Wednesday November 20, 2019

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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 http://legis.wisconsin.gov/LAB/Hotline/.

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
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 27 May 2014
in Wisconsin

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 www.wiswine.com

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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
User is currently offline
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
User is currently offline
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 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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