Saturday August 18, 2018

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Joint Legislative Audit Committee Explores Agency Accountability

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, 26 June 2018
in Wisconsin

wisc-capitol-domeAt a recent Committee hearing, members made it clear the UW must enact Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) recommendations regarding the UW and affiliated organizations. Regardless of the audit, the recommendations provide a roadmap to resolving issues found by the auditors.


MADISON - What should we do if the folks in charge don’t fix things they know are broken?

At a recent public hearing of the Joint Committee on Audit, on which I serve as ranking minority member, lawmakers publically pondered how to hold government accountable if they repeatedly ignored audit findings.

The audit of the University of Wisconsin System came about from the alleged illegal transfer of public money to a private foundation by former UW-Oshkosh administrators. Two former administrators recently appeared in court on felony charges.

The recently released audit by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) did not address the court case but provided details on the relationship between UW, its foundations, and other affiliated organizations.

Auditors found an array of problems. For example, a UW-Oshkosh employee placed public money in an affiliated organization and did not return all the money despite being instructed to by the Chancellor. In other situations, UW employees received full-time UW salaries, but they worked part-time at an affiliated organization. UW foundations did not always reimburse the UW for the public space or staff.

Most disconcerting for lawmakers was the apparent lack of compliance by the UW in correcting recurring problems and a lack of full access to records to complete the audit. As a consequence, auditors could not fully answer lawmakers’ questions.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle publically explored what to do to force compliance with audit recommendations.

Over and over again, lawmakers repeated some version of “sending as strong a message as we can” to hold the UW accountable. I explored the possibility of using subpoena powers to require agencies to turn over documents. My colleague, Senator Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), suggested we take a much stronger approach to compelling agencies to release necessary information and comply with LAB recommendations.

Senator Kapenga proposed the UW and any other noncompliant agency should face strict financial penalties for either withholding information or refusing to comply with audit recommendations. He shared that when companies did not provide information to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) - the federal financial watchdog would assess financial penalties. Senator Kapenga suggested a $50,000 fine for every instance of repetitive noncompliance.

kathleen-vinehoutAll members of the Joint Audit Committee share Senator Kapenga’s frustration with agencies not providing auditors complete and accurate information and agencies not complying with audit recommendations. Too often, audits include recurring findings that should have been resolved when the agency complied with the LAB recommendations.

Our recent hearing dealt, in part, with recurrent computer security issues at the UW. For many years, auditors found problems with IT controls over accounting, payroll and student data. Without protections, data is vulnerable. The state could suffer losses.

Unresolved, recurring problems that leave the state vulnerable affect many agencies.

Other audits found that the Department of Health Services failed to enact recommendations to address poor compliance with required computer matches to stop inmates from receiving FoodShare benefits. The Department of Employee Trust Funds had repeated findings related to internal financial controls in seven of the prior ten years.

One of the most egregious repeated audit finding was with the state’s economic development programs. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporations (WEDC) did not independently verify whether companies that promised to create jobs with public money actually created those jobs. Further, auditors called into question the job numbers released by WEDC.

These examples of noncompliance, repeated year after year, are only known because of the continual auditing conducted by the LAB.

The steadfast work of auditors to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of state government is critical to the public and to our legislators. Reports provide us reliable information about the action (or inaction) of state government, an assessment of whether or not programs met their purpose and whether money was properly spent. Moreover, the recommendations offered by the LAB provide a roadmap forward in addressing problems.

How seriously agencies take these recommendations falls on lawmakers. The clear message to the UW from the members of the Joint Audit Committee was “get the job done.”

The audit recommendations are the means to the end, which is better government. If we are going to be better stewards of the peoples’ money, lawmakers must now hold government accountable.

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Suicide: A Tale of Access

Posted by Patty Schachtner, State Senator 10th District
Patty Schachtner, State Senator 10th District
State Senator Patty Schachtner represents Wisconsin’s tenth senate district. The
User is currently offline
on Friday, 22 June 2018
in Wisconsin

suicidebygunEase of access to firearms contributes to suicide risk, as does lack of access to mental health resources in many communities. We can reduce the suicide rate, but we must recognize it is an epidemic driven in part by systemic, policy decisions.


SOMERSET, WI - Suicide has touched communities across the nation. The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain – like all deaths from suicide – are tragic. While tragic, their deaths refocused the national attention on what is a growing suicide epidemic.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that suicide rates in the United States increased by 25 percent between 1996 and 2016.

Behind these numbers are lives. Stories that were cut short. Suicide is also a story - but one of access: ease of access to firearms and lack of access to mental health resources.

More than half of all people who die by suicide use a firearm – the most lethal method for suicide. Wisconsin’s rate is even higher - nearly three in four who die by suicide use a firearm. Close to 85 percent of suicide attempts by firearm are fatal. In contrast, five percent of people who attempt suicide through other widely-used methods die.

A suicide attempt by firearm is near-instant. There is not the same level of planning required compared to other methods, meaning there is less time for people to reconsider or seek help during an attempt.

The time between suicidal thoughts and a suicide attempt is important because of how it relates to impulsivity. A 2001 study regarding suicide attempts and impulsivity found that 70 percent of people spent less than one hour between considering suicide and committing an attempt; 24 percent said less than five minutes. Not having a firearm can reduce the effects of impulsivity, and in turn, reduce the number of suicide attempts among individuals who are in that mental state.

patty-schachtnerEase of access to firearms can also contribute to elevated suicide risk. Most notably, this includes unsecured storage of firearms at home. Researchers found that gun owners who practiced safe storage of firearms at home were 60 percent less likely to die from a firearm-related suicide, relative to gun owners who did not safely store their firearm.

Unsecured storage of firearms has implications for children too. In 2016, 633 children committed suicide with a firearm. Many of these children found the firearm at home: unlocked, easily accessible, and loaded.

Compounding this problem is the lack of access to mental health resources in many communities. In Wisconsin, 46 of its 72 counties contain federally-designated mental health professional shortage areas. Mental health shortages make it difficult for individuals contemplating suicide to seek professional help. It also makes it more difficult for individuals with a mental illness, who are at greater risk of suicide, to receive care.

Rising suicide rates are an epidemic, and it is an epidemic driven in part by systemic, policy decisions.

Wisconsin’s suicide rate has been higher than the national average for all but one year between 2008 and 2018. We can reduce the suicide rate, but we need to have real conversations about where we are and where we want to be.

*****

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK [8255]. Trained counselors are available 24/7.

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Court Case Challenges Policy Penalizing People for Being Poor

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, 20 June 2018
in Wisconsin

grocery-store-checkoutThe Trump administration invited states to create new policies with more strict work requirements and barriers for people to qualify for Medicaid and FoodShare. A new court case challenges the harmful effect of these new policies.


MADISON - Do new strict requirements for Medicaid adopted by states violate the law? A federal court is set to decide after recent arguments presented by policy experts who said the requirements do violate law.

The case arose from Kentucky’s decision to create strict work requirements for getting healthcare through Medicaid. In January, the Trump administration invited states to submit “demonstration proposals” that make it much harder for people to qualify for or remain on Medicaid.

Experts say the Kentucky case could have implications for Wisconsin and six other states that have pending application for the restrictive Medicaid policy changes.

Wisconsin acted quickly to take advantage of the change. Governor Walker touted the changes stating, “public assistance should be a trampoline not a hammock.” In just a few weeks, GOP leaders passed nine bills as part of the new policy initiative. The bills added work requirements and other strict limitations to our state’s version of Medicaid known as BadgerCare.

I dubbed the effort, kicking people when they are down. The bills created strict work requirements for people with children, created insurmountable barriers for some trying to get help and restricted coverage. At risk were poor families, hungry children, and the disabled.

farm-familyFor example, one bill had the effect of forcing the wheelchair bound to sell their wheelchair accessible van, if it was valued at more than $10,000, in order to keep their BadgerCare and FoodShare (the modern version of the old Food Stamps program). The same bill had the effect of forcing dairy farm families to sell their cows before obtaining BadgerCare.

The federal court will decide if similar Kentucky requirements violate federal law and, according to Kaiser Health News, could determine “how far the Trump administration can go in changing Medicaid without Congressional action.”

In the same article, published in Governing Magazine, Kaiser reported that most legal experts say the administration’s approach is “backward because enrollees need health coverage so they are healthy enough to work.” Many scholars agreed and supported the Medicaid enrollees.

Forty policy scholars submitted in an amicus brief supporting the Kentucky lawsuit. They found no evidence to support “depriving people of Medicaid will lead to greater levels of employer insurance.” Work requirements do not make people healthy. Work requirements have no long-term effects on employment or income. However, Medicaid does improve health, and healthy people are more able to work.

The scholars wrote in their brief the new federal policy goes against the “core mandate” of Medicaid to provide medical assistance to all eligible individuals.

The scholars noted that under the Trump administration policy, “States are thus encouraged to pile on new eligibility conditions and coverage requirements, erect barriers and push people out of the program, all in the name of making people healthy.” Experts estimate over 100,000 people in Kentucky will lose healthcare over the next five years.

kathleen-vinehoutPart of Wisconsin’s initiative is to increase premiums. The scholars wrote there is “extensive research showing the adverse impact of unaffordable premiums on low-income persons with little or no disposable income.” Not being able to pay premiums leads to fewer people with health coverage.

Wisconsin, and some other states, already has work requirements in place for FoodShare. The forty scholars reported studies of these requirements show as many as fifty percent to eighty-five percent of folks now receiving benefits could lose them. Parents, of course, face additional obstacles including a lack of affordable childcare.

Wisconsin’s policies are crafted in a completely backwards way. If we want a farmer to do better or a wheelchair bound person to succeed why would the state make them sell items essential to their livelihood?

All these requirements add up to a fundamental question we face; do we have public programs to give a hand-up to those facing hard times or do the policies exist to punish the poor?

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The Way Wisconsin Funds Schools Must Change

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, 13 June 2018
in Wisconsin

school-kidsWe heard expert testimony at a recent hearing of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding Reform that Wisconsin’s formula is an outlier in the US. and failure to change it leaves children vulnerable, taxpayers paying more in property tax and the state open to lawsuits.


MADISON - The way Wisconsin pays for schools is unfair, inequitable and antiquated.

Over the past few months, I heard parents, community members, business leaders, teachers, students, and school officials speak about the flawed school funding formula. I serve on the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding Reform.

We took public testimony across the state. Recently, these criticisms were validated by national experts who testified at the last scheduled public hearing of the Commission.

Our state is changing. These changes are reflected in student needs. Compared to years ago, we have more students in poverty, with special needs, English learners, students suffering from mental illness and experiencing trauma. These students facing challenging situations cost us more to educate.

The state has failed to keep up with changing student needs. As a consequence, the schools with those of greater need are forced to divert funds from all other students to pay for these needs.

For example, the state funds only 26 cents on the dollar for special education needs. But federal law requires all special education needs be met. As a result, general education money is used for students with special needs.

Peter Goff, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin, Madison described the situation. “Huge chunks [of general education money] are getting torn off to pay for these special education mandates – that is the state’s responsibility but [the state] is not paying for it.”

kathleen-vinehout“Wisconsin’s school funding system is inflexible, unpredictable, and not well designed to respond to changes in educational conditions,” said Zahava Stadler, Policy and Research Director for EdBuild, a nonprofit dedicated to school funding reform.

Commission members heard testimony about how Wisconsin’s approach to paying for public schools is unique in the US – and not in a positive way. Experts said Wisconsin’s method of paying for schools makes students more vulnerable. Using “categories” of aid makes these programs more vulnerable to budget cuts because of political winds and economic downturns.

Emily Parker, a Policy Analyst for the Education Commission of the States, tracks school legislation. Ms. Parker described the evolution of school funding across America. At first, schools were funded in a flat dollar amount. Then schools were paid based on community wealth as measured by property value. This is how Wisconsin’s main formula works.

Over the years, states added student need (Wisconsin includes only in limited grant-like categories), then states made funding flexible and, recently, more states are basing resources for schools on student needs.

The effect of our obsolete formula is harmful to all students, as schools are forced to take money from general aid to pay for the increasing needs of some students.

Dr. Goff, testified about the effects of Act 10, revenue limits and budget cuts.

“Without a doubt, there has been a net loss to school districts over time,” said Dr. Goff. At the same time, the costs school districts face increased over time. “Every year there isn’t a revenue limit adjustment, it is essentially a cut to schools’ spending.”

“Local districts are taking on more, asking for more, going to referenda more often and passing more… this is not a sustainable model for school funding. At the end of the day, education is a state right. When you can’t give more of local effort, that is when the state opens up to potential lawsuits as well as ethical issues of underfunding schools. … At some point, local districts will exhaust [resources] and that puts the state at risk,” said Dr. Goff.

“There is a glaring omission that the state that has the largest achievement gap in the nation has a funding system … [that] does not mention student disadvantage at all. Or ethnicity at all.”

We must fundamentally change the way we pay for schools. We should throw out the antiquated formula based on property wealth. Instead, schools need a flexible, consistent commitment from the state to pay districts based on student needs and the costs of educating the students of today.

At risk, are our children. At stake, is our future. It’s time for the Blue Ribbon Commission to earn its blue ribbon.

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An Honest Discussion about Transportation Needs

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, 06 June 2018
in Wisconsin

highwayAs roads and bridges continue to deteriorate, former DOT Sec. Gottlieb presented a comprehensive long-term transportation funding solution that was rejected by Governor Walker. Sen. Kathleen Vinehout takes it to build an alternative state budget that provides solutions, not continued borrowing.


MADISON - Farmers in western Wisconsin are worried new bridge weight limits will add time and cost to their already stressful lives.

“This is a very serious concern for us,” Farm Bureau spokesman Rob Richard told Chris Hubbuch of the La Crosse Tribune. “We want to make sure farmers can get to and from their fields. If they can’t make the quickest, most efficient route they’re just adding wear and tear to other roads.”

The Department of Transportation recently lowered the weight limit on 184 bridges, mostly in western Wisconsin. This action met a 2018 federal deadline requiring a state evaluation of bridges.

Engineers looked at what is known as short-haul vehicles. These are vehicles defined by the feds as “closely spaced, multi-axle, single unit” trucks like dump trucks, milk trucks and manure hauling tankers. The vehicles have closely spaced axles that “concentrate weight in a much smaller footprint”, which can put more stress on, and possible damage to, the bridges.

leo-frigo-bridge-gbLocal bridges were low on the Governor’s spending priority list. In his first budget, the Governor cut money to local bridges by over 8% compared to the prior (Recession) budget, then provided no increase in the next four years. This year, his election year budget did provide new bridge funds.

Perhaps budget cuts are partly to blame for the results of a recent study by the American Society of Civil Engineers that reported Wisconsin has over 1,200 structurally deficit bridges.

The same study reported 27% of roads in Wisconsin are in poor condition. Motorists pay an average of $637 per year on vehicle repairs due to roads in need of repair.

“Our roads are all junk,” farmer Clint Sampson was quoted in the La Crosse Tribune story. “These county roads are worn out. The roads haven’t been touched for 30 years. Some of them are beyond patching up.”

Perhaps this is why county officials tell me they have turned asphalt roads into gravel for years.

The underfunding of roads comes in spite of several studies showing a decline in road conditions and a shortfall in state resources, just to maintain current conditions. For example, the 2014 Commission on Transportation Finance and Policy found, without additional highway funding, 42% of Wisconsin roads will be in poor or worse condition by 2023. The 2016, the study No Easy Answers found rural roads are twice as deadly as other roads in Wisconsin and more than twice as deadly as the national average.

I learned a great deal by reading the budgets of former Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Mark Gottlieb. Many of the ideas I used in my Alternative Budgets came from these documents, especially his 2015-17 budget request submitted in November of 2014. In this document, Mr. Gottlieb included 24 issue papers discussing solutions to the crisis facing DOT.

Reporter Katelyn Ferral of the Capitol Times recently interviewed the former Secretary. In the interview, former Secretary Gottlieb talked about how the Governor signaled that in 2016, Gottlieb should not submit another budget that “contained a comprehensive solution.”

kathleen-vinehout“I think it was done because they didn’t want a repeat of what was done in 2014. They didn’t want the department to submit a budget that seriously dealt with this issue.” Instead, the administration wanted a budget that “pretended if we just went along like we were going along, everything would be fine. … That is not the budget I would have submitted based on my judgement of what was needed.”

“We got to the place where the facts were being ignored in favor of political spin”, former Secretary Gottlieb continued. “It is easy enough to evaluate statements about how much the state is investing or not investing by looking at historical budget data. We are not investing.”

Looking at state transportation budgets, one can see that Walker chose borrowing more money over developing a long-term transportation funding solution.

Potholes are real. Deteriorating bridges are real. Wrecked axles and other unexpected repairs are real. I agree with former Secretary Gottlieb, it’s time we have an honest conversation about how to fix transportation.

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