Monday May 22, 2017

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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.

Everyone Needs to Pay Their Fair Share

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, 16 May 2017
in Wisconsin

executive-moneyBig business tax credits mean fewer budget dollars for shared services such as police and fire protection, public education, and transportation infrastructure says Sen. Kathleen Vinehout. It's not fair for small businesses and the rest of us to shoulder the cost on our own.


MADISON - “Can anything be done to force the largest corporations in the state to pay something for the roads, ports, airports, fire and police services, educated workforce, etc. that they are using in our state?” Linea recently wrote to me. “This implies the smaller businesses are paying far more than their fair share.”

About the time Linea’s question came to me, so did a new memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) examining the drop in money coming to the state from corporations.

I wondered, just how have business tax credits changed and how might they change in the new budget?

Some of the items Linea mentioned are part of the transportation budget. For this column, I will set aside a discussion of road-related taxes.

Much of state government is paid through our state taxes: including corporate and individual income tax, and sales tax.

The LFB recently addressed tax money coming into the state – “revenue estimates” – for the coming budget. The nonpartisan bureau stated, “Corporate collections for the entire year are estimated to decline by 6.5%, compared to 2015-16, while the year-to-date decrease is 8.9%.”

Over the past year, monthly corporate tax collections, when compared to the same month in the prior year, were down by as much as 22%.

What is causing this rapid decline in corporate tax collections? The answer from analysists included the fact corporations were cashing in tax credits faster than expected.

Tax credits can reduce taxes owed. Business tax credits have grown both in the different types of credits and the total amount of state taxes reduced.

Wisconsin has a lot of new business tax credits.

In 2006, the state had 17 different types of business tax credits. Ten years later, the type of tax credits increased two and one-half times. The cost to the state for these credits nearly tripled. These numbers are from a report produced by the state Department of Revenue called Tax Exemption Devices.

Just one tax credit set the manufacturing and agriculture tax rate to less than half a percent, which cost $650 million in the next budget. (For comparison, this dollar amount is about the cost of State Superintendent Evers’ plan to fix the school funding formula.)

Some credits are more powerful than simply making income tax owed disappear. Some business tax credits are refundable. Claiming a refundable tax credit means you get money back from the state even if you owe nothing in taxes.

One refundable tax credit, known as Enterprise Zone, accumulated awards of over $470 million that can be claimed by companies over several years. A few of the companies benefiting and their awards include: Mercury Marine ($65 million), Kohler ($62.5 million), Quad Graphics ($61.7 million), Uline ($18.6 million), Amazon.com ($10.3 million) Dollar General and Trane (both at $5.5 million).

The stated purpose of all this money given to corporations is to spur economic growth. Of course, the expected robust economic growth has not happened. Wisconsin lost 66,000 manufacturing jobs in 2007 and 2008. In 8 years, we only gained back 44,000 of those jobs. Wisconsin wages are 18th lowest; and we are 23rd in real GDP growth, behind every Midwest neighbor except Illinois. The new revenue in this budget is about the same increase as the past few budgets.

Rather than repeal, or at least demand more accountability for these expensive tax credits, many in the legislature talk about shifting more of the tax burden away from corporations.

A bill introduced last month would eliminate the business personal property taxes and shift the cost of this tax to the general fund, which puts funding for schools, universities, and local governments at risk. Further, rumors in the Capitol suggest this tax plan will be part of a last-minute budget amendment that could cost the state a whopping $530 million. That’s a little more than the price tag of the new money the Governor set aside for K-12 education in “categorical” or “outside” the funding formula.

Lawmakers should take up Linea’s question about big businesses paying their fair share. It’s simply not fair for small businesses and the rest of us to shoulder the cost of shared services like police protection, the UW and public schools when corporations also shared the benefits.

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“REINS Act” - New Power for Leaders to Stop Public Protections

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, 09 May 2017
in Wisconsin

flint-water-crisisThe REINS Act (SB 15) allows the Senate Majority Leader, Assembly Speaker, or Chairs of the administrative rules committee to stop development of administrative rules if the cost to implement the rule is over $10 million, regardless of the benefit to the public.


MADISON - “This is the broadest, most dangerous bill you’ve never heard of.” I told my colleagues during a recent Senate debate. “It’s an obscure way to shut down government from doing something that the Legislature intended to do.”

Senate Bill 15, known by the initials REINS, would allow leaders of the Legislature to shut down the implementation of new laws if the leader found the new law too costly to implement. A version of the bill is moving toward passage at both the state and federal levels of government. I expect the state Assembly will soon take up the bill.

A little background; after a bill becomes law, agencies work on writing the details of how to implement the law. These details, known as Administrative Rules, are vetted by the Legislature through a committee and vetted by the public through hearings.

“Administrative Rules are the fine details of laws written by policy experts at state agencies.” said long-time Capitol reporter Shawn Johnson in an NPR story on the Senate passage of the REINS Act.

In 2011, majority members voted to change the rulemaking process to give the governor exceptional authority. Under what became known as “Act 21” the rulemaking process now begins and ends in the governor’s office.

Chief sponsor of the REINS Act argued the bill “shifts the power back to us, the elected officials.” Curiously, the bill did not change the portion of the process that begins and ends with the governor.

What the bill did do is allow leaders – the Senate Majority Leader, Assembly Speaker, or Chairs of the administrative rules committee – to stop the implementation of a law if their own commissioned study shows the total cost of implementing the new law is over $10 million.

However, the study would only evaluate the costs of the new law, not the benefits. Therefore, the bill only considers one side of the equation – the costs to business not the benefits to the public.

Consider this hypothetical example: a manufacturing process caused the death of thirty people. Implementation of a rule to change the manufacturing process statewide would cost over $10 million. The value of the business costs would be weighed but not the value of human lives saved because of protections put in place by the rule.

The cynical observer of the political process might say the REINS Act allows a legislator to vote for a new law that has broad public support, but after action by a few legislative leaders, satisfy a select group by never implementing the new law.

The REINS Act would affect every portion of state government, but there are five agencies that write the majority of Administrative Rules: Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; Natural Resources; Transportation; Economic Development Authority (formerly Commerce) and Workforce Development (Labor).

Given what these agencies do, the effect of the REINS law could be wide reaching. New laws that could be stopped might be related to consumer protections; human, animal and plant health; workers compensation, unemployment and discrimination protections; road and bridge construction; food, water and air pollution. Even clawing back state money from companies that refused to deliver promised jobs.

The groups supporting the REINS Act reads like a “Who’s Who” among factions trying to influence the Republican Party: Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, various utility companies, American Petroleum Institute, the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, to name but a few.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) a corporate lobbying-sponsored group supports the bill. Some Wisconsin legislators are among ALEC leadership and members.

In Washington, a similar REINS Act is moving through Congress. The Act was passed by the House of Representatives and is under consideration in the U.S Senate.

In a letter to Congress, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters wrote, “If you think you might ever protect your constituents from dirty air or water, drinking water contamination, disease spread by food, lead in toys, predatory banking practices or any known or yet unforeseen threat, you need to vote against the REINS Act. The Act would simply be the most fundamental step away from protecting the public in U.S. history.”

The REINS Act is promoted as a cleverly devised pun to rein-in run-away government. However, in reality, it is a way for large corporate interests to manipulate our political process to their own ends, sacrificing our people’s health and safety.

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Youth in Government Day Engages Teens

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, 01 May 2017
in Wisconsin

students-ecTrempealeau County Youth in Government Day brings students into the courthouse to visit with officials and staff about their work. It gave Kathleen Vinehout a chance to spent time with them discussing her role as Senator and engage in a conversation about what they would change if they had the opportunity.


WHITEHALL, WI - “Imagine you could make the laws. What would you change about how things are run?” My question to the students spurred a long discussion about change in our world.

Almost 100 high school students recently participated in Trempealeau County Youth in Government Day. The daylong session was designed to encourage youth to become engaged in government. Students visited with county officials and staff about their work running county services.

During lunch, I spoke with the students about being a Senator and lawmaking. I encouraged them to think about laws as something they could someday change.

trempealeau-coTeens told me they often think of the law as permanent. The day at the courthouse taught them things can change. They can be a part of change. The teens offered ideas that reflected their interests and experiences. Some focused on immediate concerns, “Get rid of the school dress code,” said Isabelle. Some had a larger vision.

“I want to save the horses sent across the Mexican border for meat,” said Raquel. We talked about the work of horse rescue groups who give time and money to help abandoned horses.

“We need to protect the environment. If we protect our environment, we protect human health and animal habitat,” one young woman explained.

“Fewer people are going into agriculture. Let’s offer free tuition to encourage more agriculture students and farmers.” Several students voiced agreement. “Everyone needs to eat – we need more farmers.” “Look at the average age of farmers in Wisconsin,” said another.

“We need cheaper college tuition,” said one young man. Others agreed. “Look what they did in New York – they made college free.” Another student noted, “Even in Kurdistan they have free college tuition.” I’m not sure about Kurdistan, but there are countries do not charge students tuition.

“We need to give everyone equal opportunity,” said Kayla, whose broad vision spurred others to think of ways to provide opportunity to all of our neighbors.

Shelly talked of helping homeless children. “Give them a home, lower the cost of adoption,” she said. We talked about the county’s role in helping children whose parents could not take care of them. Several students mentioned their visit with county social workers who spoke about children in need.

“I’d like to help people without health care,” said Monica who wants to become a Certified Nursing Assistant. She also saw the larger problems that happen when people cannot get needed health care.

kathleen vinehoutI prodded the students for more ideas of how we could provide opportunity for all. One teen with beautiful blue and black hair framing her face, said people “should not be discriminated against for the color of their hair.” Her comment led to a discussion of discrimination in many forms. We talked about race, religion, national origin and immigration status.

The student’s vision of changing how things are run was not limited to the county, or even the state. “I think we need to explore space,” said Riley. “Let’s explore Mars.”

“Kids in other countries are dying of diseases and do not have a home,” said one young woman.

“Stop corrupt governments,” said Manny. He added corrupt people who are not committed to serving the public can run other countries and, even our own country.

His comment prompted a discussion about laws to assure good government. We talked about transparency in state and local government. Posting public notices in the newspaper for example helps people see actions local officials plan to take. Transparency gives everyone a chance to participate in what happens in our communities and state.

“Showing up is the first step to changing the world,” I told the youth. The decision makers in this world first show up at a school board, county board or town board meeting.

“Next, let your voice be heard,” I urged. Write, email, speak out, and call your representatives. I asked the youth to think about how to make their voice louder. They talked about joining groups, gathering petitions and working for change together.

Spending the day with the Trempealeau County teens reassured me youth of today are engaged and considering world problems they will soon inherit. I’m grateful to County Clerk Paul Severson, the American Legion, teachers and county officials who worked hard to give students a glimpse into how they could participate in government and someday even change the world.

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High Capacity Well Proposal Makes Water Problems Worse

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, 25 April 2017
in Wisconsin

sand-mining-wiThe Sylla’s struggle with bad water, caused it seems by a high capacity well operated by a sand mine near their farm. Brown water is coming from their well and a horse died from exposure to toxins likely in the water. A bill in Madison, which would grant the well owner a permit in perpetuity, makes situations worse.


ALMA, WI - What if you woke up one morning turned on the faucet to wash your face and saw brown water coming out of your tap?

Stacy Sylla of rural Lincoln Township in Trempealeau County texted me just such a photo of water the color of sludge. She has gone through three washing machines, dug fistfuls of sand out of the tank of her toilet, and bought an expensive water-filtering device. Her horse, Apples, died of exposure to toxins and pollutants found in her water.

The likely cause of the well problems? A new sand mine just over a half a mile away from Stacy and Mike Sylla’s farm.

alma-main-stLocal residents opposed the sand mine. In order to get the mine approved, the cities of Independence and Whitehall annexed land miles from the original city borders. This end-around of the township government left residents with little say about what happens in their neighborhood.

Stacy testified against the mine. She heard from a city council member that, “It’s not affecting my house.” She later told me, “I feel like the state has failed to protect the people.”

Town officials tried to stop the annexation and tried to work with the mine to no avail. The town received many reports of water problems evidently caused by the mine pumping more than the local aquifer could handle.

The story Stacy shared with me became a part of the debate on a high capacity well bill that fortunately failed to pass the Legislature last spring.

The Syllas and their neighbors did receive a bit of a reprieve with cleaner well water when low gas prices resulted in less hydraulic fracturing, and consequently less need for sand. The mine ceased activity and the water in the neighborhood started to clear up.

But this spring both the brown water and the high capacity well bill are back. Last month sand mining started up again. Stacy and Mike are hauling water for their livestock, buying water for cooking and drinking. Now they wonder if bathing in brown water is a health risk.

The sand mine doesn’t appear to take any responsibility for the problem. However, Mike Sylla recently told the Trempealeau County Times, “One day they started blasting and it wasn’t long before our water went bad.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) also does not appear to be taking any responsibility. My office was told the state “didn’t have regulatory authority” and the Sylla’s should “test their water.”

With a lack of state action, the Trempealeau County Board started a program of well testing. Toxins released in the water are expensive to detect. The county will pick up most of the cost of the water testing. Information and test kits are available through the Trempealeau County Extension office.

Meanwhile a bill to make matters worse for neighbors with bad wells is moving through the Legislature. Senate Bill 76 would give a high capacity well owner access to water in perpetuity. Currently, the DNR reviews permits and any issues related to the permit when a well owner replaces, upgrades, transfers or replaces a high capacity well.

There is no other system for a regular “check-up” to make sure local wells and waterways are not harmed by the removal of water through the high capacity well. During the Senate debate, my colleagues and I tried to add commonsense “check-ups” for high capacity wells such as a review every ten years or when there is a change in usage (from agriculture to sand mining), and when considering approval of a large number of new wells in the vicinity. All of these amendments were defeated.

Senate Bill 76 recently passed the Senate on a partisan vote. The Assembly may take up the bill as soon as the beginning of May.

Our state Constitution Public Trust Doctrine sets out that Wisconsin’s waters belong to all Wisconsin residents. Senate Bill 76 takes the state in another direction – the one with the biggest straw gets the most water.

State action to pass this bill will make matters worse for the Sylla’s and their neighbors. I urge my colleagues in the Assembly to stop this bill. We need commonsense solutions that allow access to clean water for all Wisconsin residents.

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State Budget: Start with What’s Real

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, 18 April 2017
in Wisconsin

hearingWhile much of our attention has been on transportation, health care and education spending decisions, Sen. Vinehout also discusses the importance of our modest revenue estimates and lesser known budget realities.


MADISON - When it comes to paying the bills you’ve got to deal with what’s real. You can’t spend rhetoric.

Lawmakers are doubling down to deal with the state budget. Public hearings and town hall meetings are scheduled across the state. Many civic groups are hosting legislators in a discussion of the state budget. Many are burning the midnight oil to get to the bottom of the state’s financial matters.

In all these conversations and the budget votes to come in the Capitol, lawmakers must to deal with what’s real.

People know about the state’s transportation fund. More money is leaving the fund than money coming in to pay for roads. Potholes are real.

In a future column I’ll discuss solutions to fix our roads. But, today, I’d like to focus on lesser known budget realities and possible solutions.

First, the reality of revenue; money coming into our state through taxes is increasing, but less money is expected than the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau originally estimated for the same time period a year ago.

When our state budget passed two years ago, the growth between last year and this year was pegged at 3.8%. Based on recent estimates, growth between last fiscal year and the current year is at 2.7%. We won’t know the actual figures until later, but we do know the Bureau’s revenue estimates for this year are reduced downward.

Why? Some changes are due to tax breaks costing more than originally anticipated.

Other changes may be related to Wisconsin’s economy lagging the nation. For example, wages in Wisconsin are lower than 31 other states. Even states like Georgia and Louisiana have higher wages. Economic growth has also lagged. Wisconsin is ranked 23rd among states for economic growth since 2009 according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Second, health costs continue to grow faster than any other part of the budget. Governor Walker’s budget spends about $3 billion more (all funds) than the last budget. Half of this spending goes to health programs.

There are many reasons why health costs are increasing. For the one in five Wisconsinites that receive health care from the state, we can do much more to provide better value for taxpayers.

For many years I’ve advocated for common sense changes to our health system. For example, about half of all births are paid for with Medicaid. We need to make sure all new moms have prenatal care. It’s simple and it saves lives and money.

Finally, lawmakers need a dose of reality in funding schools. Our funding formula is broken. State Superintendent Tony Evers has proposed changes every budget since 2011. This budget, like previous budgets, ignores Mr. Evers’ proposals.

In this budget, the Governor is putting money outside the formula – evidently acknowledging the formula is broken but not fixing it. At best this is a Band-Aid approach that has, and will continue to, result in more referenda and higher property taxes.

Fixing the school funding formula would move Wisconsin forward. School board members would have consistency and be able to plan. Superintendents could count on steady, predictable revenue.

I agree with Mr. Evers in that every school needs a fixed amount of state aid. Evers suggests $3,000 per student. This approach will help both low aided districts and rural schools. Evers raises the amount for students in poverty. This will help both urban districts and poor rural districts.

Small school districts will still cost more money to operate. Maybe we need a conversation about a fixed dollar amount for rural school operation and then add a per student rate. Options are many but let’s have a conversation about solutions.

We do have an increase in revenue. Not as much as we thought a few years ago, and not much more than in past budgets. We are only slowly recovering from the Recession – slower than most of our neighbors.

But let’s be prudent and deal with reality. There are a lot of simmering problems that need our attention.

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