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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 http://www.wcadv.org/gethelp.

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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 healthcare.gov 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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How a State Law Obstructed Reward for Teen's Hard Work and Good Grades

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, 11 March 2014
in Wisconsin

edSenator Vinehout writes about the Academic Excellence Higher Education Scholarship. This scholarship is awarded to the valedictorian of each high school in Wisconsin. But, for high schools with total pupil count below 80, the valedictorians are thrown into a pool from which only 10 scholarships are awarded. Since 90 high schools fall into this category, a small school valedictorian may qualify one year and not the next. The law discriminates against small high schools that are often in rural areas.


ALMA - Joel knew from the 8th grade he wanted to be valedictorian of his high school class. His cousin just graduated at the top of his class. Because of this achievement, the cousin received a scholarship.

Joel (not his real name) talked to his cousin and learned more about the scholarship. I’m going to uphold the family tradition, Joel told himself. I’m going to win this scholarship.

The Academic Excellence Higher Education Scholarship is Wisconsin’s way of saying, “Well done” to a graduating valedictorian. The scholarship amounts to $2,250 a year to be used for tuition at a Wisconsin college or university. Depending on the total number of students enrolled in a high school, additional scholarships may be awarded to the top graduating seniors.

Joel got to work. He took every class seriously- even physical education and cooking. He studied hard and got nearly perfect grades. He was nominated to the National Honor Society since his sophomore year.

Joel competed against other students who might have been smarter, might have had better test scores and might have had some other advantage. But Joel worked harder. And not just in the classroom.

He was on Student Council for three years and now serves as an officer. He played in Jazz Band all four years of high school. He was nominated for and played in three regional honors bands. He took his alto saxophone to state solo ensemble competition for two years and hopes to compete at state again this spring.

Although Joel is not particularly outgoing, he polished his public speaking skills through forensics; making it to state competition all three years of high school. He hopes to again make it to the state forensics tournament this spring.

Joel’s talents and hard work continued in his community service. He volunteers at church. He loves Scouts and served as Senior Patrol Leader for two years. He cleans up a local park as part of his Eagle Scout community service project. Joel showed livestock, did wood-working and served two years as president of his 4H club. He helped at the county fair Lions Club food booth when he wasn’t keeping his 4H hogs well-behaved and clean.

If that isn’t enough Joel, who also served as FFA president for three years, helps his dad around the farm. He took tractor safety and hunter safety and worked on the summer maintenance crew in his hometown.

Joel’s already taken three college courses – which he aced – spent three years on the golf team and played a leading role in the school play – three years in a row.

To say Joel is well-deserving is an understatement.

So Joel – recently named valedictorian of his graduating class - and his parents were surprised to be informed the scholarship he so deserved was not forthcoming.

Last year’s senior class valedictorian was awarded the scholarship, and valedictorians going back several years, and maybe again next year, but not this year. Why?

Because the number of students in Joel’s high school dipped below 80 this year.

After hearing this story, I took a look at the law.

High schools with a total pupil count below 80 are not automatically awarded a scholarship. Instead the names of valedictorians from these high schools are put into a pool from which only ten scholarships are awarded. This year about 90 small schools fall into this category. Many of these schools are charter or private schools. But as enrollment drops in rural areas whole public school districts are being caught up in the 80-student rule – at least five more this year.

The superintendent of a local high school at 81 students wrote to me: a student should not be penalized for the size of the high school they attend. The current law would seem to be discriminatory to students who live in rural Wisconsin.

Seems to be? The superintendent was too kind. The law is discriminatory – and needs to be changed. I call on my colleagues to reward the hard work of all Wisconsin valedictorians – regardless of where they live.

Let’s change this law! And let’s get it done right now.

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Sand Mine Bill Strips Local Powers - Community's Ability to Say No

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, 04 March 2014
in Wisconsin

mill-bluffsThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about a bill that would take away local control as it relates to sand mining. The bill, SB 632, appears to be fast-tracked through the legislative process. It will impact existing local ordinances and take away the ability of local communities to say “no”.


MADISON - Should communities be able to prevent development of sand mines? Can communities set rules if sand mine operations are inadequate to protect nearby residents?

A new “communities cannot say no to sand mines” bill is making its way through the Legislature. The bill introduced by Senator Tiffany, chair of the Senate Mining committee, appears on the fast track. It could be up for final passage in both houses less than two weeks after it was unveiled.

The bill freezes in place the public health, safety and welfare protections for a community as they relate to existing sand mines. If this bill becomes law, the locals wouldn’t be able to write and enforce a new ordinance on any permitted mine during the life of that permit – as long as 25 years.

Much can happen in 25 years.

Local people who have written ordinances say it appears nearly all local ordinances would be invalid under this bill. That’s because the bill also requires ordinances relating to approval of sand mines be split apart from ordinances relating to the trucking of sand from the mine and processing of sand.

Most existing ordinances address the regulation of the actual mine as well as sand processing and transportation.

The combination of freezing in place rules affecting existing sand mines and invalidating most local ordinances will throw sand mine regulation into legal chaos. The bill creates a huge legal gray area on exactly which ordinance the sand mines would have to follow – the one made invalid by the bill or the new one rewritten to comply with the bill, or none at all.

Finally, this bill sets up a back-door process by which mine owners can avoid new restrictions and open a mine anywhere as long as they register the mineral deposit with local officials.

Changing a little known part of the statute written when comprehensive planning was put in place, this bill would stop a local community from saying ‘no’ to a mine owner who registered his mineral deposit.

Owners or those leasing property where a mine might be developed would be able to register that property with the town or county and have the existing rules for sand mines “locked in” at the time of registration for a period of up to 20 years. In addition locals could do nothing to prevent the mines’ operation.

Many residents from the Town of Dover in Buffalo County wrote me saying the bill seeks to get around recent actions. One landowner explained (and I paraphrase) in the last 10 months Dover officials held more than a dozen public meetings including a community forum attended by a quarter of the town’s population. Last July, in a unanimous vote, town officials recommended the county deny a permit for a 400-acre mine. In October, town officials adopted Village Powers. In January 2014, town officials adopted a Comprehensive Land Use Plan. In February, they adopted a sand mine ordinance resembling that of the Town of Cooks Valley.

While the Town of Dover was doing this work, the four owners of the mine quietly registered their mineral deposits with the county Register of Deeds. A Dover resident wrote: If Senator Tiffany’s bill is passed, it would make all of the work that our town did to protect itself of no avail. Thousands of dollars have been spent by the town, as well as by landowners, so the voice of the town’s people may be heard. Where do you find democracy speaking and being respected in this bill?

If this bill passes, Dover and other local communities can never say ‘No’.

Just because an underground mineral deposit exists does not mean humans should extract it – at the expense of all of the wealth that exists above ground.

This bill is far more dangerous than its earlier cousin. It will set precedence for every other mineral deposit in Wisconsin. Do we want sand mining next to Lake Delton?

Industrial mining has its place. But it is a place that must be determined by the people who live in that neighborhood. Taking away the community’s ability to say ‘no’ is taking away local control.

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State Should Heed Lessons from UW Computer Problems

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 February 2014
in Wisconsin

uw-madisonThis week Senator Vinehout writes about the problems uncovered by a recent audit of the UW System’s Human Resources computer system. Planning could have avoided the mistakes auditors found with the system. As the state begins work on new computer systems it is important to heed the lessons and for the Legislature to take an active role in oversight.


MADISON - “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend four sharpening the axe,” said Abe Lincoln. He knew the importance of planning.

Recent audits detail troubles with a University of Wisconsin payroll computer system. More time should have been spent in planning.

Problems with payroll systems stretch back more than a decade. In 2001, the UW System contracted with a company to change its computer system. The project was to cost under $20 million and be finished in 2005. By July 2006, the UW cancelled the project after the estimated cost had more than tripled. The state was out over $28 million and no new system was in place.

The UW approved another new human resource system (HRS) in 2009. This system went “live” in April 2011. Mistakes happened.

By January 2013 the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) reported the UW overpaid more than $15 million in health insurance benefits for employees over a 16 month period. The UW System also overpaid more than $17 million in retirement benefits over the same period. These mistakes happened even though the UW received warnings from consultants nearly a year and a half earlier that HRS was at risk for these errors.

My colleagues and I on the Audit Committee wanted to know what went wrong and why.

At the conclusion of its nearly yearlong study, auditors questioned whether the UW System was adequately prepared for the roll-out of the new system. Auditors found two weeks before the computer system was to go “live” at least 12 “highly critical” objectives were not met during the planning of the system. Several of these objectives had to do with whether computer staff had enough preparation to help support people around the UW System using the new computer system.

The UW Service Center had exceeded its budget in all of the past three fiscal years. In part because workers had significant overtime and consultant costs – dealing with problems that might have been anticipated with better planning. Staff reported inadequate training. The UW’s own analysis showed staff was unprepared to complete adequate training.

Over half of the 1600 staff surveyed by LAB, reported being “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the amount of training. Auditors cited ongoing problems with training as a third of employees continued to be dissatisfied with both the amount and quality of training.

In the weeks that followed the roll-out of the new system, computer consultants warned the system was not fully tested.

Consultants also warned of problems reconciling payments for retirement and health insurance long before auditors found millions had been overpaid.

The LAB documented security problems with payroll systems going back to the 1990s. Despite longstanding warnings, officials failed to adequately address the problems. Significant security issues still remain largely unresolved. Auditors continued to list computer security concerns in its most recent UW financial audit.

All who share responsibility for the oversight of large, expensive, state computer systems should heed the lessons learned from the experiences of the UW System. First and foremost, officials should pay attention to the results of audits and internal planning and progress reports.

Auditors’ work provides a list of cautions for future large state computer projects. Now two additional agencies have begun to tackle a large IT projects. The Department of Employee Trust Fund plans a new system to administer employee benefits.

The Department of Administration plans a complete overhaul of the computer systems used for buying and paying for nearly every part of state government including all accounting, budgeting, and human resource functions. This massive undertaking will cost over a hundred million dollars and take several years.

Despite all this activity, the Legislature’s IT watchdog has not met in four full years.

This is why I call upon my Legislative colleagues to convene the Joint Committee on Information Policy and Technology. This committee’s role is to provide legislative oversight of large information technology projects to assure taxpayer’s money is wisely spent.

After the scrutiny of the LAB began in early 2013, UW Service Center officials developed a planned improvement process. Oversight and public scrutiny works – it’s as effective as Abe Lincoln’s sharp axe!

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Walker Knew about “Secret” Email System at Milwaukee County

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, 19 February 2014
in Wisconsin

courthouseGREEN BAY - According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report, included in more than 27,000 emails unsealed today is one that for the first time directly ties Gov. Scott Walker to a secret email system used in his office when he was Milwaukee County executive.

Court documents have previously showed Walker's aides set up a secret wireless router in the county executive's office and traded emails that mixed county and campaign business on Gmail and Yahoo accounts.

I can report that Walker knew about this system as far back as 2002. How do I know? I helped Tim Russell set it up.

Back in 2002, I was called to the newly elected Walker’s office to meet with Tim Russell, who was being promoted at the time as the “technology expert” for the new County Executive . Russell wanted to know how he could set up a private computer network within that office which would have its own link to the internet.

Former County Executive Dave Schultz had such an office system with Apple Computers back in 1988-92, but F. Thomas Ament had dumped it when he became Executive because too many of Schultz’s emails had found their way to the pages of the Journal Sentinel. Ament and his top Administrators tended to distrust the new technology and were more secretive than the Schultz people.

During the 1990s, I was responsible for technology in the Department of Human Resources (DHR) and had set up a departmental network with email and a web site with it’s own ISDN line link to the internet. We were one of several county departments who had moved in this direction in the 90s in advance of a countywide system later developed by the central Information Management Services Division (IMSD).

DHR was only one floor below the County Executive’s Office in the Courthouse, and Tim Russell wanted to know how I did it. During our meeting in 2002, I told him.

As I remember, Russell told me that Scott Walker was very appreciative of my help and wanted to thank me personally. Russell took me over to Walker’s office for the meet and greet, but he turned out to be busy and only smiled and waved from his desk as we stood outside his office door.

I have no doubt that Walker knew what he was smiling and waving about. Russell had certainly made it clear that we were doing this at Walker’s bidding.

I have not really talked much about that day over the years and was not contacted about this information during the recent John Doe inquiry. That I assisted other departments within the county on technology issues during this period was certainly no secret at the time.

But I can tell you one thing, if Walker continues to deny knowledge of this email system and its usage, he is giving you a line of baloney.

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Wisconsin Legislative Spat Signals Slow Down for Privatized Public 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, 17 February 2014
in Wisconsin

assembly-bitter-debateThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the bills related to school accountability pending before the Senate and Assembly Education Committees. The Senate just acted on a watered down version of a bill because Senators did not “have the appetite” to pass a more comprehensive change. The Assembly continued to advance their version calling for closure or takeover of public schools designated as “failing”.


MADISON - “There’s ‘no appetite’ for passing a bill this year that imposes sanctions against poorly performing public or private voucher schools” reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in an Associate Press story.

“No appetite” was code for “we don’t have the votes”.

The “sanctions” for public schools included forcing the closure of a school or forcing its takeover by a privately operated charter company – both options took away local school district control.

Meanwhile the Senate Education Committee met for the third time in as many weeks to take up a much-watered down version of “school accountability”.

As we read through the seventh version of the bill, lawmakers quizzed the nonpartisan Legislative Council attorney. She confirmed the primary change the bill now made was to move up the date by which private schools receiving public money are required to send their publically funded students’ information to the state.

This was a far cry away from the previous versions that required the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to label a group of failing public schools every year that could be converted to charter schools operated by a “private charter management company” – completely taking away local control through the democratically elected local school board.

As we were briefed by the attorney on what the seventh version of the bill did, the Assembly Education Committee was meeting on their version of the bill that did take away local control and allow private companies to take over the public school – albeit without the required 5% of schools assigned to the “failing” category every year.

Confused? So were we.

It seemed the only clear explanation was that a majority of Senators had “no appetite” for the steady drumbeat of privatizing public schools.

The consequence was the current law on school accountability would stay pretty much the way it was – with the reporting of student information for voucher students a few years sooner than now required.

“You can’t call this an accountability bill, it only changes a date,” Senator Lehman told the Republican members of the Senate Education Committee. “Oh, yes we can”, shot back one of the members.

Finding common ground among Republicans and creating enough policy change to go home and take credit for change seemed two impossible goals to reconcile among Senate members.

So a bill to change the date private schools must send to DPI the information about their voucher –publically paid for – students seemed like the best compromise. It appeared any other version of the bill didn’t have the votes to pass in the Senate. But that didn’t stop the Assembly from rushing a public hearing on their version of the bill.

The tension between the two houses of the Legislature has been growing as the two-year Legislative session draws to a close. The friction appeared as members were told when they would finish up Legislative business. Assembly members tell me they expect the Legislature to adjourn by the end of February, while Senators were told to stay available for floor periods as late as April.

Tensions between the Assembly and Senate boiled over in a recent public meeting reported on by the Wisconsin State Journal. The public argument between the leaders of the Senate and the Assembly focused on whether the two leaders were meeting regularly enough – but the real issue was a lack of agreement on several major initiatives including whether the Senate had the appetite to move forward the school accountability bill and the governor’s spending plan for the estimated surplus at the end of this budget.

The Senate leader cut to the heart of the matter in the State Journal story: “We’ve got a real tight majority in the Senate and with him [Assembly Speaker Vos] having a 10-seat majority, it’s much easier to develop compromise over there. It’s really that simple.”

It was the moderate members of the tight Senate that delayed the increase in the state’s structural deficit by delaying a vote on the governor’s plan, and it was those moderate members who forced a compromise on the plan to steadily turn “failing” public schools into schools operated by private charter management companies.

Kudos goes to those moderate members.

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Vinehout Endorses Free 2-Year & Tech College Tuition in Wisconsin

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, 10 February 2014
in Wisconsin

wtcsAfter reading about the proposal offered by Tennessee Governor Haslam, Senator Kathleen Vinehout suggests that Wisconsin use the state’s projected surplus to provide free tuition and fees for Wisconsinites attending technical or UW 2-Year Colleges. The cost of providing this free education would still allow for half a billion dollars to remain in the state’s coffers, and the investment in education is one that pays dividends to individuals and families as well as the state‘s economy.


MADISON - “So, what’s the best jobs plan?” The Governor asked his State of the State audience. “Easy answer: education. If we want to have jobs ready for Tennesseans, we have to make sure that Tennesseans are ready for jobs.”

With this introduction, Governor Bill Haslam announced a plan to bring absolutely free tech and community college education to every high school senior regardless of his or her grades or ability to pay.

“We just needed to change the culture of expectations in our state,” Governor Haslam told the New York Times. “College isn’t for everybody, but it has to be for a lot more people than it’s been in the past if we’re going to have a competitive work force…If we can go to people and say, ‘This is totally free,’ that gets their attention.”

It’s the season of bold plans for governors. As legislatures gather to hear State of the State speeches, state executives put their best plans forward. As bold plans go, Republican Governor Haslam’s is right at the top.

What if we could change the culture in Madison? Think outside the box and come up with a nonpartisan way to address state challenges using the budget surplus created by an improving economy?

Governor Walker proposed using the surplus to give owners of a median value home about $100 a year drop in property taxes over last year. He added other minor tax changes to his plan, including less than a dollar a week cut for 98% of all income tax filers.

Discussions of the Governor’s plan focused on the wisdom of adding to the state’s structural deficit and leaving a paltry amount in the state’s savings account. Both are important concerns.

What if we could avoid big fiscal pitfalls and also do something bold?

At a cost of about thirty cents a day per person, Wisconsinites could have the Governor’s lower tax plan. For less than seventeen cents a day per Wisconsinite the state could put in place a plan of free tuition and fees for every Wisconsin resident attending our 16 Technical Colleges and 13 UW 2-year Colleges.

If implemented in the 2014-15 school year, the plan would cost annually less than $350 million leaving over half a billion in this budget’s surplus going forward.

Putting state money into education is putting money where it works. Surveys of Wisconsin Technical College graduates reveal that nearly three out of four have jobs in their field within 6 months after graduation. Nearly 9 out of 10 graduates live and work in Wisconsin.

Putting money toward technical and 2-year UW colleges also makes sense. These schools are the gateway of opportunity for hundreds of thousands of families in Wisconsin. A college education helps raise the income of families and strengthen the state’s economy.

An absolutely free first two years of college helps families of modest means afford a four year college education and helps those one in five Wisconsinites who have some college education but lack a degree think about going back to school.

Education raises wages and the likelihood of employment. According to a recent New York Times report, “More educated workers continue to enjoy much better employment options than those with a high school diploma or less.” The problem we face is only a third of our workforce has a college degree or more. “With many less educated workers chasing a limited number of new jobs, employers have little reason to increase wages.”

Wisconsin’s economy is lagging. Wages have stagnated. Wisconsin will continue to lag the nation in personal income as long as we remain a less educated state than the national average.

Improving the education of Wisconsin’s workforce prepares Wisconsin for work and improves the economic health of the state. Families are better off which in turn benefits the state. Those who earn more, spend more, and pay more in taxes.

What would you prefer? A hundred dollars less in property taxes for a $150,000 median value home or absolutely free tuition for every Wisconsin resident at our local tech and UW 2-year campuses. Think about it. And let me know!

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Wisconsin GOP Plan Unveiled to Gradually Privatize Public 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, 03 February 2014
in Wisconsin

teachlawsSenator Vinehout writes about a bill on school accountability that completely changes the current system used to report the progress of students attending with public money. The bill makes it easier for private charter school management companies to take over public schools that are considered ‘failing’ and they would not be required to answer to locally-elected school boards. In the end, there is little evidence converting a public school to a charter school will improve the achievement of poor performing students.


MADISON - “If I was going to write a bill to privatize public schools,” the Senate staffer told our small group, “this is what it would look like.”

We were reviewing a new version of a bill to test students attending private schools using state tax dollars. By this sixth version, the bill morphed into something entirely different.

The latest version of the bill was crafted behind closed doors; unlike three years ago when a wide-ranging group developed a system to test and report the progress of all students attending school with public money. Private school advocates publically agreed to the same public school accountability standards but privately lobbied for something different.

The bill reversed current law requiring all students be tested using the same type of exam. This bill allowed private schools to choose their own type of assessment and even choose the students who took the test – allowing them to game the system.

Concealed in the bill was a way to gradually close more and more public schools or turn them over to independent private charter operators.

For the next several years, 5% of public schools must be named as failing – even if those schools weren’t failing by current standards. With few exceptions, schools that failed for three years would be required to close or be operated by an independent private charter management company with a minimum five-year contract. Local school boards would have little authority over this company for five years. For Milwaukee, this change would apply to schools that failed for just one year.

It’s important to remember the strong relationship between poverty and low school performance. More resources are needed to lift scores of low performing pupils. Students from poor families need small class sizes and personal attention of highly skilled educators. Private schools can succeed when they provide the resources – but it is the resources, not the private setting, that helps poor children match performance of their better-off peers.

There is little evidence that closing a poor performing school or giving privately run charter companies control results in better performance than the locally controlled public school.

Yet this new bill required DPI to name a steady 5% of “F” schools. As more schools were closed or reopened as privately operated charter schools, the score for “F” got higher and higher for the remaining public schools – giving the private charter management organizations steady pickings of where to head next.

The bill was a dream for out-of-state charter management companies.

I remembered testimony given by local school superintendents at a recent public hearing in Pepin. Superintendents spoke of dwindling state funds and local people unable to pay higher property taxes. Teachers taught multiple subjects, schools reduced or shared staff, administrators served as teachers, districts combined sports, and maintenance was deferred – even as poverty skyrocketed and special needs students increased.

In Independence, primarily Spanish speaking students doubled in three years; three out of five students attending school live in poverty. Fifteen years ago Arcadia taught no English Language Learners. Now every third student primarily speaks Spanish. Poverty is over 50%.

I wondered what another influx of poor, Spanish speaking students would do to test scores. Many of these students had no opportunity to attend good schools in their home country. Yet the students are tested and their scores contribute to the report card. Some Arcadia schools currently hover a few points above failing. With a big influx of students in need, a school could become ‘failing’ through no fault of its own.

Under the bill, failure to turn this school around during the next two years could result in closure or reopening operated by a private charter management company – unanswerable to the locally-elected school board. I couldn’t imagine people in Arcadia or Independence wanting a company from California running their local schools.

People want schools accountable. However, this process is rapidly turning into a backdoor for private companies to take over local schools. With different standards for public and charter schools, no locally-elected control and even no consequences for poor performing privately operated charter schools for several years, the accountability legislation has become anything but accountability to those footing the bill.

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Some Cry Foul Over Rapidly Rising Propane Prices

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 27 January 2014
in Wisconsin

home_heatingThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the propane shortage and rapid increase in price. After being contacted by people concerned about the crisis, she spoke with those in the industry and did research to help folks understand the reason behind the problems and what could be done to prevent this from happening in the future.


ALMA - “I’ve been in business for 36 years,” the propane man told me. “I believe this is simply price gouging.” The propane retailer’s wholesale price went from $3.19 to $5.29 a gallon in just a few days. I wanted to know why.

At first, I heard the usual “supply and demand” story: a late planting season meant high moisture grain drew down propane supplies. Indeed, propane use to dry grain was four and one-half times larger this past harvest than a year prior.

January-like weather during the first of December meant increased propane demand earlier in the season. As one industry representative said: “It’s simply a matter of economics 101 – supply and demand.”

But things were not as simple as they seem.

“The propane industry has some responsibility here,” one man told me. “We knew reserves were dangerously low going into the harvest season,” said another.

According to Bloomberg News Service, propane stockpiles are the lowest since the government began keeping records in 1993.

I spoke those in the propane industry, listened to constituents and congressional staffers and did some digging in industry and government publications. I learned several “man-made” actions contributed to a shortage of propane.

In mid-November, Kinder Morgan Inc. shut down its Cochin pipeline carrying propane from Canada to the Midwest. The company kept the pipeline down until late December to install pumps used to reverse the flow of gas from south to north.

The company plans to sell a lightweight petroleum product to Canada to mix with heavy crude oil. The complete reversal of the pipeline was scheduled to happen next summer. However, I heard from retailers, the company upped the start-up date to mid-February – permanently removing a critical route transporting propane to the Midwest.

Many in the industry told me rail lines – another route of transporting propane to the Midwest – choose large volume contracts like coal, grain or sand – over smaller lots like propane. I learned of one retailer who ordered nine rail cars of propane last fall and still had not taken delivery. Trucks also are in short supply.

“I can buy propane for $1.50 a gallon in Texas,” one Alma man told me. “But I can’t find a truck to go pick it up.” A Pepin retailer said, “There are 186 trucks lined up [in Mont Belvieu, Texas] to get propane and they can only fill three an hour.”

The Wisconsin Propane Gas Association recently sent a letter to lawmakers explaining the shortage and the rapid rise in prices. They closed the letter with the following: Be warned, the situation in 2013-14 is not the result of a “perfect storm,” but rather due to structural flaws in the industry.

The U.S has no strategic reserve for propane and no restrictions on the export of propane.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the exports of propane and propylene have increased five and a half times in the past two years. Just in the past year exports nearly tripled.

Industry officials knew about the Cochin pipeline shut down (and the plans to reverse the line no longer delivering propane to the Midwest). They knew about the high demand for fuel to dry down grain and help cope with the very early, very cold winter. Still exports remained at the nearly triple (over last year) high figures all throughout January.

Reuters recently reported: "This is definitely an issue that will come to the surface as the fallout (of the shortage) becomes more well known," said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital LLC, a hedge fund. "The industry has been caught short, a lot of consumers are going to ask the question - why are we allowing this?"

Finding a solution involves action by the industry and government. We need an “At Home First” U.S. policy that creates a strategic reserve of propane, limits exports in times of domestic need and makes sure companies are not price gouging.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley recently requested the Federal Trade Commission “remain vigilant in overseeing the propane market to prevent anti-competitive behavior or illegal manipulation, and ensure that any supply shortages are not created artificially.” Senator Grassley has the right idea.

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Hey Governor Walker, Let’s First Pay the Bills

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, 20 January 2014
in Wisconsin

scott-walkerThis week  Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the new revenue estimates for the state.  The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that state will end this budget with nearly a billion dollars over the $70 billion budget.  Kathleen writes that the Legislature should look first to paying the state’s bills and putting money into the state’s Rainy Day Fund.


MADISON - Imagine you came into a bit of money. Not a lot - less than $500 on your annual salary of $35,000 - but enough to make you happy.

This is the pleasant situation state government faces: new revenue estimates predict the state will close its books on the current budget with a little less than a billion more on its $70 billion biennial budget.

Lawmakers are falling over themselves to come up with the best tax give-away. But maybe they should check the pile of past due bills first.

So returning to my story; imagine you faced hard times. You delayed paying some of your mortgage, you got behind on your son’s college tuition, you skimped on supplies for your school-age daughter, you didn’t pay all your property tax and you missed a few car payments.

Instead of catching up on the bills you missed – with new money that comes nowhere near getting you caught up – you propose to your spouse to give the money away to your friends.

If I were your spouse I’d send you outside for a while and hope the weather cooled off your foolishness.

Such is the foolishness of lawmakers who want to cut income taxes – giving most benefit to high income earners – rather than pay the bills postponed over the past years.

The almost $900 million in estimated new revenue comes with a caution to Legislators. When reporting the new revenue estimate, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) reminded lawmakers that about half of the surplus should be put away in the state’s rainy day fund – as is required by state law. This fund is woefully inadequate and was underfunded by Governors of both political stripes despite years of bipartisan calls to fund it from Legislators and citizens.

The LFB cautions that federal highway funds may be reduced – leaving Wisconsin with more of the responsibility to pay for already promised road and bridge construction. The LFB does not give a figure on the estimated drop in federal funds but this fact underscores the importance of putting money away in a rainy day fund.

In addition, LFB staff point out the structural deficit going into the next budget year in the Transportation Fund alone is $224 million. Promised spending in this last budget, including the service on new debt, raises the mismatch between estimated money coming in and money going out at almost another $120 million in the next budget.

Finally, LFB staff also points out the current transportation budget is spending much less on already committed projects than will be required in the coming budget. One example is the Zoo interchange where the state is spending less than one tenth of what experts estimate will be needed in the next budget.

The new LFB memo does not begin to touch the problems in the state’s General Fund.

Every part of the five major spending items –schools, health care, local government, corrections and universities – needs attention. The current budget required give-backs from universities that some say will put the UW system in a double digit structural deficit for the next budget. Underfunding of public schools and delayed payments to schools and local government started years ago and continued by this governor add to budget problems for the next Legislature. A growing prison population and a deficit in the state’s Medicaid program – caused by lower federal reimbursement – adds more cost to the next budget.

Then there is the matter of the state’s rising debt. Governors including Governor Walker made decisions that resulted in unpaid debt bills being rolled into a larger and larger debt payment.

Finally there is the matter of paying taxpayers on time for the tax breaks already given: it’s been almost 5 years since the state changed the withholding tables. So even though state income taxes have gone down – by a very modest amount – taxpayers don’t see any difference in their take home pay. To fix the problem completely would take more than the entire estimated increase in new revenue.

So - to the Governor and my fellow lawmakers – let’s first pay the bills.

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Senator Vinehout Not Running for Governor This Year

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 Friday, 17 January 2014
in Wisconsin

ALMA - After careful consideration I have decided not to run for Governor this year.

The severity of the injury received in the car accident last month -- a splintering of the bone in my upper right arm – and the time required to recover and rehabilitate make it impossible for me to run the intense, grass roots campaign that I want to run and would be necessary to win.

I have many thanks to give to all the individuals across the state who have encouraged me to run and offered their support in countless ways. I will continue to work supporting the grassroots efforts of so many. The vision we share for our state and our communities will not fade.

I wish success to Mary Burke and others who may offer their time and talents in leading our state.

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Let the People Speak on Nonpartisan Redistricting

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, 13 January 2014
in Wisconsin

voteSenator Kathleen Vinehout has heard from many people who are clamoring for the state to change the current partisan redistricting process to one that is nonpartisan. She is the lead Senate author on a bill that calls for an advisory referendum on this issue. Republicans have not yet scheduled a hearing for the bill.


MADISON - “Look at this map,” the man directed. “There are lots of squiggly lines in Wisconsin and Illinois but Iowa has real neat boxes.” The maps he showed me were the lines of Congressional Districts in the three states.

For many years Iowa has used a nonpartisan process to draw the district lines for state and US elected officials. Wisconsin, controlled by Republicans, and Illinois, controlled by Democrats, still uses the old partisan system of drawing lines.

What seems to be an archaic state activity comes up more and more in my discussions with voters. The word “gerrymandered” has found its way into the Wisconsin lexicon in a big way.

Some say the word has its origin in an 1812 election when a Massachusetts newspaper accused then Governor Elbridge Gerry of creating district lines to help his party dominate the state Senate. One district in the map resembled a salamander. Combining Gerry and (sala)mander became a popular expression to describe the drawing of legislative districts to gain a political advantage.

Two hundred years later the process dominates Wisconsin political discussions.

During 2011 a law firm was hired by Republican leaders to maximize Republican advantage. Some lawmakers signed secrecy agreements under threat to see their new districts before the proposal was made public. Subsequent elections demonstrated the effectiveness of the maps in maintaining a Republican majority.

Statewide editorial boards criticized the process and called for public hearings on a bill I cosponsored to implement a nonpartisan process – like that used to create the neat boxes on the Iowa map. Republicans are loath to hold public hearings to change the process. They feel they won the right to draw districts and correctly counter that Democrats did not change the process when they had control.

A group of freshmen representatives, led by Eau Claire Representative Dana Wachs and Wausau Representative Mandy Wright are traveling the state holding public hearings to bring attention to a proposal that would put the nonpartisan redistricting question on the November 2014 general election ballot.

Announcing their efforts, Representative Wachs stated, “Attempts to fix our flawed, partisan system of redistricting have been ignored in the Legislature, so we feel that now is the time to give Wisconsin voters the chance to speak up.” I support this approach and signed on as lead author of this bill in the Senate.

Government reform groups suggested partisan redistricting is one cause of the current hyper-partisan environment. Jay Heck of Common Cause recently told the Chippewa Herald, “The current process has produced too many uncompetitive general elections in which the winners are really determined in partisan primary elections. This has often allowed the most extreme partisans from their respective parties to be elected. Bipartisan compromise becomes virtually nonexistent. Instead, we have bitter partisanship, paralysis and polarization.”

Representative Wright recently told Wisconsin Radio Network, “I actually have an unusual district, where’s it’s basically 50-50, and I have to be very conscious of listening to both sides of the aisle, and really actively seeking out ways that we can work together, and I appreciate that, and I think it’s a good thing but it’s never going to be resolved if I don’t have more of my colleagues that feel that same sort of pressure.”

Judging by the letters I’ve received, citizens’ support for a nonpartisan process runs deep. Some of those letters are sharply worded and deeply critical of the current process. For example, an Eau Claire man recently wrote me saying, “How can one defend a process that was done in the dark, in secret (even to having legislators sign secrecy contracts) at a cost of millions to taxpayers of Wisconsin, divided the citizens of Wisconsin and more - all for one and only one purpose - to allow representatives to choose their voters rather than the other way around for obvious political gain!”

Wisconsin does not allow direct legislation by ballot initiative – meaning a vote by the public would be advisory to the Legislature. But a lopsided public vote in favor of nonpartisan redistricting would send a strong message to elected officials they’d do well to heed.

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Independent Charter Schools: Siphoning off Public Money to Private Interests

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

studentsIn this week’s column, Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about new legislation that will allow statewide expansion of private charter schools at the expense of public schools.


ALMA - “Will the Legislature allow statewide expansion of charter schools and how will that affect my local public school?”

This question is one I hear so often particularly in communities where people are worried about the future of their small local schools.

Last fall, the Senate Education Committee debated Senate Bill 76, which takes away local control by requiring locally elected school boards to replicate charter schools when the charter performs 10% better then local district for 2 years in a row. It also allows certain charter schools to opt out of the state’s teacher evaluation system.

Private charter school companies lobbied hard for complete independence from state oversight but SB 76 did not go that far. School officials and citizens expressed serious concern about how expanding charter schools would impact public schools.

Money to run independent charter schools comes from school aid set aside for all public schools. The more money going to independent charter schools means less money for all public schools. For small cash-strapped districts, the expansion of independent charter could be devastating.

Sixty percent of Wisconsin’s public school districts are rural. As the amount of state school aid shrinks, small schools are particularly hard hit. Many rural districts are forced to pass referendum just to survive. Local property tax payers pick up more and more of the cost of their local schools.

Siphoning off even more state dollars for private independent charter schools will mean less educational opportunities for our children attending our local schools.

The public outcry against statewide expansion of charter schools made a difference.

Last month when the Senate Education committee took final action on SB 76 it was a scaled back version of the original bill. The amendment passed by the committee made the bill provisions apply only to the Milwaukee area.

But the committee did nothing to address the funding problem so public schools will still take a financial hit as independent charter schools expand.

Just as local schools celebrated this small victory, another charter school expansion bill reared its head in the State Assembly.

The bill was introduced in December by a group of suburban Milwaukee Assembly Republicans who are focused on passing a statewide charter school expansion bill before the Legislative Session ends. The bill contains many provisions of the Next Generation Charter Schools Act created and promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The bill is already scheduled for a quick public hearing.

Assembly Bill 549 expands who can authorize an independent charter school and stops local school districts from operating a charter school. Instead school boards must convert any charter school to a magnet school. This bill brings the law closer to the lobbying goals of the private charter management companies: eliminate any local control over charter schools.

Couple this with a requirement that any student from any district could go to any independent charter school and you end up with a world much closer to the goals of the private charter management companies: a privately operated school system that can siphon both money and students from any local public school.

When local schools are not well-funded and the best students are siphoned off, their future is in peril.

The next step in this privatization scheme is closing public schools. This happens because private charter schools drain not only taxpayer dollars but also the best students from local schools – leaving high cost disabled, impoverished and non-English speaking students in poorly funded public schools. With fewer resources and students, many public schools in other states have been forced to close.

Expanding independent privately run charter schools is unnecessary and unwise. Not considering how to pay for the statewide expansion of privately run charter schools is like talking about the color of a new car but not how to pay the car payments. In the end children in our communities are robbed of their greatest educational opportunities.

In the words of Garrison Keillor, “When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.”

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Looking Back on 2013

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 December 2013
in Wisconsin

At this season of reflection, Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the year coming to a close and the issues about which people contacted her.


ALMA - The Holiday season is upon us. With it comes the time for reflection on the past year. I always like to take time to look back on the work accomplished. One of my most important duties as State Senator is responding to concerns of the people I am honored to represent.

As I look back at the issues people expressed as their concern it is no surprise state spending was at the top of the list. In odd-numbered years, the Legislature debates the two-year state budget. State spending related to education and health care tied with concerns related to mining, including sand mining and opposition to gun control.

People are worried state money for local schools has been cut too deep. They overwhelmingly oppose the use of public dollars for expansion of private voucher schools. Many people agree the school funding formula needs to be changed and special resources must be given to rural schools and those with high numbers of students in poverty. This is why I wrote an alternative budget fully funded public education, changing the formula and eliminated the new money for private school vouchers and tax breaks.

Health care is a concern on the minds of many. Of the several hundred people who contacted me about health care, 100% wanted the state to take federal dollars to cover people with BadgerCare and did not want those who now have BadgerCare to lose it. People are very concerned Wisconsin rates are nearly $2,000 a year more on average than Minnesota rates. I received many letters from those who were shocked at the amount they had to pay. They expressed outrage at the state not creating a state based Marketplace. This is why, for the third legislative session in a row I introduced a bill to create a Badger Marketplace.

Firearms and mining were other top issues of concern for people in western Wisconsin.

Nearly 4 out 5 contacts related to firearms were opposed to increased gun control. Little legislative action was taken on this issue and I don’t expect any in the near future.

Of those contacting me about sand mines, 85% were opposed to more mines. A similar number of people contacting me oppose the iron ore mine. In response to concern about the impact of sand mines on communities, I introduced five bills to lessen the worst impacts of sand mines. The bills require better public notice of proposed mines, require mines to be better neighbors and increase the number of inspectors making sure mines are not polluting the environment. Unfortunately none of these bills even received a hearing in 2013.

While statewide issues get a lot of attention, most of the legislation I introduced in 2013 was to help back home. For example, years ago the Village of Stockholm requested legislation to get state designation as a “premier resort area”. This would help boost tourism and garner more tourist dollars. After years of introducing bills to accomplish this, this year we finally succeeded.

I hear from many people about lousy cellphone coverage. They are thankful for their home telephone service. But many large telecom companies are getting out of the landline phone business. This creates a big problem for people, especially the elderly and small business owners, who rely on their landline. This is why I introduced a common sense proposal to protect landline phones.

In our area, local control is sacred. We elect local officials to make decisions in the best interest of our communities. I heard from many people opposed to actions by this Legislature that take power away from local people. An example that hit close to home is Senate Bill 349 which nullified local sand mine ordinances and forbids local protection of water, air or the use of explosives. Fortunately, with overwhelming contact in support of local control, we’ve managed to stall this misguided proposal.

A big thanks you to my senate staff and interns. And to all who contacted me – thank you for the opportunity to serve! I wish you and yours a very Happy Holiday.

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Health Insurance Problems Need Solutions Not False Choices

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, 16 December 2013
in Wisconsin

healthcareGovernor Scott Walker’s choices regarding BadgerCare and federal Medicaid expansion create a false choice in his special session bills. The problem can be solved for childless adults by amending the bill to provide the promised coverage under a new BadgerCare or to accept the federal Medicaid expansion dollars and create state health care exchange.


ALMA - “What are you going to do for health insurance?” I asked. “I don’t know.” Sam told me.

It was a conversation I’ve had a thousand times since I became a Senator almost seven years ago. What was unique was the setting: I met Sam in an ambulance.

Sam and I had much in common, besides spending part of Sunday morning in an ambulance. Sam was a farmer, raised a lot of food for the family, loved farming and had a medical condition that made it hard to get health insurance.

After the patient (me) was stabilized, I badgered Sam with questions. I squeezed out a few facts. One was Sam would soon lose health coverage because of actions at the State Capitol. The other fact was Sam had lung cancer.

Most people think because someone works in health care they automatically have health insurance. But it’s just not always so.

Sam was a volunteer first responder. I had just been rescued from a 30 vehicle pile-up near Sam’s home. Farming was Sam’s main occupation; being a volunteer first responder didn’t help get Sam health insurance. Like so many farmers Sam depended on help from the state to get health insurance. That help was going away.

A few days earlier I met Mary. She was hoping for help from the state to get health insurance. She’d traveled in zero degree weather across two counties to find me. She relied on the goodwill of a neighbor to bring her to an event her neighbor knew I would attend.

“Please help me,” Mary asked. “They are almost doubling my insurance rates. It’s already over $600 a month.”

“Mary has only social security to live on,” her neighbor said. “She’s at 95% of poverty level – which should mean she will get on BadgerCare. But the Governor is not letting this happen. She won’t be eligible for federal subsidies. She makes too little.” (The Affordable Care Act provides coverage for people like Mary under the federal Medicaid expansion; however the governor must accept the federal dollars).

Like Sam, Mary has cancer. She lost her husband, owed a $100,000 in back medical bills for his cancer treatment. She was totally blind in one eye and could see very little from the other.

Mary buried her tears on my shoulder. “This is so wrong,” I told her.

Although I changed the names to protect confidentiality, Sam’s and Mary’s stories are the real-life experience of over 160,000 Wisconsinites.

The Governor called the Legislature into Special Session to address problems with health insurance. But his “solutions” create more problems.

Governor Walker has created a false choice between the delay of new BadgerCare coverage for poor people like Mary without dependent children and the delay of terminating state health care for people like Sam who are covered by BadgerCare or the state’s high risk plan- HIRSP.

On one hand the Governor will allow tens of thousands of people who now have state coverage to keep it until April when, presumably, problems with healthcare.gov the federal Marketplace are solved. On the other hand the Governor will not cover any new –very poor- people on BadgerCare until April- presumably because the state can’t afford it.

When the Senate votes to approve this false choice I won’t be able to attend because of medical problems I sustained, but if I could, I would vote “no”. And here is why.

The state is not broke. The state ended its fiscal year on June 30, 2013 with a surplus of $759 million. To cover childless adults as promised would cost $38.9 million.

Clearly the problem is not a lack of money; it is a series of bad choices that will have a dramatic effect on the lives of tens of thousands of people like Sam and Mary.

To avoid the false choice created by the Governor, the Legislature must take immediate action. At a minimum, we must amend the Special Session bill and provide BadgerCare coverage for childless adults on January 1, 2014.

Even better, let’s put politics aside and provide a solution that works for all Wisconsinites; accept the federal Medicaid dollars and create a Badger state-based exchange.

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It’s Time to Raise the Minimum Wage

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, 10 December 2013
in Wisconsin

minimum-wageThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about raising the minimum wage in Wisconsin.


MADISON - “What is Wisconsin going to do about the minimum wage?” the woman asked at a recent town hall meeting. Increasing the minimum wage has been on the minds of many Wisconsinites.

As I travel, I hear many stories from working families who are struggling to make ends meet. Low wage workers fall further and further behind and are more dependent on the state’s cash strapped social safety net programs.

There is a step the state can take that would make an immediate impact: we could raise the minimum wage.

In 1913, Wisconsin became one of the first states to enact a minimum wage law. The purpose was to help lift workers out of poverty and to stimulate the economy. Unfortunately, since that time, increases to the minimum wage have not kept pace with the rising cost of living. Since the 1970’s the real value of the minimum wage has been plummeting. The real life consequences impact many of our hardworking neighbors.

According to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (WCCF) the typical household in Wisconsin earned $4,500 less in 2012 than in 2008.

The Council also reported the poverty rate in Wisconsin has increased; with one out of six children now living in poverty. In 2012, a total of 737,000 people lived in poverty. As the Council noted, “If poverty were a city, it would be Wisconsin’s largest city.”

The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported in 2012, a minimum wage worker in Wisconsin would have to work a total of 79 hours to afford a 2-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent.

Raising the minimum wage would put more money in the pockets of working families. Those workers would spend their extra earnings to provide for their families. The additional household spending benefits businesses in our communities.

Studies show that states with minimum wages higher than the federal floor had stronger job growth than in states that kept the lower federal level. In a 2006 study, the Fiscal Policy Institute found states that raised the minimum wage had more rapid small business and overall retail growth than states with the lower federal minimum wage.

Reports from employers cited additional benefits of a wage increase - higher productivity, decreased turnover, lower recruiting and training costs, decreased absenteeism, and increased worker morale.

For the past several sessions, my colleague Sen. Bob Wirch has been a tireless advocate for boosting the state’s minimum wage. This year, Senators Wirch and Harris introduced legislation that would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $7.60 per hour and tie future raises to an increase in inflation. I joined my colleagues as a co-author of Senate Bill 4.

Raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation should not be a partisan or controversial idea. Other states around the nation - New Jersey, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Florida, and Washington – put the issue on the ballot and all received overwhelming approval.

Similarly, indexing provisions have been enacted in eleven states, from all parts of the country and all along the political spectrum.

A poll conducted by the non-partisan Pew Center indicates that over 80% of Americans favor a higher minimum wage. Americans understand that increasing the minimum wage would provide greater stability to working families and an infusion of spending that will benefit the economy.

The Center on Wisconsin Strategy estimates that raising our minimum wage to $7.60 per hour would benefit at least 316,000 working people in our state. While I support this modest increase I recognize it falls short of what the minimum wage should be if it kept pace with inflation.

If we really want to lift people out of poverty and reward them for their hard work, let make steps to raise the minimum wage to $10.60 per hour. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics that $10.60 an hour would take us back in real dollars to the minimum wage of 1968.

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Changes in Committee Workings Limit Public Input

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 December 2013
in Wisconsin

closed-sessionThis week Kathleen writes about the changes to committee procedures within the Wisconsin Legislature in Madison and the resulting impact on public input in legislation. It is critical in a democracy that all voices have a chance to be heard.


MADISON - Committees are the doers of the Legislature. The process is designed to be slow, deliberative and encourage public input.

However, speed and secrecy are increasingly being used to limit public involvement and careful legislative deliberation.

Public hearings are one place people can make an impact on a developing new law. By testifying at a hearing, a person can directly provide input. Those who cannot travel to the Capitol can send emails or letters to members of a committee and request changes in legislation.

In recent years, small but significant changes are taking place in the workings of committees that limit public involvement. Changes like shortening the length of notice before a public hearing; providing a public notice of one version of a bill and then offering a complete rewrite shortly before the public hearing; limiting speaking time for those testifying; limiting questions from committee members; allowing “invited testimony only” in a public hearing or voting on a bill immediately following the public testimony.

All of these actions have been used for decades. But it is the increasing frequency by which they are used that concerns many of my constituents.

Committee chairs have extraordinary power in their committee. They set rules by which public hearings are held. They decide whether and when to hold a hearing, whether the hearing receives enough public notice for widespread citizen involvement and who, if any, invited speakers might testify. During the hearing the chair determines the order of speakers and whether to limit speakers’ time testifying.

Following the public hearing the committee chair decides if and when committee members will vote on the bill. Usually the process involves consultation with members. Discussion following a public hearing can involve back and forth conversation about new information made public during the hearing. When a substantial rewrite of the bill appears necessary, the committee chair sometimes convenes a working group to work through bill changes.

Thus correct language for new legislation emerges from a careful process of give and take. Members and the public have adequate time to prepare and concerns are addressed. This process is slow – so slow it sometimes involves several legislative sessions.

Speed and secrecy will kill public input. And changes in the actions of committee chairs can, over time, create a Legislature that listens primarily to the input of lobbyists, paid to represent the interest of their clients. Those voices without paid lobbyists are increasingly not heard, their concerns not addressed.

Inadequate notice of public hearings often means only those groups with a full-time lobbyist with an office close to the Capitol are able to testify. Short notice makes it difficult for committee members to understand details and consequences of a new law. Short notice makes it difficult for those opposed to attend.

Limiting testimony stifles debate and new information. Information gathered during a public hearing can be skewed by inviting only those in favor of legislation; or by limiting the input of those opposed.

For example, a recent public hearing was held in the Senate mining committee on a bill to limit local people’s voices in sand mine operations. Many traveled by bus from western Wisconsin to testify. The first six hours of the testimony focused primarily on the concerns of those who benefited from the legislation – none of whom lived near a mine.

The committee chair finally got to calling the majority of those opposed to the legislation very late in the afternoon - after the bus had to leave taking many opposed to the bill back home.

These unfortunate scenarios are increasingly common in the state Capitol. When citizens take the time to journey to a public hearing and are not able to testify, they rightly feel left out of the process. It’s easy then to give up.

This is a mistake. Despite the difficulty, citizens must continue to be engaged in the democratic process. When changes are made to limit public input, it is essential that people refused to be silenced.

As Bob La Follette, often said, “The only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

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