Saturday August 24, 2019

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Wisconsin Leading the Way in State Cuts to Schools?

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 07 July 2014
in Wisconsin

wisc-school-fundingSen. Kathleen Vinehout’s column focuses on cuts to state aid to school districts. She refers to a recent study that shows Wisconsin is second only to Alabama in cuts in state per pupil aid. She shares information about the impact of the cuts on school districts in the 31st Senate District.

PEPIN, WI - “Hard to believe we are in competition for last place!” said Pepin Superintendent Bruce Quinton. This is hard to believe indeed.

A recently released study of state budget cuts to local schools has Wisconsin ranked second only to Alabama in cuts per pupil.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities looked at state dollars spent per student. Wisconsin students receive $1,038 less per pupil in the 2013-14 school year than when the recession hit in 2008. North Dakota, which topped the list in new dollars per child, posted a $1,116 increase since 2008. Changes in spending were adjusted for inflation.

Wisconsin’s ranking isn’t so hard to believe if you’ve lived through the last four years working in one of our local schools.

“Less funding, more mandates, higher expectations. No successful business or organization runs according to these concepts. If the goal is truly to improve education, then our lawmakers should stand up for adequate funding for our children’s education,” wrote Mr. Quinton.

Standing up for higher funding means voting against deep cuts that did not have to happen. In my 2011 alternative budget I showed how schools could be adequately funded. Again in 2013, I showed how to pay for a new school funding formula to correct the unfairness suffered by Pepin, Alma and other rural schools.

Instead, a majority of lawmakers voted to cut school funding. With less state aid, superintendents were forced to cut staff, cut teachers and send the remaining teachers back to school to cover more subjects.

In order to survive school administrators cover multiple roles including teaching. School districts share sports and many other services. One school counselor I spoke with this summer resigned after spending several years serving three rural schools. “It’s just too much,” she told me.

One effect of deep cuts in state school funds is an increase in property taxes.

Earlier this year the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that dozens of cash-strapped rural schools had placed “high-stakes tax hikes to voters” to keep rural schools operating.

“The controversial Act 10 legislation signed by Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 decreased state aid,” reported the Sentinel in March, “but restricted districts from raising property taxes to make up for the budget shortfall. Instead, the legislation allowed districts more flexibility to get savings from employees, such as by changing health care plans or adjusting salaries.”

“We’re told ‘you’ve got the tools’ [to cut costs] but what does that mean?” Mr. Quinton told me. “Please explain to me again how to use the ‘tools’ to destroy the morale of the very people I count on to educate children.”

Personnel costs make up most of a school district’s expenses. People have already seen deep cuts in salaries. Schools already require employees to pay a larger percentage of health care costs. Health care benefits have already been deeply trimmed.

To make matters worse, the Department of Public Instruction recently released estimated general state aid for schools for the coming school year showing deep cuts in aid for Pepin.

Both Pepin and Alma will receive the deepest cuts allowed by state law – over 15%. Blair-Taylor will see over a 10% cut in state aid. The Eau Claire Area School District received the largest cut in dollar amount- dropping by $2.3 million. These aid estimates do not include categorical aid targeted for specific programs.

Overall, schools in the 31st Senate District saw a paltry average increase of less than .04%. Statewide, the average increase was about 2%.

In a follow-up conversation with the Pepin Superintendent, I learned that the Pepin district taxpayers next year will pick up 88% of the cost of educating a student.

And the same state budget that sends Pepin taxpayers only $1,667 of general state aid per student, will send private schools $7,856 per high school student and $7,210 for K-8 students.

These are the direct effects of budget decisions made by a majority of lawmakers.

I can’t think of anyone who really wants Wisconsin to fight Alabama for the distinction of having made the largest cuts in per pupil state aid to schools.

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Money in Politics: What Can a Person Do?

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, 01 July 2014
in Wisconsin

money-behind-politicsThis week, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about amending the US constitution to overturn Citizens’ United. Polls show that almost universally people are opposed to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens’ United. She discusses how the constitution could be amended and what actions people can take to reduce the influence of money in politics.

ALMA - “What can I do to stop corporate money from taking over our country?” Betty from Buffalo County asked me. She joined about 20 local people in viewing the film Koch Exposed that focused on the power of a few to manipulate elections.

Money in politics is almost universally hated. In poll after poll Americans say money is not free speech and corporations are not people. This is one issue upon which people of all political stripes can agree.

Immediately following the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United an ABC News Washington Post poll of over 1,000 adults found 8 in 10 opposed the court ruling and 72% favored legislative action to reverse the court’s decision. Among those who agree with the Tea Party’s views 73% disagreed with the Supreme Court ruling.

On April 1st, 13 Wisconsin communities overwhelmingly approved referenda supporting a national constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Even in the Republican community of Waukesha 69% of voters supported the constitutional amendment.

The advisory referenda in Wisconsin communities were placed on the ballot by local people who agreed with work of a grassroots group known as Move to Amend.

The ballot question asked voters if they agreed with a constitutional amendment to assure that only natural persons (not corporations) have constitutional rights and that money is not free speech.

According to the Move to Amend website ( over three-dozen local citizen led or ballot initiatives passed in the U.S. While 274 units of local government passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment.

A resolution calling for a constitutional amendment passed at least one house of the Legislature in over a dozen states including Minnesota; but not Wisconsin.

A bipartisan group of Senators, including myself, and 27 Democratic Assembly members introduced a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. The resolution failed to garner enough support for a vote in either house.

The constitutional amendment process is an arduous one. Article Five of the United States Constitution describes two different processes by which the Constitution may be amended. The first is through a two-thirds vote of members present in each House of the U.S. Congress. Second is by a two-thirds vote of a Constitutional Convention called by Congress. The first method is the only one that has been used. The Constitutional amendment is then sent to the states for ratification. Three fourths of state Legislatures must ratify the amendment. Congress sets a time limit by which states must act and how states must ratify the amendment.

States can pressure Congress by passing their own resolutions. This is what happened in Minnesota and is why some of my colleagues and I sponsored the resolution in Wisconsin. Local people can pressure the state. This is why thirteen resolutions were added to the April ballots around Wisconsin.

Changing the Constitution can take a long time. The first national efforts to pass the 19th Amendment – giving women the right to vote - happened in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. The Amendment was finally ratified by the last needed state in 1920 (Wisconsin was the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment).

The result of the over-70 year struggle is something we now take for granted. But it wouldn’t have happened without the early efforts of women in Seneca Falls.

We must work to amend the Constitution to limit money in politics. While we move toward this goal there are other actions you can and should take to limit the influence of money in politics.

First, vote. Encourage all you know to vote.

Before you vote, do your homework. Read up on the positions of candidates. Talk with candidates. Take note of which candidates won’t appear at a public forum or community gathering. Don’t be swayed by negative advertising. Negative ads are designed to influence you to vote against a candidate or not vote at all.

Pay attention to who is paying for ads and mailers – much of the money in politics comes through outside groups with a vested interest in the outcome of the election.

You can lessen the effect of money in politics by refusing to let money buy your vote.

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Can a Company Have Religious Beliefs?

Posted by Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert is the Publisher of the Northeast Wisconsin - Green Bay Progressive.
User is currently offline
on Monday, 30 June 2014
in Wisconsin

supreme_corporate_courtGREEN BAY - The Supreme Court ruled today that private corporations can deny contraception to workers, in violation of the insurance requirements under Obamacare. (Hobby Lobby vs. Sebelius). The owners at Hobby Lobby argued that their religious beliefs trump the rights of their 13,000 employees and the ruling opens a pandora’s box that employers may use to discriminate against individuals in one way or another.

One wonders, by what legal gymnastics, did the conservative justices on the court convince themselves that one individual or group gets to impose their personal prejudices on another and still stay within the intent of our constitution?

Are all of us equal or are some of us more equal than others, as the phase from Animal Farm goes?

If you work in some else’s household do you have to attend the church of the masters? If you live in a town where the majority of the city council is Christian, do you have to be the same? What exactly is the difference?

The Supreme Court conservatives tried to hedge around the issue by saying only “closely held” corporations get to discriminate. But what exactly does that mean? You can be sure that the lawyers at thousands of companies are checking out ways right now to use this ruling for their own benefit.

And finally, where exactly does the constitution say that a company can have religious beliefs? And if so, whose beliefs are they? The one or five owners? The majority of the workers in the company? The people in the central office? It goes on and on.

Unless you accept the logic, as the Supreme Court conservatives apparently did, that the owners get to impose their beliefs on everyone within their domain, perhaps under the divine right of kings.

Wasn’t that what we fought a revolution and wrote a constitution to end?

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Investing in Wisconsin…For our Children, for our Future

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, 23 June 2014
in Wisconsin

high-speed-railThis week Senator Vinehout writes about the impact of decisions made to send federal dollars back by the governor and legislative leaders.  Those Federal dollars would have boosted the economy, created jobs and prepared Wisconsin for the future.

ALMA - I climbed aboard the tractor-driven wagon at the Pierce County Dairy Breakfast and nodded to two smiling girls clutching brightly colored balloons. Two families down was a little boy with tears in his eyes. His mother comforted him.

“Would you like my balloon?” I asked the boy. “Let me put the string around your wrist so you don’t lose it.” He stuck out his little arm and I slid the loop of string on the yellow balloon around his wrist.

At that point, his teary face turned into a priceless ear-to-ear smile.

I knew what every grandparent, parent, aunt or uncle knows: you’d do just about anything to get that reward of a big bright smile. We want the best for our children. We do a lot to invest in their future.

So when it comes to investing in our future why do some Wisconsin leaders have such a hard time?

I felt caught between the motivation to leave that young man a vibrant growing state to call home and a majority of colleagues in Madison very reluctant to invest in our state’s future.

I recently received a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) detailing the federal money Wisconsin leaders turned back in the last four years, effectively saying ‘No thanks. Send this money to another state. We don’t want it.’

The day before my encounter with the teary young man, I sat near a Chippewa Valley legislator at the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce Legislative Forum. Representative Larson justified sending federal money back by saying “We’ve got to wean ourselves from taking federal money. The federal government doesn’t have any money.”

Never mind that the federal budget is over 50 times larger than the state. Never mind that 28% of Wisconsin’s budget is already made up of federal money. Never mind that Wisconsin historically brings back less money than state taxpayers send to Uncle Sam.

The work of the nonpartisan LFB tells the story about what won’t happen in our future because of decisions made in the last four years: 82 schools and 385 libraries won’t be helped with new broadband after $22 million in grant money was sent back. The first leg of high-speed passenger rail won’t be built as the governor turned back almost $800 million. Wisconsin doesn’t have a statewide marketplace for finding low cost health insurance or independent navigators to help folks sign up for health insurance. The Department of Health sent back to the feds over $33 million in grants awarded to the state.

Some 84,000 low-income parents would have BadgerCare if the state had taken federal dollars. Over the next three budgets over $2 billion in federal funds won’t flow through the state to health care providers to care for parents of lesser means.

In addition, had the state agreed with President Obama to cover these parents, over the next 3 budgets, $500 million in state tax dollars would be freed up. This is money sorely needed just to continue to balance the state budget.

In another LFB memo, analysts report the state started 2014 with almost a billion dollar surplus; but is expected to start the next budget $642 million in the red. In just the 2014-15 fiscal year, beginning July 1st, the state is estimated to spend $500 million more than we take in.

Revenue estimates are dropping as the state’s recovery stalls. The federal dollars turned away would have pumped over $3 billion into our economy over the next 3 budgets. This is estimated to be equivalent to a 4% growth in tax revenue and over 15,000 new jobs.

What do we want for our children and our future? Will covering parents with low income save us money when they turn 65? Will high-speed rail ease the congestion and cost of repairing roads and improve our quality of life 30 years from now? Will broadband in our rural libraries and schools help the students living in rural Wisconsin in 2034?

I don’t know the little guy’s name with the yellow balloon, but I won’t forget his smile. His future is worth working for today.

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Walmart's Wrong Plan for Green Bay

Posted by Randy Scannell
Randy Scannell
Randy Scannell is an Alderman representing the 7th District of Green Bay.
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 18 June 2014
in Wisconsin

walmartGREEN BAY - The size of the Larsen Green is comparable to 10 Lambeau fields or 3 Port Plaza Malls. If it were on the east side of the Fox it would extend from Walnut to Pine Street and from the riverbank to Adams Street. I recommend anyone who is interested in the Larsen Green debate to walk around the site. It is immense.

Walmart's plan is to build a supercenter and pave the rest for parking. A small corner is allotted for On Broadway Inc. office space. Another corner is granted air rights above the parking lot. The historic cold storage building would be demolished and the zoning essentially changes to commercial. The tax levy on Walmart would be about $300,000.

With Walmart's plan there is no room for further development. The air rights are less than 3 acres. They sit under high-powered lines and any construction cannot be anchored between two buildings and would thus require an easement from Walmart for pillars to provide a foundation. The air rights cover too little ground and are developmentally problematical. Walmart wants to be part of the Broadway vibe, but are knocking down the historical, cold storage building. The surface parking of 600 stalls (the zoning only requires 400) takes up 2/3 of the site. The plan Walmart has submitted is a suburban plan that basically gobbles up 15 acres of downtown property. This is larger than any other Walmart site in the area. Walmart has stated they want to be downtown. If Walmart wants to build in an urban setting, they need an urban plan, one that allows for a high density of development that will increase Green Bay's tax base.

The current plan adopted by the Planning Commission zones the Larsen Green for mixed use. This allows for a dense development of housing, retail, office space, and possibly recreational construction of an indoor/outdoor musical auditorium or baseball stadium. The historic Larson Building is reutilized and the projected tax levy of the entire area will range from $900,000 to 2.7 million.

It is true this plan will require a little investment and time to be realized. However, if we consider we are coming out of a recession; if we appreciate the recent projects happening on the east side of Downtown: the Metreau, the City Deck Landing, Schrieber Foods, Prevea, the expansion of the Meyer, and the reconstruction of Monroe Street; if we remember how much the Broadway District has changed and look at the expansion of Titletown on Broadway that demonstrates how remarkable the reuse of the historic canning factory can be, then I believe we can with some confidence say a mixed use development of the Larsen Green is practical and realistic.

There is a need in the downtown or a near downtown district (perhaps Velp Avenue) for businesses that will provide goods and services people living in the area want at prices they can afford. The majority of my constituents have made this very clear to me. The majority of my constituents, however, oppose Walmart's plan of the Larsen Green. To lose hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to a parking lot that destroys an historic building is a terrible, terrible waste. For the city of Green Bay to allow Walmart to take up 15 acres of downtown property is like the farmer who sells his farm to buy a cow because he needs milk. It is not the wisest of decisions.

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Enjoy Wisconsin’s Dairy Breakfasts

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, 17 June 2014
in Wisconsin

dairyfarmThe Senator writes about the annual celebration of June Dairy Month – the county Dairy Breakfast. Each one features local dairy farms, farmers and tasty treats. Each one is a chance for people to connect with each other and with their rural roots. The dairy industry contributes significantly to our state’s economy which is why each year we celebrate June Dairy Month.

MADISON - June is dairy month. Wisconsin celebrates dairy in a special way: the dairy breakfast. Folks come early for the fresh pancakes, sausage, cheese curds and country air.

They stay for the ice cream – “Mom, this is the first time I’ve had ice cream for breakfast” – and for the neighbors.

“I’ve seen people I haven’t seen in 18 years,” the woman from Whitehall told me.

“I see people at the dairy breakfast I see nowhere else all year,” said another from Independence.

Dairy breakfasts bring together folks from all walks of life and all age groups. The youngsters love the animals, the face painting and climbing on straw bales.

The oldsters love the youngsters.

“See the gal in the cowboy boots?” the woman said. Four young ladies walked up the hill in front of us. The Dairy Princess and her court were dressed in formal gowns. Only one wore boots under her beautiful dress.

“She’s my granddaughter,” the woman told me. “She wants to be a farmer and loves pigs. She finally found a boyfriend who loves to farm as much as she does.”

The couple was working for an older local farmer, learning the trade from the experienced man. They were also planning to attend the animal husbandry program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

“Tuition is so expensive,” a grandfather told me. “Don’t you think the state should put more money into the universities? When I graduated tuition, room and board, books and everything was only $238.”

I heard lots of stories about how proud parents and grandparents are of their off-spring. The work students accomplished in school is top on their list. “Joey plays the trumpet now,” one mom said. “Katie graduated with honors last week,” said a proud grandfather. Participation in youth activities, especially 4H, was also high on the list for elders to share. “Can you imagine, little Bradley is in 4H and showing rabbits at the fair,” said another.

Families dominated the talk at the dairy breakfasts I’ve attended. Tied for a close second was food and the weather. Maybe the weather won out in Melrose when dark clouds and a heavy rainstorm threatened festivities at the Jackson County breakfast on the Pfaff farm.

People also wanted to share concerns about dark clouds they saw in state government. I heard most about schools and health care. Folks told stories about cutbacks in local schools. Old band uniforms, new fees, sports combined with neighboring schools and many other actions to save money had people worried about whether the state was properly investing in the future of their children and grandchildren.

“We’ve got the best way of life,” one older woman told me. “I just hate to see the younger generation feel like they can’t stay here because the schools don’t get what they need to do a good job.”

Dairy breakfasts aren’t complete without animals.

Our local dairy breakfasts show-case the latest technology in robotic milking, GPS driven crop care and cow comfort. Owners and local farmers joined together to explain to city and country folks alike the challenges and rewards of farming.

And the relationship between animals and people knows no bounds between country and urban cousins. I heard about the family dog that saved the kitten by barking at the tree until the family came to the rescue and the steer that set the troubled teen on the road to recovery from depression.

The county elders were not to be out done with stories about horses rescuing their wayward masters. One fellow decked out in black and white spotted pants and wearing a black and white cap with a stuffed cow perched atop shared one of his favorite stories.

The team of horses waited patiently for their master to return. It never mattered how tired or incapacitated master was…the team knew the way home by heart.

If you missed the local dairy breakfast there is still time. If you live in western Wisconsin the Pierce County breakfast will be held at the Richardson Family Farm in Maiden Rock on June 21st. The Buffalo County Dairy Breakfast is June 28th from 7 am to 11:30 am at the Weisenbeck Farm in Maxville Township.

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When Good People Disagree: The Case of the Amish and State Building Codes

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, 09 June 2014
in Wisconsin

wisconsin-amishSenator Vinehout received contacts from Old Order Amish families who are facing court cases because their religious beliefs prevent them from complying with installation of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Local officials have concerns about the homes not having these safety devices, particularly because the Amish burn wood to heat their homes and use gas lanterns.

EAU CLAIRE - “We want to protect our religious convictions against modern technology and preserve the Heritage our Forefathers handed down on us and our children,” the man from Springfield Township recently wrote me.

“We live a humble life, therefore we also want humble houses to live in,” he wrote.

He explained he didn’t hire contractors, install electrical wiring, bathrooms, septic mounds, smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. He asked me to exempt his Amish community members from the state building codes.

“Our Desire is to be good neighbors and live in Peace with our non-Amish neighbors.”

But peace is not what is facing several Amish families who, according to an Eau Claire Leader-Telegram (ECLT) article, are “butting heads with modern society in Eau Claire County”.

At issue is the county’s enforcement of state law requiring, among other things, carbon monoxide and smoke detectors in new homes. Firefighters and others are concerned the Amish homes, typically heated with wood and lighted with gas lanterns, are particularly susceptible to fire.

Another ECLT article quoted Supervisor Mark Olson, a retired firefighter, saying to his fellow Eau Claire County Board members, “a simple thing that helps save lives isn’t too much to ask of any people.”

One Amish family was already evicted from the home they built and moved out of state.

Advocates for the Amish with whom I spoke tell me more families are planning to move to another state that is “more hospitable to their beliefs”.

Wisconsin has the fourth largest Amish population in the United States. Western Wisconsin is home to the largest communities - the largest is in Cashton. Nearly every county I represent has fairly large Amish communities and I estimate 1,000 Amish live in our Senate District.

Just like the rest of us, not all Amish are the same. The communities most concerned about complying with the building code are the Old Order Amish.

Members of the Old Order Amish and their advocates wrote and called me asking for help. Earlier this year, in response to their request, I introduced a bill to exempt those of certain bona fide religious denominations from laws regulating home construction.

I heard from several residents who didn’t like the bill I introduced. They strongly felt everyone should follow the same rules. Local officials asked me, “Where will this end? What if I set up my own religion?”

Evidently a number of legislators also disagreed with me. Only two of my 131 colleagues agreed to co-sponsor my bill – one Democrat and one Republican. The bill didn’t even receive a public hearing.

Clearly this approach wasn’t going to solve the problem. So I went back to the drawing board. I met with Legislative Council attorneys and those skilled in drafting legislation. I spoke with local leaders and advocates for the Amish. Each time I asked what they thought would be a good solution.

Meanwhile the Eau Claire County cases against the Amish were scheduled for an early August trial. I heard more Amish families are talking about leaving the state.

Legislative attorneys told me about prior court decisions related to the Wisconsin Constitution. Our constitution has a conscience clause that is stronger than federal law. Prior court decisions set out a test to determine when this conscience objection applies.

The test requires, in this case, the Amish person to prove he or she has sincerely held religious beliefs and their belief is burdened by the law. The state or in this case county must prove there is a compelling state interest and that interest cannot be served by a “less restrictive alternative”.

Court cases provided several possible ways for me to write future legislation.

I share this story to demonstrate what happens when good and well-meaning people disagree. Solving thorny issues involves much research. Solutions involve a careful balance considering people’s opinions and past court decisions. But the best solution also relies on common sense.

A baker I recently met in Plum City said to me, “Maybe we should ask the Amish to come up with a solution they can live with.” This sounds like a great idea.

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Why Can’t Scott Walker Just Give A Straight Answer?

Posted by Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert is the Publisher of the Northeast Wisconsin - Green Bay Progressive.
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 04 June 2014
in Wisconsin

scottwalker-questionGREEN BAY - I was watching Governor Scott Walker last Sunday morning on Up Front with Mike Gousha and was struck by a repeated question. Can’t this guy just give a straight answer?

When Gousha tried to tie him down on his repeated 250,000 job creation campaign promise, he said we were doing better than Illinois. When Gousha pointed out that Illinois was the only one of 10 Midwestern states that we surpassed, Walker changed the subject to the last three months.

I was struck most by his answer on the John Doe investigations into illegal activities by himself and his staff at Milwaukee County. “Those who know can’t talk” Walker said, and “those who don’t shouldn’t talk”. I really don’t know what that was supposed to mean.

Back in February, I went on record in this blog, under my own name, saying Scott Walker knew as far back as 2002 about the “secret network” in the Milwaukee County Executive’s office. I knew because I helped his staff, namely Tim Russell, set it up.

What was most interesting was the reaction from the Governor’s staff. Scott Walker wouldn’t talk about it, and they said the charge came from a known Democrat. They didn’t deny it, they just implied it was only politics and that seemed to satisfy folks.

Only, I wasn’t a Democrat in 2002. Back then, I was running around with a group of Milwaukee County inner ring suburban Republicans called the Franklin Citizens for Responsible Leadership. Scott Walker and Tim Russell most likely thought I was one of their own.

But by 2014 the story changed and it was all politics.

We should not accept these evasions. That there is no real truth in politics, that it is all just spin from one side or the other. To do so demeans ourselves was well as the standards we set for our political leaders.

Mike Gousha tried to get a straight answer from Scott Walker, and you could tell he was getting frustrated. But for a guy like Walker, the answers he gave to Mike and me will be good enough unless we show him we are not buying it any more.

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Call The Fraud & Mismanagement Hotline when Bad Things Happen in State Government

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, 02 June 2014
in Wisconsin

capitolThe Fraud and Mismanagement Hotline, operated by the Legislative Audit Bureau, was created so that people could “easily and confidentially report suspected fraud, waste and mismanagement, and other improper activities within state government.”

MADISON - “Workers and inmates were required to remove asbestos with no protection,” the woman told me. Her colleague agreed. “Since we lost union protections, bad things are happening at the Department of Corrections.”

The workers said no cameras or cell phones are allowed in the prison, making the bad things hard to prove. State workers didn’t know what to do.

I suggested they call the Fraud, Waste, and Mismanagement Hotline at 1-877-373-8317. The Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) oversees the hotline. The LAB is part of the legislative branch of state government, which puts it in the perfect position to oversee the functions of the executive branch of state government.

The hotline was established by 2007 Wisconsin Act 126 and has been active since April 2008.

According to the 2012 LAB report on the hotline, it was created “so that the public, state employees and contractors could easily and confidentially report suspected fraud, waste and mismanagement, and other improper activities within state government.”

It provides one of those critical checks and balances in government and is managed by a Certified Fraud Examiner.

Complaints to the hotline come primarily through the toll-free number (1-877-FRAUD-17). A secure voice mail is always available at this number. People can also use the U.S. mail or a secure web-based form found at

Those contacting the hotline are not required to leave their name or other contact information. But auditors tell me people are encouraged to leave some contact information as LAB staff must often make follow-up inquiries to get to the bottom of a problem.

Those who contact the hotline are protected by some of the strongest whistle blower protections in state statute. State law requires the Audit Bureau to keep the identity of a person contacting the hotline private even when other information about the fraud or mismanagement investigation is made public.

Sometimes the information conveyed through the hotline ends up in a full-scale Audit Bureau investigation. Some of the most public and wide-reaching state investigations began with a call to the hotline. For example, an audit of Food Share benefits spent outside the state of Wisconsin was the result of a hotline call. Another investigation uncovered problems with the monitoring of administrative contracts, unauthorized spending and failure to competitively bid contracts for administering the state’s large Medicaid program.

Other audits having their genesis in hotline contacts include an investigation of the asphalt warranty program that looked at the construction and life of state roads, and yet another looked into the misuse of Workforce Advancement Training funds.

Many people called the hotline with problems related to Family Care, the program assisting the developmentally disabled, frail elderly and physically handicapped. Using the information shared by callers, auditors where able to craft a much more thorough evaluation of the Family Care program.

Most recently, full scale audits were authorized by the Joint Committee on Audit on two problems in state government brought to legislators’ attention through calls. The first is an investigation into problems experienced by people filing claims for unemployment insurance. The second is alleged fraud and mismanagement by the company contracted with the state to provide nonemergency medical transportation for Medicaid patients who need help getting to a doctor or therapy appointment.

In both cases complaint calls came in to legislators’ offices - including mine - and the LAB hotline.

Complaints matter. The hotline provides a convenient and confidential way for people to provide information about fraud, waste and mismanagement directly to someone who can investigate the problem.

I know when it comes to state government, shining a light on something makes it improve. Auditors tell me this is known as the Sentinel Effect: the tendency for human behavior to improve when people know their performance is being evaluated.

Government is about us. When you know things are not working, take the time to call the hotline. Your information could become the critical piece of the puzzle needed to solve a problem of waste, fraud, or agency mismanagement.

Remember, call 1-877-FRAUD-17.

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Discover Wineries on Wisconsin's Beautiful West Coast

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, 27 May 2014
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mill-bluffsSenator Kathleen Vinehout writes about Wisconsin wineries along the Mississippi River and western Wisconsin. She shares her discussion with a winemaker about the unique grapes from which many of the wines are produced. She also mentions the Great River Road Wine Trail which includes many Wisconsin winery members.

LA CROSSE - “Wisconsin has wineries?” the Chicago woman asked guests at a local bed and breakfast who shared their plans for touring.

Yes, Wisconsin has wineries – over 70 – and growing.

Many of the state’s wineries are located in the Upper Mississippi River American Viniculture Area. This federal designation covers the region from Galena, Illinois to the Twin Cities and extends 40 miles on either side of the Mississippi River. Grapes grown in this area have a unique flavor because of the microclimate and soils along the river.

I recently spoke with Dave Danzinger, owner/operator of Danzinger Vineyards perched atop the beautiful Alma Bluffs. “We are farmers,” Dave told me. “So we started with the grapes.”

About 15 years ago the University of Minnesota started releasing varieties of winter hardy grapes. Breeders at the university crossed German and French grape varieties with wild grapes growing in the north woods. Dave explained that French grapes are only hardy to 15 degrees Fahrenheit and German grapes are hardy to zero. But the new varieties are hardy to -40F!

The Minnesota researchers named some of the new varieties for the Mississippi River region: Frontenac, St. Pepin, La Crosse, La Crescent, and St. Croix. Because of the wild grape parent, these grapes are a little tarter. “They make a good sweet wine, more toward the Concord grape,” Dave said. “Before these grapes, the only variety that could take the cold was the Concord.” With development of the hardier grapes, new opportunities opened up for Wisconsin winemakers.

Just along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River there are 14 wineries from La Crosse to Prescott.

Danzinger Vineyards has 18 acres of grapes under cultivation - making it one of Wisconsin’s largest at one site. So many grapes are produced that they sell grapes to other winemakers. In February Danzinger’s was named Wisconsin Winery of the Year. The recognition was in part because the vineyard won so many medals at the Wisconsin State Fair. Dave and his crew were also recognized for hosting educational meetings and helping other vineyards get started.

There are three types of wineries. Some winemakers grow no grapes. Other winemakers buy 80% of their fruit. Still others, like Danzinger’s, grow their own grapes and use only Wisconsin fruit. Because of this difference, states like Iowa have a labeling program that identifies Iowa wine grown and produced in that state. Minnesota has a Farmstead Winery law that requires 70% of fruit from that state. No such laws exist in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Winery Association advocates for laws to help wineries. This year state winemakers sought a law change to allow wineries to serve alcohol until midnight – making it easier to host events like wedding receptions. The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Agriculture, Small Business and Tourism Committee, upon which I serve. But it failed to pass the full Senate and Assembly. The group seeks to reintroduce the bill next year.

Following the Great River Road Wine Trail is a wonderful way to visit the outstanding wineries on Wisconsin’s beautiful West Coast. Over half of the members are Wisconsin wineries: Valley Vineyard is a new winery nestled in the St. Croix River Valley near Prescott. Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery specializes in artisanal ciders from authentic cider apples grown in Wisconsin. Villa Bellezza in Pepin has a collection of charming buildings and a central square that leaves you feeling like you’ve slipped into a small Italian village. Just down river is Danzinger’s winery 500 feet above the Mississippi near Alma. Head to Fountain City and Seven Hawks Vineyard with a tasting room and wine bar located in a renovated 1870s river town building. Elmaro Vineyards, located near historic Trempealeau, offers a beautiful rural setting in which to enjoy a glass of Wisconsin wine.

The 31st Senate District is home to 5 other outstanding wineries that offer unique and exceptional Wisconsin wines and spirits in fantastic settings: Brambleberry Winery in Taylor, Tenba Ridge Winery in Blair, Sandstone Ridge Winery near Osseo, and Infinity Beverage Artisan Winery and Distillery and Cap & Corks Winery in Eau Claire.

Take time to enjoy the fruits of the labor of our fantastic Wisconsin winemakers. To learn more, visit

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The Coming Storm: Crisis in Funding Rural 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, 19 May 2014
in Wisconsin

ocontofalls-hsSenator Vinehout writes about the funding crisis facing rural schools across the state. Members of the Speaker’s Task Force on Rural Schools released two reports on the funding crisis in rural schools. Going to referendum to raise property taxes for a school district’s survival is unsustainable. Proposals to fix the state’s school funding formula target aid for the unique needs of rural schools and now we need a bi-partisan commitment to get the work done for the sake of our communities.

MADISON - “It is well recognized by many, including our legislators, that our equalized aid formula which uses property values as the ‘equalizing factor’…is broken,” testified Alma Superintendent Steve Sedlmayr during a Pepin public hearing.

Following hearings in Pepin and around the state, members of the Speaker’s Task Force on Rural Schools recently issued two reports: the first by majority members of the task force and the second released by Representative Fred Clark and minority members.

While many recommendations were similar, the two reports represent the split among legislators who, along with the Governor, will determine the future of funding public education in rural Wisconsin.

Representative Clark recently summarized the crisis facing rural schools: At our six public hearings around the state, testimony from rural school leaders was consistent and compelling. Inadequate funding adds to factors such as high transportation costs, high costs for technology, and the expenses of having sparse student populations. The bottom line is that many of our rural schools lack the resources to provide students with educational opportunities anywhere near those of our wealthier, suburban districts. One sign of the un-level playing field for rural schools is that of the 956 operating referendums (asking taxpayers for extra funding just to pay teachers and keep the lights on) that public school districts have placed on ballots since 1998, 73% have been for rural schools.

An increase in referendums is the direct result of choices made by legislators to not address the unfairness of state school funding. Instead addressing this unfairness, many lawmakers encourage school boards to go to voters and ask for an increase in property taxes.

For example, at a recent round table discussion sponsored by the Chippewa Falls School District, Representative Tom Larson said, “Referendums are tough for school boards, but a good way to let voters decide. It’s up to them to increase taxes.”

This thinking has justified deep cuts in state funding for education and an increase in referendums to raise property taxes just to keep rural schools alive. Before school boards mostly went to referendum for new construction; now they turn to referendums for their schools’ survival. This results in very unequal property tax bills.

Take the example of the Gilmanton school district which provides an outstanding education. High school juniors taking the ACT ranked in the top ten of all school districts in the state. Local people love their school. For the sake of their school’s survival, the community voted to increase property taxes by 45% according to a report by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

But increasing property taxes to keep a school alive is not sustainable.

A Gilmanton resident told me, “We will never be able to do this again.” Local superintendents agree. “People simply can’t afford an increase in property taxes,” said one.

School boards have cut expenses to the bone and spent down “reserves” or savings accounts. With no place left to cut expenses, a community that won’t support a referendum and experiences dramatic declines in state support, are beginning to talk of the dreaded ‘C’ word: Closing.

Facing such a ‘do or die’ referendum, rural Oakfield Superintendent Sue Green recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “We don’t want to be the first school district to be forced to close because of a failed referendum.”

The solution is to change the way the state pays for schools. Numerous proposals, including State Superintendent Tony Evers’ 2013-15 proposed budget, describe the details. But Governor Walker eliminated Evers’ proposal before sending his budget on to lawmakers. Republican leaders fought every effort to bring the proposal to a vote despite having funds available as the result of a recovering economy.

Paying for local schools shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Every rural legislator must agree the state needs to pay for high cost transportation and rural broadband.

Recommendations offered by both the majority and minority members of the Speaker’s Task Force on Rural Schools are a good first step. Lawmakers must stop the talk and walk the walk. Let’s see a bipartisan pledge to support Tony Evers’ proposal in the next budget.

The work is done, the crisis is clear. Now we need the votes.

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Wisconsin's Growing State Debt is Unsustainable

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, 12 May 2014
in Wisconsin

scott-walker-clapsScott Walker's brand of government has always featured tax cuts offset by putting needed purchases on the credit card. This week Senator Vinehout writes about the unsustainable increase in state debt that results.

MADISON - “I was wondering how Wisconsin's state debt has been trending over the last several years,” Dave from Durand wrote me. “I'm also curious to know why there has been no talk of paying off the state's debt.”

The state’s debt is important. Before any other bill gets paid, or any other service delivered, the state must make payments on debt. When money goes to pay off bonds – the way the state incurs debt – that money is not available for roads, schools, health care or public safety.

Too much debt can lead to less money available for everyday operations – as more general revenue is used to pay off debt. Think of the credit card or mortgage payment taking up more of your take home pay.

Over the past twenty years the state’s debt has tripled.

In a paper I recently received from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB), the state’s total indebtedness went from $4.4 billion in 1996 to a projected $14.6 billion in 2015.

For comparison, in the fiscal year 2014-15, the state is projected to take in a total of $14.7 in tax revenue.

From 2007 through 2010, during recession years, total indebtedness increased by 23%. In 2011 through 2015, projections show an increase of a little less than ten percent.

Part of the reason debt grew at a slower rate in the past four years is that two funds- one to clean up petroleum spills and another to finance clean water projects- are winding down. These bonds will eventually be paid off, lowering the total indebtedness of the state.

But other types of debt are increasing – potentially at an unsustainable rate.

The two main types of bonds, General Obligation and Transportation Revenue, grew by 15% during the recession and 18% since 2011. One reason debt grew at such a high rate in the past 8 years? Both Governors Doyle and Walker restructured debt to avoid making a payment – using the cash saved to cover state operations. This led to extraordinarily high debt payments.

Perhaps the most serious financial problem going forward is that the state cannot support the current level of borrowing for transportation. Borrowing for roads and bridges was nearly $1 billion in the last state budget. Debt payments on this loan is projected to be 20% of all the money coming into the Transportation Fund by the first year of the next state budget according to another paper I recently received from LFB.

Some state officials imply the current problems with money for roads are because of borrowing from this fund for state operations ten years ago. This is utter nonsense.

For the last two state budgets, money was moved from the General Fund (85% of which goes to pay for schools and universities, health care, local government and public safety) to the Transportation Fund. Much of this money was “one time” meaning the gap between spending and revenue only got higher in the next budget.

Instead of cutting spending, the governor and legislative majority increased borrowing for transportation.

This is why interest on the transportation debt has jumped from 11% of the fund in 2009-10 to a projected 20% in 2015-16.

Too much debt can affect the state’s credit rating leading to increased interest costs on future bonds. States are rated based on risk by several bond-rating agencies.

When bond-rating agencies look at the credit worthiness of a state, they look at the state’s overall financial performance compared to other states. With the exception of Illinois, Wisconsin already has the lowest Moody’s bond rating of seven states in the Midwest.

In January, Moody’s mentioned Wisconsin’s “below average balance sheet position” and “sizable negative GAAP balances” in assigning a credit rating. Looking towards the future, Moody’s said, “The state's ability to make progress toward structural budget balance and improve its liquidity and fund balances will be important to future credit analysis.”

There is no free lunch in state budgeting. Spending too much and collecting too little in taxes leads to a budget imbalance and more borrowing.

Dave, you’re asking the right questions. We need to talk about the state debt.

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Complaints Spur Investigation of Unemployment Compensation Claims

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, 06 May 2014
in Wisconsin

unemploymentHundreds of complaints from people attempting to apply for unemployment compensation poured into legislative offices this winter. Many complained about the State's website. Others said they couldn't even get to a real person on the phone to get answers on claims they filed. The Walker Administration had few answers.

MADISON - “I called the hotline several hundred times. Each time I called I got a message about ‘being busy at this time’,” a Pierce county man I’ll call Ken told me.

Ken lost his job as a mechanic and needed to file an unemployment insurance compensation claim. After more than two weeks of trying to get through the state’s Department of Workforce Development (DWD) application process, Ken heard of someone who received help from my office. He called.

Hundreds of complaints from people attempting to apply for unemployment compensation poured into legislative offices this winter. The complaints were consistent: the website dropped me; I got no answer from phone calls; no one ever called me back; I was on hold for hours.

The complaints led Senators to write to the Governor seeking answers. The complaints also led to a review by the Legislative Audit Bureau.

Recently the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Audit approved an evaluation of the unemployment insurance claims process. During a public hearing we learned some reasons behind the dramatically inferior customer service.

When Ken first filed his unemployment claim, like half of all who file a claim, he went to the Department of Workforce Development’s website. But part-way through filling out the web-based forms, the system wouldn’t allow him to complete his application. The website indicated he must call the state office.

Audit committee members learned that half of the people who tried to complete their unemployment claim applications online had the same experience as Ken.

“The current system is not able to sift through complicated initial claims,” DWD Secretary Newson told Audit Committee members. “We have a lot of ‘drop points’.”

That is ‘insiders speak’ for a computer system that can’t handle the complexity of people’s work history. It turned out Ken’s ‘problem’ was he took a job in Minnesota. Reporting the employer across the river caused the website to freeze him out.

The system should be designed to handle the routine variations in a jobless worker’s history. Testimony from state officials gave committee members insight into what is really a poorly designed computer system.

But the poor computer system didn’t explain why people couldn’t get through on the phone. Many lawmakers received complaints from people who experienced very long wait times. They called on different days and at different times of the day. People who contacted me said they couldn’t even get to a real person on the phone. Other people could not get answers on claims they filed.

Lawmakers were puzzled. Didn’t unemployment just drop to a five-year low in Wisconsin? Why can’t the newly jobless get through on the phone when there are fewer people making claims?

There was no clear answer from the administration.

The call center experienced a spike in claims and a loss of staff. State officials explained to lawmakers they were working to correct those problems. They hired new workers and are working on a new computer system.

A backlog of cases plagued the agency. According the Department of Workforce Development’s Annual Report, in the summer of 2012, the department had a backlog of over 10,000 unemployment claims. Officials testified they significantly reduced the backlog of cases not processed.

“I believe we are meeting or exceeding outstanding customer service,” the DWD Secretary told the committee. Lawmakers saw things differently.

Despite the agency’s obvious reticence to comply with the audit, lawmakers voted unanimously to begin an investigation of the unemployment insurance claims process.

Complaints make a difference. If you have knowledge of the failings of the unemployment claims process, let the Legislative Audit Bureau know. Your information will help with the investigation. You can call the Fraud, Waste and Mismanagement Hotline at 877-372-8317 (or 877-FRAUD-17).

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Where's My Ride?

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, 28 April 2014
in Wisconsin

medicaid“We waited and the ride never came,” said one disabled man. Audit Committee Approves Full Review of Medicaid Transportation.

MADISON - “We waited and the ride never came,” said one disabled man. “I was so cold” another woman said. “They said the heater in the van didn’t work.”

Some time ago residents in Black River Falls shared with me their complaints about non-emergency medical transportation program. Since then, I’ve heard many other complaints from patients and providers.

The number and seriousness of complaints led the Legislature’s Audit Committee - of which I am ranking minority member - to recently approve a full evaluation of the program now administered by St. Louis-based Medical Transportation Management, Inc. (MTM).

Federal law requires the state to provide rides to Medicaid patients who have no other way to get to doctor’s visits. Some patients rely on the service for trips to life-saving cancer and dialysis treatments.

At the Audit committee hearing a man testified kidney dialysis patients were waiting two and three hours to get picked up post dialysis. “You’re tired. You don’t feel well. You need to go home,” he said. A woman with asthma asked the driver to stop smoking in the van. Instead he rolled down the window.

Others described a broken system. People are transported in vehicles in disrepair; doors don’t open from the inside. Patients and caretakers spend long times on hold trying to schedule rides. Families are told no rides are available even while providers are “screaming for business”. One taxi company manager testified he “could do 1,000 rides a day. Now I’m doing 15 or 20 a day for MTM. People say ‘MTM told me you were all booked up.’ But I never received a call.”

Another man testified the number of van companies dropped by 50%. He said many of the remaining companies are not safe or reputable.

The problems appeared in 2011 when the state shifted from a county-based volunteer system to a privatized system run by atransportation broker. The arrangement was supposed to save the state money. But, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,the only expected cost savings was in a higher federal Medicaid reimbursement rate.

The feds wanted more data on who received rides and for what type of services. The Journal Sentinel reported that volunteer providers could have collected these data. But instead the state chose to move to the private broker model.

In mid-2013, the state changed from one private provider to MTM; however the complaints continued.

Several people who testified complained the structure of the program encouraged skimping on services. One provider testified that the brokerage firm is smoke and mirrors. They are paid to deny services.

Another testified, “They are pocketing the money while thousands of BadgerCare members fail to get to their doctor appointments. This could threaten future levels of funding at the federal level.”

Committee members questioned whether the contract with MTM was properly structured. Representative Peter Barca described what he called a “perverse incentive” - a fixed amount of money for a varying level of service. The company keeps the money it doesn’t use to provide services.

“The way a contract is structured makes a tremendous difference,” Barca said.

Patrick Ryan of the Professional Ambulance Association of Wisconsin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “The entity that benefits from that is the broker by shedding service, downgrading service, providing obstacles for patients to get to transportation and putting hurdles in the way of transportation providers to get paid for the services they provide."

The state pays more for fewer services.

Testimony clearly indicated a troubled program that isn’t working in the best interest of the people. As Representative Barca said, “When people are in the most sensitive period of their life, we must ensure they receive services and are treated with respect and dignity.”

Citizen complaints drove legislators to seek an audit. Public testimony expanded the audit to a full program evaluation. Citizen input can help auditors get to the bottom of the problem.

Have you or someone you love asked where’s my ride? You should call the Legislative Audit Bureau’s Waste, Fraud and Mismanagement Hotline at 1-877-372-8317.

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Health Advocates Inform and Challenge Lawmakers

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, 21 April 2014
in Wisconsin

healthcare-family-drThis week Sen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about the recent advocacy day related to health care providers and hospitals. Nearly 65 western Wisconsin health care advocates travelled to Madison to share their concerns and views with area legislators.

MADISON - "YOU are the reason why we were so successful…” Eric Borgerding of the Wisconsin Hospital Association told the health advocates. "You are extremely effective in communicating with and educating your legislators on local health care issues."

Recently over 800 health advocates traveled to Madison. Some 65 western Wisconsin advocates met with Senator Moulton, staff and I to discuss the challenges facing hospitals. And they shared their passion for caregiving and healing.

Health leaders face new challenges with the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Leaders from Durand, Black River Falls, and Whitehall shared a frustration with the new health law. “There’s not a good model for rural hospitals,” one administrator told me. “We need a rural model where we all work together - schools, nursing homes, the county, Western Dairyland.”

“We need to get back to primary care: education, nutrition, parenting – including health care of children. We must really get on that side of it.” There’s a real need – and real cost savings - in preventing health problems.

“Think about the mom whose child has an ear infection coming to the Emergency Department at 2:00 am. By law, the hospital must treat the patient. The doctor must do a health assessment. But this isn’t the best place for the mom or the child. She really needs parent education to help her with common childhood illnesses. She may not get that in the ED. For everyone – including those on Medicaid – this is a very expensive way to care for the child.”

“Hospitals are still getting paid for crisis care and a single event,” another administrator said. “Yet we are trying to provide the patient with the right care, at the right time and the right place. The system doesn’t always pay for this.”

Sometimes the hospital finds such value in a different way of providing care, they invest in a new program without reimbursement. An example is the Transitional Nurse Program, which employs a full time nurse who travels to patients’ homes and helps people adjust to living with a chronic condition.

Little things like grocery shopping can be a real challenge for a newly diagnosed diabetic. Getting expensive antibiotics right away to a man just discharged with pneumonia can mean the difference between getting well and another hospital stay.

Ending up back in the hospital is something hospital leaders very much want to avoid. And for good reason: patient readmission within 30 days is often considered a preventable failure. To encourage hospitals to prevent readmissions the ACA set new federal rules. In most circumstances, hospitals will no longer be paid by Medicare for readmission of a patient who was admitted less than 30 days prior.

A Chippewa Valley finance director told me, “There is an important connection between the hospital and the nursing home. If the nursing home doesn’t do its job, the hospital is penalized.” This is the case when a patient is readmitted from a nursing home.

During our vigorous discussion of challenges facing nursing homes, I shared some of the conversation I recently had with several area nursing home administrators. The administrators said homes experienced a 14% cut in Medicare rates. They talked about how the state pays hospitals and nursing homes well below their cost to care for patients. Facilities cost shift by covering Medicaid patient costs with money from other patients. Federal Medicare cuts now make this much more difficult.

The hospital leaders called the underfunding ‘the hidden health care tax’ because private insurance patients pay higher premiums to cover these losses. The advocates challenged lawmakers to better fund Medicaid. This is a big ask of lawmakers who know health care is the largest and fastest growing part of the state budget.

Health leaders were eager to engage lawmakers in new ideas and outside the box solutions. This engagement is vital, especially because few lawmakers can keep up with the complex, fast changing world of health care.

Thank you to all those hospital volunteers, trustees, leaders, doctors, nurses and other professionals for your work. Your continued advocacy is critical as the state struggles to balance budget realities with preserving high quality health care and improving access.

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Our Children’s Future: School Visit and Community Forum Raise Questions

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, 14 April 2014
in Wisconsin

kidsSen. Vinehout writes about the future of our children in a time when public schools face a serious financial squeeze.  Children are eager to learn but their schools struggle with staff shortages and out-of-date equipment. State aid to public schools has declined as costs rise and more dollars are being siphoned off for private schools. Are we doing the best we can for the future of our children?

ALMA - “Your future awaits,” the Student Council President said as he handed students the schedule for Career Day. He then led me to the computer lab where my first class waited.

I spent the morning sharing my life as state Senator with many intelligent, interested young adults. They were as eager to learn about public service as I was to share. Many of them never thought about a career as an elected official.

More than a few left the classroom wondering why any adult would choose not to vote. In part, this was due to the recent local election of one of their teachers – by one vote.

As I watched students respond, I understood the magic that happens in the classroom. Bringing community members from all of walks of life into the school opened a window for students into a career many had never considered.

I spoke with mostly middle school students: an age I dearly love.

The world of a young person expands every day. I watched students making connections and forming opinions as we shared. My world touched theirs.

And, if for no other reason than their own teacher’s experience of winning by one vote, I experienced how youth embraced their own role as citizens. By embracing the expanding world of knowledge and the youngsters’ role within our world, I saw the foundation of democracy emerge: an educated citizenry.

I saw the magic of opening minds in the bright eyes and eager questions of the students. And looking around the classroom, I saw the possibilities and the challenges.

The computer lab was filled with old cathode ray computer monitors. The best machines were discards from a college in Minnesota. After my three classes concluded, I took the opportunity to speak with several staff members. I learned about the aging school buses - one of which was 36 years old. In the last 12 years, the district cut a 1/3 of its staff. State aid was only a third of what it had been 13 years ago.

One remaining staff member told me, “We have tremendous community support. Volunteers do all sorts of jobs to keep things looking nice…but there are some things they just can’t do” - like buying a badly needed new furnace.

The evening before Career Day I was in Eau Claire participating as a panelist for the forum: Our Schools, Our Community: the state of education in Wisconsin. I joined school experts, the local school board president, an education professor, and private and public school superintendents.

I heard much about the funding problems facing public schools. Eau Claire lost $5 million in state aid just since 2011. Eau Claire is running the same operation in 2014 as in 2006 – with the same amount of money. But we all know costs went up. Special education used to be reimbursed at 72% state funds. Now schools receive 26%. Some districts spend $21,000 a year to educate students with a mil rate of under 3 million; other schools spend $9,000 with a mil rate of about 9.

There was much discussion about the use of public education dollars for private schools. Many participants were surprised to learn for 30 years Eau Claire sent state aid to Milwaukee for private schools. This year the state required cost will be almost $1 million.

Panelists spent time discussing differences between publically funded private schools and public schools. Audience members asked questions about unequal standards and testing. Some were concerned about too much emphasis on testing.

“What country leads the world in innovation and patents?” the superintendent asked the crowd. A woman from the audience shouted back, “the United States”.

He then asked, “What happens when our future leaders only know how to take multiple choices tests?”

Professor Julie Mead summed up the evening’s conversation when she said, “There is a state constitutional right to public education. Its overriding purpose is an educated citizenry. We all benefit from having an educated citizenry.”

I thought of this as I watched the bright, intelligent eyes of the young people in my classroom-for-the-day.

Your future awaits. What have we done today to make your best possible tomorrow?

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Legislative Committees play Key Oversight Role, Regardless of Season

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, 07 April 2014
in Wisconsin

assemblyThis week Sen. Vinehout writes about the ongoing work of legislative committees. Serving on committees provides legislators a key role in overseeing the activities of state government. Kathleen serves as several committees that meet even after the Legislature adjourns for the summer.

ALMA - “Will you be in Madison? I heard the Legislature went home,” the Buffalo County man asked. “I hope you are still watching over what’s happening down there.”

People want their elected officials to oversee state government. Lawmakers play a key state oversight role through their work on committees. There are several committees, upon which I serve, that oversee state activities. The work of these committees continues regardless of the season.

The Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) oversees all the functions of state government. Recently the LAB released its annual examination of the use of federal funds received by the state. As a member of the Joint Audit Committee, I’ll be meeting with auditors to discuss these findings.

The Audit Committee is also anticipating the second of three audits of the state’s economic development programs. Auditors are working to track money in grants, loans and tax credits given to businesses and communities to create jobs. I expect this audit to be released soon and the full committee to schedule a public hearing to examine the findings.

The Audit Committee looks back over the actions of state government and assesses whether or not programs met their purpose and money was properly spent. The Joint Administrative Rules Committee looks over new laws and assesses whether or not the agency writing the rules stayed true to the purpose of the law.

After a bill is signed into law, the agency responsible for the new law gets to work writing the administrative rules to implement the new law. A complex process of proposals, public hearings and approvals take place before the rules – which have the weight of law – go into effect.

Lawmakers who sit on the Administrative Rules Committee oversee that process for the people of the state. My colleagues and I meet regularly to hear about agencies’ progress writing the rules. We approve or send rules back for revision.

Rules for hunting and trapping in state parks, grants for training workers, unemployed workers and GED – high school completion – are currently up for consideration in this committee.

Citizens’ use of the Capitol as a public space is also under consideration. Capitol police arrested individuals for singing without a permit in the Capitol Rotunda. Singers appealed the arrests which made their way through the courts.

A judge temporarily stopped the state from enforcing the rule. The judge wrote “the Capitol rotunda is closer to an out-of-doors, traditional public forum…pre-permitting schemes which limit speech in public places must serve more than just scheduling and administrative functions.” Several federal courts struck down requirements that small groups obtain permits. Wisconsin’s restrictions were so severe in the past few years that, at one time, groups larger than 4 needed to have a permit.

State officials rewrote rules about the use of the Capitol. But free speech advocates said the state’s actions chilled free speech.

Now the Administrative Rules Committee must sort things out.

Some committees provide oversight on special functions of state government. An example is the Joint Committee on Information Policy and Technology. Over the years Wisconsin wasted millions in poorly planned computer systems. The Audit Committee documented many of these mistakes but it is up to the Information Policy and Technology Committee to provide prospective oversight – going forward – of work on new computer systems.

Other committees play a key role in the functioning of state government. One example is the committee addressing the relationship between the state and our 11 tribal nations.

Tribes are sovereign nations and each tribe has its own constitution and government. The relationship between the tribes and the state is complex and rests on treaties, federal and state laws and court rulings. For years I’ve served on the State Tribal Relations Committee and currently serve as Vice Chair. This committee, like all I’ve mentioned, meets throughout the year to work on resolving tribal concerns.

So, this summer you will see me at parades, chicken dinners, fairs and festivals. But I will also be in Madison for committee work. Lawmakers must not forget their role as overseers of state activities.

People want to know elected leaders are watching over what’s happening in state government, regardless of the season.

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Do You Feel Safe at Home?

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, 31 March 2014
in Wisconsin

domesticviolenceThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about legislative changes meant to help and protect victims of domestic violence.  The Bills (SB 160, AB 464, and AB 176) help domestic violence victims who can't answer “Yes” and passed both houses of the Legislature with strong bi-partisan support. The bills await the governor’s signature.

MADISON - “Do you feel safe at home?” the nurse asked the woman. The nurse was helping to identify and protect those who may be at risk for domestic violence.

One in three women will, at some time in her life, experience domestic violence.

Recent World Health Organization research confirms what earlier studies found: worldwide one in three women are physically or sexually assaulted by a current or former partner. Experts advocate for screening questions, like the one above, and training to recognize domestic violence for health workers and law enforcement officers.

Wisconsin law enforcement officials are trained to recognize and respond to domestic violence. Many officers tell me domestic violence situations remain their most common call and are difficult to resolve.

Lawmakers recently passed several bills aimed at protecting victims of domestic violence, standardizing the actions of law enforcement and the courts and bringing perpetrators to justice. One change for law enforcement is a requirement to refer domestic violence victims to shelters and make sure the victim knows about and can get help from a victim advocate.

In many domestic violence situations both adults and children are victims. Testimony by advocates during an Assembly hearing reminded lawmakers “about half of men who abuse their female partner will also abuse their children.” Changes were needed to protect victims, including children.

Protecting children includes protecting their privacy. Legislative changes will close the courtroom during restraining order hearings for children, and keep child victim records off CCAP - the court’s public Internet record - and other measures to protect victim confidentiality, including children. The legislation also protects the non-offending parent from the legal expenses of the court appointed child advocate known as the guardian ad litem.

This new legislation also makes it clear that restraining orders stop all contact between the abuser and the victim, including stalking behavior.

Sometimes the law or court processes actually put victims at risk. These parts of the law were changed: victims no longer are required to notify the abuser if a restraining order is extended – the court will now do this. Also privacy is protected for those who must change their name.

Sometimes when the perpetrator requests a new judge the restraining order protecting the victim became invalid. The new legislation will make sure this does not happen.

Nearly 20 years ago Wisconsin passed laws protecting victims of domestic violence by requiring the abuser to surrender firearms. But advocates tell me many courts never checked up on whether or not perpetrators actually surrendered firearms.

New legislation sets out a process by which individuals subject to a restraining order must surrender firearms. The legislation came about because of domestic crimes committed by those who illegally possessed a firearm. Work began on this proposal in 2008 when the Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse discovered that while state and federal law required action only 12 Wisconsin counties had policies in place to actively ensure that abusers followed the law.

The legislation followed the procedures developed through a pilot project in four Wisconsin counties. This successful project showed lawmakers common sense procedures could be developed that were effective and inexpensive. The state’s chief judges endorsed the bill as a best practice approach to resolving the problem.

These bills, SB 160, AB 464 and AB 176, passed both houses with strong bipartisan support and now await the governor’s signature.

We can work to change our culture and end domestic abuse. We can treat each other with respect and teach respect and nonviolent conflict resolution to our children. We can also tell those at risk about available resources. Wisconsin invested in a statewide system of shelters and advocates helping when abuse happens.

Reach out to those who need help and let them know shelters and advocates are available throughout Wisconsin. In the Eau Claire, Buffalo and Jackson County call Boulton Refuge House at 1-855-526-5866; In La Crosse and Trempealeau call New Horizons at 608-791-2600. In Dunn and Pepin call Bridge to Hope at 715-235-9074. For other locations around the state call End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin at (608) 255-0539 or visit their website at

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Window Closing for Health Insurance: Sign Up Now!

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, 24 March 2014
in Wisconsin

affordable-care-actThis week Senator Vinehout writes about the fast approaching deadline to sign-up for health insurance through the Marketplace.

EAU CLAIRE - “I was getting the run-around,” the Eau Claire woman told me. She tried to get health insurance through the federal website and was told she was eligible for Medicaid coverage in her state. When she went to sign-up for BadgerCare, she was then told she was NOT eligible.

I explained Governor Walker and legislative Republicans refused to take the new federal Medicaid money and made it harder for folks to get on BadgerCare.

“I thought that’s what happened,” the woman told me. She was a personal care worker for a disabled man. They and their friends visited me as part of a disability advocacy day at the Capitol.

The health insurance premium was one more thing the woman had to pay for on her meager salary. She could only afford a policy with a $12,000 deductible.

I’ve heard many complaints about high premiums, high deductibles, and people paying a lot less for the same insurance in Minnesota. The Land of 10,000 Lakes decided to start its own exchange, to use state review to lower rates and to accept federal money for new Medicaid eligible people.

This has a lot of folks in western Wisconsin asking if they’re paying too much for poor coverage. They wonder if they should even sign up for insurance.

March 31st is the last day to sign up for Marketplace insurance coverage in 2014. If you don’t sign up now, you won’t be able to buy private health insurance for 2014 – even if you need insurance.

Folks ask me, “If I go to the hospital, can I sign up for coverage then?”

The answer is ‘no’. Without a deadline, most folks would have little incentive to sign up until they got sick.

Getting insurance is important even if you don’t think you will use it. Only under a few circumstances – like losing your job with insurance – can you sign up after the March 31st window closes.

When you sign up and pay your first month’s premium, the coverage typically takes effect at the beginning of the next month. The insurance is not retroactive – meaning it will not cover costs you had prior to paying your premium.

But, the Affordable Care Act does guarantee an insurance company must cover people with pre-existing health conditions. It makes it illegal for an insurance company to cancel your policy if you get sick and ends the lifetime and yearly dollar limits on coverage of essential health benefits.

Across the US people are being urged to sign up for health insurance before the deadline. The more people who sign up, the lower the premiums will be going forward for those who enroll. Assuming, of course, states are doing everything possible to keep consumers costs low.

Not taking the federal money to expand BadgerCare hurts all those buying insurance in Wisconsin as poorer people who often have more health problems are entering the Marketplace instead of receiving care through BadgerCare. Higher numbers of uninsured also raises the cost for those with insurance.

Kaiser Family Foundation tracks states’ progress on enrolling those eligible for Marketplace health insurance. As of the beginning of March, Wisconsin had enrolled almost 15% of those eligible – right at the US average. But this still leaves over 400,000 people without insurance.

It may be months before we fully understand the effect on people’s cost and coverage of Wisconsin’s decision to not take federal money, not use state rate review and not create a statewide exchange. But if you’re going to protect yourself and your family, you’ve got to decide to sign up now.

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Restrictive Republican Voting Bills Give Lobbyists and Corporations 2, Voters 0

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 19 March 2014
in Wisconsin

votersThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about restrictive Republican voting bills recently passed by the state Senate that impact our elections. The bills would limit early voting hours, make it easier for lobbyists to make campaign contributions, and for corporations to shakedown employees for campaign contributions.

The early voting limitations will have a negative effect on both rural and urban voters. They make it easier for lobbyists to contribute to campaigns and for corporations to push their employees to contribute to candidates and take power from the people.

MADISON - Should it be easier for lobbyists to contribute to campaigns? Should corporations spend more money to ask their employees to make campaign contributions? Should Wisconsin limit early voting?

Is there any lawmaker who has citizens clamoring for any of the above?

Recently the Senate spent two days debating bills that open the window for lobbyists to contribute to campaigns and closes the window for voters to cast early ballots.

If the bills become law, lobbyists can contribute as early as April 15th [in the year preceding an election] and voters will be limited to just 10 weekdays of early voting.

This is the second attempt in recent years to limit early voting. In 2011, majority party members voted to limit early voting from three weeks with three weekends to two weeks with just one weekend.

In the new bill, early voting would be limited to the hours between 8:00 am and 7:00 pm. But clerks would be limited to only 45 weekday hours during this time period. Many cities, like Eau Claire, would be required by state law to cut back on the hours they now offer to voters.

Proponents of the bill blamed rural areas for the cut back in city hours. Senator Fitzgerald told the Senate his constituents complained because they saw Milwaukee citizens voting during a time “not available to people in rural areas.”

What he failed to mention, and I pointed out to all Senators, is the bill he touted as making things more equivalent for rural and urban voters now bans the often-used rural practice of voting by appointment on a weekend.

Some of my neighbors work in Winona, Minnesota. Some drive a truck for a living. Some work two jobs in Eau Claire – an hour away. Others work in Minneapolis – a full two hours away. I work in Madison far from my home in beautiful Buffalo County. Many of my neighbors and I vote on the weekend or in the evening at our town clerk’s kitchen table.

To say voters cannot make weekend arrangements with rural clerks – who also may work many miles from home – is to make voting very difficult for rural folks who work away from home.

And working long hours away from home isn’t limited to rural voters.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorialized about the argument that this bill just leveled the playing field between urban and rural voters:

[T]hat’s a thin veneer covering the real intent: what this bill really is all about is suppressing the Democratic vote in Milwaukee and Madison, where many of the state’s people of color live. It’s a highly partisan bill that harkens back to an earlier era when voting for certain groups of people was made much harder by strict poll laws. On that basis alone, Gov. Scott Walker should veto the bill.

While a majority of Senators were voting to limit both rural and urban voters, they were also making it easier for corporations to shake down their employees for campaign contributions.

In a bill now headed to the Assembly, a majority of senators voted to increase by 40 times the legal amount a corporation can spend to entice employees to contribute to a candidate. Candidate contributions by corporations are banned in Wisconsin. But chief executives get around the ban by asking spouses and employees to contribute. Under the bill, corporations will be able to spend up to $20,000 to encourage employees to contribute to campaigns.

The basic problem with this practice is the power imbalance between an employee and the employer. Just like it’s hard to say ‘stop it’ to a sexually aggressive boss, it’s hard to say ‘no’ when the boss says, “Where’s your contribution? Everyone else has given.” Laws protect employees from sexual harassment by a boss. But asking employees to contribute to candidates is perfectly legal. Spending $20,000 to do the asking may soon also be legal.

Limiting early voting, expanding corporations’ power in soliciting campaign donations and, making it easier for lobbyists to contribute have nothing to do with the Governor’s “focus like a laser on jobs”.

And finally on the topic of elections, remember to vote – early while you still can - in the spring election on April 1st.

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