Monday March 19, 2018

Always Forward with Education & Reason


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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.

Listening to Those Who Cannot Hear

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, 14 March 2018
in Wisconsin

sign-interpreter-jack-jason-marlee-matlinImagine you are deaf. You can sign to those who understand but most of the hearing world doesn’t know your language. Current law requires state institutions must provide competent interpretation services, but a Senate Committee Chairman may be trying to change all that.

The issue, a bill (AB 589) to upgrade skill levels and regulation of Sign Language Interpreters had bi-partisan support and those in the Deaf community were pleased with the original bill language. But then the bill was significantly changed when the Senate Chair of the Public Benefits, Licensing and State-Federal Relations committee, who is ideologically opposed to professionalizing Sign Language Interpreters, advanced other legislation to eliminate certain occupational and professional licensure.

MADISON - “The quality of interpreters is so important. I need someone who has the fluent skills to work with me,” Leah Simmons explained. “Their lack of knowledge reflects negatively on me.”

Professor Simmons uses specific jargon and language. Her colleagues and students judge her by the language she uses. She cannot communicate directly to hearing students.

Professor Simmons is Deaf. She is part of a community of Deaf and Hard of Hearing people working to upgrade skill levels and regulation of Sign Language Interpreters.

At the same time, ideologically conservative groups from outside Wisconsin are working to de-professionalize many occupations. Sign Language Interpreters are on the top of their list.

kathleen-vinehoutI became aware of the effort to eliminate certain occupational and professional licensing as a member of the Senate Public Benefits, Licensing and State-Federal Relations committee. A few months ago, this committee held a daylong hearing on legislation setting up a process to eliminate some occupational and professional licensing. Professionals from architects to registered nurses came to testify against the bills. Ideologically conservative lobbying groups spoke favorably. Several groups were from out of the state.

Moving in the Assembly was a bill (Assembly Bill 589) to increase the skill level and accountability of sign language interpreters. The bill, authored by Representative Jonathan Brostoff, was cosponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers including myself.

Not a single person testified against AB 589 in the Assembly. However, the Senate Committee Chairman appeared to be ideologically opposed to professionalizing Sign Language Interpreters. He refused to hold a hearing unless the bill was significantly changed.

To accommodate the Senate Chairman, a substitute amendment was passed by the Assembly. This amendment stripped out all the original bill language and replaced it with a much watered-down version. Lost in this process were important provisions to increase skills and oversight, including the creation of a board to oversee quality and accountability and a process for resolving complaints.

For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, having oversight and a complaint mechanism for poorly performing sign language interpreters is essential.

Imagine, you cannot hear. You can sign to those who understand but most of the hearing world doesn’t understand your language. By law, our institutions must provide interpretation services. However, the quality of interpreters can vary dramatically from place to place. You may never know what you aren’t able to hear.

During the Senate committee hearing, we heard testimony from Deaf people. Some shared fears that without proper interpretation service, a person could be unjustly accused and not able to defend himself or herself. With no way to complain about or remove inferior interpreters, this scenario could happen repeatedly.

Massively changing AB 589 at the last minute created innumerable problems.

“This amendment puts the Deaf community in a difficult and awkward position,” wrote a leader in the Deaf community. “We do not like the idea that unproven hearing interpreters can continue interpreting in ANY setting without restrictions. That means a hearing interpreter that recently graduated from college is legally allowed to interpret in a high-risk medical, mental health and legal setting. There are many cases where unproven interpreters are interpreting in high risk setting[s] resulting in medical errors, inappropriate diagnosis, and even unlawful confinement.”

Representative Brostoff summed up the problem facing Senate Committee members who were asked to vote on the amended bill. “On balance, [the bill is] going to do more good than harm by a little bit. But there must be more fixes next session. Doing nothing has a cost, too.” When I asked him about the vote, he said, “I don’t know, it’s a tough one.” Rep. Brostoff is firmly committed to bringing back his original bill next year.

The past few years I have seen a troubling trend: the overt influence of ideological groups, mostly from outside the state, wanting to remake Wisconsin in their own image. The groups demand allegiance. Their ideology is absolute. Some lawmakers are quick to do their bidding even though the bills they push provide no benefit for the people of our state.

Our process of political deliberation exists to encourage public input. The peoples’ elected leaders weigh this input and make careful decisions in resolving difficult challenges. For democracy to truly work, lawmakers must set ideology aside, listen to the words of the people and balance competing interests.

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One Step Moves Us Forward to More Affordable Healthcare

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, 06 March 2018
in Wisconsin

affordablecareA new law creates Risk Corridors* for Health Care insurance providers in Wisconsin, a technical mechanism to help level the risk for insurers. Minnesota enacted a similar law to achieve a premium reduction, and also created their own health care network and accepted Medicaid expansion dollars, ideas that could benefit Wisconsin.

MADISON - “Lord willing, and the creek don’t rise, I’ll see you Tuesday.” I said as I left the office in Madison.

By the next day, the creek at the base of my farm’s steep driveway had risen over the road. The rushing water cut a channel through the gravel town road, making the road impassable.

My forward-thinking husband kept an eye on the water’s progress and moved vehicles over to the other side before the rushing water completely cut through the road.

This morning twelve bluebirds and a robin hung out by the bird feeders. Spring comes one step at a time: snow melt, more snow, more melting and mud. The old farmers say snow must fall three times on a robin’s tail. Another big snowfall this week is snowfall number one on the robin’s tail.

Back in Madison, at the State Capitol, there is not much evidence of a thaw between the Senate and Assembly or between the majority and the minority parties. However, the Senate did pass a bipartisan bill to help lower health insurance premiums.

“What do you think of Risk Corridors?” an older Barron County farmer recently asked me at a public meeting in Eau Claire. Quite surprised, I asked him “How did you know about “risk corridors?”

“I’m paying attention!” he smiled. “And, I pay too much for health care. I think this plan will help lower my premiums.”

I agreed, “It’s a good idea and I voted for the bill.” The rest of our group looked very puzzled.

Risk corridors is a wonky phase describing an idea to lower premiums under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). I explained the plan like this: Remember when we had Blue Cross Blue Shield as not for profit health insurance. Plans were community rated – meaning everyone paid the same price regardless of age and health. This was an “up-front” leveling or sharing of risk for insurance companies.

Risk corridors are similar in purpose, but a more behind the scenes leveling. Think of risk corridors like a profit and loss sharing mechanism to help insurers balance risk.

The Barron County farmer joins about 200,000 people in Wisconsin who buy insurance on their own through the marketplace.

Wisconsin saw premiums in the marketplace increase on average 36% from 2017 to 2018. Many families were dropped by their health plans and had to find other insurance. Still others dropped coverage because of price increases.

Minnesota took up the idea of risk corridors and lowered 2018 insurance premiums under Obamacare by 20%, compared to where premiums would have been without risk corridors. This savings was possible in part because Minnesota has its own marketplace – MNsure – and expanded Medicaid (MinnesotaCare). These are two ideas I strongly support and would help Wisconsin get to Minnesota’s 20% premium drop.

Senate Bill 770, the bill to create risk corridors, recently passed the Legislature and was signed into law by the Governor. The bill passed in an interesting bipartisan vote. Some Republicans voted “no” because they thought the bill went too far; some Democrats voted against it because they didn’t think the bill went far enough.

Leaving the event in Eau Claire I reflected on the two persistent questions I heard at the forum: how are you going to fix health care and how are Democrats and Republicans going to work together?

With SB 770, we took a small step forward. Just a small step on the long road toward healthcare for all - but in today’s political climate perhaps only small steps are possible.

Politics often seems to be the art of the possible. I strongly believe whatever steps forward we CAN take, we SHOULD take.

Spring does not arrive all at once. We welcome the first robin, and see the robin as the first sign of the coming of spring. So it is with health care; I welcome any step forward as a sign that we can make our way down the road.

We never get to the end of the road until we travel it.


* Risk Corridors can be described as a healthcare exchange re-insurance pool where participating insurers who MADE MONEY in a given year would kick a percentage of their profits into the pool, administered by the Federal Government, from which any insurers who LOST MONEY during that same year could recoup their losses.

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A Wheelchair is Not a Trampoline: Questioning Assumptions about Support

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, 27 February 2018
in Wisconsin

family-worried-billsThe recently passed Special Session bills make it more difficult for people living in poverty to achieve their dream of family supporting jobs and getting off government assistance.

MADISON - “Public assistance should be a trampoline not a hammock,” read the title of Governor Walker’s press release touting work on a package of bills introduced in a Legislative Special Session. The bills made changes to certain programs targeted at helping those living in poverty.

During the recent Senate debate, proponents of the bills declared the best road out of poverty was a job. No one in the Senate disagreed. However, what these bills really do is KEEP people in poverty and make a few companies richer while providing little accountability.

The assumption of the hammock metaphor is that people are lazy and just need a kick to get moving. Another assumption is that fraud is rampant. Both assumptions are false. FoodShare is heavily scrutinized to ensure compliance. Wisconsin has an error rate around one percent.

Most people who use FoodShare or BadgerCare do so short term. According to Kaiser Family Foundation, 60% of non-elderly folks who use Medicaid are already working. Another third are in school, ill or caring for someone in need.

According to David Lee of Hunger Task Force in Wisconsin, about two-thirds of those who get FoodShare are seniors, disabled, and children – people who cannot work. Of the remaining third, half are already working. Many others are caregivers – for either the elderly, disabled or children.

Part of the Special Session plan is to make it harder to get FoodShare and BadgerCare. Families may have to sell their home if it’s more than 200% of average state value. Farmers may have to sell livestock, equipment and farm buildings. Disabled folks might lose their accessible van if it’s worth over $10,000.

These rules fly in the face of common sense. If we want a farmer to do better, or a wheelchair bound person to succeed why would we make them sell items essential to their livelihood?

The cornerstone of the Governor’s plan is a program called FoodShare Employment and Training – FSET for short. The program relies on several contractors around the state who screen people and get them into work.

Lawmakers heard stories of FSET companies creating incentives for job counselors to get people into low wage jobs as soon as possible. For example, we heard about a young woman who wanted to get her GED to improve her ability to get work. Instead, the FSET job counselor sent her to a minimum wage fast food job.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) reported that FSET participants, who gained employment in December of 2016, made an average of $12.19 an hour and worked an average of 34 hours a week. The LFB reported that participants with those wages and hours worked would still be eligible for FoodShare.

Further, the LFB reported on a string of problems with FSET. Costs per person per month were more than double the original budget estimate. Federal inspections turned up problems in Milwaukee, including civil rights violations, the lack of individualized services, and restricted education and training opportunities. Corrective actions and recommendations were slow or not completed. Despite three years of problems, the state made only one onsite visit.

Despite such poor performance and lack of evaluation, state officials awarded bonuses. The Department of Health Services gave “pay for performance” bonus money to all but one of the 11 FSET companies for “accuracy” and “timely completion of quarterly reports” – requirements FSET companies should meet at a minimum.

Unbelievably, Special Session Assembly Bill 6 more than quadrupled these “pay for performance” bonuses to the FSET companies.

Every group that works with those struggling to gain economic stability opposed these Special Session bills. Their thoughtful and compelling testimony clearly demonstrated that people want to move out of poverty and off government assistance. All they need are the tools to help them achieve their dream.

A wheelchair is not a hammock, but essential equipment. A warm house, food, health care and education are not a hammock but rather the essential tools to help people get that job that moves them out of poverty.

The measure of a civilized society is how we treat those in need. The Governor’s plan cuts the springs holding up the trampoline just as a person jumps.

For many, life is very difficult. When we reach out helping hands to those in need, we do our part to make not only their lives better, but ours as well.

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Removing Wetland Protections Needs Serious Deliberation

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, 20 February 2018
in Wisconsin

road-wi-flood-washoutChanging laws regarding wetlands cannot be done swiftly. The impact of eliminating nature’s “natural sponge” can be devastating when severe weather brings heavy rains. Flooding in Huston TX was more severe because much of its wetlands were removed. These critical issues need careful deliberation and engaged citizen discussion.

MADISON - Last Friday afternoon we learned of the 79 bills up for a vote on Tuesday. I spoke with my neighbor shortly after seeing the long list.

“How can they possibly know what they are voting on?” she asked me. I replied there is no time to talk with people and learn the effects of these changes.

Legislation moving quickly through the process makes changes to protections of our wetlands; specifically, wet areas not connected to a navigable body of water.

Wisconsin has more than one million acres of “isolated” wetlands. These areas are our swamps, meadows and marshes. Isolated wetlands are regulated by the state, hence the ability of state lawmakers to remove protections.

Talking to scientists and engineers is key to understanding the importance of wetlands and the implications of removing state protections. However, legislation moving at warp speed with little public notice make it nearly impossible to have these conversations.

Wetlands are key to our ecology. They provide habitat to an immense array of creatures and plants. Wetlands recharge ground water, help control erosion, and store excess water caused by severe weather.

Our farmstead sits 50’ above a large swamp and marsh. The wetlands capture flooding waters from the swollen Buffalo River. In the past several years, we saw several serious floods. The flooding in our wetlands eased possible destruction by the unusually intense storms.

“In the last six years, Wisconsin has seen five 100-year floods and one 1,000-year flood,” wrote Tyler Esh, the Eau Claire Emergency Management Coordinator. “Rains are becoming increasingly severe.”

These severe floods led many people I represent to question current state policies. For example, a town official asked for help with a washed-out road. He wanted to double the size of a culvert that washed out in a severe storm. We could not get adequate state help to pay for the improvements. The following year, the road and culvert washed out again.

Floods know no boundaries. Folks in Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties remember last summer flooding when up to 8 inches of rain fell causing sewers to overflow. Filling in wetlands makes things worse in urban as well as rural areas.

The City of Houston learned a hard lesson this summer. Part of the reason Houston flooded so badly was because they took out wetlands and built on the low land. In one of several similar stories I read, reporters for Quartz Media wrote,

“Even after it became a widely accepted scientific fact that wetlands can soak up large amounts of flood water, the city continued to pave over them… From 1992 to 2010, this area lost more than 70% of its wetlands, according to research by Texas A&M University…The city, the largest in the US with no zoning laws, is a case study in limiting government regulations and favoring growth – often at the expense of the environment. As water swamps many of its neighborhoods, it’s now a cautionary tale of sidelining science and plain common sense.”

Too often speed and secrecy in the legislative process replaces thoughtful, public discussion. Maybe lawmakers should ask homeowners still recovering from the floods if removing wetland protections is in the public’s best interest.

Lawmakers swore an oath to protect the Constitution including to promote the general welfare. In our age of climate change and very unpredictable weather patterns, leaders have a responsibility to protect citizens from the damaging effects of severe weather. Wetlands – nature’s “natural sponge” – are part of the answer to protecting us from flooding.

Instead of removing Wisconsin’s isolated wetlands protections, we should develop new strategies to cope with changing weather patterns that threaten us. Emergency funds and disaster programs should be changed to address the breadth of problems created by floods. Transportation plans should provide for increased water volume.

The legislative process is designed to force deliberation necessary to thoroughly examine any given issue. Careful consideration seems impossible with legislation speeding through the process. For example, at 9:44 a.m. on Monday we received the Assembly Session calendar for Tuesday. This is the first opportunity the public and press have to review the list of 93 bills up for final passage.

Such critical issues as protecting our precious wetlands need a thoughtful, informed and citizen engaged discussion.

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Moving Broadband Forward for Wisconsin

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, 13 February 2018
in Wisconsin

broadband-map-northwoodsSen. Vinehout  is introducing bills, with Rep. Don Vurwink, focused on moving broadband expansion forward in Wisconsin. The bills would provide $100 million annually for broadband expansion and direct funds to areas of most need and provide accountability.

MADISON, WI - In a recent committee hearing, I argued majority lawmakers were moving broadband expansion forward by press release and little else.

This week Representative Don Vuwink (D-Milton) and I are circulating bills to actually move broadband forward for Wisconsin.

The Senate Revenue, Financial Institutions and Rural Issues committee debated a bill that would allow a local community to pass a resolution saying the community was “Telecommuting Ready.” However, nothing in that bill helped communities gain access to broadband.

In sweeping language, a representative of the telecommunications industry described how this bill, which did not provide a dime to communities for broadband expansion, was “Chapter Three” in the push to help expand broadband. The addition of Chapter 3 to the previous chapters does not make this book a best seller.

Recently the Governor bragged to farmers that the state “invested $41.5 million in expanding broadband access.” This statement is misleading.

“Chapter One” of the Governor’s plan was to turn away $23 million in federal stimulus money for broadband expansion in 2011. The Public Service Commission only awarded $3.9 million between 2014 and 2017. On the other hand, Minnesota spent $85 million on broadband expansion in the same time-period.

In “Chapter Two”, the Governor’s budget allocates only $11 million toward broadband expansion that rural residents might see. Some money was spent in Fiscal Year 2016-17 and some was carried over for the next few years.

Most of the money for which the Governor is taking credit are funds earmarked for schools, juvenile corrections facilities, private and technical colleges, and state-run institutions. The school program, in some form, has been around for many years and uses a mix of federal and state money.

In the bills Representative Vuwink and I are introducing, we worked hard to solve problems with the current grant program to make sure Wisconsin residents are getting the Real Deal when it comes to broadband expansion.

First, our plan appropriates $100 million annually for the next two years. The plan is fully funded using a portion of the Manufacturing and Agriculture Tax Credit.

broadband-cableSecond, our plan – “Moving Broadband Forward” – would assure customers actually receive real broadband speed. Under the current program, companies can obtain taxpayer funds for delivering “snail-slow” speeds of 5 Mbps (Megabits per second) download and .6 Mbps upload.

Our bill would require companies using state money to actually deliver speeds of at least the current federal minimum for broadband - 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Further, our bills would create “Truth in Advertising” standards that require companies to deliver the speed they promised to customers.

Our plan actually directs money to areas of most need. The Governor’s plan makes almost every Wisconsin county eligible for broadband grants. Under our “Moving Broadband Forward”, 85% of funds would be sent to counties with a population of less than 65,000 and areas with no broadband internet are prioritized.

Accountability in the use of public funds is sorely missing from the current program. Companies receiving funds are not required to provide broadband in areas they promised to serve; companies are not required to repay state money if they do not deliver what they promised; companies can receive multiple grants at one time, increasing the chance of being paid twice for the same project.

All these problems are eliminated with the accountability provisions in our plan. Additionally, accountability is assured by authorizing the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau to evaluate the new program.

Finally, municipalities – counties, towns or cities – that want to seek state funds for broadband build-out are eligible under the new plan. This means citizens themselves, working through their local government, are empowered to create broadband expansion opportunities.

Broadband is the Twenty-First Century equivalent of electricity. Everyone should have access to the Internet. One day, many of you may travel to or contact someone living in a rural area. All of us will eat something grown by farmers who rely on the Internet for many important aspects of production. Many folks long to live in a rural area but need broadband for telecommuting.

Wisconsin deserves better than broadband expansion by press release. Moving Broadband Forward is the Real Deal for Wisconsin. Please encourage your lawmakers to sign on as cosponsors of these new proposals.

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