Wednesday December 19, 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 , was one of the courageous Wisconsin 14, and ran for Governor again in 2018.

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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Hemp Growing Pains

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 July 2018
in Wisconsin

hemp-farmerWisconsin farmers are facing challenges starting the new industrial hemp pilot program. Now confidentiality roadblocks are generating a new organization to connect growers, processors, retailers and consumers to establish and promote a dynamic hemp market.


ALMA, WI - “I, as a licensed hemp grower, cannot get a list of hemp processors in Wisconsin,” wrote Butch Mondeau. He stressed the problem is "a state road block.”

Mr. Mondeau is an Eau Claire County hemp farmer. He was planning to sell his crop to the company that supplied seeds but recently learned the company will only buy back certified organic hemp crops. Mr. Mondeau’s farm is not certified organic. Looking for someone to buy the crops growing in his field proved a more complex task than expected.

The new law legalizing hemp keeps confidential all contact information for hemp growers and processors in the state. This makes it difficult for farmers to find buyers for their crops in Wisconsin.

kathleen-vinehoutI recently spoke with Rob Richard of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF). “We were concerned growers would be harassed by people who didn’t understand hemp,” said Mr. Richard, who serves as Senior Director of Government Relations. We worked together during the passage of the bill.

Perhaps lawmakers should rethink keeping hemp growers and processors confidential. Mr. Richard suggested one option is to allow farmers and processors to “opt in or opt out of public information so growers can access the list.”

Meanwhile, farmers with hemp crops in the field whose marketing plan fell through need immediate help.

Mr. Richard’s advice is to proceed with caution. “You have to find a buyer and have a plan on what to do with the product.” He noted processors are coming into the state to “manufacture and sell CBD [oil]. Processors are also coming in to deal with grain and fiber, but this is slower.”

Mr. Richard is working with former Legislative Council attorney Larry Konopacki to create the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance (WHA), which will work to bring processors, retailers and consumers together with farmers.

The organization is just getting off the ground. Connecting farmers and processors is one of the biggest challenges now.

“There are a lot of people who want to make money, but not a lot doing advocacy, education and marketing,” Mr. Konopacki told me. “Growing pains’ is a good way to describe it. There are the regular farming problems; equipment, harvesting, and growing conditions. But there are added problems with varieties and markets.”

“There are so many different kinds of hemp,” Mr. Konopacki pointed out. “It’s like saying there are vegetables for sale. I don’t want your cauliflower, but I’ll buy your tomatoes. There is a lot of seed growing but most of it is starting out organic. This is a market that really likes organic.”

Advocacy is needed to assure retailers, consumers, processors and farmers that hemp and products made from hemp are legal. Some District Attorneys around the state still want to prosecute those in the hemp industry. Uncertainty about transporting raw hemp also creates problems.

“There is still uncertainty about crossing state lines, even though this is allowed under the federal and state hemp pilot program,” said Mr. Konopacki. “A nationwide market wouldn’t have these problems. There’s not a lot of flexibility.”

Efforts to add hemp as a commodity to the national farm bill could help resolve transportation problems and, perhaps, ease marketing concerns. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced bipartisan language to the Senate version of the 2018 Farm Bill that would legalize growing the plant and allow states to set up the best system for regulation. Both Wisconsin U.S. Senators cosponsored the proposal.

Hemp is one of the few bright spots in Wisconsin’s agriculture community. WFBF’s Rob Richard noted, “The economic hardship and morale of farmers is really low right now.” Farmers are looking for alternatives and hemp provides some hope for better cash flow.

Some farmers are sitting on the fence watching their neighbors solve problems related to agronomy and marketing. “I really think you are going to see big growth in Year Two and Year Three,” Mr. Richard said.

Farmers looking for help finding a market for their product or folks interested in being advocates should contact the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance. Especially helpful are people willing to buy hemp.

“If you are a processor or buyer, we know of farmers who would like to connect with you!” Folks can reach Larry Konopacki and the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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Joint Legislative Audit Committee Explores Agency Accountability

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, 26 June 2018
in Wisconsin

wisc-capitol-domeAt a recent Committee hearing, members made it clear the UW must enact Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) recommendations regarding the UW and affiliated organizations. Regardless of the audit, the recommendations provide a roadmap to resolving issues found by the auditors.


MADISON - What should we do if the folks in charge don’t fix things they know are broken?

At a recent public hearing of the Joint Committee on Audit, on which I serve as ranking minority member, lawmakers publically pondered how to hold government accountable if they repeatedly ignored audit findings.

The audit of the University of Wisconsin System came about from the alleged illegal transfer of public money to a private foundation by former UW-Oshkosh administrators. Two former administrators recently appeared in court on felony charges.

The recently released audit by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) did not address the court case but provided details on the relationship between UW, its foundations, and other affiliated organizations.

Auditors found an array of problems. For example, a UW-Oshkosh employee placed public money in an affiliated organization and did not return all the money despite being instructed to by the Chancellor. In other situations, UW employees received full-time UW salaries, but they worked part-time at an affiliated organization. UW foundations did not always reimburse the UW for the public space or staff.

Most disconcerting for lawmakers was the apparent lack of compliance by the UW in correcting recurring problems and a lack of full access to records to complete the audit. As a consequence, auditors could not fully answer lawmakers’ questions.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle publically explored what to do to force compliance with audit recommendations.

Over and over again, lawmakers repeated some version of “sending as strong a message as we can” to hold the UW accountable. I explored the possibility of using subpoena powers to require agencies to turn over documents. My colleague, Senator Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), suggested we take a much stronger approach to compelling agencies to release necessary information and comply with LAB recommendations.

Senator Kapenga proposed the UW and any other noncompliant agency should face strict financial penalties for either withholding information or refusing to comply with audit recommendations. He shared that when companies did not provide information to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) - the federal financial watchdog would assess financial penalties. Senator Kapenga suggested a $50,000 fine for every instance of repetitive noncompliance.

kathleen-vinehoutAll members of the Joint Audit Committee share Senator Kapenga’s frustration with agencies not providing auditors complete and accurate information and agencies not complying with audit recommendations. Too often, audits include recurring findings that should have been resolved when the agency complied with the LAB recommendations.

Our recent hearing dealt, in part, with recurrent computer security issues at the UW. For many years, auditors found problems with IT controls over accounting, payroll and student data. Without protections, data is vulnerable. The state could suffer losses.

Unresolved, recurring problems that leave the state vulnerable affect many agencies.

Other audits found that the Department of Health Services failed to enact recommendations to address poor compliance with required computer matches to stop inmates from receiving FoodShare benefits. The Department of Employee Trust Funds had repeated findings related to internal financial controls in seven of the prior ten years.

One of the most egregious repeated audit finding was with the state’s economic development programs. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporations (WEDC) did not independently verify whether companies that promised to create jobs with public money actually created those jobs. Further, auditors called into question the job numbers released by WEDC.

These examples of noncompliance, repeated year after year, are only known because of the continual auditing conducted by the LAB.

The steadfast work of auditors to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of state government is critical to the public and to our legislators. Reports provide us reliable information about the action (or inaction) of state government, an assessment of whether or not programs met their purpose and whether money was properly spent. Moreover, the recommendations offered by the LAB provide a roadmap forward in addressing problems.

How seriously agencies take these recommendations falls on lawmakers. The clear message to the UW from the members of the Joint Audit Committee was “get the job done.”

The audit recommendations are the means to the end, which is better government. If we are going to be better stewards of the peoples’ money, lawmakers must now hold government accountable.

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