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Wisconsin's Budget Deficit: Let’s Pay the Bills First

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, 15 September 2014
in Wisconsin

scott-walker-clapsSenator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the recent reports of a structural deficit going into the next biennial state budget, her conversations with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau and agency reports showing shortfalls in Medicaid and Transportation funds. These fund shortfalls are not included in the structural deficit reported by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

MADISON - “I don’t want another cent from the state until you guys pay the bills,” the business-owner from Durand told me. “I am tired of hearing about tax cuts and deficits.”

“I want all the bills paid: schools, roads, Medicaid, the tech colleges, the debt, all of them paid. Then talk to me about giving me my money back.”

News of the rising structural deficit going into the next state budget has many people offering advice about budgets. People aren’t happy about talk of a new round of tax cuts in the face of an expected $1.8 billion budget shortfall.

Many are asking whether the projected ‘surplus’ that justified the last tax cuts was real. Most everyone is convinced ‘tax cuts’ really mean “vote for me and pay for it later.”

Why does the state give away money when local government hasn’t gotten its fair share in 20 years?” an Eau Claire woman recently asked. She read about local officials considering a registration fee on vehicles.

“They need money to plow the streets. We end up paying more when the state does these tax giveaways. Why doesn’t the state just give the city what it needs to keep up the roads?”

I recently met with Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) staff to get to the bottom of the state’s fiscal problems. The Bureau is the nonpartisan arm of the Legislature that advises lawmakers on budget matters. I learned revenue numbers – tax receipts collected by the state – are down. Corporate income tax receipts are particularly down – over 9% below budget estimates.

New tax cuts to certain business took a toll on money used to pay the state’s bills. For example, reduced taxes on manufacturing and ag businesses are estimated to cost over $50 million just in this past budget year.

The state has bills that are sum sufficient – must be paid in full regardless of whether or not they are over budget – such as the state’s fast growing Medicaid program. These bills are not figured into the recently released shortfall numbers. Earlier this summer the Department of Health Services (DHS) reported the Medicaid program was over $90 million in the red.

Part of the budget problems stem from an ideologically motivated decision to not take several billion in federal funds that would free up hundreds of millions in state cash that could be sent to schools, cities and counties.

Budget problems don’t end with the state’s general fund budget – the part of the budget that pays for health, education, the UW, prisons and local government. There is also a serious gap in the state’s Transportation Fund.

Not paying bills today has long-term impacts on services we take for granted, like schools. Many superintendents are forced to delay maintenance and capital improvements. One superintendent showed me a budget in which he had zero dollars put aside for capital improvements.

Governor Walker and legislators who voted for the past two budgets took over $1 billion cumulative out of public schools over the past four years- at a time when they spent more than $4 billion in new money over the last budget of Governor Doyle.

The effect of spending cuts to our communities might not be seen right away. There’s a lag between passing the state’s two-year budget and witnessing the effect of a lack of state funds on local services. At first these cuts may show up in small ways: new towel fees for sports, higher prices for school lunch, reduced city pool maintenance, fewer snowplows on the road, and higher fees for city water.

But over time, the effect of fewer state dollars and the resulting delays in maintenance turns into higher property tax bills when, for example, schools go to referendum to pay for maintenance or to simply cover the costs of operations.

Over the years, a community can become a less desirable place to live. Local elementary schools close. Class sizes are bigger. Roads crumble. Pools close.

The Durand businessman ended his recent advice by saying, “If you give away money you need to pay bills, it’s going to cost all of us more in the long run”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Senators Demand Answers to Walker’s $1.8 Billion Budget Deficit

Posted by Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert is the Publisher of the Northeast Wisconsin - Green Bay Progressive.
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on Tuesday, 09 September 2014
in Wisconsin

walker_tells_big_oneThe Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) on Monday estimated the budget for state government will face a nearly $1.8 billion shortfall for the next two-year budget.

MADISON - The expected shortfall for the next two-year state budget starting in July has risen to nearly $1.8 billion, the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported Monday. The report paints a dire picture of Wisconsin's finances under the leadership of Governor Scott Walker.

These new budget numbers prove that Gov. Walker has not been honest with us.

Despite having had budget surplus that came at great expense to our public schools and local communities in the form of reductions to shared revenue and local road aids, and the thousands of Wisconsin residents who find themselves without health care, Walker’s Administration has squandered that surplus leaving us with both an actual and structural deficit.

As noted in the LFB Memo, the $115 million shortfall exceeds the 0.5% statutory trigger requiring action by the Secretary of the Department of the Administration and possibly the Governor and the Legislature. Unless corrective action is taken the structural deficit is likely to reach or exceed $1 billion.

Because this budget deficit will have short-term and long-term implications on the residence of Wisconsin, on Monday four Wisconsin Senators, including our Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), demanded in writing that Gov. Walker address this crisis and outline all the decisions he might make that will impact Wisconsin families and communities.

The memo asks Walker: "Will our neighborhood schools take another funding hit? Will our streets be plowed so people can go to work? Will more students be denied financial aid to attend the UW or State technical College? These questions need to be answered sooner rather than later."

The Senator’s memo went on to request “that you provide us with the specific actions you intend to take to resolve this fiscal crisis including but not limited to which programs you intend to cut, by how much, how your cuts will impact the services they receive from their government and when you intend to act?”

The memo concludes “There is no positive way to spin our state’s perilous financial position. Despite the claims made by the Walker Administration and others a deficit that exceeds the trigger for emergency action and sets the stage for a billion plus structural deficit is not good news.”

The Walker campaign continues to run glossy ads trumpeting the "success" of the Walker Administration and Walker himself continues to dodge responsibility for the crisis, saying that "increased revenue" could erase the deficit.

dave_hansenAccording to Senator Dave Hansen of Green Bay:

“With what seems like each passing day the economic news for Wisconsin under Governor Walker and the Republicans seems to get only worse:

  • 37th in the nation for job creation.
  • Last in the Midwest for job growth.
  • $281 million revenue shortfall.
  • $115 million budget deficit.

"And now this:

  • A nearly $1.8 billion structural deficit.

"When Governor Walker ran for Governor he promised to get rid of the structural deficit, balance the budget and create 250,000 jobs.

"Instead we got some of the biggest cuts to public schools in the entire country, deep cuts to our UW campuses and state technical colleges and cuts to local communities to help fund police and fire protection and repair local roads.

"In return Wisconsin’s economy is failing and we’re facing a nearly $1.8 billion structural deficit that will cost the average family $1,200 over the next two years.   With this latest news from the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau the results are in: Governor Walker and the Republicans have not only broken their promises, they have failed Wisconsin.”

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Decriminalizing Bribery And Money Laundering

Posted by Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe is the founder and president of Blue Jean Nation and author of Blue
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on Tuesday, 09 September 2014
in Wisconsin

money-behind-politicsMADISON - On what planet does anyone think there is not enough money in politics, not enough special interest influence, and too much public awareness of the buying and selling of our government?

Well, on Earth there is Rudolph Randa and the Five Supremes. It's been the better part of a half century since a rock and roll band could get away with a name so lame, so they must be judges.

In 2010 the five-member majority on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and other interest groups can spend as much as they want to influence American elections. And then earlier this year the court doubled down on its infamous Citizens United decision and struck down a key federal limit on campaign contributions made by individuals.

In a country of well over 300 million people, just over 1,200 individuals reached the $123,000 limit on overall donations to federal campaigns in the 2012 elections. The ruling majority on the high court found intolerable the way the law cramped the style of 0.000003% of the nation's population and invalidated that law.

A month later Wisconsin's $10,000 annual limit on overall donations from individuals for state and local elections experienced the same fate. Fewer than 300 individuals had managed to bump up against the state limit in 2010 and 2012 elections combined, including 173 living outside Wisconsin. Just like that, five one-thousandths of 1% of the state's population had their ability to legally bribe state lawmakers increased exponentially, and they are taking full advantage.

Now this week Randa orders Wisconsin election officials to stop enforcing a law limiting how much candidates can collect from political committees run by special interest groups, parties and legislative campaigns.

Randa is the judge who also ordered a halt to the latest John Doe investigation into political corruption in Wisconsin. He ruled that there is nothing illegal about candidates and interest groups coordinating their election activities.

"Coordination" sounds abstract and mundane and benign. What Randa actually blessed is money laundering. What is under investigation is apparent conspiracy to get around legal limits on political donations as well as disclosure requirements by steering money intended to aid a candidate for state office to a tax-exempt "social welfare" group that does not have to publicly report the origins of its money.

If the skewed judgment of Randa and the Five Supremes stands up over the long haul, Americans will be left with a right to free speech that is proportionate to the size of their bank accounts, two parties joined at the billfold, and a tiny fraction of 1% of the population fully empowered to lord over the rest of us.

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Farmers ask ‘Where’s the train to ship my grain?’

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 September 2014
in Wisconsin

railroad_engineSenator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the delays Wisconsin farmers face in shipping grain to market.

MADISON - “The farmers are coming to me saying ‘we need drivers to get the corn to market. We need barges and trains to get the harvest to market.’” Barb Gronemus recently told me. “Kathleen you need to pay attention to problems with shipping grain.”

Former State Representative Barb Gronemus might be retired, but she’s still on duty answering the phone and making calls. One of those calls was to alert me to a growing problem farmers are facing getting grain to market. I began researching the situation and found former Rep. Gronemus was spot on.

Increased oil and sand shipments in the Midwest are delaying grain shipments. Some say the railroad companies are playing favorites because the oil industry pays a premium. Farmers worry they are losing money as their grain sits in storage instead of being transported to market.

Last month, the USDA predicted a record harvest in 2014. With abundant rain and cooler temperatures, corn yields are expected to top last year’s record with over 14 billion bushels according to the Wall Street Journal. The USDA also estimates a record soybean harvest in the next few weeks.

Recent studies conducted at the request of elected officials in North Dakota and Minnesota show significant losses to farmers because of a failure by rail companies to move grain.

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalryumple recently called the grain delays in the upper Midwest “an emergency situation” as he urged federal regulators to use their power “to provide an oversight role” as farmers struggle to get grain to market in a transportation system overburdened by the oil industry.

North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp released a study she commissioned from North Dakota State University showing her state’s farmers lost over $66 million in four months because of delayed grain shipments. Researchers estimated a loss of over $95 million for delays in shipping the 2013 crop - which continue through the end of the year. No estimates were made for the 2014 crop.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton also urged federal action to aid farmers.

In a letter to the feds, Dayton asked that a study conducted for his administration be part of the National Grain Car Council’s agenda:

“We recently calculated that Minnesota farmers suffered losses of $109 million from March through May of this year…The study will highlight for the Council the dire circumstances that Minnesota farmers face and the need for increased accountability and clarity from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and the Canadian Pacific (CP) Railroads.”

Minnesota’s governor further wrote that the feds compelled the railroad companies to publically report their progress on reducing the backlog in grain shipments. Farmers were promised by the railroad companies “matters would be different in this harvest season” and “transparency would be the new normal.” Yet, the mid-August filing with the federal government accounted for only 10% of the grain cars within the BNSF failed to address the backlog of grain shipments.

Federal officials are concerned CP cannot fill 30,000 requests for rail cars for grain and other products by October. In a New York Times article from late August federal sources reported the requests and a backlog of 1,336 rail cars for BNSF and nearly 1,000 for CP.

Wisconsin farmers suffer when grain can’t ride the rails. I could not find estimates on losses to Wisconsin farmers similar to the North Dakota and Minnesota studies. But local farmers and grain dealers are concerned.

Local farmers also expressed concerns that barges and trucks are filled with sand and the sand headed for the oil fields takes up valuable transport space for grain.

Yet, Wisconsin officials have made no mention of the impending crisis.

It’s time Governor Walker and Agriculture Secretary Brancel join our Midwestern neighbors in calling for federal action to put a priority on grain shipments. It’s also time Wisconsin researchers provide data on the potential loss to Wisconsin farmers if grain can’t move out of the state.

We don’t want Wisconsin farmers dumping grain because nobody’s answered the question, “where’s my train?’

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State’s Own Tax Collectors Undercut Walker Balanced Budget Claim

Posted by Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert is the Publisher of the Northeast Wisconsin - Green Bay Progressive.
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on Saturday, 30 August 2014
in Wisconsin

scott-walkerThe Walker Administration tried to hide the bad news by delaying the release of the final revenue numbers putting the Fiscal Year 2014 budget on a pace to be $115 million in the hole by next June 30.

MADISON - Wisconsin tax collections for the past year came in 2 percent short of estimates, the state Department of Revenue reported Thursday, news that puts the state's budget on track to be out of balance next year.

The figures show the state collected $281.2 million less for the fiscal year that ended in June than was anticipated by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. That puts the two year budget to be on a pace to be $115 million in the hole by June 30.

The Walker Administration tried to hide the bad news by delaying the release of the final revenue numbers for Fiscal Year 2014. The delay lead to several State Senators, including Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), to demand release of the numbers in a letter to Mark Huebsch, Walker’s Secretary of Administration on August 25.

A shortfall of this size will have a significant impact on the State Budget process, beginning with the agency budget proposals which are already being developed, and could lead to cuts in existing services. Such budget shortfalls also have a magnified impact on the long term structural deficit already run up by Walker. For example, a $100 million shortfall could lead to a structural deficit of $1.042 billion over time.

Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature have cut taxes by nearly $2 billion since Walker took office in 2011, including $500 million in March, a fact they've trumpeted on the campaign trail. Walker has also repeatedly claimed credit for ending the deficit in his ads as the justification for many of his actions against public workers and schools.

dave-hansenIn a statement on the new State Budget Crisis, Senator Hansen said on Friday:

"This is the worst possible news. The size of the shortfall is even worse than expected-far worse.

Under the Governor's and the Republicans' failed leadership we now have a $281 million deficit, we are lagging our neighbors in job growth and family incomes are falling behind.

Not only are we dead last in job creation in the Midwest since the Governor took office, but he and the Republicans have driven our state finances into the ground while our neighbors pass us by.

Minnesota for example has a $168 million surplus, they eliminated their structural deficit and they are leading us on job growth.

Under Governor Walker and the Republicans Wisconsin is clearly not moving forward."

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Local Schools See Fewer State Dollars While Private "Voucher" Schools Win Big

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, 29 August 2014
in Wisconsin

teaching-studentsSen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about the impact of shrinking state revenues for local schools districts while private “voucher” schools are receiving historically high per pupil state aid.

The 2013-15 State Budget set the private “voucher” school per pupil state aid at $7,856 for high school students and $7,210 for K-8 students. At the same time many school districts in the 31St Senate District are receiving far less state aid per pupil.

MADISON - “How is it possible that private voucher schools can receive almost four and a half times the state funding per student as our public school district receives in equalized aid,” Pepin School Superintendent Bruce Quinton wrote me.

As a new school year begins, students and parents see changes; for example, increased meal costs, larger class sizes, retiring teachers not replaced and fewer teachers’ aides. There are fewer janitors and delayed maintenance; longer bus rides and fewer field trips; fewer music and art classes.

Many public schools are forced to do more with less because lawmakers who voted for the last state budget increased state tax dollars to private schools. Nearly half of Wisconsin’s public schools will receive less aid this school year than the last – including many of our local schools.

Eau Claire received the largest dollar amount cut statewide – over $2.3 million while Pepin and Alma received the largest local percentage cuts - over 15%. At the same time, state aid per pupil going to private ‘voucher’ schools reached its highest point in state history.

In his letter, Superintendent Quinton noted the difference between amounts of state aid for Pepin to that of private schools: for the 2014-15 school year Pepin receives $1,667 per student; public tax dollars to private ‘voucher’ schools are $7,856 per high school student and $7,210 per K-8 student.

“Pepin Area School District taxpayers will pay an additional $70,119 in taxes to educate children in other districts this school year,” Mr. Quinton wrote. “I cannot comprehend why taxpayers are willing to subsidize a private voucher school education system, especially when research indicates that private voucher schools perform at best as well as the public school system and in many cases below their public school peers.”

A memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) detailing figures from the 2013-14 school year show that Pepin’s state aid payment per pupil was $4,559 less than the per pupil state aid payment made to private ‘voucher’ schools.

The effects of reduced state aid for schools are many and include lower salaries for staff. The Eau Claire School District learned their base salaries fall below the 50th percentile of the market’s base salaries. This makes it difficult to attract and retain top quality staff.

A study released by the Wisconsin Budget Project, an arm of Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, recounts the effects of several years of slim funds to local schools. “As the new school year approaches, Wisconsin schools face significant challenges, including class sizes that have grown faster than the national average, an increasing number of students living in poverty, and a reduction in state support for education.”

Fewer state dollars means higher property taxes as schools unable to make ends meet head to referendum.

Voters in Mondovi, Altoona, and Black River Falls face a fall referenda vote to raise property taxes to pay for building improvements or, for Mondovi, school operations. Voters in Black River Falls will decide, among other projects, whether to replace the ‘temporary’ trailers which housed elementary students for many years.

Voters in Eleva-Strum passed a referendum to exceed the revenue limit under threat of “massive budget deficits” that would lead to reduction in funds for a school psychologist, janitors, a library aide and a bus route. The district is also considering closing elementary schools in Eleva and Strum.

Resolving problems facing local schools will require a shift in state policy. A majority of lawmakers must realize Wisconsin cannot afford two parallel school systems. Without significant increases in taxes we cannot use state tax dollars for both public and private schools. One will suffer while the other thrives. We can see this happening already in the Milwaukee area.

State Superintendent Tony Evers proposed changes to the school aid formula that would address some of the difficulties facing rural schools. In addition to his proposed changes, sparsity aid - which I created in the 2007-09 budget - must be expanded. There is no other aid that directly assists suffering rural schools with no strings attached.

Public education is the key to prosperity. Our future depends on our investment in our children.

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Improve the Economy? Find Ways to Get Money in People’s Pockets

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 August 2014
in Wisconsin

peopleSenator Kathleen Vinehout writes about raising the minimum wage. At nearly every event she attends, someone mentions the need to increase the minimum wage similar to action taken by Minnesota. Legislation to increase Wisconsin’s minimum wage was introduced but failed on a partisan vote. Other states have taken action to increase their minimum wage and found it benefited not only the workers but also the economy.

ALMA - “If there is one thing you could do to help it would be to raise the minimum wage.” A worker told me. She worked the last 8 years for a company that barely paid her $8.00 an hour.

“I’m the only breadwinner in my family. We can’t survive on my salary.” At $8 an hour the Eau Claire woman makes a little too much to be eligible for BadgerCare. She would gladly buy health insurance if she could afford it. But most of her money goes for basic living expenses: food, rent and fuel. Even car upkeep is a luxury.

A mom from Eau Claire’s south side told me about her daughter who is a teacher. “She doesn’t make enough. She works so hard and really cares for the kids. But she was driving on bald tires because she didn’t have enough money. I worried every time she got into the car.” Tears streamed down the mom’s face.

This summer I’ve heard more about low wages than ever before. Across Wisconsin wages have stagnated. A June/July 2014 report released by Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance confirms Wisconsin wages trail the nation:

Average wages here have trailed the nation’s for years, but the gap has widened in recent years. Average wages in Wisconsin were 14% below the US average in 2013 compared to 10.8% below in 2003.

As with income and wages, employment growth here has also lagged. During 2000-13 job growth nationwide averaged 0.8% per year, vs. 0.3% here.

In a separate publication dated late July, the Taxpayers Alliance reports personal income, while improving compared to the US, still trails the nation’s average:

Part of the reason for lagging personal income is average earnings, which at $48,681 were 10.4% below US levels ($54,681) in 2012. Wisconsin earnings were also below the averages in Michigan, Minnesota, and especially Illinois, but still led Iowa by a slight margin.

Raising the minimum wage is a topic of much discussion among local people this summer. At nearly every gathering I’ve attended voters brought up the topic and asked me to support something similar to Minnesota’s law.

Last April, Minnesota lawmakers reached agreement on raising the state’s minimum wage. Starting this month, Minnesota’s minimum wage will increase over a 3-year period to $9.50 for large employers and $7.75 for small employers. The new law provides that by 2018, Minnesota’s minimum wage will be adjusted for inflation. Should the recession return, the law gives Minnesota an option to suspend the indexed increase in the minimum wage.

The new phased-in minimum wage increase has Minnesota leading the region. This spring Connecticut and 8 other states joined Minnesota in raising their minimum wage. Connecticut used a phased-in process similar to Minnesota’s: beginning at $8.70 and ending January 2017 at $10.10.

USA Today quoted Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy as he signed the new law: “Increasing the minimum wage is not just good for workers; it's also good for business. This modest increase will give working families a boost, and it will contribute to our economy by getting just a little more money into the pockets of people who will spend it in their communities."

According to the National Council of State Legislatures, as of August 2014, 23 states and Washington, D.C., have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Wisconsin joined 37 other states in introducing legislation to raise the minimum wage. I joined my colleagues in supporting the bill, which was defeated in a partisan vote last January. Federal efforts to raise the minimum wage have also been unsuccessful.

Increasing the minimum wage would help many struggling families. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports federal efforts to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 would benefit 17 million workers, largely women. Just under half - 47% - work full-time. The average minimum wage worker brings home half of the family’s earnings.

If we really want to help people in poverty and reward them for hard work, I suggest we raise the minimum wage – in phases – to $10.60. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics $10.60 an hour would take us back in real dollars to the minimum wage of 1968!

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Use New Federal Money For Badgercare to Help Workers & Lower Premium Costs

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
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on Tuesday, 19 August 2014
in Wisconsin

healthcareSenator Vinehout writes about the savings to the state if the Governor and majority of Legislators had fully implemented the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA). She had asked the Legislative Fiscal Bureau to do a new estimate updated from the figures provided during the 2013-15 budget debate.

ALMA - “I’m so glad to see you,” Mary from Eau Claire told me at a recent neighborhood gathering. I asked how she was doing.

“It’s hard,” she admitted. “I work 32 hours a week. I make $8.00 an hour. I tried to get more hours but they won’t let me.” Her husband, Tom, lost his maintenance job at the university. He’s a 23-year Army Reserve veteran but there’s no pension and no new job in sight.

“My twin sister lives in La Crosse. I love her dearly. I haven’t seen her since Christmas. I’d love to visit her but when I get all the bills paid, I don’t even have $20 for gas to get me there and back,” Mary said. “And, I don’t have any health insurance. What if something happened to one of us?”

Mary and Tom (not their real names) aren’t eligible for BadgerCare and can’t afford a single new expense. The couple falls through the cracks of Wisconsin’s health insurance safety net. Hitting bottom with an unexpected medical expense would devastate them – and hurt all of us.

The holes in this safety net could be patched. Mending the net would help Mary, Tom, and couples like them while also bringing down the cost of health insurance for all the rest of us.

Mending the net would also make a big difference in the state’s ability to balance its books.

According to State Health Facts compiled by Kaiser Family Foundation, about 14% of those in Wisconsin between age 19 and 64 do not have health insurance.

Some of the uninsured found insurance through BadgerCare and some through the federal Marketplace. But others who were covered by BadgerCare are now without coverage.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported that of the 62,000 plus people who lost BadgerCare in April, less than a third found health insurance in the Marketplace by mid-June. Looking at the same data, Wisconsin Council on Children and Families analyst Jon Peacock reported, “I’m not optimistic that a very large portion of the roughly 38,000 people whose [health insurance] status is unknown have gotten private insurance outside the Marketplace.”

Peacock concluded these new –likely uninsured – people will “make it harder to reach the Governor’s goal of cutting in half the number of uninsured Wisconsinites.”

Under the Governor’s changes to the BadgerCare program, eligibility for most adults is limited to those who make under 100% of the federal poverty level – that means an annual household income of $11,670 for a single person. This limit is increased - for a single person- by more than $3,800 under the federal Affordable Care Act. And as family size increases, so does the income limit.

Under Wisconsin’s current BadgerCare program the federal government pays 59% of the cost of those covered by the program. However, the Affordable Care Act provides states additional dollars to cover 100% of “newly-eligible” groups for calendar years 2014-2016, 95% of costs in 2017, 94% in 2018, 93% in 2019 and 90% in 2020 and every year after. Those who voted for the most recent state budget turned down the additional federal funds.

I recently asked the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) what the difference in spending would have been, compared to current law, if Wisconsin had fully implemented the federal health law.

Just in the current budget, the state would have saved $206 million (in general funds) and covered another 87,000 people. These numbers are substantially higher than the original estimates made by the LFB during the budget debate. This is, in part, because the state saw higher than expected enrollment in BadgerCare by the very poor.

Recent numbers show taking such action to implement the federal health law would save over $250 million in the next budget. Our Medicaid program is currently on track to run over $200 million in the red. Taking money offered by the feds is clearly the fiscally prudent action.

But more important is our moral obligation to help couples across the state like Mary and Tom.

By helping them, we help ourselves: every uninsured person who gains coverage helps lower insurance premiums for the rest of us.

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Do Not Call! Stopping those Pesky Direct Marketing Calls

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 August 2014
in Wisconsin

telephoneThis week, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about the Do Not Call List and changes to that list which started this month. The state consolidated its Do Not Call List with the federal Do Not Call Registry maintained by the Federal Trade Commission to make things easier for those registering their phone numbers and save state dollars.

MADISON - A gentleman called my office on behalf of his sister. She was receiving calls from salespeople even though she registered her phone with the Do Not Call List. His sister was feeling harassed by a particular company that kept calling her at all hours. “Where do we turn to get help?” he asked.

Wisconsin has maintained a Do Not Call List for many years. Registering your phone numbers on the list keeps away pesky direct marketing calls. But Wisconsin’s Do Not Call List required individuals re-register their phone number every two years.

Beginning this month, the state Do Not Call list was consolidated with the Federal Do Not Call List maintained by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The list also became permanent. Once a phone number is on the list, there is no need to put the number back on the list every two years – as was the case under the state system.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection (DATCP) will continue to oversee the enforcement of rules and investigation of complaints. Direct marketing companies in Wisconsin must still prove they comply with the federal law. The law also prohibits companies from using fictitious names or misrepresenting their identity, location or affiliation.

The state established the Do Not Call list in 2001. Folks were required to give their phone number and zip code to DATCP every two years. During that time, direct marketers could not make “cold calls” or calls without any prior business relationship, to the consumer. Calls to current clients, calls from non-profits and political calls were exempt from the law.

Some have attempted to include political calls on the list – something I support – but this legislation has not yet been successful.

The law also prohibits making pre-recorded telephone solicitations and forbids a call if a customer asks a business in writing to stop making calls.

In 2008, the Wisconsin law was changed to forbid calls to cell phones and changed again in 2012 to forbid unwanted text messages to phone numbers on the list.

I voted in favor of the new law consolidating Wisconsin’s Do Not Call List with the federal list. People complained to me about their Do Not Call List number receiving calls only to find out they needed to register the number again – an unnecessary hassle.

Wisconsin joins several states including Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois that moved to the national list while keeping oversight and enforcement at the state level. The reasons include the ease at registering numbers, the permanence of the list and the lower cost to states.

Merging with the federal Do Not Call list saves the state around $185,000 per year. Those dollars will be used for enforcement and consumer education.

Telemarketing calls is the number one complaint fielded by state consumer protection investigators. Digging through details of complaints, I often find the reason for the unwanted calls can be traced to the 2-year limit on the Wisconsin list. Hopefully the new permanent system will resolve this problem.

However, Consumer Protection officials warn that if you do receive sales calls at a phone number you registered on the Do Not Call list, those calls are most likely fraudulent. Protect yourself and others by reporting those calls to DATCP.

The complete state list has now been merged with the federal list. But phone numbers that dropped off the state list at the end of the two-year limit were not sent to the FTC. To make sure your number is on the permanent list you can verify the number at or call (from the number you want to verify) 1-888-382-1222 or TTY 1-866-290-4236.

Remember that if your phone number did drop off the state list and you re-registered it, the restrictions on direct marketers go into effect 31 days after your call.

If you are on the list and still being harassed by direct marketers after the 31-day period, you can file a complaint through DATCP by calling 1-800-422-7128 online at You can also call your favorite senator at 1-877-763-6636 and I will get you started.

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Fair-goers Living with Health Insurance Changes; Asking for More

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
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on Tuesday, 05 August 2014
in Wisconsin

fairgoersThis week Sen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about health care conversations she had with people attending county fairs. Many people were thankful for affordable health care rates but others were concerned about the difference in insurance rates between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Minnesota's rates were lower. Local folks also asked why Wisconsin turned down the federal Medicaid expansion dollars.

BLACK RIVER FALLS, WI - “The Affordable Care Act has been godsend for me,” the middle-aged, single man whispered to me at the Jackson County Fair. “I had paid $336 a month, now I pay $56 and its better insurance.”

Health insurance, and what Wisconsin should do about it, was the topic of conversation at the Jackson County Fair. A local civic organization asked fair-goers the question; is the Affordable Care Act the same as Obamacare? Three out of four who answered this unscientific poll were correct: Yes!

One woman worried about the quarter who got the answer wrong. “They agree adult children should be covered on their parents plan until age 26,” she told me. “They agree women should not pay more than men, pre-existing conditions should be covered, no life-time caps and we should have lower rates – but they hate Obamacare. They don’t know these are the same.”

I heard many whispered thanks for lower rates; whispered because it might not be socially acceptable to embrace Obamacare in mixed company at the fair. But moving from Jackson County to border counties - Trempealeau and Buffalo – I heard comparisons with Minnesota.

“My sister pays a third of what I pay,” a woman said. “She lives in Winona. Why can’t I get a better price?” Both women bought health insurance on the exchange. Minnesota has its own exchange; Wisconsin’s governor turned down that option.

Reporters at the St. Paul Pioneer Press analyzed health insurance exchange rates across 36 states divided into 406 geographic areas. The Dunn County News summarized the reporters’ work:

The Twin Cities [is] a rating area that has the lowest "benchmark" premium for a 50-year-old who doesn't smoke, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services... The newspaper found that the rating area that covers Pierce, Polk and St. Croix counties in western Wisconsin has the second-highest benchmark premium for a 50-year-old nonsmoker.

How can it be the Cities has the lowest health insurance rates and, just across the river, the rates are the second highest of 406 different geographic areas?

The article attributes the price difference to a lack of competition in Wisconsin and “a convergence of policy decisions” between the two states. Two reasons mentioned by the Pioneer Press are the way the two states handled high-risk pools (known in Wisconsin as HIRSP) and whether or not the state accepted hundreds of millions in federal Medicaid money for newly eligible people.

Minnesota decided to keep high-risk people in their own state-run pool – at least for now. Wisconsin chose to eliminate the pool and send high-risk people to private insurance. Wisconsin’s HIRSP program was very effective at providing high quality care while carefully controlling health costs.

Moving some 60,000 Wisconsin parents from BadgerCare to the private exchange likely raised rates for others buying through the exchange. Statistics tell us families of modest means will have higher health costs than those better off.

Debate still rages on whether or not Wisconsin should have its own exchange. I’m firmly in the “yes” camp. In the proposed law I drafted to create a Badger Health Exchange, high risk individuals would not immediately lose coverage and be sent to commercial insurance (raising rates in the entire pool). And in budget amendments drafted by my colleagues and me, Wisconsin would accept the projected $2.4 billion federal money over 8 years and keep low-income parents on BadgerCare when their children were also eligible.

Recent state health department data shows a surprisingly low number of people who lost BadgerCare actually got insurance through the federal exchange. Only a third of parents who lost BadgerCare actually got private insurance. These families all live on the edge of poverty and all have children living at home.

Fair-goers I’ve met over the past few weeks don’t understand why Wisconsin’s governor turned back hundreds of millions to keep up the anti-Obamacare rhetoric. As one farmer said, “It’s the law and we have to move on. We might not like it all, but it’s the best we’ve got.”

For those who now have affordable coverage the whispered words remain: the new law is a godsend.

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County Fairs: Competition, Critters and Community

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
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on Tuesday, 29 July 2014
in Wisconsin

county-fairThis week Kathleen writes about county fair season.

ALMA - “I haven’t seen you in at least 20 years,” the rural Ettrick women exclaimed as she shook the older man’s hand. “Catching up with friends is a great part of the county fair,” she leaned over and told me.

It’s county fair-time.

Walking through the fairgrounds I see the efforts of many volunteers. Thousands of hours go into preparing for the fair. Preparations for this year began shortly after last year’s fair concluded.

Young people compete for fair premiums, blue ribbons and trophies. Their preparation begins in the selection of projects, generally through 4H and FFA. Detailed records are kept of animal’s production. Young animals are taught to lead. Youngsters learn the proper way to show. Parents encourage, prod and persevere through the stressful last weeks of preparation.

Oldsters get into the action thinking of quilts, preserves, crops or tractors to show.

Volunteer boards run most county fairs. Every member of the board is a strong contributor to the operation of the fair. Every detail of building maintenance, entertainment, purchase of supplies, vendor contracts, and fair booth preparation gets scrutinized by the fair board volunteers.

County fairs have a deep tradition in our state. Wisconsin’s first county fair was held in Waukesha County back in 1842. This fair was held before Wisconsin was even a state! At that fair a handful of exhibitors showed their agricultural exhibits. A total of $40 was awarded to exhibitors. Now Wisconsin has 76 state-aided fairs every year. Seventy-one of Wisconsin’s 72 hold county fairs. Five of those counties also host a district fair.

The old agricultural expositions, as they were sometimes called, became a place for city folks to meet country dwellers and for farmers to compete against each other. Fairs helped grow the dairy industry. They also became a time for farmers to learn the latest in agriculture techniques and compete against each other in categories from quilts to corn.

Everyone looked forward to Fair Day.

Youngsters arrive by the carload, carefully carrying their projects. Family, friends or adult leaders help unload the cattle and kids take them to the wash rack for a cold bath.

Horses are bathed and polished. Teens saddle up and head to the exercise ring to work off nervous energy. Over and over again youngsters ride through the pattern their horse will perform. The youth strive to win the best time, take home a trophy and a small premium check.

Sheep, lamas, swine, goats, fowl, rabbits, cats and dogs are among the myriad of animals that compete for awards.

But the fair is about more than clean critters and competition. It’s about community.

It’s time to catch up with relatives, friends and neighbors. Grandparents share stories of their children. And the tradition continues as their children remind their own offspring in a way that sounds strangely like something that parent heard as a child.

Generations of youngsters grew up with 4H. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 4H program nationwide. Like the first county fairs, 4H started with a focus on farming. Today the organization is much more than crops and livestock. Rural and city youth alike participate in a wide spectrum of programs that teach them important life skills. Technology is providing new opportunities for youth.

Digital photography, computer and web categories are bringing in a whole new group of technology driven exhibitors.

4H will continue strong into its second 100 years because of the contributions of so many adults who teach generations of youngsters. Recently I attended 4H leadership awards where we celebrated a gentleman who gave 60 years of leadership to youth in 4H.

The volunteers serving on the fair board, in the booths, as livestock supervisors, 4H leaders, parents, grandparents and adult mentors come together to create a fair experience youngsters remember forever.

The fair creates the spirit of community that nurtures the soul and encourages the young person to say, “I want to raise my family here.”

Hats off to all the volunteers who make this year’s fairs the best ever.

If you haven’t had your fill of fairs, the Jackson, Buffalo and Pierce County Fairs are coming up. And don’t forget Wisconsin’s premier State Fair!

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Walker Trek Ads An Enigma

Posted by Joanne Kaus
Joanne Kaus
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on Tuesday, 29 July 2014
in Wisconsin

scottwalkerGRAFTON - I don't get it! Scott Walker has been a proponent of trade companies that encourage out sourcing. Eaton and Plexus who got millions in tax breaks from WEDC out sourced jobs and then laid off 279 workers. He was a defender and supporter of Mitt Romney who shipped lots of jobs overseas. He traveled to China to promote trade relations that include outsourcing. So why are there two expensive ads being run now by Walker criticizing Trek bikes who may have outsourced some jobs even after he praised Trek a couple years ago for being a model company? Could this be that Scott Walker is forgetful, or is it hypocrisy?

The above process is pretty much the way companies operate today, much as we don't like it. In spite of outsourcing jobs, Trek has continued to employ close to 1000 people here in Wis. To me this is impressive. Also impressive is "Invest for Success", Mary Burke's 47 page plan to create jobs here in Wisconsin.

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Identity Theft: New Scam Targets Unemployment Insurance

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 July 2014
in Wisconsin

identity-theftThis week Sen. Vinehout writes about a local woman who was a victim of identity theft when thieves used her personal information to file a fraudulent Unemployment Insurance claim. In what appears to be a multi-state problem, she notes the Joint Legislative Audit committee recently approved an audit of the UI claims process, shares information about what to do if you are a victim and how to protect your identity from being stolen.

EAU CLAIRE - A woman was the victim of an unemployment insurance scam. “What are you going to do to help me?” she challenged legislators and candidates at a recent forum in Eau Claire. “What are you going to do to prevent this from happening again?”

The scam she described was new to incumbent and want-to-be lawmakers.

A thief stole her identity and falsely filed an unemployment insurance claim. The scam happened the beginning of July, perhaps over the 4th of July holiday weekend. The scam may be part of a nationwide swindle targeting consumers, employers and state unemployment insurance programs.

The thief collected money from the state before the woman or her employer knew a false claim was filed. How the thief got her personal information is not yet known. However, the woman’s identity was a part of the personal information compromised through Target stores.

She filed a police report and a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). She contacted her banks and the state agency responsible for unemployment insurance. But this was not nearly enough to stop the scam from happening again.

On her behalf I contacted the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the state auditor. DATCP officials actively pursue fraud investigations and work on identity theft through the Office of Privacy Protection.

I learned DATCP officials were already working with the unemployment insurance agency’s Program Integrity unit to investigate the scam. The federal government was also involved in the investigation. Many similar cases have been reported in Wisconsin and the Eau Claire case was part of a multi-state investigation.

Early this year the Legislative Audit Committee, on which I serve as ranking minority member, approved an investigation of unemployment insurance claims processing. The nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau already began investigating delayed and improper unemployment insurance claims and was ardent to consider the new scam in their scrutiny of the state agencies’ activities.

Using someone’s personal information is not only unemployment insurance fraud it is considered identity theft.

Identify theft is the fastest growing crime in America. The Office of Privacy Protection’s website states more than 11 million people are victims of identity theft. CNN reports that every two seconds another American becomes the victim of identity fraud.

The National Institute of Justice warns few persons are aware of the complexities of the many issues involved with this crime, which is really a large set of fraudulent activities ranging in size from minor swindles to major crimes using stolen identities.

I learned people might not even be aware they are victims of identity theft. Some telltale signs, compiled by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), include bills that don’t arrive on time, collection notices for services you never received, email or mail about accounts in your child’s name, mistakes on your bank, credit card or medical insurance statements.

Officials at the Office of Privacy Protection told my office the current unemployment insurance scam is limited to false unemployment insurance claims but thieves could expand their fraudulent activity using the stolen information. People should learn what to do if they are victims of identity theft and protect themselves from having their identity stolen.

How to protect yourself and your family? Order a free credit report once a year. You can do this at Read your bank, credit card and medical insurance statements. Investigate any mistakes. Protect your identity online. Don’t give out personal information over the phone and shred personal information before taking out the trash.

A victim of identity theft should file an identity theft report- this includes a report to the FTC, the local police and the Office of Privacy Protection. Victims should notify one of the credit reporting companies and ask for a fraud alert. Identity theft victims should also order and review a credit report from each credit reporting company.

Find out more about how to protect your identity from the Federal Trade Commission at or the Federal Bureau of Investigation at

To file a complaint with the Office of Privacy Protection contact their hotline 1-800-422-7128 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . To file a complaint with the Legislative Audit Bureau’s Waste Fraud and Mismanagement Hotline contact 1-877-FRAUD-17 (1-877-372-8317) or

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Why Art?

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
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on Tuesday, 15 July 2014
in Wisconsin

This week Sen. Vinehout writes about the importance of art and art tourism to the state’s economy. Wisconsin's investment in the arts has dropped significantly in recent years, while Minnesota ranks #1 in state spending for the arts.  This impacts not only the artists but businesses that benefit from tourism dollars.

MADISON - “Art has the power to fill spaces in our souls that nothing else can,” said Alan Nugent, owner of Abode Art Gallery in Stockholm. I recently had an opportunity to learn about art and its impact on Wisconsin.

“Art has the power to transport, transform, to call and excite. I see this every day when people come in my gallery. People talk about being revived and rejuvenated. They feel things they haven’t felt in a while,” Alan said. “The other day an 80-year-old farm woman came in and viewed a painting of the countryside. The painting took her back to memories decades old.”

Alan loves art. His passion is palpable. His drive is the matching of art created by someone he knows with a new owner moved by the creation.

“Artists put into their work their passion for the natural world,” he explained. “How often do we get to do something that creates an emotional response?”

Stockholm, a small community along the Mississippi River, is one of many communities that experienced an art renaissance in recent years. New businesses and tourists flock to the picturesque community nestled below the bluffs. The center of Stockholm is the Wide Spot Performing Arts Theater, named for the wide spot in the Big River.  Alan and his partner renovated this historic opera hall.

“We have a visual art gallery,” he said. “But writing is the most powerful form of art and the hardest to understand. At Wide Spot the most interesting performances have been spoken words; poetry and readings.”

Through the Arts Board, Wisconsin supported the work of Wide Spot with a small grant to assist in the first season of “Going Coastal” a podcast radio show. “A tiny bit of seed money creates a community,” Alan noted. The seed blossomed into many profitable tourist businesses.

“Arts and tourism are utterly intertwined. They cannot exist without each other,” Alan stated.

Across the nation, states are vying with each other to snag more of the tourists’ dollars. Arts tourism has become the new buzz word. Communities are looking to attract those who spend money as tourists; they are more likely to be over 50 and looking for good food and culture.

Fortunately, western Wisconsin has become a destination for many tourists. They are drawn to its natural beauty like the Great River Road which was voted the “Prettiest Drive: Ultimate Summer Road Trip in the United States”. Tourists are also drawn to communities all around western Wisconsin for the emerging cultural scene.

Wisconsin makes small investments in developing art and tourism through the work of the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Department of Tourism. Alan is a member of the Board of Directors of Arts Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization promoting state funding for the arts.

“We advocate for the arts as a way to build communities and economies,” Alan explained. “This funding allows people to create, to think outside the box; to build something they would never be able to do otherwise. The funding tends to show exceptional return on the state’s investment.”

Wisconsin historically ranked in the middle of the pack in state spending for the arts. But this commitment has waned, especially in recent years. A study just released by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies ranks Wisconsin arts funding 48th in the U.S. with only fourteen cents per person spent on the arts.

Minnesota ranked #1 with $6.31 per person invested in the arts.

This huge disparity is a drag on Wisconsin’s economy as hundreds of thousands of dollars go from Wisconsin to Minnesota. “They have it and we don’t,” Alan said. “We are trying to reverse it by people coming here [to Stockholm] but we are a grain of sand.” The lack of funding means many projects never get off the drawing board.

“This shows how important it is for each individual to step forward and support the arts. Otherwise we won’t survive,” Alan emphasized.

What can you do to support the arts? Come to the Stockholm Art Fair Saturday, July 19thfrom 10am to 5pm.

Find other art fairs at You can also learn about the work of the Wisconsin Arts Board at and Arts Wisconsin

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Wisconsin Leading the Way in State Cuts to Schools?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Money in Politics: What Can a Person Do?

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 01 July 2014
in Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, vote. Encourage all you know to vote.

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

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

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

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Can a Company Have Religious Beliefs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Investing in Wisconsin…For our Children, for our Future

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 23 June 2014
in Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Walmart's Wrong Plan for Green Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enjoy Wisconsin’s Dairy Breakfasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The oldsters love the youngsters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dairy breakfasts aren’t complete without animals.

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

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

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

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

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

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