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State Bill Takes Away Local Protections for Renters

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 September 2013
in Wisconsin

apartment-for-rentAnother attack from Madison on local control. Who is a Renter going to call?


MADISON - When a renter calls the city for help, local officials might have their hands tied under a bill that recently passed the Senate. The bill would not allow a local ordinance to govern renters and landlords.

Local officials are the first called in a dispute. This bill creates a situation where locals would not be able to resolve local problems.

For example, current law requires landlords in all but Milwaukee County to store evicted renters’ property at the renter’s expense. In Milwaukee the job falls on the sheriff. This bill would allow property owners to take or throw away evicted renter’s property even if the eviction is disputed and the renter just lost the case.

But if property is thrown away, a renter is going to call the sheriff and ask them to intervene.

The bill allows a car parked in the wrong spot to be towed by property owners. But an owner with a missing car is going to call police and report a stolen car.

If an unscrupulous property owner doesn’t disclose a lack of hot water, heat or electricity, local officials might receive a call from the renter who wants things fixed.

But the bill would eliminate local ordinances requiring property owners to disclose certain information to renters unless state or federal law required this disclosure.

At the same time, the bill removed state law that required owners give renters an itemized description of the condition of the premises at the time of check-in.

Instead, renters would be given a blank list. The renter must find any problem within the apartment or house, list it on the form, and, in 7 days, return the completed list to the property owner or the renter could be held responsible for any existing damage when they check out.

The bill would also require renters to pay the full cost of treatment for an infestation of bed bugs. Senator Erpenbach tried to amend the bill to create a fair and standardized way to resolve the bed bug problem. He argued Maine’s law had landlords paying for treatment of the building and renters disposing of any infected materials. The amendment failed on a party line vote.

The bill appears to change the role the Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) plays in protecting renters. DATCP wrote “the bill would remove DATCP’s authority over many landlord-tenant issues, which also would have the effect of removing the private right of action for those issues.”

I phoned DACTP to get a better idea of what this language meant. I learned renters’ consumer protection is written into administrative code. DATCP uses this to assist renters. Under the bill, it appears not only would DATCP lose the authority to protect consumers in certain cases, but consumers themselves would lose the ability to take the property owner to court.

There are a few protections left in place. These include return of a security deposit and the language of a lease. In what appears to be legal “never land” is protection from landlords who promise but do not deliver on needed repairs; disclosures to tenants including such items as water, heat and electricity; and prohibited practices like renting condemned property, unauthorized entry to a rental unit, automatic lease renewal and misrepresenting a rental property.

I spoke with several folks who represent tenants and they agreed the language of the bill was confusing. It may take court action to understand exactly what consumer protections are lost. It is very clear, however, local communities can no longer enforce their ordinances protecting renters.

The bill passed the Senate on a partisan vote. The bill now heads to the Assembly where a similar bill passed earlier this year. Left in Limbo are renters’ problems that need to be fixed.

“Most landlords do a great job,” an Eau Claire woman recently told me. “But 15% of them operate dumps.”

Renters who call their local officials need help in disputes. Local officials who get a call in the middle of the night don’t need their hands tied by state law.

If this bill becomes law, where does a renter go? Do they call the governor?

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Report Cards for Voucher Schools?

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 September 2013
in Wisconsin

teacher_teachingThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about school accountability in Wisconsin, says YES to Report Cards for Voucher Schools!


MADISON - Report cards are coming out. Not for the children, but for schools.

These report cards help us know how our schools are doing and how schools can improve to help all students learn.

Should private schools that operate with tax dollars have the same report cards? What if that school is funded 100% or near that with tax dollars?

This question was the topic of a recent Senate Education Committee hearing.

Each public school will soon release a report card given by the state. The school earns a score based on performance in four areas including student achievement in reading and math, student growth, closing gaps with students with different needs, and career and college readiness. Factors like graduation, attendance and ACT participation are included in the last category.

State officials at the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) first released the report cards last year as part of a statewide school accountability system.

The system was developed two years ago in a task force chaired by, among others, the Governor and the Superintendent of Public Instruction. At that time leaders of both public schools and private schools who receive public money wrote about the importance of accountability.

We believe that every school enrolling publically funded students – traditional public schools, charter schools or private schools in the choice program – should be part of this new accountability system. (July 9, 2011 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Parents of students who attend private schools with state tax dollars will not read the school’s report card this year, or next year. Private schools are not yet required to complete the testing and other data collection used for the report card.

The state budget created a loophole to not require testing of these voucher students for many years.

Education Committee Chairs Senator Olsen and Representative Kestell want to change this. They introduced legislation to make good on the promise to keep all publically funded private schools accountable. They worked hard to bring uniformity to the measures used in the report card. They even asked the Legislative Audit Bureau to make sure all measures were uniformly and appropriately applied to all schools.

Despite earlier promises to the contrary, private school lobbying groups balked at turning over student test and other data to DPI.

Private school representatives complained collecting student test scores, graduation rates, absenteeism and other data would be burdensome. These groups called the accountability requirement “onerous and invasive” and expressed concerns over student privacy.

Senator Olsen told the committee, “No matter if you are public, choice or charter, if you get a check you need a check-up.” He explained both small public and private schools have privacy issues. For this reason federal requirements state if a group is smaller than 20 students no test score will be released.

Some Senators wanted to go farther in requirements for voucher private schools. Senators Lehman and Shilling wrote a bill to add a number of public school requirements to publically funded private schools. These measures include background checks, teacher licensure, similar graduation requirements, building inspections, and adherence to the state’s open records law.

Senator Lehman argued that both “inputs” -what goes into a child’s education, and “outputs” -that child’s performance - are the types of accountability taxpayers expect.

Senator Vukmir expressed concerns private schools were “ceding all power to DPI”. Senator Cullen responded by saying if a school is failing for six years it doesn’t make sense to put that school in charge of policing itself.

Most publically funded private schools are in Milwaukee. DPI testified 78% of students in Milwaukee private voucher schools are attending with taxpayer money.

It’s time taxpayers learned how well these schools are doing.

Lawmakers and the Governor should make good on their promise to hold all schools accountable. Soon you will see the report card for the local public school. Let’s make sure you can also see how well the students with taxpayer-funded vouchers are doing at the private schools.

As Heather Ross, a mom who testified at the hearing said to our committee, “Whoever pays the piper, calls the tune.” If taxpayers are footing the bill, they deserve to see the results.

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Public Education Starts Down Statewide Voucher Path

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, 09 September 2013
in Wisconsin

back-to-schoolSenator Kathleen Vinehout writes about a community forum she attended on the future of our public schools. Participating with her was State Senator Dale Schultz, Julie Underwood, Dean of the UW Madison School of Education, and Jeff Pertl of the Department of Public Instruction.  The discussion focused on the challenges facing public education including the loss of state aid, substantial increases in poverty, and statewide expansion of the voucher program.


MADISON - Public education started down the statewide voucher path with the start of the school year across Wisconsin. While things might not look different on the outside, big changes are happening in the state’s public education system.

One of the biggest changes is the expenditure this state budget makes in taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. At the same time, over half of public schools will see no increase in state aid. Many of our rural schools will see the maximum cut – a bit above 15%. But private school parents around the state are looking forward to two infusions of public money into private schools.

For the first time in state history, private schools statewide are eligible for public dollars through vouchers. The program starts small: 500 students statewide in the first year and 1,000 students in the second year. But people on both sides of this debate predict the cap will be temporary. In addition, private school tuition will be a tax deduction for parents, costing Wisconsin taxpayers an estimated $30 million over the state’s two year budget.

I recently spoke at a community forum aimed at stimulating conversation about the future of public schools. Participants learned Wisconsin’s public schools are doing a good job in the face of many challenges.  Nearly 9 out of 10 public schools meet or exceed state expectations while only 4% are failing. But statewide, student poverty has substantially increased.

I shared with participants the story of my school district of Alma. Twelve years ago less than 2 out of 10 students were poor (as defined by eligibility for free and reduced lunch). Last year 4 out of 10 students’ families fell into this category. The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported 42% of Eau Claire district students are from economically disadvantaged homes – a 10% increase in five years.

Often, teachers use their own money to supply children with healthy snacks, school supplies, and warm clothing. A school social worker confided that 15 of her Middle School students are from homeless families who have exhausted all options for shelter.

The effects of poverty undermine children’s ability to learn. It takes more resources, financial and staff, to help economically-disadvantaged students keep pace with their peers.

Yet such aid to assist schools has steadily declined.

Jeff Pertl of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) explained to forum attendees how poverty impacts student performance. High poverty schools are often low performing schools. Students simply do not have resources to learn. Minority students are more likely to attend a poor performing school. This exacerbates the state’s achievement gap.

To address this issue, 20 years ago the state embarked on an experiment with voucher schools in Milwaukee. Questions still swirl around the success of this experiment.

While Milwaukee’s voucher program gave students more educational options, DPI data on 2011-12 Wisconsin Student Assessment Scores show Milwaukee voucher students are less proficient in both reading and mathematics than students in Milwaukee public schools.

The forum audience wanted to know the cost to public schools of the expansion of the private school vouchers.

Mr. Pertl explained on average the state funds 61% of the cost for public school students and 100% of the cost of statewide voucher and independent charter students. Although the voucher system was touted as a way to help poor students in failing public schools, two-thirds of the students who signed up for the statewide voucher program were already in private schools.

UW Madison School of Education Dean Julie Underwood added key facts to our discussion. The most profound statement came from my colleague Senator Dale Schultz whose comment should give us all pause:

“Look, I voted for charter schools at different times and choice schools. And why did I do it? Because I want our kids to have the best and I know that sometimes you gotta look outside the box for a new solution and it’s worth trying.”

“But I don’t quite understand – when the facts are in, when we know that our public schools are doing a superior job – we put the money in the other pot.”

“To me it looks like the largest middle class entitlement ever and how’s that conservative?”

 

(A tape recording of the forum is available on Wisconsin Eye at the link below: http://www.wiseye.org/Programming/VideoArchive/EventDetail.aspx?evhdid=7960 )

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Budget Myths Abound in Wsconsin

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 Thursday, 29 August 2013
in Wisconsin

walker_tells_bigThere are many myths concerning the 2013-15 State Budget just signed into law in June. Senator Kathleen Vinehout presents each myth and provides the facts about the budget - the state spends more; the state is left with a deficit and greater debt.


MADISON - “The State is spending less.” “This budget took a deficit and turned it into a surplus.” “Wisconsin has paid off its debt.” Which of these are true statements regarding the new state budget?

The answer is NONE of the above.

Getting information about what’s happening in Madison is one of the most common complaints of my constituents. The slow summer news cycle allowed writers and readers to begin to catch up on, for example, the plethora of policy unrelated to the budget.

Lost in most budget reviews are the basic financials – the fundamentals of the budget.

Myth number one says the state spending is less and implies the size of government is smaller.

But, according to numbers released by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, the 2013-15 budget spends $4 billion more than the previous. In fact, state spending is greater than it has ever been in Wisconsin’s history.

The new spending goes to a number of expensive new programs. Half of the $4 billion goes to health spending. But for first time in many years there are fewer people covered by state health programs. Nearly 100,000 people are expected to lose state health coverage by January. Not taking federal money for Medicaid expansion left the state budget and citizenry in worse shape.

Myth number two says this budget took a deficit and turned it into a surplus.

The opposite is true. A recent Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) report tells the story. The 2013-15 budget began with a small surplus. Tax collections are improved. Wisconsin is emerging from the recession. The state had a bit more money to spend.

But the recently passed budget spends more than it is projected to collect in revenue.

When spending is greater than revenue – a deficit exists. Lawmakers are bound by the state constitution to balance the budget.

To do this, budget writers carried money over from the last fiscal year to create a technically balanced budget. But when spending exceeds revenue the imbalance catches up with us in the next budget creating a “structural” (or built in) deficit.

A recent report from the LFB pegs this deficit at the end of the 2015-2017 budget at MINUS $545 million.

People are rightly confused about the difference between the deficit and the debt. Sometimes lawmakers use the terms interchangeably. But they are very different.

A deficit is a mismatch between spending and revenue - spending more than money coming in. Debt is borrowing and must be paid back. Spending more than money coming in can certainly lead to more borrowing. This is exactly what’s happening in Wisconsin.

The third myth says the state eliminated the debt. This is false. In fact, state debt reaches record levels in the 2013-15 budget.

Why? The budget increases borrowing by more than $2 billion. Almost half of this borrowing goes to transportation spending. In addition, debt payments not made in the last legislative session catch up to lawmakers.

When debt payments are not paid, interest adds up. In the depths of the recession, Governor Doyle delayed debt payments to gain cash and keep government going.

In the 2011-13 legislative session, Governor Walker did not pay an even larger amount of debt payments coming due. Because debt payments were not made more money goes to pay off debt in this budget than ever before.

I often hear smart budget decisions mean better times ahead. But delaying debt payments always has a cost. This budget pays that price in a greater percent of tax dollars going to pay off debt than ever before in our history. New borrowing only adds to the debt. As a result state debt reaches an all-time high of $14.7 billion - or about 101% of general tax revenue.

Another myth even state officials parrot is the only alternative to spending cuts is tax increases. This assumes everything in government is at peak efficiency. This is far from the truth.

Smarter budget decisions mean smarter spending decisions. An example is paying debt bills when they are coming due – so as not to add interest and penalties.

But to do that would not have allowed the “surplus” used to justify the modest but politically popular tax cut.

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Wisconsin Must Invest in Ending Addiction

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 Thursday, 29 August 2013
in Wisconsin

drugaddict-youngThis week, we focus on the issue of Treatment Alternative Diversion or TAD. Studies show investment in TAD would save taxpayer dollars that currently go to incarceration.


ALMA - “You need to read this book,” the judge told me. “Then you need to get every other Legislator to read the book before you take another vote.”

The book was Clean written by David Sheff.

“Addiction is a preventable, treatable disease, not a moral failing. As with other illnesses, the approaches most likely to work are based on science – not faith, tradition, contrition, or wishful thinking,” writes Sheff.

David Sheff is a journalist whose son suffered from drug addiction. A decade ago he sought answers to help his son. In 2008 he wrote about his son’s addiction in A Beautiful Boy.

Clean is Mr. Sheff’s call to action to wake up, learn and act to “overcome addiction and end America’s greatest tragedy.”

Part of the tragedy is the great number of treatments that don’t work and aren’t based in science. Treatment of most illnesses has moved to evidence based practices or those treatments based in science. For the most part, the treatment of addiction has not.

Difficulties arise partly because of the nature of the disease itself. For example, denial is a symptom of the disease - making it difficult to diagnose. Relapse is part of recovery making it difficult to determine success.  Mental illness often contributes to addiction. Sheff writes at least a third of those with a psychiatric disorder abuse drugs or alcohol. Diagnosis involves accurately assessing underlying mental illness.

Some treatments do work. Effective treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing and dialectical behavioral therapy. DBT therapists assist clients in emotional regulation and distress tolerance.   Those with addictions can recognize cravings and tolerate them.

Misdiagnosing and mistreating addiction and related mental illness comes at a tremendous cost to the individual, the addict’s family and to our society.

Often those with addictions are sent to prison with court-ordered treatment for addiction and later released from prison without having received required treatment. It should be no surprise that roughly 60% of Wisconsin’s prison population is a repeat offender.

Failure to adequately diagnose and treat addiction costs all of us. For example, the recently passed state budget spends almost $100 million new dollars to renovate prisons and address the expected 2% increase in the prison population.

Over 60% of Wisconsin’s prison population is addicted to drugs including alcohol according to a 2009 audit by the Legislative Audit Bureau. The audit also found over 30% of inmates are mentally ill. Over three quarters of women in Wisconsin prisons are mentally ill.

The solution lies in correctly diagnosing and treating the addiction and preventing further crime.

Treatment Alternative Diversion (TAD) programs include drug and alcohol court, day reporting centers, mental health treatment courts and other initiatives. These programs are highly successful at reducing recidivism and treating substance abuse and mental illness.

Local courts in Western Wisconsin are among the leaders in alternative courts that work to end addiction in our communities. I recently spoke with individuals who work with those struggling with addiction. I learned how drug courts teach accountability, provide structure and save jobs, families and lives.

Yet the programs are underfunded. Few who are eligible are able to participate in the interventions.

During the budget debate I introduced an amendment to invest $75 million in TAD which would yield over $150 million in savings. Instead budget writers put a meager $1 million in new TAD spending. The Governor and Republican legislators who voted for the budget refused to recognize results that show the first million invested by the state in seven pilot programs saved almost $2 for every $1 invested.

Numbers from a 2011 study released by the Office of Justice Assistance project with a $75 million investment Wisconsin would cut annual prison admissions by nearly 40% and cut jail admissions by 21,000. Recidivism rates would fall by as much as 16% and crime rates would drop by 20%. There would also be a drop in the number of children in foster care.

Not quantified by the study are the lives and families restored. I now know what must be done, thanks to the judge who set my summer reading.

Take a look at this book. Then help me act to end addiction.

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