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Legislative Audit Bureau: The Sentinels of State Government

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 03 October 2018
in Wisconsin

wisc-capitol-domeWe acknowledge the exceptional work of the award-winning Legislative Audit Bureau, which is critical to oversight of state government.


MADISON - “As Governor, I would get rid of the programs that don’t work and fund the ones that do,” said a candidate at a forum last summer. I am sure people thought just how would you know that?

Many folks think someone is paying attention to details of state government, but they don’t really know. The way we can know is to study the work of the state auditors. The Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) helps answer questions about the effectiveness and efficiencies of state government.

Recently, the work of the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau was given the highest possible rating by the National State Auditors Association. An independent, external review team, which included auditors from other states and the federal government, traveled to Wisconsin and spent a week reviewing the work of the LAB.

For fifty-three years, the LAB has assisted legislators, agency directors and the people of Wisconsin in answering questions about how money is spent and how programs are managed. The auditors’ work provides answers to questions such as, did the program meet its goals, did the program follow state law, and how was the money spent?

kathleen-vinehoutLong before I became a Senator, I assumed that someone was paying attention to all the different functions of state government. As a Senator and member of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, I understand the critical role of the LAB in assisting the Legislature with oversight. With a state government of dozens of agencies, hundreds of funds and thousands of programs, the 86 authorized employees of the Audit Bureau have a massive task.

Audits of state government, conducted by the LAB, are approved by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee which is made up of legislators from both sides of the aisle and both houses. The Co-chairs are always of the Majority Party and they determine which audits come to the committee for approval. Auditors depend on lawmakers to attend the hearings, read the audits ahead of time and ask questions. They also depend on lawmakers to share the findings with the public and involve the public and their colleagues in a discussion about solutions to the findings in the audit. To maintain the integrity of the LAB and its work, state law forbids lawmakers from interfering in the audit process.

The LAB also maintains a state hotline on waste, mismanagement and abuse that has some of the strongest whistle-blower protections in state law. That protection provides confidence for those who come forward to help the LAB know where to find problems that need to be remedied.

Audit findings are always accompanied by recommendations to address the problems found during the audit process. Frequently these findings are related to compliance with state law. It is up to the Joint Audit Committee to make sure the agencies follow the LAB recommendations. This work can be much harder than you might think.

For example, the law requires the state’s economic development organization validate that any company receiving money for creating jobs actually creates the jobs. A series of audits detailed that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) was not following the law. When lawmakers insisted WEDC follow the law, the agency director pompously retorted, “We are not in the business of validating jobs.”

A few years ago, after the release of an economic development audit that detailed continued problems, two lawmakers called for the elimination of the LAB. These lawmakers, who called for the demise of the LAB, showed staggering ignorance in the vital functions auditors perform.

Without the LAB’s work, our state would not be able to conduct business with the federal government due to requirements for a review. Nearly thirty percent of Wisconsin’s $76 billion-dollar budget is federal money. Without the work of the Audit Bureau our state could not borrow money or, in state terms, issue bonds. Our state has about $14 billion dollars in bonds (debt).

The LAB staff are the sentinels of state government. They point the way to problems, offer recommendations to solve those problems, and give the “all-clear” that everything is working well.

The staff at the LAB is doing a very difficult job in a way that absolutely deserves recognition. For their exceptional work, we all offer heart-felt congratulations and appreciation.

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Potato Disease, the UW and the Wisconsin Idea

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, 26 September 2018
in Wisconsin

potato-farmerRecent cuts to the UW have affected it’s role in supporting our potato industry, and to retain world class researchers and crucial grant funds for important initiatives like the Wisconsin Seed Potato Program.


MADISON, WI - Late blight is a devastating potato and tomato disease that spreads quickly in late summer. It can wipe out a crop in just a few days. This disease caused the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s which led to the starvation or relocation of millions of Irish, including my ancestors.

Blight happens when it’s humid and muggy. The disease spreads very fast. Spores can move 40 miles a day. There are 30,000 spores in a patch the size of a dime. Because the devastating disease can “scale up quickly,” state laws exist for its control.

Wisconsin is home to 63,000 acres of potatoes. Our state is ranked third nationwide in potato production. For over one hundred years, the University of Wisconsin has helped potato farmers work with the weather, disease and new varieties of potatoes.

“The work of the University of Wisconsin is incredibly important,” an Antigo grower told the Senate Agriculture Committee last year. They have “the best potato research team in America.”

While explaining the relationship between the UW and the potato growers, one of the growers said, “the UW grows baby potatoes, they test chemicals, they give us advice on the mix we give the co-ops.” The UW potato research team is critical to the success of Wisconsin potato growers. “We pay the UW Inspection Crew to look at our fields.” The team created a “blight forecasting tool” that helps growers predict when plants are most at risk for blight.

Alex Crockford, a former Langlade County Ag Agent explained to the committee how roughly 9,000 acres of seed potatoes come from the Wisconsin seed potato certification program. “They go to the south, they go internationally. We [UW] are recognized as a national leader in quality and research.” The state farm in Rhinelander is the source of most of the seed potatoes in Wisconsin. “Here, we’ve been able to create very clean potatoes.”

Controlling disease begins with clean seed and a clean field. The UW is also one of the biggest seed potato growers in the United States. The program began in 1912.

This was the same year Charles McCarthy, the head of the Legislative Reference Library, wrote a book entitled, The Wisconsin Idea.

UW’s assistance to potato growers is a shining example of the Wisconsin Idea. The Idea’s guiding principle is for Wisconsin’s public universities and state government to serve the people using the best ideas of the entire nation. The knowledge and work of the university should be spread across the entire state for the benefit of its citizens.

The Antigo farmer explained to our committee that the Co-Director of the Seed Potato program recently left Wisconsin. The University of Idaho offered her a $50,000 raise to bring her knowledge and her research to the Potato State.

kathleen-vinehoutThis loss had a devastating effect on potato growers and led some to worry about the state’s commitment to the critical programs.

Unfortunately, the loss of the Director of the Seed Potato Program is not the only loss to the UW.

“We lost some of our best people,” UW Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank told Jon Marcus of The Atlantic last year. “It is our very best faculty that get outside offers. If you’re looking at research dollars, those are the people who are bringing in millions in research funding. And the people you replace them with bring in much less. So those retention issues have a real impact.”

According to Marcus, the UW calculated nearly $8 million in research dollars left the university in just one year, when faculty left and took their research projects with them to other universities.

The exodus of the potato researcher and other key faculty are related to the deep budget cuts, changes in tenure, shared governance and threats to undermine the mission of the UW system.

As soon as other universities got wind of troubles they looked up faculty rosters and started making calls. “We called UW faculty,” my son’s Department Chair told me at his recent department graduation gathering. “We knew they were some of the best.”

The potato growers would agree. Our UW faculty are well worth our collective efforts to keep them here in Wisconsin.

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Tribes and Lawmakers Meet to Resolve Issues

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 19 September 2018
in Wisconsin

tribal-courtsSen. Kathleen Vinehout explores the issues facing Wisconsin’s eleven sovereign tribes, like Tribal courts, voter ID and educating our children about the importance of State Tribal relations.


MADISON - “Can you fix Syria?” a woman asked me. “No,” I said as I shook my head. “Syria is a bit above my pay-grade. My international work [as State Senator] is limited to work with our Native Tribes.”

Native Tribes are sovereign nations.

Tribes have their own government including legislatures and courts. Many federal laws and treaties govern Wisconsin Tribes. But so do our state laws.

The delicate intersection between Wisconsin Tribes and the State of Wisconsin is the purview of the Special Committee on State-Tribal Relations.

Recently the State Tribal Relations Committee convened in the Capitol. This committee is one of the most unique in all of the Legislature. It consists of leaders of all of Wisconsin’s eleven tribal nations and a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers.

The Tribal Leaders are so much a part of the committee that the Chair in our recent meeting referred to long-time Menominee Tribal Chair and current Tribal Legislator, Mr. Gary Besaw, as “Representative” Besaw.

kathleen-vinehout“I’ve lived here long enough to be part of the Legislature,” smiled Mr. Besaw. The Chair of our committee apologized for an easily-made mistake.

Tribal leaders work directly with lawmakers and Legislative Council attorneys to craft laws that affect the tribe. Like lawmakers, they propose legislation, review bill drafts and ask for research from our attorneys.

The meeting began with an overview of past legislative successes. Last year, lawmakers passed a new law to allow tribal identification cards to be used for various purposes when state law requires an ID card. Most importantly, the cards can be used for proof of residence for voting.

Frequently lawmakers pass laws that may benefit Tribal Nations but forget to include the proper language in the law. One such oversight was remedied by allowing Tribal Nations to seek state grants for alternatives to prison. Many of our local courts started alternatives to prison programs for those suffering from addiction and/or mental illness. These treatment courts are effective at helping folks stay clean and avoid prison.

Another successful law passed in 2017 was Act 352. This law stiffens penalties for individuals who threaten or cause bodily harm to tribal judges, prosecutors and police officers – just as their non-native counterparts in our local courts.

Tribal judges from Oneida and Lac Courte Oreilles, a Menominee attorney and Tribal Representative, Gary Besaw testified asking for an expansion of the law protecting those who work in our tribal courts.

The judges mentioned several stories about court officers threatened or killed by unhappy defendants or family members. The discussion around expanding the protection of court officers provided us “non-native” members a glimpse into how tribal courts are different from “western” courts.

“In traditional tribal courts, we often teach our own traditions,” explained one of the judges. Tribal Elders can provide testimony. There’s a “Counsel of Grandmothers” the court calls on for advice. As non-natives, we think of court as adversarial. But the tribal judges explained that court proceedings can be healing for family members.

Resolving differences between tribal law and Wisconsin law is why the committee exists. But committee work is much broader. At its heart, the committee exists to promote positive relations between our state and the eleven sovereign Tribal Nations.

An act to teach students about these relations came up as a topic before our committee. Known by its legal name, Act 31, the law set requirements for schools. Tribal leaders asked for changes in this nearly thirty-year-old law. Mr. Besaw shared challenges faced by his daughter who felt isolated after a classroom discussion about ancestry and the lack of understanding of the history of Native peoples.

The committee grappled with how to create a 21st century education system so all students are welcome and prepared to live and work in our diverse state.

The issues aren’t quickly resolved, but having a space for the discussion begins the process. As a longtime member of the Committee, and currently it’s Vice Chair, I find this committee’s work most cordial and refreshingly bipartisan.

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Speed and Secrecy in Lawmaking

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, 12 September 2018
in Wisconsin

wisconsin_senateThe tactics used by Majority Party leadership to rush bills through the Legislature sacrificed public input and prevented thoughtful debate in the lawmaking process.


MADISON - “The length of time bills were deliberated [in the Wisconsin Legislature] dropped significantly soon after Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators took control in 2011,” wrote investigative reporter Teodor Teofilov.

In the Governor’s first two years in office, average deliberation time of a bill was 119 days, compared to a 20 year average of 164 days. For comparison, during the 1997-98 session under Governor Thompson, it took an average of 227 days for a bill to move from introduction to becoming law.

The new study is a project of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The center sought to answer the question Is Wisconsin’s democracy declining? Former Capitol reporter Dee J. Hall is Managing Director of the Center.

“I noticed that some bills in the Legislature sprang up with little or no warning and were quickly approved, giving the public and opposing parties little chance to influence the course of the legislation,” wrote Ms. Hall.

Examining the public’s opportunity for input in crafting new laws was a measure of democratic involvement in the process. The longer a bill takes to become law, the more opportunities for members of the press to report on, and for the public to influence the proposal. Investigators examined the process and followed more than 3,500 bills over the past 20 years. They used the 48-days from introduction to enactment for the Foxconn corporate subsidy as a benchmark for fast-tracked legislation.

Since 2011, more bills were fast-tracked, and it was changes in the legislative process that led to quick movement of bills.

Small but significant changes take place in the function of committees that limit public involvement. Changes like shortening the length of notice before a public hearing; providing a public notice on one version of a bill and then offering a complete rewrite shortly before the public hearing; time limits for those testifying; limiting questions from committee members; allowing invited testimony only in a public hearing or voting on a bill immediately following the public testimony.

While many of these techniques were used before, there was in 2011 there was a dramatic increase in the frequency of these methods.

Inadequate notice of public hearings often means only those groups with a full-time lobbyist in Madison are able to testify. Short notice makes it difficult for committee members to understand the details and consequences of proposed legislation. Limiting testimony stifles thorough discussion. Information gathered during a public hearing can be skewed by inviting only those in favor of legislation; or by limiting the input of those opposed.

kathleen-vinehoutI remember well the public hearing on a bill to limit local people’s voices in sand mine operations. Many people traveled by bus from western Wisconsin to testify before the Senate mining committee. The first six hours of the testimony came from those who benefited from the legislation – none of whom lived near a mine. When the committee chair finally called those opposed to the bill, which was the majority of people at the hearing, it was very late in the afternoon. Folks who made the trek to Madison had to catch their bus home before they could testify.

The data from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism study certainly supports my experience as a Senator. In the 2009-10 session, when Democrats controlled both houses and the governorship, bills that became law took an average of 159 days to do so, spending an average of 91 days in the Senate. Thirty-nine bills (9.6%) qualified as “fast-tracked” by investigators’ definition.

For comparison, 2011-12, when the GOP had complete control, bills that became law spent an average of 57 days in the Senate, 119 days to move through the entire process and 74 bills (over 25%) were fast-tracked. This is the fastest average of any legislative session in twenty years.

Speed and secrecy are the exact opposite of what’s necessary for a successful democracy.

Alexandra Petri, a newspaper columnist and daughter of former Congressman Tom Petri, captured perfectly how the legislative process should work. She wrote, “Bills ought to be passed with deliberation by committees. Change should be achieved in a bipartisan manner. Incrementally, day by day, we should reach a consensus – not perfect, by any means – but something that we can be proud of nonetheless.”

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Governor Walker’s Foxconn Bait-and-Switch

Posted by Dave Hansen, State Senator Dist 30
Dave Hansen, State Senator Dist 30
Dave Hansen, State Senator Dist 30 has not set their biography yet
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on Saturday, 08 September 2018
in Wisconsin

foxconn-groundbreakAs Foxconn pulls the classic bait-and-switch on jobs and commitment to Wisconsin, the people are stuck with a  deal that will cost everyone for 25 more years. Is Walker's big deal turning into just another empty election year promise?


GREEN BAY, WI - Since Governor Walker’s initial announcement of the Foxconn deal he has been promising it will create 13,000 jobs.

But anyone who remembers his promise back in 2010 to create 250,000 jobs during his first term in office knows to take such promises with a large grain of salt.

The same day that Walker made his promise of 13,000 new jobs, Foxconn’s owner Terry Gau would only commit to creating 3,000 jobs and even President Trump said 3,000 jobs would be initially created.

Since that time the Foxconn project has been a moving target with Foxconn officials recently admitting that they now plan to build a much smaller plant less than half the size of the original and one that will require far fewer workers.

That number is likely to become even smaller now that Foxconn admitted what many of us already said would happen: that most of the assembly and production jobs will not be done by people. Foxconn executive Louis Woo admitted as much when he said it’s more likely that Foxconn will only hire 2,000 workers initially and that the majority of the assembly jobs will be done by robots.

dave-hansen-gbThe impact on other state businesses is now a question mark as well since  Foxconn also recently announced they will go to businesses in other states for the parts and materials they need.

The one thing that does seem consistent here, though, is that the people of Wisconsin will be paying off this boondoggle for a good part of their lives.

In fact, even if Foxconn doesn’t hire a single employee, it can still reap up to $1 billion or more in public assistance including: $764 million in local property tax subsidies, $164 million in new state and local roads for Foxconn at the expense of our own local roads and highways, $120 million for a new electric line that will be paid for by utility customers who may have no connection to Foxconn whatsoever, a $139 million sales tax exemption for building materials, and $15 million in state grants to help local governments pay for Foxconn.

It’s been estimated that the Foxconn deal could cost every man, woman and child $500 or more and that taxpayers won’t see their money returned in full until at least 2043 and possibly later.

Governor Walker and Republicans are fond of saying that “you know how to spend your money better than the government does.” Except, of course, when they’re doing favors for their corporate friends. In this case they’ve decided that billions of your and your children’s money is better given to a foreign billionaire than used to feed your family, pay your rent, put toward your health insurance or invest in your local schools and roads.

Given Foxconn’s ever-changing stories, their past history of making big promises only to renege on them, and the Governor’s own issues with the truth, it’s time to call the Foxconn deal what it is, a classic bait-and-switch that is harmful to taxpayers and that will do nothing to help the vast majority of struggling families and communities around the state.

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