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.

Blue Ribbon Commission Explores School Funding Inequity

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The vote next Tuesday is “no.”

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Giving a Voice to People Who Live with Disabilities

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Listening to Those Who Cannot Hear

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, 14 March 2018
in Wisconsin

sign-interpreter-jack-jason-marlee-matlinImagine you are deaf. You can sign to those who understand but most of the hearing world doesn’t know your language. Current law requires state institutions must provide competent interpretation services, but a Senate Committee Chairman may be trying to change all that.


The issue, a bill (AB 589) to upgrade skill levels and regulation of Sign Language Interpreters had bi-partisan support and those in the Deaf community were pleased with the original bill language. But then the bill was significantly changed when the Senate Chair of the Public Benefits, Licensing and State-Federal Relations committee, who is ideologically opposed to professionalizing Sign Language Interpreters, advanced other legislation to eliminate certain occupational and professional licensure.

MADISON - “The quality of interpreters is so important. I need someone who has the fluent skills to work with me,” Leah Simmons explained. “Their lack of knowledge reflects negatively on me.”

Professor Simmons uses specific jargon and language. Her colleagues and students judge her by the language she uses. She cannot communicate directly to hearing students.

Professor Simmons is Deaf. She is part of a community of Deaf and Hard of Hearing people working to upgrade skill levels and regulation of Sign Language Interpreters.

At the same time, ideologically conservative groups from outside Wisconsin are working to de-professionalize many occupations. Sign Language Interpreters are on the top of their list.

kathleen-vinehoutI became aware of the effort to eliminate certain occupational and professional licensing as a member of the Senate Public Benefits, Licensing and State-Federal Relations committee. A few months ago, this committee held a daylong hearing on legislation setting up a process to eliminate some occupational and professional licensing. Professionals from architects to registered nurses came to testify against the bills. Ideologically conservative lobbying groups spoke favorably. Several groups were from out of the state.

Moving in the Assembly was a bill (Assembly Bill 589) to increase the skill level and accountability of sign language interpreters. The bill, authored by Representative Jonathan Brostoff, was cosponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers including myself.

Not a single person testified against AB 589 in the Assembly. However, the Senate Committee Chairman appeared to be ideologically opposed to professionalizing Sign Language Interpreters. He refused to hold a hearing unless the bill was significantly changed.

To accommodate the Senate Chairman, a substitute amendment was passed by the Assembly. This amendment stripped out all the original bill language and replaced it with a much watered-down version. Lost in this process were important provisions to increase skills and oversight, including the creation of a board to oversee quality and accountability and a process for resolving complaints.

For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, having oversight and a complaint mechanism for poorly performing sign language interpreters is essential.

Imagine, you cannot hear. You can sign to those who understand but most of the hearing world doesn’t understand your language. By law, our institutions must provide interpretation services. However, the quality of interpreters can vary dramatically from place to place. You may never know what you aren’t able to hear.

During the Senate committee hearing, we heard testimony from Deaf people. Some shared fears that without proper interpretation service, a person could be unjustly accused and not able to defend himself or herself. With no way to complain about or remove inferior interpreters, this scenario could happen repeatedly.

Massively changing AB 589 at the last minute created innumerable problems.

“This amendment puts the Deaf community in a difficult and awkward position,” wrote a leader in the Deaf community. “We do not like the idea that unproven hearing interpreters can continue interpreting in ANY setting without restrictions. That means a hearing interpreter that recently graduated from college is legally allowed to interpret in a high-risk medical, mental health and legal setting. There are many cases where unproven interpreters are interpreting in high risk setting[s] resulting in medical errors, inappropriate diagnosis, and even unlawful confinement.”

Representative Brostoff summed up the problem facing Senate Committee members who were asked to vote on the amended bill. “On balance, [the bill is] going to do more good than harm by a little bit. But there must be more fixes next session. Doing nothing has a cost, too.” When I asked him about the vote, he said, “I don’t know, it’s a tough one.” Rep. Brostoff is firmly committed to bringing back his original bill next year.

The past few years I have seen a troubling trend: the overt influence of ideological groups, mostly from outside the state, wanting to remake Wisconsin in their own image. The groups demand allegiance. Their ideology is absolute. Some lawmakers are quick to do their bidding even though the bills they push provide no benefit for the people of our state.

Our process of political deliberation exists to encourage public input. The peoples’ elected leaders weigh this input and make careful decisions in resolving difficult challenges. For democracy to truly work, lawmakers must set ideology aside, listen to the words of the people and balance competing interests.

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One Step Moves Us Forward to More Affordable Healthcare

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 March 2018
in Wisconsin

affordablecareA new law creates Risk Corridors* for Health Care insurance providers in Wisconsin, a technical mechanism to help level the risk for insurers. Minnesota enacted a similar law to achieve a premium reduction, and also created their own health care network and accepted Medicaid expansion dollars, ideas that could benefit Wisconsin.


MADISON - “Lord willing, and the creek don’t rise, I’ll see you Tuesday.” I said as I left the office in Madison.

By the next day, the creek at the base of my farm’s steep driveway had risen over the road. The rushing water cut a channel through the gravel town road, making the road impassable.

My forward-thinking husband kept an eye on the water’s progress and moved vehicles over to the other side before the rushing water completely cut through the road.

This morning twelve bluebirds and a robin hung out by the bird feeders. Spring comes one step at a time: snow melt, more snow, more melting and mud. The old farmers say snow must fall three times on a robin’s tail. Another big snowfall this week is snowfall number one on the robin’s tail.

Back in Madison, at the State Capitol, there is not much evidence of a thaw between the Senate and Assembly or between the majority and the minority parties. However, the Senate did pass a bipartisan bill to help lower health insurance premiums.

“What do you think of Risk Corridors?” an older Barron County farmer recently asked me at a public meeting in Eau Claire. Quite surprised, I asked him “How did you know about “risk corridors?”

“I’m paying attention!” he smiled. “And, I pay too much for health care. I think this plan will help lower my premiums.”

I agreed, “It’s a good idea and I voted for the bill.” The rest of our group looked very puzzled.

Risk corridors is a wonky phase describing an idea to lower premiums under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). I explained the plan like this: Remember when we had Blue Cross Blue Shield as not for profit health insurance. Plans were community rated – meaning everyone paid the same price regardless of age and health. This was an “up-front” leveling or sharing of risk for insurance companies.

Risk corridors are similar in purpose, but a more behind the scenes leveling. Think of risk corridors like a profit and loss sharing mechanism to help insurers balance risk.

The Barron County farmer joins about 200,000 people in Wisconsin who buy insurance on their own through the healthcare.gov marketplace.

Wisconsin saw premiums in the marketplace increase on average 36% from 2017 to 2018. Many families were dropped by their health plans and had to find other insurance. Still others dropped coverage because of price increases.

Minnesota took up the idea of risk corridors and lowered 2018 insurance premiums under Obamacare by 20%, compared to where premiums would have been without risk corridors. This savings was possible in part because Minnesota has its own marketplace – MNsure – and expanded Medicaid (MinnesotaCare). These are two ideas I strongly support and would help Wisconsin get to Minnesota’s 20% premium drop.

Senate Bill 770, the bill to create risk corridors, recently passed the Legislature and was signed into law by the Governor. The bill passed in an interesting bipartisan vote. Some Republicans voted “no” because they thought the bill went too far; some Democrats voted against it because they didn’t think the bill went far enough.

Leaving the event in Eau Claire I reflected on the two persistent questions I heard at the forum: how are you going to fix health care and how are Democrats and Republicans going to work together?

With SB 770, we took a small step forward. Just a small step on the long road toward healthcare for all - but in today’s political climate perhaps only small steps are possible.

Politics often seems to be the art of the possible. I strongly believe whatever steps forward we CAN take, we SHOULD take.

Spring does not arrive all at once. We welcome the first robin, and see the robin as the first sign of the coming of spring. So it is with health care; I welcome any step forward as a sign that we can make our way down the road.

We never get to the end of the road until we travel it.

****

* Risk Corridors can be described as a healthcare exchange re-insurance pool where participating insurers who MADE MONEY in a given year would kick a percentage of their profits into the pool, administered by the Federal Government, from which any insurers who LOST MONEY during that same year could recoup their losses.

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