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Window Closing for Health Insurance: Sign Up Now!

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, 24 March 2014
in Wisconsin

affordable-care-actThis week Senator Vinehout writes about the fast approaching deadline to sign-up for health insurance through the Marketplace.


EAU CLAIRE - “I was getting the run-around,” the Eau Claire woman told me. She tried to get health insurance through the federal healthcare.gov website and was told she was eligible for Medicaid coverage in her state. When she went to sign-up for BadgerCare, she was then told she was NOT eligible.

I explained Governor Walker and legislative Republicans refused to take the new federal Medicaid money and made it harder for folks to get on BadgerCare.

“I thought that’s what happened,” the woman told me. She was a personal care worker for a disabled man. They and their friends visited me as part of a disability advocacy day at the Capitol.

The health insurance premium was one more thing the woman had to pay for on her meager salary. She could only afford a policy with a $12,000 deductible.

I’ve heard many complaints about high premiums, high deductibles, and people paying a lot less for the same insurance in Minnesota. The Land of 10,000 Lakes decided to start its own exchange, to use state review to lower rates and to accept federal money for new Medicaid eligible people.

This has a lot of folks in western Wisconsin asking if they’re paying too much for poor coverage. They wonder if they should even sign up for insurance.

March 31st is the last day to sign up for Marketplace insurance coverage in 2014. If you don’t sign up now, you won’t be able to buy private health insurance for 2014 – even if you need insurance.

Folks ask me, “If I go to the hospital, can I sign up for coverage then?”

The answer is ‘no’. Without a deadline, most folks would have little incentive to sign up until they got sick.

Getting insurance is important even if you don’t think you will use it. Only under a few circumstances – like losing your job with insurance – can you sign up after the March 31st window closes.

When you sign up and pay your first month’s premium, the coverage typically takes effect at the beginning of the next month. The insurance is not retroactive – meaning it will not cover costs you had prior to paying your premium.

But, the Affordable Care Act does guarantee an insurance company must cover people with pre-existing health conditions. It makes it illegal for an insurance company to cancel your policy if you get sick and ends the lifetime and yearly dollar limits on coverage of essential health benefits.

Across the US people are being urged to sign up for health insurance before the deadline. The more people who sign up, the lower the premiums will be going forward for those who enroll. Assuming, of course, states are doing everything possible to keep consumers costs low.

Not taking the federal money to expand BadgerCare hurts all those buying insurance in Wisconsin as poorer people who often have more health problems are entering the Marketplace instead of receiving care through BadgerCare. Higher numbers of uninsured also raises the cost for those with insurance.

Kaiser Family Foundation tracks states’ progress on enrolling those eligible for Marketplace health insurance. As of the beginning of March, Wisconsin had enrolled almost 15% of those eligible – right at the US average. But this still leaves over 400,000 people without insurance.

It may be months before we fully understand the effect on people’s cost and coverage of Wisconsin’s decision to not take federal money, not use state rate review and not create a statewide exchange. But if you’re going to protect yourself and your family, you’ve got to decide to sign up now.

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Restrictive Republican Voting Bills Give Lobbyists and Corporations 2, Voters 0

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, 19 March 2014
in Wisconsin

votersThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about restrictive Republican voting bills recently passed by the state Senate that impact our elections. The bills would limit early voting hours, make it easier for lobbyists to make campaign contributions, and for corporations to shakedown employees for campaign contributions.

The early voting limitations will have a negative effect on both rural and urban voters. They make it easier for lobbyists to contribute to campaigns and for corporations to push their employees to contribute to candidates and take power from the people.


MADISON - Should it be easier for lobbyists to contribute to campaigns? Should corporations spend more money to ask their employees to make campaign contributions? Should Wisconsin limit early voting?

Is there any lawmaker who has citizens clamoring for any of the above?

Recently the Senate spent two days debating bills that open the window for lobbyists to contribute to campaigns and closes the window for voters to cast early ballots.

If the bills become law, lobbyists can contribute as early as April 15th [in the year preceding an election] and voters will be limited to just 10 weekdays of early voting.

This is the second attempt in recent years to limit early voting. In 2011, majority party members voted to limit early voting from three weeks with three weekends to two weeks with just one weekend.

In the new bill, early voting would be limited to the hours between 8:00 am and 7:00 pm. But clerks would be limited to only 45 weekday hours during this time period. Many cities, like Eau Claire, would be required by state law to cut back on the hours they now offer to voters.

Proponents of the bill blamed rural areas for the cut back in city hours. Senator Fitzgerald told the Senate his constituents complained because they saw Milwaukee citizens voting during a time “not available to people in rural areas.”

What he failed to mention, and I pointed out to all Senators, is the bill he touted as making things more equivalent for rural and urban voters now bans the often-used rural practice of voting by appointment on a weekend.

Some of my neighbors work in Winona, Minnesota. Some drive a truck for a living. Some work two jobs in Eau Claire – an hour away. Others work in Minneapolis – a full two hours away. I work in Madison far from my home in beautiful Buffalo County. Many of my neighbors and I vote on the weekend or in the evening at our town clerk’s kitchen table.

To say voters cannot make weekend arrangements with rural clerks – who also may work many miles from home – is to make voting very difficult for rural folks who work away from home.

And working long hours away from home isn’t limited to rural voters.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorialized about the argument that this bill just leveled the playing field between urban and rural voters:

[T]hat’s a thin veneer covering the real intent: what this bill really is all about is suppressing the Democratic vote in Milwaukee and Madison, where many of the state’s people of color live. It’s a highly partisan bill that harkens back to an earlier era when voting for certain groups of people was made much harder by strict poll laws. On that basis alone, Gov. Scott Walker should veto the bill.

While a majority of Senators were voting to limit both rural and urban voters, they were also making it easier for corporations to shake down their employees for campaign contributions.

In a bill now headed to the Assembly, a majority of senators voted to increase by 40 times the legal amount a corporation can spend to entice employees to contribute to a candidate. Candidate contributions by corporations are banned in Wisconsin. But chief executives get around the ban by asking spouses and employees to contribute. Under the bill, corporations will be able to spend up to $20,000 to encourage employees to contribute to campaigns.

The basic problem with this practice is the power imbalance between an employee and the employer. Just like it’s hard to say ‘stop it’ to a sexually aggressive boss, it’s hard to say ‘no’ when the boss says, “Where’s your contribution? Everyone else has given.” Laws protect employees from sexual harassment by a boss. But asking employees to contribute to candidates is perfectly legal. Spending $20,000 to do the asking may soon also be legal.

Limiting early voting, expanding corporations’ power in soliciting campaign donations and, making it easier for lobbyists to contribute have nothing to do with the Governor’s “focus like a laser on jobs”.

And finally on the topic of elections, remember to vote – early while you still can - in the spring election on April 1st.

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How a State Law Obstructed Reward for Teen's Hard Work and Good Grades

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, 11 March 2014
in Wisconsin

edSenator Vinehout writes about the Academic Excellence Higher Education Scholarship. This scholarship is awarded to the valedictorian of each high school in Wisconsin. But, for high schools with total pupil count below 80, the valedictorians are thrown into a pool from which only 10 scholarships are awarded. Since 90 high schools fall into this category, a small school valedictorian may qualify one year and not the next. The law discriminates against small high schools that are often in rural areas.


ALMA - Joel knew from the 8th grade he wanted to be valedictorian of his high school class. His cousin just graduated at the top of his class. Because of this achievement, the cousin received a scholarship.

Joel (not his real name) talked to his cousin and learned more about the scholarship. I’m going to uphold the family tradition, Joel told himself. I’m going to win this scholarship.

The Academic Excellence Higher Education Scholarship is Wisconsin’s way of saying, “Well done” to a graduating valedictorian. The scholarship amounts to $2,250 a year to be used for tuition at a Wisconsin college or university. Depending on the total number of students enrolled in a high school, additional scholarships may be awarded to the top graduating seniors.

Joel got to work. He took every class seriously- even physical education and cooking. He studied hard and got nearly perfect grades. He was nominated to the National Honor Society since his sophomore year.

Joel competed against other students who might have been smarter, might have had better test scores and might have had some other advantage. But Joel worked harder. And not just in the classroom.

He was on Student Council for three years and now serves as an officer. He played in Jazz Band all four years of high school. He was nominated for and played in three regional honors bands. He took his alto saxophone to state solo ensemble competition for two years and hopes to compete at state again this spring.

Although Joel is not particularly outgoing, he polished his public speaking skills through forensics; making it to state competition all three years of high school. He hopes to again make it to the state forensics tournament this spring.

Joel’s talents and hard work continued in his community service. He volunteers at church. He loves Scouts and served as Senior Patrol Leader for two years. He cleans up a local park as part of his Eagle Scout community service project. Joel showed livestock, did wood-working and served two years as president of his 4H club. He helped at the county fair Lions Club food booth when he wasn’t keeping his 4H hogs well-behaved and clean.

If that isn’t enough Joel, who also served as FFA president for three years, helps his dad around the farm. He took tractor safety and hunter safety and worked on the summer maintenance crew in his hometown.

Joel’s already taken three college courses – which he aced – spent three years on the golf team and played a leading role in the school play – three years in a row.

To say Joel is well-deserving is an understatement.

So Joel – recently named valedictorian of his graduating class - and his parents were surprised to be informed the scholarship he so deserved was not forthcoming.

Last year’s senior class valedictorian was awarded the scholarship, and valedictorians going back several years, and maybe again next year, but not this year. Why?

Because the number of students in Joel’s high school dipped below 80 this year.

After hearing this story, I took a look at the law.

High schools with a total pupil count below 80 are not automatically awarded a scholarship. Instead the names of valedictorians from these high schools are put into a pool from which only ten scholarships are awarded. This year about 90 small schools fall into this category. Many of these schools are charter or private schools. But as enrollment drops in rural areas whole public school districts are being caught up in the 80-student rule – at least five more this year.

The superintendent of a local high school at 81 students wrote to me: a student should not be penalized for the size of the high school they attend. The current law would seem to be discriminatory to students who live in rural Wisconsin.

Seems to be? The superintendent was too kind. The law is discriminatory – and needs to be changed. I call on my colleagues to reward the hard work of all Wisconsin valedictorians – regardless of where they live.

Let’s change this law! And let’s get it done right now.

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Sand Mine Bill Strips Local Powers - Community's Ability to Say No

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 March 2014
in Wisconsin

mill-bluffsThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about a bill that would take away local control as it relates to sand mining. The bill, SB 632, appears to be fast-tracked through the legislative process. It will impact existing local ordinances and take away the ability of local communities to say “no”.


MADISON - Should communities be able to prevent development of sand mines? Can communities set rules if sand mine operations are inadequate to protect nearby residents?

A new “communities cannot say no to sand mines” bill is making its way through the Legislature. The bill introduced by Senator Tiffany, chair of the Senate Mining committee, appears on the fast track. It could be up for final passage in both houses less than two weeks after it was unveiled.

The bill freezes in place the public health, safety and welfare protections for a community as they relate to existing sand mines. If this bill becomes law, the locals wouldn’t be able to write and enforce a new ordinance on any permitted mine during the life of that permit – as long as 25 years.

Much can happen in 25 years.

Local people who have written ordinances say it appears nearly all local ordinances would be invalid under this bill. That’s because the bill also requires ordinances relating to approval of sand mines be split apart from ordinances relating to the trucking of sand from the mine and processing of sand.

Most existing ordinances address the regulation of the actual mine as well as sand processing and transportation.

The combination of freezing in place rules affecting existing sand mines and invalidating most local ordinances will throw sand mine regulation into legal chaos. The bill creates a huge legal gray area on exactly which ordinance the sand mines would have to follow – the one made invalid by the bill or the new one rewritten to comply with the bill, or none at all.

Finally, this bill sets up a back-door process by which mine owners can avoid new restrictions and open a mine anywhere as long as they register the mineral deposit with local officials.

Changing a little known part of the statute written when comprehensive planning was put in place, this bill would stop a local community from saying ‘no’ to a mine owner who registered his mineral deposit.

Owners or those leasing property where a mine might be developed would be able to register that property with the town or county and have the existing rules for sand mines “locked in” at the time of registration for a period of up to 20 years. In addition locals could do nothing to prevent the mines’ operation.

Many residents from the Town of Dover in Buffalo County wrote me saying the bill seeks to get around recent actions. One landowner explained (and I paraphrase) in the last 10 months Dover officials held more than a dozen public meetings including a community forum attended by a quarter of the town’s population. Last July, in a unanimous vote, town officials recommended the county deny a permit for a 400-acre mine. In October, town officials adopted Village Powers. In January 2014, town officials adopted a Comprehensive Land Use Plan. In February, they adopted a sand mine ordinance resembling that of the Town of Cooks Valley.

While the Town of Dover was doing this work, the four owners of the mine quietly registered their mineral deposits with the county Register of Deeds. A Dover resident wrote: If Senator Tiffany’s bill is passed, it would make all of the work that our town did to protect itself of no avail. Thousands of dollars have been spent by the town, as well as by landowners, so the voice of the town’s people may be heard. Where do you find democracy speaking and being respected in this bill?

If this bill passes, Dover and other local communities can never say ‘No’.

Just because an underground mineral deposit exists does not mean humans should extract it – at the expense of all of the wealth that exists above ground.

This bill is far more dangerous than its earlier cousin. It will set precedence for every other mineral deposit in Wisconsin. Do we want sand mining next to Lake Delton?

Industrial mining has its place. But it is a place that must be determined by the people who live in that neighborhood. Taking away the community’s ability to say ‘no’ is taking away local control.

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State Should Heed Lessons from UW Computer Problems

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, 24 February 2014
in Wisconsin

uw-madisonThis week Senator Vinehout writes about the problems uncovered by a recent audit of the UW System’s Human Resources computer system. Planning could have avoided the mistakes auditors found with the system. As the state begins work on new computer systems it is important to heed the lessons and for the Legislature to take an active role in oversight.


MADISON - “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend four sharpening the axe,” said Abe Lincoln. He knew the importance of planning.

Recent audits detail troubles with a University of Wisconsin payroll computer system. More time should have been spent in planning.

Problems with payroll systems stretch back more than a decade. In 2001, the UW System contracted with a company to change its computer system. The project was to cost under $20 million and be finished in 2005. By July 2006, the UW cancelled the project after the estimated cost had more than tripled. The state was out over $28 million and no new system was in place.

The UW approved another new human resource system (HRS) in 2009. This system went “live” in April 2011. Mistakes happened.

By January 2013 the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) reported the UW overpaid more than $15 million in health insurance benefits for employees over a 16 month period. The UW System also overpaid more than $17 million in retirement benefits over the same period. These mistakes happened even though the UW received warnings from consultants nearly a year and a half earlier that HRS was at risk for these errors.

My colleagues and I on the Audit Committee wanted to know what went wrong and why.

At the conclusion of its nearly yearlong study, auditors questioned whether the UW System was adequately prepared for the roll-out of the new system. Auditors found two weeks before the computer system was to go “live” at least 12 “highly critical” objectives were not met during the planning of the system. Several of these objectives had to do with whether computer staff had enough preparation to help support people around the UW System using the new computer system.

The UW Service Center had exceeded its budget in all of the past three fiscal years. In part because workers had significant overtime and consultant costs – dealing with problems that might have been anticipated with better planning. Staff reported inadequate training. The UW’s own analysis showed staff was unprepared to complete adequate training.

Over half of the 1600 staff surveyed by LAB, reported being “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the amount of training. Auditors cited ongoing problems with training as a third of employees continued to be dissatisfied with both the amount and quality of training.

In the weeks that followed the roll-out of the new system, computer consultants warned the system was not fully tested.

Consultants also warned of problems reconciling payments for retirement and health insurance long before auditors found millions had been overpaid.

The LAB documented security problems with payroll systems going back to the 1990s. Despite longstanding warnings, officials failed to adequately address the problems. Significant security issues still remain largely unresolved. Auditors continued to list computer security concerns in its most recent UW financial audit.

All who share responsibility for the oversight of large, expensive, state computer systems should heed the lessons learned from the experiences of the UW System. First and foremost, officials should pay attention to the results of audits and internal planning and progress reports.

Auditors’ work provides a list of cautions for future large state computer projects. Now two additional agencies have begun to tackle a large IT projects. The Department of Employee Trust Fund plans a new system to administer employee benefits.

The Department of Administration plans a complete overhaul of the computer systems used for buying and paying for nearly every part of state government including all accounting, budgeting, and human resource functions. This massive undertaking will cost over a hundred million dollars and take several years.

Despite all this activity, the Legislature’s IT watchdog has not met in four full years.

This is why I call upon my Legislative colleagues to convene the Joint Committee on Information Policy and Technology. This committee’s role is to provide legislative oversight of large information technology projects to assure taxpayer’s money is wisely spent.

After the scrutiny of the LAB began in early 2013, UW Service Center officials developed a planned improvement process. Oversight and public scrutiny works – it’s as effective as Abe Lincoln’s sharp axe!

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