Saturday February 24, 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.

Removing Wetland Protections Needs Serious Deliberation

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 Tuesday, 20 February 2018
in Wisconsin

road-wi-flood-washoutChanging laws regarding wetlands cannot be done swiftly. The impact of eliminating nature’s “natural sponge” can be devastating when severe weather brings heavy rains. Flooding in Huston TX was more severe because much of its wetlands were removed. These critical issues need careful deliberation and engaged citizen discussion.


MADISON - Last Friday afternoon we learned of the 79 bills up for a vote on Tuesday. I spoke with my neighbor shortly after seeing the long list.

“How can they possibly know what they are voting on?” she asked me. I replied there is no time to talk with people and learn the effects of these changes.

Legislation moving quickly through the process makes changes to protections of our wetlands; specifically, wet areas not connected to a navigable body of water.

Wisconsin has more than one million acres of “isolated” wetlands. These areas are our swamps, meadows and marshes. Isolated wetlands are regulated by the state, hence the ability of state lawmakers to remove protections.

Talking to scientists and engineers is key to understanding the importance of wetlands and the implications of removing state protections. However, legislation moving at warp speed with little public notice make it nearly impossible to have these conversations.

Wetlands are key to our ecology. They provide habitat to an immense array of creatures and plants. Wetlands recharge ground water, help control erosion, and store excess water caused by severe weather.

Our farmstead sits 50’ above a large swamp and marsh. The wetlands capture flooding waters from the swollen Buffalo River. In the past several years, we saw several serious floods. The flooding in our wetlands eased possible destruction by the unusually intense storms.

“In the last six years, Wisconsin has seen five 100-year floods and one 1,000-year flood,” wrote Tyler Esh, the Eau Claire Emergency Management Coordinator. “Rains are becoming increasingly severe.”

These severe floods led many people I represent to question current state policies. For example, a town official asked for help with a washed-out road. He wanted to double the size of a culvert that washed out in a severe storm. We could not get adequate state help to pay for the improvements. The following year, the road and culvert washed out again.

Floods know no boundaries. Folks in Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties remember last summer flooding when up to 8 inches of rain fell causing sewers to overflow. Filling in wetlands makes things worse in urban as well as rural areas.

The City of Houston learned a hard lesson this summer. Part of the reason Houston flooded so badly was because they took out wetlands and built on the low land. In one of several similar stories I read, reporters for Quartz Media wrote,

“Even after it became a widely accepted scientific fact that wetlands can soak up large amounts of flood water, the city continued to pave over them… From 1992 to 2010, this area lost more than 70% of its wetlands, according to research by Texas A&M University…The city, the largest in the US with no zoning laws, is a case study in limiting government regulations and favoring growth – often at the expense of the environment. As water swamps many of its neighborhoods, it’s now a cautionary tale of sidelining science and plain common sense.”

Too often speed and secrecy in the legislative process replaces thoughtful, public discussion. Maybe lawmakers should ask homeowners still recovering from the floods if removing wetland protections is in the public’s best interest.

Lawmakers swore an oath to protect the Constitution including to promote the general welfare. In our age of climate change and very unpredictable weather patterns, leaders have a responsibility to protect citizens from the damaging effects of severe weather. Wetlands – nature’s “natural sponge” – are part of the answer to protecting us from flooding.

Instead of removing Wisconsin’s isolated wetlands protections, we should develop new strategies to cope with changing weather patterns that threaten us. Emergency funds and disaster programs should be changed to address the breadth of problems created by floods. Transportation plans should provide for increased water volume.

The legislative process is designed to force deliberation necessary to thoroughly examine any given issue. Careful consideration seems impossible with legislation speeding through the process. For example, at 9:44 a.m. on Monday we received the Assembly Session calendar for Tuesday. This is the first opportunity the public and press have to review the list of 93 bills up for final passage.

Such critical issues as protecting our precious wetlands need a thoughtful, informed and citizen engaged discussion.

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Moving Broadband Forward for Wisconsin

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 Tuesday, 13 February 2018
in Wisconsin

broadband-map-northwoodsSen. Vinehout  is introducing bills, with Rep. Don Vurwink, focused on moving broadband expansion forward in Wisconsin. The bills would provide $100 million annually for broadband expansion and direct funds to areas of most need and provide accountability.


MADISON, WI - In a recent committee hearing, I argued majority lawmakers were moving broadband expansion forward by press release and little else.

This week Representative Don Vuwink (D-Milton) and I are circulating bills to actually move broadband forward for Wisconsin.

The Senate Revenue, Financial Institutions and Rural Issues committee debated a bill that would allow a local community to pass a resolution saying the community was “Telecommuting Ready.” However, nothing in that bill helped communities gain access to broadband.

In sweeping language, a representative of the telecommunications industry described how this bill, which did not provide a dime to communities for broadband expansion, was “Chapter Three” in the push to help expand broadband. The addition of Chapter 3 to the previous chapters does not make this book a best seller.

Recently the Governor bragged to farmers that the state “invested $41.5 million in expanding broadband access.” This statement is misleading.

“Chapter One” of the Governor’s plan was to turn away $23 million in federal stimulus money for broadband expansion in 2011. The Public Service Commission only awarded $3.9 million between 2014 and 2017. On the other hand, Minnesota spent $85 million on broadband expansion in the same time-period.

In “Chapter Two”, the Governor’s budget allocates only $11 million toward broadband expansion that rural residents might see. Some money was spent in Fiscal Year 2016-17 and some was carried over for the next few years.

Most of the money for which the Governor is taking credit are funds earmarked for schools, juvenile corrections facilities, private and technical colleges, and state-run institutions. The school program, in some form, has been around for many years and uses a mix of federal and state money.

In the bills Representative Vuwink and I are introducing, we worked hard to solve problems with the current grant program to make sure Wisconsin residents are getting the Real Deal when it comes to broadband expansion.

First, our plan appropriates $100 million annually for the next two years. The plan is fully funded using a portion of the Manufacturing and Agriculture Tax Credit.

broadband-cableSecond, our plan – “Moving Broadband Forward” – would assure customers actually receive real broadband speed. Under the current program, companies can obtain taxpayer funds for delivering “snail-slow” speeds of 5 Mbps (Megabits per second) download and .6 Mbps upload.

Our bill would require companies using state money to actually deliver speeds of at least the current federal minimum for broadband - 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Further, our bills would create “Truth in Advertising” standards that require companies to deliver the speed they promised to customers.

Our plan actually directs money to areas of most need. The Governor’s plan makes almost every Wisconsin county eligible for broadband grants. Under our “Moving Broadband Forward”, 85% of funds would be sent to counties with a population of less than 65,000 and areas with no broadband internet are prioritized.

Accountability in the use of public funds is sorely missing from the current program. Companies receiving funds are not required to provide broadband in areas they promised to serve; companies are not required to repay state money if they do not deliver what they promised; companies can receive multiple grants at one time, increasing the chance of being paid twice for the same project.

All these problems are eliminated with the accountability provisions in our plan. Additionally, accountability is assured by authorizing the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau to evaluate the new program.

Finally, municipalities – counties, towns or cities – that want to seek state funds for broadband build-out are eligible under the new plan. This means citizens themselves, working through their local government, are empowered to create broadband expansion opportunities.

Broadband is the Twenty-First Century equivalent of electricity. Everyone should have access to the Internet. One day, many of you may travel to or contact someone living in a rural area. All of us will eat something grown by farmers who rely on the Internet for many important aspects of production. Many folks long to live in a rural area but need broadband for telecommuting.

Wisconsin deserves better than broadband expansion by press release. Moving Broadband Forward is the Real Deal for Wisconsin. Please encourage your lawmakers to sign on as cosponsors of these new proposals.

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Who is Working Under the Governor's New "Wisconsin Works" Program?

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 Tuesday, 06 February 2018
in Wisconsin

walker-wi-worksDuring testimony last week on the 10 Special Session bills covering new requirements for FoodShare, Medicaid and other government assistance programs, one of the questions that no one answered was the cost. Here is some research to help you understand the implications of these bills.


MADISON - “With more people working in Wisconsin…, we can’t afford to have anyone on the sidelines, we need everyone in the game,” stated Governor Walker, calling for a special session to take up bills he nicknamed, “Wisconsin Works for Everyone.”

The Senate Public Benefits, Licensing and State-Federal Relations Committee, of which I am a member, took up the special session bills in a recent public hearing. The 10 bills make substantial changes in eligibility for FoodShare (nutrition) or BadgerCare (medical care). Many of the bills limit assistance for families experiencing hard times.

To move things quickly, Senate and Assembly Committees met in a joint hearing – the only public hearing scheduled. Committee chairs took up all ten bills at the same time. At times, during the hearing, members were admonished by the Chair to ask only one question on all of the ten bills.

Lawmakers had scant information on the plans. Agency directors, who will carry out the new laws, knew very little about who would be affected. They could not answer questions about how much the state would pay to implement the new laws. No fiscal estimates were available at the hearing.

During the hearing, we learned about the hub of the Governor’s plan to get everyone working – the FoodShare Employment and Training program – commonly called “FSET.”

FSET is run by private companies. Curiously, our Assembly Chairman was a former employee of one of these companies.

Getting training and employment sounded like a great idea. I was eager to learn if the program really helped people. I wanted to know who would be participating under the new law.

grocery-store-checkoutAbout two-thirds of the people who get help from FoodShare cannot work. They are blind, elderly, disabled or children. Of the one-third left, nearly half are already working. Most folks are working part-time, low wage jobs. They want more hours, but can’t get them.

We heard about problems with the private contractors, including contractors that received incentives to get people into low-wage work, not training. In one case, a woman’s work experience was in fast food. She wanted to obtain her high school diploma, but the contractor sent her to another low-wage fast food job, without a chance to get back in school.

From her perspective, the program was a failure. From the state’s perspective, with her low wages, she would continue on FoodShare. Her life was not better. The state did not have fewer people on FoodShare. But the private contractors got paid.

I began to wonder, who’s working here and at what cost to taxpayers? Do we know if this program works? Has it been evaluated?

In brief, I learned that Wisconsin moved to a voluntary FSET program in 2008. In 2013, lawmakers asked for a yearly evaluation of the program. Walker vetoed the evaluations. In 2015, money was budgeted for a program evaluation. However, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, by May 2017, no evaluation was completed. When I asked where was the $850,000 budgeted for evaluation, no one could answer the question.

Why wouldn’t the state want to know if the program is working? When I finally obtained the fiscal estimates, I began to see a very different story of who works and who pays.

If all 10 special session bills are enacted, the implementation and ongoing costs will be nearly $240 million in the next budget. In eight of the 10 bills, the state will pay a significant amount of new money to outside contractors. For example, mandatory FSET participation and incentive payments would add almost $50 million for the FSET contractors.

Many of the bills will allow the contractor to collect public money for program changes not currently allowed under federal law. The state will seek special permission from the Trump administration to make the changes.

Now, I see a new story. Private contractors stand to gain. Governor Walker has new initiatives he can brag about across the state. New employees will work for the now wealthier contractors.

But is Wisconsin Working for Everyone who is hungry, in need of health care, or child care – not so much. All of the organizations focused on helping the working poor testified against the bills.

Please tell your Legislators to Vote No!

****

Read 10 Special Session Bill here.

Wisconsin Public Radio: Walker Calls For Special Session On Welfare Reform

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Farmers Advocate for Agriculture and Rural Communities

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 Tuesday, 30 January 2018
in Wisconsin

farm-familyFarmers need to take on the role of citizen lobbyists to share concerns with their legislators about the importance of the state of agriculture and rural communities.


ALMA, WI - Farmers from several western Wisconsin counties traveled to Madison as part of the annual Ag Day at the Capitol.

On the day the Governor delivered his State of the State address, farmers shared with their legislators, the state of things in their world.

Safety is always on the mind of farmers. For one farmer, farm safety was a heightened worry when his daughter took drivers education. He told me, folks traveling down rural roads often ignore the turn signals and lights on his tractor. People will make the dangerous decision to pass him when he is turning left into a farm field. There have been instances when drivers hit the farm equipment.

“Why don’t they teach drivers education students about taking care while driving around farm equipment?” he asked me. “How can we change this?” We talked about how many schools out-sourced drivers’ education, which made it difficult for school board members to influence what was taught in farm country.

Farmers play numerous roles in our communities. Many serve on the local school board because they see public schools as essential to sustaining rural communities. Schools are the heart of our rural communities. Schools are where we all gather to cheer on our local teams, laugh at the antics of actors in the school play or cry tears of joy when our babies graduate.

school-closed“I’ve been on the school board now for six years,” one of the farmers shared. He saw what happened to the school after rounds of state budget cuts. The farmers knew the current school funding formula hurt rural schools. They also knew the importance of sparsity aid to rural schools. A budget deal cut back increases in sparsity aid.

Farmers were concerned about bills to take away local school board powers related to referenda. While they agreed, school boards should not keep going back to voters when a referendum to raise taxes failed, but they also thought the state should not take away local authority to decide what to do.

Concerns about immigration and police actions worried farmers whose livelihoods depend on the skills of their devoted workers.

“We hire good, hard working, legal Mexican farm laborers who have families,” said one Pierce County farm couple. “They are continuously getting pulled over by police in the morning and receiving tickets for operating without a license.” The couple was frustrated that legislative leaders were not taking up a bill to allow undocumented farm workers to get a driver’s license.

One Buffalo County farmer said he knew of a worker who was jailed for multiple violations of operating a vehicle without a license. The farm worker requested to remain in jail over Christmas so federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents would not send him back to Mexico.

Rumors of several ICE raids in the middle of the night created anxiety for many farmers and their employees. Some workers moved away because they did not feel safe. Losing workers creates an immediate crisis for dairy farmers who rely daily on the dedication and skill of farm workers.

Losing workers adds to the already tough times for some farmers. Some farm commodity prices are low and farmers experience increases in their input costs – squeezing the farm budget. Recent reports tell us about a decline in the number of western Wisconsin farms. The Eau Claire Leader Telegram reported Dunn, Eau Claire, and Chippewa counties lost a combined 27 dairy herds in 2017. Statewide slightly more than 500 herds were lost last year.

Reflecting on the tough times, Wisconsin Public Radio reported western Wisconsin had the highest number of farm bankruptcies in the United States last year.

One of the farmers who visited my office is part of the network of Discovery Farms. This state program uses on-farm research to provide evidence of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to best practices for keeping nutrients where plants can use them and keeping our waterways clean. The farmers reminded us to use science in setting environmental policies.

Farmers told their stories, and through them, I saw a deep concern for their communities, their workers and the environment. I appreciate the farmers who took time out of their busy schedule to take up the important role of citizen lobbyists for rural Wisconsin.

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FoodShare Bill "Kicking Us When We Are Down"

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 Tuesday, 23 January 2018
in Wisconsin

grocery-store-checkoutA new bill pending in the Senate would require FoodShare participants to show a photo ID at the store. History has shown such a requirement is very costly and has little impact on fraud, a problem Wisconsin took far more effective steps in the past to reduce.


MADISON - The little girl walked home through the snow. She took the longer route. Mom asked her to stop at the store to buy milk. She touched the coupons and note. She couldn’t lose them. Mom was so sick with cancer.

Some little girl might be asked next year to show a photo ID to get milk. The Senate Public Benefits, Licensing and State-Federal Relations committee recently had a hearing on a bill to require those using FoodShare to show a photo ID. Advocates argued this would treat people in need of help in an undignified way, add unneeded bureaucracy and increase government expenses without reducing fraud.

FoodShare is Wisconsin’s version of the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program”. SNAP has the strongest program integrity, or fraud prevention, standards of any federal program. For example, the old Food Stamp program used paper coupons. Under President Clinton, states moved to a plastic card that operates like a debit card, dramatically cutting down on fraud.

On average, eligible families receive $1.39 per person per meal, according to recent testimony from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. People often are on the program for a short time. A Department of Agriculture study found a little more than half of new participants stay on SNAP for less than a year.

In Wisconsin, a quarter of recipients are elderly, blind or have a disability. Forty-three percent are children. Forty percent have jobs. During the hearing, we learned the state worked hard to reduce fraud and now has an accuracy rate (benefits properly going to those eligible) of ninety-nine percent.

Efforts made to fix problems in FoodShare included reducing the many errors made by those working in the system. Wisconsin had a history of being a state with one of the highest error rates in the nation. Changes made under Governor Doyle resulted in bonus payments for improvements. However, problems remained.

Audits conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) found problems with the Department of Health (DHS) oversight of the FoodShare program. Prisoners were still receiving benefits, reports showing fraud were not being read or acted upon, and fraud investigators were woefully understaffed. State work was sent to private companies in violation of federal law.

DHS responded with many changes. Workers can now verify social security numbers in real time. This process helped eliminate prison inmates who continued to receive benefits.

Selling or buying a card is illegal. DHS maintains a Trafficking Enforcement and Audit Unit that reviews the details of requests for replacement of lost cards. This unit identifies vendor (grocery store) fraud. It works with local agencies to share fraud-related data and conducts fraud and misuse audits. In addition, an Investigation and Technical Assistance Unit follows up on calls to the fraud hotline among many other aspects of fraud investigation.

This work paid off. Last spring, DHS announced two people were facing criminal charges for FoodShare fraud. One man requested 13 cards in 12 months. The data obtained by our system showed purchases made by multiple people using the man’s personal ID number.

The Department reported in 2016 that almost 1400 people were suspended from the program compared to 203 in 2012. Of those, 113 resulted in criminal prosecution. The new system was put in place in 2013.

Photo IDs for SNAP is not a new idea. In fact, many states tried to require photo IDs and stopped. Missouri stopped using photo IDs in 2001 because they did not show significant cost savings. Massachusetts abandon the program under Governor Romney. One problem is that federal rules require that SNAP beneficiaries not be treated differently at a grocery story. This means stores would be required to ask EVERYONE for an ID.

The program is expensive. To start the program would cost over $7 ½ million and another $1.6 million as ongoing costs.

Getting assistance to those who need it and getting rid of fraud are goals we all share. But let’s be smart about the rules. Unnecessary or politically motivated rules result in wasted dollars and fewer folks signing up who truly need help.

Long-term studies show the supplemental nutrition program resulted in marked reduction in serious nutrition problems among children. My family and I are part of the success story. The little girl in the story was me.

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