Wednesday March 29, 2017

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Progressive Thinking

From people looking forward with education and reason.

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 the State Senator from the 31st District of Wisconsin. She was a candidate for Governor in 2014 until an injury forced her out of the race , and is one of the courageous Wisconsin 14.

Healthcare: What's Next?

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, 27 March 2017
in Wisconsin

healthcare-familyWhile Congress did not repeal the Affordable Care Act, problems remain. Sen. Vinehout writes about options states could take to address some of these issues and provide affordable health insurance for people.

MADISON - “Obamacare is the law of the land,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told the nation. “We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.”

The much-maligned Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed in 2010 will stay in place.

Self-employed older Americans and state budget directors breathed a sigh of relief. The Republican plan would have raised rates for older people on, shifted taxes away from the well-off, and shifted to states more costs for low-income, disabled and elderly (through Medicaid).

But the problems of the ACA – rising premiums, customers left with little choice and insurance companies leaving the marketplace in some states – still remain.

Why do these problems exist? Is there anything Wisconsin can do to improve things?

Insurance companies act to share risk. Inevitably, healthier patients subsidize the less fortunate sicker patients. This has been the case since Benjamin Franklin invented the first American insurance company (that I’m aware of) when he created a “mutual fire aid society” to help defray the risk of fire.

Insurance companies are betting you will stay healthy, you are betting you’ll get sick.

When companies entered the market place, they kept premiums low. Conservative columnist David Brook wrote in 2015 “Health care inflation has been at historic lows.” Quoting expert Jason Furman, Brooks wrote prices were growing as an annual rate of 1.6% since 2010, “the slowest rate for such a period in five decades.” Federal government health expenses slowed too.

For a number of reasons, the low inflation was not sustainable. Young people were not buying their own policies but staying on their parents plan as long as possible. Many people who got insurance for the first time had numerous costs due to delayed care. Insurance companies didn’t make the money they expected, and decided to either drop providing coverage in the exchange or raise premiums to cover the higher costs.

Covering self-employed or small businesses (known in the insurance industry as “individual coverage”) has always been expensive. Administrative costs are high; risk is high. The ACA protected consumers in many ways, such as not being charged more if you had cancer but are now healthy. However, the rules left fewer ways for insurance companies to recoup costs. So, they raised premiums or completely left the individual market.

The result is higher cost insurance, less choice and in some cases no choice.

Wisconsin historically has a competitive insurance market with many competing plans, especially in the southeast. Many players should give us lower costs (however, the health care market does not follow normal economic patterns), but seeking an unprofitable venture does not make a good business model.

Which may lead us to one option. Some insurance companies are not-for-profit; some have very low overhead. Everything else being equal, these companies should be better at competing. However, so much depends on the luck – or lack of it – in taking care of a high cost patient.

We could return to a successful plan that helped health insurance companies manage risk. In 2013, Governor Walker eliminated the state’s “Health Insurance Risk-Sharing Plan” known as HIRSP. This was a mistake.

The HIRSP plan was paid for with funds from insurance companies. We could create a similar plan to allow people with conditions that require expensive care to continue under their own insurance plan. Their insurance company could use a plan like HIRSP to share risk with other companies. Basically HIRSP 2.0 could work seamlessly in the background to help manage high-risk patients.

A recent National Governor’s Association briefing suggested states could save up to 15% on insurance premiums if they created such a plan. Other state innovations could include promoting enrollment in the healthcare marketplace, and focusing on methods to reduce the cost of care.

In a 2015 report, Citizen Action of Wisconsin proposed several changes that could bring down health insurance premiums. Medicaid expansion could cover an estimated 81,000 Wisconsinites through existing federal law and bring many high cost patients into a less expensive system. Creation of a Wisconsin-based marketplace, state scrutiny over premium hikes, use of state purchasing power to gain value – lower costs and better care – are all options that merit investigation.

Healthcare policy is complex. But solving problems is possible. If those in Washington have given up, let’s consider new ideas at our state Capitol. We might land on an idea that really works.

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Are Waters in Wisconsin Meeting Water Quality Standards?

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, 21 March 2017
in Wisconsin

wastewater-treat-manitowocMissed reports, staff reductions, and a lack of enforcement actions call into question the DNR's Wastewater Permitting and Enforcement efforts as 350 industrial and 650 municipal permittees and about 250 large farms, mostly CAFO dairies, add to potential problems.

MADISON - “The bottom line is: Are waters meeting water quality standards?” George Meyer told the Audit Committee at a recent hearing.

“[Wisconsin is] adding hundreds of impaired waters every year,” Mr. Meyer added. “It’s because of discharged nitrates and phosphorus.”

“Regulations and laws are only as good as enforcement.” Mr. Meyer said. “In the last few years [there has been] a substantial reduction in enforcement actions both in the wildlife area and the environmental area.”

Mr. Meyer knows about enforcing laws to protect our natural resources. For eight years, he served as the DNR Secretary under Governor Thompson. His 30-year DNR career also included ten years as head of the department’s enforcement efforts. He now runs Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, a nonpartisan coalition of nearly 200 conservation groups.

cafo-dairyThe Audit Committee was examining the findings of the Legislative Audit Bureau’s review of ten years of permitting, monitoring and enforcement of wastewater discharge. DNR is responsible for monitoring water discharged from about 350 industrial permittees and 650 municipal permittees and about 250 large farms (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs) – mostly dairies.

Inspections and permits are supposed to make sure those who discharge into our waterways do so following the rules.

The DNR has long followed a “stepped enforcement” process, which means working with those violating the rules to find ways to bring them into compliance with the law. DNR staff notifies potential polluters through a Notice of Noncompliance and a more “stepped-up” Notice of Violation that lists problems and penalties if rules are not followed. When DNR makes a referral, the Attorney General enforces penalties on those who continue to violate the rules.

From 2005 through 2014, LAB Auditors found DNR did not issue either a Notice of Noncompliance or a Notice of Violation in 84% of cases for which a Notice of Violation should have been issued to an industrial or municipal permittee.

In addition to not notifying polluters of violations, DNR did not refer any municipal or industrial permittee cases to the Attorney General for enforcement action in 2013 or 2014. DNR Secretary Stepp described the current DNR approach as “creating a safe space” and “getting people into compliance.”

But we don’t know if industries, municipalities and CAFOs are actually becoming compliant. There is ample evidence of inconsistencies, overlooked reports, incomplete or missing inspections. From 2005 through 2015, the DNR never met its goal of issuing 90% of industry permits on time. The backlog was blamed on a lack of staff.

With regard to missing inspections, in 2010-2011, only two of every ten major industrial permittees were inspected according to DNR’s goal of inspecting major industrial permittees at least once every two years.

CAFOs are required to send in annual reports including any manure spills and required testing. Auditors found almost 98% of the required 1,900 CAFO reports were not electronically recorded as being received. This lack of oversight meant the DNR had no way of knowing or tracking emerging problems. DNR staff said they were too busy with other duties to thoroughly review the reports.

With the problems attributed to staff shortages, one would expect Secretary Stepp to request more staff. According to former Secretary Meyer, DNR staff levels dropped from a high of 3,300 to a current workforce of about 2,500. The Governor proposes eliminating another 43 positions in his budget.

Secretary Stepp acknowledged the problems created by staff shortages. The committee also heard how long it takes DNR to train staff for the very technical jobs of issuing wastewater permits and conducting inspections. Despite the problems and expense created by staffing issues, the Secretary refused to ask for additional staff or resources to retain staff saying, “The private sector doesn’t have the luxury of hiring additional staff.”

Audit Committee members were clearly worried about staff morale and the department’s ability to complete its mission as required by state law. Lawmakers talked about efforts to hire and retain the best and the brightest, increasing salaries, and valuing workers. However, the Secretary offered little assurance the work environment at DNR would change.

Mr. Meyer captured worries about the future of water protections when he mentioned that changes in the federal Environmental Protection Agency could result in “a substantial reduction in oversight of the states.”

Oversight at the state level is something Wisconsin waters need right now.

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Broadband Expansion: Rural Wisconsin Needs the Real Deal

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, 14 March 2017
in Wisconsin

internet-ruralThe internet, like the waterways, railways, and highways before it, has become the road to participation in the 21st century economy. Wisconsin ranks last in the Midwest in both rural and urban broadband, and neither the Governor’s proposed budget funding or a bill authored by Sen. Marklein provide rural areas with the investment necessary to make us competitive.

NORTHWESTERN WISCONSIN - “All we seek is help to get the basic broadband services that you all take for granted,” Justin Fortney from Clifton Township in Pierce County wrote to me. “It has been frustrating for us families to watch the digital revolution pass us by…We often…pack the family into the car and drive to a relative’s house or commercial business to use their Internet.”

According to the federal government’s most recent information, Wisconsin ranks last in the Midwest in both rural and urban broadband access with only 44% of rural folks accessing download speeds of 25 Mbps.

Both federal and state governments responded with grant programs to expand broadband but there are problems with assuring that residents actually receive the promised services.

With much fanfare, Governor Walker recently announced his plan to add money for broadband to schools and rural areas. Later, Senator Marklein released a different bill. The Senator’s bill was voted out of his rural affairs committee and is headed for final passage soon.

Sen. Marklein’s bill is false advertising. The bill is neither “rural” nor “broadband.” As now written, nearly every Wisconsin county would be eligible for expansion grants. “Broadband” for awardees is defined at the “turtle-slow” speed of 5 Mbps download and .6 Mbps upload. In addition, such a paltry amount of money is used for grants that would not cover my small rural county with broadband even if we used all the statewide funds.

More problems exist with the federal grant programs.

Mr. Fortney described the problem in his email. He refers to one federal program known as “CAF-II.”

“Our area is CAF-II Subsidized Area, but still no Internet. These limited funds are being used by the…company to further increase the speed of areas that already have broadband.” Mr. Fortney described how both large companies near him said they have no plans to provide services to him. Yet both companies received large grants to expand broadband.

The two large companies mentioned by Mr. Fortney sent representatives to a community meeting I attended last year. Neither company would commit to expanding service in Pierce County. In the words of one company representative, “I don’t want to promise you fiber where fiber is not going to come…It’s not a great business investment to put in copper or fiber,” and “We’re not going to go trenching through a bluff…[we are looking for] where can we grab the low hanging fruit.”

What can Wisconsin do if these large companies do not intend to use federal dollars to bring the 21st Century to rural Wisconsin?

First, we should agree on WHAT IS broadband. The federal definition – 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload is a good place to start. Unfortunately, Senate Bill 49 (the bill speeding for hasty passage) will award grants to those providing much less.

Second, money for “Rural” broadband should go to rural areas. Senate Bill 49 – and the current state grant program – makes nearly the entire state eligible for awards. The Public Service Commission has broad latitude to send the money to just about any county in the state. This should change.

Third, Wisconsin must invest enough money to actually make a difference in the problem. To date, the state awarded 42 grants totaling approximately $3.9 million. This money is not enough to provide broadband for just my small home county. In comparison, Minnesota appropriated $65.5 million and Governor Dayton is proposing spending another $100 million.

Finally, Wisconsin should independently verify that companies keep their promises to the state (in their grant applications) and to consumers. I frequently hear of companies promising one speed and delivering another, of broadband maps that show an area as served and it is not, and of companies using poor service in an area to apply for a grant and then not delivering services to the neighbors.

Broadband is the 21st Century equivalent of electricity. Someday most of us may plan a visit to a rural area or are going to need to contact someone in a rural area. All of us are going to eat something grown in a rural area and these days you need broadband for farming. We need to make sure the promised “Rural Broadband” bill is the Real Deal for rural Wisconsin.

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Don't Get Rid of the State Treasurer

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, 06 March 2017
in Wisconsin

matt-adamczykA constitutional amendment is making its way through the Legislature to eliminate the State Treasurer and residents need to understand why the action is being taken and why it is the wrong conclusion.

MADISON - Early in his term, Treasurer Matt Adamczyk (pronounced eDOMchek), was asked to sign a paper. The paper captured his signature.

Mr. Adamczyk recently testified at a Senate committee hearing saying, “My signature and the signature of the Secretary of Administration’s appears on state checks.”

But Mr. Adamczyk never sees any of the checks with his signature and never performs any functions overseeing payment of state bills. And he doesn’t want to oversee state funds. Instead, Mr. Adamczyk testified he wants to get rid of the whole constitutional Office of Treasurer, describing the role as “outdated and a waste of money”.

A resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to eliminate the role of state treasurer is likely to be finalized by the time you read this column. I will be voting “no” on the proposal to eliminate the office of state of treasurer and here’s why.

According to the nonpartisan Council of State Governments,

“Treasurers act as the watchdogs of the people’s money and, in most states, are elected by their own constituents. This check and balance in the executive branch of government provides an effective oversight mechanism and increased transparency.”

In advising all types of organizations from local nonprofits to large multi-national corporations, auditors tell their clients that when it comes to handling money there has to be segregation of duties. Simply put, the same person (or department in a large company) should not collect the money, deposit the money, spend the money and do all the accounting.

The argument for eliminating the office of treasurer is that the treasurer doesn’t do anything. Recent governors and legislatures have whittled away at the duties so the argument now is, “The treasurer doesn’t do anything, let’s abolish the office.”

That is the wrong conclusion. We should rather be bringing back the duties that have been transferred to the Department of Administration (DOA) and making sure that when it comes to handling billions of dollars in state funds there is segregation of duties. There is a check and balance. More than one agency is involved.

The erosion of the Treasurer’s duties has been gradual and started at least twenty years ago. Duties were moved to the DOA that reports to the Governor. When Governor Walker took office, the treasurer oversaw money used for the public funding of Supreme Court races, college savings programs, local government’s investment of public funds, and ran a program reuniting people with their property though the unclaimed property program. The governor eliminated the public funding of Supreme Court races and transferred other activities to executive branch agencies.

During his tenure, Governor Walker has centralized a lot of authority in DOA. In the budget he proposed last month, he transfers almost 500 employees from various agencies to DOA. These are the employees who do budgeting, information technology and hiring and firing. If these transfers go through and the office of treasurer is eliminated, it seems that all budgeting, all contracting, all payments, all accounting will be in one agency under the direction of one Secretary. There would be no segregation of duties. That is not good government or good business practice.

Waushara County Clerk Melanie Stake, a Republican, wrote to our committee:

“The wise authors of Wisconsin’s constitution created a divided government – and six state constitutional officers – for a reason. Transferring duties to personnel appointed by, and/or overseen by, the governor’s office creates a disconcerting consolidation of power that has the potential to compromise fair and transparent government.”

She quoted the Wisconsin Taxpayer that cited Wisconsin as the ONLY state where the treasurer did not oversee cash management, and one of two states where the treasurer is not responsible for the state’s bank accounts.

What would the segregation of duties look like? In a neighboring state an independent constitutional officer has the responsibility of prescribing a uniform accounting system, ensuring that all contracts are properly authorized, all vouchers are documented and all expenditures follow the law. A second constitutional officer keeps all the accounts and writes all the checks.

That may be more segregation of duties than is necessary but that system was created after one state official embezzled some $30 million in today’s dollars when there wasn’t any independent check.

Does Wisconsin need segregation of duties when it comes to handling billions of public dollars? Ask your local accountant!

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Audit Hearing Highlights Problems and Way Forward with Transportation

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, 28 February 2017
in Wisconsin

crumbling-bridgeBridge collapse, storms and floodwaters weaken older roads, funds for local construction and maintenance that do not cover costs. Sen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about a DOT audit which highlighted these and other problems in the State Highway Program.

MADISON - “Deputies are trying to figure out what caused a bridge on a rural road west of Arcadia to collapse.” The WEAU-TV story broke the same morning as a recent Legislative Audit Committee hearing on the State Highways Program.

As horrifying as the bridge collapse was, the story highlighted problems locals, others and I warned about for some time. Summer storms and floodwaters weakened older roads and bridges. State funds for local construction and maintenance did not kept pace with costs.

The recent audit, conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB), shined a light on long-standing problems with the Department of Transportation (DOT). Many lawmakers, including myself, advocated for this audit because an analysis of DOT programs has not been conducted for many years.

Road conditions have gotten worse over five years (2010-2015). Using information from the audit, I calculated 38 Wisconsin counties have less than 5% of local (concrete or asphalt) roads rated “good”. Using the “International Roughness Index” measure of road conditions, Wisconsin ranked lower than six Midwestern states and the national average.

Sixty percent of Pepin County’s state highways rated “poor” or worse than “poor”. The state road through the village of Pepin is so bad that dandelions sprouted in the cracks. Village officials asked me for help after they were told the DOT could not help with paving – even though this state road is slated for repair.

I met with DOT officials and requested money for Pepin and over a dozen other road projects in western Wisconsin. I received the same answer I often hear, that it is a “local decision” and assistance to deal with the “local problem” was not forthcoming.

Highway commissioners and town supervisors tell me that pushing blame onto local officials without sending additional local resources is a problem that got much worse in recent years.

Auditors reported similar findings. For example, 70% of county highway commissioners who responded to an LAB survey indicated roadway maintenance funds for state highways in 2015 were “less than adequate”.

The audit contains two very interesting charts of county road conditions. I reviewed the proportion of state highways in “poor or worse” condition. I discovered half of the counties ranked in the top twenty-five percent as worst in the state were in the western Wisconsin and included EVERY county that touched the Mississippi River.

When I raised the issue of how money was spent by region of the state, newly appointed DOT Secretary David Ross could not answer me.

The audit did highlight solvable problems within DOT. Secretary Ross shared his willingness to accept all the audit recommendations and to work on fixing what he could right away.

But many of the problems are serious institutional issues related to the way DOT does its work and will not be resolved by the time the Legislature passes the 2017-19 state budget.

Our transportation fund has an imbalance that worsened in recent years. Projections show by the end of the next budget, nearly one in four dollars spend on transportation will go to pay debt – leaving less money available for roads and bridges. Delaying some projects is inevitable but every delay only drives up costs.

Governors of both political stripes paid for this transportation debt from the general fund. Governor Walker used more than $900 million of the General Fund – over three budgets – to pay for transportation projects and debt. This transfer left less money in the general fund to pay for needs like schools, the UW System and local government.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul should no longer be an option. Spending more and adding unsustainable debt cannot be the ‘go-to’ option again.

To fix the transportation fund we should improve efficiencies. The Audit Committee introduced a bill to adopt the legislative considerations in the audit. We will keep careful watch on the progress of the department and its new secretary and require periodic written reports.

However, efficiencies alone will not provide all the help needed to fix the deteriorating roads, bridges and other transportation needs of the state. Lawmakers should revisit the revenue options detailed by former DOT Secretary Gottlieb and figure out how to fix the long-term problems we face.

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