Tuesday December 11, 2018

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Supporting Wisconsin Farmers

Posted by Jennifer Shilling, State Senator Dist 32 (B)
Jennifer Shilling, State Senator Dist 32 (B)
Jennifer Shilling lives in La Crosse with her husband and two children. She curr
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on Wednesday, 27 June 2018
in Wisconsin

wisc-dairy-farmJune is Dairy Month, and we need to thank all the hardworking dairy producers, milk processors, and local farm families that make Wisconsin “America’s Dairyland.”


LA CROSSE, WI - I don’t know about you, but my family always enjoys the month of June. Not just because school is out, but because June is Dairy Month in Wisconsin!

It’s a time for us to celebrate all of our hardworking dairy producers, milk processors, and local farm families that make Wisconsin “America’s Dairyland.”

Over the past month, you may have taken advantage of the family-friendly activities, including parades, cheese tastings, and my favorite – dairy breakfasts on the farm.

These events highlight the importance of our farming heritage and are a great way to learn more about where our food comes from. This month also serves as a reminder to ask ourselves how we can better support local farmers and strengthen our communities.

Years of Republican policies that favor large corporations over smaller family farms and drive down milk prices are having detrimental impacts on our local communities.

jennifer-shillingWisconsin has been losing dairy farms at an alarming rate – roughly 1.5 farms lost every day since 2011 – and our state has led the Midwest region in farm bankruptcies in 7 of the past 8 years.

Over the past few months I have listened to local farmers about the economic issues affecting them and the struggles they face with volatile markets. The reckless trade war imposed by President Trump is undermining our economic potential, adding more strain on family farms, and having a devastating impact on our local communities.

In the legislature, Democrats have championed successful initiatives like Farm to School and the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program. We’ve fought to expand health care access, invest in broadband infrastructure and protect funding for UW-Extension agents who work one-on-one with area farmers.

By promoting financial security and expanding economic opportunities, we can support Wisconsin’s family farmers and ensure everyone can enjoy healthy, affordable and locally-grown food options.

I want to thank the families in La Crosse, Monroe, Vernon and Crawford counties and all across the state for opening their farms to the public and hosting delicious and nutritious breakfasts. Their dedication to farming does not go unnoticed and I look forward to continued discussions on how to improve the lives of Wisconsin farmers.

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Joint Legislative Audit Committee Explores Agency Accountability

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
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on Tuesday, 26 June 2018
in Wisconsin

wisc-capitol-domeAt a recent Committee hearing, members made it clear the UW must enact Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) recommendations regarding the UW and affiliated organizations. Regardless of the audit, the recommendations provide a roadmap to resolving issues found by the auditors.


MADISON - What should we do if the folks in charge don’t fix things they know are broken?

At a recent public hearing of the Joint Committee on Audit, on which I serve as ranking minority member, lawmakers publically pondered how to hold government accountable if they repeatedly ignored audit findings.

The audit of the University of Wisconsin System came about from the alleged illegal transfer of public money to a private foundation by former UW-Oshkosh administrators. Two former administrators recently appeared in court on felony charges.

The recently released audit by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) did not address the court case but provided details on the relationship between UW, its foundations, and other affiliated organizations.

Auditors found an array of problems. For example, a UW-Oshkosh employee placed public money in an affiliated organization and did not return all the money despite being instructed to by the Chancellor. In other situations, UW employees received full-time UW salaries, but they worked part-time at an affiliated organization. UW foundations did not always reimburse the UW for the public space or staff.

Most disconcerting for lawmakers was the apparent lack of compliance by the UW in correcting recurring problems and a lack of full access to records to complete the audit. As a consequence, auditors could not fully answer lawmakers’ questions.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle publically explored what to do to force compliance with audit recommendations.

Over and over again, lawmakers repeated some version of “sending as strong a message as we can” to hold the UW accountable. I explored the possibility of using subpoena powers to require agencies to turn over documents. My colleague, Senator Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), suggested we take a much stronger approach to compelling agencies to release necessary information and comply with LAB recommendations.

Senator Kapenga proposed the UW and any other noncompliant agency should face strict financial penalties for either withholding information or refusing to comply with audit recommendations. He shared that when companies did not provide information to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) - the federal financial watchdog would assess financial penalties. Senator Kapenga suggested a $50,000 fine for every instance of repetitive noncompliance.

kathleen-vinehoutAll members of the Joint Audit Committee share Senator Kapenga’s frustration with agencies not providing auditors complete and accurate information and agencies not complying with audit recommendations. Too often, audits include recurring findings that should have been resolved when the agency complied with the LAB recommendations.

Our recent hearing dealt, in part, with recurrent computer security issues at the UW. For many years, auditors found problems with IT controls over accounting, payroll and student data. Without protections, data is vulnerable. The state could suffer losses.

Unresolved, recurring problems that leave the state vulnerable affect many agencies.

Other audits found that the Department of Health Services failed to enact recommendations to address poor compliance with required computer matches to stop inmates from receiving FoodShare benefits. The Department of Employee Trust Funds had repeated findings related to internal financial controls in seven of the prior ten years.

One of the most egregious repeated audit finding was with the state’s economic development programs. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporations (WEDC) did not independently verify whether companies that promised to create jobs with public money actually created those jobs. Further, auditors called into question the job numbers released by WEDC.

These examples of noncompliance, repeated year after year, are only known because of the continual auditing conducted by the LAB.

The steadfast work of auditors to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of state government is critical to the public and to our legislators. Reports provide us reliable information about the action (or inaction) of state government, an assessment of whether or not programs met their purpose and whether money was properly spent. Moreover, the recommendations offered by the LAB provide a roadmap forward in addressing problems.

How seriously agencies take these recommendations falls on lawmakers. The clear message to the UW from the members of the Joint Audit Committee was “get the job done.”

The audit recommendations are the means to the end, which is better government. If we are going to be better stewards of the peoples’ money, lawmakers must now hold government accountable.

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Suicide: A Tale of Access

Posted by Patty Schachtner, State Senator 10th District
Patty Schachtner, State Senator 10th District
State Senator Patty Schachtner represents Wisconsin’s tenth senate district. The
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on Friday, 22 June 2018
in Wisconsin

suicidebygunEase of access to firearms contributes to suicide risk, as does lack of access to mental health resources in many communities. We can reduce the suicide rate, but we must recognize it is an epidemic driven in part by systemic, policy decisions.


SOMERSET, WI - Suicide has touched communities across the nation. The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain – like all deaths from suicide – are tragic. While tragic, their deaths refocused the national attention on what is a growing suicide epidemic.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that suicide rates in the United States increased by 25 percent between 1996 and 2016.

Behind these numbers are lives. Stories that were cut short. Suicide is also a story - but one of access: ease of access to firearms and lack of access to mental health resources.

More than half of all people who die by suicide use a firearm – the most lethal method for suicide. Wisconsin’s rate is even higher - nearly three in four who die by suicide use a firearm. Close to 85 percent of suicide attempts by firearm are fatal. In contrast, five percent of people who attempt suicide through other widely-used methods die.

A suicide attempt by firearm is near-instant. There is not the same level of planning required compared to other methods, meaning there is less time for people to reconsider or seek help during an attempt.

The time between suicidal thoughts and a suicide attempt is important because of how it relates to impulsivity. A 2001 study regarding suicide attempts and impulsivity found that 70 percent of people spent less than one hour between considering suicide and committing an attempt; 24 percent said less than five minutes. Not having a firearm can reduce the effects of impulsivity, and in turn, reduce the number of suicide attempts among individuals who are in that mental state.

patty-schachtnerEase of access to firearms can also contribute to elevated suicide risk. Most notably, this includes unsecured storage of firearms at home. Researchers found that gun owners who practiced safe storage of firearms at home were 60 percent less likely to die from a firearm-related suicide, relative to gun owners who did not safely store their firearm.

Unsecured storage of firearms has implications for children too. In 2016, 633 children committed suicide with a firearm. Many of these children found the firearm at home: unlocked, easily accessible, and loaded.

Compounding this problem is the lack of access to mental health resources in many communities. In Wisconsin, 46 of its 72 counties contain federally-designated mental health professional shortage areas. Mental health shortages make it difficult for individuals contemplating suicide to seek professional help. It also makes it more difficult for individuals with a mental illness, who are at greater risk of suicide, to receive care.

Rising suicide rates are an epidemic, and it is an epidemic driven in part by systemic, policy decisions.

Wisconsin’s suicide rate has been higher than the national average for all but one year between 2008 and 2018. We can reduce the suicide rate, but we need to have real conversations about where we are and where we want to be.

*****

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK [8255]. Trained counselors are available 24/7.

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Court Case Challenges Policy Penalizing People for Being Poor

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
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on Wednesday, 20 June 2018
in Wisconsin

grocery-store-checkoutThe Trump administration invited states to create new policies with more strict work requirements and barriers for people to qualify for Medicaid and FoodShare. A new court case challenges the harmful effect of these new policies.


MADISON - Do new strict requirements for Medicaid adopted by states violate the law? A federal court is set to decide after recent arguments presented by policy experts who said the requirements do violate law.

The case arose from Kentucky’s decision to create strict work requirements for getting healthcare through Medicaid. In January, the Trump administration invited states to submit “demonstration proposals” that make it much harder for people to qualify for or remain on Medicaid.

Experts say the Kentucky case could have implications for Wisconsin and six other states that have pending application for the restrictive Medicaid policy changes.

Wisconsin acted quickly to take advantage of the change. Governor Walker touted the changes stating, “public assistance should be a trampoline not a hammock.” In just a few weeks, GOP leaders passed nine bills as part of the new policy initiative. The bills added work requirements and other strict limitations to our state’s version of Medicaid known as BadgerCare.

I dubbed the effort, kicking people when they are down. The bills created strict work requirements for people with children, created insurmountable barriers for some trying to get help and restricted coverage. At risk were poor families, hungry children, and the disabled.

farm-familyFor example, one bill had the effect of forcing the wheelchair bound to sell their wheelchair accessible van, if it was valued at more than $10,000, in order to keep their BadgerCare and FoodShare (the modern version of the old Food Stamps program). The same bill had the effect of forcing dairy farm families to sell their cows before obtaining BadgerCare.

The federal court will decide if similar Kentucky requirements violate federal law and, according to Kaiser Health News, could determine “how far the Trump administration can go in changing Medicaid without Congressional action.”

In the same article, published in Governing Magazine, Kaiser reported that most legal experts say the administration’s approach is “backward because enrollees need health coverage so they are healthy enough to work.” Many scholars agreed and supported the Medicaid enrollees.

Forty policy scholars submitted in an amicus brief supporting the Kentucky lawsuit. They found no evidence to support “depriving people of Medicaid will lead to greater levels of employer insurance.” Work requirements do not make people healthy. Work requirements have no long-term effects on employment or income. However, Medicaid does improve health, and healthy people are more able to work.

The scholars wrote in their brief the new federal policy goes against the “core mandate” of Medicaid to provide medical assistance to all eligible individuals.

The scholars noted that under the Trump administration policy, “States are thus encouraged to pile on new eligibility conditions and coverage requirements, erect barriers and push people out of the program, all in the name of making people healthy.” Experts estimate over 100,000 people in Kentucky will lose healthcare over the next five years.

kathleen-vinehoutPart of Wisconsin’s initiative is to increase premiums. The scholars wrote there is “extensive research showing the adverse impact of unaffordable premiums on low-income persons with little or no disposable income.” Not being able to pay premiums leads to fewer people with health coverage.

Wisconsin, and some other states, already has work requirements in place for FoodShare. The forty scholars reported studies of these requirements show as many as fifty percent to eighty-five percent of folks now receiving benefits could lose them. Parents, of course, face additional obstacles including a lack of affordable childcare.

Wisconsin’s policies are crafted in a completely backwards way. If we want a farmer to do better or a wheelchair bound person to succeed why would the state make them sell items essential to their livelihood?

All these requirements add up to a fundamental question we face; do we have public programs to give a hand-up to those facing hard times or do the policies exist to punish the poor?

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The Way Wisconsin Funds Schools Must Change

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, 13 June 2018
in Wisconsin

school-kidsWe heard expert testimony at a recent hearing of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding Reform that Wisconsin’s formula is an outlier in the US. and failure to change it leaves children vulnerable, taxpayers paying more in property tax and the state open to lawsuits.


MADISON - The way Wisconsin pays for schools is unfair, inequitable and antiquated.

Over the past few months, I heard parents, community members, business leaders, teachers, students, and school officials speak about the flawed school funding formula. I serve on the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding Reform.

We took public testimony across the state. Recently, these criticisms were validated by national experts who testified at the last scheduled public hearing of the Commission.

Our state is changing. These changes are reflected in student needs. Compared to years ago, we have more students in poverty, with special needs, English learners, students suffering from mental illness and experiencing trauma. These students facing challenging situations cost us more to educate.

The state has failed to keep up with changing student needs. As a consequence, the schools with those of greater need are forced to divert funds from all other students to pay for these needs.

For example, the state funds only 26 cents on the dollar for special education needs. But federal law requires all special education needs be met. As a result, general education money is used for students with special needs.

Peter Goff, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin, Madison described the situation. “Huge chunks [of general education money] are getting torn off to pay for these special education mandates – that is the state’s responsibility but [the state] is not paying for it.”

kathleen-vinehout“Wisconsin’s school funding system is inflexible, unpredictable, and not well designed to respond to changes in educational conditions,” said Zahava Stadler, Policy and Research Director for EdBuild, a nonprofit dedicated to school funding reform.

Commission members heard testimony about how Wisconsin’s approach to paying for public schools is unique in the US – and not in a positive way. Experts said Wisconsin’s method of paying for schools makes students more vulnerable. Using “categories” of aid makes these programs more vulnerable to budget cuts because of political winds and economic downturns.

Emily Parker, a Policy Analyst for the Education Commission of the States, tracks school legislation. Ms. Parker described the evolution of school funding across America. At first, schools were funded in a flat dollar amount. Then schools were paid based on community wealth as measured by property value. This is how Wisconsin’s main formula works.

Over the years, states added student need (Wisconsin includes only in limited grant-like categories), then states made funding flexible and, recently, more states are basing resources for schools on student needs.

The effect of our obsolete formula is harmful to all students, as schools are forced to take money from general aid to pay for the increasing needs of some students.

Dr. Goff, testified about the effects of Act 10, revenue limits and budget cuts.

“Without a doubt, there has been a net loss to school districts over time,” said Dr. Goff. At the same time, the costs school districts face increased over time. “Every year there isn’t a revenue limit adjustment, it is essentially a cut to schools’ spending.”

“Local districts are taking on more, asking for more, going to referenda more often and passing more… this is not a sustainable model for school funding. At the end of the day, education is a state right. When you can’t give more of local effort, that is when the state opens up to potential lawsuits as well as ethical issues of underfunding schools. … At some point, local districts will exhaust [resources] and that puts the state at risk,” said Dr. Goff.

“There is a glaring omission that the state that has the largest achievement gap in the nation has a funding system … [that] does not mention student disadvantage at all. Or ethnicity at all.”

We must fundamentally change the way we pay for schools. We should throw out the antiquated formula based on property wealth. Instead, schools need a flexible, consistent commitment from the state to pay districts based on student needs and the costs of educating the students of today.

At risk, are our children. At stake, is our future. It’s time for the Blue Ribbon Commission to earn its blue ribbon.

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