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Views from around the state: Tort rules not a liability in state

How do you sort out all the rhetoric about the need for tort reform in Wisconsin? And why is it so important that Wisconsin reform in order to create jobs?

Most of us probably don’t know the difference between a tort (a wrongful act other than a breach of contract for which relief may be obtained in the form of damages or an injunction) or a torte (a cake made with many eggs and often grated nuts or dry bread crumbs and usually covered with a rich frosting), both definitions courtesy of Merriam-Webster.

But it’s a hot topic as Gov. Scott Walker pushes his business-friendly agenda through the Legislature.

Businesses want to cap punitive damages and change product-liability law to better protect companies and quash nuisance lawsuits; opponents say the changes will unfairly hurt those who have already been harmed, making it almost impossible to collect damages.

We’ve heard from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. The state’s largest business group says Gov. Walker’s tort reform is crucial to “bring Wisconsin’s legal system into the mainstream and encourage businesses to create jobs.”

That comes from James A. Buchen, vice president of government relations of WMC who spoke in La Crosse last fall at the Economic Indicators breakfast sponsored by State Bank Financial, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the La Crosse Tribune. “We need to pass these mainstream reforms quickly and get them to the governor’s desk so he can sign them into law, and we can put families back to work,” Buchen said.

And we’ve heard from Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, who says it is “outrageous that those who have spread false and damaging rumors about Wisconsin’s business climate should benefit at the expense of nursing home residents and other Wisconsin citizens who have been injured due to corporate malfeasance.”

Just for fun, let’s look to an independent study based on data, not rhetoric.

For the third time, the Pacific Research Institute has put together its U.S. Tort Liability Index. (A liberal group? Well, it promotes liberty, personal responsibility and limited government and advances free-market policy solutions.)

The forward to the 108-page report for the 2010 index was written by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose state came out on top.

The report states that “an efficient tort liability system is an important ingredient for a thriving free-enterprise economy,” while an inefficient tort system “imposes excessive costs on society, not the least of which is forgone production of goods and services.”

So, it’s about weighing the proper compensation for those who have suffered a loss with making sure the landscape isn’t too punitive for businesses.

The report studies 13 variables; breaks them into two categories that it identifies as monetary tort losses and tort litigation risks, and then ranks each state against the 49 others.

How does Wisconsin fare?

The study shows that Wisconsin has the ninth most favorable business climate for tort liability in the United States.

Because Gov. Walker wants to pick fights across our borders these days, it’s important to note that Iowa is ranked 10th, Minnesota 26th, Michigan 43rd and Illinois, 47th — almost enough to encourage a northerly escape to Wisconsin.

There may well be some common-sense tort-reform measures that a bi-partisan group can recommend to improve Wisconsin’s lofty ranking. It makes sense to force a plaintiff to prove that the company being sued actually made the product involved in the damage, for instance.

We are worried about one provision of the reform that seems to allow a caregiver in a nursing home to be held harmless when patient abuse is involved.

As the debate continues, it’s really time to quit yelling across the border that Wisconsin is a lousy place to do business.

On the issue of tort liability, one comprehensive study really takes the wind out of that argument.

La Crosse Tribune

Judge DNR secretary
on her work, not past

If you haven’t heard it by now, Wisconsin is open for business.

Gov. Scott Walker made economic development a central part of his campaign and he’s hitting the ground running with the concept. Even his Department of Natural Resources secretary selection reflects the idea.

Cathy Stepp, a former state senator, has run a construction company and co-owns a trucking equipment firm. She has promised to streamline the project permitting process and wants to work on job creation.

Walker has made it clear he wants everyone in state government to focus on the future of business. But we’re concerned about the DNR secretary’s past.

Stepp hasn’t been shy about criticizing the agency. She called it “anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes, karner blue butterflies.” Those are harsh words about an agency charged with protecting the environment.

She said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal that her critiques would not affect morale at the agency.

We hope that’s the case.

In the end, Walker is entitled to select the person he thinks will best serve the state, and Stepp’s business background does give her a good perspective on how companies interact with the DNR.

She, just like everyone, should to be judged on her performance as secretary. That is what matters, and that is what Wisconsinites will be watching.

The state already has several agencies working to promote economic development. Walker must make sure the focus of the DNR doesn’t veer too far toward job creation over resource protection.

We already have a few concerns about that. One of Stepp’s first tasks as secretary was to appoint leaders within the agency. Only one outsider was selected, and he was formerly a counsel for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association and environment policy director for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. Pat Stevens will lead the Division of Air and Waste.

Again, there seems to be a bias toward businesses. But Stevens will have to prove that’s not the case.

Stepp and the DNR appointees must remember that the state’s abundant natural resources make it unique. They’re just as central to Wisconsin’s long-term viability as job creation.

Even a garter snake can see that.

The Post-Crescent, Appleton

Come on, just
own up to it

When incoming Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wanted lame-duck legislators to scuttle the negotiated contracts for union state employees, he got his wish due to two Democrats — Sens. Russ Decker and Jeff Plale.

The two shocked their party by voting against approving the contracts, handing Walker the victory he wanted. The new governor now plans to put the squeeze on employees to help close a budget gap remaining at the end of this biennial budget. Both Decker and Plale had lost their re-election bids and were out of jobs with the convening of the new legislature.

Now Jeff Plale, at least, has landed on his feet. Very comfortably on his feet.

Earlier this week, Republican Walker gave Plale a new job, appointing the Democrat to serve as administrator of the Division of State Facilities. Plale will be paid by taxpayers the handsome sum of $90,000, along with a highly lucrative set of fringe benefits.

Hmmmm. Could this be payback for services rendered?

The Walker administration seems shocked anyone would even suggest such a thing. Payback? Absolutely not. Why, Plale spent 10 years serving on the state Building Commission, making him the best choice for the job.

As if any number of other people wouldn’t be just as good or better.

Why do politicians always insist on denying the obvious? Of course it’s payback — using your money to keep the pot sweet. That’s how the political game is played by both Republicans and Democrats.

Still not sure? Ask yourself this: Would Walker have appointed Plale if the former senator had voted the other way on approving union contracts?

Case closed.

Call it what it is — payback. Why insult people’s intelligence by trying to claim otherwise?

Next hire, Russ Decker?

Beloit Daily News

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