Wednesday February 21, 2018

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Sen. Mark Miller: What Happened to Wisconsin?

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 Wednesday, 11 October 2017
in Wisconsin

sulfide-mining-runoffNative Americans, originating from the Great Law of the Iroquois, have approached conservation decisions made today as ones that should benefit the people seven generations from now. Today, we seem to be rushing towards a new era, one where promises of the past are cast aside in the name of eliminating obstacles for business.

MADISON - Wisconsin has a rich heritage of conservation. From the Native American Tribes who inhabited this land for generations, to John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Warren Knowles and Gaylord Nelson – Wisconsin has been a national leader in protecting our land, water and air. The public trust doctrine, enshrined in our state constitution, guarantees that the waters of Wisconsin belong to the people of Wisconsin.

There was a time when this was a shared ethic amongst Democrats and Republicans. Our greatest environmental achievements have always been accomplished together, working toward the goal of making a better Wisconsin for our children and grandchildren. But today, I am disturbed by the erosion of that shared commitment. Governor Walker and Legislative Republicans seem to be rushing towards a new era, one where the bipartisan promises of the past are cast aside in the name of eliminating obstacles for business. Three examples from this legislative session alone demonstrate this regression.

In the early 2000s, water bottling giant Perrier had a plan to open a facility in the central sands of Wisconsin. There was great concern for the impact this might have on our groundwater resources. High capacity wells in that area have a direct impact on surface waters. As we can see today, they cause lake levels to decrease and rivers to run dry. The threat of Perrier brought together Republicans, Democrats and Democratic Governor Jim Doyle to pass what was supposed to be the first step in protecting groundwater quantity. 2003 Wisconsin Act 310 was passed nearly unanimously, 99-0 in the Assembly and 31-1 in the Senate and signed into law by Governor Doyle. In the years that followed, bi-partisan study groups continued to look at the issue to determine what those next steps forward might be to ensure everyone has reasonable access to the waters of the state.

The 2010 election resulted in the Republican control of both houses of the Legislature, the Governor’s office and an about face on the approach to environmental protection. Earlier this year, Republicans passed Wisconsin Act 10 on a partisan 62-35 vote in the Assembly and 19-13 vote in the Senate. The law allows for the repair, replacement and transfer of high capacity well permits without DNR approval. Because high capacity well permits are the only environmental permits without an expiration date, the provisions of this bill essentially grants permanent access to groundwater for those permit holders. This is in direct conflict with the Wisconsin state constitution which protects the waters of Wisconsin for the benefit of all users. It guarantees that the current problems with surface waters in the central sands will continue to get worse.

mining-openpit-wiIn the mid-1990s, the threat of a sulfide mine in Crandon, Wisconsin brought Democrats and Republicans together to pass the mining moratorium. This legislation, 1997 Wisconsin Act 171, was passed with overwhelming support, 91-6 in the Assembly and 29-3 in the Senate and signed by Republican Governor Tommy Thompson. Sometimes referred to as the “Prove it First” law, it simply requires that anyone wanting to operate an sulfide mine in the state of Wisconsin needs to demonstrate than another similar mine has been able to operate and close somewhere in the United States without polluting for at least 10 years. Because there has not yet been an example of a mine that can operate without causing pollution, Republicans now want to change the law.

Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) and Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) have introduced Senate Bill 395 and Assembly Bill 499 which repeal the current Prove it First law. The bill appears to have widespread support on the Republican side. It passed the Senate Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry Committee on a partisan 3-2 vote and is rumored to be scheduled before the full Senate later this fall. It is widely opposed by Native American Tribes, conservationists, and government watchdog organizations. But that is virtually meaningless against strong Republican backers like Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and Americans for Prosperity.

The most recent attack was unleashed at the end of September. A new bill is being circulated by Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton) and Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) that will end protection for isolated wetlands in Wisconsin. There are two kinds of wetlands and they are regulated differently. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, through the Clean Water Act, has jurisdiction over wetlands that are connected to navigable waters. Other wetlands, those that are geographically isolated, are protected by Wisconsin, thanks to a dedicated group of bi-partisan lawmakers.

In 2001, a U.S. Supreme Court decision, SWANCC vs. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, left all geographically isolated wetlands unprotected. In the wake of that decision, legislators in Wisconsin sprang into action. A concerted effort over a 5 month period led to Republican Governor Scott McCallum calling a Special Session to pass a bill which put in place state-level protection for isolated wetlands. 2001 Wisconsin Act 6 was passed unanimously by both houses of the Legislature. Since 2011, a number of proposals have chipped away at the 2001 law, but the latest, LRB 4115/1, proposes eliminating state protection for isolated wetlands.

What has happened to Wisconsin? Not that long ago, when faced with an environmental crisis, Democrats and Republicans worked hand-in-hand to come up with common sense solutions. I worked diligently with my colleagues on both the wetlands and groundwater laws during my tenure in the State Assembly and was proud to have voted for both. Now I see a new generation of Republican lawmakers, very different from the last, who fail to see the forest for the trees.

Native Americans, originating from the Great Law of the Iroquois, have approached conservation with the concept of the seventh generation. Decisions made today should be ones that benefit seven generations from now. While I know we have fallen short at times, the core of that philosophy has been at the heart of Wisconsin’s past environmental law. It’s what brought us together to ban sulfide mining, protect groundwater and isolated wetlands in an overwhelming, unified voice.

Today, there is not thought given to seven generations. Rather, the next generation will be saddled with the damage inflicted today. I hope that they are able to rise to the challenge and repair what has been broken.

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Hemp: Its Time has Come

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, 10 October 2017
in Wisconsin

hemp-fieldSenate Bill 119 would legalize growing hemp and create an active industrial program and license growers, actions eagerly supported by Wisconsin farmers. The Bill has strong bi-partisan support and Sen. Vinehout hopes it will pass quickly.

MADISON - Farmers in diverse states like Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine and Minnesota are researching a new crop: industrial hemp. Many states are changing laws to allow growing of hemp.

Wisconsin is slow to get in the game. Hopefully, this is about to change.

Lawmakers on the Senate Agriculture, Small Business and Tourism Committee are considering a hemp legalization bill. If Senate Bill 119 becomes law, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection (DATCP) would create an active industrial hemp program and license growers.

Hemp is not a new crop to Wisconsin. We once had flourishing fields of hemp. But, as the saying goes, you are sometimes known by your relatives. Even for a plant. Hemp suffered from an association with its cousin, marijuana. By the 1950s, farmers stopped growing hemp. Federal and state drug laws swept up hemp in an effort to eradicate marijuana.

According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) publication, industrial hemp and marijuana are separate varieties or cultivars of the same species of plant cannabis sativa.

Generally, hemp is defined by having less than 0.3% of THC, an active ingredient in marijuana. However, the plant differs in other genetic aspects, in cultivation practices, and in its use.

Thirty counties around the world grow hemp as an agricultural commodity. Hemp can be used to create plastics, mixed with lime to create concrete, as a fiberglass alternative for use by aviation or automobiles or as a potential biodiesel fuel. The CRS reports more than 25,000 hemp products fall into nine markets: agriculture, textiles, recycling, automotive, furniture, food and beverages, paper, construction materials and personal care.

According to the CRS, growth in the sale of hemp products averaged over 15% annually between 2010 and 2015. The biggest demand for hemp related products are hemp-based body products, food or supplements. These products account for more than 60% of the value of U.S. sales.

Until recently, U.S. farmers were forbidden to grow hemp. This policy forced industries to import hemp raw materials or use finished hemp products for further processing. China now leads the world as a grower and supplier of hemp. United States processors also rely heavily on Canadian growers.

A provision in the 2014 federal Farm Bill allowed universities and state agriculture departments to begin supervising hemp in pilot programs. This caused a flurry of activity within state legislatures to create new hemp laws.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) as of July 2017, 33 states passed some legislation related to industrial hemp including all our Midwestern neighboring states except Iowa. Twenty-six states created laws that began research on hemp, or a grower pilot-program.

Many states passed laws encouraging the development of hemp for certain purposes. For example, Colorado is researching the use of hemp for animal feed. Kentucky funded research on the use of hemp for biofuels. North Carolina is studying hemp for soil conservation and reforestation. The CRS cites research showing hemp may be less environmentally degrading than some other crops. Hemp can play a role in crop rotation, breaking the cycle of disease and pests.

Wisconsin farmers are eager once again to get in on hemp production. The Wisconsin Farm Bureau and the Wisconsin Farmers Union are advocating for the passage of SB 119. Farmers from both organizations and local agriculture agents contacted me asking for quick passage of the SB 119.

Like many agricultural issues, hemp legislation this year has strong bipartisan support. Forty cosponsors of both parties signed up to help pass SB 119. This is a significant improvement from when I introduced the first Senate bill in 2016. Several earlier bills died in the Assembly.

This year, Senators Testin and Harsdorf took the bill I authored and added some important provisions. They gave the UW a role in supervising a seed certification program. The new bill allows any university or tribe to establish agricultural hemp plots. Additionally, it encourages our State Tribal Relations Committee to investigate hemp as an economic development tool for our tribes.

Hemp in Wisconsin is a crop whose time has come. Passage of SB 119 will begin the work of bringing back Wisconsin’s hemp industry. Let’s make 2017 the year of hemp.

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Proposal to De-license Occupations Gains Steam in Senate

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, 04 October 2017
in Wisconsin

nurseTwo bills moving through the Senate would create a non-elected council to review professional licenses and propose legislation that would de-license professions in Wisconsin. Many professionals around the state have voiced opposition.

MADISON - Imagine you are with your loved one who is in the hospital. Night comes. You prepare to leave, gently kissing your loved one “good night”.

As you walk down the corridor and into the hospital parking lot, you might wonder how your loved one will feel in the morning. Will things be better, worse or stay the same?

One thing you don’t worry about is the quality of care provided to your loved one because the nurses working the night shift are licensed by the state.

Nurses and other professionals follow “standards of care” that are spelled out in their education and clinical training. They follow licensing and board requirements set in state law. Patients are protected from incompetent nurses by a board that oversees the practice of nursing. This is true for dozens of other professionals in Wisconsin.

Recently, a Senate committee on which I serve passed two bills that set up a process to potentially de-license professionals. Senate Bill 288 establishes a partisan appointed council that reviews licensing, registration or other state approval for ALL occupation and professional licensing in Wisconsin. Senate Bill 296 creates a process for self-certification that allows a person to claim “state certification” even though they may have no training or experience in their chosen occupation.

workersElectricians, nurses, certified public accountants, plumbers, physical therapists, doctors, and other professionals will have their licensing and continuing education requirements reviewed by a non-elected, partisan council. The Council would have the power to write and introduce a bill making changes to the laws governing occupational licensing. These powers are generally reserved for lawmakers.

The process set up by these bills is eerily similar to a process laid out in an August 2017 publication of the ideologically conservative Mercatus Center:

Policymakers…would be wise to follow these steps:

  1. Pass legislation that sets an ambitious goal for the elimination of licenses and the reduction of licensing burdens.
  2. Establish an independent commission charged with examining the state’s licensing laws. …the commission should be charged with evaluating all licenses.
  3. The commission should be charged with setting a comprehensive path for licensure elimination and reform. The authorizing legislation should commit elected officials to accepting the commission’s recommendations in their entirety or not at all.

…the institutional structure that we recommend borrows elements from other reforms that have succeeded in eliminating favoritism. In particular, it allows elected officials to cast conspicuous votes in the public interest while giving them some degree of “cover” from the special interests that will inevitably be harmed by the elimination of their regulatory privilege.

Let’s break down that last sentence.

The elected officials cast “votes in the public interest” – your elected representative is voting to de-license your plumber. “Giving them some degree of ‘cover’” – your elected official is now able to say, “I didn’t really want to de-license your plumber, but it was part of a larger bill and I couldn’t change the bill.”

“Special interests that will inevitably be harmed”—those “special interests” would be the plumbers’ union or the nurses’ association.

The public likely did not hear about the de-licensure plan because the daylong hearing by both the Senate and Assembly committees happened at exactly the same time as the public hearing on Foxconn. The Foxconn hearing dominated headlines, not the concerns of over 100 Wisconsinites who traveled to Madison to testify or register against the de-licensure bills. Those speaking in favor of the bills were, almost exclusively, conservative ideological groups.

When I asked what problem the bills were trying to solve, proponents said they wanted to eliminate “fence me out” legislation that left people unable to get into a desired profession. When I asked them to provide me a list of professions with licenses that create a “fence me out” problem, they did not give me a single example.

Over the years, the Legislature created licensure requirements in conjunction with professionals. If we have unnecessary licensing, committees of the Legislature should review details of a professional license and determine if change is necessary.

Setting up a process to de-license professionals by unelected appointees is an attempt by conservative ideological groups to remake Wisconsin in their own image. In fact, a republican colleague commented that these ideological groups have become a shadow legislature.

These bills need to be stopped.

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Two Worlds Apart: The Capitol and the Great River Road

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, 26 September 2017
in Wisconsin

great-river-roadThe contrast between the frenzy in the Capitol on the state budget and Foxconn and the slow pace of life along the Great River Road in western Wisconsin is great, but the decisions made in Madison will significantly influence people’s lives in western Wisconsin.

MADISON, WI - “Oh, my gosh,” I said to the Senate page. “I need that book.” The ‘book’ was a 744-page binder written by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) detailing, in plain language, the decisions in the massive state budget.

Knowing what was in the binder was critical to making an informed vote on the state budget. However, there was no time. The binder showed up in my office just as the Senate was about to go into session to debate a $3 billion dollar deal for Foxconn.

wisconsinLess than twenty-four hours earlier, the budget writing committee made its final decisions on the state’s two-year, seventy-six billion dollar spending plan. In the next twenty-four hours, the full Assembly would vote on the budget bill. By the end of the same week, Friday night, a majority in the Senate would pass the budget. In less than another week, both Foxconn and the budget would be law.

Lawmakers, on both sides of the aisle, scrambled to know what was in the budget bill.

After three months of delays and false starts, the rush was on. For the first time, we had the actual bill – a 1,087-page document listing specific changes to 9,052 sections of Wisconsin law. Each of the sections modified parts of the law, although some single law changes had many sections devoted to accomplishing the change. In addition to a 744-page summary, the LFB wrote over 200 papers detailing individual changes.

The rush to move both Foxconn and the budget left little opportunity for the public to know what was happening and to react. Additionally, the public had no opportunity to react to nearly seventy pieces of policy unrelated to the budget but added into the budget at the last minute.

All this activity, and the magnitude of the decisions committing state funds forward for decades, stood in sharp contrast to the western Wisconsin world I returned to following the last Senate votes.

On the Great River Road that runs along the Mississippi and down the western edge of Buffalo County the state budget was not on people’s minds.

Conversation was about the hot weather and this being the first week of autumn. The leaves are beginning to drop. There is not much color yet except in the bottomland of the Buffalo River where the marsh plants are turning a rosy, reddish purple.

The grapes up on the bluff at Danzinger’s Vineyard were harvested. The view as the sunsets over the Mississippi Valley is magnificent. The organic sunflowers at Hetrick’s farm turned black, the heads hang down, waiting for the combine.

The corn and soybeans are drying down and a year’s worth of work will soon be in storage bins or taken to the grain elevator.

Motorcycles are angled neatly in front of the Nelson Cheese Factory. Riders sat on benches in the shade licking ice cream cones and considering the next stop on their weekend ride down and back along the River.

The Fresh Art fall tour is on tap for next week. The self-guided tour wanders through the back roads of Buffalo, Pepin and Pierce counties with stops at 17 galleries. Local artists display local art of all kinds, including, painting, pottery, photography, ceramics, weaving, sculpture, jewelry, metalwork, furniture and more – a glorious display of a year of work coming to fruition.

The two worlds – the state Capitol and the Great River Road – seem so disconnected. It is hard to move so quickly from one back to the other. Nevertheless, the ties are strong.

Even as crops are harvested and we enjoy the turning of the seasons, county boards, city councils and school boards are beginning to work on next year’s budgets. Trying to figure out how to catch up on fixing the damage to roads caused by flooding, how to deal with increasing mental illness and drug addiction and provide alternatives to incarceration, how to maintain the classes and opportunities for students in our schools.

All of those decisions by local officials are shaped and limited by what the legislature did at the Capitol. The quality of life along the Great River Road will depend on those local decisions. We are all connected.

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Problems Left for the Next State Budget Writers

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, 19 September 2017
in Wisconsin

school-bus-kidsSen. Kathleen Vinehout examines the lack of foresight in the budget just passed by the legislature and how it relates to three major issues – education, transportation and shared revenue.

MADISON - “Policy is who pays, who doesn’t pay and where the money gets spent,” said the President of the NAACP in a recent speech.

Policy making was center stage at the State Capitol when the long delayed $76 billion two-year state budget was rushed to passage just days after a majority of lawmakers voted to give a Taiwan billionaire $3 billion in state subsidies.

Budgets are about choices. Budget writers this year chose to leave major problems for the next budget writers.

Education is the most important job state government does. For years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed the state’s school funding formula was broken.

This budget, there were enough funds to change the formula. Efforts to do so were voted down. Instead, more state dollars were spent on vouchers for unaccountable private schools.

Under this budget, private schools will receive $8,396 a year in state taxpayer money for a high school student. Public schools would receive $6,671 for the same student. These estimates are detailed in a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The total cost of an average public-school student is a little over $11,000. Most of the difference comes from local property taxes. Remember, these numbers are averages. Many of our local districts receive much less than the state average of $6,671.

school-closedParticularly hurt by the formula are small rural schools. There is a fundamental disconnect between what drives school revenue – the number of students - and what drives expenses – the cost structure. For example, if three students leave a class of 20, the district revenue is cut by 15%. But the cost of teaching a class of 17 is almost the same as teaching a class of 20.

Other problems exist. The formula assumes all children cost the same to educate. But children who are in poverty or are English Language Learners, for example, cost more to educate. Costs also vary with the size of districts.

The solution by majority lawmakers was to add money outside the broken formula instead of fixing the formula. This increases the inequity between school districts and makes fixing the problem later more difficult.

Fixing transportation was also left for the writers of the next budget. Instead of adding sustainable funding sources, budget writers cut 253 positions from the Department of Transportation (DOT). A few years ago, the former DOT Secretary added positions arguing engineering costs decrease when work is done by in-house engineers rather than by consulting firms. A recent audit by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau confirmed that conclusion.

The transportation budget was “balanced” in part by lowering inflation estimates. Which made me wonder since DOT in the past has underestimated inflation when anticipating costs.

road-closed-delayPotholes and locals turning asphalt roads back to gravel are the result of past state budget decisions that are not fixed in this budget. In the past six years, local road aid has been underfunded. After steady increases to keep up with inflation – even during the recession – the 2011 budget cut over 9% out of county road aid. All but one of the following years saw no increase at all. This budget includes an increase, but nothing near what is needed to make up for past cuts and inflation.

An even worse pattern exists in the general funding of local government. It’s budget time for local communities. But counties and cities do not have the money to keep up with expenses. Recently, a county board chair shared that department budget requests far exceeded a miniscule increase in expected revenue.

Over the past sixteen years, there has been a 20% decrease in state dollars given to locals in what we call “shared revenue.” In the same time period Wisconsin has seen a 56% increase in the state budget. I’d say the state has not done a good job of sharing. No wonder county and city services are being cut back.

The budget has passed, but the problems in local communities have not been addressed. Roads aren’t getting repaired, people aren’t getting mental health placements, referenda are being passed to keep the lights on at local schools. A lot of heavy lifting has been passed on to whoever will be writing the next budget.

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