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.

Bowing to Political Pressure, UW pulls the plug on WiscNet

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 Monday, 08 July 2013
in Wisconsin

wisnet-logoThis week, State Senator Kathleen Vinehout talks about the future of WiscNet, the University of Wisconsin's successful internet service, and the lobbyists from GOP allied commercial telecommunications companies who want to eliminate it from bid competitions.


MADISON - “It’s a sad day when political pressures from telephone company lobbyists keep us from working together? It’s frustrating, yet fascinating,” read a recent statement from WiscNet officials.

At issue is the decades old relationship between the University of Wisconsin and WiscNet and whether, despite separating from UW, WiscNet will be allowed to contract with the University to provide internet services.

The internet was developed by researchers and education institutions. The Department of Defense and many universities contributed to its creation. To this day universities share data on super-fast connections created and maintained through cooperative efforts of the universities themselves.

WiscNet was a natural outgrowth of work at the UW and its desire to share the internet with public and nonprofit entities. At least 38 other states have similar research and education networks. Many networks operate under the auspices of the state universities and today continue to provide services to local county and municipal governments, health care institutions, libraries and schools.

The thinking is: sharing services lowers the cost of government.

WiscNet evolved into a nonprofit that served 500 members including three quarters of public schools, all libraries, technical colleges, state agencies, the legislature and the court system.

A 2012 Legislative Audit Bureau report showed WiscNet accomplished its goal to bring low-cost internet to public entities. WiscNet fees were substantially lower than published commercial prices especially for high bandwidth users. The audit also showed the network functioned in ways that revealed its UW parentage – sharing staff and using the UW personnel, benefits and accounting systems.

WiscNet’s success attracted the attention of commercial telecommunications companies, especially AT&T. The telecommunications giant is a big player. AT&T spent almost $1 million lobbying state legislators in the last session with 21 lobbyists working on their behalf - more than half were employees. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, last year the company spent $17 million nationwide and ranked 10th out of over 4,000 organizations that lobbied in 2012.

Lobbyists found fertile ground in the State Capitol for germinating their argument that the public sector should not compete with the private sector. Slipped into the 2011-13 budget was a provision that stopped the UW from being a partner in WiscNet. But internet services provided to the UW could still be competitively bid and – presumably- if WiscNet won the bid in open competition they could be awarded a contract like any other company.

This is exactly what happened this spring - in an open and competitively bid process, WiscNet was awarded a contract to provide services for the UW Madison. Part of the justification for this selection was that WiscNet’s initial equipment cost was 85% less than AT&T’s bid. The university claimed it was following the Supreme Court decision that “insures[s] that the public receives the best work or supplies at the most reasonable price”.

In June, AT&T threatened the University in a letter. The UW responded noting they followed the letter of the law in the procuring services from WiscNet; but would be withdrawing their award to WiscNet citing “business and political considerations—including the potential for ongoing appeals, litigation and legislative changes”.

Instead of competitively bidding services, UW Madison will now “begin transitioning to the operation of our own network.” This action prompted the Senate and Assembly higher education-related committees to call a public hearing to further delve into operations at the UW.

All the uncertainty surrounding WiscNet concerns many local superintendents. I spoke with a few local schools districts and learned some schools are ending their relationship with WiscNet and others are leery about the future and looking for options.

One local Instructional Technology Director said he was watching carefully and wondering if his job truly was to bring the lowest cost, best service to his school district.

People complain about the cost of government and encourage schools and local governments to work together. But when the 8,000 pound gorilla shows up in the Capitol and complains they can’t win a bid, often legislators are too eager to change the rules.

Things have gone too far when big companies threaten the state because they’ve lost a bid.

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Wisconsin Needs Smarter Budget Choices

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 Monday, 01 July 2013
in Wisconsin

capitol-takekidsThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout  writes about budget priorities and how she crafted an alternative budget that would leave the state with no structural deficit and a strong balance at the end of the biennium.


ALMA - “Two years ago, Wisconsin made tough choices,” wrote Robert from Mondovi. “The deficit was eliminated, costs were controlled and Wisconsin was back on the track to prosperity.”

The Buffalo County man wanted “relief for the hardworking people of Wisconsin”.

With that in mind, I took a close look at state finances and discovered problems. I talked with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysts and read their papers. I sharpened my pencil and considered options.

The recently passed $70 billion budget spends $4 billion more than the last budget. It is estimated to create a half a billion dollar deficit going into the next budget - even though we started with more money. The economy is improving. Tax revenues are up - a little less $1.5 billion.

Lawmakers who voted for the budget (I was not among them) argued some of the new revenue be returned to taxpayers. Tax rates were changed in this budget. Average taxpayers making $45,000 a year will save about $84 in 2014; about $1.60 a week.

But this budget reaches historic debt levels. As debt increases, more tax dollars go to make debt payments; sort of like using your paycheck to pay the credit card bill.

In the last legislative session instead of making ‘credit card’ payments coming due, Wisconsin postponed paying some debt bills. This was not the first time, but it was the largest total debt postponement.

My mother always said, “Actions have consequences.” She was correct. In this budget the debt not paid comes due with a higher payment - making those ‘credit card’ payments a bigger share of what the state bought with tax dollars.

The rule financial experts follow is no more than 4% of tax money should be spent on debt payment. Ideally debt should be 3 to 3.5% of total general revenue. In the new state budget, debt payments are above the danger zone at 5.25%.

Fewer dollars are left for new investments in the ‘meat and potatoes’ of state government: K-12 and higher education, courts and prisons, local government, and health care.

The result: public schools, the UW, courts and prisons, and local government all received cuts or very modest increases but much less than their share of the $4 billion in new money.

Health received three times its share - over half - of the increase in new money. There will be more health spending but fewer people receiving health services. Why? The Governor won’t accept the federal Medicaid dollars to cover people making between $11,500 and $15,300 a year - costing Wisconsin more including tens of millions of dollars in administration contracts.

So, what would happen if Wisconsin accepted the federal Medicaid money, expanded Family Care (which saves money), invested in drug courts, mental health, schools, and the UW. What if we scrapped the tax rate cut and instead invested in the state’s rainy day fund?

To answer those questions, I put together an alternative budget. I restored money to eliminated agriculture programs and gave all the ‘bed tax’ money back to nursing homes. I fixed a deficit in childcare provider funds and restored cuts to courts and the UW. I paid cash for some new construction projects.

To address two problems facing our state – deteriorating K-12 education and addiction and mental illness - I invested in “Fair Funding for our Future” proposed by State Superintendent Tony Evers and made a big down payment on drug courts and mental health treatment.

On the revenue side, I eliminated new private school state spending and several expensive new initiatives. I didn’t buy 80 new vehicles, got rid of new tax breaks and tax rate changes, and made changes in health administration. I set aside over $600 million in the state’s checkbook which wiped out the structural deficit going into the next budget and had almost $400 million in cash left over.

Wisconsin must wisely invest our $4 billion in new money, set some aside and not be too quick to give folks a $1.60 a week tax cut. This is a much smarter approach and in the long run could provide that ‘relief’ Robert wanted for Wisconsin’s hardworking people.

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Governor Should Veto Last Minute Attempt to Take Cap Off Private Voucher 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 Tuesday, 25 June 2013
in Wisconsin

teacherThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout’s column focuses on voucher schools.  In a last minutes amendment included in the Assembly version of the budget, the Assembly majority created a loophole in the agreed upon cap on enrollment in the voucher school expansion.  Kathleen explains the impact of this provision and calls for a veto.


MADISON - Senators had debated budget passage for nearly eight nonstop hours. In a little over six hours the two-year state budget would be headed to the Governor.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca beckoned me off the Senate floor. “There’s something you need to know,” he said. “Something in the budget no one seems to understand.”

A few of us gathered in a nearby conference room. “There are two ways a private school can get state tax dollars,” Representative Barca explained.

If a “choice” private school is in Milwaukee or Racine, the school can enroll any number of students. The state would pay tuition, up to a new dollar limit, for these students.

New to this budget was a statewide expansion of public money for private schools. Twenty-five schools would be chosen across the state. Together these schools could enroll up to 500 students in the first year of the budget and 1,000 students in the second year.

But, in a last minute amendment, a loophole was created.

A third option allowed any of the 112 “choice” schools in Milwaukee and Racine to move around the state and enroll an unlimited number of public school students in their private school at taxpayers’ expense. These schools would not be subject to the enrollment ‘cap’ of 500/1,000 students.

Listening to the explanation I was concerned this last minute amendment would cost more money, leaving less to our struggling public schools. I also worried private for-profit schools could set up ‘satellite’ schools across the state. Others expressed similar concerns.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers issued a statement saying, “Without any advance notice or debate, Assembly Republicans passed a last minute amendment that will increase the cap on statewide vouchers by 40 percent in each year.” He pegged the total cost of the state cost of the private school program at $420 million over the next two years.

Senator Schulz who voted with Democrats to remove the voucher expansion said in a statement, “When my Senate colleagues negotiated the statewide expansion of the voucher program with the Governor and the Assembly, a hard cap on enrollment was the deal breaker. It appears the deal is already broken.”

Public money for private schools has not proven to be an effective use of taxpayer dollars. The over twenty-year-old program should be reevaluated with the same rigor applied to our public schools. Instead a coalition of the politically well-connected sought to expand the reach of private, sometimes for-profit, schools across Wisconsin- beginning with suburban Milwaukee and Racine.

Lobbying groups hired three former Assembly Speakers and, according the Democracy Campaign, spent nearly $10 million over the past 10 years- much of this in the last election cycle.

Beneficiaries of the expansion include the School Choice Wisconsin Board Chairman, Mr. Andrew Neumann who oversees operations of several voucher schools.

Andrew’s father, Mark Neumann started his first “taxpayer-funded school with 49 students and in eight years has mushroomed to nearly 1,000 students in four schools,” according to a 2010 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.

The article went on to report that Mark Neumann, a former gubernatorial and US Senate candidate, “operates three religious based schools in Milwaukee, a fourth nonreligious school in Phoenix and has plans to build clusters of schools across the country”. By 2010, the Journal Sentinel reported, Neumann’s Hope Christian schools received nearly $22 million from state taxpayers.

It’s hard for western Wisconsin residents to understand the intense marketing and efforts of enticement that come with public spending for private schools. What once began as an effort to help poorer families escape failing inner city schools has turned into a rush for taxpayers’ cash with little oversight or accountability.

I urge the Governor to veto budget provisions that allow taxpayer funded ‘franchise’ private schools to expand statewide without limits. These majority party efforts to slip changes into the state budget without debate or knowledge by the minority party or the press is a bad practice.

The state budget is already loaded with nearly 100 items of unrelated policy. Like each of those record-breaking number of policy items, this new expansion of private, franchise schools needs its own public vetting.

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Walker's “Eat Dessert First” Budget

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, 19 June 2013
in Wisconsin

walkerSenator Kathleen Vinehout gives an overview of provisions included in the AB 40, the 2012-15 State Budget Bill and the impact of some of those provisions. Spending in this budget does not decline and includes the revenue lost to the state as a result of the tax cuts, leaving less revenue for the state’s largest financial investments: local government, education, health care and corrections. It also increases debt and leaves a structural deficit for the future.


MADISON - “I love to eat dessert first,” the Prescott man said as he munched on cake. He smiled and said, “The problem is you don’t have room for the good things you need to eat.”

The first course of dessert in the state budget is a tax cut for about seventy five percent of tax filers. For a taxpayer making $30,000 a year the tax cut would be about $50 a year and for someone making over $300,000 about $1,500.

Tax rates would be collapsed - income at the $14 an hour range would be taxed at the same rate as income made at the $150 an hour range.

“It’s hard to be against a tax cut,” my colleague told me. “But the rest of the budget suffers because of this cut.”

The tax change would permanently remove about $600 million of state revenue. Because spending is not reduced – this budget spends $4 billion more than the last – a half a billion dollar structural deficit is created down the road.

The second course of dessert is almost 100 policy changes unrelated to the state’s finances that, in many cases, reward special interests or benefit certain lawmakers. One example is elimination of the UW sponsored Center for Investigative Reporting; another is overturning a Supreme Court decision on lead paint.

The real meat and potatoes of state government are state operations and funding sent to our local communities, colleges and universities. The state budget affects many parts of our lives. For simplicity’s sake I’ll mention just a handful of major programs with a few details on what’s in the budget.

Six items make up 85 percent of the state budget: health, K-12 education, corrections, transportation, the UW system and local government. Each of these areas of spending deserves a thorough look at how to improve operations. Unfortunately most of the discussion on the budget hasn’t focused on the meat and potatoes.

Health spending increases by over two billion dollars despite the Governor’s proposal to end BadgerCare for nearly 100,000 people. A simple change in eligibility would have saved over one hundred million in state funds. Instead the state spends more and fewer people are covered by Medicaid.

K-12 education receives a slight increase, but a large part of this goes to fund a statewide expansion of public spending for private schools.

The prison budget adds millions more to account for an increase in the prison population. Drug court, community policing and other programs to reduce crime and addictions are eliminated or in jeopardy.

Money for roads and bridges is dwindling, as autos are more efficient. As gas tax collections fall, lawmakers consider other ways to fund transportation. Instead of solving this long-term problem, the budget transfers nearly half a billion from the general fund – leaving less to fund K-12 schools, UW and other state expenses.

Local government and the university system receive very little additional money leaving questions about how these entities will cut services as they try to cover increasing costs.

Long-term finances are stable but precarious. The economy is improving. Tax collections are expected to increase. But financial forecasts are inconsistent. For example, budget writers built into the budget several hundred million in new tax collections. Yet a recent forecast by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve shows Wisconsin’s economy contracting over the next six months.

This budget continues to increase debt. Not enough money is put away should the state face another economic down turn. Following the law and setting aside 2% of the general fund as a cushion in the state’s checkbook could improve finances. Instead, the Governor changes the law and keeps a mere half a percent as a financial cushion in the reserve fund.

Every parent who tells their children not to eat dessert first knows there will not room for the meat and potatoes. They also know there’s going to be a crash from eating all that sugar.

Wisconsin’s fiscal sugar crash is likely to show up in the spring of 2015 when the next Governor and lawmakers pick up the pieces set in motion in June of 2013.

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Do State Lawmakers Really Know All the Details of Walker's Medicaid Plan?

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 Monday, 10 June 2013
in Wisconsin

walker-rejects-med-moneyWill the truth on Walker's medicaid blunder get out of the Madison-Milwaukee echo chamber? Republican lawmakers are fooling themselves and the public if they believe Walker's talking points on health care reform, says Senator Kathleen Vinehout in her latest column on the Governor’s plan for Medicaid that was affirmed by the Joint Finance Committee.


MADISON - “We want to make things better,” one of the Finance Committee members recently told his colleagues. This Medicaid plan, he said, “Protects taxpayers, strengthens the safety net and lowers total cost to taxpayers.”

What actually happened would cost the state a hundred million more dollars than full Medicaid expansion, drop coverage for 84,000 people and leave almost half a billion of federal dollars on the table in this coming budget.

Only half of those who lost Medicaid will likely ever sign up for private insurance. When they do, their federal cost to taxpayers will be $3,000 more per person than if they had stayed on the Medicaid program.

Some lawmakers argue the safety net will be strengthened by opening up the Medicaid doors to all those who make less than $11,500 a year for a single person; that those who lose Medicaid are easily covered under the exchange and in the long run taxpayers save.

The problem: private insurance costs more to buy and more to administer. Poor people are unlikely to sign up for something they can’t afford.

Fiscal Bureau analysts caution the “take-up” rate, meaning those poor families who actually sign up for private insurance, will be much less than the near perfect number estimated in the administration’s budget.

This concern is justified. According to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study from last summer, an estimated one half of those losing Medicaid will never buy private insurance.

Those who do will receive federal tax credits and subsidies. Because of the increasing cost of subsidies and credits, CBO estimates federal spending would rise by roughly $3,000 per person by 2022. This is the difference between exchange subsidies of about $9,000 per person and estimated Medicaid savings of roughly $6,000.

Some analysts are quietly grateful at least the Governor decided to allow those up to 100% of the Federal Poverty Limit (FPL) - $11,500 for a single person - to receive Medicaid. Anyone below 100% of FPL is not even eligible for subsidies or tax credits. This limited lawmakers’ choices.

The majority of the state’s budget writing committee affirmed the only choice the Governor had if he wanted to continue to argue that he still opposed “ObamaCare”: cover those with incomes at or below 100% of FPL and drop (or phase out) Medicaid for parents who now receive Medicaid and make up to twice the FPL.

Simply put – if you make under $11,500 as an individual or $15,500 as a couple you will be eligible for Medicaid. If not, you’d better find out about the exchange because you can’t get on Medicaid.

Three additional factors add sting to this decision. Unlike the federal law, the Governor’s plan does not modify your income by dropping 5% to determine eligibility. Second, the plan changes the law to require that depreciation be counted as income. This is a big change for farmers who argue depreciation is not real money they can save but an adjustment on tax forms. Third, 18 year-olds are no longer covered unless they are still in high school or technical college and will graduate by age 19. Foster children are still covered until age 26.

Republican leaders appear to be following the Arkansas approach of partial Medicaid expansion. However, if Arkansas is the model, the Governor might have duped Republicans on the Finance Committee.

To move towards the Governor’s plan, the feds require the state to seek a waiver of federal law. If Arkansas’ case is prologue, Wisconsin may be required to treat those dropped from Medicaid as if they are still on Medicaid - with choice of at least two qualifying health plans and “wrap-around” Medicaid-like services if benefits are less or cost sharing is more.

Correspondence from the feds to Arkansas makes it clear the feds will evaluate each waiver on a case-by-case basis. Budget language makes it a clear this waiver must be sought and followed. This leaves a lot up the air.

Especially for elected officials who want to hit the campaign trail saying, “I said ‘no’ to ObamaCare.”

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