The La Crosse County District Attorney’s Office filed 1,184 felony cases last year, up 21 percent from 2016 and the highest volume of cases in 22 years.
A total of 2,030 individual felony charges were filed in 2017, an increase of 20 percent from the year before, according to the DA’s office.
“Most of them are not violent felonies,” District Attorney Tim Gruenke said. “Most of them are non-violent ... like bail jumping and extradition cases.”
In each of the past five years, felony bail jumping charges — filed when a defendant commits a crime while on bond or violates a condition of release — account for about 20 percent of charges. There were 385 felony bail jumping charges filed last year, up from 264 in 2013.
A rising number of felony drug possession cases — even the smallest amount of methamphetamine and heroin is a felony — means more defendants are in the community on bond and any additional crime they commit generates a new felony charge.
A majority of bail jumping cases are for defendants who committed a new crime while on bond and not for violating conditions of their release, Gruenke said.
“It’s frustrating when people are released and they are committing more crimes and not abiding by bond,” he said. “We, as a system, have to do a better job of looking at who is being released on bond and whether we are releasing the right people.”
Prosecutors filed 284 methamphetamine possession and delivery charges in 2017, up 16 percent from the year before and an increase of 187 percent from 2013.
Charges for possessing and delivering heroin and prescription drugs climbed to 115 last year, an increase of 34 percent since 2013.
“Meth has taken over,” Gruenke said. “It’s the biggest drug problem we have.”
After a decline in 2016, burglary charges jumped 90 percent to 110 last year. Forgery charges were among the leading charges in each of the past five years.
“The drug issues within our community are one of the primary drivers of our property crimes, including burglary, theft and forgery,” La Crosse police Capt. Jason Melby said.
The community must continue to fight the meth, heroin and prescription drug epidemics while preparing for an influx of Fentanyl cases, Gruenke said.
“Addressing the opioid epidemic will have an impact,” Melby said. “But short of statutorily changing personal use possession, we’re going to continue to arrest them for felonies.”
At eight prosecutors, the district attorney’s office is understaffed by five positions, according to a statewide study. State legislators have rejected requests for funding more prosecutors every year since 2007.
“We try to be as efficient as we can and prioritize,” Gruenke said. “We’re doing the best we can.”
When Marian Pavela joined the U.S. Nurse Cadet Corps, they told her she’d have stay on as a nurse until World War II was over.
That was no trouble for the La Crosse native, who went on to work at St. Francis Medical Center, now Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare, until her retirement in 1990.
“I was in nursing for 30 years, so a long time, but I’ve enjoyed it. It’s a profession I’ve enjoyed very much,” Marian said.
“She was a born nurse,” her husband, Steve Pavela, chimed in.
However, learning what Louis Ferris intends for his latest addition to Veterans Freedom Park — a sculpture of her as a memorial to the nurse cadets — was a bit more of a shock.
“Really? What did you say? Say it again,” Marian recalls saying.
Ferris is raising money to memorialize the little-known corps, created in 1943 as a way to address the nursing shortage during World War II.
“They saved the health system of the United States,” Ferris said.
Marian joined the cadet nurse corps as a way to pay for nursing school. Her parents paid the entrance fee to the program, which put her in an accelerated three-year course to receive on-the-job training, as well as go to eight hours of classes.
“A lot of joined up right away. Some didn’t want to because they thought they’d go overseas, but I said, ‘I’ll go wherever, as long as I can stay in nursing,’” Marian said.
Marian joined more than 120,000 women in graduating from the program.
“If it hadn’t been for that nursing program, she could not have gone. Her parents didn’t have the money to pay for her to stay at the school of nursing,” said Steve, who met Marian while she was in the program, after returning from his own stint of military service.
The hospitals needed nurses after many of them went overseas to serve in the war, and Marian needed a job with a flexible schedule.
“They needed you so badly that they would work around your schedule, but it kept you so busy because you were in class and you worked and had a family,” Marian said.
It was demanding but worth the effort, she said, for a career she loved.
Ferris learned about the cadet nurse program through longtime La Crosse resident Rita Swinghamer while he was the president of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1530 in La Crosse. The two joined forces in 2013 to shed some light on the program and how important it was at its inception. They held an event May 24, 2013, to say thank-you to the surviving nurses.
“She just wanted to be recognized,” Ferris said.
Swinghamer, who spent years fighting for that recognition, died a few months later.
Swinghamer’s story came to mind after Ferris saw a family visiting the memorials at park, including a girl who looked to be about five years old and wasn’t too interested in the U.S. Army tank.
“It made me sad. What is she going to think? What can she relate to?” Ferris said. “Where’s her role model?”
Seeing the child reminded Ferris of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, the nation’s first integrated uniformed service corps, filled with women who were never recognized as veterans, despite nine bills to do so being introduced to Congress.
“All they want is recognition. Those days, women didn’t get recognition for anything,” Ferris said.
Steve echoed that sentiment, saying he was glad to see his wife in the spotlight.
“Actually, I think this is a great opportunity to show exactly what she did, that she’s important,” Steve said.
While Marian was a little embarrassed to receive the personal accolades, she was glad to see the program and the nurses get a piece of the spotlight.
“It’s an area that hasn’t been developed and recognized enough,” Marian said. “It was so helpful to the young students like myself to get through the program, by joining them.”
“It’s time to change. It’s the year of the woman anyway,” Ferris said, referencing the #MeToo movement, which is taking a stand against sexual assault and harassment.
While looking into the nursing corps’ history, Ferris found there is only one memorial to the group, located in Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, New York. The memorial, marked with a marble slab, was dedicated Nov. 5, 2017.
“This is going to start a trend. I just know it’s going to be great,” Ferris said. “It’s great that La Crosse is going to do it.”
David Oswald, the Sparta artist who constructed the World War I Dough Boy statue in Veterans Memorial Park, will turn Pavela’s picture into a fiberglass sculpture to be placed in the same park on La Crosse’s North Side.
“We’re going to do a 6-foot statue of her and she’s only 5 feet tall,” Ferris said.
Ferris has been joined by the La Crosse-Rebecca Myrick chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution as he raises money for the project, which is scheduled to be installed in July for the 75th anniversary of the organization’s creation.
“If each nurse and nursing student in La Crosse would donate just $10, we could build a beautiful and meaningful memorial that will last at least 100 years,” Ferris said.
To donate to Ferris’ project, checks made out to “Cadet Nurse Memorial” can be mailed to Ferris at 1519 George St., La Crosse WI, 54603, or sent to River Bank, 1232 Rose St., La Crosse WI, 54603, for depsosit in the Cadet Nurse Memorial account.
Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to give parents $100 per child in the months leading up to the fall election is raising questions from critics — including some conservatives.
Walker says the $122 million tax credit for children under 18 will help struggling families with school supplies, and some legislative Republicans have voiced support. But Democrats say it’s an election-year gimmick and even at least one prominent conservative agreed, calling the tax credit “redistributionist and wrong.”
“I love Scott Walker & the reforms he and the WI conservatives have done, but this idea to give a quicky $100 per child tax credit to parents before the election reeks of the type of vote buying & game playing we’ve ripped on dems for doing for 30 years,” WISN 1130 AM radio host Jay Weber tweeted Thursday morning.
Tax experts also questioned the underlying public policy behind the move.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who on Wednesday called the child tax credit a “good idea” that “makes sense,” told the Associated Press on Thursday it will take some time to see if senators want to pass it and that the idea will need to “sit in the sun for a couple of days and we’ll see what it does for the momentum of it.”
Mike Mikalsen, an aide to Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, tweeted Thursday that the main message he’s heard from Republicans is support for a tax cut, but many questions about the method Walker has proposed.
Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg said returning surplus revenue to taxpayers is a “conservative idea.”
“It’s not the government’s money,” Hasenberg said. “It’s the hardworking taxpayers’ money.”
A Department of Revenue memo on the proposal makes clear Walker wants the Legislature to pass the tax credit quickly. If the Legislature adopts the proposal, parents would receive notification by mail sometime in the spring that they can claim the tax credit by visiting DOR’s website.
The site would be available starting May 15 and claims would have to be filled out by June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. Tax rebate checks or direct deposits would be sent out no later than Sept. 1 — in time for the school year and the heart of campaign season.
The one-time overhead costs to the department would be nearly $1 million on top of the $122 million in state tax revenue each year, according to the memo.
The tax credit would be available to parents of dependent children who are younger than 18 years old as of Dec. 31, 2017, according to the DOR memo.
In future years the credit could be claimed as part of the normal tax filing process. That option wasn’t available this year because tax filing forms have already been printed and distributed, the state memo said.
The credit would be refundable, so even low-income families would receive a benefit. But adults with no children or grown children would not be eligible to receive a credit.
Dale Knapp, research director for the Wisconsin Policy Forum, said the tax credit would amount to a tax policy carve out for a select group.
“What you typically don’t want to do is play favorites with one group or the other,” Knapp said.
Knapp also noted it would draw down an already small state budget cushion compared with other states. Wisconsin is projected to end the current biennium with a $385 million surplus. The tax credit would deliver rebates to some 671,000 households at a cost of $122 million a year.
“Our ending balances, our cushion, are up some, but they’re really still nowhere near where most public policy budget analysts would recommend,” Knapp said. “There’s room to get better in terms of that cushion because the one thing we do know is there is a recession coming. We don’t know when but we do know it’s coming at some point.”
Morgan Scarboro, policy analyst for the conservative Washington-based Tax Foundation, said families would appreciate the extra tax money, but it won’t help Wisconsin improve its business climate. She noted her organization ranks Wisconsin’s tax system as 38th most competitive for businesses in the nation based on income, corporate and property taxes.
“This might help families, but it’s not what we think of as reform,” Scarboro said. “It’s not going to generate investment in the state.”
Republican legislators are working through a process to overhaul the state’s tax code. Rep. John Macco, R-De Pere, who is leading the effort, declined to comment on Walker’s proposal, but said it wouldn’t necessarily conflict with the plan he hopes to deliver in time for the 2019-21 budget.
The recent federal tax bill increased the partially refundable federal child tax credit from $1,000 per child to $2,000 per child. Unlike Walker’s proposal, which has no income limit on eligibility, the federal credit phases out completely for single parents who make more than $115,000 and couples who make more than $150,000.
Of the five states that offer a child tax credit, only two make it refundable and all have an income-based phase out, according to Tax Credits for Workers and their Families, an advocacy group based in Maryland.
“There should be income requirements and it shouldn’t be going to families that make $1 million and have five children,” said the group’s director, Lauren Pescatore. “It is by nature a proposal designed to benefit low- to moderate-income families.”
Jon Peacock, research director for liberal-leaning Kids Forward, said his group hasn’t advocated for a child tax credit at the state level because there are usually better ways to deliver the money to those who need it, such as the earned income tax credit, which can only be claimed by those who work.
Walker’s proposal comes at the same time he is calling for work requirements and drug-testing for those receiving public benefits such as food stamps, yet there is no such requirements for those who would receive the child tax credit.
“It’s a bit of a surprise in light of the governor’s other pronouncements,” Peacock said. “We’re pleasantly surprised that he’s targeting a tax credit in this way. But we think there are other ways you could get more bang for the buck.”