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Pay Attention to Madison, There’s a New Legislature in Session

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, 05 January 2015
in Wisconsin

madison_capitolSenator Kathleen Vinehout’s column about the new Wisconsin Legislature and legislative session. Kathleen shares her committee appointments and writes about what business the Legislature will take up in the next weeks.

MADISON - “Raise your right hand and repeat after me,” the Supreme Court Justice directs newly elected and re-elected lawmakers.

So begins the new 2-year Legislative Session.

On the first working day of 2015 a new group of freshman legislators began their work. Ordinary folks from ordinary lives receive a crash course in state services, agencies, budgeting and parliamentary procedure.

Soon an onslaught of proposed bills will appear in the email in-boxes of lawmakers.

Over 1,500 bills will be introduced before the 2-year legislative session adjourns. These bills will flow through 16 Senate and 33 Assembly committees. Certain proposals will also be reviewed by 10 joint committees.

Each lawmaker is assigned a number of committees, other appointed commissions, boards or special study committees. This year I will serve as the Ranking Minority member of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee and the Agriculture, Small Business and Tourism Committee. I am also assigned to the Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry Committee, the State Tribal Relations Committee, the Joint Committee on Information Policy and Technology and the Education Reform and Government Operations Committee.

Education leaders are preparing for numerous proposed changes widely anticipated to include an expansion of state money for private schools. Special education advocates are concerned about public money going to private schools for special ed students. Others are concerned about a proposed expansion of independent charter schools run with tax dollars. Funds are limited and any tax dollars to private schools must be argued in the context of a tight budget and many needs.

Work on the state budget begins right away. The governor is expected to unveil his proposed budget near the end of January. Lawmakers will be crafting additions to the budget before they see the Governor’s details. Once the two-year spending plan is unveiled, I’ll be picking through the details and crafting changes. This work will be my focus for the spring.

As a rookie lawmaker, several years ago, I found it curious that my very first job was the most demanding task of the two-year session. This year more than one in five lawmakers never voted on a state budget. Special efforts must be made to educate newly elected ‘ordinary citizens’ on the impact of decisions on our local communities.

The task of understanding the budget is made more difficult with the addition of non-fiscal policy – law changes unrelated to the financial matters. This practice is seldom a good idea but has been popular among recent governors. Perhaps the practice is popular because the budget is the only bill the governor writes.

Last session nearly 100 separate pieces of policy unrelated to the state’s finances became law with the passage of the state budget. This policy included unpopular items like taking away local powers to set locations for cell or TV towers.

The most important work of the Legislature will be the passage of this budget bill by midyear. The decisions made in the next few months will affect all our lives. Some of the results of these decisions will not be seen for several years.

Because of the widespread and important decisions made by the Legislature – a group of ‘ordinary citizens’ from all walks of life - it is very important for us all to take the time to let our Legislators know the local effects of what is being discussed.

People want things fixed and nowhere is that more evident than with potholes and bridges. One closed bridge made life harried for all the residents near Taylor, Wisconsin. Getting a grip on the money needed for transportation repairs and new construction will be a real challenge in the coming year. Finding a way to pay will not be easy. It’s the general “wisdom” about taxes: “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax the fellow behind the tree.”

Tight dollars will increase the lure of tricks and smokescreens to balance the state budget. My plan is to do the homework to unravel the details and then bring the budget home to you with Town Hall meetings around western Wisconsin. We all need to know what’s being discussed and how it affects you and your neighbors.

So stay tuned. There will be a lot happening!

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Looking Forward to the Challenges of 2015

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, 30 December 2014
in Wisconsin

new-year-2015Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about some of the challenges that will face us here in Wisconsin during the new year.

ALMA - There’s something about the New Year that brings freshness and hope. Pain and loss are eased as the calendar turns to 2015. Opportunity and change await.

Farming taught me the importance of new beginnings. While the ground lies fallow, plans begin. The farmer sees the snow covered field. But in the mind’s eye, the field is lush green. The weeds are few; the crop bountiful; the balance sheet in the black.

So begins the work of the people in 2015. Every bill is new (although many are recycled). Each bill begins the laborious process of committees and public hearings. Many legislators are new; returning lawmakers have new offices and some new staff.

Acrimonious campaigning is put aside. Even long-time opponents sound similar as they compete to deliver the best bipartisan speech.

Farming taught me the importance of having a plan; so in this spirit of fresh beginnings this week and next I’ll offer my hopes and plans for the coming year.

The new session begins with the Governor’s proposal for the two-year state budget. The most important work of the Legislature will be the passage of this bill by midyear. The largest state-funded part of the budget will be K-12 education. What happens to schools will affect every community in Wisconsin.

Schools are the heart of our communities. Many who contact me are afraid they will lose their local school – or trade increasing property taxes as the only way to keep their school open. Fixing school funding is at the top of my 2015 plans. Many have offered answers including State Superintendent Tony Evers who proposed a new funding formula in his budget request.

“We must do something to help rural schools,” my Republican colleague said at a December legislative forum. “Don’t let partisanship stop a fix to rural schools”, directed the op-ed headline. I agree. The answers are before us. Let’s get the job done.

Fear of closing college campuses ranks right up there with the fear of closing local schools. UW Superior recently cut nearly half of its graduate programs including art, reading and library science. Suspended undergraduate programs include music with theater and computer science programs still under review. Campuses across the state are struggling with less state aid and the effects of tuition freezes.

UW campuses make our communities what they are today: a vital engine of progress humming along inspiring our youth and providing creativity, culture, and – in medical advances – life itself. We must invest in colleges and universities and plan to provide an affordable college education to the next generation of smart, hardworking youth.

Many people are concerned the New Year will bring additional challenges to local government. They fear new state laws will take away local ability, for example, to site and regulate sand mines. The state sends new –often unwanted – responsibilities to locals but keeps the resources and removes local powers.

Instead of removing local powers, let’s add to them in bipartisan action aimed at real local empowerment. Let’s provide local people with the resources to get the job done; to deliver services people want and need.

Since I’ve written about the Government Accountability Board (GAB) and its challenges in the New Year, I’ve heard from local clerks. One municipal clerk from Pierce County wrote that she found staff at the GAB very helpful. She thought they did a great job in the face of all the ‘continual law changes’. So let’s keep this nonpartisan watchdog and give them resources to get their job done.

Finally, let’s make 2015 about real economic prosperity for all families. We know businesses locate in great places to live. Great places to live mean local decisions kept local, great schools and universities, and great parks, rivers and other places to play; all these state government can help locals.

So can you! Please share your thoughts because the best ideas for improving our communities come from the people who live in them.

A big thank-you to the dedicated staff of the 31st District: Ben Larson, Linda Kleinschmidt and our intern turned-part-timer Paige Humphrey.

Wishing you and yours a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

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Audit Shows Walker Jobs Agency "Too Busy" to Talk to Unemployed

Posted by Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert is the Publisher of the Northeast Wisconsin - Green Bay Progressive.
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 16 December 2014
in Wisconsin

joblessWalker’s DWD blocked the calls from almost 1.7 million Wisconsin workers seeking unemployment assistance. As a result thousands of unemployed workers appear to have been forced to wait for or did not receive much-needed benefits.

MADISON - A new state report released today says the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) call centers were too busy to answer almost 1.7 million calls from people looking to claim unemployment benefits in the year that ended June 30. The Legislative Audit Bureau issued findings showing that DWD placed people in a hold queue when call center staff were busy.

Despite being last in the Midwest for job growth, Governor Walker’s DWD blocked the calls from Wisconsin workers seeking unemployment assistance. As a result thousands of unemployed workers appear to have been forced to wait for or did not receive much-needed benefits they paid for.

dave-hansen“At a time when families are at their most vulnerable the state should not be forcing them through an endless frustrating loop of delays and dead-end phone calls simply for trying to get the benefits they earned and paid for,” said Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay).

In response to an increasing number of calls received from constituents who were having trouble getting through to the DWD last February, Senator Hansen and several Democratic senators wrote to Governor Walker urging him to take action to fix the problem.

“We wrote to the Governor after hearing from constituents, many of whom had been calling dozens of times per day and others spending entire days trying to get through so they could access the benefits they paid for. The audit conducted by the non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau shows just how badly the department failed so many Wisconsin families when they needed help the most.”

According to the audit since 2011 over 3.6 million calls were blocked and another million callers hung up out of frustration after being put on hold. Although the number of people filing claims declined last year the problem got worse leading to 1.7 million calls being blocked.

“This was not an unknown problem. They had years to fix it. Combined with the Governor’s failure to create the jobs he promised, the fact that they didn’t bother to fix the problem suggests an appalling lack of concern for the average family.”

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Don’t Let Government Accountability “Reform” Mean Return to Corruption

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, 15 December 2014
in Wisconsin

madison_capitolSenator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the Legislative Audit Bureau report on the Government Accountability Board and the attempt of GOP leaders to use it to dismantle the agency. Do we really want Wisconsin to be like Illinois, Texas and Louisiana – all of which have the reputation of freewheeling, corrupt elections?

MADISON - “I promise you that two years from now, when we are sitting here, the GAB will not be in the current format,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told a crowd at a Madison luncheon as reported by the Wisconsin State Journal.

The Government Accountability Board (GAB) was created seven years ago to prevent corrupt practices in state government. The agency had its beginnings when the existing ethics and election board failed to stop lawmakers from using public resources for campaign purposes in the 2002 “caucus scandal”.

A recently released Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) audit of the GAB provides insight to the activities of the GAB. The audit also spurred a partisan attack on the agency crippled by underfunding and unprecedented challenges.

Auditors confirmed that GAB officials complied with many legal duties but, among other findings, did not promulgate required administrative rules, adequately track late reports or consistently assess penalties.

Local government administers elections with oversight from the GAB. Many actions of the agency are working well. Municipal clerks are trained using a variety of methods to allow on-line attendance. The agency regularly audited polling places to assure accessibility for disabled voters. The GAB matches computer information on voters to prevent voter fraud.

Some problems existed in the consistency and accuracy of computer matches. To assure, for example, felons still serving time do not vote or no one casts a ballot in the name of the deceased, coordinated efforts must take place between the GAB and local clerks.

Sometimes errors were made. In stopping ineligible felons from voting the Department of Corrections included aliases. Sometimes those names matched real people. Locals must take care to not revoke the voting privileges of innocent people.

In other activities of the GAB, the audit found over 90% of lobbying groups and over 85% of campaigns filed required reports on time. But GAB staff did not consistently track or enforce penalties for late reports and violations of lobbying laws. Staff did not have written policies when making exceptions to the assessment of penalties.

The oversight of the GAB could not be completely evaluated by the LAB because an Attorney General’s opinion this summer limited release of documents to the auditors. The action of the Attorney General affected auditors’ ability to review complaints investigated by the GAB. Over 1,900 complaints were received but auditors could examine less than a third of these complaints.

Critics of the GAB cite its failure to promulgate administrative rules as a deliberate action of a “rogue” agency that “ignored state law”. This is hyperbole.

Administrative rules took a backseat to agency duties at a time of great demand on the GAB’s strained human resources. During this time period, the GAB repeatedly asked for additional staff and was turned down by the Governor. More than a quarter of its state funds were cut since 2011.

At the same time the GAB faced unprecedented challenges: historic recall elections; the enactment of 31 separate pieces of new legislation and lawsuits affected the agency, including several over photo ID. To make compliance more difficult, a 2011 law changed the length and complexity of the rule-making process leaving many agencies – not just the GAB - with delayed or eliminated permanent rules.

Problems must be corrected. The agency response to the audit sets out details on how to do this. Some agency failures happened before 2011. Clearly tight budgets and tough workloads are not the only explanation.

But lawmakers can’t starve the agency, load it with additional work, and then complain staff isn’t doing the job fast enough.

If Wisconsin wants clean elections, transparent campaigns and lobbying and ethics among elected officials, the state must provide the GAB with adequate resources to do the job.

Dismantling the agency will put the people back in the dark when it comes to elections, campaign finance, lobbying and ethics. Destroying the agency to save it should not be an option.

I question the end game of critics of the GAB.

To Assembly Speaker Vos: “Do we really want Wisconsin to be like Illinois, Texas and Louisiana – all of which have the reputation of freewheeling, corrupt elections?”

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Serving Wisconsin: Retiring Senators Offer Wisdom

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, 08 December 2014
in Wisconsin

capital-madisonwiThree retiring Senators – Tim Cullen, Bob Jauch and Dale Schultz call upon their colleagues to work together in the best interest of the people and warn against the dangers of hyper partisanship and outside groups taking the power that should rest with the people.

MADISON - “There is a yearning outside the Capitol for common sense, cooperation and compromise,” Senator Tim Cullen told his fellow Senators. “You all know how to do this if you’ve been married for more than 15 days.”

As 2014 comes to a close, so do the public careers of several extraordinary Senators. I listened carefully as these public servants delivered farewell speeches on the Senate floor. The wisdom shared by three great men comes from a cumulative 80 years of experience that spanned four decades.

“We came because we care,” Republican Senator Dale Schulz told his colleagues. “I ran for public office because I felt called.”

“We’re on this earth to help others,” said Democratic Senator Cullen who also served in Governor Thompson’s Republican administration as Secretary of Health.

“Our obligation is to empower the people; not to avoid them because they are of a different political persuasion,” said Democratic Senator Bob Jauch. “We are the caretakers of the public trust. We serve in the people’s place.”

Empower the people is certainly what Senator Jauch accomplished. This year the Pepin-based Flyway Film Festival presented the film Wisconsin’s Mining Standoff, which prominently features Senator Jauch and his work to empower local people and protect the natural resources of our state.

Senator Jauch joined Senators Cullen and Schulz in drafting an iron ore-mining bill that addressed the stated concerns of the mining company while respecting the local people’s wishes, the Native American tribes’ role and the federal regulator’s requirements. Although the carefully crafted bill didn’t pass, the work stands as one of the last great bipartisan achievements.

It’s not surprising as all three men retire, the lessons they share relate to the value of working together and the dangers of partisanship and ideology.

“[We should] lift up ideas, not ideology. Ideology stifles thought,” said Cullen.

“Our history is not written on partisanship, but on partnership,” said Jauch. “Politics ought to be the practice of solving problems.

“We have to quit asking ourselves which team we’re on. I’m on the people’s team,” shared Schultz. “Partisanship is a lens not a straightjacket. We’ve got to stop thinking of the other side as the enemy.”

Senator Schultz expanded on the idea of ‘who the real enemy is’ in a Wisconsin State Journal story:

“Here’s how I see the enemy. The enemy is poverty in a country and a state that has no business having kids and families go to sleep hungry at night or in their cars.

“The enemy is unemployment and underemployment, because nobody asked an employer advertising a good job if they were R or Ds, they were just thankful to get a job that gave them worth and put food on the table.

“The enemy is those who encourage an undereducated citizenry. Education is the key to helping give people a hand up and a better future.

“The most dangerous enemy of all…is the enemy closest to us. It lives with us and within us. The real enemy is fear. We fear what we do not understand. We fear those who are different. We fear losing what we have.

“When we take away our masks, and face each other…without judgment, fear of loss or recrimination, then we can begin to listen, we can begin to talk, and then we can begin to build a better future.

All three Senators speak about the dangerous trend of allowing outside groups to take power that should be reserved for the people and about elected officials representing the people’s interests.

“’We the people’ has been substituted with ‘we the privileged,’” said Jauch.

“Be careful of accepting support from powerful groups,” warned Cullen. “You may think you have your hands in their pockets but in the end, they have their hands in your pockets. The best thing we can do is to say ‘no’ to our friends.”

Senator Schultz summed it up well, “When some think tank comes up with the legislation and tells you not to fool with it, why are you even a legislator anymore? You just sit there and take votes and you’re kind of a feudal serf for folks with a lot of money.”

Thank you for your service gentlemen. We are humbled in your shadow.

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