station was torn down, the other part became the giant U.S. Post Office across the street.

    Penn Station today is not a place to linger. There is no formal entrance, just doors at the corner of each block that lead to escalators that take you downstairs. It could just as esily be a bus terminal, or an unremarkable airport. There are low ceilings and low-rent shops. People scurry through Penn Station, as insects scurry through cracks in a wall.

    Many cities today are debating whether to keep their grand old train stations or clear them away for something else. Penn Station reminds me of something that’s lost. Grand Central reminds me that people might be inspired to fall in love with this way of traveling again.

    Chris Conley
    Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau
    3.20.10

  • OPINION: "I decline to answer"

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The U.S. Census Bureau says filling out the basic form takes about 10 minutes. They’re right. I filled out mine yesterday.

    I left some questions blank.

    Most of the census questions deal with basic information… your name, birthday, and the family relationships of the people living in your house. But other questions deal with your race and ethnicity. I refused to answer those questions. Instead of checking off a box, I wrote “I decline to answer.”

    I’m not sure what will happen next. I assume a U.S. Census Bureau worker will be dispatched to my house. I won’t answer for them either. I could be fined. In reality, that never happens.

    I hate the pigeon-holed definitions of race that our government creates. They’re counter-productive. The dramatic increase in mixed-race relationships makes most categories irrelevant. When a Hmong marries a Latino, how do we classify their children? When their kids grow up and marry someone from a different ethic group, the race-based classifications become downright silly. They are also far beyond the Constitutional grounds of the Census, which is to count heads to determine how many U.S. Representatives each state gets in Congress.

    The ethnic data gets used primarily for affirmative action programs, which are unsustainable as America becomes more of a mixed-race nation. I don’t want to provide the U.S. Government the data that allows our population to be categorized.

    My family comes from Ireland and Italy. (Ironically, if I were to answer the census questions I couldn’t choose my ethnicity. My only choice is ‘white’.) I consider myself 100-percent American. My status is no different that someone who took a citizenship test. Or someone whose parents were born someone else. All Americans. All equal.

    Chris Conley
    Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau
    3.19.10

  • OPINION: A warning about 'going it alone'

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) On some issues, states simply can’t be out of touch with the rest of the country.

    States that enact their own clean air standards are foolish. A storm-front doesn’t know that it’s passing from Ohio to Pennsylvania. If one or the other has stricter emissions standards, they’ll be at a competitive disadvantage.

    California knows this. They have special emissions rules for cars. They assumed, incorrectly, that since California is such a big car market that other states would adopt the same rules. Since they didn’t, car companies manufacture “California cars” with more expensive catalytic converters – and Californians pay higher sticker prices than other states.

    Wisconsin lawmakers are considering two “go it alone” proposals. Both sound good in theory. Both will be bad in practice.

    Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids) proposes a state law that would cap credit card fees for merchants at 1-percent. Currently credit card companies charge stores 3-percent of everything they purchase as a fee for allowing customers to use MasterCard or Visa. 3-percent is standard across the country. Some large retailers are able to negotiate slightly better rates. So what happens if Wisconsin’s 1-percent becomes law? Visa and MasterCard may not do business with smaller retailers in the state. Or they’ll make up the difference by charging higher fees to card-users.

    There’s a separate proposal that would change the way mail-in rebates are advertised. Companies would not be allowed to advertise a price that includes a rebate. They’d have to advertise the price that consumers have to pay at the cash register, before they mail-in to get some of their money back. National deals – like on computers and electronics – may not be available here if the bill becomes law. Or you’ll hear at the end of some commercials, “Offer void in Wisconsin.”

    Wisconsin is not a big enough consumer market to make changes that will carry over to the rest of the country. When we ‘go it alone’ it may seem like we’re being consumer-friendly. The more likely result is we’ll have fewer consumer choices.

    Chris Conley
    Operations Manager-Midwest Communications, Wausau
    3.18.10

  • OPINION: Why Israel?

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Relations between the U.S. and Israel are at a low point. Israel was unwise to announce new settlements in East Jerusalem while Vice President Biden was attending a state dinner. And Israel has grievances with the Obama administration, after Benjamin Netanyaho red-lighted on using force to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

    So why should we be friends with Israel? The basic reason is unspoken. And it’s possible the Obama Administration has forgotten.

    It’s not because powerful Jewish interests are at work within the U.S. government. Jewish interests have been effective at lobbying Congress… but so have banks, labor unions, and business interests. It’s certainly not because Israel has a military or strategic importance. We’d be better off cultivating an ally along the Persian Gulf to protect shipping interests, like Saudi Arabia. And it’s not because of religious and end-time theories. If the Jews are truly God’s chosen people, we’ve separated that from our foreign policy.

    So why DO we seeming side with Israel over its Arab and Palestinian neighbors? Because Israel is a democracy. It’s the only country in that part of the world that has a functioning government based its population’s ballot-box choices. In a region that’s mostly ruled by whoever has the most guns, the strongest militia, and strikes the most fear into its people, Israel is still a good friend to have.

    Chris Conley
    Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau
    3.18.10

  • OPINION: What happens next with health care?

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Here’s a gem that’s buried deep within the healthcare debate. Columnist Robert Samuelson writes: “In 2009, the largest 14 insurers had profits of roughly $9 billion; that approached 0.4 percent of total health spending of $2.472 trillion. This hardly explains high health costs.” He wrote about other health care myths, including most of the promises about cost control. Read it here: http://tinyurl.com/yjj9myc

    This is the critical week for healthcare. Given what we know today, here’s what I think will happen:

    • I don’t believe “The Hill’s” vote count. The Capital Hill newspaper trumpeted the bill would pass the House of Representatives, 216-215 if the vote were held today. I don’t think Nancy Pelosi has the votes. If she did, they would be voting today or tomorrow.

    • Nancy Pelosi will still get the votes she needs to pass the bill. The speaker and the White House have too many tools at their disposal to arm-twist.

    • President Obama will sign the Senate bill, as-is, into law.

    I’m certain that will happen. From there, it’s fuzzy.

    • The U.S. Senate will move forward with reconciliation. (Rush Limbaugh and some other pundits think House democrats could be double-crossed. Obama could sign the bill as-is.) I don’t think that will happen. Leaving house Democrats out-to-dry and vulnerable on Election Day doesn’t do Nancy Pelosi any good.

    • Some parts of the Senate bill that were intended to be ‘fixed’ may not be. Reconciliation, as a legislative tool, will be a mixed bag. Some special deals will be stripped out, others will remain.

    • Republicans will run negative campaign ads specifically highlighting the sweetheart deals in the Senate bill, even though there were supposed to be altered. Those ads will be damaging.

    As for what happens on Election Day… after the bill passes, the GOP will wish the election was next week. If it was, they would regain control of Congress. But in the post-mortem of the health care debate, remember this: the election will still be 8 months away, the White House controls the political agenda, and the public’s memory is short.

    Chris Conley
    Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau
    3.16.10

  • OPINON: A very small cut

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) It turns out the Federal government, with a deficit of $1.4-trillion this year, has some extra money lying around. There are dozens of transportation projects around the country that were funded, but haven’t been built yet. In most cases states were supposed to put up additional money that never materialized, or private investment that was going to cover some of the costs dried up.

    Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold says there are $626-million dollars in unspent transportation funds, and he says the government should take that money and apply it to the deficit.

    Of course they should.

    But watch what will happen. States that stand to lose money will squeal. They’d like the money that’s already been appropriated to stay there. They will try to get their lawmakers to plow that money into other projects through earmarks. Others will argue against transportation cuts, saying the money could be used for infrastructure improvements. You can be certain there will be complaints.

    Feingold’s proposal will move forward. He plans to attach it as an amendment to an aviation bill that has broad support.

    But making this small cut shows that there is little or no hope of ever closing our national budget gap. The Feingold proposal, which will be fought bitterly, cuts our deficit by only .003%.

    Chris Conley
    Operations Manager-Midwest Communications, Wausau
    3.15.09

  • THEATER REVIEW: A good Tradition!

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NEWSBLOG (WSAU) I knew a little about Jewish traditions from growing up in Brooklyn. The Gravesend neighborhood was part Italian, part Jewish. Italians had smaller families, and as they prospered they moved to Staten Island or the suburbs. The Jews, particularly the Orthodox and Syrians, had large families and as they prospered they'd move five or six blocks closer to their synagogue on Ocean Parkway.

    Even if you weren't Jewish you knew the traditions. Jews walked to temple on Saturday. Their shops closed early on Friday night and didn't open again until Sunday. Moshe's Delicatessen, on the corner from our apartment, served only beef frankfurters and never ham and cheese.

    These are not traditions that are universally known in Central Wisconsin, where I wondered if Fiddler On The Roof would play well.

    Silly me. Wausau Community Theater's production does just fine, as their strong 2009-2010 season rolls on.

    There are two supporting actors in the cast who are standouts. Maggie Ward, as the middle daughter Hodel, has the best singing voice in the production and has very good stage presence. And Joshua Grant, as the tailor Motel, has notably strong acting skills.

    But you can't have a good Fiddler On The Roof without a strong Tevye, and Larry Kirchgaessner more than obliges. The role is a good match for his acting skills. He's particularly strong as he debates, wrestles, and negotiates with the Almighty.

    Finally, Robin McDowell's fiddle gets the first and last word in this production. She's skilled with her instrument.

    Chris Conley
    Operations Manager-Midwest Communications, Wausau
    3.13.10

    The final performance of Wausau Community Theater's Fiddler On The Roof is Sunday at 2pm at The Grand Theater.

  • TRAIN BLOG: A few inches taller

    Posted by Chris Conley

    TRAIN BLOG (WSAU) At age 8, I was riding the train to and from Grandma’s house. And two other good things happened. I’d gown a little taller, and the new M1 train cars began arriving on the New Haven line.

    The M1’s replaced the old, worn out commuter coaches that dated back the 1940s. More importantly to a growing young boy, they had a front window. The M1s were designed like subway cars, with a small motorman’s cab to the front-right, and a door that was designed for passengers to walk from one car to the next. But at the front of that train, the window on that door looked out onto the entire railroad. Suddenly the track ahead, the signals and switches… everything… came into view. By standing there, you saw what the engineer saw.

    I’d stand up front for the entire trip, watching the railroad go by in a way you simply couldn’t see any other way.

    And the end of each train ride was fascinating. The M1s would rattle over the Harlem River Bridge into 125th Street Station. They’d run for another 25 blocks over the elevated track through upper Manhattan, and would then plunge into the Park Avenue tunnel for the final 10 minutes to Grand Central Station.

    The tunnels were fascinating. Four long tubes of steel rails leading to the station’s throat. Then the center tracks began their steep decline to the lower level of the station. The two outer tracks continued through a maze of switches to the platforms on the main level. Tiny ground-level signals blinked green or yellow as the train was switched towards its final arrival. Then the station lights would come into view as the engineer eased the train to a final stop at the station’s bumpers.

    From a regular seat the underground trip to Grand Central looked just black, staring at a dark tunnel wall whizzing by. But growing a few inches, the front window revealed a fascinating underground maze.

    Engineers would sometimes tolerate a young boy who’d look out the front window. Some even kept their cab doors open and would share a word or two. They have less patience for an adult who wants to ride up front. I don’t care. When I ride today I still board at the very front car, and still walk up to big window, standing all the way to New York City. The view is too good.

    Chris Conley
    Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau
    3.13.10