Saturday February 16, 2019

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Local Leaders Call for Fixing the Road Budget

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 04 September 2018
in Wisconsin

road-construction-workerRoads across the state are deteriorating and the current administration and republican leaders have not addressed the funding problem. Revenue for roads is down and borrowing is up. This is not sustainable.


MAXVILLE, WI - “We budget, and have to save up, for over three years to do one mile or less [of road],” wrote Barb Traun the Maxville Town Clerk. Even with the savings, the Buffalo County Township must borrow to pave roads.

Maxville Township is not alone. Local governments are trying to cobble together a road budget because local road aid hasn’t kept up with inflation for years. According to a report released by the Department of Transportation (DOT) local road aid, in real dollars, dropped almost 4% from 2006 to 2019.

Many local units of government are tired of being told the lack of local road money would be fixed in the next budget – only to see, year after year, the local road aid budgets fall further behind. Locals are committed to keeping roads and bridges in good repair but cannot provide these services if the state does not deliver the funds.

Now they are working to make the issue a top state priority.

Barb Traun’s statement was accompanied by a resolution passed by the Town of Maxville asking the governor and lawmakers to fix the unmet transportation needs. The town’s advocacy is part of a trend.

In the fall of 2016, local governments passed 559 resolutions calling on state leaders to fix the road budget. According to the Transportation Development Association (TDA) over the past few months they received another “200 plus” local government resolutions.

Because of state imposed levy caps, local governments have little ability to raise property taxes to pay for roads. So, they are often stuck with the declining state support.

One avenue locals have available is to raise funds through a “wheel tax”. Eau Claire County took this unpopular approach and enacted a $30 per vehicle “wheel tax” to pay for roads. Other Wisconsin counties are considering a similar approach.

“It’s a start,” Supervisor Colleen Bates recently told the Eau Claire Leader. “It gets us back on track to having roads that are viable.” The county faced increasing pressures as they borrowed to cover road needs. This path became increasingly unsustainable.

Likewise, continuing to borrow is unsustainable for the state.

The recent DOT report shows the state has, according to former DOT Secretary Gottlieb, “engaged in an irresponsible reliance on borrowed money.” In a recent Capitol Times article, Secretary Gottlieb said, “Debt service has increase 85-percent in the last eight years, to the point where we now spend five dollars on debt service for every three dollars we spend on the maintenance of state highways. These problems will continue to worsen until the current funding crisis is resolved.”

Transportation is a key public service. Wisconsin needs leaders who will balance several factors to make wise transportation decisions. This means maintaining our current investments, including our local roads and bridges. It means careful attention to efficiencies and quality construction, planning for future growth and reconciling spending with revenue.

Further, as our climate changes and massive storms deluge us, planning for the future takes on a new urgency.

A prudent transportation budget is a balancing act.

The deteriorating condition of our roads and bridges and the escalating local and state debt shows how deeply Wisconsin is out of balance.

kathleen-vinehoutWe must also consider the realities of the new age of intense weather patterns, which calls for a 21st Century approach to infrastructure that Wisconsin has not begun to realize.

Recently, leaders applauded the completion of a portion of a giant Milwaukee road project known as the Zoo Interchange. As the governor lauded the project as “on time and on budget” we must remember the current budget delayed or left unfinished other parts of this same project. In the road budget, delays mean increased costs later.

The governor’s claim “road projects…are staying on track or getting done sooner” was rated, earlier this year by Politifact as “mostly false”. Walker’s claim that he invested “$3 billion more than what former Governor Jim Doyle spend on transportation over the same period of time” was also rated “mostly false.”

Staying honest and acknowledging the problem is the first step to finding a solution.

There are many solutions. In Secretary Gottlieb’s budget a few year ago he proposed 24 different approaches. It’s time we dust off his 600-page budget and use his guidance to seriously work on solving the transportation problems.

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Supporting the UW Helps All of Wisconsin

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 28 August 2018
in Wisconsin

uwgbBudget cuts and tuition freezes have hampered the UW System’s ability to retain professors, continue research and deliver high quality affordable education.  UW President Ray Cross has a plan to increase funding in the next budget.


MADISON - “Investing in the UW System is an investment in Wisconsin,” said University of Wisconsin President Ray Cross, calling for an investment of another $107.5 million in the next biennial budget.

Over the past several years, budget cuts and tuition freezes hampered the UW System’s ability to retain professors, continue research and deliver high quality affordable education.

To bolster his argument, President Cross cited a recently released study by NorthStar Analytics that showed the UW System adds $24 billion each year to Wisconsin’s economy. The study estimated UW’s economic contribution at a 23-fold return on state dollars invested.

The UW Board of Regents agreed with the President’s proposal, sending the budget forward to Governor Scott Walker. The Governor, for his part, called on the university system and all other parts of state government to submit budgets with no funding increases and a five percent cut.

Budget cuts, and policy changes coupled with a tuition freeze created difficulties for the UW.

Think of tuition and state aid as a teeter-totter. As one goes down, the other must come up. When tuition is frozen, state aid must be increased to pay for the freeze. In addition, the cost of doing business constantly rises. Meaning, budgets must be increased to keep up with rising costs – the cost of inflation.

uw-mdsn-studentsHere’s actually what happen. Tuition has been frozen since 2013. The same budget cut $65.6 million. The freeze was never funded. Both the 2011-13 and the 2015-17 budgets were cut by $250 million. The most recent budget returned a meager $36 million – nowhere near what was needed to make up the cut – let alone allow for funding the tuition freeze (since 2013) and the needed cost of living increases (since 2011).

Tuition was frozen, no cost of living increases provided, and a deep cut to the base was never repaired. Holding down both ends of the teeter-totter caused real stress.

To make matters worse, changes in policy – like the loss of the protection of statutory tenure – sent a clear message: higher education was not valued by state leaders.

Much of the UW budget pays for people. Without funding increases, professors and staff are paid less. People leave the system. Courses and programs are cut. The general reputation of the UW declines.

For example, research reported by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau pegged UW professors’ salaries well below other institutions. UW Stevens Point professors fared the worst, nearly one-quarter below the national average. At seven of thirteen four-year campuses, senior faculty were twenty percent or more below the national average. At two-year campuses, associate professors were thirty percent below the national average.

As a result, it’s increasingly difficult to retain high quality faculty and recruit qualified professors, especially in high demand fields like nursing and engineering. Professors departing the UW System, coupled with difficulties in recruitment, lowers the overall quality of faculty. This also makes it harder for faculty to obtain grants and lowers the quality of education and advisement students receive.

“We lost some of our best people,” UW Madison Chancellor told Atlantic reporter Jon Marcus 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.”

The new NorthStar study shows the UW economic impact more than doubled since the last study in 2002. The biggest change was the economic development activities contributing to “a very significant start up activity.” It’s well known Wisconsin lags the nation (the least or near last) in start-up companies.

Fixing the UW means a significant increase in state funding. If policy makers want to keep tuition frozen, let’s begin by funding that tuition freeze. Next, we need to fill in the big budget holes created since Walker’s first budget in 2011. Then we need to create a steady increase pegged to inflation. Finally, let’s truly honor the work of our scholars by rescinding the numerous policy changes that undermine higher education.

Supporting the UW helps all of Wisconsin. It’s time we invest our dollars where we can really grow our state.

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Peering in the Schoolroom Window

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, 22 August 2018
in Wisconsin

school-kidsSchool districts have not recovered from the historic cuts to state aid for schools included in Governor Walker’s budgets, forcing school superintendents and boards to make very difficult funding decisions as they deal with the needs of students.


ALMA, WI - “Welcome back to school,” the newsletter proclaimed. The Superintendent welcomed all with a cheery letter describing the amazing team at the school.

As students walk toward the school doors, they see from the outside that everything looks great. My local school district is proud of the new asphalt on the parking lot.

Inside the building, teachers worked hard to create a welcoming environment. For weeks, teachers, administrators and staff prepared a friendly and positive atmosphere for students, including cheerful posters decorating the walls and bright colors adorning the halls.

But, metaphorically, pulling back the blinds and peering deeper into our local classrooms shows a different picture.

Parents looked through the school supply list and made a shopping trip to prepare their children for school. Many teachers made lists and purchased needed supplies with their own checkbook.

To meet student needs, teachers stock their shelves with food for children who come to school hungry. Or hygiene supplies for children who need help keeping their young bodies clean. Often, it means creating a clothes closet for children who need coats, hats, shirts or shoes.

Peering into the schoolroom window we see children in poverty, children suffering from mental illness and/or trauma. Schools are helping more students with special needs. Many schools have more students who are English Learners.

Schools take on the challenge of meeting the needs of all students. However, children in poverty need more resources. They can succeed, but they need more help to do so.

Schools grapple with finding resources to help children with special needs. The federal government requires certain services for special needs students. Regardless of the tight school budget, schools must offer those services.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin only provides twenty-six cents for every dollar schools spend on special needs services. As a consequence of this policy, school boards and superintendents are forced to cut services for general education to meet the federally required special needs services. In essence, all children sacrifice to help fill the gap in the special needs budget.

A similar pattern emerges with the education of children who are English Learners. In 1990, the state paid 63 cents of every dollar a school spent on bilingual/ bicultural programs. Now, the state pays about eight cents of every dollar. As children’s needs increase, resources must be shifted from other programs to make up for the shortfall.

Likewise, mental health needs of students are increasing. For example, a recent survey of students reported nearly half of all girls and thirty-percent of all boys surveyed reported anxiety, along with higher rates of sadness, hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. Students are also increasingly facing trauma, especially students in poverty. Trauma affects students’ cognitive abilities as well as their behavioral and impulse controls. Schools need resources to help these children.

Declining enrollment in more than half of our schools is creating perpetual budget crises and leading to approval of a high number of school referenda just to pay for operations.

In real dollars, state funds flowing to schools are less than a decade ago. Wisconsin public schools suffered historic budget cuts under Gov. Walker. Despite increases in his Election Year budget, schools have not recovered from the massive cuts in 2011. In real dollars, public schools are getting less this year than they received in 2008-09.

kathleen-vinehoutFollowing enactment of Act 10, and the historic cuts to schools, teachers left the profession and fewer college students are becoming teachers. Budget cuts forced rural schools to cut support staff and courses in art, music, ag, along with advanced placement classes. Now, schools across the state are experiencing difficulties filling vacancies.

I serve on the Legislature’s Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding. We heard public testimony from schools around the state that experience serious budget challenges. Often the problems facing rural and inner-city schools are cited as reasons to change the state’s current course on school funding. However, I learned even suburban schools, like Kettle Moraine, are facing program cuts.

When we couple the increasing needs of children with historic budget cuts to schools, we can see through the school room window that challenges cannot be solved by our local school districts alone.

Wisconsin must reverse course and return to making education our top funding priority.

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New Research Points to Benefits of Medicaid Expansion

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, 15 August 2018
in Wisconsin

healthcareSen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about recently released research that points to benefits of Medicaid expansion, under the Affordable Care Act. Unfortunately, Wisconsin leaders did not opt to expand Medicaid.


ALMA, WI - “The dramatic decline in the share of children without health insurance over the past two decades is an American health policy success story,” wrote Alan Weil, the Editor in Chief of the journal Health Affairs. The journal is widely seen as a leader in reporting research related to health policy.

Medicaid (MA), known in Wisconsin as BadgerCare, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, are credited with an astounding ninety-four percent participation rate of eligible children. This is the highest level of health care coverage since researchers began measuring children’s coverage.

With one in six Wisconsin children living in poverty, and an increasing rate of childhood poverty, programs that provide health care coverage to children are even more important.

Unfortunately, researchers found states that did not expand MA coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) had fewer eligible children and parents participating in Medicaid.

Wisconsin’s governor chose not to expand MA under the ACA.

States that opted to expand MA successfully increased their level of health care coverage for eligible populations. Those states were effective at outreach, easy enrollment and easy renewal processes.

Researchers however cautioned that cuts to the funding available for outreach and elimination of the “individual mandate” (the requirement that everyone have health insurance) is predicted to lower health coverage for children in the future.

Health news from states that did expand MA coverage brings us a clearer picture of the benefits Wisconsin could reap under a change in our state policy.

Diabetes is one of Wisconsin’s top “avoidable” disease burdens. Diabetes can lead to many other health problems including eye and heart disease. Diabetic patients can control their blood sugar through lifesaving medications. But patients without health insurance frequently cannot afford costly medications.

kathleen-vinehoutGetting folks to fill their prescriptions and use their medicine as prescribed, can prevent other health problems, provide long-term benefits for the patient’s health and lower overall cost.

New research comparing MA expansion states with non-expansion states (like Wisconsin) show a significant increase in patients filling prescriptions for diabetic medication among the expansion states when compared to the non-expansion states. Researchers found older – below age 65 – patients experienced the largest increase in prescription fills.

The study looked at patterns in over ninety-six million prescription fills. Authors suggested that state savings can grow over time as people age but stay healthier. These savings could help justify the state’s investment in MA expansion.

Researchers also looked into better understanding the effect of MA expansion on coverage for those suffering from addiction. Researchers in Oregon suggested MA expansion was associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms and an increase in self-reported mental and physical health.

Getting the full complement of treatment options to MA patients suffering from substance abuse is a challenge for many states. Limits on MA – the nation’s largest payer for addiction treatment – has been a problem for many years.

Restricting access to services for addiction makes no sense, especially with the often small window when patients realize how sick they are and are willing to comply with treatment. For MA expansion states, the Affordable Care Act “ushered in landmark reforms to Medicaid coverage for addiction treatment,” wrote researchers in the recent edition of Health Affairs.

Wisconsin has the option of expanding MA coverage under the ACA. The current administration rejected MA expansion even though data from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau showed over a billion dollar six-year savings to the state budget (fiscal years 2013-14 through FY 18-19).

If leaders chose MA expansion in the current budget, the state would save two hundred and eighty-six million as federal money replaced precious state “general fund” dollars. I proposed using this savings to make a long-needed investment in community-based mental health and addiction recovery services.

Uninsured patients cost all of us, as hospitals shift the costs of those unable to pay their bills onto other patients. Programs like MA help all of us by providing lifesaving coverage.

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Not Much State Revenue Sharing Going On

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, 08 August 2018
in Wisconsin

road-repair-wiSen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about how stagnant shared revenue payments cause problems for local units of government as they try to address increasing costs.


ALMA, WI - “I just hope the county doesn’t cut the budget,” a local judge told me. We were discussing how effectiveness of his alternative treatment court program and how much he needed money to keep the program operating.

Across the State, local governments – counties, cities, village and towns – are preparing budgets for their 2019 operations. A major source of their income is shared revenue from the state.

“Shared revenue” has been a fixture in Wisconsin since 1911. The state sends money to local units of government at the end of July and again in mid-November. These payments help offset the property taxes folks pay to operate local government.

The system of sharing of revenue began as a way to return a portion of the new state income tax to local governments in order to offset the property tax exemptions that were enacted at that time. The state sent the money back to locals based on how much residents of each city, village, town or county paid into the state.

At first, ninety percent of the income taxes collected were sent back to the local governments from which they came. Called “return to origin,” the payments were higher to wealthier areas as those residents paid more in income taxes on their higher incomes.

During the 1970s, the system was changed to match local need. Lawmakers created a complex formula that included population, property values and local revenue efforts. Communities that had a utility, which didn’t pay property taxes, received additional payments. The policy objective was to provide a minimum amount of money from the state even if a community had many costs and low property values.

Changes over the years ‘tweaked’ the formula. Automatic increases were eliminated, and even though the formula was still law it wasn’t followed. During the 2008-2010 recession shared revenue was cut by three and one-half percent.

kathleen-vinehoutIn Governor Walker’s first budget, funding was cut by over nine percent. Since 2012, annual shared revenue aid to local government has remained unchanged.

In addition to not increasing shared revenue payments, the state asked more of local government in the form of mandates. Many of these mandates were unfunded, leaving local governments with more to do without additional resources.

State law limits local governments’ ability to raise revenue from property taxes by imposing levy caps. The combination of levy caps and decreased shared revenue from the state leaves local officials asking ‘What do we cut?’

On this one-way street where the state makes the rules, limits what local government can spend, and doesn’t share increasing revenue, local folks are stuck paying more of the cost and have few options to get extra money.

Many local governments have spent their reserves and are forced to consider borrowing money to cover needed improvements or unexpected costs, like repairing flood damage.

As discretionary programs are eliminated, more of local government budgets are taken up by public safety. Police and fire protection costs are increasing. But neither the levy cap nor the state shared revenue payments cover the increase.

Local officials are forced to choose whether to cut: public safety, repairing the roads, and/or community mental health and drug addiction programs.

Local officials are looking at increasing deficits in coming years. Next year state budget writers must address the shortfall or residents may face dire cuts in local programs.

In a memo I requested from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, shared revenue would need to increase by about 30% just to keep up with inflation since 2004. That would require an investment of $415 million in the next state budget.

That sum compares to the estimated $464 million payment promised by the Governor to Foxconn for building a factory in Racine.

As local governments cut their programs this fall, we will be reminded that we can’t spend the same dollar twice. What goes to Foxconn won’t be available for shared revenue.

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