By Doug Hissom Special to Published Apr 25, 2008 at 5:14 AM
Busing issues in Milwaukee Public Schools always get the big headlines -- sometimes too big. Take, for instance, a recent banner announcing a new plan for MPS that would reduce "massive busing," a plan envisioned by new School Board member Michael Bonds.

Bonds' plan would cut $20 million out of the busing budget and put that money towards improving schools. Perhaps forgotten in this idea was a little thing known as the Neighborhood Schools Initiative, which spent five times as much money and had little to show for it.

That 2000 plan, too, touted a drastic reduction in busing and promised to spend $100 million to build new neighborhood schools to eliminate the need for busing. The theory was that the money saved would be greater than the $100 million in seed cash. But it didn't exactly work out that way.

Savings came to only about 58 percent of the forecast since the district had difficulty persuading parents to change their kids' schools. A 2006 report noted the goals of reducing busing were close to being met, but only because enrollment dropped substantially.

It also found that 60.5 percent of students in 2000 were bused and 53.5 percent were bused in 2006, not exactly a major drop. Busing was also tinkered with when the board chose to change school starting times in order to save money on its transportation contracts.

Finding the $20 million should be an interesting and painful process since the total cost of the busing the board can cut is $27.5 million.

Bigger Roads Don't Mean Faster Commute: A $1.9 billion plan to expand I-94 south of Milwaukee to the state line won't improve travel times in Kenosha and Racine counties, the state Department of Transportation admits. The admission was found in the state's final environmental impact statement by the Citizens Allied for Sane Highways, which opposes expansion.

"So pigs fly and Sasquatch lives," said Robert Trimmier, co-chair of CASH. "WisDOT's story about paralyzing traffic congestion is just one more fairy tale. Surprise, surprise."

CASH argues that a design change would work the same as expanding lanes and gobbling up private property. It would also save some $200 million.

The DOT also said in the final EIS that freeway expansion would decrease travel time by 10 minutes between Howard and College avenues -- 27 years from now. That improvement would only be realized by drivers heading south, and only during the evening rush hour, asserts CASH.

Junket Time: Milwaukee County Exec Scott Walker and Mayor Tom Barrett jetted off to Prague last week with the city's business brain trust in tow, courtesy of the law firm Reinhart, Boerner, Van Duren. They no doubt supped with former state GOP chair and Reinhart law firm CEO Rick Graber, perhaps even tipping a few Pilsner Urquells along the way. The two were there to try and drum up some trade, but it's hard to imagine we'd need anything from Prague besides Pilsner. No one complained, though, since the event had bi-partisan overtones.

Gov. Jim Doyle, on the other hand, did not go unscathed for his junket to Ireland this week. The folks at the right-wing Wisconsin Club for Growth take exception to Doyle's Emerald Isle tour, making the strange connection that he's gone into hiding because he's dodging some bad press.

"Perhaps the timing ... can be explained by the ongoing trial of racketeer and Doyle pal, Tony Rezko," who had lunch and went to a Packers game once in 2003 with the guv.

Rezko is on trial for federal corruption charges after being accused of working with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in a pay-for-play scheme to get state contracts in return for campaign contributions.

"The state revenue generated by Doyle's previous trade missions seems to have gotten lost somewhere in the couch cushions at the governor's mansion," says a Club statement. "It is unclear whether Doyle is leaving town to escape the budget mess he created or to elude embarrassing questions about his ties to Tony Rezko."

Lee's the Man: The reign of Lee Holloway over the Milwaukee County Board continues. In his last term, Holloway was selected chairman by his 19 colleagues -- but not until after seven hours and 45 votes.

It's just another example of Holloway's staying power, having survived recall elections, allegations of scandal and attempted mutiny by his own board. Holloway defeated Jim Schmitt, 12-7, allowing him to keep the nearly $21,000 a year in extra pay that comes with the post, which he's held since 2002.

Supervisor Michael Mayo, Sr., was elected 1st Vice-Chair and Supervisor Peggy West was elected 2nd Vice-Chair.

Holding in firm abstention for most of the meeting was new supervisor Theo Lipscomb, who said as a newcomer he didn't feel he should weigh in. Lipscomb has the unique seat of being a write-in winner. Former Supe. James White failed to get enough signatures to get on the ballot and he would have been the only candidate on the ballot.

Slow to Change: Perhaps it was the marathon meeting to elect a chairman, but pictures of the Milwaukee County Board on the county's Web site are stuck in the last term, as is the rest of the site. That means constituents looking to e-mail their supe are in limbo for now. The city's Web site was right on top of the change, posting pictures of new aldermen the day of their inauguration. The county has always been behind the curve when it comes to its Web site. Unlike the city, agendas are posted with no links to supporting documents, making them pretty much useless and meeting minutes are slow to appear.

Corned Beef: Don't blame ethanol for higher food and fuel prices, says a rather admittedly biased source -- the state's corn growing lobby. Ethanol has become the whipping boy for conservatives lately, who blame mandates for everything from African food crisis to record gas prices at the pump. The Wisconsin Corn Growers Association says they are not the boogey man.

"The ongoing food versus fuel debate would be funny if it weren't so dire for farmers and consumers alike," says Randy Woodruff, president of the association. "Fuel has more impact on retail food prices than the price of any raw commodity."

The contention has been made that ethanol uses up more fuel than it creates and ethanol plants are also known to be seriously stinky neighbors.

Last year, American farmers planted 19 percent more acres in corn than in 2006. This crop yielded a 1.4 billion-bushel corn surplus, while also supporting record corn exports and increased domestic ethanol production. As the new crop year begins, American corn growers expect to grow a 12.3 billion-bushel crop on slightly fewer acres -- putting them on track to raise the second-highest corn crop ever, says the association.

Digging Deep: Amazingly, U.S. law allows mining companies to dig up minerals on public lands for free. And it's been that way since 1872. Sen. Russ Feingold has teamed with nine colleagues to propose that mining companies start paying royalties as oil and coal companies do. Feingold and crew have also asked that mining be balanced with other valued land uses, rather than current law, which allows mining to trump all other land uses like recreation, watershed protection, hunting and fishing.

"Our country's mining laws have not even been brought into the 20th century, let alone the 21st," the senator said in a statement.

Doug Hissom Special to
Doug Hissom has covered local and state politics for 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper.

An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe.

He lives in Bay View.