Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Patrolling the state budget

Three years 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 many people advocate that government spend less money without saying what they specifically prefer less government spending.

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 oddly designed function of state government, because the State Patrol is not 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.

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?

The State Patrol has done two things that stood out over the past year: (1) What appeared to be most of them patrolled the roads around the PGA Championship in August, and (2) they provided security at the State Capitol during Protestorama earlier this year. As for the latter, you won't be surprised to know state troopers are unionized. They should not be, since no government employee should be in a union, and the protests of earlier this year demonstrated why. Moreover, do you really want law enforcement intervening in a political dispute?

Interestingly, I've talked to a lot of people about this idea over the past few years — elected officials, political observers, and taxpayers. I've yet to have a single person who didn't have some direct connection to the State Patrol 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 funds to patrol Milwaukee County freeways.

Gov.  James Doyle once 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. (Unfortunately, though that position doesn't exist, there is an assistant attorney general whose job is to harass businesses over picayune environmental law disputes. That person's name? Joanne Kloppenburg.) 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.

Those who are not conservatives should be concerned as well about law enforcement being run by elected officials. (Am I saying sheriffs shouldn't be elected either? That's a valid argument, in fact; at a minimum, sheriff positions should not be partisan offices. Enforcing the law should not depend on whether the chief law enforcement officer is a Democrat or a Republican.) We all know that elected officials pander to voters. That reality makes one wonder if the law can be enforced fairly and effectively by someone who does what politicians do to keep their offices.

It is one thing to have a statewide investigative force for crimes of a statewide or specialized nature. (The Division of Criminal Investigation could be said to serve as Wisconsin's FBI right down to the "special agent" position names.) That is not what the State Patrol does. Either the State Patrol should have its responsibilities expanded, or it should be disbanded. In an era of state budget crises that are bigger than widely believed but not rampant statewide crime, the latter is the preferred route.

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