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It’s Time to Raise the Minimum Wage

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, 10 December 2013
in Wisconsin

minimum-wageThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about raising the minimum wage in Wisconsin.


MADISON - “What is Wisconsin going to do about the minimum wage?” the woman asked at a recent town hall meeting. Increasing the minimum wage has been on the minds of many Wisconsinites.

As I travel, I hear many stories from working families who are struggling to make ends meet. Low wage workers fall further and further behind and are more dependent on the state’s cash strapped social safety net programs.

There is a step the state can take that would make an immediate impact: we could raise the minimum wage.

In 1913, Wisconsin became one of the first states to enact a minimum wage law. The purpose was to help lift workers out of poverty and to stimulate the economy. Unfortunately, since that time, increases to the minimum wage have not kept pace with the rising cost of living. Since the 1970’s the real value of the minimum wage has been plummeting. The real life consequences impact many of our hardworking neighbors.

According to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (WCCF) the typical household in Wisconsin earned $4,500 less in 2012 than in 2008.

The Council also reported the poverty rate in Wisconsin has increased; with one out of six children now living in poverty. In 2012, a total of 737,000 people lived in poverty. As the Council noted, “If poverty were a city, it would be Wisconsin’s largest city.”

The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported in 2012, a minimum wage worker in Wisconsin would have to work a total of 79 hours to afford a 2-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent.

Raising the minimum wage would put more money in the pockets of working families. Those workers would spend their extra earnings to provide for their families. The additional household spending benefits businesses in our communities.

Studies show that states with minimum wages higher than the federal floor had stronger job growth than in states that kept the lower federal level. In a 2006 study, the Fiscal Policy Institute found states that raised the minimum wage had more rapid small business and overall retail growth than states with the lower federal minimum wage.

Reports from employers cited additional benefits of a wage increase - higher productivity, decreased turnover, lower recruiting and training costs, decreased absenteeism, and increased worker morale.

For the past several sessions, my colleague Sen. Bob Wirch has been a tireless advocate for boosting the state’s minimum wage. This year, Senators Wirch and Harris introduced legislation that would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $7.60 per hour and tie future raises to an increase in inflation. I joined my colleagues as a co-author of Senate Bill 4.

Raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation should not be a partisan or controversial idea. Other states around the nation - New Jersey, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Florida, and Washington – put the issue on the ballot and all received overwhelming approval.

Similarly, indexing provisions have been enacted in eleven states, from all parts of the country and all along the political spectrum.

A poll conducted by the non-partisan Pew Center indicates that over 80% of Americans favor a higher minimum wage. Americans understand that increasing the minimum wage would provide greater stability to working families and an infusion of spending that will benefit the economy.

The Center on Wisconsin Strategy estimates that raising our minimum wage to $7.60 per hour would benefit at least 316,000 working people in our state. While I support this modest increase I recognize it falls short of what the minimum wage should be if it kept pace with inflation.

If we really want to lift people out of poverty and reward them for their hard work, let make steps to raise the minimum wage to $10.60 per hour. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics that $10.60 an hour would take us back in real dollars to the minimum wage of 1968.

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Changes in Committee Workings Limit Public Input

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 02 December 2013
in Wisconsin

closed-sessionThis week Kathleen writes about the changes to committee procedures within the Wisconsin Legislature in Madison and the resulting impact on public input in legislation. It is critical in a democracy that all voices have a chance to be heard.


MADISON - Committees are the doers of the Legislature. The process is designed to be slow, deliberative and encourage public input.

However, speed and secrecy are increasingly being used to limit public involvement and careful legislative deliberation.

Public hearings are one place people can make an impact on a developing new law. By testifying at a hearing, a person can directly provide input. Those who cannot travel to the Capitol can send emails or letters to members of a committee and request changes in legislation.

In recent years, small but significant changes are taking place in the workings of committees that limit public involvement. Changes like shortening the length of notice before a public hearing; providing a public notice of one version of a bill and then offering a complete rewrite shortly before the public hearing; limiting speaking time 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.

All of these actions have been used for decades. But it is the increasing frequency by which they are used that concerns many of my constituents.

Committee chairs have extraordinary power in their committee. They set rules by which public hearings are held. They decide whether and when to hold a hearing, whether the hearing receives enough public notice for widespread citizen involvement and who, if any, invited speakers might testify. During the hearing the chair determines the order of speakers and whether to limit speakers’ time testifying.

Following the public hearing the committee chair decides if and when committee members will vote on the bill. Usually the process involves consultation with members. Discussion following a public hearing can involve back and forth conversation about new information made public during the hearing. When a substantial rewrite of the bill appears necessary, the committee chair sometimes convenes a working group to work through bill changes.

Thus correct language for new legislation emerges from a careful process of give and take. Members and the public have adequate time to prepare and concerns are addressed. This process is slow – so slow it sometimes involves several legislative sessions.

Speed and secrecy will kill public input. And changes in the actions of committee chairs can, over time, create a Legislature that listens primarily to the input of lobbyists, paid to represent the interest of their clients. Those voices without paid lobbyists are increasingly not heard, their concerns not addressed.

Inadequate notice of public hearings often means only those groups with a full-time lobbyist with an office close to the Capitol are able to testify. Short notice makes it difficult for committee members to understand details and consequences of a new law. Short notice makes it difficult for those opposed to attend.

Limiting testimony stifles debate and new information. 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.

For example, a recent public hearing was held in the Senate mining committee on a bill to limit local people’s voices in sand mine operations. Many traveled by bus from western Wisconsin to testify. The first six hours of the testimony focused primarily on the concerns of those who benefited from the legislation – none of whom lived near a mine.

The committee chair finally got to calling the majority of those opposed to the legislation very late in the afternoon - after the bus had to leave taking many opposed to the bill back home.

These unfortunate scenarios are increasingly common in the state Capitol. When citizens take the time to journey to a public hearing and are not able to testify, they rightly feel left out of the process. It’s easy then to give up.

This is a mistake. Despite the difficulty, citizens must continue to be engaged in the democratic process. When changes are made to limit public input, it is essential that people refused to be silenced.

As Bob La Follette, often said, “The only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

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Deer Hunting and Wisconsin’s Tradition of Conservation

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 25 November 2013
in Wisconsin

deerALMA - Thanksgiving and gun-deer hunting are finally here. All fall I heard from folks who live for the 9-day deer hunt. I visited local businesses and saw deer photos posted in work cubicles. I spoke to high school classes or at town hall meetings and the conversation eventually turned to the great outdoors and hunting.

As the Senator from Buffalo County- the Deer Hunting Capital of the Midwest- many visitors to my Capitol office look for that trophy buck on the wall. A few of my Buffalo County visitors kid me saying my little buck must have come from some other county.

Many of us live to hunt and fish and enjoy the great outdoors. And we all have a role in preserving what we love.

Hunters play an important role in deer ecology. Wildlife biologists assess deer population and decide the proper harvest of deer by management regions. Western Wisconsin has a strong deer population. But in the north deer may be harder to find. For this reason DNR officials dropped the antlerless quota allocation for forested deer units in northern Wisconsin to the lowest level since 1997 as reported in the Eau Claire Leader Telegram.

A perennial problem for some hunters is locating hunting land. DNR made this task a little easier by creating a link to land open to public hunting (http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/lands/).

The site provides an excellent description of the many publicly-owned and accessible properties. Anyone who loves the outdoors would benefit from a visit to this site. You can choose to search by 22 types of activities from ATV riding to Wildlife Viewing.

As I traveled to cities and villages this fall I was struck by the universal love of Wisconsin’s environment. Whether it’s boating, fishing, bird watching, hunting or hiking – we live here because we love the outdoors.

Thanksgiving is a great time to reflect on the bounty of the land and waters. It’s also the time to renew our commitment to protect our lands and waterways for future generations.

Throughout Wisconsin’s history, conservation initiatives improved our environment. Past leaders established programs like the Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship program to set aside land through acquisition and conservation development. The program was named after two of our strongest conservation-minded governors – one of each political stripe.

It’s this bipartisan approach to conservation that helped protect Wisconsin. Long time rural residents tell me how conservation practices in the last 80 years brought back wildlife, preserved topsoil and cleaned up waterways.

It’s the concern about preserving this bipartisan approach that prompted so many people to talk with me about legislation they see as eroding our strong conservation traditions.

For example, in town hall meetings I was questioned repeatedly about the wisdom of selling 10,000 acres of state land. This requirement was slipped in the budget. Land sales come at the same time as another budget requirement allowing the sale of state assets in no-bid contracts. People fear possible questionable land deals.

Over and again questions were asked about the effect of recent law changes on the protection of water, particularly wetlands, ground water and the loosening of mine construction rules. The rapid growth of sand mines and understaffing of mine inspectors brings deep citizen distrust of the state’s ability to enforce even existing protections of land and water.

Rural folks are concerned about cuts to the farmer cost-share conservation program. It’s through state/land-owner financed projects that farmers are able to clean up barnyards with manure storage facilities, fence off streams, grow grass waterways and put in place stream buffer zones; all practices that help keep nutrients out of the water.

Fish thrive in clean waters and anglers enjoy the benefits. But there’s still a long way to go to cleaning up waterways. The program should be expanded, not cut back.

As we head out to partake of the bounty of our lands and waters, we must remember we are the stewards of our land and water. Let us act to preserve our resources for our children and their children.

I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy our great outdoors. I’m heading out to find that 10-point buck hanging around my alfalfa field!

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Affordable Health Care: No One Should Fall Through the Cracks

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 18 November 2013
in Wisconsin

healthcareThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the importance of working together to make health insurance a success. State politicians need to “quit rooting for failure” and instead “put their constituents first.


MADISON - A focus on solutions could make a special legislative session on health insurance a success.

Governor Walker recently told the Associated Press “We want to make sure nobody falls through the cracks.” If this is the goal, the best solution would be to continue providing public insurance until eligible folks have gotten signed up for the new Marketplace.

The governor has called on Legislators to extend his deadline to drop BadgerCare coverage for tens of thousands of low-income Wisconsinites because of difficulties folks experienced in getting signed up for the federal health insurance Marketplace.

Many low-income parents of children on BadgerCare and folks on HIRSP will lose their public insurance the first of the year and have until December 15th to sign up for Marketplace insurance to ensure uninterrupted coverage.

Computer glitches and widespread confusion caused a paltry 877 people in Wisconsin to actually choose a plan through the federal Marketplace healthcare.gov in the first month of the website’s operation. Only about 1 in 200 people who buy insurance in Wisconsin on their own actually chose a plan for 2014 through the Marketplace.

Minnesota, who has its own Health Marketplace MNsure, saw double the number of residents who contacted the Marketplace, were determined eligible and actually choose a health plan. Minnesota has an extensive marketing campaign to enroll people in the state-based Marketplace. Wisconsin leaders chose not to implement a state-wide marketing campaign.

Recent research shows costs in Minnesota are substantially lower than in Wisconsin. Failure to sign up large numbers of residents, especially younger people, in Wisconsin could add to these higher costs.

Wisconsin officials are critical of the troubles with the federal website and its failures in Wisconsin but appear uninterested in state-wide marketing efforts, rate reviews or the creation of a statewide Marketplace- all activities Minnesota has used to lower costs.

Extending the deadline before folks lose public insurance is a good start for Wisconsin.

But lawmakers should go further and assure people don’t lose BadgerCare or HIRSP until they’ve got other coverage.

A March 31, 2014 federal deadline exists for anyone buying insurance on their own. After that deadline folks won’t be able to buy coverage for 2014. The open enrollment window will not open again until October 2014 for 2015 coverage.

This means if people who buy insurance on their own do not get signed up for the Marketplace by April 1, 2014, they will be unable to get health insurance to cover them through 2014. Only a few exceptions exist related to changing family circumstances.

Half a million people in Wisconsin do not have insurance. Our focus must be on getting people coverage they can afford. Lawmakers should use the governor’s special session to immediately cover 85,000 people without minor children who make less than the federal poverty level of roughly $11,500 a year. This coverage was approved in the budget and is on track to go into effect in January.

In addition, the state should not drop coverage on low-income families until they are signed up for the new health Marketplace. State officials should explore the unique bipartisan approach used by the Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers in Arkansas.

Health is vital to life. We must not lose our focus on providing health security to Wisconsin. States that are succeeding in health care changes are those states that have put aside politics and focused on solutions.

For example, the governors in Washington, Kentucky and Connecticut recently wrote in a Washington Post op-ed:

People keep asking us why our states have been successful. Here’s a hint: It’s not about our website…

The Affordable Care Act has been successful in our states because our political and community leaders grasped the importance of expanding health-care coverage and have avoided the temptation to use health-care reform as a political football.

The three governors asked politicians to “quit rooting for failure” and instead “put their constituents first. Health reform is working for the people of Washington, Kentucky and Connecticut because elected leaders on both sides of the aisle came together to do what is right for their residents.”

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Why Do Minnesotans Pay Less for Health Care than Wisconsinites

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 11 November 2013
in Wisconsin

healthcareReports show that Minnesota residents will pay less for health care coverage than Wisconsinites. The path each state chose to follow related to the Affordable Care Act contributes to those differences.


MADISON - “Why is Minnesota paying less for health insurance than Wisconsin?” the doctor asked me.

He was one of many to say lawmakers better get to work to lower insurance costs. Many people who buy insurance on their own have complained to me about high insurance costs.

Folks near Minnesota told stories about how much easier it was for those in the Gopher State to get low cost insurance. A study released by Citizen Action of Wisconsin corroborates these stories.

The report analyzed data from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) showing Minnesota residents consistently pay less than Wisconsin residents. I read the DHHS report and found the average lowest monthly premiums in the 36 states reporting numbers was $249 for a Bronze Plan. The average cost for this plan in Wisconsin was $38 more than the national average. The study used a weighted average to adjust for population differences within the states.

In Minnesota, a similar plan was $144 a month, half the cost of Wisconsin’s plan!

The gap grew for older people and, especially, for people in western Wisconsin. Particularly striking is the difference in two western Wisconsin cities. On average, premiums in Eau Claire were 116% higher than Minnesota and premiums in La Crosse were 136% higher than the weighted average in Minnesota.

Citizen Action estimated premiums in Wisconsin will be $1,824 more a year for the lower cost Silver (middle) Plan than in Minnesota.

Many people asked how this could happen. What does Minnesota know that Wisconsin does not? What decisions could Wisconsin lawmakers make to turn these differences around?

First, it is important to note that Wisconsin does not significantly differ from Minnesota in per person health costs. Wisconsin is slightly more expensive but per person costs in both states are a little under $6,000 a year.

Second, Minnesota made very different decisions than Wisconsin last year. Minnesota chose a state-based Marketplace, chose to keep parents up to 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL) on Medicaid, and chose to expand coverage of Medicaid for all people up to 133% of FPL. This means a single person who makes up to about $15,000 a year can get on the Gopher State’s version of BadgerCare. The state also chose to vigorously use rate review authorities.

Wisconsin, on the other hand, decided to let folks buy insurance through the federal Marketplace. The Governor and lawmakers who voted for the state budget dropped BadgerCare coverage for any adult who made a little more than $11,000 a year. The state decided to not use its rate review authorities.

All these choices made a difference in the Marketplace rates people will pay in the next year. For example, the choice to not expand Medicaid cost those buying insurance in the Marketplace an estimated 8 – 10% more according to a recent study by the Rand Corporation. This is because people who lose Medicaid are poorer and likely in poorer health. When added to the state’s Marketplace pool, costs increase.

Sicker people are likely to seek out the Marketplace. Those who are healthy may sit out this period of enrollment. This creates much higher premiums. It is also why Minnesota conducted extensive advertising to encourage sign-up; something Wisconsin chose not to do.

Years ago when I wrote the legislation to create a state-based Marketplace, I learned from the experience of other states that marketing, especially to young people, was the single most important factor in getting a well-balanced pool of enrollees and keeping costs down.

It is no accident that those who oppose the Marketplace are running ads to discourage young people from signing up.

All the premium numbers I’ve mentioned are before federal credits. These subsidies go to lower income folks which will offset premiums. So those hit the hardest by higher Wisconsin costs will be middle income insurance buyers.

It’s time to put politics aside and create a Badger state-based exchange. The work is done in Senate Bill 12. I call on my colleagues to hold a public hearing on the bill.  If we can’t outshine the Gophers, lets at least keep up with them.

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