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.

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

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 06 February 2018
in Wisconsin

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please tell your Legislators to Vote No!

****

Read 10 Special Session Bill here.

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

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Farmers Advocate for Agriculture and Rural Communities

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 30 January 2018
in Wisconsin

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FoodShare Bill "Kicking Us When We Are Down"

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 23 January 2018
in Wisconsin

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Haste Empowers the "Shadow Legislature"

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, 16 January 2018
in Wisconsin

mta-madisonLast week, 49 committees took action on 150 bills. This hasty process allows for out-of-state “Shadow Legislature” groups to push for action on bills while Wisconsin citizens struggle to keep up with the process and make their voice heard.


MADISON, WI - “Who put all this policy in the budget?” I whispered to my colleague the night the budget passed. “Groups,” he said glumly. “I call it the ‘Shadow Legislature.’”

These groups are often from outside Wisconsin and often funded by large donors. Behind the scenes, they push for policy, added at the last minute, which is unrelated to the state budget but changed laws.

Recently, these groups came out of the shadows to directly ask for what they wanted.

It was a busy week in the Capitol. Forty-nine committee hearings and 150 bills moved in three days. Lawmakers scrambled to research complex bills.

Big issues were debated. Should lawmakers further limit the powers of local schools to set referenda? Should the state take away more local power to set rules related to workers? Voted out of committee were bills to limit pollution rules and shut down state air monitoring.

public-hearing-emptyHearings scheduled with short notice made it difficult for interested citizens to follow the flurry of activity.

In an effort to be informed, Glory Adams from Eau Claire took advantage of the legislative notification system on four topics: local control, and environmental, consumer and worker protections.

Glory found out about a bill to take away local powers that I had missed. I called her to thank her for her vigilance. Glory explained how difficult it was to stay informed. “I get 25 or 30 notices a day,” Glory said. “I can’t keep up with them.”

No one can.

Many bills were moving to public hearings and a vote with only a few days’ notice. The speed and volume of bills made it tough to gain any meaningful public input. Sometimes, the only person testifying on a bill, besides the legislative author of the bill, was a representative of an out-of-state group pushing the bill.

For example, a group from Tallahassee, Florida sent a young man named Jared to push legislation on their behalf. Besides the Senate author, Jared was the only one to testify on the bill. The group is one of several working to do away with professional licensing.

I asked Jared where else he was sent to push for action on bills. “I’ve been working on bills in Arizona,” he said. “I’ve also been to Indiana and Florida. I recently testified in Nebraska.” Jared lives in Washington, D.C. “But I grew up in Illinois,” he offered, hoping that fact would help.

It didn’t.

In two cases, bills were pushed by outside groups to get out from under insurance rules. In one case, a different group from Tallahassee, Florida wanted to take a car insurance product and make it a financial contract. After much research, it seems to me the current law protects consumers from companies looking to make a big profit. Changing the law would eliminate those protections.

In another case, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute pushed a bill to sell a type of health insurance that would not really be health insurance. At least not with the protections currently provided in law.

“People don’t realize these bills don’t even originate in Wisconsin,” Glory Adams noted. “They come from various organizations, and are repeated here… Often times [the bill] doesn’t even apply to Wisconsin. [The groups] aren’t looking at the needs of Wisconsin.”

With so many hearings scheduled at the same time, the chairs of many legislators were empty. “They aren’t even listening to us,” one man said. I began to wonder if the leaders really wanted any public input.

This process of haste and obscurity diminishes the public voice. Lawmakers aren’t hearing Wisconsin citizens who are testifying. How do you create a thoughtful law or fix a bill when you do not hear about the unintended negative effects on Wisconsin from a proposal written by an out-of-state group?

At the end of a long day, I spoke with a woman from Ettrick who shared my opposition to a bill to eliminate the requirement of local government to put notices in the newspaper of their public meetings. “How am I going to know what’s going on?” she asked me.

Someday, when someone asks, “Where did my democracy go?” I will tell them about how haste and the influence of the “Shadow Legislature” suppressed the public voice.

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Why Are My Property Taxes So High

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, 09 January 2018
in Wisconsin

tax-billSenator Vinehout is often asked why property taxes increased while folks hear their property taxes are supposed to be less. She offers some reasons why some people are facing a bigger bill.


MADISON, WI - “I’m paying higher property taxes and I haven’t had a raise in years.” Sound familiar?

You are not alone.

Property taxes are a regressive tax – the tax falls harder on those with less means. Property tax bills take a bigger bite out of the paychecks of people who have not received a raise in years. At the same time, the very wealthy see their tax bill as a smaller share of their increasing piece of the pie.

I fielded many questions lately about property taxes.

Folks are hearing taxes are supposed to be lower. However, they see increases in property taxes and want to know why. “Who is benefiting when I’m not?’ one woman asked.

In some cases, recently passed school referenda are showing up on some tax bills.

Additionally, this year, people are learning that newly passed federal tax changes will prevent them from deducting their property taxes on their federal tax return.

Last month a report by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance provided insight into understanding property taxes. Since statehood and before, the property tax has been Wisconsin’s largest state or local tax. After World War II, needs on a local level grew quickly. Property taxes increased as communities needed schools and other services for their residents. To help offset the increases, lawmakers sent state money to locals in the form of tax credits.

Wisconsin has a long history of providing public services locally. In contrast to some states where services are provided by the state, Wisconsinites value local services and local decision-making. But the state has not kept up in “sharing” the money through an aid called “shared revenue.”

For example, state spending for local aid (shared revenue) from the state was lower in 2017 than in 2007 using last year’s estimates from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

When needs grow, and state money does not keep pace, locals make decisions that end up raising property taxes. Schools are an example. Local schools are funded by state aid and local property taxes.

In recent years, the state has not kept up with the cost of local schools. In real dollars (adjusted for inflation), schools will be getting less in the next two years than a decade ago. To make up for rising costs and less state aid, referenda passed at record high rates. Passing school funding referenda raises property taxes.

When the Legislative session begins in January, a set of bills are pending that would help lower residential property taxes.

Big retail companies, like Walgreens, use a loophole to have their property taxes lowered, which shifts more of the tax to homeowners.

Known as the “dark store loophole” big retail companies have their property assessed as if the store was vacant and that lower value is used in computing property taxes. For example, the Mayor of Appleton testified, that a new drugstore cost $4.7 million to build and was assessed at $1.7 million. The city lost in court and paid the drugstore $800,000 in tax refunds.

“This is not about raising property taxes,” the Mayor told our committee. “This is about fairness. Because residents will pay more. We’re not raising taxes but your taxes are going up.”

The Appleton scenario was repeated as community after community came to testify. To make matters worse for local homeowners, the big stores used more local services that cost the city more resources.

The Mayor of Oshkosh testified, “Easily our police department responds to about 2,000 calls per year [from the big box stores]. The demand for services at these types of stores exceeds anything the so-called “dark store” would ever generate. … This is an unfair shift to residential property owners and their families.”

There are two bipartisan bills to fix the problem. The bills need votes to pass.

Solving the issue of high property taxes means, in part, providing more money from the state to locals. In my alternative budget, I added more money for schools, fixed the school aid formula so the money went where it was needed, and I increased aid to locals (shared revenue) by ten percent.

Increasing state aid makes schools and local government less reliant on property taxes, which takes the increasing burden off local property owners.

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