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Looking Back on 2013

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, 23 December 2013
in Wisconsin

At this season of reflection, Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the year coming to a close and the issues about which people contacted her.

ALMA - The Holiday season is upon us. With it comes the time for reflection on the past year. I always like to take time to look back on the work accomplished. One of my most important duties as State Senator is responding to concerns of the people I am honored to represent.

As I look back at the issues people expressed as their concern it is no surprise state spending was at the top of the list. In odd-numbered years, the Legislature debates the two-year state budget. State spending related to education and health care tied with concerns related to mining, including sand mining and opposition to gun control.

People are worried state money for local schools has been cut too deep. They overwhelmingly oppose the use of public dollars for expansion of private voucher schools. Many people agree the school funding formula needs to be changed and special resources must be given to rural schools and those with high numbers of students in poverty. This is why I wrote an alternative budget fully funded public education, changing the formula and eliminated the new money for private school vouchers and tax breaks.

Health care is a concern on the minds of many. Of the several hundred people who contacted me about health care, 100% wanted the state to take federal dollars to cover people with BadgerCare and did not want those who now have BadgerCare to lose it. People are very concerned Wisconsin rates are nearly $2,000 a year more on average than Minnesota rates. I received many letters from those who were shocked at the amount they had to pay. They expressed outrage at the state not creating a state based Marketplace. This is why, for the third legislative session in a row I introduced a bill to create a Badger Marketplace.

Firearms and mining were other top issues of concern for people in western Wisconsin.

Nearly 4 out 5 contacts related to firearms were opposed to increased gun control. Little legislative action was taken on this issue and I don’t expect any in the near future.

Of those contacting me about sand mines, 85% were opposed to more mines. A similar number of people contacting me oppose the iron ore mine. In response to concern about the impact of sand mines on communities, I introduced five bills to lessen the worst impacts of sand mines. The bills require better public notice of proposed mines, require mines to be better neighbors and increase the number of inspectors making sure mines are not polluting the environment. Unfortunately none of these bills even received a hearing in 2013.

While statewide issues get a lot of attention, most of the legislation I introduced in 2013 was to help back home. For example, years ago the Village of Stockholm requested legislation to get state designation as a “premier resort area”. This would help boost tourism and garner more tourist dollars. After years of introducing bills to accomplish this, this year we finally succeeded.

I hear from many people about lousy cellphone coverage. They are thankful for their home telephone service. But many large telecom companies are getting out of the landline phone business. This creates a big problem for people, especially the elderly and small business owners, who rely on their landline. This is why I introduced a common sense proposal to protect landline phones.

In our area, local control is sacred. We elect local officials to make decisions in the best interest of our communities. I heard from many people opposed to actions by this Legislature that take power away from local people. An example that hit close to home is Senate Bill 349 which nullified local sand mine ordinances and forbids local protection of water, air or the use of explosives. Fortunately, with overwhelming contact in support of local control, we’ve managed to stall this misguided proposal.

A big thanks you to my senate staff and interns. And to all who contacted me – thank you for the opportunity to serve! I wish you and yours a very Happy Holiday.

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Health Insurance Problems Need Solutions Not False Choices

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, 16 December 2013
in Wisconsin

healthcareGovernor Scott Walker’s choices regarding BadgerCare and federal Medicaid expansion create a false choice in his special session bills. The problem can be solved for childless adults by amending the bill to provide the promised coverage under a new BadgerCare or to accept the federal Medicaid expansion dollars and create state health care exchange.

ALMA - “What are you going to do for health insurance?” I asked. “I don’t know.” Sam told me.

It was a conversation I’ve had a thousand times since I became a Senator almost seven years ago. What was unique was the setting: I met Sam in an ambulance.

Sam and I had much in common, besides spending part of Sunday morning in an ambulance. Sam was a farmer, raised a lot of food for the family, loved farming and had a medical condition that made it hard to get health insurance.

After the patient (me) was stabilized, I badgered Sam with questions. I squeezed out a few facts. One was Sam would soon lose health coverage because of actions at the State Capitol. The other fact was Sam had lung cancer.

Most people think because someone works in health care they automatically have health insurance. But it’s just not always so.

Sam was a volunteer first responder. I had just been rescued from a 30 vehicle pile-up near Sam’s home. Farming was Sam’s main occupation; being a volunteer first responder didn’t help get Sam health insurance. Like so many farmers Sam depended on help from the state to get health insurance. That help was going away.

A few days earlier I met Mary. She was hoping for help from the state to get health insurance. She’d traveled in zero degree weather across two counties to find me. She relied on the goodwill of a neighbor to bring her to an event her neighbor knew I would attend.

“Please help me,” Mary asked. “They are almost doubling my insurance rates. It’s already over $600 a month.”

“Mary has only social security to live on,” her neighbor said. “She’s at 95% of poverty level – which should mean she will get on BadgerCare. But the Governor is not letting this happen. She won’t be eligible for federal subsidies. She makes too little.” (The Affordable Care Act provides coverage for people like Mary under the federal Medicaid expansion; however the governor must accept the federal dollars).

Like Sam, Mary has cancer. She lost her husband, owed a $100,000 in back medical bills for his cancer treatment. She was totally blind in one eye and could see very little from the other.

Mary buried her tears on my shoulder. “This is so wrong,” I told her.

Although I changed the names to protect confidentiality, Sam’s and Mary’s stories are the real-life experience of over 160,000 Wisconsinites.

The Governor called the Legislature into Special Session to address problems with health insurance. But his “solutions” create more problems.

Governor Walker has created a false choice between the delay of new BadgerCare coverage for poor people like Mary without dependent children and the delay of terminating state health care for people like Sam who are covered by BadgerCare or the state’s high risk plan- HIRSP.

On one hand the Governor will allow tens of thousands of people who now have state coverage to keep it until April when, presumably, problems with the federal Marketplace are solved. On the other hand the Governor will not cover any new –very poor- people on BadgerCare until April- presumably because the state can’t afford it.

When the Senate votes to approve this false choice I won’t be able to attend because of medical problems I sustained, but if I could, I would vote “no”. And here is why.

The state is not broke. The state ended its fiscal year on June 30, 2013 with a surplus of $759 million. To cover childless adults as promised would cost $38.9 million.

Clearly the problem is not a lack of money; it is a series of bad choices that will have a dramatic effect on the lives of tens of thousands of people like Sam and Mary.

To avoid the false choice created by the Governor, the Legislature must take immediate action. At a minimum, we must amend the Special Session bill and provide BadgerCare coverage for childless adults on January 1, 2014.

Even better, let’s put politics aside and provide a solution that works for all Wisconsinites; accept the federal Medicaid dollars and create a Badger state-based exchange.

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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 (

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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