Sunday June 17, 2018

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Watching My Son Cross the Stage

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, 16 May 2018
in Wisconsin

ed-grad-daySen. Vinehout writes about attending her son’s graduation ceremony. She describes the lessons learned by commencement speakers and how our graduates can use their education to play roles in the communities they serve.


ST. PAUL, MN - “Can’t you be a toddler again, just for a day?” the mom asked her son. I stood with other moms drinking tea. The moms shared stories about children growing up.

Children grow up so fast. When my son Nathan was a toddler, I thought the stage would never end. Now, I watch Nathan, the toddler-become-man, walk across the stage in his cap and gown.

We were in the field house at Macalester College in St. Paul. Several thousand people from all over the world were packed into the cavernous space. Despite the cold, rainy weather, the room was quite warm. The bagpipes played as five hundred students processed into the hall.

The energy was palpable. It rolled off the black-clothed young men and women in waves, infecting everyone. Folks held their cell phones high, trying to catch an image of the procession. Young ones climbed on chairs looking for a familiar face in the sea of black robes. The bagpipes lent an air of solemnity.

Mom wiped away a tear.

The Senior Speaker, Myhana Kerr, took the stage. She was both beautiful and articulate. And, clearly loved by her classmates.

She spoke of community and its obligations. “Community requires a constant effort for its construction and maintenance.”

How often do we think of the constant effort people around us make to build community? Be thankful for those who pay attention to roads and bridges, parks and art, schools and hospitals. Everyone has a role to play in building community.

Ms. Kerr talked about how we create, discover and maintain different communities. Intentionally contribute to these communities, she told the graduates. Embrace them. Delight in their value.

kathleen-vinehoutI looked around the diverse crowd, and thought, clearly this college community created something much greater than “job ready” graduates. As if to reinforce my thought, a handsome African man took the stage.

“A living embodiment of the hashtag #dohardthings, you are a champion of resisting and reimagining the way things have always been done,” said the college President, as he introduced the keynote speaker, Fred Swaniker.

The man from Ghana devoted his life to answering the question, what will it take to make Africa prosper? Among many accomplishments, he created the African Leadership Academy. Through higher education, the Academy sought “nothing less than to develop 3 million ethical and entrepreneurial African leaders by 2060, and create a more prosperous and peaceful Africa.”

Approaching college with a fresh vision, the Academy focused students’ attentions on challenges facing Africa. Taking down the barriers between disciplines, students chose a mission of service. They asked big questions. They worked to tackle big problems like poverty, clean water, and economic development.

Students responded to the speech. They nodded, cheered and laughed. They empathized as he spoke of assumptions about Africa made by rich guys in Silicon Valley.

“A passion for service infected me,” Mr. Swaniker told the crowd. As you go into the world, bring with you a sense of mission, a higher purpose, a global perspective. Carry curiosity, humility, fairness and justice.

“Play the long game. Look out at the horizon.” Paraphrasing Bill Gates, Mr. Swaniker said, “Most people overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” Look forward to what might be done in ten years.

I watched my son cross the stage with a grateful heart. I treasure so many benefits of a liberal arts education. How college ignites our curiosities. How learning invites us to ask questions and more questions. How we now see in ways we hadn’t imagined. How we love knowledge and the search for wisdom for its own sake. How we learn more skillful ways of interacting as humans.

The ceremony ended with a prayer, spoken in five languages. I share the prayer for all of us to send with our graduates as they head out into the world.

As we depart along our separate roads, may we be nourished by our years of friendship and learning. And may we draw upon them to create a more just and peaceful world, a world filled with fellowship and kinship, with respect and kindness for one another and with the hope of a better tomorrow.

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Audit Reveals Serious Management Issues at State Fair Park

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, 02 May 2018
in Wisconsin

wisc-state-fairThe non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau found deficiencies in the management of State Fair Park and made recommendations to address them. Park officials must report back to the Audit Committee by June 1st on their progress.


MADISON - “The State Fair is greatly loved by people all over the state,” Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) said at a recent Audit Committee hearing. “But the back-office operations need to be improved.”

Most certainly, improvement must be made to resolve problems revealed by an audit conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB).

The Joint Legislative Committee on Audit recently held a public hearing on the operations of the agency that oversees the Wisconsin State Fair and the operations of the Park. Like all of state government, State Fair Park is subject to state laws, standards and transparency. However, auditors found laws were not always followed and accurate records were not kept.

Members learned of disturbing trends in the management of the state’s resources: expenses growing faster than revenue, contracts not tracked, procurement laws not followed, environmental laws violated and needed planning not conducted.

Auditors reported that, over a five-year period, expenses grew by 20%, while revenue grew at a slower rate of 17.8%. If the fair is not able to balance its books, state dollars might be diverted from other programs. Already, state taxpayers make payments on the fair’s debt. In Fiscal Year 2017, taxpayers paid $3.4 million in debt payments.

Both revenue and expenses involve contracts. For example, State Fair Park earns much of its revenue from commissions on food, beverage and midway vendors. In addition, vendors pay State Fair Park for leased space. Each vendor has a contract with the state governed by state law.

Auditors reported examples of improper or poorly managed procurement (state purchasing). For example, contracts were signed or amended before gaining board approval, as required under the board’s bylaws. The LAB made several recommendations on remedying these problems.

Despite months of effort by auditors, State Fair Park officials were unable to provide accurate and complete information regarding contracts. Further, officials provided different contract information to the Department of Administration than it provided to auditors. These findings deeply disturbed lawmakers.

“How can the agency accurately do budgeting when they cannot account for either revenue or spending contracts?” I asked agency officials.

Senator Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay) asked, “How could this happen? How could the train have come off the rails so badly? How could we not have a list of all the contracts?”

He then asked if anyone lost their job. Executive Director Kathleen O’Leary answered that one person was fired and several financial and business positions are now filled. “We knew we needed to work closer with DOA (Department of Administration),” said Ms. O’Leary. Officials explained the agency is now in constant contact with Administration officials.

Auditors also reported on untreated manure and human waste getting into the sewer system and a nearby creek. “We concreted the barns, put in new sewer inlets and formed teams to clean out the barns,” State Fair Park board member Susan Crane told us. She also reported the fair has an antiquated sewer system that will need to be replaced.

State Fair Park officials have not conducted a comprehensive review of grounds and facilities since 2000. In addition, no major racing events were held at the state-owned Milwaukee Mile since 2015 and none is planned for the future.

Further, several state-owned facilities at State Fair Park could be better used year-round to raise money for the operations of the Park. For example, consumer and trade shows accounted for more than 70% of the revenue of the leased facilities, but represented just a little over a quarter of all the leased events.

kathleen-vinehoutAudit committee members were united in their interest to obtain answers from those who now administer State Fair Park. Thankfully, officials were very cooperative and appeared interested in working collaboratively with Audit Committee members to remedy problems identified by auditors.

State Fair Park officials are required to report back to the Audit Committee by June 1st on the status of the many recommendations and findings delineated by auditors.

Following the audit hearing, I spoke with leaders of State Fair Park. I was impressed by the urgency they felt in correcting the problems identified. I share their enthusiasm for the fair. I want the fair to succeed long into our future. Careful planning and record keeping is something every exhibitor at the fair knows well. We need to take this careful approach to the management of the fair so future exhibitors can enjoy the same amazing experiences.

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Rural Leaders Report Schools in Wisconsin are Unequal

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, 25 April 2018
in Wisconsin

school-kidsAt a recent public hearing of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding, the message coming through loud and clear was that rural schools are struggling and the current funding formula exacerbates the problem. This situation must be changed.


MADISON - “Where kids live should not determine their education,” rural school administrators told members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding Reform.

Recently the Commission traveled to Southwestern Wisconsin. We heard from representatives of 20 rural school districts. Administrators, board members, teachers, parents and community members all testified about the struggles rural schools face and the need for change in the way Wisconsin pays for schools.

For decades state policies created hardships for rural schools. Superintendent Nancy Hendrickson of Highland School District explained that spending caps in the 1980s locked in low spending districts. A need for new buildings led to borrowing and increased property taxes in the ‘90s. In 1993, revenue caps locked schools into unequal spending. With school aid tied to the number of students and, with a declining rural population, aid is dropping faster than the cost to educate children.

Administrator Jill Underly of Pecatonica School District affirmed that school segregation still exists. “It may not be based on race necessarily, but it is still to an extent based on income inequality… Public schools, a cornerstone of our democracy, were supposed to equalize opportunity. It shouldn’t matter where you go to school, but in Wisconsin, let’s be honest, it DOES matter.”

Superintendent Doug Olsen of Kickapoo Area School District explained some of the challenges. “We are a consolidated school district of three communities in one building. … Our district consistently serves an economically disadvantaged population that comprises over half of the student body.”

Olsen noted that with poverty come needs. “… only 48% of poor students are ready for school at age 5, compared to 75% of students from moderate to high income families. From vocabulary and pre-literacy skills, to numeracy, emotional regulation, and trauma, kids in poverty are more at risk to come to school less prepared.”

In addition to increases in student poverty, there are more students with Special Education needs, English Language Learners, and students grappling with mental health challenges. All these students need help – provided by staff that must take on many other tasks.

school-meeting-crowd“Cut, cut, cut,” said Superintendent Hendrickson. “We had to cut so many things.”

Rural schools did not recover from deep cuts made in Governor Walker’s first budgets. Across the state, school funding, in real dollars, for this school year is less than a decade ago.

Without resources, buildings and systems maintenance is deferred. School districts see fewer applicants for vacant teaching jobs, a shortage of substitute teachers and problems with a flattening pay scale for teachers making it hard to keep veteran teachers.

Because rural schools struggle with fewer teachers, administrators and support staff, everyone is forced to do multiple jobs. Jamie Nutter of Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA) 3 said much sharing of services already exists across districts. “We share hearing, vision, school nursing, curriculum, education development all through the CESA.” Cost for basic services, i.e. transportation, utilities, electricity are increasing.

New costs are added including technology, school safety, testing.

Legislative leaders decided if schools need more funding, voters should decide through referendum.

Administrator Olsen pointed out that rural Wisconsin has many farmers who are struggling financially. “As you have heard, Western Wisconsin leads the nation in lost farms due to bankruptcy and farmer suicide. In which community does a referendum to override the revenue limit have a better chance of passing?”

kathleen-vinehoutHow does the current funding system keep things unequal? To summarize Superintendent Olsen’s testimony: money for schools comes primarily from the state and property tax. State aid is supposed to make things more equal, but the current school funding formula uses real estate (including land values) as a measure of wealth. Thus, the formula often overestimates a rural community’s ability to pay. The situation is made worse when GOP leaders bypassed the funding formula and gave wealthy suburban districts the same money as cash-strapped rural and urban districts.

“Add to this,” said Administrator Olsen, “the rural crisis going on in our farming communities. … Should we be enacting policies that exacerbate inequality?”

“If we value rural people, you will find a way to fund rural schools.” challenged community member Kriss Marion.

Our schools are unequal and this must change. The Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding travels next to the Fox Valley and north central Wisconsin. I encourage folks to come and share their stories.

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Trump Should Have Consulted Congress Before Bombing Syria

Posted by Laura Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Laura Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Laura Kiefert lives in Howard and is a Partner in the Green Bay Progressive. Mem
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 24 April 2018
in Wisconsin

donald-trump-goldenAssad’s actions were despicable, but we have a Constitution for a reason. Allowing the president to usurp the power of Congress defies the founders’ plan.


HOWARD, WI - The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was enacted by Congress in response to the terrorist attack on 9/11. Intended as a national security measure, the AUMF broadly permits a president to use military force against those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”

army-syria-2018However, it does not grant the president the power to use military action for any other reason, such as President Donald Trump bombing Syria for President Bashar al-Assad’s presumed use of chemical weapons against his own people.

Although Assad’s actions were despicable and one might argue that bombing Syria was justified, they were clearly not a terrorist attack against the United States by organizations or persons associated with 9/11. Therefore, I believe Trump should have presented the facts to Congress before taking military action that could very well be considered an act of war.

laura-kiefertThe Constitution grants Congress, not the executive branch, the authority to declare war. If Congress continues renewing the AUMF, they are failing to hold the executive branch accountable. This check and balance was written in our Constitution to ensure that one branch of government does not have too much authority.

Allowing the president to usurp the power of Congress not only defies the founders’ mission by granting dictatorial authority to one person, but by allowing him to make this kind of vital decision without the consent of the legislative branch, is not only dangerous but could leave our country and its citizens vulnerable.

Laura Kiefert

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Protect Wisconsin’s Conservation Legacy

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
User is currently offline
on Saturday, 21 April 2018
in Wisconsin

clean-airSunday is Earth Day. For our children and grandchildren to enjoy the same opportunities we have, we need to safeguard access to clean water, land and air and prevent special interests from taking unfair advantage of our environment on every day.


LA CROSSE, WI - It is hard not to celebrate Earth Day without a sense of pride. It was, after all, founded by former Wisconsin Governor and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson. Created as a day for Americans to recognize environmental issues and promote conservation, the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970.

Nelson paved the way for some of the most important environmental protections in Wisconsin and ushered in a new era of progressive stewardship. At a time when few would listen, he knew that our environment was something to be treasured and not taken for granted.

After seeing public frustration over dilapidated state parks, the exploitation of public resources by private industry, and the unchecked pollution of waterways, Nelson took decisive action. As Governor, he created the Department of Natural Resources, established a Youth Conservation Corps, and funded the Outdoor Recreation Action Program to preserve land for public parks and wilderness areas.

gaylord-nelsonA visionary of his time, Nelson knew that economic prosperity didn’t have to come at the expense of our clean air, land and water. Unfortunately, a recent report revealed that Wisconsin has dropped as a leader in conservation and many fear our proud history of environmental stewardship is in jeopardy.

Years of Republican policies that roll back environmental protections are having a detrimental impact on our communities and creating an unfair balance between the rights of the public and special interests. Republicans have tipped the scale for corporations at the expense of local residents and communities. Nowhere is this imbalance more obvious than the Republican giveaway to Foxconn, which exempts the corporation from state environmental protections, increases air pollution, and diverts up to 7 million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan.

Republicans also eliminated vital wetlands protections, increased flooding risks, and compromised water quality. After back-to-back summers of severe flooding across the state, communities need wetlands more than ever to absorb excess flood waters and protect public safety.

jennifer-shillingWith warmer temperatures and summer just around the corner, people from all over will travel to our state parks and beaches to enjoy the scenic outdoors. From hunting and fishing to tourism and recreation, Wisconsin’s unique natural beauty is a major driving force behind the success of local communities and sustainable economic opportunities for families. Simply put, clean water, land and air are essential to our way of life.

For our children and grandchildren to enjoy the same opportunities we have, we need to safeguard access to clean water, land and air and prevent special interests from taking unfair advantage of our environment. This Earth Day, Democrats want to continue Gaylord Nelson’s legacy. Together, we can protect our quality of life, stop the degradation of our environment and advance policies that ensure a better future for everyone.

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