Tuesday April 24, 2018

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How Haste Empowers the "Shadow Legislature"

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 16 January 2018
in Wisconsin

mta-madisonLast week, 49 committees took action on 150 bills. This hasty process allows for out-of-state “Shadow Legislature” groups to push for action on bills while Wisconsin citizens struggle to keep up with the process and make their voice heard.


MADISON, WI - “Who put all this policy in the budget?” I whispered to my colleague the night the budget passed. “Groups,” he said glumly. “I call it the ‘Shadow Legislature.’”

These groups are often from outside Wisconsin and often funded by large donors. Behind the scenes, they push for policy, added at the last minute, which is unrelated to the state budget but changed laws.

Recently, these groups came out of the shadows to directly ask for what they wanted.

It was a busy week in the Capitol. Forty-nine committee hearings and 150 bills moved in three days. Lawmakers scrambled to research complex bills.

Big issues were debated. Should lawmakers further limit the powers of local schools to set referenda? Should the state take away more local power to set rules related to workers? Voted out of committee were bills to limit pollution rules and shut down state air monitoring.

public-hearing-emptyHearings scheduled with short notice made it difficult for interested citizens to follow the flurry of activity.

In an effort to be informed, Glory Adams from Eau Claire took advantage of the legislative notification system on four topics: local control, and environmental, consumer and worker protections.

Glory found out about a bill to take away local powers that I had missed. I called her to thank her for her vigilance. Glory explained how difficult it was to stay informed. “I get 25 or 30 notices a day,” Glory said. “I can’t keep up with them.”

No one can.

Many bills were moving to public hearings and a vote with only a few days’ notice. The speed and volume of bills made it tough to gain any meaningful public input. Sometimes, the only person testifying on a bill, besides the legislative author of the bill, was a representative of an out-of-state group pushing the bill.

For example, a group from Tallahassee, Florida sent a young man named Jared to push legislation on their behalf. Besides the Senate author, Jared was the only one to testify on the bill. The group is one of several working to do away with professional licensing.

I asked Jared where else he was sent to push for action on bills. “I’ve been working on bills in Arizona,” he said. “I’ve also been to Indiana and Florida. I recently testified in Nebraska.” Jared lives in Washington, D.C. “But I grew up in Illinois,” he offered, hoping that fact would help.

It didn’t.

In two cases, bills were pushed by outside groups to get out from under insurance rules. In one case, a different group from Tallahassee, Florida wanted to take a car insurance product and make it a financial contract. After much research, it seems to me the current law protects consumers from companies looking to make a big profit. Changing the law would eliminate those protections.

In another case, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute pushed a bill to sell a type of health insurance that would not really be health insurance. At least not with the protections currently provided in law.

“People don’t realize these bills don’t even originate in Wisconsin,” Glory Adams noted. “They come from various organizations, and are repeated here… Often times [the bill] doesn’t even apply to Wisconsin. [The groups] aren’t looking at the needs of Wisconsin.”

With so many hearings scheduled at the same time, the chairs of many legislators were empty. “They aren’t even listening to us,” one man said. I began to wonder if the leaders really wanted any public input.

This process of haste and obscurity diminishes the public voice. Lawmakers aren’t hearing Wisconsin citizens who are testifying. How do you create a thoughtful law or fix a bill when you do not hear about the unintended negative effects on Wisconsin from a proposal written by an out-of-state group?

At the end of a long day, I spoke with a woman from Ettrick who shared my opposition to a bill to eliminate the requirement of local government to put notices in the newspaper of their public meetings. “How am I going to know what’s going on?” she asked me.

Someday, when someone asks, “Where did my democracy go?” I will tell them about how haste and the influence of the “Shadow Legislature” suppressed the public voice.

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Why Are My Property Taxes So High

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, 09 January 2018
in Wisconsin

tax-billSenator Vinehout is often asked why property taxes increased while folks hear their property taxes are supposed to be less. She offers some reasons why some people are facing a bigger bill.


MADISON, WI - “I’m paying higher property taxes and I haven’t had a raise in years.” Sound familiar?

You are not alone.

Property taxes are a regressive tax – the tax falls harder on those with less means. Property tax bills take a bigger bite out of the paychecks of people who have not received a raise in years. At the same time, the very wealthy see their tax bill as a smaller share of their increasing piece of the pie.

I fielded many questions lately about property taxes.

Folks are hearing taxes are supposed to be lower. However, they see increases in property taxes and want to know why. “Who is benefiting when I’m not?’ one woman asked.

In some cases, recently passed school referenda are showing up on some tax bills.

Additionally, this year, people are learning that newly passed federal tax changes will prevent them from deducting their property taxes on their federal tax return.

Last month a report by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance provided insight into understanding property taxes. Since statehood and before, the property tax has been Wisconsin’s largest state or local tax. After World War II, needs on a local level grew quickly. Property taxes increased as communities needed schools and other services for their residents. To help offset the increases, lawmakers sent state money to locals in the form of tax credits.

Wisconsin has a long history of providing public services locally. In contrast to some states where services are provided by the state, Wisconsinites value local services and local decision-making. But the state has not kept up in “sharing” the money through an aid called “shared revenue.”

For example, state spending for local aid (shared revenue) from the state was lower in 2017 than in 2007 using last year’s estimates from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

When needs grow, and state money does not keep pace, locals make decisions that end up raising property taxes. Schools are an example. Local schools are funded by state aid and local property taxes.

In recent years, the state has not kept up with the cost of local schools. In real dollars (adjusted for inflation), schools will be getting less in the next two years than a decade ago. To make up for rising costs and less state aid, referenda passed at record high rates. Passing school funding referenda raises property taxes.

When the Legislative session begins in January, a set of bills are pending that would help lower residential property taxes.

Big retail companies, like Walgreens, use a loophole to have their property taxes lowered, which shifts more of the tax to homeowners.

Known as the “dark store loophole” big retail companies have their property assessed as if the store was vacant and that lower value is used in computing property taxes. For example, the Mayor of Appleton testified, that a new drugstore cost $4.7 million to build and was assessed at $1.7 million. The city lost in court and paid the drugstore $800,000 in tax refunds.

“This is not about raising property taxes,” the Mayor told our committee. “This is about fairness. Because residents will pay more. We’re not raising taxes but your taxes are going up.”

The Appleton scenario was repeated as community after community came to testify. To make matters worse for local homeowners, the big stores used more local services that cost the city more resources.

The Mayor of Oshkosh testified, “Easily our police department responds to about 2,000 calls per year [from the big box stores]. The demand for services at these types of stores exceeds anything the so-called “dark store” would ever generate. … This is an unfair shift to residential property owners and their families.”

There are two bipartisan bills to fix the problem. The bills need votes to pass.

Solving the issue of high property taxes means, in part, providing more money from the state to locals. In my alternative budget, I added more money for schools, fixed the school aid formula so the money went where it was needed, and I increased aid to locals (shared revenue) by ten percent.

Increasing state aid makes schools and local government less reliant on property taxes, which takes the increasing burden off local property owners.

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Time to Work Smarter As We Fight Veteran Suicide

Posted by Jon Erpenbach. State Senator 27th District
Jon Erpenbach. State Senator 27th District
State Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Madison) - A former radio personality and legisla
User is currently offline
on Saturday, 06 January 2018
in Wisconsin

veterans_army_medicIn Wisconsin we say we value military service and our veterans, but some of our financially failing services will not survive unless we make smart decisions.


MADISON, WI - Everyone knows the statistic, 22 veterans are victims of suicide each day in our country. The reality that those who have served us risking life and limb are struggling to point of taking their own lives is a failure of our nation. While many policies that address veterans issues, like health care and duty disability are Federal policies, there are many programs and policies administered by the State of Wisconsin that affect veterans. Our goal as we seek to address the crisis of veteran suicide should be meeting the needs of those veterans in crisis in a nimble and effective way.

Spreading the word about existing programs and making sure veterans are receiving all of the support they deserve is our most important first action. After attacks on our County Veterans Service Officers in the recent past, most Legislators now understanding the true value of a face to face connection point in every county of the state. Having an officer at the County Veterans Service Office is invaluable. No one knows more about how to connect veterans to services they need and deserve than a CVSO. Make sure the veterans in your life know they can make connection points, not just for earned service, but also for local organizations and groups that support veterans at their local CVSO.

Protection of programs that are only in Wisconsin that are meeting needs where Federal programs fall short is another essential goal. The Wisconsin GI bill has stronger college support for veterans and their children than the Federal GI. Our universities have worked to understand and support our veteran community better and it shows. The Needy Veterans Program is another Wisconsin specific support that is very valuable to our veteran families in need of medical equipment or emergency financial support. My hope is to expand the Needy Veteran Program to support emergency mental health services for veterans and their families.

Once again this year, I have introduced(with Representative Gordon Hintz) Senate Bill 631 that would expand the use of the Needy Veteran Program to include mental health and substance abuse services. Using an existing program and spending money already set aside to help veterans make this a bill that can be seamlessly adopted now. The bill requires action on the veterans request in 48 hours to meet needs quickly. We know that the average wait time for an initial mental health appointment at the VA is 26 days. Being able to get substance abuse treatment and mental health services as veterans wait for treatment from the VA is the kind of nimble smart support we should be exploring in Wisconsin. I am also drafting a bill to pilot a text message veteran’s crisis line so we can offer an option for counsel and support without having to talk, using texting technology.

Finally, I will continue to work to support the Department of Veterans Affairs with general purpose tax dollars just like most other state agencies. Our financially failing Veterans Fund will not survive unless we make some smart decisions. The people of Wisconsin want to support our veterans and most people think they already do. In Wisconsin we value military service and our veterans.

For more information on proposals affecting veteran’s in Wisconsin contact my office at 608-266-6670 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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The Wisconsin Way Forward in 2018

Posted by Jennifer Shilling, State Senator Dist 32 (B)
Jennifer Shilling, State Senator Dist 32 (B)
Jennifer Shilling lives in La Crosse with her husband and two children. She curr
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 03 January 2018
in Wisconsin

kewaunee-harbor-familyWisconsin families are working harder than ever but can’t seem to get ahead, while Gov. Walker and legislative Republicans are draining resources from our schools, roads and local communities to fund the huge taxpayer giveaway to Foxconn. We need to work together to move ahead.


LA CROSSE, WI - As I look back at the political battles of 2017, I’m reminded that our state does better when we all work together for the shared values of stronger communities, opportunity and fairness for all. In short, Wisconsin does better when we all do better.

Despite other states rebounding from the Great Recession, Republican policies have shrunk Wisconsin’s middle class, shifted more costs onto working families and created an 111,000 jobs deficit.

Seven years of failed Republican budgets are felt every time we drive over a pothole or cast a ballot for a school referendum. We feel it in our pocketbooks as our wages remain stagnant, while 47 millionaires receive a new tax break.

walker-terry-gou-foxconn-flagWisconsin families are working harder than ever but can’t get ahead because Republicans continue to favor the wealthy and foreign corporations. Gov. Walker and legislative Republicans are draining resources from our schools, roads and local communities in order to fund the largest taxpayer giveaway to a foreign corporation in U.S. history.

Instead of pitting families against one another and favoring out-of-state corporations at the expense of home-grown businesses, we should work to level the playing field and make sure everyone who works hard has an opportunity to succeed.

In 2018 Democrats remain united in our values to create a more fair economy, expand opportunities and strengthen communities.

Democrats have offered dozens of forward-looking solutions to expand access to affordable health care, invest in infrastructure and improve workplace flexibility for hardworking Wisconsin families. We’ve introduced bills to address the sky-rocketing costs of childcare, expand the family medical leave act, provide student loan debt relief, and invest in our local schools.

These are the issues that impact families across Wisconsin and these are the issues that families want fixed. By focusing on policies that encourage growth and drive innovation, we can expand economic opportunities and move Wisconsin forward.

I know we can do better. If we want to grow our middle class and help our next generation succeed in a competitive global economy, we need to invest in our state and retain the best and the brightest. We will continue to fight for common-sense solutions to lower student loan debt, expand access to child care, raise family wages and increase retirement security.

Onward, upward and forward to 2018.

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Looking Forward to 2018

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 January 2018
in Wisconsin

new-yearState Senator and possible gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Vinehout writes about the big events happening in 2018 and about the work the Legislature will be doing throughout the course of the year.


ALMA, WI - Snow falls gently on the farm. It’s the light, fluffy snow that comes when it’s very cold.

We’ve seen bitter temperatures to end the year. Like many, the cold caused its share of problems on our farm. I was reminded to appreciate running water when our well pump went out Christmas Eve. When an electric waterer failed, we carried buckets of water to our horses.

farm-snowBitter cold weather and a dwindling supply of propane caused Wisconsin to declare a state of energy emergency related to intermittent propane supplies. For the 250,000 Wisconsinites that depend on propane for heat, a shortage can be a big deal.

After the relative calm of the Holiday Season, I expect the activities of the Legislature to heat up quickly in January. No one quite knows when will be the last day to pass a bill. This uncertainty is causing a great deal of urgency among lawmakers.

What causes the uncertainty is the tension and game playing between the Senate and Assembly Leaders. As usual, both leaders have bantered about when each body will adjourn for the campaign season. The banter somewhat resembles the school yard game of “chicken”.

Members of the Legislature will soon meet the voters. Many lawmakers ponder their promises made but not-yet-kept. They work with staff to put the final touches on bills they hope to pass.

2018 will be the year of many campaigns. Special elections in January, a nonpartisan primary in February, a Supreme Court race, and local nonpartisan elections – including every county board member in the state – in April.

gotv-chippewafallsCandidates who want to run for partisan elected office will begin collecting nomination signatures in mid-April. Fun begins in June when all partisan races will be set. June 1st is the deadline for turning in signatures for all partisan races. August brings us two big partisan primaries: the GOP US Senate race and the Democratic gubernatorial primary. November 6th is the general election date.

Mid-March is likely the time both legislative chambers will have their final days to meet as the full Senate and Assembly. But this does not mean the work of the state is finished.

The Finance and the Audit Committees meet all year, every year. Special “study committees” will be formed with members of the public adding their voices to help lawmakers address complex problems.

We will see new issues arise in the next few months. I expect to see at least some discussion of how to fix big problems. Woefully inadequate broadband, a broken system of school funding and the rising problems related to addiction, especially opioid abuse, are major problems many constituents want addressed.

Many Democrats, including myself, will continue to push for real changes to improve health care access and affordability. A great beginning is to create a state marketplace for health care – a bill I’ve written to give Wisconsin the flexibility we need to fix health care.

wisstatereformatory-allouezAlso, on the agenda in 2018, is taking a good look at what’s happening with our justice system. We have roughly double the number of people in prison compared to Minnesota. Even though we have a similar crime rate and similar population. Late in 2017, GOP leaders pushed through several bills to increase the minimum required penalties on some crimes and changed rules related to probation.

The bills would cost the state more and add to already overcrowded prisons. But leaders did not have any way to pay for the increased costs. Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) recently told the Wheeler Report “we need to figure out, probably, a way to build a new state prison. … I think that is something we will probably do this spring, but probably putting either revenues or bonding into upgrading our prisons.”

Borrowing to build a new prison is going to cause controversy when our neighbor to the west already has a corrections system that costs less and reduces crime.

Looking forward, 2018 will be an exciting year of change.

The New Year is a great time for resolutions. I encourage everyone to resolve to be active in our great democracy, and be involved in the direction of this change.

Wishing you a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

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