Sunday April 22, 2018

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Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District

Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District

Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now the State Senator from the 31st District of Wisconsin. She was a candidate for Governor in 2014 until an injury forced her out of the race , and is one of the courageous Wisconsin 14.

What Can We Do to Protect Our Water?

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 18 April 2018
in Wisconsin

clean-drinking-waterMany Wisconsinites are concerned about our natural resources and particularly water, and a recent audit that focused on DNR enforcement of water quality found we are not doing enough.


MADISON - “What can we do to protect our water?” This is a question I am often asked. Many Wisconsin residents are concerned about protecting our precious natural resources, and much of the concern is focused on water quality.

This week we celebrate Earth Day. Forty-eight years ago, Wisconsin’s own Gaylord Nelson first gathered with 20 million Americans in support of environmental issues. Celebrating the earth means being mindful stewards of all its natural resources, including water. Over 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in water. Less than 3% of this water is fresh; most fresh water is tied up in ice. Scientists estimate somewhere between a half and three-quarters percent of all water on earth is liquid fresh water.

In Wisconsin, we are blessed with many lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers. The Public Trust Doctrine contained in Wisconsin’s Constitution designates these waters as belonging to all of us. Our state and federal governments are charged with protecting waters.

At the heart of the state’s water quality program is a permitting and inspection system that allows water discharge into our lakes, streams and rivers. Inspections, reporting and enforcement actions impose the laws.

Two years ago, the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) found that 94% of the time the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) failed to take necessary action against industries and municipalities, which violates its own enforcement policies.

Auditors found ample evidence of inconsistencies, overlooked reports, and incomplete or missing inspections. For example, less than half of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) were inspected twice in five years. In a two-year period, only two out of ten industries were inspected as required.

dairy-cow-eatingCAFOs are required to send in annual reports that include any manure spills and required testing. Auditors found almost 98% of the required reports were not electronically recorded as being received. This lack of oversight meant DNR had no way of knowing or tracking problems. Staff said they were too busy to review reports.

While the former DNR Secretary acknowledged staffing was a problem, she made no promises to correct the situation. The most recent budget eliminated the Bureau of Science Services and eliminated 49 fulltime positions.

Wisconsin must invest in DNR staff and scientists to oversee water quality. We must hire back the scientists and inspectors, let them do their work, and allow them to speak freely about their findings.

kewaunee-countyKewaunee County provides a lesson to everyone on the effects of poorly regulated CAFOs. Private well testing showed a majority of Kewaunee wells sampled as contaminated with bacteria found in human and bovine waste. However, problems in water quality and quantity exist across the state. For example, animals died from exposure to toxic substances, likely from sand mine activity; lakes are drying up because of excess irrigation; surface water experienced dangerous algal bloom because of excess nutrients.

A recent study by the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association provides direction on how to move forward. The study suggests many smart actions including increasing groundwater monitoring, protecting the public’s right to groundwater, providing assistance for well owners affected by contaminated water, and action to address acute problems with water contamination.

Improving water quality from agriculture contamination includes conservation easements, state support of diverse agriculture, better nutrient management and erosion control. These improvements work best if farmers have cost-share incentives. Right now, Wisconsin’s farmers, especially dairy farmers, are experiencing serious financial hardship. Now is a time when help must come from many sources.

kathleen-vinehoutCounty conservation officers provide our frontline for water protection. Unfortunately, these hard-working men and women must beg lawmakers to preserve their meager budgets. Too often, officials blame tight budgets for a lack of resources to protect our environment. There are many ways to rearrange budget priorities, and, if necessary, raise new revenue.

For example, ten years ago Minnesota passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to their state constitution. Money from the sales tax increase is used in part to protect and enhance natural resources through projects as watershed restoration, on-farm pilot programs, farmer watershed certificate programs, water monitoring and pollution reduction.

It is this type of legacy former Senator Gaylord Nelson hoped for when he founded Earth Day. He said, “The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”

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Serious State Tech Problems Need Public Scrutiny

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 11 April 2018
in Wisconsin

identity-theftIs the State IT system at risk? A recent audit had several recurring findings related to IT security, which showed agencies had not implemented past recommendations to fix them.


MADISON - Is the state of Wisconsin at risk for a cyber-attack? A new audit from the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) shed light on what may be vulnerabilities in the state’s Information Technology (IT) system that could affect every business, taxpayer, student or recipient of state services.

In some cases, problems are so serious that LAB auditors could not reveal details in fear of creating additional vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit.

The audit described problems related to a lack of protection in computer security, a lack of adequate security policies, procedures and standards, which increased the risk of fraud.

Disturbingly, many of these weaknesses are recurring. In several cases, past audits found similar problems.

cyberattacks-internetFor example, to protect student data, and keep accurate financial records, auditors recommended remedial actions at the University of Wisconsin System. University officials took some action, but auditors reported they had not taken significant steps to cover critical areas, which increases the risk of unauthorized or erroneous changes in payroll, accounting and student information.

Similarly, auditors reported on weaknesses in security at the Department of Administration (DOA). Officials did not do a comprehensive risk assessment to identify security concerns and vulnerabilities since 2012. Because regular “penetration tests” were not completed, the state could not find and evaluate the risk of vulnerabilities and did not know how safe or unsafe all servers and systems were in the state’s network.

When reporting on what caused some of these problems, auditors wrote that “agency management is resistant to the development of IT policies and standards.” It is unclear why agency management is resistant.

Similar to the UW, auditors found some recurring IT security problems at DOA. In one finding, auditors wrote DOA did not take any of the additional steps outlined in its own corrective action plan.

Another finding related to a lack of control over IT security could result in unauthorized changes related to vendor payments or payroll. These problems were too serious to publically detail but might result in undetected financial misstatements, fraud or theft.

As a side note, auditors also found evidence of mistakes in the state’s financial statements, which were not related to IT security. The audit described problems in cash management. In auditing the state’s financial records, auditors traced errors back to mistakes in monthly reports, in bank reconciliations and in payroll.

Because of these errors, the state showed a net amount of $21 million more than the actual cash. When trying to understand the cause of errors, auditors wrote staff “did not always understand the effect of the errors on financial reporting and did not take steps to communicate them to the appropriate agencies.”

Audit findings showed many mistakes in the financial report of the state’s capital transportation assets. Problems related to how DOT used different types of computer records. Multiple factors contributed to the errors, including poor planning and inadequate written documentation.

Evidence of other errors was found in the state infrastructure reports. For example, the Department of Transportation erroneously classified $27.2 million as bridges that should have been classified as roads.

Five years ago, Wisconsin embarked on a large IT purchase and system conversion. There was no dispute the new system was needed; however, the costs were massive, estimated at $139 million.

kathleen-vinehoutI serve on the Joint Committee on Information Policy and Technology. In one of the very few public hearings held on the IT investment, DOA officials repeatedly told lawmakers the project was “on time and within its budget”.

While questioning DOA officials, we also learned the system involved thousands of staff hours not recorded nor budgeted. Hundreds of employees were moved from various agencies, in which they worked to DOA, which increased that agency’s staff by nearly fifty percent. We learned about delays in the project implementation and delayed payments to vendors, which resulted in late fees that cost the state five times more than late fees charged in the previous year.

For years, my Democratic colleagues and I called on GOP leaders to exercise their legislative oversight of the state’s IT system. Both the Audit committee and the Information Policy committee must get to the bottom of IT security problems and insist, under threat of budget reductions, that things are fixed.

The audits are a “wake-up” call for state IT officials. The best way to protect is to prevent risk.

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Blue Ribbon Commission Explores School Funding Inequity

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 04 April 2018
in Wisconsin

school-kidsAt a recent public hearing in De Pere, the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding heard from school districts in that area, including Green Bay, about the challenges they face, which are exacerbated by funding issues.


DE PERE, WI - Linda Brown recently passed away in Topeka, Kansas. Ms. Brown was the student at the center of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education that struck down school segregation. Ms. Brown’s father, Oliver Brown, tried to enroll his nine-year old daughter in the all-white Sumner School.

The day after Ms. Brown’s passing, I joined other members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding to explore inequities in Wisconsin’s public schools at a public hearing in De Pere.

The stories we heard wove a tale of struggle, innovation, inequity and challenge.

Major changes are happening in our state’s public schools. Compared to twenty years ago, we have more minority students, students who are English Language Learners, and students whose families are experiencing poverty.

kathleen-vinehoutIn Brown County, four of 10 students live in poverty. The district has three times as many homeless students as it did in 2003. Children come to school hungry. They carry the burden of family conflict to their seat in the classroom.

Todays’ students have more mental health needs, including depression, anxiety and suicide. “Nearly 50% of girls and 30% of boys report anxiety,” said Christine Gingle, Social Work Coordinator at the Green Bay Area Public School District. “Almost 50% is a staggering number, but not overly surprising given the immense pressures students encounter during their school career… Many have suffered losses…are concerned about safety, or are experiencing grief. Safety concerns have a significant ripple effect on our community.”

Commission Member and UW Professor Julie Underwood asked, “What happens when you don’t have the resources to serve students?” Ms. Gingle answered, “The work falls back on the classroom teacher.”

“Students bring their problems to the classroom,” shared Dr. Michelle Langenfeld, Green Bay Area School Superintendent and a fellow member of the Blue Ribbon Commission.

“Teachers say to me, ‘I can’t do this anymore. When I close my eyes at night, I can’t sleep because I see all the children I cannot serve’,” Dr. Langenfeld continued. “We are blessed to be in a community that does help us. But every superintendent can share the same stories. We are all working the best we can. We also need to care for our caregivers.”

green-bay-schools-washIn the Green Bay Area School District, students speak 31 different languages. Minority students make up the majority of English Language Learners (ELL). The Green Bay Area School District has 600 Somali students who face not only language challenges. Many are orphaned. Some watched as family members were executed. Most have no formal education.

“In 1990, the reimbursement rate for ELL was 63%.” said Julie Seefeldt, Director of the English Learners Program at Green Bay. “The current reimbursement rate…is at approximately 7.9%.”

“This story is not unique to Green Bay,” Dr. Langenfeld told our Commission. “Somali families are grateful for the educational opportunities. They want their children to work hard and become American citizens.” In response to questions about the resulting challenges facing the district and teachers, Dr. Langenfeld replied, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.”

Justin Millfox, a teacher at West High School in Green Bay and President of the Green Bay Education Association, told us about the necessity for invention. “West High School is the home of the Wildcats,” Mr Millfox said. “We have a Cat Closet for school supplies and clothes for kids who do without.” The struggles of students are very hard on teachers as they try, with few resources, to address the significant needs of children with big gaps in their learning.

Many folks testified about problems in the way the state pays for schools. Our Commission heard: Providing EQUAL dollars does not solve the problem because not all student needs are equal.

“Providing equal dollar amounts of per-student increases in funding does not provide the necessary equality to provide our low income and English Learner students the support necessary for success,” noted Brenda Warren, Green Bay School Board President.

The legacy of Linda Brown and her father’s fight for equality continues to challenge us today. Their bravery and courage opened doors for children across our nation. Today, these doors and the schools beyond them are in need of repair. Dr. Langenfeld acknowledged that challenge as the public hearing adjourned stating, “We have no time to lose. It’s Go time!”

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Why I am Voting “No” on Eliminating the State Treasurer

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 28 March 2018
in Wisconsin

state-treasurer-logoThe referendum question on next Tuesday’s ballot asks voters if they wish to amend Wisconsin’s Constitution to eliminate the Office of the State Treasurer. Sen. Vinehout shares some information about the functions of the office which should be helpful to voters.


MADISON - Spring Elections are here. Voters are going to the polls to elect a new Supreme Court Justice and many local officials, from county board to school board. Voters will also make a decision to change our Wisconsin Constitution. On the ballot will be a referendum question to eliminate the Office of State Treasurer.

From the time Wisconsin became a state, we had a Constitutional Officer to oversee finances – the State Treasurer. The purpose of this office can be summed up in the words of the nonpartisan Council of State Government, “Treasurers act as the watchdog of the people’s money and, in most states, are elected by their own constituents. This check and balance in the executive branch of government provides an effective oversight mechanism and increased transparency.”

Some believe, including the current State Treasurer, the office is outdated and a waste of money. However, far more is behind this vote.

kathleen-vinehoutOver the past twenty years, the Legislature at the request of the Governor, removed the duties of the Treasurer. Many of the duties were taken over by the Department of Administration (DOA). The last budget increased the size of this sprawling agency by nearly fifty percent, or just shy of 1,500 employees. The Governor and his appointee, the Secretary of Administration, control the agency.

Eliminating the Office of the State Treasurer consolidates more power in one agency; the greater the power, the greater the opportunity for corruption, and less transparency for citizens of the state.

Think of the way a civic organization or a company is organized. The person who buys things – procurement – is not the person who writes the checks – the treasurer nor the one who audits the books.

In advising all types of organizations, from local nonprofits to large multinational corporations, auditors tell their clients when it comes to handling money there must be a “segregation of duties.” In other words, the same person (or department in a large company) should not collect the money, deposit the money, spend the money, approve the contracts and keep the books.

The principle of segregation of duties disperses the critical functions of overseeing procurement, contracting, vendor payments, cash management and auditing. Following this principle is a basic building block of risk management and, what auditors call, internal controls. These are the systems that help prevent and identify fraud, mismanagement and errors. Segregation of duties also assures transparency and accountability in state government.

According to the Wisconsin Taxpayer, our State Treasurer is the only treasurer in the nation that does not oversee cash management. We are only one of two states that do not allow the State Treasurer to be responsible for the state’s bank accounts.

Over the years, Wisconsin has marched toward a consolidation of power in DOA. We do not have a separately elected Controller, like many other states. Our Secretary of State, like the Treasurer, has lost many duties. It is no wonder folks nicknamed DOA the “Department of All.”

Our state’s finances could use more oversight, not less. The most recently enacted state budget authorized the state to spend $76 billion over the two-year budget cycle. Misappropriation of just a small amount of this massive sum could involve millions of taxpayer dollars.

Elected officials serve as stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars. Our responsibility includes setting up systems that contain the “internal controls” which prevent and expose fraud and mismanagement.

I am voting “no” and I urge you not to eliminate the important function of the State Treasurer. Instead, I suggest we restore the duties of this Constitutional Office. This is why Representative Spreitzer (D-Beloit) and I wrote and introduced a bill to return the financial duties of the State Treasurer. Senate Bill 833 would restore many responsibilities of the State Treasurer including cash management functions that were removed in 2003.

Eliminating the State Treasurer is not a new idea. Over the past 100 years or so, three dozen such proposals were introduced. A constitutional change requires the Legislature to pass a resolution containing the exact same language in two consecutive sessions. The question then goes to voters for the final decision.

When you go to the polls, think of your local club, company or organization. Everyone wants the same or greater accountability and transparency over the massive $76 billion in state monies.

The vote next Tuesday is “no.”

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Giving a Voice to People Who Live with Disabilities

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 21 March 2018
in Wisconsin

disability-studentsThe Senator's proposed Public Assistance Advisory Committee would give those most affected a seat at the table while changes to essential public assistance programs, such as FoodShare and Medicaid, are created and require input from policy experts at the UW.


MADISON - “Many people with disabilities depend on public programs so they can stay healthy and live, work and participate in the community,” Jason Endres wrote to me in favor of a bill I recently introduced.

My bill, Senate Bill 870, would create a Public Assistance Advisory Committee. I drafted this legislation in response to Special Session bills recently passed by the Legislature that modified public assistance programs.

People with disabilities, as well as those living in poverty, rely on key public assistance programs, such as FoodShare, Medicaid and public housing. It is important for those using the programs to have a voice at the table when legislation to change these essential programs is considered.

Jason and his wife Julie Endres traveled to the Capitol to join other citizen lobbyists participating in Disability Advocacy Day. They came to raise awareness about the critical programs designed to help those who live with disabilities.

kathleen-vinehoutIn recent years, upwards of 800 folks, their caregivers, families and friends came to the Capitol in an effort to stop the Governor’s plan to put the IRIS (Include, Respect, I Self-Direct) program under the administration of a single large for-profit insurance company. IRIS assists disabled persons in self-directing the services they need. Ultimately, these citizen lobbyists successfully fought to maintain administration of IRIS through a state/non-profit partnership.

People shared their personal stories about how state programs fund critical assistance, such as personal care workers. These people are angels on earth who make a big difference in the lives of our disabled neighbors and their family members. The personal care workers had not received a wage increase since 2008. Even then, they only received a one-and-one-half percent increase. Personal care workers make around nine or ten dollars an hour according to the Wisconsin Personal Services Association.

The package of Special Session bills also makes changes in eligibility for basic assistance, including Medicaid and Foodshare. People could be required to sell their home, small business or their cows to obtain temporary help when they hit hard times. Physically disabled persons would be required to sell their wheel-chair adaptive van if the value is greater than $10,000.

These new rules worried Jason and his wife Julie. “When changes to these programs occur, we need to be at the table as stakeholders to explain how we use the programs and how even small changes often can result in unintended consequences that really impact us,” wrote Jason.

At the public hearing on the Special Session bills, the advocacy group Survival Coalition testified, “there are not consistent exemptions for people with disabilities across the legislative package and no clear public input process.” The Coalition went on to explain that people with disabilities as well as caregivers, have difficulty getting special exemptions under current requirements.

During the hearing, we heard many people testify about how the bills could leave more folks without needed food or health care. The bills could hurt farmers struggling with low commodity prices, young parents who need healthcare, small business owners who hit hard times and those with “invisible disabilities” like autism spectrum disorders.

Many advocates, who work with those facing difficult hurdles, testified that they were not provided any opportunity for input as the Special Session bills were crafted. New administrative red tape for the poor and disabled will mean more people falling through the cracks.

The Special Session bills include provisions that are currently not allowed under federal law. This means the Walker Administration will be required to seek a “waiver” – which is special permission from the federal government to implement the new law.

My bill would bring this waiver writing out of the dark. It would allow those affected by changes to essential public assistance programs to have a seat at the table while new details on the programs are created. Senate Bill 870 would also require input from policy experts at the UW.

Too often research is not a part of the public policy process. The work of the Population Health Institute and the Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty is internationally recognized. We need the expertise of these social scientists at the table when crafting policy related to assistance for those who most need our help.

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