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GOP “Right-to-Work” Bill is Wrong for Wisconsin

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
User is currently offline
on Friday, 05 December 2014
in Wisconsin

union-members-at-capitolGOP State House Leaders are considering so-called "open shop" legislation to prohibit employers from striking deals with private-sector unions to require workers to pay dues. The move, called "right-to-work" legislation, reopens the public sector Act 10 confrontation of 2011.


MADISON – In a complete shift from the general election rhetoric of then candidate Scott Walker and state Republicans in recent months, who have said that the issue is a distraction and not a priority, the top leader in the state Senate made clear Thursday that lawmakers in his house would debate the issue of so-called "right-to-work" legislation within weeks and bring the volatile issue of union law back into the statehouse.

According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report today, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) told conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes of WTMJ-AM (620) Milwaukee that he was considering so-called "open shop" legislation to prohibit employers from striking deals with private-sector unions to require workers to pay dues. He said he was considering making Wisconsin the first state in the nation to attempt to exempt certain private workers such as the operators of earth movers who have supported Wisconsin Republicans in recent years.

His comments come as conservative state Rep. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), a longtime activist in the state with ties to national groups that have started an organization to promote the legislation, vowed this week to introduce a bill to do just that.

As recently as Wednesday, Walker said in a stop in Milwaukee that he did not want to take up a “right-to-work” bill at this time.

"As I said before the election and have said repeatedly over the last few years, I just think right-to-work legislation right now, as well as reopening Act 10 to make any other adjustments, would be a distraction from the work that we're trying to do," Walker said, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

But as with other election promises like creating 250,000 new jobs, it appears times have changed.

Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers already banned such requirements for most public employees in Wisconsin, but their 2011 law known as Act 10 didn't affect private-sector unions or police and firefighters. Tens of thousands of workers protested for weeks and Walker later became the first governor in the nation to win a recall election because of it.

After the Republicans in Madison stuck it to the public sector workers, their counterparts in the private sector did little to come to their aid. Now it appears to be their turn, as many Democrats said at the time.

dave-hansenAccording to Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) in a statement released today:

“Despite the Governor denouncing Rep. Kapenga’s legislation as a distraction he does not want, legislative Republicans appear poised to fast-track this extremely divisive and controversial legislation at a time when our economy is still reeling from the harmful effects of their Tea Party agenda.

“This legislation isn’t about protecting anyone’s rights or freedom. Real freedom is about having a workplace that allows people to balance their work with those things that are important in their lives like being able to make time for their children, spend time with their spouse or take a parent to the doctor.  Their idea of right-to-work is nothing more than a way to stack the deck against the workers who actually create the profits so CEOs can get bigger bonuses and line the pockets of their shareholders.

“Not only is this legislation harmful to the economic freedom and wellbeing of Wisconsin families everywhere, it violates the rights of employers to decide how to run their business.  It is anti-American and wrong for Wisconsin.

“Governor Walker is correct when he says this is a distraction we cannot afford.  Unfortunately, by not stating publicly that he will veto this legislation, Governor Walker himself is creating the very distraction he said he wants to avoid.  If he truly does not support this attack on Wisconsin families he needs to state publicly that he will veto it.”

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Enjoy 100 Miles of Western Wisconsin Christmas

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 December 2014
in Wisconsin

lacrosse-xmas-lightsIt's the beginning of the Christmas holiday season so Senator Kathleen Vinehout shares some of the special events that make western Wisconsin the place to enjoy holiday traditions and special events.


ALMA - “It’s the holidays,” the Buffalo County man told me. “It’s time to enjoy all we have here.” This farmer will be joining many others who take time to travel the Great River Road during the Holiday Season.

Communities along the Mississippi River are rolling out the welcome mat for holiday travelers. They want you to come and enjoy the season in the snow covered hills and historical river towns.

This month’s Midwest Living features a story about Christmas along the river. Writer Jeff Hoffert and photographer John Noltner explore Minnesota and Wisconsin towns along more than 100 miles of the river.

Alma, Pepin, Stockholm, Maiden Rock and Fountain City are mentioned in the magazine’s review of great places. But the article just touches the tip of what the Coulee and Chippewa Valley communities offer visitors. Many of the seasonal festivities begin Saturday and Sunday December 6th and 7th.

Your Wisconsin River trip begins at Prescott. The Friends of Freedom Park host the Holiday Bazaar at the Great River Road Visitors and Learning Center. The breathtakingly beautiful park is located high above the St. Croix River. Local artists date their tradition back to the 1930s with the founding of the Prescott Little Colony Art Group. Many artists and craftspeople will show and sell their art including the current artists of the Little Colony.

A little way down river, the Old Fashioned Christmas celebration in Maiden Rock offers carriage rides, food and good cheer. Demonstrations and workshops on knitting and textile crafts and a free ornament making workshop for children are just a few of the opportunities. Travel further down the road to the famous little village of Stockholm where Santa roams and fresh holiday pies are baking. Your horse drawn wagon awaits and around every corner fresh local food, art, crafts and other treasurers abound.

A few miles south, St. Nick hosts the Pepin’s Home Town Holiday. There are church bazaars, wagon rides and a cookie walk that will sell out by noon. Up the road, Wisconsin celebrates in Durand and Downsville at the galleries of Jean Accola and John Thomas.

In Alma you can tour historic homes and buildings decked out for the holidays, visit more than a dozen galleries and shops, a medieval museum and view the eagles while surrounded by warmth and art at Wings Over Alma.

The Christmas joy continues down river in Fountain City at what is boasted to be the largest Holiday Craft Fair in the area and The Taste of an Irish Christmas at the Monarch – the longest serving pub in Wisconsin.

Though not part of the 100 miles of Christmas, many other communities gather for their traditional holiday celebrations. Parade goers will bundle up and enjoy festivities in Trempealeau, Whitehall and Menomonie. Black River Falls and Eau Claire celebrate the delight and charm of holiday season this weekend with Old World Traditions in Black River Falls and sleigh rides, tree lighting and caroling along the confluence of the Chippewa and the Eau Claire Rivers in beautiful Eau Claire.

Opportunities to enjoy holiday music and festive theatre productions abound in Eau Claire, Stockholm and at the Old Main in Galesville. And you can take time to relax from the holiday bustle at one of the fantastic wineries in our area. They will offer wine tastings and special treats throughout the month of December.

Listed below is a small sampling of local events. Check area newspapers and local media outlets for other holiday events and festivals. Businesses and communities can post events and travelers can contact locals for more details at http://100milesofchristmas.org

December 3:

Alma Christmas House Walk (2:30pm-7:30pm)

December 5:

Whitehall Festival of Trees Parade

Pepin Hometown Holidays (also December 6 and 7)

Black River Falls Christkindl Festival (also December 6)

December 6:

Whitehall Santa Day and Craft Fair

Stockholm Country Christmas (10am-6pm)

Maiden Rock Old Fashioned Christmas

Prescott Holiday Bazaar at Freedom Park

Eau Claire Christmastime in the City (12:00 – 5:00pm)

Fountain City Holiday Craft Fair (9am-4pm) and Taste of Irish Christmas

Trempealeau Holiday Parade

December 6 – 13:

Wisconsin Celebrates in Durand and Downsville (10am-5pm)

December 11:

Menomonie Winterdaze Parade

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Voters Show Strong Support for Local Schools

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, 24 November 2014
in Wisconsin

middle-school-studentsVoters across the state decided to raise their property taxes in order to save their schools. The use of referenda for continuation of school operations is the result of less state aid coming into school districts.


MADISON - “I voted for the referendum,” the Mondovi woman told me. “I don’t have kids. I know it’s going to raise my property taxes. I don’t want to pay more, but I think we need to keep good schools.”

All across Wisconsin voters chose to raise property taxes in support of their schools by passing school referenda.

Ten years ago only 24% of school referenda passed. This year 68% passed. No year in the past 20 comes close to that percentage except 2012.

Following the 2011 historic cuts in state school aid, Wisconsin voters passed 53 of 77 school referenda in 2012. This year, voters faced 120 referenda and passed 82.

Why did voters across the state vote to raise their own property taxes?

Voters believe in the importance of strong local schools. People saw how schools consolidated; how school districts share services, staff, even football teams. Voters know fewer dollars mean fewer opportunities for children.

Voters see schools as the heart of their community and their schools require funding. Eight out of ten of the referenda passed this year provide for continued operations of the schools, including safety and maintenance. Some of these schools faced closure – for example elementary schools in Eleva and Strum. Others faced leaky roofs, potholes in parking lots, staff cuts, aging technology and increased class sizes.

Rural schools are especially hard hit, as the state’s funding formula doesn’t recognize the cost structure of many schools. When schools lose students, they lose state aid - which drops faster than the school’s ability to cut expenses.

School board members tell me it takes so much money just to open the doors and heat the building. State aid doesn’t account for these high fixed costs. The state pays on a per student basis, but more than 60% of schools have fewer students every year. Fewer students and less state aid means more costs pushed on property taxpayers.

At what point do we reach the limit of a community’s ability to pay increased property taxes? Soon, local people tell me. I’m reminded of a Pepin resident who rode a school bus to Madison to tell me that he loves his school but he can’t pay any more in property tax.

That is why Republican Governor Tommy Thompson invested in state support for schools by providing 2/3rds state funding for schools. As a result, property taxes dropped over 3% each year for two years in a row.

But state support as a percent of total school costs has eroded ever since.

Recently huge sums of state dollars were subtracted from the public school budget. Over the past four years, a cumulative one billion in state dollars were removed from the budget of local schools across the state. At the same time hundreds of millions in new dollars went to state subsidized private schools in one of the largest new state sponsored entitlements we’ve seen in years.

Private school parents tell me they don’t even like the idea of private schools getting large sums of taxpayer dollars – in some Milwaukee private schools 100% of their school budget is taxpayer money.

Behind the push for state subsidized private schools is a national movement made up of some very wealthy groups who see dollar signs when it comes to state subsidized private schools.

And caught holding the bag are folks in districts where referenda passed who all will be writing checks in the next few weeks to pay property taxes.

Great schools make for great communities. You can’t have one without the other. Folks know schools are the heart of the community. We see all those who attend a school function and realize in no other place do so many gather. Everyone benefits from an investment in education.

I heard of a school district with a failed referendum now considering cuts to science classes. Imagine the future doctor who doesn’t get the science she needs and the lost potential to cure your loved one’s ailment 15 years from now.

This is why we must invest in public schools now.

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State Retirement Funds Bear Careful Watching

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, 17 November 2014
in Wisconsin

seniorsMore than one out of ten Wisconsinites participates as a current or former state or local government employee.  Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the Wisconsin Retirement System and the State of Wisconsin Investment Board.


MADISON - “What’s going on with the state retirement system?” the retired woman asked me. She’d started a business but needed retirement income to keep things going. “Wisconsin’s system is the best funded in the country,” I told her. “But we’ve got to carefully watch what happens there.”

More than one out of ten Wisconsinites participates in the Wisconsin’s Retirement System (WRS) either as a current or former state or local government employee. Countless more family members depend on a well-run system to keep their aging relatives out of poverty.

As reported by the La Crosse Tribune in June of 2012, “Wisconsin is the only state in the nation to receive high marks for its public employee pension system.” The article commented on work of the Pew Center for States. Over the years Pew has released several reports analyzing states’ obligation to their employees. Many states have a large funding gap but not Wisconsin.

Much confusion exists as to why Wisconsin is so far ahead of other states. The La Crosse Tribune article reminds us, “The ‘solid performer’ ranking is for fiscal year 2010. That’s before Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature required public employees to contribute more to their pensions.” Some of the action to protect funds happened late in the last decade despite the recession.

The answer to why Wisconsin is so far ahead of other states in funding retirement lies in the unusual ‘self-righting’ WRS formula that adjusts based on investment returns. Another success factor is the strict discipline WRS follows in collecting contributions. A third factor is action taken in 2003 when the Governor and Legislature authorized General Fund bonds to eliminate the WRS unfunded liability.

Cost to taxpayers is kept low – according to a 2012 state report – “the portion of state and local government budgets allocated to retirement costs was only 1.26%”. Compare this to 2.9% nationally using US Census Bureau data.

Recently the Audit Committee, of which I am ranking minority member, held a public hearing reviewing the agency that manages money in the state’s retirement system. We learned details of an important but relatively unknown part of government that oversees investments known as the State of Wisconsin Investment Board or SWIB.

The Investment Board is to – by law - “manage investment assets with the care, skill, prudence, and diligence that a prudent person would exhibit acting in a similar capacity with similar resources, and for similar types of funds.” As of calendar year 2013, SWIB had an operating budget of $34.9 million and managed assets totaled $101.3 billion. This is by far the largest fund in any part of state government.

Because the retirement system is a ‘mature’ system – meaning the number of retirees is expected to be increasing – the money in the system is necessarily very large. WRS funds make up most of the fund SWIB manages. WRS funds total $93.7 billion.

The role of the Audit Committee in overseeing the activities of the Investment Board took on new meaning when the Governor and the Legislature reduced legislative oversight of SWIB. Those voting for the 2011 budget gave SWIB power to create staff positions and set its own budget. This is highly unusual.

At the recent hearing, members quizzed SWIB officials about rising operating and investment costs, increased risky and expensive investments and poorer performance as measured by one-year and three-year returns compared to nine other states’ pension investments.

Money going to salaries, bonuses and other expenses comes out of investment earnings. SWIB saw a 55.7% increase in operating expenses over a 4 year period (from 2009 to 2013). This increase was during the Great Recession when many public employees saw no raises, took unpaid furloughs, and retirees took deep cuts.

A large part of the increase in the operating budget was due to increases in bonuses – one totaled $660,400! Officials argued that keeping good employees requires an investment.

I’d argue investing in good employees includes helping them through retirement. Changes in the autonomy of the Investment Board makes it doubly important the public and the Legislature keep a close eye on the money invested and those doing the investing.

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Today is Veterans Day

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
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 11 November 2014
in Wisconsin

iraqVeterans leave the service much older and wiser than they entered. They don’t want a parade. They want a good job and respect and their dignity. They hope the girl or family they left behind will still be there. To honor them, you must do more than talk.


GREEN BAY - We used to call it Armistice Day, to mark the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of 1918 when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect to stop the bloodshed of World War I. The Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended “The Great War” or the “War to End All Wars” was not signed until seven months later.

Many historians regard the Treaty of Versailles as the first event leading to World War II, since it put into place many of the social and economic factors in Europe that lead to that bloody event. It seems like we have been fighting ever since.

Today we observe Veterans Day to remember and honor the courageous men and women who have served our country in all of our wars. It is fitting we do that, at least. We owe them all our gratitude for a job well done.

But many veterans struggle to reenter civilian life after their service, whether it be finding a job, accessing health care, or finding the other services available to them.

Veterans leave the service much older and wiser than they entered. All the claims of patriotism and glory that they heard on TV before they entered are dulled now by the reality of war and the loneliness of deployment. Most now just want to go home.

But they don’t want a parade. They want a good job and respect and their dignity. They hope the girl or family they left behind will still be there. Many would like to go to college and better themselves. They hope for what all of those lucky enough to stay behind in civilian life take for granted.

So today is Veterans Day. Give them a parade if you like. But tomorrow, do something. Open some doorways to those good jobs or college educations. Be there for them, just like you would be there for your own son or daughter, husband or wife, if they were returning home.

That’s what veterans day should really be about.

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