Sunday September 15, 2019

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Campaign Contributors Benefited from Walker Rejection of BadgerCare Dollars

Posted by Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Robert Kraig
Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Robert Kraig
Robert Kraig is Executive Director, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, 221 S. 2nd St.,
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on Tuesday, 14 October 2014
in Wisconsin

scottwalker-dreamInsurance Companies getting windfall of public dollars also donated big money to Walker and legislators.

Statewide - On Monday morning, Citizen Action of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign called into question relationship between large campaign donations and the rejection of federal funds for BadgerCare. When Governor Walker rejected federal funds for BadgerCare, an estimated 87,000 Wisconsin residents were forced to purchase private health insurance coverage from the health insurance marketplace. Tens of thousands fell into an entirely unnecessary coverage gap.

The new data shows that the insurance industry was the biggest beneficiary of the decision to reject the funds for BadgerCare, and have donated massively to the campaigns of Governor Walker and Legislators who pushed the policy through.

According to data collected by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the insurance industry, including insurance agents, have contributed over $1.26 million to Governor Walker from the period between 2009 and 2013. This is over three times more than Governor Jim Doyle received from the industry from 2000-2012. The insurance industry also gave nearly $1 million to State Legislators. The industry contributed over four times as much to Republican members of the State Assembly as their Democratic counterparts, and 2.7 times as much to State Senate Republicans. Data for 2014 is not yet available but experts believe the insurance industry contributions will be substantial.

These campaign contributions are dwarfed by the large financial windfalls for insurance companies resulting from the rejection of enhanced federal BadgerCare dollars. Federal marketplace plans are much more expensive than BadgerCare, and put the insurance industry in a position to profit substantially. Tracking the federal tax credits individuals denied BadgerCare receive instead to purchase private coverage, the data compiled by Citizen Action of Wisconsin shows that Wisconsin insurance companies would receive up to $350 million per year extra in tax credits for individual health policies. This does not include the premiums paid by individual consumers or new small business premiums.

“Many across Wisconsin have been confounded by Scott Walker’s seemingly irrational decision to leave hundreds of millions of federal dollars on the table that could have strengthened BadgerCare,”said Robert Kraig, Executive Director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. “This data raised the disturbing specter that Walker and conservatives in the Legislature sold out their own constituents for campaign cash from the insurance industry. Leaving tens of thousands of Wisconsin families without health coverage in return for campaign donations is morally repugnant.”

“The question of federal funds for BadgerCare is a clear example of where the public wants one thing, and the insurance companies want another, and unfortunately the insurance companies succeeded in getting their way”, said Mike McCabe, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “There is a disturbingly high presence of contributions directly to the officials that had the ability to get the industry what it wanted.”

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Is Drug Testing Applicants for Public Programs a Wise Idea?

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
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on Tuesday, 14 October 2014
in Wisconsin

drug-testGovernor Walker wants to drug test applicants making SNAP (food stamps) and Unemployment Insurance claims. Findings about drug testing in other states including Florida and Tennessee show that drug testing costs far more to implement than was saved. And courts have ruled that drug testing recipients of public benefits without reason to believe the person abused drugs is unconstitutional.

MADISON - “If you require drug testing for unemployment insurance claims are you going to drug test farmers for crop insurance next?” the Colfax farmer asked the candidate.

In several recent legislative forums, local candidates advocated for a proposal to drug test people making Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and unemployment insurance claims.

Is this a good idea?

Unemployment insurance is a program that originated in Wisconsin in 1932. In general, unemployment benefits are financed by taxes paid by employers into the state’s unemployment reserve fund. Both federal and state law governs unemployment insurance.

Wisconsin receives $1.4 billion in unemployment insurance benefits from employer contributions and federal money according to the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) ‘single’ audit of federal funds paid in 2012-13.

SNAP is a federal program. Wisconsin received $1.2 billion in SNAP funds from Uncle Sam.

In general, people making up to 200% of the federal poverty level can apply for SNAP benefits. This would be a little over $22,000 annual income for an individual who would be eligible for a $200 benefit a month.

The state is responsible for assuring the SNAP program is properly administered. Wisconsin has been rewarded with bonus payments from the feds for improved administrative performance. A 2012 LAB audit led the state to make further oversight improvements including a card trafficking investigation unit and a computer-matching system to assure prisoners don’t receive benefits.

States have proposed drug-testing recipients of public benefits since federal welfare reform in 1996 according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

At least 11 states have some type of law requiring drug testing for certain applicants of public programs. But courts struck down some of these laws.

For example, in 2013 the District Court permanently stopped enforcement of Florida’s law. The court found the law violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibiting unreasonable searches.

According to the New York Times, the 2011 Florida law showed few results while it was enforced: only 2.6% of the 4,086 people tested positive for drugs (most often marijuana). The Times reported, “State records showed the requirement cost more money to carry out than it saved.” The Tampa Bay Times reported, in 2012, the program suffered a net loss of $45,780. That’s not counting thousands of hours of staff time to implement and litigation costs to defend the program.

The Florida decision was based on a 2003 Michigan Court of Appeals case. The Court said forcing every Michigan recipient of public benefits to be drug tested without reason to believe the person abused drugs was unconstitutional.

According to NCSL most states use some test of “reasonable suspicion” before requiring a drug test. Most laws apply the requirement to persons applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Wisconsin law requires TANF applicants to disclose felony convictions. Those with a felony conviction must take a drug test.

Are people who apply for public programs more likely to use drugs? The answer appears to be ‘No’. According to the Georgetown Law Journal, drug use in the general public is 8.7% compared to the less than 3% found in Florida’s testing of public benefit recipients. ThinkProgress, a current affairs website, reported Tennessee started drug testing in 2014 and found just one user after testing 800 people.

The farmer in Colfax raises an important question about drug testing. A person making an unemployment insurance claim is not too dissimilar from a farmer making a crop insurance claim. In both cases the program is financed with a mix of federal and private money paid into a reserve fund; in both cases the person is without income.

Public programs must be carefully monitored for fraud. Programs must be easy to administer and fraud investigation must be built into administration. With little evidence that those using drugs are disproportionately applying for SNAP and filing unemployment claims, it makes little sense to spend more money on drug testing.

Instead it seems this proposal is one more example of demonizing a certain group of people for political gain. Applying for aid is difficult enough. Asking someone who can’t afford to eat to pee in a cup just adds to the humiliation.

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United States Supreme Court Blocks Wisconsin's Voter ID Law for November

Posted by Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert is the Publisher of the Northeast Wisconsin - Green Bay Progressive.
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on Friday, 10 October 2014
in Wisconsin

supreme-court-2013WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Thursday night blocked Wisconsin from implementing the Walker Administration's voter identification law on the eve of next month's election.

In a related action, a district court judge in Texas ruled that state's voter ID law is racially discriminatory and violates the Voting Rights Act. The Texas attorney general's office said it would appeal.

Both Wisconsin and Texas had claimed the new rules were intended to crack down on instances in which voters impersonate others at the polls. Such incidents are extremely rare, courts have found.

The court gave no reason for its action, as is routine for such emergency orders. But Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that the court cannot block an appeals court ruling unless the lower court "clearly and demonstrably erred in its application of accepted standards."

The Wisconsin law requires voters to produce a photo ID at the polls based on a 2011 law that was rolled out in time for low-turnout primaries the following year. Because of early problems, a state court blocked further use of the law.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Advancement Project, a civil rights group, contended that the law jeopardizes the votes of some 300,000 residents, mostly racial minorities, seniors, students and people with disabilities and that imposing the photo ID requirement on such short notice "will cause chaos at the polls".

Although the Supreme Court has wavered in the past, such as allowing discriminatory practices like the southern poll tax to stand during Jim Crow years, as a general trend it has supported of the right to vote as the fundamental constitutional right of each citizen that should not be superseded by administrative convenience.

State officials argued that they had been implementing the photo ID rule since early September. "Plaintiffs are asking this court to pinball state and local election officials between enforcing and not enforcing the law with November elections dgless than four weeks away," their brief said. "Voters would get the pinball treatment, too."

Thursday's ruling blocks, for now, the vision of large numbers of registered voters, mostly racial minorities and seniors, being turned away from polls. If that were to happen, the result of the election might have to be blocked or reversed by the courts.

The Walker Administration, through it's Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, has pledged to continue the fight to implement the law.

But, at least for now, it's off again.

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Sand Mines Place “Communities at Risk”

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
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on Tuesday, 07 October 2014
in Wisconsin

frac_sandSenator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the findings of two recently released studies regarding frac sand mining.

EAU CLAIRE - “What new information do we have about the mines?” the Eau Claire reporter asked me.

The reporter was referring to two sand mine studies recently released; one by a committee under the charge of the Trempealeau County Board and the other by the Boston Action Research group of the Civil Society Institute.

Communities at Risk, the Boston study, details sand mining activities across the Midwest. Western Wisconsin is the epicenter of the explosion of mines. The study mentions familiar concerns about frac mining including water and air quality and financial issues and adds new details on data and possible legislative remedies.

A Final Report on the Public Health Impacts of Non-metallic Industrial Sand Mining in Trempealeau County is a comprehensive overview of possible health effects. The committee made 59 recommendations including minimizing light and noise pollution; keeping communities stable; and protecting air, ground and surface water.

Recommendations were developed with the support of data collected from residents. For example, almost 90% of residents wanted protection of water. The “most important” two strategies were Protecting Drinking Water and Protecting the Environment.

The Trempealeau report detailed problems with water affecting both residents and other industries. Residents reported changes to the taste of water following mine blasting; one neighbor had a well replaced by the mine because of damage; the Gold’n Plump chicken processing plant cleaned very fine sand from water and spent several thousand dollars on sand separators and specialized screens to minimize sand in the water. The company wonders whether they need to drill a new well.

Also newly reported, Communities at Risk included new details from Wisconsin DNR data showing “highly damaging water pollution” in the form of heavy metals in sand wash ponds adjacent to mines. Heavy metals entering surface water can be a problem with iron ore mining but, to my knowledge, was never previously identified with sand mining.

Both studies expressed concern about the effects of contaminated water and air on human health. The Trempealeau Committee recommended ongoing water monitoring for several years after the mine closes. Air monitoring should be conducted for dust particles at the mine and in residential sites near the mine.

Monitoring should begin on the smallest and most dangerous of dust particles – those smaller than 2.5 microns. The Boston study reported Wisconsin does not now require monitoring on these particles.

Because exposure to dust can cause disease many years later, the Boston study recommends local and state officials conduct baseline health studies now and continue for many years into the future.

And what about all those jobs created by the mine? Both reports discuss economic impacts of mines.

The Trempealeau report detailed job creation at two mines; one had 30 full-time employees and three part-time office workers, all lived within an hour of the mine. The other mine, still under construction, had 5 full-time operators who were all from outside the region. They expected to hire 25 employees once under full operation.

The Boston report examined a study on the costs and benefits of mining. The study expressed concern about the mines effect on other industries including tourism, writing “frac sand mining jobs would continue to be a miniscule fraction of all jobs in the counties with frac sand resources, suggesting that, in many cases, the risks far outweigh any benefits”.

What can the state do to assist communities grappling with the impacts of mining? Wisconsin needs more inspectors to monitor compliance with existing laws. The two positions approved in the last budget are not nearly adequate.

Trempealeau County is right to monitor small and large particles. Let’s use the state’s resources to assist local counties. We don’t have to look far to find out how this can be accomplished.

The Minnesota Legislature directed it’s DNR to create a guidance document for local government stating what and how to regulate the mines and how to protect water quality and public health; new air standards for silica dust are in the works. And Minnesota funds a “Bluffland Landscape Coordinator” who assists local government in drafting ordinances to protect the blufflands.

These are good ideas to help struggling communities at risk.


Below you will find links to those studies.  Kathleen includes recommendations for legislative action to assist communities and counties affected by sand mines.

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BadgerCare Coverage Gap Worst in Rural Counties

Posted by Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Robert Kraig
Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Robert Kraig
Robert Kraig is Executive Director, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, 221 S. 2nd St.,
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on Friday, 03 October 2014
in Wisconsin

healthcare-familyNewly released county-level data shows number of residents by County forced off BadgerCare and left in “coverage gap.”

STATEWIDE - New Wisconsin Department of Health Services county-level data obtained from an open records request by Citizen Action of Wisconsin quantifies the BadgerCare coverage gap at the local level.  The data shows the statewide impact of the coverage gap caused by Governor Walker’s misguided decision to reject federal dollars to strengthen BadgerCare. Contrary to the widespread assumption this is primarily an urban problem, the data shows that the relative impact is greater in rural areas than in cities (see charts below).

Governor Walker’s decision to turn down billions in federal funds for BadgerCare forced 62,776 parents off the program in April, leaving 26,600 in a coverage gap unable to affordable private coverage. The Federal government, at the request of US Senator Tammy Baldwin, recently intervened by creating a special enrollment period in the health care marketplace for uninsured Wisconsinites forced off BadgerCare. While this will help some parents who missed the first open enrollment period, health advocates believe that many in the gap simply cannot afford the premiums, copays, and deductibles associated with private insurance.

On November 4, over 1 million Wisconsin voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on the issue when they vote on BadgerCare advisory referendums in 19 counties and 1 city.

Counties with the highest percent of individuals forced off BadgerCare still uninsured

Florence *








St Croix *


Green Lake










* - Has BadgerCare referendum on November 4th ballot

Counties with most residents kicked off BadgerCare, as percent of population













Bayfield *




Iron *




* - Has BadgerCare referendum on November 4th ballot

Comparison of Major Metros


Total residents kicked off of BadgerCare

Residents Stuck in "Coverage Gap"

Percent left  Uninsured













Eau Claire








La Crosse
























































13 of 20 Counties with BadgerCare referendum marked above in bold/underlined

* - City of Kenosha has referendum


Full data for all 72 Wisconsin counties can be found here.

“Governor Walker’s political decision to force 62,000 Wisconsinites off BadgerCare is inflicting needless damage to families and communities all across the state, especially in rural areas,” said Robert Kraig, Executive Director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. “Walker and his allies in the Legislature need to stop playing politics with the health and economic security of hard pressed families in every Wisconsin county who are working to get ahead and live the American Dream.”

Web link to Press Release here

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State GOP Plagiarizes Legislation

Posted by Judy Poull of Saukville
Judy Poull of Saukville
Judy Poull of Saukville has not set their biography yet
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on Tuesday, 30 September 2014
in Wisconsin

walkerWisconsin GOP’s Big Dirty Secret Reveals Hypocrisy of Walker Attack Ads on Burke's Jobs Plan.

SAUKVILLE - Most people don’t know that our state Republican legislators and governors have been plagiarizing legislation signed into law since 1973 when ALEC was founded. ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) was formed to be a secretive Republican bill mill. Its purpose is to radically remake states’ policies in favor of the interests of big national and global corporations, who in turn donate lavishly to ALEC and to our legislators in a pay-to-play enterprise. Have you ever noticed how our state is going backwards on rights for the individual--civil rights, voting rights, women’s rights, rights to public education, worker’s rights and the dismantling of unions and the opposition to increasing the minimum wage, consumer’s rights, the public’s right to essential services and health care (federal aid for Medicaid expansion), etc. Did you notice how all the progress made in the 20th century for the people is now being eliminated simultaneously in the states controlled by Republicans? That is the work of ALEC and the Republican legislators and governors in our nation who plagiarize from ALEC model bills and pass them into law to the advantage of big corporations.

ALEC’s donors include David Koch, who inherited oil industry wealth from his father, Charles, who was a co-founder of the John Birch Society of which David is a member. Foreign special interests, including TransCanada, London and Belgium big liquor and gun corporations (Winchester), Bayer, etc., are also members of ALEC and influence U.S. Republican legislation.

Some of our Republican state legislators are prolific plagiarizers of ALEC legislation, including Jeff Stone (voter I.D./suppression), Glenn Grothman (voucher schools, refusing federal money for Medicaid expansion), and Alberta Darling’s bills are practically all produced by ALEC (bills against telecommunication regulations, collective bargaining, insurance industry reform, and bills for tort reform giving advantages to corporations, for voter I.D./suppression, the privatization of schools, predatory lending, etc.). Scott Walker was also a member of ALEC as a legislator, and as Republican Governor, he signs Republican legislation produced by ALEC into law.

ALEC is being exposed, finally, and many corporations are leaving ALEC. Google’s motto is “Don’t Be Evil,” and after ALEC recently maintained its denial of global warming in its policy issues, the Chairman of Google said publicly about ALEC: “They’re just literally lying.” Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and YELP are cutting ties with ALEC, along with Amazon, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Bank of America, Proctor & Gamble, and 80 other corporations.

Mary Burke’s job plan is a combination of the best job plans in the nation that would bring the citizens of Wisconsin out of this job drought. They are her plans—they are not her legislation or laws. She will discuss her plans with the citizens of Wisconsin and the legislature, not ALEC, and after reaching compromise, legislation will be introduced to be passed into law, and democracy will return to Wisconsin.

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New Audit Raises More Questions About WEDC

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
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on Monday, 29 September 2014
in Wisconsin

walker-wedcThe most recent audit of the state’s job creation entity, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), continues to report problems with management of economic development grants and loans. Coupled with previous audits, the new audit raises questions about WEDC's policies and procedures, whether it is successful in assisting with job creation and ultimately, whether it is a good investment of taxpayer dollars.

MADISON - “I’m really uncomfortable with all these questions,” Linda told me. We were discussing the most recent audit of the state’s job creation agency: Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC).

WEDC is a quasi-private entity formed by the governor in 2011 in an attempt to boost job creation. It is run almost entirely with state tax dollars.

A recently released Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) report adds detail to the agency’s administrative costs and management of economic development grants and loans in Fiscal Years 2011-12 and 2012-13.

The big question, did the agency successfully assist businesses in creating jobs, was not addressed in this audit. A companion audit last year reported there was no verification of claims of tens of thousands of jobs created.

The recent audit detailed administrative expenses and the management of tens of millions in economic development grants and loans. The audit found instances of missing or poor documentation in aspects of operation, including non-payroll expenses, merit awards, and the tracking of grants and loans. Poor accounting practices have plagued WEDC since its creation.

The earlier audit found WEDC didn’t have basic managerial processes in place, nor a clear budget or consistent accounting practices. Even in the September 2014 agency response to the recent audit, WEDC officials acknowledged written accounting procedures had not been developed. They plan to develop a formal accounting procedure manual in 2015.

The 2013 audit found WEDC did not oversee delinquent loans, reporting “In October of 2012, WEDC officials told the governing board they became aware one week earlier that WEDC had never monitored repayment of loans, including those that were past due.”

The recent audit reported that WEDC presented a limited methodology on calculating loan delinquencies. The limitation obscured the fact that nearly 9% of the total outstanding loan balance was delinquent.

I observed the delinquency rate at commercial banks on commercial and industrial loans was between .8 and 2.5% during the same period according to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. WEDC officials are quick to point out they are not a bank and make riskier loans than banks.

In their September 2014 response to the LAB audit WEDC continued to obfuscate the truth. In what appears to be an attempt to mislead, the letter lists several management outcomes and details “significant progress made” in six categories, even though the audit didn’t evaluate and in most cases never discussed these items.

In one item, WEDC officials claimed a “major reduction” in delinquent loans. But the audit found many loans were written off, forgiven or restructured to delay a payment – hardly “significant progress”.

Is the agency adequately monitoring loans and grants awarded to businesses and referring to a collection agency those loans that are delinquent? Most assuredly in the first two years, the answer was ‘no’.

Did WEDC use taxpayer money to assist businesses in the creation of verifiable jobs? We can’t answer this question. Although we know from the first audit that not a single job was verified in the first year of WEDC’s existence.

Is WEDC a wise investment of taxpayer dollars? We still don’t know. However, there is plenty of evidence to say in its first two years, the agency was a mess.

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Our Political Future: Behind Door Number Four

Posted by Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe is the founder and president of Blue Jean Nation and author of Blue
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on Monday, 22 September 2014
in Wisconsin

republicanThe biggest swath of the electorate – by far – is not the Republican loyalists or the Democratic faithful. Nor is it centrist or moderate. It is politically homeless. The two parties must either adapt or perish.

MADISON - Americans clearly are sour on politics. According the latest Gallup public opinion polling, the number one problem in the U.S. is “dissatisfaction with government, Congress and politicians” along with “poor leadership, corruption and abuse of power.”

New Associated Press polling shows slightly more than a quarter of Americans say they trust Republicans to manage the government, while just under a quarter trust the Democrats. The biggest bloc of citizens say they don’t trust either major party. And the AP survey showed that public confidence in the government’s ability to make progress on the important problems and issues facing the country continues to slip, with 74% now saying they have little or no confidence, down from 70% who said the same last December.

Both parties are failing our country, leaving most Americans feeling betrayed and politically homeless. But the citizenry’s response to these circumstances leaves the most to be desired.

We’ve all been conditioned to believe we have only three options. Behind door number one is whatever the two major parties offer up. A few partisans on either side are more or less satisfied with what’s behind this door, but most Americans aren’t. Most feel they are forced to hold their noses and choose between the lesser of evils. Most look for another door.

Behind door number two is an occasional third-party or independent candidate. But whether it’s Ross Perot one time or Ralph Nader another, this door leads to a dead end. The U.S. is not a parliamentary democracy. Ours is a two-party system. Supporting a third party invariably ends in disappointment.

That leaves door number three. Behind it is resignation. Sadly, a great many of us are choosing this route, throwing up our hands in disgust and hightailing it for the sidelines. This withdrawal from civic life is now endemic to American politics.

Three doors. No happy ending to be found behind any of them.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is a fourth door. We’ve been trained not to recognize it or even acknowledge its existence, much less open it. But it is there all the same. It hasn’t been opened in our lifetimes, but when it was found and opened by past generations, what it led to was transformational and landscape altering.

Door number four is what I call a first-party movement. Third-party movements operate on the political fringes, to the left of the Democrats and to the right of the Republicans. Put another way, they seek to clip the wings of the major parties. First-party insurgencies go for the heart. They compete for the affections of the entire electorate.

The goal of third-party movements is to have three or more parties. The goal of first-party organizing is to have at least one that is worth a damn. At least one that truly owes its allegiance to the people.

Conditions are growing ripe for an extensive renovation of the nation’s political landscape. The telltale signs of an impending political implosion are visible. The percentage of Americans who refuse to identify with either major parties is at its highest level in three-quarters of a century. The biggest swath of the electorate – by far – is not the Republican loyalists or the Democratic faithful. Nor is it centrist or moderate. It is politically homeless.

If door number four is opened, the two parties will either adapt or perish. The odds that at least one of the parties will cease to exist in its current form are getting shorter by the day.

We have it in our power to put citizens back in the driver’s seat of our government. The two major parties are repellent. We have it in our power to build a political household that people actually want to live in. It can be done. Our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents did it. On more than one occasion they opened door number four and freed themselves from the same kinds of traps that ensnare us again today.

We don’t have to make history. We only have to repeat it.

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Expanding Statewide Vouchers would Cost Taxpayers and Local 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
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on Monday, 22 September 2014
in Wisconsin

middle-school-studentsA statewide expansion of the voucher program as touted by the Governor and majority party legislators could cost over $600 million in state tax dollars.  Money from the same pot as funding for public schools which already have experienced a cut of $1.8 billion over the past four years.

MADISON - “Your information is always thorough, concise and very readable,” Carol wrote to me. “Today I heard that [Governor] Walker said he would lift the cap for vouchers if he wins re-election. What would that do to our public schools? The state budget? I hope you will research this and publicize your opinion.”

Whether to cut back or expand state-funded subsidies for students attending private schools is a hot topic of debate. Passage of the most recent state budget started a process many see as the beginning of a statewide, unlimited opportunity for students to attend private schools with state tax dollars – or an unlimited drain on public school funding – depending on one’s perspective.

With passage of the last state budget, children attending private schools could use tax dollars through the form of a ‘voucher’. This state-funded subsidy is $7,210 per year for a primary and middle school student attending a private school and $7,856 for a high school student attending a private school. (Many public schools receive far less per pupil state funding.)

The budget was written so state-funded vouchers were paid first and had an unlimited drawn down on public school funds. I likened this – in my farmer vernacular – to a bucket full of water with a garden hose attached to the bottom with a valve to slow the flow.

The valve, of course, is the limit on the number of vouchers.

The rules, established by the 2013-15 state budget, limited the program to 500 students in the last school year and 1,000 students statewide this school year. These numbers do not include the Milwaukee and Racine voucher students.

Removing the cap – as suggested by the Governor, the Speaker of the Assembly and many candidates – would get rid of the valve altogether.

The justification for this dramatic change in school funding is rhetoric implying the failure of public schools and the superiority of a private education. But after 24 years of experimentation in Milwaukee, research shows no significant achievement benefits for students attending tax-funded private schools over public education.

In western Wisconsin public schools have a stellar record of achievement – despite dwindling resources.

This spring the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported local public schools scored above the average on statewide testing in math and reading while most Eau Claire private voucher students “bow[ed] out of state tests.” Statewide “private school voucher pupils fared poorly compared to those in public schools,” the paper’s headline read.

So how much would unlimited statewide expansion of vouchers cost Wisconsin taxpayers? In the 2013-14 school year there were approximately 120,000 private school students. Of these students, 92,400 students pay privately for tuition. State taxpayers fund 27,400 private school voucher students.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates an average per student voucher cost of $7,333. Subsidizing just the current private school students at this rate would cost taxpayers $677 million. This assumes no public school students go to private schools and no income limits are set for student’s families.

Statewide expansion could, presumably, affect all 900,000 students not currently in the state subsidized voucher program. But recent experience shows 75% of statewide voucher students already attended private school.

Public schools that lost students to private schools lost state aid. School districts that don’t have students attending state subsidized private schools also lose state aid. Often, districts must go to property taxpayers to make up lost aid.

There is no way to know how many private school parents would choose a voucher or how many public or charter school parents would send their children to state subsidized private school.

Public schools already suffered a cumulative $1.1 billion loss in general aid over the past four years. These cuts came at a time of increased overall state spending. In the last four years the budget grew by $4.5 billion. Revenue is dwindling now because of a series of tax cuts – putting public education at risk for a new round of cuts.

It’s foolishness to think Wisconsin can afford unlimited taxpayer subsidized vouchers, keep our high quality local schools and lower taxes. Actions have consequences. Cuts to local schools hurt students and raise property taxes.

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Walker Should Step Down from WEDC

Posted by Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Robert Kraig
Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Robert Kraig
Robert Kraig is Executive Director, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, 221 S. 2nd St.,
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on Friday, 19 September 2014
in Wisconsin

walkerGovernor Walker, through WEDC, is in a position to pick and choose who gets grants and subsidies to corporations that are headed by major political donors that support him. Good Government Advocates say, in light of conflicts of interest, emergency action needed to protect public job creation dollars from the legal bribery of campaign financing.

STATEWIDE -  Citizen Action of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign held a press conference at the Capitol earlier this week calling on Governor Scott Walker to step down as the Chair of the Board of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). A full audio recording of a media call held after the press conference is available.

Citizen Action and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign believe that the flawed structure of WEDC creates an unacceptable risk of legalized bribery. The high stakes election this fall, and the massive amounts of money being raised and spent, elevate this risk dramatically. Governor Walker is expected to raise a record amount of money for his reelection, with substantial sums coming from CEOs and corporate executives with a direct financial interest in the decisions made by WEDC.

It is ethically impossible for a Governor to impartially preside over decisions to provide  millions of dollars in corporate subsidies and also receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from corporate executives,” said Robert Kraig, Executive Director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. “This is a flawed structure. It would be an impossible situation for any governor, not just this Governor. The best way to safeguard the public’s precious job creation dollars, and prevent any appearance of legal bribery during this hotly contested election, is for Walker to step aside as the Board Chair of WEDC.”

"Governor Walker, through WEDC, is in a position to pick and choose in providing grants and subsidies to corporations that are headed by major political donors that support him,” said Mike McCabe, Executive Director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.. “This flagrant conflict of interest is intolerable."

“The gross conflicts of interest created by the unhappy combination of WEDC’s structure and the deregulation of our campaign finance system also creates difficult issues for ethical business leaders,” Kraig continued.  “Given Walker’s direct and personal role in handing out economic development subsidies, who could blame corporate leaders for believing it necessary to make campaign donations to the Governor if they want to receive grants, loans, and tax credits from WEDC? If this outrageous conflict of interest is allowed to continue, it will destroy what is left of the public’s faith in the integrity of Wisconsin government.”

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Wisconsin's Budget Deficit: Let’s Pay the Bills First

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
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on Monday, 15 September 2014
in Wisconsin

scott-walker-clapsSenator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the recent reports of a structural deficit going into the next biennial state budget, her conversations with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau and agency reports showing shortfalls in Medicaid and Transportation funds. These fund shortfalls are not included in the structural deficit reported by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

MADISON - “I don’t want another cent from the state until you guys pay the bills,” the business-owner from Durand told me. “I am tired of hearing about tax cuts and deficits.”

“I want all the bills paid: schools, roads, Medicaid, the tech colleges, the debt, all of them paid. Then talk to me about giving me my money back.”

News of the rising structural deficit going into the next state budget has many people offering advice about budgets. People aren’t happy about talk of a new round of tax cuts in the face of an expected $1.8 billion budget shortfall.

Many are asking whether the projected ‘surplus’ that justified the last tax cuts was real. Most everyone is convinced ‘tax cuts’ really mean “vote for me and pay for it later.”

Why does the state give away money when local government hasn’t gotten its fair share in 20 years?” an Eau Claire woman recently asked. She read about local officials considering a registration fee on vehicles.

“They need money to plow the streets. We end up paying more when the state does these tax giveaways. Why doesn’t the state just give the city what it needs to keep up the roads?”

I recently met with Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) staff to get to the bottom of the state’s fiscal problems. The Bureau is the nonpartisan arm of the Legislature that advises lawmakers on budget matters. I learned revenue numbers – tax receipts collected by the state – are down. Corporate income tax receipts are particularly down – over 9% below budget estimates.

New tax cuts to certain business took a toll on money used to pay the state’s bills. For example, reduced taxes on manufacturing and ag businesses are estimated to cost over $50 million just in this past budget year.

The state has bills that are sum sufficient – must be paid in full regardless of whether or not they are over budget – such as the state’s fast growing Medicaid program. These bills are not figured into the recently released shortfall numbers. Earlier this summer the Department of Health Services (DHS) reported the Medicaid program was over $90 million in the red.

Part of the budget problems stem from an ideologically motivated decision to not take several billion in federal funds that would free up hundreds of millions in state cash that could be sent to schools, cities and counties.

Budget problems don’t end with the state’s general fund budget – the part of the budget that pays for health, education, the UW, prisons and local government. There is also a serious gap in the state’s Transportation Fund.

Not paying bills today has long-term impacts on services we take for granted, like schools. Many superintendents are forced to delay maintenance and capital improvements. One superintendent showed me a budget in which he had zero dollars put aside for capital improvements.

Governor Walker and legislators who voted for the past two budgets took over $1 billion cumulative out of public schools over the past four years- at a time when they spent more than $4 billion in new money over the last budget of Governor Doyle.

The effect of spending cuts to our communities might not be seen right away. There’s a lag between passing the state’s two-year budget and witnessing the effect of a lack of state funds on local services. At first these cuts may show up in small ways: new towel fees for sports, higher prices for school lunch, reduced city pool maintenance, fewer snowplows on the road, and higher fees for city water.

But over time, the effect of fewer state dollars and the resulting delays in maintenance turns into higher property tax bills when, for example, schools go to referendum to pay for maintenance or to simply cover the costs of operations.

Over the years, a community can become a less desirable place to live. Local elementary schools close. Class sizes are bigger. Roads crumble. Pools close.

The Durand businessman ended his recent advice by saying, “If you give away money you need to pay bills, it’s going to cost all of us more in the long run”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Senators Demand Answers to Walker’s $1.8 Billion Budget Deficit

Posted by Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert is the Publisher of the Northeast Wisconsin - Green Bay Progressive.
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on Tuesday, 09 September 2014
in Wisconsin

walker_tells_big_oneThe Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) on Monday estimated the budget for state government will face a nearly $1.8 billion shortfall for the next two-year budget.

MADISON - The expected shortfall for the next two-year state budget starting in July has risen to nearly $1.8 billion, the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported Monday. The report paints a dire picture of Wisconsin's finances under the leadership of Governor Scott Walker.

These new budget numbers prove that Gov. Walker has not been honest with us.

Despite having had budget surplus that came at great expense to our public schools and local communities in the form of reductions to shared revenue and local road aids, and the thousands of Wisconsin residents who find themselves without health care, Walker’s Administration has squandered that surplus leaving us with both an actual and structural deficit.

As noted in the LFB Memo, the $115 million shortfall exceeds the 0.5% statutory trigger requiring action by the Secretary of the Department of the Administration and possibly the Governor and the Legislature. Unless corrective action is taken the structural deficit is likely to reach or exceed $1 billion.

Because this budget deficit will have short-term and long-term implications on the residence of Wisconsin, on Monday four Wisconsin Senators, including our Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), demanded in writing that Gov. Walker address this crisis and outline all the decisions he might make that will impact Wisconsin families and communities.

The memo asks Walker: "Will our neighborhood schools take another funding hit? Will our streets be plowed so people can go to work? Will more students be denied financial aid to attend the UW or State technical College? These questions need to be answered sooner rather than later."

The Senator’s memo went on to request “that you provide us with the specific actions you intend to take to resolve this fiscal crisis including but not limited to which programs you intend to cut, by how much, how your cuts will impact the services they receive from their government and when you intend to act?”

The memo concludes “There is no positive way to spin our state’s perilous financial position. Despite the claims made by the Walker Administration and others a deficit that exceeds the trigger for emergency action and sets the stage for a billion plus structural deficit is not good news.”

The Walker campaign continues to run glossy ads trumpeting the "success" of the Walker Administration and Walker himself continues to dodge responsibility for the crisis, saying that "increased revenue" could erase the deficit.

dave_hansenAccording to Senator Dave Hansen of Green Bay:

“With what seems like each passing day the economic news for Wisconsin under Governor Walker and the Republicans seems to get only worse:

  • 37th in the nation for job creation.
  • Last in the Midwest for job growth.
  • $281 million revenue shortfall.
  • $115 million budget deficit.

"And now this:

  • A nearly $1.8 billion structural deficit.

"When Governor Walker ran for Governor he promised to get rid of the structural deficit, balance the budget and create 250,000 jobs.

"Instead we got some of the biggest cuts to public schools in the entire country, deep cuts to our UW campuses and state technical colleges and cuts to local communities to help fund police and fire protection and repair local roads.

"In return Wisconsin’s economy is failing and we’re facing a nearly $1.8 billion structural deficit that will cost the average family $1,200 over the next two years.   With this latest news from the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau the results are in: Governor Walker and the Republicans have not only broken their promises, they have failed Wisconsin.”

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Decriminalizing Bribery And Money Laundering

Posted by Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe is the founder and president of Blue Jean Nation and author of Blue
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on Tuesday, 09 September 2014
in Wisconsin

money-behind-politicsMADISON - On what planet does anyone think there is not enough money in politics, not enough special interest influence, and too much public awareness of the buying and selling of our government?

Well, on Earth there is Rudolph Randa and the Five Supremes. It's been the better part of a half century since a rock and roll band could get away with a name so lame, so they must be judges.

In 2010 the five-member majority on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and other interest groups can spend as much as they want to influence American elections. And then earlier this year the court doubled down on its infamous Citizens United decision and struck down a key federal limit on campaign contributions made by individuals.

In a country of well over 300 million people, just over 1,200 individuals reached the $123,000 limit on overall donations to federal campaigns in the 2012 elections. The ruling majority on the high court found intolerable the way the law cramped the style of 0.000003% of the nation's population and invalidated that law.

A month later Wisconsin's $10,000 annual limit on overall donations from individuals for state and local elections experienced the same fate. Fewer than 300 individuals had managed to bump up against the state limit in 2010 and 2012 elections combined, including 173 living outside Wisconsin. Just like that, five one-thousandths of 1% of the state's population had their ability to legally bribe state lawmakers increased exponentially, and they are taking full advantage.

Now this week Randa orders Wisconsin election officials to stop enforcing a law limiting how much candidates can collect from political committees run by special interest groups, parties and legislative campaigns.

Randa is the judge who also ordered a halt to the latest John Doe investigation into political corruption in Wisconsin. He ruled that there is nothing illegal about candidates and interest groups coordinating their election activities.

"Coordination" sounds abstract and mundane and benign. What Randa actually blessed is money laundering. What is under investigation is apparent conspiracy to get around legal limits on political donations as well as disclosure requirements by steering money intended to aid a candidate for state office to a tax-exempt "social welfare" group that does not have to publicly report the origins of its money.

If the skewed judgment of Randa and the Five Supremes stands up over the long haul, Americans will be left with a right to free speech that is proportionate to the size of their bank accounts, two parties joined at the billfold, and a tiny fraction of 1% of the population fully empowered to lord over the rest of us.

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Farmers ask ‘Where’s the train to ship my grain?’

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
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on Monday, 08 September 2014
in Wisconsin

railroad_engineSenator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the delays Wisconsin farmers face in shipping grain to market.

MADISON - “The farmers are coming to me saying ‘we need drivers to get the corn to market. We need barges and trains to get the harvest to market.’” Barb Gronemus recently told me. “Kathleen you need to pay attention to problems with shipping grain.”

Former State Representative Barb Gronemus might be retired, but she’s still on duty answering the phone and making calls. One of those calls was to alert me to a growing problem farmers are facing getting grain to market. I began researching the situation and found former Rep. Gronemus was spot on.

Increased oil and sand shipments in the Midwest are delaying grain shipments. Some say the railroad companies are playing favorites because the oil industry pays a premium. Farmers worry they are losing money as their grain sits in storage instead of being transported to market.

Last month, the USDA predicted a record harvest in 2014. With abundant rain and cooler temperatures, corn yields are expected to top last year’s record with over 14 billion bushels according to the Wall Street Journal. The USDA also estimates a record soybean harvest in the next few weeks.

Recent studies conducted at the request of elected officials in North Dakota and Minnesota show significant losses to farmers because of a failure by rail companies to move grain.

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalryumple recently called the grain delays in the upper Midwest “an emergency situation” as he urged federal regulators to use their power “to provide an oversight role” as farmers struggle to get grain to market in a transportation system overburdened by the oil industry.

North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp released a study she commissioned from North Dakota State University showing her state’s farmers lost over $66 million in four months because of delayed grain shipments. Researchers estimated a loss of over $95 million for delays in shipping the 2013 crop - which continue through the end of the year. No estimates were made for the 2014 crop.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton also urged federal action to aid farmers.

In a letter to the feds, Dayton asked that a study conducted for his administration be part of the National Grain Car Council’s agenda:

“We recently calculated that Minnesota farmers suffered losses of $109 million from March through May of this year…The study will highlight for the Council the dire circumstances that Minnesota farmers face and the need for increased accountability and clarity from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and the Canadian Pacific (CP) Railroads.”

Minnesota’s governor further wrote that the feds compelled the railroad companies to publically report their progress on reducing the backlog in grain shipments. Farmers were promised by the railroad companies “matters would be different in this harvest season” and “transparency would be the new normal.” Yet, the mid-August filing with the federal government accounted for only 10% of the grain cars within the BNSF failed to address the backlog of grain shipments.

Federal officials are concerned CP cannot fill 30,000 requests for rail cars for grain and other products by October. In a New York Times article from late August federal sources reported the requests and a backlog of 1,336 rail cars for BNSF and nearly 1,000 for CP.

Wisconsin farmers suffer when grain can’t ride the rails. I could not find estimates on losses to Wisconsin farmers similar to the North Dakota and Minnesota studies. But local farmers and grain dealers are concerned.

Local farmers also expressed concerns that barges and trucks are filled with sand and the sand headed for the oil fields takes up valuable transport space for grain.

Yet, Wisconsin officials have made no mention of the impending crisis.

It’s time Governor Walker and Agriculture Secretary Brancel join our Midwestern neighbors in calling for federal action to put a priority on grain shipments. It’s also time Wisconsin researchers provide data on the potential loss to Wisconsin farmers if grain can’t move out of the state.

We don’t want Wisconsin farmers dumping grain because nobody’s answered the question, “where’s my train?’

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State’s Own Tax Collectors Undercut Walker Balanced Budget Claim

Posted by Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert is the Publisher of the Northeast Wisconsin - Green Bay Progressive.
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on Saturday, 30 August 2014
in Wisconsin

scott-walkerThe Walker Administration tried to hide the bad news by delaying the release of the final revenue numbers putting the Fiscal Year 2014 budget on a pace to be $115 million in the hole by next June 30.

MADISON - Wisconsin tax collections for the past year came in 2 percent short of estimates, the state Department of Revenue reported Thursday, news that puts the state's budget on track to be out of balance next year.

The figures show the state collected $281.2 million less for the fiscal year that ended in June than was anticipated by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. That puts the two year budget to be on a pace to be $115 million in the hole by June 30.

The Walker Administration tried to hide the bad news by delaying the release of the final revenue numbers for Fiscal Year 2014. The delay lead to several State Senators, including Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), to demand release of the numbers in a letter to Mark Huebsch, Walker’s Secretary of Administration on August 25.

A shortfall of this size will have a significant impact on the State Budget process, beginning with the agency budget proposals which are already being developed, and could lead to cuts in existing services. Such budget shortfalls also have a magnified impact on the long term structural deficit already run up by Walker. For example, a $100 million shortfall could lead to a structural deficit of $1.042 billion over time.

Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature have cut taxes by nearly $2 billion since Walker took office in 2011, including $500 million in March, a fact they've trumpeted on the campaign trail. Walker has also repeatedly claimed credit for ending the deficit in his ads as the justification for many of his actions against public workers and schools.

dave-hansenIn a statement on the new State Budget Crisis, Senator Hansen said on Friday:

"This is the worst possible news. The size of the shortfall is even worse than expected-far worse.

Under the Governor's and the Republicans' failed leadership we now have a $281 million deficit, we are lagging our neighbors in job growth and family incomes are falling behind.

Not only are we dead last in job creation in the Midwest since the Governor took office, but he and the Republicans have driven our state finances into the ground while our neighbors pass us by.

Minnesota for example has a $168 million surplus, they eliminated their structural deficit and they are leading us on job growth.

Under Governor Walker and the Republicans Wisconsin is clearly not moving forward."

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Local Schools See Fewer State Dollars While Private "Voucher" Schools Win Big

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
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on Friday, 29 August 2014
in Wisconsin

teaching-studentsSen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about the impact of shrinking state revenues for local schools districts while private “voucher” schools are receiving historically high per pupil state aid.

The 2013-15 State Budget set the private “voucher” school per pupil state aid at $7,856 for high school students and $7,210 for K-8 students. At the same time many school districts in the 31St Senate District are receiving far less state aid per pupil.

MADISON - “How is it possible that private voucher schools can receive almost four and a half times the state funding per student as our public school district receives in equalized aid,” Pepin School Superintendent Bruce Quinton wrote me.

As a new school year begins, students and parents see changes; for example, increased meal costs, larger class sizes, retiring teachers not replaced and fewer teachers’ aides. There are fewer janitors and delayed maintenance; longer bus rides and fewer field trips; fewer music and art classes.

Many public schools are forced to do more with less because lawmakers who voted for the last state budget increased state tax dollars to private schools. Nearly half of Wisconsin’s public schools will receive less aid this school year than the last – including many of our local schools.

Eau Claire received the largest dollar amount cut statewide – over $2.3 million while Pepin and Alma received the largest local percentage cuts - over 15%. At the same time, state aid per pupil going to private ‘voucher’ schools reached its highest point in state history.

In his letter, Superintendent Quinton noted the difference between amounts of state aid for Pepin to that of private schools: for the 2014-15 school year Pepin receives $1,667 per student; public tax dollars to private ‘voucher’ schools are $7,856 per high school student and $7,210 per K-8 student.

“Pepin Area School District taxpayers will pay an additional $70,119 in taxes to educate children in other districts this school year,” Mr. Quinton wrote. “I cannot comprehend why taxpayers are willing to subsidize a private voucher school education system, especially when research indicates that private voucher schools perform at best as well as the public school system and in many cases below their public school peers.”

A memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) detailing figures from the 2013-14 school year show that Pepin’s state aid payment per pupil was $4,559 less than the per pupil state aid payment made to private ‘voucher’ schools.

The effects of reduced state aid for schools are many and include lower salaries for staff. The Eau Claire School District learned their base salaries fall below the 50th percentile of the market’s base salaries. This makes it difficult to attract and retain top quality staff.

A study released by the Wisconsin Budget Project, an arm of Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, recounts the effects of several years of slim funds to local schools. “As the new school year approaches, Wisconsin schools face significant challenges, including class sizes that have grown faster than the national average, an increasing number of students living in poverty, and a reduction in state support for education.”

Fewer state dollars means higher property taxes as schools unable to make ends meet head to referendum.

Voters in Mondovi, Altoona, and Black River Falls face a fall referenda vote to raise property taxes to pay for building improvements or, for Mondovi, school operations. Voters in Black River Falls will decide, among other projects, whether to replace the ‘temporary’ trailers which housed elementary students for many years.

Voters in Eleva-Strum passed a referendum to exceed the revenue limit under threat of “massive budget deficits” that would lead to reduction in funds for a school psychologist, janitors, a library aide and a bus route. The district is also considering closing elementary schools in Eleva and Strum.

Resolving problems facing local schools will require a shift in state policy. A majority of lawmakers must realize Wisconsin cannot afford two parallel school systems. Without significant increases in taxes we cannot use state tax dollars for both public and private schools. One will suffer while the other thrives. We can see this happening already in the Milwaukee area.

State Superintendent Tony Evers proposed changes to the school aid formula that would address some of the difficulties facing rural schools. In addition to his proposed changes, sparsity aid - which I created in the 2007-09 budget - must be expanded. There is no other aid that directly assists suffering rural schools with no strings attached.

Public education is the key to prosperity. Our future depends on our investment in our children.

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Improve the Economy? Find Ways to Get Money in People’s Pockets

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
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on Monday, 25 August 2014
in Wisconsin

peopleSenator Kathleen Vinehout writes about raising the minimum wage. At nearly every event she attends, someone mentions the need to increase the minimum wage similar to action taken by Minnesota. Legislation to increase Wisconsin’s minimum wage was introduced but failed on a partisan vote. Other states have taken action to increase their minimum wage and found it benefited not only the workers but also the economy.

ALMA - “If there is one thing you could do to help it would be to raise the minimum wage.” A worker told me. She worked the last 8 years for a company that barely paid her $8.00 an hour.

“I’m the only breadwinner in my family. We can’t survive on my salary.” At $8 an hour the Eau Claire woman makes a little too much to be eligible for BadgerCare. She would gladly buy health insurance if she could afford it. But most of her money goes for basic living expenses: food, rent and fuel. Even car upkeep is a luxury.

A mom from Eau Claire’s south side told me about her daughter who is a teacher. “She doesn’t make enough. She works so hard and really cares for the kids. But she was driving on bald tires because she didn’t have enough money. I worried every time she got into the car.” Tears streamed down the mom’s face.

This summer I’ve heard more about low wages than ever before. Across Wisconsin wages have stagnated. A June/July 2014 report released by Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance confirms Wisconsin wages trail the nation:

Average wages here have trailed the nation’s for years, but the gap has widened in recent years. Average wages in Wisconsin were 14% below the US average in 2013 compared to 10.8% below in 2003.

As with income and wages, employment growth here has also lagged. During 2000-13 job growth nationwide averaged 0.8% per year, vs. 0.3% here.

In a separate publication dated late July, the Taxpayers Alliance reports personal income, while improving compared to the US, still trails the nation’s average:

Part of the reason for lagging personal income is average earnings, which at $48,681 were 10.4% below US levels ($54,681) in 2012. Wisconsin earnings were also below the averages in Michigan, Minnesota, and especially Illinois, but still led Iowa by a slight margin.

Raising the minimum wage is a topic of much discussion among local people this summer. At nearly every gathering I’ve attended voters brought up the topic and asked me to support something similar to Minnesota’s law.

Last April, Minnesota lawmakers reached agreement on raising the state’s minimum wage. Starting this month, Minnesota’s minimum wage will increase over a 3-year period to $9.50 for large employers and $7.75 for small employers. The new law provides that by 2018, Minnesota’s minimum wage will be adjusted for inflation. Should the recession return, the law gives Minnesota an option to suspend the indexed increase in the minimum wage.

The new phased-in minimum wage increase has Minnesota leading the region. This spring Connecticut and 8 other states joined Minnesota in raising their minimum wage. Connecticut used a phased-in process similar to Minnesota’s: beginning at $8.70 and ending January 2017 at $10.10.

USA Today quoted Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy as he signed the new law: “Increasing the minimum wage is not just good for workers; it's also good for business. This modest increase will give working families a boost, and it will contribute to our economy by getting just a little more money into the pockets of people who will spend it in their communities."

According to the National Council of State Legislatures, as of August 2014, 23 states and Washington, D.C., have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Wisconsin joined 37 other states in introducing legislation to raise the minimum wage. I joined my colleagues in supporting the bill, which was defeated in a partisan vote last January. Federal efforts to raise the minimum wage have also been unsuccessful.

Increasing the minimum wage would help many struggling families. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports federal efforts to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 would benefit 17 million workers, largely women. Just under half - 47% - work full-time. The average minimum wage worker brings home half of the family’s earnings.

If we really want to help people in poverty and reward them for hard work, I suggest we raise the minimum wage – in phases – to $10.60. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics $10.60 an hour would take us back in real dollars to the minimum wage of 1968!

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Use New Federal Money For Badgercare to Help Workers & Lower Premium Costs

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
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on Tuesday, 19 August 2014
in Wisconsin

healthcareSenator Vinehout writes about the savings to the state if the Governor and majority of Legislators had fully implemented the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA). She had asked the Legislative Fiscal Bureau to do a new estimate updated from the figures provided during the 2013-15 budget debate.

ALMA - “I’m so glad to see you,” Mary from Eau Claire told me at a recent neighborhood gathering. I asked how she was doing.

“It’s hard,” she admitted. “I work 32 hours a week. I make $8.00 an hour. I tried to get more hours but they won’t let me.” Her husband, Tom, lost his maintenance job at the university. He’s a 23-year Army Reserve veteran but there’s no pension and no new job in sight.

“My twin sister lives in La Crosse. I love her dearly. I haven’t seen her since Christmas. I’d love to visit her but when I get all the bills paid, I don’t even have $20 for gas to get me there and back,” Mary said. “And, I don’t have any health insurance. What if something happened to one of us?”

Mary and Tom (not their real names) aren’t eligible for BadgerCare and can’t afford a single new expense. The couple falls through the cracks of Wisconsin’s health insurance safety net. Hitting bottom with an unexpected medical expense would devastate them – and hurt all of us.

The holes in this safety net could be patched. Mending the net would help Mary, Tom, and couples like them while also bringing down the cost of health insurance for all the rest of us.

Mending the net would also make a big difference in the state’s ability to balance its books.

According to State Health Facts compiled by Kaiser Family Foundation, about 14% of those in Wisconsin between age 19 and 64 do not have health insurance.

Some of the uninsured found insurance through BadgerCare and some through the federal Marketplace. But others who were covered by BadgerCare are now without coverage.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported that of the 62,000 plus people who lost BadgerCare in April, less than a third found health insurance in the Marketplace by mid-June. Looking at the same data, Wisconsin Council on Children and Families analyst Jon Peacock reported, “I’m not optimistic that a very large portion of the roughly 38,000 people whose [health insurance] status is unknown have gotten private insurance outside the Marketplace.”

Peacock concluded these new –likely uninsured – people will “make it harder to reach the Governor’s goal of cutting in half the number of uninsured Wisconsinites.”

Under the Governor’s changes to the BadgerCare program, eligibility for most adults is limited to those who make under 100% of the federal poverty level – that means an annual household income of $11,670 for a single person. This limit is increased - for a single person- by more than $3,800 under the federal Affordable Care Act. And as family size increases, so does the income limit.

Under Wisconsin’s current BadgerCare program the federal government pays 59% of the cost of those covered by the program. However, the Affordable Care Act provides states additional dollars to cover 100% of “newly-eligible” groups for calendar years 2014-2016, 95% of costs in 2017, 94% in 2018, 93% in 2019 and 90% in 2020 and every year after. Those who voted for the most recent state budget turned down the additional federal funds.

I recently asked the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) what the difference in spending would have been, compared to current law, if Wisconsin had fully implemented the federal health law.

Just in the current budget, the state would have saved $206 million (in general funds) and covered another 87,000 people. These numbers are substantially higher than the original estimates made by the LFB during the budget debate. This is, in part, because the state saw higher than expected enrollment in BadgerCare by the very poor.

Recent numbers show taking such action to implement the federal health law would save over $250 million in the next budget. Our Medicaid program is currently on track to run over $200 million in the red. Taking money offered by the feds is clearly the fiscally prudent action.

But more important is our moral obligation to help couples across the state like Mary and Tom.

By helping them, we help ourselves: every uninsured person who gains coverage helps lower insurance premiums for the rest of us.

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Do Not Call! Stopping those Pesky Direct Marketing Calls

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
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on Monday, 11 August 2014
in Wisconsin

telephoneThis week, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about the Do Not Call List and changes to that list which started this month. The state consolidated its Do Not Call List with the federal Do Not Call Registry maintained by the Federal Trade Commission to make things easier for those registering their phone numbers and save state dollars.

MADISON - A gentleman called my office on behalf of his sister. She was receiving calls from salespeople even though she registered her phone with the Do Not Call List. His sister was feeling harassed by a particular company that kept calling her at all hours. “Where do we turn to get help?” he asked.

Wisconsin has maintained a Do Not Call List for many years. Registering your phone numbers on the list keeps away pesky direct marketing calls. But Wisconsin’s Do Not Call List required individuals re-register their phone number every two years.

Beginning this month, the state Do Not Call list was consolidated with the Federal Do Not Call List maintained by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The list also became permanent. Once a phone number is on the list, there is no need to put the number back on the list every two years – as was the case under the state system.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection (DATCP) will continue to oversee the enforcement of rules and investigation of complaints. Direct marketing companies in Wisconsin must still prove they comply with the federal law. The law also prohibits companies from using fictitious names or misrepresenting their identity, location or affiliation.

The state established the Do Not Call list in 2001. Folks were required to give their phone number and zip code to DATCP every two years. During that time, direct marketers could not make “cold calls” or calls without any prior business relationship, to the consumer. Calls to current clients, calls from non-profits and political calls were exempt from the law.

Some have attempted to include political calls on the list – something I support – but this legislation has not yet been successful.

The law also prohibits making pre-recorded telephone solicitations and forbids a call if a customer asks a business in writing to stop making calls.

In 2008, the Wisconsin law was changed to forbid calls to cell phones and changed again in 2012 to forbid unwanted text messages to phone numbers on the list.

I voted in favor of the new law consolidating Wisconsin’s Do Not Call List with the federal list. People complained to me about their Do Not Call List number receiving calls only to find out they needed to register the number again – an unnecessary hassle.

Wisconsin joins several states including Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois that moved to the national list while keeping oversight and enforcement at the state level. The reasons include the ease at registering numbers, the permanence of the list and the lower cost to states.

Merging with the federal Do Not Call list saves the state around $185,000 per year. Those dollars will be used for enforcement and consumer education.

Telemarketing calls is the number one complaint fielded by state consumer protection investigators. Digging through details of complaints, I often find the reason for the unwanted calls can be traced to the 2-year limit on the Wisconsin list. Hopefully the new permanent system will resolve this problem.

However, Consumer Protection officials warn that if you do receive sales calls at a phone number you registered on the Do Not Call list, those calls are most likely fraudulent. Protect yourself and others by reporting those calls to DATCP.

The complete state list has now been merged with the federal list. But phone numbers that dropped off the state list at the end of the two-year limit were not sent to the FTC. To make sure your number is on the permanent list you can verify the number at or call (from the number you want to verify) 1-888-382-1222 or TTY 1-866-290-4236.

Remember that if your phone number did drop off the state list and you re-registered it, the restrictions on direct marketers go into effect 31 days after your call.

If you are on the list and still being harassed by direct marketers after the 31-day period, you can file a complaint through DATCP by calling 1-800-422-7128 online at You can also call your favorite senator at 1-877-763-6636 and I will get you started.

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Fair-goers Living with Health Insurance Changes; Asking for More

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
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on Tuesday, 05 August 2014
in Wisconsin

fairgoersThis week Sen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about health care conversations she had with people attending county fairs. Many people were thankful for affordable health care rates but others were concerned about the difference in insurance rates between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Minnesota's rates were lower. Local folks also asked why Wisconsin turned down the federal Medicaid expansion dollars.

BLACK RIVER FALLS, WI - “The Affordable Care Act has been godsend for me,” the middle-aged, single man whispered to me at the Jackson County Fair. “I had paid $336 a month, now I pay $56 and its better insurance.”

Health insurance, and what Wisconsin should do about it, was the topic of conversation at the Jackson County Fair. A local civic organization asked fair-goers the question; is the Affordable Care Act the same as Obamacare? Three out of four who answered this unscientific poll were correct: Yes!

One woman worried about the quarter who got the answer wrong. “They agree adult children should be covered on their parents plan until age 26,” she told me. “They agree women should not pay more than men, pre-existing conditions should be covered, no life-time caps and we should have lower rates – but they hate Obamacare. They don’t know these are the same.”

I heard many whispered thanks for lower rates; whispered because it might not be socially acceptable to embrace Obamacare in mixed company at the fair. But moving from Jackson County to border counties - Trempealeau and Buffalo – I heard comparisons with Minnesota.

“My sister pays a third of what I pay,” a woman said. “She lives in Winona. Why can’t I get a better price?” Both women bought health insurance on the exchange. Minnesota has its own exchange; Wisconsin’s governor turned down that option.

Reporters at the St. Paul Pioneer Press analyzed health insurance exchange rates across 36 states divided into 406 geographic areas. The Dunn County News summarized the reporters’ work:

The Twin Cities [is] a rating area that has the lowest "benchmark" premium for a 50-year-old who doesn't smoke, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services... The newspaper found that the rating area that covers Pierce, Polk and St. Croix counties in western Wisconsin has the second-highest benchmark premium for a 50-year-old nonsmoker.

How can it be the Cities has the lowest health insurance rates and, just across the river, the rates are the second highest of 406 different geographic areas?

The article attributes the price difference to a lack of competition in Wisconsin and “a convergence of policy decisions” between the two states. Two reasons mentioned by the Pioneer Press are the way the two states handled high-risk pools (known in Wisconsin as HIRSP) and whether or not the state accepted hundreds of millions in federal Medicaid money for newly eligible people.

Minnesota decided to keep high-risk people in their own state-run pool – at least for now. Wisconsin chose to eliminate the pool and send high-risk people to private insurance. Wisconsin’s HIRSP program was very effective at providing high quality care while carefully controlling health costs.

Moving some 60,000 Wisconsin parents from BadgerCare to the private exchange likely raised rates for others buying through the exchange. Statistics tell us families of modest means will have higher health costs than those better off.

Debate still rages on whether or not Wisconsin should have its own exchange. I’m firmly in the “yes” camp. In the proposed law I drafted to create a Badger Health Exchange, high risk individuals would not immediately lose coverage and be sent to commercial insurance (raising rates in the entire pool). And in budget amendments drafted by my colleagues and me, Wisconsin would accept the projected $2.4 billion federal money over 8 years and keep low-income parents on BadgerCare when their children were also eligible.

Recent state health department data shows a surprisingly low number of people who lost BadgerCare actually got insurance through the federal exchange. Only a third of parents who lost BadgerCare actually got private insurance. These families all live on the edge of poverty and all have children living at home.

Fair-goers I’ve met over the past few weeks don’t understand why Wisconsin’s governor turned back hundreds of millions to keep up the anti-Obamacare rhetoric. As one farmer said, “It’s the law and we have to move on. We might not like it all, but it’s the best we’ve got.”

For those who now have affordable coverage the whispered words remain: the new law is a godsend.

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