Saturday October 20, 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 , is one of the courageous Wisconsin 14, and is now running for Governor again in 2018.

Not Much State Revenue Sharing Going On

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, 08 August 2018
in Wisconsin

road-repair-wiSen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about how stagnant shared revenue payments cause problems for local units of government as they try to address increasing costs.


ALMA, WI - “I just hope the county doesn’t cut the budget,” a local judge told me. We were discussing how effectiveness of his alternative treatment court program and how much he needed money to keep the program operating.

Across the State, local governments – counties, cities, village and towns – are preparing budgets for their 2019 operations. A major source of their income is shared revenue from the state.

“Shared revenue” has been a fixture in Wisconsin since 1911. The state sends money to local units of government at the end of July and again in mid-November. These payments help offset the property taxes folks pay to operate local government.

The system of sharing of revenue began as a way to return a portion of the new state income tax to local governments in order to offset the property tax exemptions that were enacted at that time. The state sent the money back to locals based on how much residents of each city, village, town or county paid into the state.

At first, ninety percent of the income taxes collected were sent back to the local governments from which they came. Called “return to origin,” the payments were higher to wealthier areas as those residents paid more in income taxes on their higher incomes.

During the 1970s, the system was changed to match local need. Lawmakers created a complex formula that included population, property values and local revenue efforts. Communities that had a utility, which didn’t pay property taxes, received additional payments. The policy objective was to provide a minimum amount of money from the state even if a community had many costs and low property values.

Changes over the years ‘tweaked’ the formula. Automatic increases were eliminated, and even though the formula was still law it wasn’t followed. During the 2008-2010 recession shared revenue was cut by three and one-half percent.

kathleen-vinehoutIn Governor Walker’s first budget, funding was cut by over nine percent. Since 2012, annual shared revenue aid to local government has remained unchanged.

In addition to not increasing shared revenue payments, the state asked more of local government in the form of mandates. Many of these mandates were unfunded, leaving local governments with more to do without additional resources.

State law limits local governments’ ability to raise revenue from property taxes by imposing levy caps. The combination of levy caps and decreased shared revenue from the state leaves local officials asking ‘What do we cut?’

On this one-way street where the state makes the rules, limits what local government can spend, and doesn’t share increasing revenue, local folks are stuck paying more of the cost and have few options to get extra money.

Many local governments have spent their reserves and are forced to consider borrowing money to cover needed improvements or unexpected costs, like repairing flood damage.

As discretionary programs are eliminated, more of local government budgets are taken up by public safety. Police and fire protection costs are increasing. But neither the levy cap nor the state shared revenue payments cover the increase.

Local officials are forced to choose whether to cut: public safety, repairing the roads, and/or community mental health and drug addiction programs.

Local officials are looking at increasing deficits in coming years. Next year state budget writers must address the shortfall or residents may face dire cuts in local programs.

In a memo I requested from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, shared revenue would need to increase by about 30% just to keep up with inflation since 2004. That would require an investment of $415 million in the next state budget.

That sum compares to the estimated $464 million payment promised by the Governor to Foxconn for building a factory in Racine.

As local governments cut their programs this fall, we will be reminded that we can’t spend the same dollar twice. What goes to Foxconn won’t be available for shared revenue.

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Fix State-Local Mental Health Partnerships

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, 01 August 2018
in Wisconsin

jailedLocal governments faced with decreased shared revenue and Wisconsin Medicaid payments are hard pressed to combat addiction with community-based treatment alternatives instead of incarceration. Sen. Kathleen Vinehout describes the challenges and offers solutions.


ALMA, WI - “Let me tell you a story,” the county supervisor said.

A man I’ll call Frank was picked up for drunk driving. Frank faced a felony charge. Frank was sent by our local judge to a county-based program funded with a grant. Over the years, the county supervisor helped the county get funding from the Treatment Alternatives and Diversion (TAD) program.

“The drug counsellor asked the man why he drank a quart of vodka a day,” the supervisor told me. The man said, “My teeth hurt.”

Counsellors worked to get Frank BadgerCare, and medical care. They got him to a dentist, who pulled all his teeth. Frank spent two months on antibiotics. He’s now sober and able to do some fishing – something he loves and hadn’t done in years. The supervisor thanked me for my help, saying the TAD program saved money and saved lives.

In county court rooms, judges have alternatives to sending those suffering from mental health and addiction issues to prison. But not all judges and counties are able to use this life changing program. In the current budget, the state funds only a tenth of what is needed to expand TAD statewide. In the alternative I wrote to the Governor’s budget, I showed how to pay for fully expanding the program with the same state dollars by rearranging priorities.

Folks like Frank need treatment, not prison. Our state mental health system is not adequate. As a consequence, law enforcement and prison costs are increasing, as lives are wasted.

For example, the new Secretary of Corrections recently told the Audit Committee seventy percent of Wisconsin inmates suffer from addiction and over eighty percent of women in prison have mental health conditions.

Minnesota has a very different approach to mental health and addiction recovery. Minnesota is called by some the Land of Ten Thousand Treatment Centers. Years ago, the state invested in a community-based mental health and addiction recovery system. Now, with a similar crime rate and similar population, our neighbor to the west has less than half its residents in prison compared to Wisconsin.

The key to helping those with addiction and mental health challenges are community-based resources. For two decades, the state cut or level funded local governments in the “shared revenue” counties and cities received. In addition to facing decreased funding, state officials piled on more requirements with less help.

When the state adds more requirements but no more money, locals describe the combined effect of less money and spending caps as “the vise squeezing counties.”

“Relationships work when they share purpose and responsibility,” a local county health official recently wrote. “The State-County partnership delivering health and human services to Wisconsin residents falls short on many fronts.”

For example, he said, mental health services are coordinated through a system called Comprehensive Community Services. Like the help Frank received, many mental health and addiction recovery services are paid for through Medicaid (MA).

“MA revenues are billed services vulnerable to disallowances [non-payment],” the local official said. “When this occurs, the county provider is responsible for paying funds back.” With mental health care “the State has taken back hundreds of thousands of dollars but refused to provide guidance to counties … the State provides little technical assistance.”

kathleen-vinehoutWe can and must do better. Wisconsin must treat local governments like the full partners they are in delivering needed mental health services. We must invest in expanding services as the state works with locals to find the best path forward.

To address the struggle families face across our state, Wisconsin must take the Medicaid expansion money from the feds, cover 79,000 additional people with healthcare and use the freed-up state dollars - almost $300 million estimated for this budget – to make a down payment on a community-based mental health and addiction recovery system.

Locals should be at the table when decisions are made. Flexibility is important. One-size does not fit all. Incentivizing local creativity would improve service delivery.

People are suffering. But there is hope. Comprehensive treatment can be available – just like in Minnesota. Wisconsin can become the Land of Fifteen-Thousand Treatment Centers. Now is the time to act to solve the problems of mental health and addiction. This saves lives and saves money.

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Federal and State Decisions Affect Health Insurance Premiums for Wisconsinites

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, 25 July 2018
in Wisconsin

affordablecareCandidate for Governor Kathleen Vinehout argues the state should enact her Badger Health Benefit Marketplace legislation after state and federal actions impact health insurance premiums for Wisconsinites.


MADISON - Recent news on the health front should give Wisconsinites pause when considering the direction our state is headed related to affordable health coverage.

Earlier this year, the Governor signed Special Session bills into law that limit access to needed healthcare. For example, one provision of the new law will essentially require cash strapped farmers to sell their cows or essential farm equipment to obtain BadgerCare. Another example is a provision that will set in place outside work requirements for caregivers (who already have a full-time, non-paying job) but rely on BadgerCare.

For the state to enforce these new provisions, the federal government, through a waiver process, must grant approval. The state filed its waiver request, which is pending approval by the Trump administration. However, a recent federal court ruling stopped similar plans in Kentucky. The legal wrangling leaves uncertainty for the Governor who hopes to save costs by eliminating BadgerCare coverage for some Wisconsinites.

healthcare-family-drThose who may lose BadgerCare cannot afford commercial policies. Folks without insurance often delay needed care, end up sicker, and seek care in the Emergency Room. Those without insurance frequently cannot pay for care even though hospitals are required to provide it. To make ends meet, hospitals raise rates for everyone else. Thus, more uninsured folks mean higher costs for all of us.

A recent poll, reported last week in The Hill, found 49% of those surveyed said it is more difficult to afford health insurance premiums, doctor visits and prescription drugs this year, compared to last year. In addition, almost 80% of respondents believe the government should be doing more to make health care more affordable.

However, action at the federal level is making health care less affordable.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) pegged the GOP repeal of Affordable Care Act (ACA) individual mandate as accounting for an average ten-percent rise in insurance premiums next year.

The Trump administration abruptly stopped payments under the ACA to help even-out costs faced by health plans. The payments are made to plans that incur high costs from unusually sick patients. The idea behind the policy is similar to the basic idea of insurance – sharing the costs by sharing the risk. The interruption of “risk adjustment” funds brings higher premiums as some health plans face higher than expected medical bills.

Federal officials also announced they were cutting funds for navigators, or outreach nonprofits that help people sign up for health coverage under the ACA. Less money for this important work means less people covered – and fewer people in the pool results in higher costs for the rest of us.

Last month the Trump administration announced it would stop defending the ACA from a constitutional challenge that could affect protections for people with pre-existing conditions. This decision has significant implications for folks in our state. Kaiser Health News reported last week that residents in GOP-led states opposed to the ACA have the most to lose if pre-existing conditions are not protected.

Wisconsin and Texas led the list of twenty governors and state attorneys general that filed a challenge to the constitutionality of the ACA in court last February.

The new Kaiser Family Foundation study estimated at least one in four Wisconsinites under age 65 have one or more pre-existing conditions that could cause them to be denied health coverage, or have a condition excluded from coverage or would be forced to pay exorbitant rates to keep coverage. These conditions could include anything from acne to migraines to pregnancy.

Just living to age sixty means one has a pre-existing condition. Not surprisingly, the study reported data from 2008, which was prior to enactment of the ACA, those of ages 60-64 were most likely to experience insurance denials based on pre-existing conditions.

kathleen-vinehoutOne answer to rising health costs is to create our own health care marketplace. I authored the Badger Health Benefit Marketplace and introduced it as Senate Bill 359. This uniquely Wisconsin marketplace provides lower cost insurance to owners and employees of small businesses and those who buy insurance on their own.

While Wisconsin rates for individual insurance went up an average of 38% in 2018 over 2017, a system similar in Minnesota dropped costs an average of ten-percent in 2018. Minnesota’s costs for an average low-cost silver plan are expected to drop another 11% in 2019.

Our state must do better at creating policy to provide affordable health care for all.

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Honoring Our Aging Veterans

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 July 2018
in Wisconsin

veterans-agingSen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about the importance of honoring Wisconsin veterans by providing quality care at our state veterans’ homes and the work the LAB did to investigate staffing problems and maintenance issues at the King Veteran home in Waupaca.


ALMA, WI - “How are things at our veterans’ homes?” the Korean War vet asked me at a forum on veterans’ issues. The man was particularly concerned about what he heard about care at our Veterans Homes.

Veterans issues are personal for so many, including my family. Both my parents were veterans. My nephew serves now. My dad was a medic who flew rescue missions into Korea. Like so many, his experiences haunted him. He never talked about the trauma until he was dying.

On July 27th, we will celebrate the 65th anniversary of Korean War Armistice Day. Wisconsin is required by law to issue a proclamation for the observation of this day, asking the public to contemplate the sacrifices members of the U.S. Armed Forces made during the Korean War.

This commemoration, and a similar recognition for Vietnam Veterans Day on March 29th, exists because of the efforts of Alan Wright and many others who worked with me in 2009 to establish these important commemorations.

kathleen-vinehoutVeterans served us and it’s our obligation to serve them. When we strive to provide the best service to our veterans, we show our deep gratitude for their service. Correcting the deficits at our state veterans’ homes is a moral imperative in our service to veterans.

Wisconsin has three veterans’ homes: King in Waupaca County, Union Grove in Racine County and Chippewa Falls. Through these homes and other programs, Wisconsin made a commitment to care for our veterans. State officials are not keeping our promise.

Several audits, conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB), including one released in the past year, provide details on what must be done to improve care at our homes, especially at King.

Our veterans are more in need. For example, over nine years of the audit study, there was a 28% increase in the number of residents at King with dementia and a 262% increase in the residents diagnosed with PTSD. Staffing, although increased a few years ago, hasn’t kept up with the increased needs of seriously ill veterans. Neither has staff training. Vacant positions are increasing. Mandatory overtime may be causing unsafe conditions.

Regular staff shortages pulled caregivers to other areas, leaving veterans without the consistent care they needed.

LAB conducted a survey of staff. Among those who participated, eighty-six percent of staff said they “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” that King was adequately staffed; three-quarters of staff reported morale as being “poor” or “very poor.” Almost forty percent said they planned to look for another job in the next six months.

These results indicate very serious management problems. At the audit committee hearing, members pleaded with leaders to take these issues seriously. I left the hearing unconvinced changes would happen.

Auditors looked at concerns related to deteriorating facilities and found the Department of Veterans Affairs did not develop a systematic process for comprehensively identifying and assessing building projects. Auditors detailed a long list of needed projects including several related to potential resident safety.

Auditors documented money transferred from King to other programs. A lack of funds likely led to delayed maintenance, poor salaries and staff vacancies.

Especially serious was the way potential abuse, neglect and misappropriation of residents’ property were handled by management. In the LAB survey, thirty-seven respondents said they experienced negative consequences when they reported neglect, abuse, or misappropriation of property. Over one-third of respondents who witnessed abuse, neglect or misappropriation of property did not “always” report it – likely because they were afraid of negative consequences.

State and federal laws exist to protect our residents. Wisconsin must protect veterans and their families by protecting workers from retaliation when they report problems. We must better train managers so they understand the legal and moral problems of retaliating against workers who speak up. We must discipline and remove managers who retaliate.

To fix our veterans’ institutions, officials must stop treating King like a “cash cow” and siphoning money away from the home. Instead, wages should be raised, more staff should be hired, and facilities should be repaired.

We must engage staff, residents, and family members in finding solutions, by creating councils or regular, decision-making bodies that involve everyone in problem solving.

We face solvable problems. As stewards of our veterans’ sacrifices we must fix them.

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Critical Needs Go Unmet at Our Struggling Schools

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 July 2018
in Wisconsin

school-kidsThe Wisconsin Budget Project recently provided insight into state school aid, which has not been restored to the funding level in 2011 when Gov. Walker made historic cuts. With schools struggling with less aid and increasing needs, resolving funding issues and the school funding formula are a priority.


BIRCHWOOD, WI - How can a rural school meet critical needs when money for schools is less than adequate?

“A school board member went door-to-door asking for support,” Birchwood Superintendent Diane Johnson said to members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding. “He raised $3,000 to get the front doors locked.” The money raised was for purchase of a long-needed intercom system at the front door. “The doors were not locked during the day until this month,” Dr. Johnson told Commission members in May.

Dr. Johnson went on to say next would come an effort to buy key fobs for the staff and re-key the doors. The school didn’t lock the doors or change the locks for over 50 years. With a population of less than 500 in Birchwood, “everyone has a key to the school.”

School funding is not adequate for students in many communities across our state. Mounting mental health and school safety issues are just some of the problems facing superintendents, school boards and bookkeepers like Birchwood’s Bonita Basty.

Ten percent of Birchwood’s tight school budget must be transferred to cover required costs for students with special needs, Ms. Basty explained. In addition, the small district is depleting its reserve funds to cover increasing costs for students with special needs.

The state pays only about a quarter of the costs for special education despite the legal requirement that school districts must provide these services. Both federal and state special education reimbursement dropped over the years, while the needs of students grew.

kathleen-vinehoutAcross the state, the Commission heard testimony regarding impossible trade-offs school districts are forced to make between basic building maintenance, school safety, achievement, accountability and student needs.

A new study released by the Wisconsin Budget Project, an initiative of the nonpartisan advocacy group Kids Forward, provided insight into why Wisconsin schools face such difficult challenges and what options exist to make changes in budget priorities.

“In 2019, the state will invest less in public schools than it did in 2011, something that has been true of every year in between as well. In 2019, Wisconsin school districts will receive $153 million less in state aid than in 2011 in inflation-adjusted dollars, or 2.6% less,” noted the Budget Project.

The series of cuts made to schools over the years add up. The Budget Project reported that between 2012 and 2019, Wisconsin spent a cumulative $3.5 billion dollars less in state aid to schools than if the state had retained the 2011 funding level.

Looking at where dollars moved in Wisconsin’s budget, the Budget Project reported the share of tax dollars used for schools dropped since 2011. In that year, Wisconsin spent almost forty percent of tax revenue on school districts. By 2019, this percent is estimated to drop to 32 percent.

The report provided some answers to the question, if WI didn’t spend money on schools, where did the money go? Since 2011, majority lawmakers enacted more than 100 tax changes.

“… some of which are extremely slanted in favor of the wealthy and well connected. One example is the Manufacturing and Agriculture Credit which in 2017 gave 11 filers who each earned over $30 million an average estimated tax cut of $2 million each, according to figures from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The Manufacturing and Agriculture Credit will reduce state revenue by an estimated $324 million in 2019.

“The combined cost of the new tax cuts has climbed each year, starting from a low of $57 million in 2012, and reaching $2 billion in 2019 in inflation-adjusted dollars. The combined total cost of the tax cuts adds up to $8.7 billion over eight years.”

Wisconsin needs to increase funding for schools. One place to go to find dollars without increasing total spending, is the expensive corporate cash subsidies and tax breaks given out in the past eight years.

However, the state also needs to change how money is distributed to districts. We need a new funding formula based on student needs. Much public testimony given to the Commission detailed greater student needs because of having parents suffering from addiction, and students with challenges related to mental illness and trauma. Additionally, there are increasing needs and less state support for students in poverty, with special needs, and English learners.

The Wisconsin Budget Project study makes it clear – money is available if lawmakers are willing to change priorities.

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