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.

Confusing Health Coverage Dominates Thanksgiving Conversations

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, 27 November 2017
in Wisconsin

thanksgiving-family-dinnerConversations around the Thanksgiving dinner table reveal people are confused about health care, spending more and unhappy about health insurance coverage. Approaching deadlines are adding a sense of urgency.

ALMA, WI - “My family conversations over Thanksgiving were all about health care,” Mary shared with me. “It’s all so confusing.”

Mary’s family is not alone. From recent conversations, I’m betting that health care dominated talk at many Thanksgiving gatherings.

Premiums are too high. Young people worry about finding money to buy insurance. Older people are trying to figure out Medicare. Many are struggling with unpaid or surprise bills.

Everyone has a health care story.

“My employer pays $3,000 for my HSA [health savings account]. What happens if they decide not to pay?”

“My premium is almost double what it would be if I lived across the river in Minnesota. Why?”

“The insurance company told us the doctor was covered. Then we got a bill for $2,800. Insurance said he was NOT covered. How can this be?”

“Becky turned 26. We can’t keep her on our plan. The company offered to cover her – alone – for another $876 a month. Can you believe it? They are not charging us any less now that Becky’s not on our plan. How can that be?”

“Do I stay on my individual plan or do I move my small business to a ‘small business health options’ Obamacare plan? Can I deduct my insurance as a business expense?”

Great uncertainty this fall about the future of health insurance has fueled confusion. Efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare at the federal level and the Governor’s plan to have the state self-insure state workers, left insurance companies uncertain about the future. Some left the market.

Previously available plans, through the marketplace, are no longer available.

Six plans previously offered to state employees, no longer cover them. My plan was one of them. I researched options, trying to find a covered doctor within an hour’s drive. I couldn’t find one within two hours’ drive! I called the Human Resources person. He spent several days researching my problem. Eventually, he came to my office.

Both of us worked on different phone lines. While waiting on hold for a long time, we chatted. The HR people were very busy. I learned 20-30 lawmakers lost their coverage and their providers. Many other state workers lost their providers. The information provided on the websites was not accurate. One plan offered a provider on the website but told us the provider was NOT covered on the phone. Another plan told us on the phone they DID offer a provider, but that provider was not listed on their website.

I represent about 172,000 people. I’m worried, if I can’t figure health care out, how can everyone else?

Norman, my brother-in-law, echoed the same concern. After a long discussion of the problems facing our family members, he exclaimed, “I am a doctor turned accountant, who’s now retired. I’ve got the time and the knowledge. And I can’t figure this out. How can anyone else understand it?”

One source of confusion is different deadlines. All of them rapidly approaching.

For those who buy insurance for themselves, the sign-up period is much shorter than prior years. By December 15th, people need to sign up for individual health insurance at Sign up is important for everyone who buys insurance on their own. It’s especially important, for adults in their late twenties, who may have previously been able to stay on their parents’ plan.

Small business owners may have a choice to also use the Small Business Health Options Program. This deadline is also December 15th. If you work with an agent, be sure to contact them much sooner. Agents are very busy helping folks talk through decisions.

Medicare recipients have until December 7th to make their choices for the New Year. Others have differing deadlines depending on your employer.

The more insurance companies invent their own rules, the federal government waffles on its commitments and the state fails to provide leadership, the less the public has sympathies for government, insurers or providers.

Confusion over health coverage is driving many I’ve spoken with to throw up their hands and tell me, “I’ve never said this before, but can’t we just have some kind of National Health Insurance?”

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The Zen of Deer Hunting

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, 21 November 2017
in Wisconsin

deer-huntingSen. Vinehout writes about her experience deer hunting on her farm in western Wisconsin, the sights, sounds and beauty of hunting on opening day. She also wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving, and she hopes you enjoy reading her story.

ALMA, WI - Sitting alone in the fog. Blending in with the grass and trees. Don’t move. Just listen. Breathe.

“Caaw, caaw caaw.” Two crows overhead. One higher, hoarser, more nasal. A young one. Looking for food. They are opportunists. Listen.

“Tuk, tuk, tuk tuk, tuk.” A wild turkey to the north.

The soft whoosh of wings overhead. Something flies by. Very still. Don’t move. Wondering. An eagle screeches. A Hairy Woodpecker drums. It’s still early. Dark. Quiet. Watch.

A glimpse of a silhouette on the horizon. Too far. Too dark. Stay still. Watching. Waiting. Listening.

A twig snaps. My heart pounds. Stay still. I silently chuckle as the red squirrel starts to chatter.

The distant sound of gunshots to the west; answered by two shots to the east. The red squirrel again scolds.

The morning turns slowly from night to day. Wisps of fog linger above the hills. Thirty shades of brown and gray. I meditate. The rhythms of nature are so much slower than our hectic lives. The shades of brown and grey so much subtler.

Another silhouette. Not grass. It’s moving. Coming nearer. I watch as it angles away. My heart’s pounding. Be still. Breathe.

More shadows take shape. What I imagined as wild creatures, solidify into small bushes and clumps of dark grasses. Mother Nature playing with my mind.


“Tzeet, tsititititit tit!” a small bird hops from branch to branch in a nearby brush pile. Size of a junco. A flash of a salmon colored breast, an eye stripe. What is that bird?

Daylight settles in. The weather turns from a cool, enveloping dampness to a steadier, drier, cold wind with a bite to it. I zip my jacket and pull down my hat. Breathe.

The sound of wind, a whisper I heard before I felt. Whooshing through the tops of the spruce. The rustling of leaves, the fabric of the blind.

Then settle back to blend once again with the trees and the grasses. Listening. Watching. Waiting.

Movement to the left. A slow turn of my head. I see a flock of White Throated Sparrows flitting in the bushes. Feeding.

“Huuurp, Huuurp, Huurrp.” The nasal, honking of the Trumpeter Swans. The pair spent the summer in the backwater of our valley. I don’t see them, but I know their voices.

“Graaak, Graak.” A throaty deep hoarse call, “Kraaaaah.” The ravens are back.

Many crows calling. “Caarr, Caarrr.” Another answer, “Prrrrk, Prrrk.” They come closer.

Two “caaw” together. Very close. I stick my head out of the blind and peak up. Sitting on branches near me two crows eye me. One cocks her head. She seems to say, “how can you find breakfast sitting there, not moving?” I wait. Listen.

The sound of tires on gravel. Someone else is going to find breakfast.

“ToWEE toWee toWeeto, tweet.” The high rapid song of goldfinches near me. Though I can’t see them in the tall grasses, I know they are flitting from seed head to seed head. Feeding for winter. I listen.

Above me, a chorus of Canadian Geese. A slow paced, mellow, “h-ronk, h-ronk, h-ronk, h-ronk.” I feel drowsy. Minutes pass.

The wind picks up. Building like the sound of trains coming from opposite directions. The fabric of the blind flaps. A sustained gust picks up one edge of the blind. Cold fingers, nose and toes.

The crack of a rifle behind me, echoing down the valley. I’m alert. Heart pounding. Breathe. Minutes pass.

A dark shape in a far-off field. Too far to make the heart beat faster, but fun to watch. She grazes. And I wait and watch. Listening.

Tundra swans overhead. They fly low. A gentle “Klooo, kwoo.” I remember how they babble all night long. Like teenagers at a slumber party. I focus on my breath. Listening.

What I miss when I forget about the power of being still. All around me. Every day. I feel a reverence for my place in the world, for my place in the circle of life. I share this story with you. A bit of a Thanksgiving gift. Wishing you peace and gratitude. The power of now.

For those who are wondering, Yes, I did get my deer. Happy Thanksgiving and Safe Hunting!

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“Faces of Addiction and Recovery” Came to the Capitol

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, 14 November 2017
in Wisconsin

opioid-overdoseSen. Vinehout shares a story about her discussion with members of the Ho-Chunk Nation who are working to get the resources necessary to address addiction.

MADISON - The day was busy. Filled with bills voted on by Senators. Bills that, someday, will change people’s lives for better or worse. Senators do not often see the faces of those whose lives changed.

Bev, Bonnie and Jamie are working to put a face on the lives affected by the actions of lawmakers. The women are showing Wisconsin the faces of those suffering from addiction.

With the help of Senator Erpenbach, these strong women brought three panels of a very large quilt to the Capitol. On the quilt were the faces of those suffering from addiction. The background behind the face tells a story. The person may be in recovery (white), in prison (gray), or died (black).

Bev told me stories of children who died. Bev pointed out the quilt square around her beautiful daughter. She also told me about the problems: finding treatment, crisis care, inflexible sentencing. How it’s sometimes impossible to get people into treatment court or alternatives to incarceration because of the way the laws are written.

A necklace and two stories brought Bonnie, Jamie and I closer.

As fate would have it, I wore a necklace that day given to me by a Ho-Chunk woman recovering from addiction. She gave me the necklace during a Blanket Ceremony I participated in this summer at the old Ho-Chunk Pow Wow grounds. Two groups - #StoptheStigma and Natives Against Heroin sponsored the Pow Wow.

I told the story of the necklace. Bonnie told me the story of her son (and Jamie’s nephew) Cody, who had died of addiction four years ago. Through their shared experiences, and through extended family, Bonnie and Bev met. They began work with several groups.

One group is called “HeD Peace” and pronounced Head Peace. The group raises money to help those suffering from addiction by selling headbands. Bonnie has a background in marketing. She thought about how the name had several meanings, for those suffering from addiction and for those who lost loved ones that suffered.

Wearing the headbands, Jamie told me, opened the door to conversations about addiction. “We were stopped by people we didn’t know,” Jamie said. “They would ask us, at the grocery store, at the hospital, ‘what does the headband mean?’”

“It started a huge dialogue,” Bonnie added. The conversations “opened the door for people to let off steam.” Bonnie told me how those who lost loved ones to addiction “Keep the pain and misery bottled up inside… People [who are addicted] are still loved. They still exist in our memories. They [discussion of the headbands] open the door to let the love out, and the grief. It’s an amazing cathartic tool for people who suffer.”

“The quilt lets people see the faces of people who are suffering, when they see the magnitude of people who are suffering…and there are many, many more that are not on the quilt” said Bonnie. “We’re not just losing one generation, we’re losing several generations. No one understands the depth.”

The women came to the Capitol to influence lawmakers by showing the faces of those who suffer from addiction. “It’s shameful we don’t have the services – especially in rural areas,” Bonnie told me.

I was interrupted several times during my conversation with the women as the Senate President called my colleagues and me to the Senate floor to vote. Ironically, the votes were part of a “tough on crime” package of bills. Some of these bills kept children in detention longer, left less flexibility for judges sentencing those with addiction and put people back in prison for being accused (not necessarily convicted) of offenses.

Bonnie later told me that she listened to the Senate debate. “They don’t have someone suffering from addiction in prison, or in Lincoln Hills [juvenile detention]. They don’t care about the people attached to those bills.”

Caring about the people behind the statistics became the life work of these resilient women. They want to make real change happen and make a real difference in the lives of those suffering from addiction.

“It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing,” said Bonnie. “It’s everyone’s. It’s up to all of us to get together. It’s a human problem.”

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Speed and Secrecy Leaves the Public Out in the Cold

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, 07 November 2017
in Wisconsin

capitol-nightTuesday’s State Senate calendar contains several bills that need time for proper debate, amendments to address significant concerns raised by the public, and bills that were sold as one thing and ended up being very different.

MADISON - In the past eleven years, I wrote 64 times about the problems of speed and secrecy in the legislative process. However, I never saw a calendar as broad and deep in controversy as the most recent one before the State Senate.

For weeks, we heard that the Senate would vote a hodge-podge of highly controversial bills. “Horrid,” one staffer called the expected Senate Calendar. None of us, including the public, knew what bills would come up for a vote.

The cloak of secrecy raised a bit on Friday when we received the tentative list of bills. But even the day before the vote, we did not have the official bill materials and were scrambling to get details.

Often what happens on the Senate floor is non-controversial. Previous Senate session days, with many bills pending, had perhaps a handful that end up in a partisan vote. The Senate calendar for “horrid” Tuesday detailed opposition by the minority to a full fifty-percent of bills scheduled.

Some of the bills were presented one way to Senators by lobbyists or constituents. However, the actual bill language or amendments added resulted in a very different bill voted out of committee. For this reason, some Democrats voted against bills they originally supported or removed their names as cosponsors.

Additionally, significant negative public testimony in public hearings should result in changes to a bill. Fixing problems with bills is the function of committee work. Many bills on Tuesday’s Senate calendar were not fixed, which leaves Senators scrambling to draft last minute amendments.

Big policy questions are behind many bills up for consideration – questions that deserve a thorough debate.

Should we change laws regarding cooperatives? Should co-ops be allowed to violate the basic cooperative principles of “one member - one vote” or limit members’ access to financial records? Should nonmembers serve on the board of directors? Should voting power be based on patronage, which gives larger farms a bigger voice?

Important questions need to be answered about a series of bills that increase mandatory penalties for crimes, keep youth in prison longer, make it easier to send someone on probation or parole back to prison, and limit the ability of prosecutors to work with minor players in a crime in order to catch the kingpin.

We need to know how much it will cost to change rules related to probation and parole. While no routine fiscal estimate was done, a staffer found a Department of Corrections memo estimating the cost in the first two years at almost $200 million. The cost is not part of the recently passed budget.

Another bill on the calendar that generated significant contact to my office is the question: should Wisconsin take action to call for a Constitutional Convention under Article V of the United States Constitution?

Calling a Constitutional Convention opens up the entire US Constitution to rewriting by the delegates to the convention, despite the fact they may be sent by their state to vote for only a balanced budget amendment. These delegates would have powers superior to the President, the Supreme Court and the Congress.

Such a convention is an extremely risky venture in our fragile democracy. Wisconsin is one of nine states targeted by Koch brothers funded groups. Nationwide, only a handful of state legislatures need to pass laws to reach the threshold where such a convention would be called.

Another controversial bill would open up our state to sulfide mining. Our state has strong protections for the most dangerous type of mining. This bill changes the law to allow nonferrous (non-iron ore) metal mining. Among other concerns, the bill creates a fast permitting process that limits DNR’s ability to collect scientific data.

The bills I mentioned and dozens of others deserve public scrutiny and extensive debate. Citizens need to be aware of the potential serious consequences of the action and weigh in on decision. Lawmakers need time to understand amendments, complex policy and balance competing concerns.

In an environment of speed and secrecy, legislators do not have the details to make good decisions and the public is left out in the cold.

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WEDC Admits They Are Not Following the Law

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, 31 October 2017
in Wisconsin

foxconnwisconsinA recent LAB audit showed WEDC’s failure to comply with the laws to protect taxpayer’s money for job creation efforts in Wisconsin. WEDC’s lack of transparency, their numerous examples of misrepresenting job creation numbers and their frequent disregard for LAB recommendations call into question their ability to oversee a $3 billion contract with Foxconn.

MADISON - “We have not been able to verify the jobs,” said Secretary Mark Hogan at a recent public hearing of the Joint Committee on Audit.

In this statement, the head of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) confirmed what several years of audits repeatedly found: our state awarded hundreds of millions in tax credits and cash payments to companies to create jobs without ever checking to see if jobs were actually created.

walker-wedcWEDC is the state agency overseeing economic development efforts. They hand out tax credits and cash payments to corporations to create and retain jobs. WEDC writes contracts for companies to receive state money. When a company abides by the contract, it receives a payment, a certificate for a tax break, or their loan is forgiven.

Secretary Hogan’s statement above was his response to questions from myself and others who asked whether he was going to follow the law. We did not trust WEDC was prepared to follow recommendations of the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) to set up policy and really start following the law.

The law states WEDC must verify the company actually created jobs, not just their word. It’s a bit like your son telling you he cleaned his bedroom. You always walk upstairs and check to make sure.

In the last four years, audit after audit by the nonpartisan LAB found WEDC never verified companies followed through with their contracts.

Numerous times, companies admitted they failed to hold up their end of the bargain. Instead of enforcing the contract, WEDC changed it to reflect what the company did do and gave them the money anyway. Hundreds of millions of tax dollars went to companies without WEDC staff independently verifying the promised jobs.

Even when WEDC knew a company didn’t comply with the terms of their contract, they would sometimes still award tax credits and cash payments. In other cases, WEDC claimed the promised (but not delivered) jobs on the WEDC website even though they knew the numbers weren’t accurate.

For example, auditors found WEDC claimed credit for 485 jobs a company promised to create. The company pulled out of the program and created no jobs but the state website still showed 485 promised jobs. In another case, WEDC claimed credit for keeping 340 jobs despite the company going out of business.

In a third case, WEDC claimed credit for 68 jobs that weren’t created because the company sold its Wisconsin operation. In yet another example, a company informed WEDC they only created 18 jobs of the 226 promised. WEDC still claimed the entire 226 jobs on their website.

In another instance, a company promised 657 jobs. WEDC staff decided the company was only eligible for tax credits for 489 jobs. But WEDC still claimed the additional 168 jobs on their website.

Another example showed a company reported the creation of 742 jobs, but WEDC staff found only 678 were eligible for tax credits. The online data still reflected the larger number.

During the hearing, I found it difficult to determine if WEDC was incompetent or deliberately skirting the law.

I was most disturbed when Secretary Hogan flat-out said “no” to my request to release documents to LAB so auditors could complete their work. The document I wanted released was a study by an independent attorney the state paid $8,600 to answer the question: “Is WEDC complying with statutes?” (are they following the law?)

This question was central to the findings of the audit. If agency leaders didn’t think there was a law they needed to follow, I had no hope they would follow the audit recommendations and adopt verification policies and procedures.

I left the hearing with many unanswered questions. Does Secretary Hogan understand he must follow the law? What is Secretary Hogan hiding in the document he refused to release to auditors? How can lawmakers stop WEDC from rewriting contracts if companies don’t deliver? How can we get an accurate count for how many jobs were created with the millions of taxpayer dollars?

But the most pressing question was; how can we possibly trust WEDC to oversee a $3 billion contract with Foxconn?

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