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Lose Local Government and You Will Lose America

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, 21 October 2013
in Wisconsin

peopleA bill is being fast-tracked through the legislative process. It is being sold as standardizing rules for sand mines but has implications for local powers to protect water, air or the use of explosives. The bill would make it more difficult for local government to be reimbursed for damage done to local roads and comes on the heels of several new laws that limit the powers of local government.


MADISON - “Lose local government and you will lose America,” warns the banner on the Wisconsin Towns Association website. The head of this organization has recently spent a lot of time at the Capitol.

Rick Stadelman, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, is the smartest man I know working the Capitol. He hasn’t slowed down a bit since he announced his upcoming retirement. He’s working very hard to let folks know about a bill that would strip local powers to protect health and safety.

The bill, introduced by Senator Tiffany, is reportedly aimed at standardizing rules for sand mines. But the bill would stop any local protection of water, air or the use of explosives. In addition, a complex new process would make it very difficult for locals to be reimbursed for damage done to local roads.

The proposal would prevent locals from monitoring their own air and water. Every town, city, village and county in the state would be stopped from any local efforts to protect air and water.

In addition, many local sand mine ordinances, agreements and, possibly moratoriums, would be null and void.

The proposal, it appears, was written to overturn a 2012 unanimous Supreme Court decision (Zwiefelhafer v Town of Cooks Valley) that allowed a town to use its police powers to adopt a sand mine ordinance when the town did not have zoning.

But the bill goes much farther than overturning ordinances in towns without zoning.

The bill would thwart any action at all by locals to protect air and water. Questions remain about local people’s ability to protect themselves in an emergency. Also, because of limits to local’s ability to negotiate road repair use agreements, there are questions about any agreements farmers or loggers have to use local roads with overweight equipment.

Unfortunately this bill appears to be on the fast track. I’ve received dozens of calls and hundreds of emails in just a few days asking me to stop the taking of local powers. I’ve urged those opposed to make their views known to members of the Senate mining committee.

This legislation is one of many aimed at taking away local powers. In the last three years, dozens of new laws and legislative proposals have targeted taking away people’s ability to govern themselves through local ordinances.

Legislation stopping locals from doing anything to protect renters now sits on the Governor’s desk. Also awaiting the Governor’s signature is legislation to stop locals from setting rules about firing an arrow or a crossbow in a city.

Many recently passed limits are related to restricting environmental protections: lost is local control for setting limits on erosion at construction sites; lost is local control over shorelines; lost is local control over siting radio, TV and cell towers; and lost are other limits on zoning.

Some laws related to personnel take way local power to require firefighters and police live within a city. Another law prevents any requirement to offer sick leave – paid or unpaid.

Some new laws seem to be a solution in search of a problem – like taking away local authority to limit the sale of certain foods and beverages – the so-called “Big Gulp”.

Milwaukee has taken many direct hits to its local powers. The Legislature passed bills to change the County Board; to restrict its powers and to change the Milwaukee Technical College Board.

Many other changes affected local budgets and fees making it more difficult for local people to obtain the resources to accomplish the plans people make for their own communities.

Local government is the best example of democracy. Decisions are made in our neighborhoods. We can run into local officials at the grocery store and let them know how we feel.

Local businesses or residents that need help can call their local government and get answers right away. But that’s not going to happen when politicians from hundreds of miles away make decisions affecting our neighborhoods.

The only reason Senator Tiffany’s bill is being pushed is because it is easier for certain interests to control the state Legislature than to control local people.

Passing Tiffany’s bill is wrong and would take one more step to losing democracy.

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Are the Property Tax “Tools” Working?

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, 14 October 2013
in Wisconsin

mining_wisconsinThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the property tax proposal put forward by Governor Walker. The Legislature will meet in Special Session to take up the proposal which puts $100 million in the school funding formula to stem an expected increase in property taxes. The proposal does not raise the revenue limits so this new state aid will be substituted for property taxes. Questions remain about the details of the proposal.


MADISON - Perhaps the Governor’s tools aren’t working.

A recently announced infusion of $100 million into schools won’t mean any more money for children. But it will help stem an expected rise in property taxes.

State school spending and property taxes are tied at the hip.

An increase in state school spending often slows or even cuts property taxes. But the opposite is also true. Big cuts to state school aid often result in large property tax increases.

Schools suffered a $1.6 billion gouge in the last budget. The recently passed two-year budget barely made a dent in filling this hole.

“Our reforms are working,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald announcing the Governor’s plans. But local school leaders told me a different story.

Schools are limited in what they can spend by state imposed revenue limits. Many frugal school boards don’t tax to the extent they are allowed. But as state money shrinks, board members are left with few options.

Local school boards are now preparing budgets for the next school year. Many members told me the “tools” the Governor gave the districts are not working. Costs are increasing faster than boards can make cuts. Especially hard hit are rural schools. Many districts have combined classrooms, cut electives, have multi-certified teachers, share staff with neighboring districts, share sports teams and long ago got rid of much support and administrative staff.

School boards now have no choice but to levy to the maximum allowed by law. Meaning possible big property tax increases for residents.

Enter the Governor’s new “property tax relief”.

The tax proposal increases money going to schools but does not increase the revenue limit. This means schools cannot spend any more. State aid is substituted in for property taxes.

This is a good trend. But it is not nearly enough. Even with the infusion of cash, property taxes will likely rise statewide and many board members will face difficult budget decisions.

It’s been since the mid-1990s that property taxes have actually declined. According to a recent Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance (WTA) report, back in 1997 the state added more than $1 billion to school funding. Property taxes fell 3.5% over the next two years.

This trend wasn’t sustained. As the state slowed increases to schools, property taxes again rose. Over the last 10 years school aid as a percent of tax revenue has steadily fallen. Recent data released by WTA show school aid as a percent of general funds fell from 44% in 2004 to 33% in 2014.

The biggest hit to schools came in the 2011-13 budget with a $1.6 billion cut in dollars available to schools. This cut included an 8% decrease in state aid. In the recently passed budget, new money was available. Increased tax collections added $1.7 billion in new general fund dollars. The Governor spent this new money and more. But not much of it went to schools.

The $100 million in school aid would be paid for from “surpluses”. But it is entirely unclear if such surpluses exist. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau earlier this year pegged the mismatch between money coming in and money going out at over half a billion in the red in the coming budget.

Todd Berry, President of the Taxpayer Alliance recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “We’re spending more in this year and next year than we’re taking in, and that’s a fact.”

Meanwhile, DPI analysts are scrambling to assess the impact of lost federal aid for schools. Is it wise to commit another $100 million in state tax money while the operations of the federal government are shut down and threatening financial Armageddon? Perhaps waiting a week to learn if Congress raises the federal debt ceiling would be prudent.

The Legislature is scheduled to meet in “Special Session” in addition to its regular Fall Floor Period to consider the new money to schools. Many questions remain about whether local schools will see any money or residents will see any change in the late December tax bill.

What I do know is the last budget used a bulldozer to gouge a $1.6 billion hole in school budgets and gave school districts a shovel to fix it.

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Does Wisconsin Want Out-of-State Companies Running Schools with Public Dollars?

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, 07 October 2013
in Wisconsin

educationThe Senate Education Committee is having hearings on a bill that would allow for expansion of charter schools statewide without taking into consideration the fiscal impact on public schools. The proposed law, Senate Bill 76, significantly impacts local control and allows out-of-state companies to establish charter schools using taxpayer dollars. And dollar for dollar those funds will be taken from public schools.


MADISON - Do we want to encourage out-of-state companies to run local schools with tax dollars? This is the objective of a bill before the Senate Education Committee.

Katy Venskus of San Jose based Rocketship Education recently explained the objective of a bill to expand charter schools was “attracting high quality national operators.”

Folks often think of charter schools as a kind of magnet school – a specialized school the local school board creates to serve students with a special interest. For example a Montessori School uses a certain approach to teach young children. The school is created by the school board and operates under a contract or charter.

Charter school advocates who attended a recent Education Committee hearing explained school boards should be required to expand charter schools when the charter performs 10% better. (Better than what was unclear.)

Should Wisconsin allow charter schools authorized by a school board to multiply without the active decision of a local school board? Should universities, tech colleges, CESAs and other entities create public charter schools run by private companies?

Private companies already run some public schools in Milwaukee. Proponents want to expand this statewide. “Wisconsin’s process for out-of-state operators is very difficult to navigate,” testified Ms. Venskus from Rocketship Education.

At the heart of the charter school discussion was the way these schools are funded. Money to run independent or “2r” charter schools comes from school aid set aside for all public schools. The more money that goes into independent charter schools, the less money is allocated for all public schools.

DPI testified the taxpayer cost of independent privately run schools during this school year is $64 million. The state pays almost $8,000 a student for over 8,000 students in Milwaukee and Racine to attend independent charter schools. This cost is born by nearly every other public school district in the state.

A DPI spokesperson also testified Wisconsin residents will likely see an increase – perhaps significant – in property taxes “if non-elected charter school authorizers are expanded statewide”.

Senator Lehman expressed concerns the school board would not be able to authorize a charter school and say to the school, “we don’t want you to duplicate.”

This ‘automatic’ duplication without school board consent, even when the charter was an instrument of the school board, led to much conversation about a loss of local control.

Committee members expressed concern about the ‘automatic’ expansion of charter schools, even those originally authorized by a locally elected school board.

Several times during the hearing the conversation turned to the underfunding of public schools in the last several state budgets. When I brought up concerns for sorely underfunded rural schools that would lose even more money under this proposal, I was told by the Committee Chairman the hearing was about charter schools and not about the state budget.

Not considering how to pay for the statewide expansion of privately run charter schools is like talking about the color of a new car but not how to pay the car payments.

Senator Darling, author of the bill, suggested the solution to funding was “to increase the pie” of school funding. But there was no proposal before the committee to change the funding of schools. There was not even an estimate on the cost of this bill.

After the Senate hearing I spent time asking folks about their reaction to the plan to open the public checkbook wider for private firms to run public schools.

People reminded me there is no evidence private charter schools have any better academic outcomes than public schools when compared on a level playing field. “The real enemy of students' academic success is poverty,” a superintendent said.

Another told me, “This bill is the key for private business to open the door and the fiscal death knell to the students who want to continue to attend public schools.”

Wisconsin is not ready to turn over the state checkbook to private companies to run our public schools. Instead let us recognize poor students cost more to educate. Our focus should be on a fair way to pay for public schools. Not on siphoning off our local dollars for an out-of-state company to run a Wisconsin school.

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New Health Insurance Marketplace: Sign-up Now!

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, 30 September 2013
in Wisconsin

standing_hcThis week, Senator Kathleen Vinehout focuses on the Health Insurance Marketplace. The open enrollment for health insurance through the Marketplace begins on October 1st. Many people have questions about the Marketplace and where to access resources necessary to help them navigate through the Marketplace. Kathleen’s column offers links to resources to help people sign-up for health insurance.


MADISON - Now is the time to sign-up for health insurance! If you buy your own insurance or are uninsured, you will want to know about the Health Insurance Marketplace.

If you or someone you know receives coverage through the state’s high-risk pool (HIRSP) you will now need to sign-up for coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace.

If you or someone you know recently lost coverage through BadgerCare you will need to sign-up through the Health Insurance Marketplace.

The Marketplace sign-up period begins October 1, 2013. If you sign up in the next few months your coverage will begin January 1, 2014. This open enrollment period will last through the end of next March. After that you will be unable to buy individual health insurance until the October 2014 enrollment for health insurance coverage that starts in 2015. This is a very big change for folks who buy insurance on their own.

At the new online marketplace you can choose among quality private health plans. You can compare insurance options based on price, coverage, quality and other features. Clear information is available on plan premiums, deductibles, and out-of-pocket costs.

Health plans in the Health Insurance Marketplace offer comprehensive coverage, including doctor office visits, lab tests, maternity care, mental health, hospital visits, rehabilitation, emergency visits, prescriptions and children’s oral and vision care. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) also required free coverage for preventive care visits and services.

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) no plan may deny people coverage for pre-existing conditions. No plan may place a life-time cap on health expenses. Women must be charged the same rate as men. And there is a cap on how much you pay for out-of-pocket costs.

You may be able to get financial help to pay for your health insurance premium. Over 80% of people who buy coverage in the Marketplace will qualify for financial help. Credits will apply immediately to the plan you have chosen. This will make your premium less.

To find out more please go to www.healthcare.gov or www.cuidadodesalud.gov. You may also call the 24 hour hotline at 1-800-318-2596.

To determine an estimate of the premium tax credits you may receive go to http://kff.org/interactive/subsidy-calculator/.

Employers can find similar information tailored to small businesses at http://www.smallbusinessmajority.org/taxcredit-calculator/.

You can also use the calculator to find out if you or someone you know is eligible for BadgerCare. Because of state budget changes many parents recently received a letter telling them they will lose coverage. Parents making over $15,500 for a couple are no longer eligible for BadgerCare, and must sign up for a private plan through the Marketplace.

About 90,000 people are expected to lose BadgerCare coverage by the end of this year. In the counties that make up the 31st Senate District over 4,000 people are affected by this deliberate policy change by the Governor and the Republican-controlled legislature. This change did not have to happen and was not required by the ACA.

I’ve received many questions about how the ACA affects seniors. The new Health Insurance Marketplace does not sell supplemental Medicare plans. These plans will still be sold as they are today.

A big Medicare change is the closing of the “doughnut hole” - the limit on prescription drug coverage. By 2020 there will be no drop in coverage for prescriptions after you spend a certain amount. This change affects many Wisconsin seniors. Already seniors have saved more than $7 billion on expanded Medicare Part D – drug coverage.

Medicare was never designed to cover preventive services. This problem was fixed with the passage of the ACA. Key preventive services under Medicare are now free. These services include, for example, annual well visits, mammograms and colonoscopies.

Under the Affordable Care Act, American health care will recognize what others have known for a long time: it’s much less expensive to keep people healthy than treat them when they are ill.

Many people are afraid to sign-up through the Marketplace. Some unscrupulous groups try to deceive and confuse people. Arm yourself with information and share this information with your friends and neighbors. If you have questions don’t hesitate to call my office at (877) 763-6636.

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State Bill Takes Away Local Protections for Renters

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, 23 September 2013
in Wisconsin

apartment-for-rentAnother attack from Madison on local control. Who is a Renter going to call?


MADISON - When a renter calls the city for help, local officials might have their hands tied under a bill that recently passed the Senate. The bill would not allow a local ordinance to govern renters and landlords.

Local officials are the first called in a dispute. This bill creates a situation where locals would not be able to resolve local problems.

For example, current law requires landlords in all but Milwaukee County to store evicted renters’ property at the renter’s expense. In Milwaukee the job falls on the sheriff. This bill would allow property owners to take or throw away evicted renter’s property even if the eviction is disputed and the renter just lost the case.

But if property is thrown away, a renter is going to call the sheriff and ask them to intervene.

The bill allows a car parked in the wrong spot to be towed by property owners. But an owner with a missing car is going to call police and report a stolen car.

If an unscrupulous property owner doesn’t disclose a lack of hot water, heat or electricity, local officials might receive a call from the renter who wants things fixed.

But the bill would eliminate local ordinances requiring property owners to disclose certain information to renters unless state or federal law required this disclosure.

At the same time, the bill removed state law that required owners give renters an itemized description of the condition of the premises at the time of check-in.

Instead, renters would be given a blank list. The renter must find any problem within the apartment or house, list it on the form, and, in 7 days, return the completed list to the property owner or the renter could be held responsible for any existing damage when they check out.

The bill would also require renters to pay the full cost of treatment for an infestation of bed bugs. Senator Erpenbach tried to amend the bill to create a fair and standardized way to resolve the bed bug problem. He argued Maine’s law had landlords paying for treatment of the building and renters disposing of any infected materials. The amendment failed on a party line vote.

The bill appears to change the role the Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) plays in protecting renters. DATCP wrote “the bill would remove DATCP’s authority over many landlord-tenant issues, which also would have the effect of removing the private right of action for those issues.”

I phoned DACTP to get a better idea of what this language meant. I learned renters’ consumer protection is written into administrative code. DATCP uses this to assist renters. Under the bill, it appears not only would DATCP lose the authority to protect consumers in certain cases, but consumers themselves would lose the ability to take the property owner to court.

There are a few protections left in place. These include return of a security deposit and the language of a lease. In what appears to be legal “never land” is protection from landlords who promise but do not deliver on needed repairs; disclosures to tenants including such items as water, heat and electricity; and prohibited practices like renting condemned property, unauthorized entry to a rental unit, automatic lease renewal and misrepresenting a rental property.

I spoke with several folks who represent tenants and they agreed the language of the bill was confusing. It may take court action to understand exactly what consumer protections are lost. It is very clear, however, local communities can no longer enforce their ordinances protecting renters.

The bill passed the Senate on a partisan vote. The bill now heads to the Assembly where a similar bill passed earlier this year. Left in Limbo are renters’ problems that need to be fixed.

“Most landlords do a great job,” an Eau Claire woman recently told me. “But 15% of them operate dumps.”

Renters who call their local officials need help in disputes. Local officials who get a call in the middle of the night don’t need their hands tied by state law.

If this bill becomes law, where does a renter go? Do they call the governor?

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