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Rural Wisconsin: "Don’t Lose the Home Phone"

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, 22 July 2013
in Wisconsin

kathleenvinehoutThis week Sen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about the problems with phone coverage in rural Wisconsin. Often in rural areas cell coverage can be spotty or simply nonexistent. People rely on their land-line phone to communicate with the rest of the world. Legislation was passed in 2011 that ended the requirement of a “provider of last resort” protection for consumers so Kathleen teamed up with AARP to reinstate this requirement.


ALMA - “My cell phone doesn’t work at home, so here’s my home number,” I told the constituent. “My home phone is the best way to reach me.”

If you live in rural Buffalo, Eau Claire, Trempealeau, Pierce, or at least eight other northern or western Wisconsin counties you or your neighbors likely have poor cell coverage. A recent analysis of the coverage maps of 5 major firms shows customers in at least 12 Wisconsin counties face a lack of cell coverage.

Most of us in rural counties have adapted. We don’t expect the cell phone to work and we don’t bother calling cell numbers for rural neighbors. But what happens if you pick up the old landline and it’s dead?

That’s what residents in Fire Island, New York are now facing. And if big phone companies have their way, your landline could be gone by the end of this decade.

A recent story in the Washington Post detailed the problems local residents of Fire Island faced after Hurricane Sandy. Following the storm, residents discovered their home phone company, Verizon, refused to repair torn and waterlogged phone lines.

Customers surrounding Washington, D.C. complained of aggressive Verizon sales representatives forcing customers to abandon their copper line home phones in return for expensive newer technology. Customers who want to return to their copper line phone cannot switch back.

According to the National Regulatory Research Institute, Wisconsin was one of 21 states that deregulated phone companies between 2010 and April 2012. The study detailed similar legislation pending in another 14 states. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate “bill mill”, is a driving force behind telephone deregulation.

The predominant carrier in Wisconsin, AT&T, lobbied for the deregulation bill that passed early in 2011. One provision of the new law ended the 100-year-old agreement between customers and the utility that brought reliable phone service to every part of Wisconsin.

When the deregulation bill was debated in the Senate I authored several amendments to protect consumers including one to keep the requirement for the “provider of last resort.” This meant if no other phone company provided service for you, your local phone company couldn’t come in and pull the plug.

Unfortunately my amendment failed and the new law passed that allowed companies to quit serving areas regardless of whether or not customers have other options. This part of the new law went into effect in early May 2013.

At the time the law passed, proponents argued a federal law protected people from losing local phone service. But last November, AT&T petitioned the federal government to remove those requirements.

According to the July Washington Post article, AT&T wrote that 70% of customers in their 22-state region chose to use wireless or internet based voice services. The company claimed landline phone service was “obsolete”.

But for many of us having a landline phone is not just a convenience; it is critical for commerce, health and safety. Rural electricity can be unreliable, law enforcement is far away, internet can be dial-up and fax machines are vital to rural commerce.

Many rural businesses could not function without a landline phone. Companies rely on the phone for orders, connecting with vendors and approving credit card transactions or checking bank balances.

Our Wisconsin countryside is aging.  Sometimes elderly folks need heart monitors or Lifeline services. But these services don’t work over cell phones. The industries of rural Wisconsin, agriculture and mining, top the list for dangerous occupations. The landline phone can mean the difference between life and death.

Ambulance response time may already be 20 minutes; driving somewhere to find cell coverage means more precious time lost when lives are on the line.

The health and safety of our neighbors should concern us all. This is why I teamed up with AARP Wisconsin to draft and promote legislation that would reinstate the “provider of last resort” law.

This summer I am working with advocates to bring attention to potential problems in rural Wisconsin without a landline phone and the need for this legislation.

Please spread the word. And give your neighbors a call - while you still can.

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Zimmerman Trial Reflects White Prejudice in Legal System

Posted by Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert is the Publisher of the Northeast Wisconsin - Green Bay Progressive.
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 16 July 2013
in Our View

black-hoodyGREEN BAY – The American Legal System boasts that it gives the accused the right to a trial before his or her peers. Unfortunately for justice, it sometimes does not guarantee the same right for the victim.

Such was graphically the case in the trial of George Zimmerman last week in Florida for the murder of Trayvon Martin.

In case you were vacationing on Mars for the last few years, George Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer and want-a-be cop in the pretty much all white community of Sanford, Florida who saw Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black youth from out of town, walking down his block. Zimmerman decided to follow him, armed with a gun, and ended up shooting the unarmed Martin dead.

A simple story and one you should think about if you go around packing a gun.

But the story gets complicated from there. The Sanford Police decide to take their local guy’s story at face value and let him go, no fault charged. The Martin family and the national media get involved, demanding at least a decent investigation and trial, in the name of justice for the dead youth. The political right and left charge to their respective sides and the American Legal System lumbers into action.

Now, sixteen months later, the verdict is in and the pretty much all white jury of Sanford residents decide to take their local guy’s story at face value and let him go. Are we surprised?

If Trayvon Martin did the shooting and was the defendant, he could have at least asked for a change of venue by saying he could not get a fair trial in the white community. The police and the jury would apply their community standards in judging the credibility of his story and find him guilty before he even opened his mouth. Unfortunately, he was the victim and could not speak.

In America, black youth, especially young black men face the same problem every day. Often guilty of no more than “walking while black” they are profiled by police as “suspicious”, picked up, and processed into a legal system that is stacked against them. Anyone who says there is no racial prejudice involved is not in touch with reality.

Most probably, there will be no justice for Trayvon Martin. He was found guilty by a jury of Zimmerman’s peers. But maybe, just maybe, we can use this sad incident to start a real discussion about race in America and our legal system. Maybe, some time in this century, all of us can come to see a black kid as just another kid.

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Art Fairs Serve Up a Slice of Wisconsin!

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, 16 July 2013
in Wisconsin

art-fair-madisonThis week, Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the slice of life in Wisconsin that can be seen in the work of Wisconsin artists. Kathleen includes links to upcoming events and the Wisconsin Tourism webpage that provides a complete listing of art and cultural events in the state.


MADISON - When I asked my sister about a cake for her birthday, she smiled and said, “I’d rather have pie … and art.” So we sat down to blueberry pie and then headed off to an art fair.

Wisconsin has over 215 art fairs. The diversity and creativity is limited only by Wisconsin ingenuity which I’ve decided is limitless!

There is no better way to see what a creative human mind and skilled hands can achieve than by observing art and speaking directly to the creators.

Art fairs are an opportunity for artists to find a home for items they fashioned. Often working through the winter to produce art, many artists spend the summer driving to art fairs to sell their wares.

There is something intimate and rare about the relationship between an artist, her cherished work, and the new owner who finds extraordinary delight in owning a splendid piece.

I attended the 55th Annual Art Fair on the Capitol Square which attracts 450 artists with another 120 or so artists “Off the Square”. The definition of art was broad and included textiles, jewelry, sculpture as well as paintings, photographs and prints. And I found art that stepped outside the boundaries of classification.

There were framed pictures of 3D vegetables and fruit that jumped right out of the frame; 3D mosaics made of individual tiles of ceramic and the life-sized metal moose sculpture that nodded its head at delighted patrons. Quite an addition to any Wisconsin garden!

Wisconsin art is a slice of Wisconsin life. The beauty of our state is reflected in the creative designs of the artists. For example the husband and wife team of Pfipsen Olivova Studios in River Falls used their inspiration from Mississippi River to create beautiful jewelry with the flowing lines of water.

Steve, a UW-RF graduate, met his lovely wife Katia when he was studying glassmaking in the Czech Republic. They merged their lives and created a successful artistic collaboration. They said “Wisconsin and its people inspire you to do art.”

A slice of Wisconsin life shows up again and again in the work of her artists; whether it be the shoreline of Lakes Superior and Michigan; the rolling hills of western Wisconsin or the city skylines of Milwaukee and Madison. Farm life reigns supreme: cows, barns, fields, chickens, cheese, fruit and vegetables…lots of vegetables. I could certainly see our love of gardening expressed through the eyes of the artists.

I was also impressed by the use of recycled materials. I saw sculptures made of scrap metals; creatures made of recycled tins; stained glass surrounded by old barn windows frames – complete with many layers of white wash; metal flowers made with old spoons; even clocks made of forks and spoons.

Artists from other states captured life in Wisconsin. Like the Florida man who said he knew more about our state than a lot of us. He used old junk toys to make 3D sculptures. He also collected images of Wisconsin icons, like the Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha, “Hamburger Charlie” from Seymour and of course Bucky Badger, to create a collage any Wisconsinite would treasure.

If I’ve inspired you, be sure to visit the Stockholm Art Fair, July 20 from 10am to 5pm at the park along the river. You can also visit the Spirit of the St Croix Art Festival, September 21-22 in Hudson.

The Spirit of Wisconsin is alive among Native American artists who gather along Milwaukee’s Lake front September 6-8 at the Indian Summer Festival – the state’s largest Native American cultural event. You can find out more at www.indiansummer.org

Several fall art tours offer a glimpse into how Wisconsin artists bring art alive in their studios and galleries. The Fresh Art Tour in western Wisconsin is October 4-6 (www.freshart.org) and the Earth, Wood and Fire Artist Tour is October 26-27 (www.earthwoodandfiretour.com).

To learn more, try the state Department of Tourism website www.TravelWisconsin.com and click on the art and culture link. You will see Buffalo County’s own Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden and Museum in Cochrane featured on Wisconsin’s Tourism website!

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Bowing to Political Pressure, UW pulls the plug on WiscNet

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, 08 July 2013
in Wisconsin

wisnet-logoThis week, State Senator Kathleen Vinehout talks about the future of WiscNet, the University of Wisconsin's successful internet service, and the lobbyists from GOP allied commercial telecommunications companies who want to eliminate it from bid competitions.


MADISON - “It’s a sad day when political pressures from telephone company lobbyists keep us from working together? It’s frustrating, yet fascinating,” read a recent statement from WiscNet officials.

At issue is the decades old relationship between the University of Wisconsin and WiscNet and whether, despite separating from UW, WiscNet will be allowed to contract with the University to provide internet services.

The internet was developed by researchers and education institutions. The Department of Defense and many universities contributed to its creation. To this day universities share data on super-fast connections created and maintained through cooperative efforts of the universities themselves.

WiscNet was a natural outgrowth of work at the UW and its desire to share the internet with public and nonprofit entities. At least 38 other states have similar research and education networks. Many networks operate under the auspices of the state universities and today continue to provide services to local county and municipal governments, health care institutions, libraries and schools.

The thinking is: sharing services lowers the cost of government.

WiscNet evolved into a nonprofit that served 500 members including three quarters of public schools, all libraries, technical colleges, state agencies, the legislature and the court system.

A 2012 Legislative Audit Bureau report showed WiscNet accomplished its goal to bring low-cost internet to public entities. WiscNet fees were substantially lower than published commercial prices especially for high bandwidth users. The audit also showed the network functioned in ways that revealed its UW parentage – sharing staff and using the UW personnel, benefits and accounting systems.

WiscNet’s success attracted the attention of commercial telecommunications companies, especially AT&T. The telecommunications giant is a big player. AT&T spent almost $1 million lobbying state legislators in the last session with 21 lobbyists working on their behalf - more than half were employees. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, last year the company spent $17 million nationwide and ranked 10th out of over 4,000 organizations that lobbied in 2012.

Lobbyists found fertile ground in the State Capitol for germinating their argument that the public sector should not compete with the private sector. Slipped into the 2011-13 budget was a provision that stopped the UW from being a partner in WiscNet. But internet services provided to the UW could still be competitively bid and – presumably- if WiscNet won the bid in open competition they could be awarded a contract like any other company.

This is exactly what happened this spring - in an open and competitively bid process, WiscNet was awarded a contract to provide services for the UW Madison. Part of the justification for this selection was that WiscNet’s initial equipment cost was 85% less than AT&T’s bid. The university claimed it was following the Supreme Court decision that “insures[s] that the public receives the best work or supplies at the most reasonable price”.

In June, AT&T threatened the University in a letter. The UW responded noting they followed the letter of the law in the procuring services from WiscNet; but would be withdrawing their award to WiscNet citing “business and political considerations—including the potential for ongoing appeals, litigation and legislative changes”.

Instead of competitively bidding services, UW Madison will now “begin transitioning to the operation of our own network.” This action prompted the Senate and Assembly higher education-related committees to call a public hearing to further delve into operations at the UW.

All the uncertainty surrounding WiscNet concerns many local superintendents. I spoke with a few local schools districts and learned some schools are ending their relationship with WiscNet and others are leery about the future and looking for options.

One local Instructional Technology Director said he was watching carefully and wondering if his job truly was to bring the lowest cost, best service to his school district.

People complain about the cost of government and encourage schools and local governments to work together. But when the 8,000 pound gorilla shows up in the Capitol and complains they can’t win a bid, often legislators are too eager to change the rules.

Things have gone too far when big companies threaten the state because they’ve lost a bid.

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Wisconsin Needs Smarter Budget Choices

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 July 2013
in Wisconsin

capitol-takekidsThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout  writes about budget priorities and how she crafted an alternative budget that would leave the state with no structural deficit and a strong balance at the end of the biennium.


ALMA - “Two years ago, Wisconsin made tough choices,” wrote Robert from Mondovi. “The deficit was eliminated, costs were controlled and Wisconsin was back on the track to prosperity.”

The Buffalo County man wanted “relief for the hardworking people of Wisconsin”.

With that in mind, I took a close look at state finances and discovered problems. I talked with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysts and read their papers. I sharpened my pencil and considered options.

The recently passed $70 billion budget spends $4 billion more than the last budget. It is estimated to create a half a billion dollar deficit going into the next budget - even though we started with more money. The economy is improving. Tax revenues are up - a little less $1.5 billion.

Lawmakers who voted for the budget (I was not among them) argued some of the new revenue be returned to taxpayers. Tax rates were changed in this budget. Average taxpayers making $45,000 a year will save about $84 in 2014; about $1.60 a week.

But this budget reaches historic debt levels. As debt increases, more tax dollars go to make debt payments; sort of like using your paycheck to pay the credit card bill.

In the last legislative session instead of making ‘credit card’ payments coming due, Wisconsin postponed paying some debt bills. This was not the first time, but it was the largest total debt postponement.

My mother always said, “Actions have consequences.” She was correct. In this budget the debt not paid comes due with a higher payment - making those ‘credit card’ payments a bigger share of what the state bought with tax dollars.

The rule financial experts follow is no more than 4% of tax money should be spent on debt payment. Ideally debt should be 3 to 3.5% of total general revenue. In the new state budget, debt payments are above the danger zone at 5.25%.

Fewer dollars are left for new investments in the ‘meat and potatoes’ of state government: K-12 and higher education, courts and prisons, local government, and health care.

The result: public schools, the UW, courts and prisons, and local government all received cuts or very modest increases but much less than their share of the $4 billion in new money.

Health received three times its share - over half - of the increase in new money. There will be more health spending but fewer people receiving health services. Why? The Governor won’t accept the federal Medicaid dollars to cover people making between $11,500 and $15,300 a year - costing Wisconsin more including tens of millions of dollars in administration contracts.

So, what would happen if Wisconsin accepted the federal Medicaid money, expanded Family Care (which saves money), invested in drug courts, mental health, schools, and the UW. What if we scrapped the tax rate cut and instead invested in the state’s rainy day fund?

To answer those questions, I put together an alternative budget. I restored money to eliminated agriculture programs and gave all the ‘bed tax’ money back to nursing homes. I fixed a deficit in childcare provider funds and restored cuts to courts and the UW. I paid cash for some new construction projects.

To address two problems facing our state – deteriorating K-12 education and addiction and mental illness - I invested in “Fair Funding for our Future” proposed by State Superintendent Tony Evers and made a big down payment on drug courts and mental health treatment.

On the revenue side, I eliminated new private school state spending and several expensive new initiatives. I didn’t buy 80 new vehicles, got rid of new tax breaks and tax rate changes, and made changes in health administration. I set aside over $600 million in the state’s checkbook which wiped out the structural deficit going into the next budget and had almost $400 million in cash left over.

Wisconsin must wisely invest our $4 billion in new money, set some aside and not be too quick to give folks a $1.60 a week tax cut. This is a much smarter approach and in the long run could provide that ‘relief’ Robert wanted for Wisconsin’s hardworking people.

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