Monday June 26, 2017

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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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Hearing Needed on Requiring Presidential Candidates to Release Tax Returns

Posted by Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert is a Founding Partner and Publisher of the N.E. Wisconsin - Green Ba
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on Tuesday, 18 April 2017
in Wisconsin

donald-trumpOver 90% of Americans believe there are too many tax loopholes for wealthy people and corporations. People have a right to know what potential conflicts exist for their President.

MADISON - State Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) and State Representative David Crowley (D-Milwaukee) called for a public hearing here today on legislation that would require candidates for president and vice president to provide their tax returns in order to get on the ballot in Wisconsin.

According to a recent poll reported on by The Hill, sixty-four percent of Americans believe the President should release his taxes. The poll also showed that “ninety-two percent of those surveyed say there are currently too many tax loopholes for wealthy people, and 90 percent say there are too many loopholes for corporations.”

david-crowley“The continuing controversy over the President’s refusal to release his tax returns reinforces the need to pass this legislation,” said Crowley. “The public has a right to know if decisions made by a president are being made out of concern for what’s best for the nation or what’s best for their personal bottom line.”

dave-hansen“People are very concerned about taxes and who is paying them and who isn’t. They clearly see our tax code benefits the wealthy and corporations at their expense,” said Hansen. “Before we can have an honest debate about taxes, people need to know that those politicians proposing changes don’t have conflicts of interest that might further skew our tax code in favor those who are already unfairly benefitting from it.”

Senate Bill 166, was referred to the Committee on Elections and Utilities. Hansen said a hearing is necessary to give the public an opportunity to weigh in on the issue and how best to prevent similar controversies from happening in the future:

“Time will tell how this current controversy is resolved. For our part, we can take steps to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future by requiring all candidates running for president and vice president to make their tax returns public in order to be on the ballot in Wisconsin.”

Under the SB-166, candidates for president and vice president would be required to file their tax returns for the three most recent years with the Wisconsin Elections Commission which would be required to post the returns online within 48 hours of receiving them.

“These candidates are asking to assume the most powerful office in the land,” Crowley said. “The people have a right to know what potential conflicts may exist with a candidate before they cast their vote.”


Legislative writer Jay Wadd contributed to this story.

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Waters of Wisconsin and High Capacity Wells

Posted by Mark Miller, State Senator 16th District
Mark Miller, State Senator 16th District
Mark F. Miller (D-Monona) is serving his third term in the Wisconsin Senate. He
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 18 April 2017
in Wisconsin

hicap-lawsuitSen. Mark Miller talks about SB76, which gives high capacity well owners priority over all other users of Wisconsin waters including shoreline property owners, anglers, boaters, tourist businesses, small farmers, and rural households.

MONONA, WI - The waters of Wisconsin belong to the people of Wisconsin. This provision is enshrined in our state constitution as a Public Trust. Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled State Senate recently passed a bill, Senate Bill 76, privatizing Wisconsin waters for the benefit of high-capacity well owners.

SB76 gives high capacity well owners permanent rights to withdraw water regardless of the impact on other water users. In spite of court decisions that require the DNR to manage the waters of Wisconsin for the mutual benefit of all users in accordance with the state constitution, DNR Secretary Stepp chooses not to do so. Instead she relies on a non-binding opinion by Republican Attorney General Schimel rather than following the constitution, the courts, and the broad statutory authority granted her department by the state legislature.

I am baffled and hugely disappointed that current Republicans who control state government would so openly fail their oath to uphold the Constitution of the State of Wisconsin. Their failure now completely seals the deal to give high capacity well owners priority over all other users including shoreline property owners, anglers, boaters, tourist businesses, small farmers, and rural households, all of whom are entitled to reasonable use of Wisconsin’s water…..OUR water. These other users now face the certain prospect of lower lake levels, reduced stream flows, and dry or contaminated wells with passage of SB76.

A high capacity well permit is issued to wells that can withdraw more than 100,000 gallons per day. It is the only environmental individual permit that is issued in perpetuity. These permits are FOREVER! With passage of SB76 there can never be any reconsideration of whether the withdrawal meets constitutional requirements to assure reasonable use for all.

Passage of SB 76 means that once again citizens will have to go to court to affirm and regain their constitutional right to their reasonable use of the waters of the state. They have had to do this before. Every time the courts have upheld that right. Republicans ignore it. Instead, they give preference to high capacity well owners, over all others, to use public water for private profit.

The people should not have to sue their government in order to protect their water rights. They should expect their elected representatives to honor their oath to uphold the state constitution. Some potato and vegetable growers in the Central Sands region where water use is most contentious recognize that their use is unsustainable and hurting their neighbors. They are a minority, but they could be the start of a responsible discussion on water management policies that assures sustainable use for all. Any such discussion has to acknowledge that high capacity well permits must be for a fixed duration like every other environmental permit. Ten years is a reasonable standard.

As of this writing, the State Assembly had not taken up SB76. If they adopt the bill and it is signed by the governor, high capacity wells will be permanent without any opportunity for review. Citizen outrage last session stopped a similar bill. Citizen outrage may still be able to stop SB76 in spite of the bill’s strong support by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Dairy Business Association. Hopefully the people will prevail again.

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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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Voters Deserve Say On Voucher Spending

Posted by Janet Bewley, State Senator Dist 25
Janet Bewley, State Senator Dist 25
Janet Bewley, State Senator Dist 25 was elected to the Senate in the fall of 201
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 18 April 2017
in Wisconsin

kids-milwBill proposes same oversight voters have over public school revenue.

MADISON - The recent spring ballot gave Wisconsin voters sixty-five opportunities to cast votes on public school funding requests ranging from new facilities to basic operations. In Northern Wisconsin communities voters were able to approve an increase for classroom education and deferred maintenance in one district and decide against spending on a new facility in another.

Unfortunately -- when it comes to state-mandated spending on voucher schools -- voters didn’t have the same chance. State law mandates payouts to the statewide voucher program, which are significantly higher than the average state aid per student to public schools. And a change in the 2015 GOP state budget takes that higher payment directly out of public schools, leaving property taxpayers to make up the difference if it’s made up at all.

That’s why I worked with three of my colleagues to draft a bill that will give school district voters the same oversight of voucher spending that they currently have over public school revenue limits. Our legislation is simple and straightforward: No funds can be taken from a school district to pay voucher schools unless voters in that district approve in a referendum.

This legislation would not end taxpayer-funded voucher schools. It would simply give voucher school operators and their lobbyists the responsibility to make the case for the quality and value of their schools directly to the hard-working taxpayers and local voters who pay for them under current law.

Wisconsin’s public schools have long been national leaders and are the cornerstones of our communities, especially in rural and northern Wisconsin. These public schools have gone to referendum 334 times for operating costs and another 324 times for debt or new facilities since 2011. Even including modest increases the Governor proposed in his budget, state aid that supports public schools and reduces property taxes will not even keep pace with inflation over that period.

At the same time, and with no taxpayer oversight or control, spending on voucher programs in Wisconsin has more than doubled since the first Republican budget in 2011. Untold amounts are funneled from taxpayer-financed voucher schools to organizations that pay lobbyists to demand ever more from taxpayers. And local property taxpayers lose more to the voucher program than state aid would have brought in.

Voucher lobbyists themselves said recently that property taxpayers make up the difference, and then some, between state aid to public schools and state payments to voucher schools that are $1000-$1700 higher per student in the Governor’s budget. (Imagine how much lower your property taxes could be if the state’s commitment to public school students matched the amount my Republican colleagues pay out per student to voucher schools.)

It’s time for taxpayers to have a say in whether they want their dollars taken out of the schools that have served generations of Wisconsinites very well to fund the voucher industry. As long as voucher schools are being paid for by local taxpayers and districts are forced to face the voters to keep the lights on, local voters should have the same say on voucher spending they have on public schools.

And as long as voucher schools are being paid for by state tax dollars at all, students in public schools should be treated at least as well by their state government. It’s time for the state to step up to the plate the way voters have 441 times for our public schools since 2011. It’s time for the state to stop returning fewer of your state tax dollars per student to your public schools than we pay voucher schools.

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