Eau Claire Leader-Wisconsin. May 27, 2021.

Editorial: Lokken release bid seems cynical

We’ve gotten a fair number of comments and complaints since we told people former county treasurer Larry Lokken asked the court for a geriatric release from prison. They’ve been uniformly opposed. To put it bluntly, we agree.

Lokken, for those who need a refresher, stole more than $625,000 from Eau Claire County taxpayers between 2011 and 2013, abusing his position of trust to enrich himself. In January 2016, he received a 9 1/2-year sentence, with 11 years of extended supervision after his release. This isn’t an accusation. It’s proven in court, with all the protections and opportunities for defense that our system allows.

The current schedule calls for Lokken’s release in June 2025. He’ll be 78 at that point.

Wisconsin law allows inmates to ask for release on geriatric grounds if they’re at least 65 and have served at least five years behind bars. Lokken clearly meets those requirements. We can’t blame him for trying.

What we find a bit odd is the Department of Corrections’ Program Review Committee’s recommendation that Lokken be released because the “public interest would be served.” That’s a hard case to make. No, Lokken did not inflict physical violence upon people in Eau Claire County. But he most certainly did considerable violence to the idea that public officials can be trusted and that taxpayer money is safe with the county.

Lokken was a critical part of a scheme that stole public money for years. This wasn’t pocket change, either. Lokken’s take averages out to more than $200,000 per year over the course of his criminality. And that’s just what police and prosecutors knew about when the charges were filed. The total taken by Lokken and Kay Onarheim tops $1.39 million.

That’s not a one-time, moment of weakness event. That’s a continuing, conscious effort to defraud the community. It involved numerous alterations to county reports in a bid to conceal the thefts.

There are more problems with the idea he should be released. In our view, Lokken’s comments in the petition don’t accomplish what he intends them to do. Here’s a sample:

“As the county treasurer, the responsibility for what happened falls completely on me. I understand I am responsible and I accept that fully. … When I was first convicted, I was in denial, and now understand I have culpability and accept this fully.”

It is impossible to miss the convenience of the timing. Lokken’s first statement of or responsibility — we don’t detect any remorse — comes when he wants something, when he thinks it will help him achieve freedom and relative comfort. He told the Program Review Committee he “will be able to re-establish a positive reputation through my volunteer commitments and continuing to live in the community as a productive member.”

Who is he kidding? Lokken believes people and organizations would trust him? Not after what he pulled. Not after he refused to admit responsibility for years (he pleaded no contest), only to say he does when it directly supports his bid for release.

And then Lokken has the chutzpah to point out to the committee that he can live on “a solid financial plan” based around his pension and Social Security, both of which are immune to garnishment or seizure.

None of this strikes us as remorse or a genuine change of heart. Instead, it comes across as a cynical manipulation, a bid to escape the consequences of his actions yet again. Like we said, we can’t blame Lokken for asking. But we don’t have to accept his claims of contrition at face value.

Options like a geriatric release exist for a reason. There is a need for compassion within the judicial and penal systems. There are times when people show, by consistent actions over the course of their sentences, that they are not the same person as when they were convicted. Change is indeed possible. And, when it happens, compassion may be warranted.

But we don’t see change here. We don’t see an effort to offer recompense or make things right with the people of Eau Claire County. Instead, what comes across is the latest act in a long-running charade by a man who thinks he can take the court for a ride the way he did taxpayers.

We hope the court agrees.


Kenosha News. May 30, 2021.

Editorial: Universal 911 texting is worth the investment

Following Kenosha County’s lead, Racine County recently rolled out its own text-to-911 system as part of a $200,000 system upgrade.

That is a step in the right direction, a step toward making 911 texting universal across the state and ultimately the nation.

The 911 number is a life-saver. Unfortunately, there are times when you cannot call 911 and you need to text.

Those times include if a person is deaf, hard of hearing, or speech-impaired; in an area with poor cell coverage; or in danger if someone hears them making a call, such as an active shooter or domestic situation.

Officials said a voice call to 911 is still the best option, as dispatchers can process the call much quicker and obtain a location, a release from Racine County stated. But sometimes that is not possible.

In Walworth County, the Sheriff’s Office is planning to upgrade its 911 system in 2023 and as part of that they want to add text to 911 capability, although it does add approximately $50,000 to the project, said Walworth County Administrator Mark Luberda.

Saving lives is worth that extra money.

People shouldn’t have to wonder if they are in a county where texting 911 works. They should be able to do it.

As part of Gov. Tony Evers proposed 2021-2023 budget, there is about $25 million budgeted to upgrade the 911 system and it’s money that should be prioritized.

Over time 911 has evolved. Basic 911 service was first established in the 1960s as a voice-only service, meaning that the caller had to provide location and callback information verbally in order to receive assistance, according to an informational paper from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau detailing 911 services and proposed funding for the next budget.

In the 1980s, the system was upgraded to “Enhanced 911,” which automatically recorded

the caller’s landline telephone number and address. The system was last updated in the 1990s to “Wireless Enhanced 911,” which provides a mobile caller’s number and approximate location.

It’s time for 911 to evolve again to help emergency responders do their job saving people, this time with the help of text messaging.

It is worth the investment.


Wisconsin State Journal. May 26, 2021.

Editorial: Nix $300? Sure. Raise minimum wage? Yes. But so much more is needed to fill jobs

The biggest cause of Wisconsin’s workforce shortage isn’t the extra $300 a week the federal government is paying unemployed people, though that benefit should end.

Nor is the main culprit our state’s stagnant minimum wage, which needs to increase.

The core challenge — before and after the pandemic — remains the same: Wisconsin is graying fast and doesn’t have enough young people to replace older workers as they retire, much less to fill the new positions that growing businesses create.

Wisconsin’s prime working-age population fell in every county except Dane and Eau Claire from 2007 to 2017, according to an analysis of census data by the Economic Innovation Group. The pandemic was supposed to trigger a boom in babies as more couples stayed home to avoid the virus. Instead, 2020 was a bust. The U.S. birth rate fell to its lowest point in more than a century, the Associated Press reported this month.

Births in Wisconsin have declined for more than a decade. Just over 60,000 babies were born here in 2020, 9% less than in 2016. If not for immigration and Wisconsin residents living longer, our population would be shrinking.

About the only good news is that teen births in Wisconsin have fallen by more than half in a decade. Couples are waiting longer to have fewer babies so they’re more financially secure. In most cases, that’s a healthy decision.

Yet long-term demographic trends pose significant risk for our economy and prosperity.

What to do?

In last week’s State Journal report “Too few workers in many sectors,” Republicans demanded that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers end $300 in extra unemployment benefits that the federal government is offering during the pandemic. Add that enhancement to normal benefits, and a recipient can receive the equivalent of a $16.75-and-hour job for not working, conservatives complained.

They have a point, though the $300 boost is scheduled to end this fall. The governor should phase it out sooner if the economy continues to improve.

Democrats blamed Wisconsin’s $7.25-per-hour minimum wage for failing to support entry-level workers. Wisconsin hasn’t raised its minimum wage in more than a decade. Aiming for $10 an hour, similar to the minimum wage in neighboring Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois, is justified.

But bigger solutions are needed. Wisconsin must do far more to attract and keep young people here. Expanding fast and reliable internet in rural areas is a must. Loan forgiveness and other incentives for college graduates who stay here make sense.

Wisconsin’s largest industries — agriculture, manufacturing and tourism — need more legal immigration and flexible worker visas from the federal government. So does the start-up economy. Foreign UW graduates with high-demand degrees should be able to stay. Undocumented immigrants brought here as children deserve a stable legal status and path to citizenship for their contributions.

The technology sector, especially in the Madison region, is pulling in young people from across the country and world. We need to keep these innovators here when they start families. Safe communities, strong schools, fun downtowns and affordable housing will help.

Our workforce shortage won’t fade as COVID-19 is defeated. Neither should bold ideas to make Wisconsin more attractive for our children and their peers.