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Senator Vinehout Not Running for Governor This Year

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Friday, 17 January 2014
in Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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Let the People Speak on Nonpartisan Redistricting

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 13 January 2014
in Wisconsin

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


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

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

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

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

Two hundred years later the process dominates Wisconsin political discussions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Independent Charter Schools: Siphoning off Public Money to Private Interests

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Looking Back on 2013

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 23 December 2013
in Wisconsin

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Health Insurance Problems Need Solutions Not False Choices

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 16 December 2013
in Wisconsin

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s Time to Raise the Minimum Wage

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 10 December 2013
in Wisconsin

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Changes in Committee Workings Limit Public Input

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 02 December 2013
in Wisconsin

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Deer Hunting and Wisconsin’s Tradition of Conservation

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, 25 November 2013
in Wisconsin

deerALMA - Thanksgiving and gun-deer hunting are finally here. All fall I heard from folks who live for the 9-day deer hunt. I visited local businesses and saw deer photos posted in work cubicles. I spoke to high school classes or at town hall meetings and the conversation eventually turned to the great outdoors and hunting.

As the Senator from Buffalo County- the Deer Hunting Capital of the Midwest- many visitors to my Capitol office look for that trophy buck on the wall. A few of my Buffalo County visitors kid me saying my little buck must have come from some other county.

Many of us live to hunt and fish and enjoy the great outdoors. And we all have a role in preserving what we love.

Hunters play an important role in deer ecology. Wildlife biologists assess deer population and decide the proper harvest of deer by management regions. Western Wisconsin has a strong deer population. But in the north deer may be harder to find. For this reason DNR officials dropped the antlerless quota allocation for forested deer units in northern Wisconsin to the lowest level since 1997 as reported in the Eau Claire Leader Telegram.

A perennial problem for some hunters is locating hunting land. DNR made this task a little easier by creating a link to land open to public hunting (http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/lands/).

The site provides an excellent description of the many publicly-owned and accessible properties. Anyone who loves the outdoors would benefit from a visit to this site. You can choose to search by 22 types of activities from ATV riding to Wildlife Viewing.

As I traveled to cities and villages this fall I was struck by the universal love of Wisconsin’s environment. Whether it’s boating, fishing, bird watching, hunting or hiking – we live here because we love the outdoors.

Thanksgiving is a great time to reflect on the bounty of the land and waters. It’s also the time to renew our commitment to protect our lands and waterways for future generations.

Throughout Wisconsin’s history, conservation initiatives improved our environment. Past leaders established programs like the Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship program to set aside land through acquisition and conservation development. The program was named after two of our strongest conservation-minded governors – one of each political stripe.

It’s this bipartisan approach to conservation that helped protect Wisconsin. Long time rural residents tell me how conservation practices in the last 80 years brought back wildlife, preserved topsoil and cleaned up waterways.

It’s the concern about preserving this bipartisan approach that prompted so many people to talk with me about legislation they see as eroding our strong conservation traditions.

For example, in town hall meetings I was questioned repeatedly about the wisdom of selling 10,000 acres of state land. This requirement was slipped in the budget. Land sales come at the same time as another budget requirement allowing the sale of state assets in no-bid contracts. People fear possible questionable land deals.

Over and again questions were asked about the effect of recent law changes on the protection of water, particularly wetlands, ground water and the loosening of mine construction rules. The rapid growth of sand mines and understaffing of mine inspectors brings deep citizen distrust of the state’s ability to enforce even existing protections of land and water.

Rural folks are concerned about cuts to the farmer cost-share conservation program. It’s through state/land-owner financed projects that farmers are able to clean up barnyards with manure storage facilities, fence off streams, grow grass waterways and put in place stream buffer zones; all practices that help keep nutrients out of the water.

Fish thrive in clean waters and anglers enjoy the benefits. But there’s still a long way to go to cleaning up waterways. The program should be expanded, not cut back.

As we head out to partake of the bounty of our lands and waters, we must remember we are the stewards of our land and water. Let us act to preserve our resources for our children and their children.

I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy our great outdoors. I’m heading out to find that 10-point buck hanging around my alfalfa field!

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Affordable Health Care: No One Should Fall Through the Cracks

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, 18 November 2013
in Wisconsin

healthcareThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the importance of working together to make health insurance a success. State politicians need to “quit rooting for failure” and instead “put their constituents first.


MADISON - A focus on solutions could make a special legislative session on health insurance a success.

Governor Walker recently told the Associated Press “We want to make sure nobody falls through the cracks.” If this is the goal, the best solution would be to continue providing public insurance until eligible folks have gotten signed up for the new Marketplace.

The governor has called on Legislators to extend his deadline to drop BadgerCare coverage for tens of thousands of low-income Wisconsinites because of difficulties folks experienced in getting signed up for the federal health insurance Marketplace.

Many low-income parents of children on BadgerCare and folks on HIRSP will lose their public insurance the first of the year and have until December 15th to sign up for Marketplace insurance to ensure uninterrupted coverage.

Computer glitches and widespread confusion caused a paltry 877 people in Wisconsin to actually choose a plan through the federal Marketplace healthcare.gov in the first month of the website’s operation. Only about 1 in 200 people who buy insurance in Wisconsin on their own actually chose a plan for 2014 through the Marketplace.

Minnesota, who has its own Health Marketplace MNsure, saw double the number of residents who contacted the Marketplace, were determined eligible and actually choose a health plan. Minnesota has an extensive marketing campaign to enroll people in the state-based Marketplace. Wisconsin leaders chose not to implement a state-wide marketing campaign.

Recent research shows costs in Minnesota are substantially lower than in Wisconsin. Failure to sign up large numbers of residents, especially younger people, in Wisconsin could add to these higher costs.

Wisconsin officials are critical of the troubles with the federal website and its failures in Wisconsin but appear uninterested in state-wide marketing efforts, rate reviews or the creation of a statewide Marketplace- all activities Minnesota has used to lower costs.

Extending the deadline before folks lose public insurance is a good start for Wisconsin.

But lawmakers should go further and assure people don’t lose BadgerCare or HIRSP until they’ve got other coverage.

A March 31, 2014 federal deadline exists for anyone buying insurance on their own. After that deadline folks won’t be able to buy coverage for 2014. The open enrollment window will not open again until October 2014 for 2015 coverage.

This means if people who buy insurance on their own do not get signed up for the Marketplace by April 1, 2014, they will be unable to get health insurance to cover them through 2014. Only a few exceptions exist related to changing family circumstances.

Half a million people in Wisconsin do not have insurance. Our focus must be on getting people coverage they can afford. Lawmakers should use the governor’s special session to immediately cover 85,000 people without minor children who make less than the federal poverty level of roughly $11,500 a year. This coverage was approved in the budget and is on track to go into effect in January.

In addition, the state should not drop coverage on low-income families until they are signed up for the new health Marketplace. State officials should explore the unique bipartisan approach used by the Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers in Arkansas.

Health is vital to life. We must not lose our focus on providing health security to Wisconsin. States that are succeeding in health care changes are those states that have put aside politics and focused on solutions.

For example, the governors in Washington, Kentucky and Connecticut recently wrote in a Washington Post op-ed:

People keep asking us why our states have been successful. Here’s a hint: It’s not about our website…

The Affordable Care Act has been successful in our states because our political and community leaders grasped the importance of expanding health-care coverage and have avoided the temptation to use health-care reform as a political football.

The three governors asked politicians to “quit rooting for failure” and instead “put their constituents first. Health reform is working for the people of Washington, Kentucky and Connecticut because elected leaders on both sides of the aisle came together to do what is right for their residents.”

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Why Do Minnesotans Pay Less for Health Care than Wisconsinites

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
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on Monday, 11 November 2013
in Wisconsin

healthcareReports show that Minnesota residents will pay less for health care coverage than Wisconsinites. The path each state chose to follow related to the Affordable Care Act contributes to those differences.


MADISON - “Why is Minnesota paying less for health insurance than Wisconsin?” the doctor asked me.

He was one of many to say lawmakers better get to work to lower insurance costs. Many people who buy insurance on their own have complained to me about high insurance costs.

Folks near Minnesota told stories about how much easier it was for those in the Gopher State to get low cost insurance. A study released by Citizen Action of Wisconsin corroborates these stories.

The report analyzed data from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) showing Minnesota residents consistently pay less than Wisconsin residents. I read the DHHS report and found the average lowest monthly premiums in the 36 states reporting numbers was $249 for a Bronze Plan. The average cost for this plan in Wisconsin was $38 more than the national average. The study used a weighted average to adjust for population differences within the states.

In Minnesota, a similar plan was $144 a month, half the cost of Wisconsin’s plan!

The gap grew for older people and, especially, for people in western Wisconsin. Particularly striking is the difference in two western Wisconsin cities. On average, premiums in Eau Claire were 116% higher than Minnesota and premiums in La Crosse were 136% higher than the weighted average in Minnesota.

Citizen Action estimated premiums in Wisconsin will be $1,824 more a year for the lower cost Silver (middle) Plan than in Minnesota.

Many people asked how this could happen. What does Minnesota know that Wisconsin does not? What decisions could Wisconsin lawmakers make to turn these differences around?

First, it is important to note that Wisconsin does not significantly differ from Minnesota in per person health costs. Wisconsin is slightly more expensive but per person costs in both states are a little under $6,000 a year.

Second, Minnesota made very different decisions than Wisconsin last year. Minnesota chose a state-based Marketplace, chose to keep parents up to 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL) on Medicaid, and chose to expand coverage of Medicaid for all people up to 133% of FPL. This means a single person who makes up to about $15,000 a year can get on the Gopher State’s version of BadgerCare. The state also chose to vigorously use rate review authorities.

Wisconsin, on the other hand, decided to let folks buy insurance through the federal Marketplace. The Governor and lawmakers who voted for the state budget dropped BadgerCare coverage for any adult who made a little more than $11,000 a year. The state decided to not use its rate review authorities.

All these choices made a difference in the Marketplace rates people will pay in the next year. For example, the choice to not expand Medicaid cost those buying insurance in the Marketplace an estimated 8 – 10% more according to a recent study by the Rand Corporation. This is because people who lose Medicaid are poorer and likely in poorer health. When added to the state’s Marketplace pool, costs increase.

Sicker people are likely to seek out the Marketplace. Those who are healthy may sit out this period of enrollment. This creates much higher premiums. It is also why Minnesota conducted extensive advertising to encourage sign-up; something Wisconsin chose not to do.

Years ago when I wrote the legislation to create a state-based Marketplace, I learned from the experience of other states that marketing, especially to young people, was the single most important factor in getting a well-balanced pool of enrollees and keeping costs down.

It is no accident that those who oppose the Marketplace are running ads to discourage young people from signing up.

All the premium numbers I’ve mentioned are before federal credits. These subsidies go to lower income folks which will offset premiums. So those hit the hardest by higher Wisconsin costs will be middle income insurance buyers.

It’s time to put politics aside and create a Badger state-based exchange. The work is done in Senate Bill 12. I call on my colleagues to hold a public hearing on the bill.  If we can’t outshine the Gophers, lets at least keep up with them.

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Is Wisconsin Ready for the Corporate Reformers of Education?

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, 04 November 2013
in Wisconsin

teacher_teachingRepublicans in Madison have pushed through changes to Wisconsin’s education system, to expand private choice and charter schools and provide state tax dollars to these private entities. The loss of state aid strikes at our cash strapped public schools.


ALMA - “I just don’t understand vouchers, choice, and charter schools,” the man told me. “Could you explain?”

Public education is undergoing a radical change. What was predominately a local school governed by a locally elected school board is poised to become a plethora of choices: private religious schools, independent privately operated charter schools, voucher schools, for-profit schools, virtual schools, and public schools.

All paid for with tax dollars.

State officials recently announced enrollment information related to statewide private school vouchers. Lawmakers who supported the state budget voted to expand the payment for private schools with public money, known as voucher schools. The information released shows four out of five students who received public money for private tuition were already enrolled in a private school.

Data on the performance of these alternatives to public schools is inconclusive, poor or not available.

According to the recently released 2012-13 report cards for virtual charter schools, half of virtual school students were receiving their education from a school that did not meet expectations. Virtual charter schools are on-line schools paid for with public money.

Twenty years of experience with private vouchers in Milwaukee shows no major differences in the performance of private voucher students with public school students. The Legislative Audit Bureau in 2011 reviewed the final of five years of study to conclude students in Milwaukee who attend private schools with vouchers show few differences on standardized tests than their cohorts in public schools.

The 25 private schools in the new statewide voucher expansion received state money – over $7,000 per student – but are not required to conduct standardized state required testing for several years. Several of my Senate colleagues and I urged accountability for private schools similar to that of public schools but so far this hasn’t happened. Instead lawmakers are heading in the opposite direction

Efforts in the Senate Education Committee would expand another type of choice: a charter school that could be operated by a private out-of-state company; again paid for with public money.

This legislation -Senate Bill 76 - would allow charter schools to expand even if the school board that authorized them did not want the expansion.

All this change in public education has many people confused. Most of Wisconsin hasn’t seen the use of taxpayer money for private education. Many public schools have cut back to the bones. Parents, school board members and superintendents are asking me, “Why fund these unaccountable, private schools at the cost to our public schools?”

Data released by state education officials report almost half of public school districts will see further cuts in state money. The deepest cuts – limited to 15% by law- will go to 64 mostly rural schools. After the 15% cuts are taken out, schools then must pay their share of the independent charter schools in the Milwaukee area. Local school boards tell me this is simply not fair.

The push away from funding local public schools is part of a national effort to privatize public education. This effort is detailed in a new book by Diane Ravitch. She was appointed to public education positions by both President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton and is critical of both President George W. Bush and President Obama.

Ravitch describes efforts to transform education into “an entrepreneurial sector of the economy”. These efforts are “funded to a large degree by major foundations, Wall Street hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs and the U.S. Department of Education.”

She describes this movement to “eliminate the geographical based system of public education as we have known it for the past 150 years and replace it with a competitive market- based system of school choice – one that includes traditional public schools, privately managed charter schools, religious schools, voucher schools, for-profit schools, virtual schools and for-profit vendors of instruction.”

Few of the details Ravitch mentions are part of public discussions among policy-makers. Yet observing the action of the Legislature, the influence of those who seek education transformation is undeniable.

Wisconsin must wake up to the forces behind changes in schools. Once folks know details, I suspect few would support education funds to unaccountable schools created as investment opportunities.

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Small Town People Plead with Madison Lawmakers Not to Roll Back Local Protections

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 October 2013
in Wisconsin

frac_sandPeople from western Wisconsin travelled to Madison last week to testify against Senate Bill 349, a bill that rolls back locals’ ability to protect their citizens.  Many local elected officials also came to testify against the bill and expressed serious concerns about the chipping away of local control.


MADISON - “Our aim when drafting the ordinance was not to stop mining in the Town of Cooks Valley but to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of our town,” said Town Clerk Victoria Trinko.

She recently testified at a public hearing about Senate Bill 349, a bill to roll back locals’ ability to protect citizens.

The bill, introduced by Senator Tiffany, would overturn a unanimous 2012 Supreme Court decision supporting a local ordinance to protect the health and safety of residents residing in the Town of Cooks Valley in Chippewa County.

Specifically at issue is the ability of local government to pass an ordinance to protect citizens from frac sand mining. Cooks Valley is an unzoned township. The town followed the law and adopted local police powers that gave them authority to enact a frac sand mine ordinance. Senator Tiffany’s bill would take this power away.

But SB 349 goes much farther. It takes away any ability of counties, towns, cities or villages to protect health and safety with regard to water, air and blasting unless this authority is expressly given to locals in another part of the law. The bill strikes down part of the law granting police powers and home rule as authority for sand mine ordinances. If the bill becomes law, it would prohibit local rules related to not only protecting but even monitoring air or water.

It became clear during the hearing that eliminating local power to protect health and safety was the intention of the bill.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) testified in favor of the bill. The group said local rules to protect the environment, health or community “simply add confusion and stifle responsible growth and business.” WMC’s lobbyist testified local standards were “based on political not health” concerns.

In sharp contrast, Ms Trinko from Cooks Valley listed by date the environmental problems with the Chippewa Sands mine located a half-mile away from her home. She spoke of dust billowing from the mine. Over a year period she was diagnosed with asthma and installed expensive home air filtration. She said she must “wear a protective mask when I am outside for any length of time.” While on vacation her symptoms completely disappeared only to reappear when she returned home.

Health and safety is also a worry of residents near Arcadia in Trempealeau County. Representative Danou joined me to testify about concerns we’ve heard from many constituents. The residents, including many children, living in two subdivisions are surrounded by five sand mines within five miles of their homes. These residents expressed so much anxiety to the Trempealeau County Board that supervisors unanimously passed a one-year moratorium against further sand mines and ordered air monitoring to be done near the mines and the subdivisions.

In my discussions with legislative attorneys, I learned if SB 349 becomes law, it is likely the Trempealeau Country moratorium could be overturned and monitoring could be stopped.

The state should not tell locals to stick their heads in the sand when the life-long health of children is at stake.

Over 100 citizens got up at dawn to travel from western Wisconsin to testify at the hearing. They listened all day as lobbyists- none who lived near the mines- spoke about the benefits of the bill. Many locals testifying against the bill were forced to wait until late to testify - by that time folks riding the bus had to leave.

One traveler was Nan Horton from Ettrick. She was prepared to tell the committee the bill “ignores the need for citizens to have a voice in decisions affecting their own health, safety, property values and general welfare.”

Similarly, Heather Anderson from Chippewa County wanted to ask, “Who has spoken to the parent who set a birthday party picnic table only to find the plates were dusted with sand in a short period and had to bring the picnic inside?”

Shortly after the hearing, Senator Dale Schultz released a statement declaring, “After hearing from constituents and listening to local elected officials in my district I cannot support Senate Bill 349.”

I urge more lawmakers to listen to their constituents and do the same!

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Lose Local Government and You Will Lose America

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 October 2013
in Wisconsin

peopleA bill is being fast-tracked through the legislative process. It is being sold as standardizing rules for sand mines but has implications for local powers to protect water, air or the use of explosives. The bill would make it more difficult for local government to be reimbursed for damage done to local roads and comes on the heels of several new laws that limit the powers of local government.


MADISON - “Lose local government and you will lose America,” warns the banner on the Wisconsin Towns Association website. The head of this organization has recently spent a lot of time at the Capitol.

Rick Stadelman, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, is the smartest man I know working the Capitol. He hasn’t slowed down a bit since he announced his upcoming retirement. He’s working very hard to let folks know about a bill that would strip local powers to protect health and safety.

The bill, introduced by Senator Tiffany, is reportedly aimed at standardizing rules for sand mines. But the bill would stop any local protection of water, air or the use of explosives. In addition, a complex new process would make it very difficult for locals to be reimbursed for damage done to local roads.

The proposal would prevent locals from monitoring their own air and water. Every town, city, village and county in the state would be stopped from any local efforts to protect air and water.

In addition, many local sand mine ordinances, agreements and, possibly moratoriums, would be null and void.

The proposal, it appears, was written to overturn a 2012 unanimous Supreme Court decision (Zwiefelhafer v Town of Cooks Valley) that allowed a town to use its police powers to adopt a sand mine ordinance when the town did not have zoning.

But the bill goes much farther than overturning ordinances in towns without zoning.

The bill would thwart any action at all by locals to protect air and water. Questions remain about local people’s ability to protect themselves in an emergency. Also, because of limits to local’s ability to negotiate road repair use agreements, there are questions about any agreements farmers or loggers have to use local roads with overweight equipment.

Unfortunately this bill appears to be on the fast track. I’ve received dozens of calls and hundreds of emails in just a few days asking me to stop the taking of local powers. I’ve urged those opposed to make their views known to members of the Senate mining committee.

This legislation is one of many aimed at taking away local powers. In the last three years, dozens of new laws and legislative proposals have targeted taking away people’s ability to govern themselves through local ordinances.

Legislation stopping locals from doing anything to protect renters now sits on the Governor’s desk. Also awaiting the Governor’s signature is legislation to stop locals from setting rules about firing an arrow or a crossbow in a city.

Many recently passed limits are related to restricting environmental protections: lost is local control for setting limits on erosion at construction sites; lost is local control over shorelines; lost is local control over siting radio, TV and cell towers; and lost are other limits on zoning.

Some laws related to personnel take way local power to require firefighters and police live within a city. Another law prevents any requirement to offer sick leave – paid or unpaid.

Some new laws seem to be a solution in search of a problem – like taking away local authority to limit the sale of certain foods and beverages – the so-called “Big Gulp”.

Milwaukee has taken many direct hits to its local powers. The Legislature passed bills to change the County Board; to restrict its powers and to change the Milwaukee Technical College Board.

Many other changes affected local budgets and fees making it more difficult for local people to obtain the resources to accomplish the plans people make for their own communities.

Local government is the best example of democracy. Decisions are made in our neighborhoods. We can run into local officials at the grocery store and let them know how we feel.

Local businesses or residents that need help can call their local government and get answers right away. But that’s not going to happen when politicians from hundreds of miles away make decisions affecting our neighborhoods.

The only reason Senator Tiffany’s bill is being pushed is because it is easier for certain interests to control the state Legislature than to control local people.

Passing Tiffany’s bill is wrong and would take one more step to losing democracy.

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Are the Property Tax “Tools” Working?

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 October 2013
in Wisconsin

mining_wisconsinThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the property tax proposal put forward by Governor Walker. The Legislature will meet in Special Session to take up the proposal which puts $100 million in the school funding formula to stem an expected increase in property taxes. The proposal does not raise the revenue limits so this new state aid will be substituted for property taxes. Questions remain about the details of the proposal.


MADISON - Perhaps the Governor’s tools aren’t working.

A recently announced infusion of $100 million into schools won’t mean any more money for children. But it will help stem an expected rise in property taxes.

State school spending and property taxes are tied at the hip.

An increase in state school spending often slows or even cuts property taxes. But the opposite is also true. Big cuts to state school aid often result in large property tax increases.

Schools suffered a $1.6 billion gouge in the last budget. The recently passed two-year budget barely made a dent in filling this hole.

“Our reforms are working,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald announcing the Governor’s plans. But local school leaders told me a different story.

Schools are limited in what they can spend by state imposed revenue limits. Many frugal school boards don’t tax to the extent they are allowed. But as state money shrinks, board members are left with few options.

Local school boards are now preparing budgets for the next school year. Many members told me the “tools” the Governor gave the districts are not working. Costs are increasing faster than boards can make cuts. Especially hard hit are rural schools. Many districts have combined classrooms, cut electives, have multi-certified teachers, share staff with neighboring districts, share sports teams and long ago got rid of much support and administrative staff.

School boards now have no choice but to levy to the maximum allowed by law. Meaning possible big property tax increases for residents.

Enter the Governor’s new “property tax relief”.

The tax proposal increases money going to schools but does not increase the revenue limit. This means schools cannot spend any more. State aid is substituted in for property taxes.

This is a good trend. But it is not nearly enough. Even with the infusion of cash, property taxes will likely rise statewide and many board members will face difficult budget decisions.

It’s been since the mid-1990s that property taxes have actually declined. According to a recent Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance (WTA) report, back in 1997 the state added more than $1 billion to school funding. Property taxes fell 3.5% over the next two years.

This trend wasn’t sustained. As the state slowed increases to schools, property taxes again rose. Over the last 10 years school aid as a percent of tax revenue has steadily fallen. Recent data released by WTA show school aid as a percent of general funds fell from 44% in 2004 to 33% in 2014.

The biggest hit to schools came in the 2011-13 budget with a $1.6 billion cut in dollars available to schools. This cut included an 8% decrease in state aid. In the recently passed budget, new money was available. Increased tax collections added $1.7 billion in new general fund dollars. The Governor spent this new money and more. But not much of it went to schools.

The $100 million in school aid would be paid for from “surpluses”. But it is entirely unclear if such surpluses exist. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau earlier this year pegged the mismatch between money coming in and money going out at over half a billion in the red in the coming budget.

Todd Berry, President of the Taxpayer Alliance recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “We’re spending more in this year and next year than we’re taking in, and that’s a fact.”

Meanwhile, DPI analysts are scrambling to assess the impact of lost federal aid for schools. Is it wise to commit another $100 million in state tax money while the operations of the federal government are shut down and threatening financial Armageddon? Perhaps waiting a week to learn if Congress raises the federal debt ceiling would be prudent.

The Legislature is scheduled to meet in “Special Session” in addition to its regular Fall Floor Period to consider the new money to schools. Many questions remain about whether local schools will see any money or residents will see any change in the late December tax bill.

What I do know is the last budget used a bulldozer to gouge a $1.6 billion hole in school budgets and gave school districts a shovel to fix it.

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Does Wisconsin Want Out-of-State Companies Running Schools with Public Dollars?

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 October 2013
in Wisconsin

educationThe Senate Education Committee is having hearings on a bill that would allow for expansion of charter schools statewide without taking into consideration the fiscal impact on public schools. The proposed law, Senate Bill 76, significantly impacts local control and allows out-of-state companies to establish charter schools using taxpayer dollars. And dollar for dollar those funds will be taken from public schools.


MADISON - Do we want to encourage out-of-state companies to run local schools with tax dollars? This is the objective of a bill before the Senate Education Committee.

Katy Venskus of San Jose based Rocketship Education recently explained the objective of a bill to expand charter schools was “attracting high quality national operators.”

Folks often think of charter schools as a kind of magnet school – a specialized school the local school board creates to serve students with a special interest. For example a Montessori School uses a certain approach to teach young children. The school is created by the school board and operates under a contract or charter.

Charter school advocates who attended a recent Education Committee hearing explained school boards should be required to expand charter schools when the charter performs 10% better. (Better than what was unclear.)

Should Wisconsin allow charter schools authorized by a school board to multiply without the active decision of a local school board? Should universities, tech colleges, CESAs and other entities create public charter schools run by private companies?

Private companies already run some public schools in Milwaukee. Proponents want to expand this statewide. “Wisconsin’s process for out-of-state operators is very difficult to navigate,” testified Ms. Venskus from Rocketship Education.

At the heart of the charter school discussion was the way these schools are funded. Money to run independent or “2r” charter schools comes from school aid set aside for all public schools. The more money that goes into independent charter schools, the less money is allocated for all public schools.

DPI testified the taxpayer cost of independent privately run schools during this school year is $64 million. The state pays almost $8,000 a student for over 8,000 students in Milwaukee and Racine to attend independent charter schools. This cost is born by nearly every other public school district in the state.

A DPI spokesperson also testified Wisconsin residents will likely see an increase – perhaps significant – in property taxes “if non-elected charter school authorizers are expanded statewide”.

Senator Lehman expressed concerns the school board would not be able to authorize a charter school and say to the school, “we don’t want you to duplicate.”

This ‘automatic’ duplication without school board consent, even when the charter was an instrument of the school board, led to much conversation about a loss of local control.

Committee members expressed concern about the ‘automatic’ expansion of charter schools, even those originally authorized by a locally elected school board.

Several times during the hearing the conversation turned to the underfunding of public schools in the last several state budgets. When I brought up concerns for sorely underfunded rural schools that would lose even more money under this proposal, I was told by the Committee Chairman the hearing was about charter schools and not about the state budget.

Not considering how to pay for the statewide expansion of privately run charter schools is like talking about the color of a new car but not how to pay the car payments.

Senator Darling, author of the bill, suggested the solution to funding was “to increase the pie” of school funding. But there was no proposal before the committee to change the funding of schools. There was not even an estimate on the cost of this bill.

After the Senate hearing I spent time asking folks about their reaction to the plan to open the public checkbook wider for private firms to run public schools.

People reminded me there is no evidence private charter schools have any better academic outcomes than public schools when compared on a level playing field. “The real enemy of students' academic success is poverty,” a superintendent said.

Another told me, “This bill is the key for private business to open the door and the fiscal death knell to the students who want to continue to attend public schools.”

Wisconsin is not ready to turn over the state checkbook to private companies to run our public schools. Instead let us recognize poor students cost more to educate. Our focus should be on a fair way to pay for public schools. Not on siphoning off our local dollars for an out-of-state company to run a Wisconsin school.

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New Health Insurance Marketplace: 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, 30 September 2013
in Wisconsin

standing_hcThis week, Senator Kathleen Vinehout focuses on the Health Insurance Marketplace. The open enrollment for health insurance through the Marketplace begins on October 1st. Many people have questions about the Marketplace and where to access resources necessary to help them navigate through the Marketplace. Kathleen’s column offers links to resources to help people sign-up for health insurance.


MADISON - Now is the time to sign-up for health insurance! If you buy your own insurance or are uninsured, you will want to know about the Health Insurance Marketplace.

If you or someone you know receives coverage through the state’s high-risk pool (HIRSP) you will now need to sign-up for coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace.

If you or someone you know recently lost coverage through BadgerCare you will need to sign-up through the Health Insurance Marketplace.

The Marketplace sign-up period begins October 1, 2013. If you sign up in the next few months your coverage will begin January 1, 2014. This open enrollment period will last through the end of next March. After that you will be unable to buy individual health insurance until the October 2014 enrollment for health insurance coverage that starts in 2015. This is a very big change for folks who buy insurance on their own.

At the new online marketplace you can choose among quality private health plans. You can compare insurance options based on price, coverage, quality and other features. Clear information is available on plan premiums, deductibles, and out-of-pocket costs.

Health plans in the Health Insurance Marketplace offer comprehensive coverage, including doctor office visits, lab tests, maternity care, mental health, hospital visits, rehabilitation, emergency visits, prescriptions and children’s oral and vision care. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) also required free coverage for preventive care visits and services.

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) no plan may deny people coverage for pre-existing conditions. No plan may place a life-time cap on health expenses. Women must be charged the same rate as men. And there is a cap on how much you pay for out-of-pocket costs.

You may be able to get financial help to pay for your health insurance premium. Over 80% of people who buy coverage in the Marketplace will qualify for financial help. Credits will apply immediately to the plan you have chosen. This will make your premium less.

To find out more please go to www.healthcare.gov or www.cuidadodesalud.gov. You may also call the 24 hour hotline at 1-800-318-2596.

To determine an estimate of the premium tax credits you may receive go to http://kff.org/interactive/subsidy-calculator/.

Employers can find similar information tailored to small businesses at http://www.smallbusinessmajority.org/taxcredit-calculator/.

You can also use the calculator to find out if you or someone you know is eligible for BadgerCare. Because of state budget changes many parents recently received a letter telling them they will lose coverage. Parents making over $15,500 for a couple are no longer eligible for BadgerCare, and must sign up for a private plan through the Marketplace.

About 90,000 people are expected to lose BadgerCare coverage by the end of this year. In the counties that make up the 31st Senate District over 4,000 people are affected by this deliberate policy change by the Governor and the Republican-controlled legislature. This change did not have to happen and was not required by the ACA.

I’ve received many questions about how the ACA affects seniors. The new Health Insurance Marketplace does not sell supplemental Medicare plans. These plans will still be sold as they are today.

A big Medicare change is the closing of the “doughnut hole” - the limit on prescription drug coverage. By 2020 there will be no drop in coverage for prescriptions after you spend a certain amount. This change affects many Wisconsin seniors. Already seniors have saved more than $7 billion on expanded Medicare Part D – drug coverage.

Medicare was never designed to cover preventive services. This problem was fixed with the passage of the ACA. Key preventive services under Medicare are now free. These services include, for example, annual well visits, mammograms and colonoscopies.

Under the Affordable Care Act, American health care will recognize what others have known for a long time: it’s much less expensive to keep people healthy than treat them when they are ill.

Many people are afraid to sign-up through the Marketplace. Some unscrupulous groups try to deceive and confuse people. Arm yourself with information and share this information with your friends and neighbors. If you have questions don’t hesitate to call my office at (877) 763-6636.

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State Bill Takes Away Local Protections for Renters

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 September 2013
in Wisconsin

apartment-for-rentAnother attack from Madison on local control. Who is a Renter going to call?


MADISON - When a renter calls the city for help, local officials might have their hands tied under a bill that recently passed the Senate. The bill would not allow a local ordinance to govern renters and landlords.

Local officials are the first called in a dispute. This bill creates a situation where locals would not be able to resolve local problems.

For example, current law requires landlords in all but Milwaukee County to store evicted renters’ property at the renter’s expense. In Milwaukee the job falls on the sheriff. This bill would allow property owners to take or throw away evicted renter’s property even if the eviction is disputed and the renter just lost the case.

But if property is thrown away, a renter is going to call the sheriff and ask them to intervene.

The bill allows a car parked in the wrong spot to be towed by property owners. But an owner with a missing car is going to call police and report a stolen car.

If an unscrupulous property owner doesn’t disclose a lack of hot water, heat or electricity, local officials might receive a call from the renter who wants things fixed.

But the bill would eliminate local ordinances requiring property owners to disclose certain information to renters unless state or federal law required this disclosure.

At the same time, the bill removed state law that required owners give renters an itemized description of the condition of the premises at the time of check-in.

Instead, renters would be given a blank list. The renter must find any problem within the apartment or house, list it on the form, and, in 7 days, return the completed list to the property owner or the renter could be held responsible for any existing damage when they check out.

The bill would also require renters to pay the full cost of treatment for an infestation of bed bugs. Senator Erpenbach tried to amend the bill to create a fair and standardized way to resolve the bed bug problem. He argued Maine’s law had landlords paying for treatment of the building and renters disposing of any infected materials. The amendment failed on a party line vote.

The bill appears to change the role the Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) plays in protecting renters. DATCP wrote “the bill would remove DATCP’s authority over many landlord-tenant issues, which also would have the effect of removing the private right of action for those issues.”

I phoned DACTP to get a better idea of what this language meant. I learned renters’ consumer protection is written into administrative code. DATCP uses this to assist renters. Under the bill, it appears not only would DATCP lose the authority to protect consumers in certain cases, but consumers themselves would lose the ability to take the property owner to court.

There are a few protections left in place. These include return of a security deposit and the language of a lease. In what appears to be legal “never land” is protection from landlords who promise but do not deliver on needed repairs; disclosures to tenants including such items as water, heat and electricity; and prohibited practices like renting condemned property, unauthorized entry to a rental unit, automatic lease renewal and misrepresenting a rental property.

I spoke with several folks who represent tenants and they agreed the language of the bill was confusing. It may take court action to understand exactly what consumer protections are lost. It is very clear, however, local communities can no longer enforce their ordinances protecting renters.

The bill passed the Senate on a partisan vote. The bill now heads to the Assembly where a similar bill passed earlier this year. Left in Limbo are renters’ problems that need to be fixed.

“Most landlords do a great job,” an Eau Claire woman recently told me. “But 15% of them operate dumps.”

Renters who call their local officials need help in disputes. Local officials who get a call in the middle of the night don’t need their hands tied by state law.

If this bill becomes law, where does a renter go? Do they call the governor?

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Report Cards for Voucher 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, 16 September 2013
in Wisconsin

teacher_teachingThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about school accountability in Wisconsin, says YES to Report Cards for Voucher Schools!


MADISON - Report cards are coming out. Not for the children, but for schools.

These report cards help us know how our schools are doing and how schools can improve to help all students learn.

Should private schools that operate with tax dollars have the same report cards? What if that school is funded 100% or near that with tax dollars?

This question was the topic of a recent Senate Education Committee hearing.

Each public school will soon release a report card given by the state. The school earns a score based on performance in four areas including student achievement in reading and math, student growth, closing gaps with students with different needs, and career and college readiness. Factors like graduation, attendance and ACT participation are included in the last category.

State officials at the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) first released the report cards last year as part of a statewide school accountability system.

The system was developed two years ago in a task force chaired by, among others, the Governor and the Superintendent of Public Instruction. At that time leaders of both public schools and private schools who receive public money wrote about the importance of accountability.

We believe that every school enrolling publically funded students – traditional public schools, charter schools or private schools in the choice program – should be part of this new accountability system. (July 9, 2011 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Parents of students who attend private schools with state tax dollars will not read the school’s report card this year, or next year. Private schools are not yet required to complete the testing and other data collection used for the report card.

The state budget created a loophole to not require testing of these voucher students for many years.

Education Committee Chairs Senator Olsen and Representative Kestell want to change this. They introduced legislation to make good on the promise to keep all publically funded private schools accountable. They worked hard to bring uniformity to the measures used in the report card. They even asked the Legislative Audit Bureau to make sure all measures were uniformly and appropriately applied to all schools.

Despite earlier promises to the contrary, private school lobbying groups balked at turning over student test and other data to DPI.

Private school representatives complained collecting student test scores, graduation rates, absenteeism and other data would be burdensome. These groups called the accountability requirement “onerous and invasive” and expressed concerns over student privacy.

Senator Olsen told the committee, “No matter if you are public, choice or charter, if you get a check you need a check-up.” He explained both small public and private schools have privacy issues. For this reason federal requirements state if a group is smaller than 20 students no test score will be released.

Some Senators wanted to go farther in requirements for voucher private schools. Senators Lehman and Shilling wrote a bill to add a number of public school requirements to publically funded private schools. These measures include background checks, teacher licensure, similar graduation requirements, building inspections, and adherence to the state’s open records law.

Senator Lehman argued that both “inputs” -what goes into a child’s education, and “outputs” -that child’s performance - are the types of accountability taxpayers expect.

Senator Vukmir expressed concerns private schools were “ceding all power to DPI”. Senator Cullen responded by saying if a school is failing for six years it doesn’t make sense to put that school in charge of policing itself.

Most publically funded private schools are in Milwaukee. DPI testified 78% of students in Milwaukee private voucher schools are attending with taxpayer money.

It’s time taxpayers learned how well these schools are doing.

Lawmakers and the Governor should make good on their promise to hold all schools accountable. Soon you will see the report card for the local public school. Let’s make sure you can also see how well the students with taxpayer-funded vouchers are doing at the private schools.

As Heather Ross, a mom who testified at the hearing said to our committee, “Whoever pays the piper, calls the tune.” If taxpayers are footing the bill, they deserve to see the results.

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Public Education Starts Down Statewide Voucher Path

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 September 2013
in Wisconsin

back-to-schoolSenator Kathleen Vinehout writes about a community forum she attended on the future of our public schools. Participating with her was State Senator Dale Schultz, Julie Underwood, Dean of the UW Madison School of Education, and Jeff Pertl of the Department of Public Instruction.  The discussion focused on the challenges facing public education including the loss of state aid, substantial increases in poverty, and statewide expansion of the voucher program.


MADISON - Public education started down the statewide voucher path with the start of the school year across Wisconsin. While things might not look different on the outside, big changes are happening in the state’s public education system.

One of the biggest changes is the expenditure this state budget makes in taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. At the same time, over half of public schools will see no increase in state aid. Many of our rural schools will see the maximum cut – a bit above 15%. But private school parents around the state are looking forward to two infusions of public money into private schools.

For the first time in state history, private schools statewide are eligible for public dollars through vouchers. The program starts small: 500 students statewide in the first year and 1,000 students in the second year. But people on both sides of this debate predict the cap will be temporary. In addition, private school tuition will be a tax deduction for parents, costing Wisconsin taxpayers an estimated $30 million over the state’s two year budget.

I recently spoke at a community forum aimed at stimulating conversation about the future of public schools. Participants learned Wisconsin’s public schools are doing a good job in the face of many challenges.  Nearly 9 out of 10 public schools meet or exceed state expectations while only 4% are failing. But statewide, student poverty has substantially increased.

I shared with participants the story of my school district of Alma. Twelve years ago less than 2 out of 10 students were poor (as defined by eligibility for free and reduced lunch). Last year 4 out of 10 students’ families fell into this category. The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported 42% of Eau Claire district students are from economically disadvantaged homes – a 10% increase in five years.

Often, teachers use their own money to supply children with healthy snacks, school supplies, and warm clothing. A school social worker confided that 15 of her Middle School students are from homeless families who have exhausted all options for shelter.

The effects of poverty undermine children’s ability to learn. It takes more resources, financial and staff, to help economically-disadvantaged students keep pace with their peers.

Yet such aid to assist schools has steadily declined.

Jeff Pertl of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) explained to forum attendees how poverty impacts student performance. High poverty schools are often low performing schools. Students simply do not have resources to learn. Minority students are more likely to attend a poor performing school. This exacerbates the state’s achievement gap.

To address this issue, 20 years ago the state embarked on an experiment with voucher schools in Milwaukee. Questions still swirl around the success of this experiment.

While Milwaukee’s voucher program gave students more educational options, DPI data on 2011-12 Wisconsin Student Assessment Scores show Milwaukee voucher students are less proficient in both reading and mathematics than students in Milwaukee public schools.

The forum audience wanted to know the cost to public schools of the expansion of the private school vouchers.

Mr. Pertl explained on average the state funds 61% of the cost for public school students and 100% of the cost of statewide voucher and independent charter students. Although the voucher system was touted as a way to help poor students in failing public schools, two-thirds of the students who signed up for the statewide voucher program were already in private schools.

UW Madison School of Education Dean Julie Underwood added key facts to our discussion. The most profound statement came from my colleague Senator Dale Schultz whose comment should give us all pause:

“Look, I voted for charter schools at different times and choice schools. And why did I do it? Because I want our kids to have the best and I know that sometimes you gotta look outside the box for a new solution and it’s worth trying.”

“But I don’t quite understand – when the facts are in, when we know that our public schools are doing a superior job – we put the money in the other pot.”

“To me it looks like the largest middle class entitlement ever and how’s that conservative?”

 

(A tape recording of the forum is available on Wisconsin Eye at the link below: http://www.wiseye.org/Programming/VideoArchive/EventDetail.aspx?evhdid=7960 )

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Budget Myths Abound in Wsconsin

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 Thursday, 29 August 2013
in Wisconsin

walker_tells_bigThere are many myths concerning the 2013-15 State Budget just signed into law in June. Senator Kathleen Vinehout presents each myth and provides the facts about the budget - the state spends more; the state is left with a deficit and greater debt.


MADISON - “The State is spending less.” “This budget took a deficit and turned it into a surplus.” “Wisconsin has paid off its debt.” Which of these are true statements regarding the new state budget?

The answer is NONE of the above.

Getting information about what’s happening in Madison is one of the most common complaints of my constituents. The slow summer news cycle allowed writers and readers to begin to catch up on, for example, the plethora of policy unrelated to the budget.

Lost in most budget reviews are the basic financials – the fundamentals of the budget.

Myth number one says the state spending is less and implies the size of government is smaller.

But, according to numbers released by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, the 2013-15 budget spends $4 billion more than the previous. In fact, state spending is greater than it has ever been in Wisconsin’s history.

The new spending goes to a number of expensive new programs. Half of the $4 billion goes to health spending. But for first time in many years there are fewer people covered by state health programs. Nearly 100,000 people are expected to lose state health coverage by January. Not taking federal money for Medicaid expansion left the state budget and citizenry in worse shape.

Myth number two says this budget took a deficit and turned it into a surplus.

The opposite is true. A recent Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) report tells the story. The 2013-15 budget began with a small surplus. Tax collections are improved. Wisconsin is emerging from the recession. The state had a bit more money to spend.

But the recently passed budget spends more than it is projected to collect in revenue.

When spending is greater than revenue – a deficit exists. Lawmakers are bound by the state constitution to balance the budget.

To do this, budget writers carried money over from the last fiscal year to create a technically balanced budget. But when spending exceeds revenue the imbalance catches up with us in the next budget creating a “structural” (or built in) deficit.

A recent report from the LFB pegs this deficit at the end of the 2015-2017 budget at MINUS $545 million.

People are rightly confused about the difference between the deficit and the debt. Sometimes lawmakers use the terms interchangeably. But they are very different.

A deficit is a mismatch between spending and revenue - spending more than money coming in. Debt is borrowing and must be paid back. Spending more than money coming in can certainly lead to more borrowing. This is exactly what’s happening in Wisconsin.

The third myth says the state eliminated the debt. This is false. In fact, state debt reaches record levels in the 2013-15 budget.

Why? The budget increases borrowing by more than $2 billion. Almost half of this borrowing goes to transportation spending. In addition, debt payments not made in the last legislative session catch up to lawmakers.

When debt payments are not paid, interest adds up. In the depths of the recession, Governor Doyle delayed debt payments to gain cash and keep government going.

In the 2011-13 legislative session, Governor Walker did not pay an even larger amount of debt payments coming due. Because debt payments were not made more money goes to pay off debt in this budget than ever before.

I often hear smart budget decisions mean better times ahead. But delaying debt payments always has a cost. This budget pays that price in a greater percent of tax dollars going to pay off debt than ever before in our history. New borrowing only adds to the debt. As a result state debt reaches an all-time high of $14.7 billion - or about 101% of general tax revenue.

Another myth even state officials parrot is the only alternative to spending cuts is tax increases. This assumes everything in government is at peak efficiency. This is far from the truth.

Smarter budget decisions mean smarter spending decisions. An example is paying debt bills when they are coming due – so as not to add interest and penalties.

But to do that would not have allowed the “surplus” used to justify the modest but politically popular tax cut.

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