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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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Wisconsin Must Invest in Ending Addiction

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

drugaddict-youngThis week, we focus on the issue of Treatment Alternative Diversion or TAD. Studies show investment in TAD would save taxpayer dollars that currently go to incarceration.


ALMA - “You need to read this book,” the judge told me. “Then you need to get every other Legislator to read the book before you take another vote.”

The book was Clean written by David Sheff.

“Addiction is a preventable, treatable disease, not a moral failing. As with other illnesses, the approaches most likely to work are based on science – not faith, tradition, contrition, or wishful thinking,” writes Sheff.

David Sheff is a journalist whose son suffered from drug addiction. A decade ago he sought answers to help his son. In 2008 he wrote about his son’s addiction in A Beautiful Boy.

Clean is Mr. Sheff’s call to action to wake up, learn and act to “overcome addiction and end America’s greatest tragedy.”

Part of the tragedy is the great number of treatments that don’t work and aren’t based in science. Treatment of most illnesses has moved to evidence based practices or those treatments based in science. For the most part, the treatment of addiction has not.

Difficulties arise partly because of the nature of the disease itself. For example, denial is a symptom of the disease - making it difficult to diagnose. Relapse is part of recovery making it difficult to determine success.  Mental illness often contributes to addiction. Sheff writes at least a third of those with a psychiatric disorder abuse drugs or alcohol. Diagnosis involves accurately assessing underlying mental illness.

Some treatments do work. Effective treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing and dialectical behavioral therapy. DBT therapists assist clients in emotional regulation and distress tolerance.   Those with addictions can recognize cravings and tolerate them.

Misdiagnosing and mistreating addiction and related mental illness comes at a tremendous cost to the individual, the addict’s family and to our society.

Often those with addictions are sent to prison with court-ordered treatment for addiction and later released from prison without having received required treatment. It should be no surprise that roughly 60% of Wisconsin’s prison population is a repeat offender.

Failure to adequately diagnose and treat addiction costs all of us. For example, the recently passed state budget spends almost $100 million new dollars to renovate prisons and address the expected 2% increase in the prison population.

Over 60% of Wisconsin’s prison population is addicted to drugs including alcohol according to a 2009 audit by the Legislative Audit Bureau. The audit also found over 30% of inmates are mentally ill. Over three quarters of women in Wisconsin prisons are mentally ill.

The solution lies in correctly diagnosing and treating the addiction and preventing further crime.

Treatment Alternative Diversion (TAD) programs include drug and alcohol court, day reporting centers, mental health treatment courts and other initiatives. These programs are highly successful at reducing recidivism and treating substance abuse and mental illness.

Local courts in Western Wisconsin are among the leaders in alternative courts that work to end addiction in our communities. I recently spoke with individuals who work with those struggling with addiction. I learned how drug courts teach accountability, provide structure and save jobs, families and lives.

Yet the programs are underfunded. Few who are eligible are able to participate in the interventions.

During the budget debate I introduced an amendment to invest $75 million in TAD which would yield over $150 million in savings. Instead budget writers put a meager $1 million in new TAD spending. The Governor and Republican legislators who voted for the budget refused to recognize results that show the first million invested by the state in seven pilot programs saved almost $2 for every $1 invested.

Numbers from a 2011 study released by the Office of Justice Assistance project with a $75 million investment Wisconsin would cut annual prison admissions by nearly 40% and cut jail admissions by 21,000. Recidivism rates would fall by as much as 16% and crime rates would drop by 20%. There would also be a drop in the number of children in foster care.

Not quantified by the study are the lives and families restored. I now know what must be done, thanks to the judge who set my summer reading.

Take a look at this book. Then help me act to end addiction.

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Arcadia Faces Realities of ‘Small Government’

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 13 August 2013
in Wisconsin

arcadiaSenator Kathleen Vinehout of Alma writes about the reality facing many entities, including municipalities and counties, of small government. Deep budget cuts and shrinking resources make it difficult for state government to provide assistance to communities in need. Kathleen met with officials in Arcadia – one of those communities hit hard by flooding and by shrinking state government.


ARCADIA, WI - People were friendly but anxious. They’d come to a meeting with local leaders to learn about protecting Arcadia from flooding.

Arcadia is nestled in a beautiful valley. Water from the surrounding hills drains into the Trempealeau River that runs right through town. Next to the river is the sprawling international headquarters of Ashley Furniture.

Ashley’s spokesperson began the recent meeting by sharing jobs created and businesses supported: 4,700 jobs created in western Wisconsin. More than 670 local and regional businesses supported.

Local leaders nodded. Many in attendance owned companies that benefited from Ashley’s location.

The problem is how to pay for upgrades to dams, dikes and levees needed to protect the city from flooding when rains drained water from surrounding hills right into the center of town.

Everyone remembered summer storms of 2010 that flooded Arcadia. Company representatives made it clear if storms came again and the company had to be rebuilt it would be in another country. Not in Arcadia.

The company asked for $13 to $20 million to improve the levy along the river.

Congressman Ron Kind said pending legislation could help. The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act - passed the Senate but was tied up in the House because Republican Congressional leaders did not want to spend the money.

An Army Corps of Engineers official explained Corps programs and limits. Times are tough. Funding cuts had eroded the Corps’ building authority.

Local officials explained they did not have the resources to pay for the project. Upstream the Mayor of Independence explained he needed help too.

Digging out Bugle Lake in Independence would hold more water running off the hills. Better yet, put in erosion structures, grass waterways, buffer strips and other conservation efforts. Keep rain on farm fields where it could do some good.

But the Governor and Legislators who voted for the state budget cut back funds for farmer conservation efforts.

Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) officials did have money and were close to an agreement for another part of the project. But WEDC officials didn’t want state efforts washed away with the next big rain.

What was unspoken in the room but on everyone’s mind: elections have consequences. Folks were running up against the new world of smaller government that many of them had promoted. The easy political talk about “cutting government” had turned into real cuts to real programs they wanted and needed.

It is a lesson we all need to take to heart. Let’s be real and specific when we talk about budgets and taxes and spending. Be careful what you ask for. You may get it.

The reality of the budget is this: 85 percent of state spending goes to six priorities upon which most of us agree -- transportation, education, health, local government, prisons and our public universities.

Programs like farmer conservation and dam, dike and levy repair make up a small part of state government. That part is getting smaller. Therefore, there is little money to slow water coming through fields into the Trempealeau River. We need money to keep water on the fields to nourish crops and out of downtown Arcadia.

I came away from the meeting realizing once again that we are a community.

Workers depend on companies for jobs. Companies depend on workers to get the job done.

Everyone depends on the infrastructure created by government, a government that together we have created.

We all have a part in making political decisions. What we decide will shape the communities in which we live, making them better or worse places to raise a family, find a job, and run a business.

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Fairgoers Express Views on Money in Politics

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, 05 August 2013
in Wisconsin

supreme_corporate_courtThis week Senator Vinehout writes about a poll conducted at the Jackson County Fair regarding the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and money in politics.  Most fairgoers favored amending the constitution to change the Citizens United decision.  Across Wisconsin, efforts are ongoing to push an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that states inalienable rights belong to human beings only, and that money is not a form of protected free speech under the First Amendment and can be regulated in political campaigns.


ALMA - “Corporations are not people,” the Black River Falls woman told me. “People in corporations already get a vote and a chance to speak out just like the rest of us. Giving corporations a vote and a chance to speak out means those people are getting two votes. That’s not fair.”

That statement summarized the opinion of three quarters of the fairgoers in Jackson County who chose to stop and vote on the statement “corporations are people.”

“We should amend the constitution to limit money in politics” garnered support from nearly 9 in 10 participants in the voluntary poll. A nearly unanimous 98% of fairgoers voting in the poll agreed with the statement “Every citizen should be encouraged to vote.”

Although unscientific, the poll does reflect attitudes across the United States related to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision which held that corporations and unions can spend as much money as they like in elections. The court decision opened the door for the “super PACs” of the 2012 presidential race.

In a later 2012 court ruling, Knox v Service Employees International (SEIU) Local 1000, the high court limited the ability of unions to use money in campaigns making the inequality in contributions between unions and corporations even greater.

Immediately following the high court decision on Citizens United an ABC News Washington Post poll of over 1,000 adults found 8 in 10 opposed the court ruling and 72% favored legislative action to reverse the court decision. People of all political persuasions were opposed to the decision including 73% of those who strongly agreed with the Tea Party’s position on issues.

A 2012 Greenburg Quinlan Rosnex Research poll found 56% of respondents agreed the constitution should be amended to change the Citizens United decision and nearly as many agreed that corporations should not have the same rights as people.

Fairgoers told me corporations’ “speech” is not the same as individual’s speech. The dollars corporations can sink into campaigns far outweigh most people’s ability to contribute to campaigns. Because of the 2012 rush of corporate money in campaigns people feel more distant from and more cynical about the operations of government.

But this feeling has not kept people from being involved in efforts to change things.

Efforts are afoot across Wisconsin to amend the U.S. Constitution to change the Citizens United decision. The group, Move to Amend and others around the state are organized to push an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that states inalienable rights belong to human beings only, and that money is not a form of protected free speech under the First Amendment and can be regulated in political campaigns.

I recently co-sponsored a bill that would call for a statewide advisory referendum on the Citizens United decision.  Voters would be asked if they support action by Congress and the State Legislature to amend to the Constitution to state that only human beings are endowed with constitutional rights, and money is not protected speech.

Most fairgoers hadn’t heard about formal efforts starting the process to amend our constitution. But they were eager to share their opinion about money in politics.

Many felt money from outside the state of Wisconsin should be banned from campaigns. Others felt outside groups should not be allowed to campaign. Still others wanted the veil of secrecy lifted from so-called “independent expenditure” groups – those private third party groups with appealing sounding names that spend so much money in campaigns.

Overall, citizens wanted to express their opinions and wanted elected officials to listen. And they wanted to learn, in an unvarnished way, what was really happening in Madison.

I put together a slide show about the state budget and brochure summarizing provisions of the budget. Fairgoers took time to look at the printed version of the slide show and offer their opinions on the state debt and the deficit.

When I left late one night, a woman stopped me and said, “I really appreciate you being here – you’re the only state elected person I got the chance to speak with. Thanks for coming.”

To everyone who stopped to vote or to offer an opinion I say thanks! I value your opinion!

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See You at the Fair!

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, 29 July 2013
in Wisconsin

kathleenvinehoutThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about her visits to area county fairs. While at the fair, Kathleen visited the exhibits and chatted with the exhibitors. She also got to listen to the pulse of the communities through her conversations with fair goers.  Politics and local issues are as much a part of the fair as cotton candy and carnival rides.


ALMA - The rain and wind didn’t stop Elaine from coming to the Trempealeau County Fair. She brought the quilt she and her 90-year-old mother finished together.

“It’s special to me,” she told me. “I want to show it off!”

Across Wisconsin folks are picking the best of the flowers, quilts and corn stalks. Youngsters are whipping up tasty treats from scratch. Teens are washing cattle, training horses, and arranging flowers.

It’s fair time.

County fairs have a deep tradition in our state. Waukesha County claims the oldest county fair in the state. In fact, this first county fair was held before Wisconsin was even was a state!

The old agricultural expositions, as they were sometimes called, became a place for city folks to meet country dwellers and for farmers to show off their prize crops and cattle. Fairs helped grow the dairy industry. During fair-time farmers learned the latest in new agriculture techniques and competed against each other in categories from corn to quilts.

Today competition is focused more on youth. But many county fairs provide an open class for arts and crafts, food, and agricultural products – giving people of every age a chance to show off their best.

As a 4-Her, I lived for the county fair. Now I enjoy talking with youngsters and sharing their enthusiasm.

Recently I spent several days at the fair and learned things have changed a bit.

Instead of sugar cookies, the 5th graders are making granola bars. In addition to tied quilts, youngsters are involved in robotics. Digital photography replaced the old 35mm film.

But the enthusiasm of youth and the warmth of the community have not changed.

Fairs are a great time to catch up with constituents and listen to the pulse of the community.  It is also a time to discuss the current challenges facing our communities.

This summer I listened and learned more about sand mines from all sides of the issue. I learned from the technician who worked in the propellant plant in Jackson County. I listened as the local official shared concerns about balancing the needs of many constituents. And many of the people who live adjacent to mines shared worries about land, sand, roads, air and water.

I heard from those proud of their work to make the fair a special event. For example, the fair supervisor of youth projects who wanted to share the importance of 4H. She made sure to tell me the youth she’d worked with – over 40 years – never ended up in jail.

Lots of folks wanted to talk about state politics. Everyone had an opinion. Lots of folks had advice. Pretty much all of them agreed we needed more common sense in Madison.

When it came time for judging, it was the youth who stole the show. The hours of preparation made a difference in the show ring. From the shining coat of the lop-eared rabbit to the Holstein heifer that stood picture perfect every time she stopped.

I carry the memories I could not capture on film; like the girl who spent most of the afternoon walking her tall Suffolk sheep all across the fair ground. The sheep was fashionably decked out in a lime green Spandex sheep tube – something like a coat.

Even more fashionable was the fair queen and her attendant. They were dressed in their finest – but with a twist. Both young women were attired in lovely dresses but the queen had on her barn boots and the attendant wore her cowboy boots.

Only at the fair!

Wisconsin has more than 75 fairs in every corner of the state. Coming up soon are the Jackson County Fair in Black River Falls and the Buffalo County Fair in Mondovi both the first weekend of August.

Don’t forget the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis August 1st to 11th.

You can find more information at the Department of Tourism website:

http://www.travelwisconsin.com/things-to-do/entertainment-attractions/fairs-festivals

or the Wisconsin Association of Fairs website: http://www.wifairs.com/wifairs.asp

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Rural Wisconsin: "Don’t Lose the Home Phone"

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, 22 July 2013
in Wisconsin

kathleenvinehoutThis week Sen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about the problems with phone coverage in rural Wisconsin. Often in rural areas cell coverage can be spotty or simply nonexistent. People rely on their land-line phone to communicate with the rest of the world. Legislation was passed in 2011 that ended the requirement of a “provider of last resort” protection for consumers so Kathleen teamed up with AARP to reinstate this requirement.


ALMA - “My cell phone doesn’t work at home, so here’s my home number,” I told the constituent. “My home phone is the best way to reach me.”

If you live in rural Buffalo, Eau Claire, Trempealeau, Pierce, or at least eight other northern or western Wisconsin counties you or your neighbors likely have poor cell coverage. A recent analysis of the coverage maps of 5 major firms shows customers in at least 12 Wisconsin counties face a lack of cell coverage.

Most of us in rural counties have adapted. We don’t expect the cell phone to work and we don’t bother calling cell numbers for rural neighbors. But what happens if you pick up the old landline and it’s dead?

That’s what residents in Fire Island, New York are now facing. And if big phone companies have their way, your landline could be gone by the end of this decade.

A recent story in the Washington Post detailed the problems local residents of Fire Island faced after Hurricane Sandy. Following the storm, residents discovered their home phone company, Verizon, refused to repair torn and waterlogged phone lines.

Customers surrounding Washington, D.C. complained of aggressive Verizon sales representatives forcing customers to abandon their copper line home phones in return for expensive newer technology. Customers who want to return to their copper line phone cannot switch back.

According to the National Regulatory Research Institute, Wisconsin was one of 21 states that deregulated phone companies between 2010 and April 2012. The study detailed similar legislation pending in another 14 states. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate “bill mill”, is a driving force behind telephone deregulation.

The predominant carrier in Wisconsin, AT&T, lobbied for the deregulation bill that passed early in 2011. One provision of the new law ended the 100-year-old agreement between customers and the utility that brought reliable phone service to every part of Wisconsin.

When the deregulation bill was debated in the Senate I authored several amendments to protect consumers including one to keep the requirement for the “provider of last resort.” This meant if no other phone company provided service for you, your local phone company couldn’t come in and pull the plug.

Unfortunately my amendment failed and the new law passed that allowed companies to quit serving areas regardless of whether or not customers have other options. This part of the new law went into effect in early May 2013.

At the time the law passed, proponents argued a federal law protected people from losing local phone service. But last November, AT&T petitioned the federal government to remove those requirements.

According to the July Washington Post article, AT&T wrote that 70% of customers in their 22-state region chose to use wireless or internet based voice services. The company claimed landline phone service was “obsolete”.

But for many of us having a landline phone is not just a convenience; it is critical for commerce, health and safety. Rural electricity can be unreliable, law enforcement is far away, internet can be dial-up and fax machines are vital to rural commerce.

Many rural businesses could not function without a landline phone. Companies rely on the phone for orders, connecting with vendors and approving credit card transactions or checking bank balances.

Our Wisconsin countryside is aging.  Sometimes elderly folks need heart monitors or Lifeline services. But these services don’t work over cell phones. The industries of rural Wisconsin, agriculture and mining, top the list for dangerous occupations. The landline phone can mean the difference between life and death.

Ambulance response time may already be 20 minutes; driving somewhere to find cell coverage means more precious time lost when lives are on the line.

The health and safety of our neighbors should concern us all. This is why I teamed up with AARP Wisconsin to draft and promote legislation that would reinstate the “provider of last resort” law.

This summer I am working with advocates to bring attention to potential problems in rural Wisconsin without a landline phone and the need for this legislation.

Please spread the word. And give your neighbors a call - while you still can.

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Art Fairs Serve Up a Slice of Wisconsin!

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

art-fair-madisonThis week, Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the slice of life in Wisconsin that can be seen in the work of Wisconsin artists. Kathleen includes links to upcoming events and the Wisconsin Tourism webpage that provides a complete listing of art and cultural events in the state.


MADISON - When I asked my sister about a cake for her birthday, she smiled and said, “I’d rather have pie … and art.” So we sat down to blueberry pie and then headed off to an art fair.

Wisconsin has over 215 art fairs. The diversity and creativity is limited only by Wisconsin ingenuity which I’ve decided is limitless!

There is no better way to see what a creative human mind and skilled hands can achieve than by observing art and speaking directly to the creators.

Art fairs are an opportunity for artists to find a home for items they fashioned. Often working through the winter to produce art, many artists spend the summer driving to art fairs to sell their wares.

There is something intimate and rare about the relationship between an artist, her cherished work, and the new owner who finds extraordinary delight in owning a splendid piece.

I attended the 55th Annual Art Fair on the Capitol Square which attracts 450 artists with another 120 or so artists “Off the Square”. The definition of art was broad and included textiles, jewelry, sculpture as well as paintings, photographs and prints. And I found art that stepped outside the boundaries of classification.

There were framed pictures of 3D vegetables and fruit that jumped right out of the frame; 3D mosaics made of individual tiles of ceramic and the life-sized metal moose sculpture that nodded its head at delighted patrons. Quite an addition to any Wisconsin garden!

Wisconsin art is a slice of Wisconsin life. The beauty of our state is reflected in the creative designs of the artists. For example the husband and wife team of Pfipsen Olivova Studios in River Falls used their inspiration from Mississippi River to create beautiful jewelry with the flowing lines of water.

Steve, a UW-RF graduate, met his lovely wife Katia when he was studying glassmaking in the Czech Republic. They merged their lives and created a successful artistic collaboration. They said “Wisconsin and its people inspire you to do art.”

A slice of Wisconsin life shows up again and again in the work of her artists; whether it be the shoreline of Lakes Superior and Michigan; the rolling hills of western Wisconsin or the city skylines of Milwaukee and Madison. Farm life reigns supreme: cows, barns, fields, chickens, cheese, fruit and vegetables…lots of vegetables. I could certainly see our love of gardening expressed through the eyes of the artists.

I was also impressed by the use of recycled materials. I saw sculptures made of scrap metals; creatures made of recycled tins; stained glass surrounded by old barn windows frames – complete with many layers of white wash; metal flowers made with old spoons; even clocks made of forks and spoons.

Artists from other states captured life in Wisconsin. Like the Florida man who said he knew more about our state than a lot of us. He used old junk toys to make 3D sculptures. He also collected images of Wisconsin icons, like the Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha, “Hamburger Charlie” from Seymour and of course Bucky Badger, to create a collage any Wisconsinite would treasure.

If I’ve inspired you, be sure to visit the Stockholm Art Fair, July 20 from 10am to 5pm at the park along the river. You can also visit the Spirit of the St Croix Art Festival, September 21-22 in Hudson.

The Spirit of Wisconsin is alive among Native American artists who gather along Milwaukee’s Lake front September 6-8 at the Indian Summer Festival – the state’s largest Native American cultural event. You can find out more at www.indiansummer.org

Several fall art tours offer a glimpse into how Wisconsin artists bring art alive in their studios and galleries. The Fresh Art Tour in western Wisconsin is October 4-6 (www.freshart.org) and the Earth, Wood and Fire Artist Tour is October 26-27 (www.earthwoodandfiretour.com).

To learn more, try the state Department of Tourism website www.TravelWisconsin.com and click on the art and culture link. You will see Buffalo County’s own Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden and Museum in Cochrane featured on Wisconsin’s Tourism website!

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Bowing to Political Pressure, UW pulls the plug on WiscNet

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, 08 July 2013
in Wisconsin

wisnet-logoThis week, State Senator Kathleen Vinehout talks about the future of WiscNet, the University of Wisconsin's successful internet service, and the lobbyists from GOP allied commercial telecommunications companies who want to eliminate it from bid competitions.


MADISON - “It’s a sad day when political pressures from telephone company lobbyists keep us from working together? It’s frustrating, yet fascinating,” read a recent statement from WiscNet officials.

At issue is the decades old relationship between the University of Wisconsin and WiscNet and whether, despite separating from UW, WiscNet will be allowed to contract with the University to provide internet services.

The internet was developed by researchers and education institutions. The Department of Defense and many universities contributed to its creation. To this day universities share data on super-fast connections created and maintained through cooperative efforts of the universities themselves.

WiscNet was a natural outgrowth of work at the UW and its desire to share the internet with public and nonprofit entities. At least 38 other states have similar research and education networks. Many networks operate under the auspices of the state universities and today continue to provide services to local county and municipal governments, health care institutions, libraries and schools.

The thinking is: sharing services lowers the cost of government.

WiscNet evolved into a nonprofit that served 500 members including three quarters of public schools, all libraries, technical colleges, state agencies, the legislature and the court system.

A 2012 Legislative Audit Bureau report showed WiscNet accomplished its goal to bring low-cost internet to public entities. WiscNet fees were substantially lower than published commercial prices especially for high bandwidth users. The audit also showed the network functioned in ways that revealed its UW parentage – sharing staff and using the UW personnel, benefits and accounting systems.

WiscNet’s success attracted the attention of commercial telecommunications companies, especially AT&T. The telecommunications giant is a big player. AT&T spent almost $1 million lobbying state legislators in the last session with 21 lobbyists working on their behalf - more than half were employees. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, last year the company spent $17 million nationwide and ranked 10th out of over 4,000 organizations that lobbied in 2012.

Lobbyists found fertile ground in the State Capitol for germinating their argument that the public sector should not compete with the private sector. Slipped into the 2011-13 budget was a provision that stopped the UW from being a partner in WiscNet. But internet services provided to the UW could still be competitively bid and – presumably- if WiscNet won the bid in open competition they could be awarded a contract like any other company.

This is exactly what happened this spring - in an open and competitively bid process, WiscNet was awarded a contract to provide services for the UW Madison. Part of the justification for this selection was that WiscNet’s initial equipment cost was 85% less than AT&T’s bid. The university claimed it was following the Supreme Court decision that “insures[s] that the public receives the best work or supplies at the most reasonable price”.

In June, AT&T threatened the University in a letter. The UW responded noting they followed the letter of the law in the procuring services from WiscNet; but would be withdrawing their award to WiscNet citing “business and political considerations—including the potential for ongoing appeals, litigation and legislative changes”.

Instead of competitively bidding services, UW Madison will now “begin transitioning to the operation of our own network.” This action prompted the Senate and Assembly higher education-related committees to call a public hearing to further delve into operations at the UW.

All the uncertainty surrounding WiscNet concerns many local superintendents. I spoke with a few local schools districts and learned some schools are ending their relationship with WiscNet and others are leery about the future and looking for options.

One local Instructional Technology Director said he was watching carefully and wondering if his job truly was to bring the lowest cost, best service to his school district.

People complain about the cost of government and encourage schools and local governments to work together. But when the 8,000 pound gorilla shows up in the Capitol and complains they can’t win a bid, often legislators are too eager to change the rules.

Things have gone too far when big companies threaten the state because they’ve lost a bid.

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Wisconsin Needs Smarter Budget 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, 01 July 2013
in Wisconsin

capitol-takekidsThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout  writes about budget priorities and how she crafted an alternative budget that would leave the state with no structural deficit and a strong balance at the end of the biennium.


ALMA - “Two years ago, Wisconsin made tough choices,” wrote Robert from Mondovi. “The deficit was eliminated, costs were controlled and Wisconsin was back on the track to prosperity.”

The Buffalo County man wanted “relief for the hardworking people of Wisconsin”.

With that in mind, I took a close look at state finances and discovered problems. I talked with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysts and read their papers. I sharpened my pencil and considered options.

The recently passed $70 billion budget spends $4 billion more than the last budget. It is estimated to create a half a billion dollar deficit going into the next budget - even though we started with more money. The economy is improving. Tax revenues are up - a little less $1.5 billion.

Lawmakers who voted for the budget (I was not among them) argued some of the new revenue be returned to taxpayers. Tax rates were changed in this budget. Average taxpayers making $45,000 a year will save about $84 in 2014; about $1.60 a week.

But this budget reaches historic debt levels. As debt increases, more tax dollars go to make debt payments; sort of like using your paycheck to pay the credit card bill.

In the last legislative session instead of making ‘credit card’ payments coming due, Wisconsin postponed paying some debt bills. This was not the first time, but it was the largest total debt postponement.

My mother always said, “Actions have consequences.” She was correct. In this budget the debt not paid comes due with a higher payment - making those ‘credit card’ payments a bigger share of what the state bought with tax dollars.

The rule financial experts follow is no more than 4% of tax money should be spent on debt payment. Ideally debt should be 3 to 3.5% of total general revenue. In the new state budget, debt payments are above the danger zone at 5.25%.

Fewer dollars are left for new investments in the ‘meat and potatoes’ of state government: K-12 and higher education, courts and prisons, local government, and health care.

The result: public schools, the UW, courts and prisons, and local government all received cuts or very modest increases but much less than their share of the $4 billion in new money.

Health received three times its share - over half - of the increase in new money. There will be more health spending but fewer people receiving health services. Why? The Governor won’t accept the federal Medicaid dollars to cover people making between $11,500 and $15,300 a year - costing Wisconsin more including tens of millions of dollars in administration contracts.

So, what would happen if Wisconsin accepted the federal Medicaid money, expanded Family Care (which saves money), invested in drug courts, mental health, schools, and the UW. What if we scrapped the tax rate cut and instead invested in the state’s rainy day fund?

To answer those questions, I put together an alternative budget. I restored money to eliminated agriculture programs and gave all the ‘bed tax’ money back to nursing homes. I fixed a deficit in childcare provider funds and restored cuts to courts and the UW. I paid cash for some new construction projects.

To address two problems facing our state – deteriorating K-12 education and addiction and mental illness - I invested in “Fair Funding for our Future” proposed by State Superintendent Tony Evers and made a big down payment on drug courts and mental health treatment.

On the revenue side, I eliminated new private school state spending and several expensive new initiatives. I didn’t buy 80 new vehicles, got rid of new tax breaks and tax rate changes, and made changes in health administration. I set aside over $600 million in the state’s checkbook which wiped out the structural deficit going into the next budget and had almost $400 million in cash left over.

Wisconsin must wisely invest our $4 billion in new money, set some aside and not be too quick to give folks a $1.60 a week tax cut. This is a much smarter approach and in the long run could provide that ‘relief’ Robert wanted for Wisconsin’s hardworking people.

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Governor Should Veto Last Minute Attempt to Take Cap Off Private 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 Tuesday, 25 June 2013
in Wisconsin

teacherThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout’s column focuses on voucher schools.  In a last minutes amendment included in the Assembly version of the budget, the Assembly majority created a loophole in the agreed upon cap on enrollment in the voucher school expansion.  Kathleen explains the impact of this provision and calls for a veto.


MADISON - Senators had debated budget passage for nearly eight nonstop hours. In a little over six hours the two-year state budget would be headed to the Governor.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca beckoned me off the Senate floor. “There’s something you need to know,” he said. “Something in the budget no one seems to understand.”

A few of us gathered in a nearby conference room. “There are two ways a private school can get state tax dollars,” Representative Barca explained.

If a “choice” private school is in Milwaukee or Racine, the school can enroll any number of students. The state would pay tuition, up to a new dollar limit, for these students.

New to this budget was a statewide expansion of public money for private schools. Twenty-five schools would be chosen across the state. Together these schools could enroll up to 500 students in the first year of the budget and 1,000 students in the second year.

But, in a last minute amendment, a loophole was created.

A third option allowed any of the 112 “choice” schools in Milwaukee and Racine to move around the state and enroll an unlimited number of public school students in their private school at taxpayers’ expense. These schools would not be subject to the enrollment ‘cap’ of 500/1,000 students.

Listening to the explanation I was concerned this last minute amendment would cost more money, leaving less to our struggling public schools. I also worried private for-profit schools could set up ‘satellite’ schools across the state. Others expressed similar concerns.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers issued a statement saying, “Without any advance notice or debate, Assembly Republicans passed a last minute amendment that will increase the cap on statewide vouchers by 40 percent in each year.” He pegged the total cost of the state cost of the private school program at $420 million over the next two years.

Senator Schulz who voted with Democrats to remove the voucher expansion said in a statement, “When my Senate colleagues negotiated the statewide expansion of the voucher program with the Governor and the Assembly, a hard cap on enrollment was the deal breaker. It appears the deal is already broken.”

Public money for private schools has not proven to be an effective use of taxpayer dollars. The over twenty-year-old program should be reevaluated with the same rigor applied to our public schools. Instead a coalition of the politically well-connected sought to expand the reach of private, sometimes for-profit, schools across Wisconsin- beginning with suburban Milwaukee and Racine.

Lobbying groups hired three former Assembly Speakers and, according the Democracy Campaign, spent nearly $10 million over the past 10 years- much of this in the last election cycle.

Beneficiaries of the expansion include the School Choice Wisconsin Board Chairman, Mr. Andrew Neumann who oversees operations of several voucher schools.

Andrew’s father, Mark Neumann started his first “taxpayer-funded school with 49 students and in eight years has mushroomed to nearly 1,000 students in four schools,” according to a 2010 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.

The article went on to report that Mark Neumann, a former gubernatorial and US Senate candidate, “operates three religious based schools in Milwaukee, a fourth nonreligious school in Phoenix and has plans to build clusters of schools across the country”. By 2010, the Journal Sentinel reported, Neumann’s Hope Christian schools received nearly $22 million from state taxpayers.

It’s hard for western Wisconsin residents to understand the intense marketing and efforts of enticement that come with public spending for private schools. What once began as an effort to help poorer families escape failing inner city schools has turned into a rush for taxpayers’ cash with little oversight or accountability.

I urge the Governor to veto budget provisions that allow taxpayer funded ‘franchise’ private schools to expand statewide without limits. These majority party efforts to slip changes into the state budget without debate or knowledge by the minority party or the press is a bad practice.

The state budget is already loaded with nearly 100 items of unrelated policy. Like each of those record-breaking number of policy items, this new expansion of private, franchise schools needs its own public vetting.

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Walker's “Eat Dessert First” Budget

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 19 June 2013
in Wisconsin

walkerSenator Kathleen Vinehout gives an overview of provisions included in the AB 40, the 2012-15 State Budget Bill and the impact of some of those provisions. Spending in this budget does not decline and includes the revenue lost to the state as a result of the tax cuts, leaving less revenue for the state’s largest financial investments: local government, education, health care and corrections. It also increases debt and leaves a structural deficit for the future.


MADISON - “I love to eat dessert first,” the Prescott man said as he munched on cake. He smiled and said, “The problem is you don’t have room for the good things you need to eat.”

The first course of dessert in the state budget is a tax cut for about seventy five percent of tax filers. For a taxpayer making $30,000 a year the tax cut would be about $50 a year and for someone making over $300,000 about $1,500.

Tax rates would be collapsed - income at the $14 an hour range would be taxed at the same rate as income made at the $150 an hour range.

“It’s hard to be against a tax cut,” my colleague told me. “But the rest of the budget suffers because of this cut.”

The tax change would permanently remove about $600 million of state revenue. Because spending is not reduced – this budget spends $4 billion more than the last – a half a billion dollar structural deficit is created down the road.

The second course of dessert is almost 100 policy changes unrelated to the state’s finances that, in many cases, reward special interests or benefit certain lawmakers. One example is elimination of the UW sponsored Center for Investigative Reporting; another is overturning a Supreme Court decision on lead paint.

The real meat and potatoes of state government are state operations and funding sent to our local communities, colleges and universities. The state budget affects many parts of our lives. For simplicity’s sake I’ll mention just a handful of major programs with a few details on what’s in the budget.

Six items make up 85 percent of the state budget: health, K-12 education, corrections, transportation, the UW system and local government. Each of these areas of spending deserves a thorough look at how to improve operations. Unfortunately most of the discussion on the budget hasn’t focused on the meat and potatoes.

Health spending increases by over two billion dollars despite the Governor’s proposal to end BadgerCare for nearly 100,000 people. A simple change in eligibility would have saved over one hundred million in state funds. Instead the state spends more and fewer people are covered by Medicaid.

K-12 education receives a slight increase, but a large part of this goes to fund a statewide expansion of public spending for private schools.

The prison budget adds millions more to account for an increase in the prison population. Drug court, community policing and other programs to reduce crime and addictions are eliminated or in jeopardy.

Money for roads and bridges is dwindling, as autos are more efficient. As gas tax collections fall, lawmakers consider other ways to fund transportation. Instead of solving this long-term problem, the budget transfers nearly half a billion from the general fund – leaving less to fund K-12 schools, UW and other state expenses.

Local government and the university system receive very little additional money leaving questions about how these entities will cut services as they try to cover increasing costs.

Long-term finances are stable but precarious. The economy is improving. Tax collections are expected to increase. But financial forecasts are inconsistent. For example, budget writers built into the budget several hundred million in new tax collections. Yet a recent forecast by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve shows Wisconsin’s economy contracting over the next six months.

This budget continues to increase debt. Not enough money is put away should the state face another economic down turn. Following the law and setting aside 2% of the general fund as a cushion in the state’s checkbook could improve finances. Instead, the Governor changes the law and keeps a mere half a percent as a financial cushion in the reserve fund.

Every parent who tells their children not to eat dessert first knows there will not room for the meat and potatoes. They also know there’s going to be a crash from eating all that sugar.

Wisconsin’s fiscal sugar crash is likely to show up in the spring of 2015 when the next Governor and lawmakers pick up the pieces set in motion in June of 2013.

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Freedoms Lost Are Hard To Regain

Posted by Dr. Steve Kagen, M.D.
Dr. Steve Kagen, M.D.
Dr. Steve Kagen, M.D. is a physician and a former congressman from Appleton.
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on Monday, 17 June 2013
in Wisconsin

reid_ribble_congressAPPLETON - In 2011, Rep. Reid Ribble voted to give away our right to privacy and, last week, we see its shameful consequences.

With Ribble’s permission, federal agents searched and seized personal telephone and electronic communications. In a single vote, Ribble erased what thousands of patriotic Americans died for — our right to privacy and our freedom of speech. As events in Washington show, freedoms lost are hard to regain.

The excuse offered by Ribble to allow the government to spy on all Americans was based on ignorance and fear. His statement reads in part, “While I have reservations with programs that put civil liberties at risk, the provisions that we voted on yesterday are carefully balanced to protect our vital, constitutionally protected civil liberties. These provisions permit law enforcement engaged in foreign terrorism investigations to carry out their duties without curtailing our rights. I’ve heard from law enforcement officials, other members of Congress and leaders from both parties that these tools have prevented attacks on our country and are necessary in our fight against terrorism.”

Without curtailing our rights? Ignorance is no excuse, for there is no reason to give up our freedoms. Ben Franklin agreed: “Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.”

Thomas Jefferson also warned about ill-informed politicians: “If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Human history has proven there will never be an honest excuse for giving away our freedoms. Never in Wisconsin’s 8th District history has an elected official been so easily duped into giving away our civil liberties.

By contrast, this same issue arose in the House of Representatives late at night on Aug. 4, 2007. Due to time constraints, I was not permitted to speak against a similar bill to deprive us of our Fourth Amendment rights. Instead, I submitted this handwritten statement:

“Our nation has faced many challenges in our history, and none more serious or deadly than our battle against violent extremists. Make no mistake, we must do whatever it takes to defend America and keep hostilities from our shores. We must be tough and we must be smart. We have the tough part right, and now more than ever we must be smart.

“The bill now before the House asks the American people to give up our Fourth Amendment rights without firing a single shot, even when the facts reveal we already have laws to allow intelligence agencies to protect all of us.

“The Senate-sponsored bill trades our Fourth Amendment rights for a false promise of security. It pretends to offer our people the reassurance that the current attorney general — a man few believe to be honorable or honest — will exercise good judgment in defending all of us.

“Our nation has lost faith in this administration’s competence and has lost faith in the ability of President Bush to understand and obey the rule of law. Having lost our faith in this president, we must not lose our constitutional rights as well. We must defend our nation, and we can continue to do so under the rule of law.”

Elections are about choices and consequences, and sadly the election of a man with poor judgment resulted in the loss of our right to privacy and a diminution of our freedom of speech.

It will be difficult to regain our freedoms, but by working together, we will. Next election, vote for someone else, someone with good judgment who will fight to restore and protect all our rights and freedoms.

 

— Dr. Steve Kagen is an Appleton resident who represented Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District from 2007 to 2011.

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Do State Lawmakers Really Know All the Details of Walker's Medicaid Plan?

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, 10 June 2013
in Wisconsin

walker-rejects-med-moneyWill the truth on Walker's medicaid blunder get out of the Madison-Milwaukee echo chamber? Republican lawmakers are fooling themselves and the public if they believe Walker's talking points on health care reform, says Senator Kathleen Vinehout in her latest column on the Governor’s plan for Medicaid that was affirmed by the Joint Finance Committee.


MADISON - “We want to make things better,” one of the Finance Committee members recently told his colleagues. This Medicaid plan, he said, “Protects taxpayers, strengthens the safety net and lowers total cost to taxpayers.”

What actually happened would cost the state a hundred million more dollars than full Medicaid expansion, drop coverage for 84,000 people and leave almost half a billion of federal dollars on the table in this coming budget.

Only half of those who lost Medicaid will likely ever sign up for private insurance. When they do, their federal cost to taxpayers will be $3,000 more per person than if they had stayed on the Medicaid program.

Some lawmakers argue the safety net will be strengthened by opening up the Medicaid doors to all those who make less than $11,500 a year for a single person; that those who lose Medicaid are easily covered under the exchange and in the long run taxpayers save.

The problem: private insurance costs more to buy and more to administer. Poor people are unlikely to sign up for something they can’t afford.

Fiscal Bureau analysts caution the “take-up” rate, meaning those poor families who actually sign up for private insurance, will be much less than the near perfect number estimated in the administration’s budget.

This concern is justified. According to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study from last summer, an estimated one half of those losing Medicaid will never buy private insurance.

Those who do will receive federal tax credits and subsidies. Because of the increasing cost of subsidies and credits, CBO estimates federal spending would rise by roughly $3,000 per person by 2022. This is the difference between exchange subsidies of about $9,000 per person and estimated Medicaid savings of roughly $6,000.

Some analysts are quietly grateful at least the Governor decided to allow those up to 100% of the Federal Poverty Limit (FPL) - $11,500 for a single person - to receive Medicaid. Anyone below 100% of FPL is not even eligible for subsidies or tax credits. This limited lawmakers’ choices.

The majority of the state’s budget writing committee affirmed the only choice the Governor had if he wanted to continue to argue that he still opposed “ObamaCare”: cover those with incomes at or below 100% of FPL and drop (or phase out) Medicaid for parents who now receive Medicaid and make up to twice the FPL.

Simply put – if you make under $11,500 as an individual or $15,500 as a couple you will be eligible for Medicaid. If not, you’d better find out about the exchange because you can’t get on Medicaid.

Three additional factors add sting to this decision. Unlike the federal law, the Governor’s plan does not modify your income by dropping 5% to determine eligibility. Second, the plan changes the law to require that depreciation be counted as income. This is a big change for farmers who argue depreciation is not real money they can save but an adjustment on tax forms. Third, 18 year-olds are no longer covered unless they are still in high school or technical college and will graduate by age 19. Foster children are still covered until age 26.

Republican leaders appear to be following the Arkansas approach of partial Medicaid expansion. However, if Arkansas is the model, the Governor might have duped Republicans on the Finance Committee.

To move towards the Governor’s plan, the feds require the state to seek a waiver of federal law. If Arkansas’ case is prologue, Wisconsin may be required to treat those dropped from Medicaid as if they are still on Medicaid - with choice of at least two qualifying health plans and “wrap-around” Medicaid-like services if benefits are less or cost sharing is more.

Correspondence from the feds to Arkansas makes it clear the feds will evaluate each waiver on a case-by-case basis. Budget language makes it a clear this waiver must be sought and followed. This leaves a lot up the air.

Especially for elected officials who want to hit the campaign trail saying, “I said ‘no’ to ObamaCare.”

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Vouchers Pass, While you were sleeping...

Posted by Chris Larson, State Senator, District 7
Chris Larson, State Senator, District 7
Chris Larson (D) is the Wisconsin State Senator from the 7th District in Milwauk
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on Wednesday, 05 June 2013
in Wisconsin

MADISON - At 3 o'clock in the morning, in the dark of the night while most of Wisconsin was fast asleep, Republicans in the Joint Finance Committee voted to expand statewide taxpayer-funded vouchers for private education in our state.  This vote occurred after weeks of closed door backroom meetings with special interest groups.

The Senate Republican plan for statewide voucher expansion is even more extreme than what Governor Walker initially proposed.

It was bad enough that Scott Walker wanted to expand vouchers schools into 9 school districts throughout the state, but now EVERY community will see voucher expansion.

This voucher scheme forces all families to pay for their neighbor’s children to attend private schools, which have been proven to under perform compared to our neighborhood public schools and are not held accountable to the taxpayers.

In addition, taxpayers whose districts are forced to accept private school vouchers will see their property taxes increase and their local school aids cut to pay for a separate under performing, unaccountable school system.

Please contribute today to show Republicans you do not support their plan to expand vouchers schools to all of Wisconsin’s school districts.


We can do better in Wisconsin. Instead of doling out millions of taxpayer dollars to private school special interests in the middle of the night, we can invest in our children's future by supporting our public schools.  The only way to ensure that happens is by taking back the majority in the Wisconsin State Senate.

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Coming to Wisconsin? Dog the Bounty Hunter?

Posted by Peter Barca, Assembly Democratic Leader, District 64
Peter Barca, Assembly Democratic Leader, District 64
Representative Peter Barca is a lifelong citizen of Kenosha and Somers. He curre
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on Wednesday, 05 June 2013
in Wisconsin

As you are aware late night backroom deals are alive and well in the Wisconsin State Capitol.

With the state budget now on its way to the Assembly and Senate for approval, it is safe to say that at least Dog the Bounty Hunter will be celebrating this recent development, while the middle class and the economy will continue to suffer.

While you were sleeping last night, the Republican controlled Joint Finance Committee approved extreme motions, one of which included permitting a private bail bond system to be implemented in Milwaukee and four other counties.

Commercial bail bonds have been banned in Wisconsin since 1979 and faced near universal opposition from judges, lawyers and law enforcement. This opposition continues today on the basis that bail bonds are ineffective and a threat to public safety.

Please help us fight against this measure with your contribution of $100, $50, $25 or $10. Republicans should not be allowed to let special interests trump the safety of Wisconsin’s citizens.

Other major motions approved exclusively by Republicans on the JFC and further undermine the middle class were:

  • Income tax cuts of $651 million that will primarily benefit the wealthy or top earning 1% of taxpayers—not the middle class
  • An expansion of taxpayer funded, unaccountable private school vouchers across the state, which DPI estimated could cost nearly $2 billion annually
  • Public school students will see an increase of only $300 per student over the next two years after suffering historic cuts of $1.6 billion in the last budget. This cut created the surplus that is now being used to bailout private school vouchers and fund tax cuts for the wealthy

You can help us stop these radical attacks on Wisconsin’s middle class by contributing $100, $50, $25 or $10. Your contribution will help ensure that we have the resources to stand up to Republicans.

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