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Federal and State Decisions Affect Health Insurance Premiums for Wisconsinites

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
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on Wednesday, 25 July 2018
in Wisconsin

affordablecareCandidate for Governor Kathleen Vinehout argues the state should enact her Badger Health Benefit Marketplace legislation after state and federal actions impact health insurance premiums for Wisconsinites.


MADISON - Recent news on the health front should give Wisconsinites pause when considering the direction our state is headed related to affordable health coverage.

Earlier this year, the Governor signed Special Session bills into law that limit access to needed healthcare. For example, one provision of the new law will essentially require cash strapped farmers to sell their cows or essential farm equipment to obtain BadgerCare. Another example is a provision that will set in place outside work requirements for caregivers (who already have a full-time, non-paying job) but rely on BadgerCare.

For the state to enforce these new provisions, the federal government, through a waiver process, must grant approval. The state filed its waiver request, which is pending approval by the Trump administration. However, a recent federal court ruling stopped similar plans in Kentucky. The legal wrangling leaves uncertainty for the Governor who hopes to save costs by eliminating BadgerCare coverage for some Wisconsinites.

healthcare-family-drThose who may lose BadgerCare cannot afford commercial policies. Folks without insurance often delay needed care, end up sicker, and seek care in the Emergency Room. Those without insurance frequently cannot pay for care even though hospitals are required to provide it. To make ends meet, hospitals raise rates for everyone else. Thus, more uninsured folks mean higher costs for all of us.

A recent poll, reported last week in The Hill, found 49% of those surveyed said it is more difficult to afford health insurance premiums, doctor visits and prescription drugs this year, compared to last year. In addition, almost 80% of respondents believe the government should be doing more to make health care more affordable.

However, action at the federal level is making health care less affordable.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) pegged the GOP repeal of Affordable Care Act (ACA) individual mandate as accounting for an average ten-percent rise in insurance premiums next year.

The Trump administration abruptly stopped payments under the ACA to help even-out costs faced by health plans. The payments are made to plans that incur high costs from unusually sick patients. The idea behind the policy is similar to the basic idea of insurance – sharing the costs by sharing the risk. The interruption of “risk adjustment” funds brings higher premiums as some health plans face higher than expected medical bills.

Federal officials also announced they were cutting funds for navigators, or outreach nonprofits that help people sign up for health coverage under the ACA. Less money for this important work means less people covered – and fewer people in the pool results in higher costs for the rest of us.

Last month the Trump administration announced it would stop defending the ACA from a constitutional challenge that could affect protections for people with pre-existing conditions. This decision has significant implications for folks in our state. Kaiser Health News reported last week that residents in GOP-led states opposed to the ACA have the most to lose if pre-existing conditions are not protected.

Wisconsin and Texas led the list of twenty governors and state attorneys general that filed a challenge to the constitutionality of the ACA in court last February.

The new Kaiser Family Foundation study estimated at least one in four Wisconsinites under age 65 have one or more pre-existing conditions that could cause them to be denied health coverage, or have a condition excluded from coverage or would be forced to pay exorbitant rates to keep coverage. These conditions could include anything from acne to migraines to pregnancy.

Just living to age sixty means one has a pre-existing condition. Not surprisingly, the study reported data from 2008, which was prior to enactment of the ACA, those of ages 60-64 were most likely to experience insurance denials based on pre-existing conditions.

kathleen-vinehoutOne answer to rising health costs is to create our own health care marketplace. I authored the Badger Health Benefit Marketplace and introduced it as Senate Bill 359. This uniquely Wisconsin marketplace provides lower cost insurance to owners and employees of small businesses and those who buy insurance on their own.

While Wisconsin rates for individual insurance went up an average of 38% in 2018 over 2017, a system similar in Minnesota dropped costs an average of ten-percent in 2018. Minnesota’s costs for an average low-cost silver plan are expected to drop another 11% in 2019.

Our state must do better at creating policy to provide affordable health care for all.

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Honoring Our Aging Veterans

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, 18 July 2018
in Wisconsin

veterans-agingSen. Kathleen Vinehout writes about the importance of honoring Wisconsin veterans by providing quality care at our state veterans’ homes and the work the LAB did to investigate staffing problems and maintenance issues at the King Veteran home in Waupaca.


ALMA, WI - “How are things at our veterans’ homes?” the Korean War vet asked me at a forum on veterans’ issues. The man was particularly concerned about what he heard about care at our Veterans Homes.

Veterans issues are personal for so many, including my family. Both my parents were veterans. My nephew serves now. My dad was a medic who flew rescue missions into Korea. Like so many, his experiences haunted him. He never talked about the trauma until he was dying.

On July 27th, we will celebrate the 65th anniversary of Korean War Armistice Day. Wisconsin is required by law to issue a proclamation for the observation of this day, asking the public to contemplate the sacrifices members of the U.S. Armed Forces made during the Korean War.

This commemoration, and a similar recognition for Vietnam Veterans Day on March 29th, exists because of the efforts of Alan Wright and many others who worked with me in 2009 to establish these important commemorations.

kathleen-vinehoutVeterans served us and it’s our obligation to serve them. When we strive to provide the best service to our veterans, we show our deep gratitude for their service. Correcting the deficits at our state veterans’ homes is a moral imperative in our service to veterans.

Wisconsin has three veterans’ homes: King in Waupaca County, Union Grove in Racine County and Chippewa Falls. Through these homes and other programs, Wisconsin made a commitment to care for our veterans. State officials are not keeping our promise.

Several audits, conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB), including one released in the past year, provide details on what must be done to improve care at our homes, especially at King.

Our veterans are more in need. For example, over nine years of the audit study, there was a 28% increase in the number of residents at King with dementia and a 262% increase in the residents diagnosed with PTSD. Staffing, although increased a few years ago, hasn’t kept up with the increased needs of seriously ill veterans. Neither has staff training. Vacant positions are increasing. Mandatory overtime may be causing unsafe conditions.

Regular staff shortages pulled caregivers to other areas, leaving veterans without the consistent care they needed.

LAB conducted a survey of staff. Among those who participated, eighty-six percent of staff said they “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” that King was adequately staffed; three-quarters of staff reported morale as being “poor” or “very poor.” Almost forty percent said they planned to look for another job in the next six months.

These results indicate very serious management problems. At the audit committee hearing, members pleaded with leaders to take these issues seriously. I left the hearing unconvinced changes would happen.

Auditors looked at concerns related to deteriorating facilities and found the Department of Veterans Affairs did not develop a systematic process for comprehensively identifying and assessing building projects. Auditors detailed a long list of needed projects including several related to potential resident safety.

Auditors documented money transferred from King to other programs. A lack of funds likely led to delayed maintenance, poor salaries and staff vacancies.

Especially serious was the way potential abuse, neglect and misappropriation of residents’ property were handled by management. In the LAB survey, thirty-seven respondents said they experienced negative consequences when they reported neglect, abuse, or misappropriation of property. Over one-third of respondents who witnessed abuse, neglect or misappropriation of property did not “always” report it – likely because they were afraid of negative consequences.

State and federal laws exist to protect our residents. Wisconsin must protect veterans and their families by protecting workers from retaliation when they report problems. We must better train managers so they understand the legal and moral problems of retaliating against workers who speak up. We must discipline and remove managers who retaliate.

To fix our veterans’ institutions, officials must stop treating King like a “cash cow” and siphoning money away from the home. Instead, wages should be raised, more staff should be hired, and facilities should be repaired.

We must engage staff, residents, and family members in finding solutions, by creating councils or regular, decision-making bodies that involve everyone in problem solving.

We face solvable problems. As stewards of our veterans’ sacrifices we must fix them.

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Senator Taylor Responds to Milwaukee Brewer Josh Hader’s Offensive Tweets

Posted by Lena Taylor, State Senator, 4th District
Lena Taylor, State Senator, 4th District
Lena Taylor, State Senator, 4th District has not set their biography yet
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on Wednesday, 18 July 2018
in Wisconsin

milw-brewers-miller-parkMADISON – The ten-year old social media posts that have recently surfaced by Josh Hader are incredibly offensive. I recognize that Josh has apologized for his actions and stressed that those past tweets do not reflect his current beliefs.

As with Donte DiVincenzo, who had questionable posts written when he was 14 years old, we are asked to remember that Hader was a teen when these things were said. However, the irony of Colin Kapernick— who said nothing inappropriate—being kept off the field for raising issues of race and inhumane treatment is not lost on me or many in the community. The contrast between losing your career for speaking a peaceful truth to race relations and receiving sensitivity training for racially incendiary language is glaring.

This is a teachable moment for all of us. In Hader’s case, these vile attitudes came from somewhere…he heard them or learned them somewhere. I’m glad to see the Brewers respond in a way that incorporates education and awareness of these issues.

****

Yesterday, a series of offensive tweets by Milwaukee Brewer Josh Hader were recently uncovered. Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) released this statement upon learning about these tweets.

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FULL VIDEO: Rewatch the Democratic Gubernatorial Debate

Posted by Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert is the Publisher of the Northeast Wisconsin - Green Bay Progressive.
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on Friday, 13 July 2018
in Wisconsin

demgovdebateOn Thursday, the eight major remaining Democratic candidates for Governor met at WUWM studios in Milwaukee. Here is the video of the debate in its entirety.


MILWAUKEE - On Thursday, July 12, 2018, the eight major remaining Democratic candidates for Governor, Tony Evers, Matt Flynn, Mike McCabe, Mahlon Mitchell, Josh Pade, Kelda Helen Roys, Paul Soglin, and Kathleen Vinehout, met at WUWM studios in Milwaukee. Here is the video of the debate in its entirety.

Rewatch the Democratic Gubernatorial debate in its entirety as it was aired on TODAY'S TMJ4 and tmj4.com below.

*****

Video provided by YouTube.

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Critical Needs Go Unmet at Our Struggling 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 Wednesday, 11 July 2018
in Wisconsin

school-kidsThe Wisconsin Budget Project recently provided insight into state school aid, which has not been restored to the funding level in 2011 when Gov. Walker made historic cuts. With schools struggling with less aid and increasing needs, resolving funding issues and the school funding formula are a priority.


BIRCHWOOD, WI - How can a rural school meet critical needs when money for schools is less than adequate?

“A school board member went door-to-door asking for support,” Birchwood Superintendent Diane Johnson said to members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding. “He raised $3,000 to get the front doors locked.” The money raised was for purchase of a long-needed intercom system at the front door. “The doors were not locked during the day until this month,” Dr. Johnson told Commission members in May.

Dr. Johnson went on to say next would come an effort to buy key fobs for the staff and re-key the doors. The school didn’t lock the doors or change the locks for over 50 years. With a population of less than 500 in Birchwood, “everyone has a key to the school.”

School funding is not adequate for students in many communities across our state. Mounting mental health and school safety issues are just some of the problems facing superintendents, school boards and bookkeepers like Birchwood’s Bonita Basty.

Ten percent of Birchwood’s tight school budget must be transferred to cover required costs for students with special needs, Ms. Basty explained. In addition, the small district is depleting its reserve funds to cover increasing costs for students with special needs.

The state pays only about a quarter of the costs for special education despite the legal requirement that school districts must provide these services. Both federal and state special education reimbursement dropped over the years, while the needs of students grew.

kathleen-vinehoutAcross the state, the Commission heard testimony regarding impossible trade-offs school districts are forced to make between basic building maintenance, school safety, achievement, accountability and student needs.

A new study released by the Wisconsin Budget Project, an initiative of the nonpartisan advocacy group Kids Forward, provided insight into why Wisconsin schools face such difficult challenges and what options exist to make changes in budget priorities.

“In 2019, the state will invest less in public schools than it did in 2011, something that has been true of every year in between as well. In 2019, Wisconsin school districts will receive $153 million less in state aid than in 2011 in inflation-adjusted dollars, or 2.6% less,” noted the Budget Project.

The series of cuts made to schools over the years add up. The Budget Project reported that between 2012 and 2019, Wisconsin spent a cumulative $3.5 billion dollars less in state aid to schools than if the state had retained the 2011 funding level.

Looking at where dollars moved in Wisconsin’s budget, the Budget Project reported the share of tax dollars used for schools dropped since 2011. In that year, Wisconsin spent almost forty percent of tax revenue on school districts. By 2019, this percent is estimated to drop to 32 percent.

The report provided some answers to the question, if WI didn’t spend money on schools, where did the money go? Since 2011, majority lawmakers enacted more than 100 tax changes.

“… some of which are extremely slanted in favor of the wealthy and well connected. One example is the Manufacturing and Agriculture Credit which in 2017 gave 11 filers who each earned over $30 million an average estimated tax cut of $2 million each, according to figures from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The Manufacturing and Agriculture Credit will reduce state revenue by an estimated $324 million in 2019.

“The combined cost of the new tax cuts has climbed each year, starting from a low of $57 million in 2012, and reaching $2 billion in 2019 in inflation-adjusted dollars. The combined total cost of the tax cuts adds up to $8.7 billion over eight years.”

Wisconsin needs to increase funding for schools. One place to go to find dollars without increasing total spending, is the expensive corporate cash subsidies and tax breaks given out in the past eight years.

However, the state also needs to change how money is distributed to districts. We need a new funding formula based on student needs. Much public testimony given to the Commission detailed greater student needs because of having parents suffering from addiction, and students with challenges related to mental illness and trauma. Additionally, there are increasing needs and less state support for students in poverty, with special needs, and English learners.

The Wisconsin Budget Project study makes it clear – money is available if lawmakers are willing to change priorities.

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Opioids vs. Medical Cannabis

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
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on Tuesday, 10 July 2018
in Wisconsin

brown-county-exec-comm-070918A person diagnosed with diabetic eye and peripheral nerve damage makes a statement on her personal experience with legal prescription drugs and her hope to see medical marijuana legalized in Wisconsin. Made before the Brown County Board Executive Committee on July 9, 2018.


GREEN BAY, WI - My name is Laura Kiefert. My husband and I own property in Howard, where we live next door to our son, his wife, and three of our grandchildren.

I appreciate the opportunity of speaking with you today about my personal experience with drugs. Legal prescription drugs, that is.

In 1998 after suffering a rapid onset of severe pain, I was diagnosed with diabetic peripheral neuropathy. It felt like my feet were constantly burning in scalding water. So far, that sensation has spread to my ankles, calves, hands and forearms.

Several neurologists confirmed the diagnosis by performing a myriad of diagnostic tests. All confirmed the diagnosis, agreed that finding an effective treatment was often elusive, confirmed the condition was progressive, and advised me to not expect the condition would ever improve.

laura-kiefertAt the beginning, I was prescribed anti-epileptic medications, the only drugs approved at that time to treat neuropathy. Then, those medications were combined with anti-depressants, which had shown to be effective with some patients suffering from neuropathic ailments. Along with those, I was prescribed low doses of opioids like Percocet and Vicodin.

In addition, I tried topical ointments, supplements, chiropractic, acupuncture, bio-feedback, electric stimulation, spinal injections, massage and relaxation, all efforts to ease my pain and slow the progression. None proved very beneficial.

My diagnosis coincided with Perdue Pharma launching an extensive marketing campaign promoting their so-called wonder drug, OxyContin, aimed at assuring physicians that it was safe and non- addictive when used for pain control.

It was during that time I received my first prescription for OxyContin and it was the start of what we now refer to as the Opioid Crisis.

OxyContin was originally developed to be an effective pain reliever. And it was. Pain sufferers like me weren’t looking to get high. We were looking for a medication to ease our pain.

As doctors wrote millions of prescriptions, the market became totally saturated with OxyContin, patients began sharing or selling their pills, people learned how to crush the tablets and snort or inject the powder. It wasn’t long before people were stealing it to get high and the drug became readily available on the black market.

By 2002, when I was just 47 years old, I was no longer able to work because of the neuropathy pain, and unable to drive due to the deterioration of my vision.

Periodically, over the next 13 years, the type of opioids varied and dosages were increased until I was taking maximum dosages of several at the same time. Along the way the numerous drugs I took caused serious side effects including weight gain, drowsiness, dizziness and swelling, heart, respiratory, and gastrointestinal problems, hypertension, itchy skin, dry mouth, nausea and infection.

Make no mistake, opioids relieved my pain, however between the years, 2010 to 2015, I was basically unable to function and rarely got out of bed.

For all intents and purposes during those years, I lost my life. I missed out on everything - loving moments with my husband, family and friends, birthdays and holidays, ball games, concerts and recitals, and especially all the little things a grandmother enjoys and cherishes while watching her grandchildren grow.

In 2015, I turned 60 and I realized with the quality of life I had, I might as well be dead. So I decided to stop taking the prescriptions I had been over-prescribed, and get out of bed or die trying. Against my doctor’s recommendation, and without any intervention or treatment, over a period 4 months of difficult withdrawal, I was able to successfully rid myself of my dependence on legally prescribed drugs.

Now, although I am functioning better, coping with constant pain is a never-ending struggle. I can’t walk very far, stand too long, or sit very long. Nights are the worse because my pain intensifies when I lay down. The only relief I get is when I’m submerged in water. I’ve spent so much time in our pool, it’s a wonder I haven’t grown gills.

My vision has deteriorated to where I have lost most of the vision in my left eye and considerable in my right. Now, damage to my optic nerve resulting from worsening glaucoma, has my ophthalmologist worried I’m going totally blind.

Pain is the first thing I think about when I wake up, the last before I go to sleep, and too many times in between to count. Being so visually impaired is a challenge I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

My personal experience with prescribed Opioid Medication proves taking them requires increasing dosages that can be a slippery slope that often leads to dependence, overdose and even death.

According to a study from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deaths involving opioids, in 2016 reached, 42,249. A staggering average of 115 per day.

Opioid overdoses recently overtook vehicular accidents and shooting deaths as the most common cause of accidental death in the United States. Ten states enacted medical cannabis laws between 1999 and 2010. Research from those states have shown that states allowing medical marijuana had a 24.8% lower annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared to states outlawing cannabis.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse, as well as numerous other in-depth studies on medical cannabis has reported that like opioids, marijuana has been shown to be effective in treating chronic pain as well as other conditions such as Anxiety, Arthritis, Cancer, Crohn’s Disease, Epilepsy, Fibromyalgia, Glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Migrains, Multiple Sclerosis, Neuropathy and PTSD.

Furthermore, studies have shown that marijuana used as an alternative pain treatment would help mitigate the major public health opioid crisis because it is safer and less addictive, you can’t overdose from it, nor has anyone in the US died from using it.

Medical marijuana is an affordable, safe and effective alternative for many expensive, ineffective and highly addictive prescription opioid medicines currently being prescribed.

Legalization of the medical use of marijuana would have a significant positive affect on the Opioid Crisis. It would be a giant missed opportunity if data on safety, efficacy, and outcomes from medical cannabis use wasn’t considered when deciding whether marijuana should be legalized.

Personally, I’ve exhausted every pain management option, including massive doses of prescribed opioids. After extensive research, I’ve determined that medical cannabis is the only option left for me.

I have not tried marijuana for my nerve pain or glaucoma. Primarily because it’s illegal, but also because I can’t stand the smell of it.

Like many people of my generation, I thought marijuana was an evil drug that was making our kids stupid, was highly addictive, a gateway drug, and often led to overdose and death.

A surprising number of people still cling to that anti-factual, long-exploited, preconceived ideology that marijuana use is bad. My research has taught me otherwise.

I have learned it is nearly impossible to overdose on cannabis. To do so, you would have to consume 40,000 times the dose required to get “high”, all at once.

I was relieved to find out the neuroscience department at the University of Louisville has proven that marijuana use does not, in fact, kill brain cells.

Unlike opioids, marijuana has little addiction potential, and no deaths from marijuana overdose has been reported in the United States.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that smoking cannabis does not cause significant damage to the lungs. Tobacco, however, can be extremely damaging. And, marijuana can be consumed in edible forms, therefore alleviating the unpleasant stink.

Nearly all of us know someone who has been killed by cigarettes or alcohol, yet they remain legal. A recent study even found the majority of people believe consuming sugar is worse for you than smoking marijuana.

Opioids are the 3real “gateway” drugs to be worried about. Since the war on opioids has led to stiff regulations on the quantity and duration of prescriptions, many legitimate pain sufferers have turned to street drugs out of desperation after being cutoff by their doctor’s.

People who live relatively pain free just don’t get what’s it’s like to constantly have pain. Imagine if you had a toothache that went on for sixteen years.

The best solution for pain sufferers, and a real solution to the opioid crisis, would be the legalization of marijuana.

I know firsthand the downside of taking prescription opioids and just how detrimental they can be to one’s health and well being. Medical marijuana couldn’t possibly be anywhere near as bad.

I’ve asked many doctors how they feel about medical cannabis. They agree it would very likely be effective for my pain management. Healthcare practitioners who are charged with ensuring patient comfort, have a vested interest in providing viable alternatives to Prescription Opioid Medications as part of an integrated approach to pain management. They are left wondering how different their job would be if marijuana was legal.

I’m left wondering how different my life might have been over the past sixteen years, or how different my future might be, with the benefit of legal medical cannabis.

I didn’t reveal this much of my personal heath history looking for sympathy. I’m hoping you will consider what I’ve said when deciding how to vote on this proposed referendum. Quite simply, I need something done before I either die or go blind. I desperately want to live productive life as and see my grandchildren grow up.

Anyone who had to walk with MY legs on MY feet, hold anything with MY hands, or see out of MY eyes, would understand my urgency in getting medical marijuana legalized in Wisconsin.

Most importantly, I don’t think my government should force me into becoming a criminal in order to obtain a medication with the potential to help me.

I must emphasize one final point. No one I know who’s advocating for Brown County to add this non- binding advisory referendum is doing so because they are potheads who walk around in a purple haze and just want to bring more drugs into our community.

Make no mistake, marijuana is already here and being used illegally by thousands of people in Brown County. I’m told it can be bought at bars near the university, on street corners on Main Street or University Avenue, and during the summer, at Disc golf courses.

Drugs are pervasive in our society. Just open your medicine cabinet. Those drugs can be purchased on every other street corner and Walgreens, CBS, Shopko and Walmart.

Thank you for listening and I sincerely hope you consider my statement in your decision about whether this issue should move forward.

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Hemp Growing Pains

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 July 2018
in Wisconsin

hemp-farmerWisconsin farmers are facing challenges starting the new industrial hemp pilot program. Now confidentiality roadblocks are generating a new organization to connect growers, processors, retailers and consumers to establish and promote a dynamic hemp market.


ALMA, WI - “I, as a licensed hemp grower, cannot get a list of hemp processors in Wisconsin,” wrote Butch Mondeau. He stressed the problem is "a state road block.”

Mr. Mondeau is an Eau Claire County hemp farmer. He was planning to sell his crop to the company that supplied seeds but recently learned the company will only buy back certified organic hemp crops. Mr. Mondeau’s farm is not certified organic. Looking for someone to buy the crops growing in his field proved a more complex task than expected.

The new law legalizing hemp keeps confidential all contact information for hemp growers and processors in the state. This makes it difficult for farmers to find buyers for their crops in Wisconsin.

kathleen-vinehoutI recently spoke with Rob Richard of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF). “We were concerned growers would be harassed by people who didn’t understand hemp,” said Mr. Richard, who serves as Senior Director of Government Relations. We worked together during the passage of the bill.

Perhaps lawmakers should rethink keeping hemp growers and processors confidential. Mr. Richard suggested one option is to allow farmers and processors to “opt in or opt out of public information so growers can access the list.”

Meanwhile, farmers with hemp crops in the field whose marketing plan fell through need immediate help.

Mr. Richard’s advice is to proceed with caution. “You have to find a buyer and have a plan on what to do with the product.” He noted processors are coming into the state to “manufacture and sell CBD [oil]. Processors are also coming in to deal with grain and fiber, but this is slower.”

Mr. Richard is working with former Legislative Council attorney Larry Konopacki to create the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance (WHA), which will work to bring processors, retailers and consumers together with farmers.

The organization is just getting off the ground. Connecting farmers and processors is one of the biggest challenges now.

“There are a lot of people who want to make money, but not a lot doing advocacy, education and marketing,” Mr. Konopacki told me. “Growing pains’ is a good way to describe it. There are the regular farming problems; equipment, harvesting, and growing conditions. But there are added problems with varieties and markets.”

“There are so many different kinds of hemp,” Mr. Konopacki pointed out. “It’s like saying there are vegetables for sale. I don’t want your cauliflower, but I’ll buy your tomatoes. There is a lot of seed growing but most of it is starting out organic. This is a market that really likes organic.”

Advocacy is needed to assure retailers, consumers, processors and farmers that hemp and products made from hemp are legal. Some District Attorneys around the state still want to prosecute those in the hemp industry. Uncertainty about transporting raw hemp also creates problems.

“There is still uncertainty about crossing state lines, even though this is allowed under the federal and state hemp pilot program,” said Mr. Konopacki. “A nationwide market wouldn’t have these problems. There’s not a lot of flexibility.”

Efforts to add hemp as a commodity to the national farm bill could help resolve transportation problems and, perhaps, ease marketing concerns. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced bipartisan language to the Senate version of the 2018 Farm Bill that would legalize growing the plant and allow states to set up the best system for regulation. Both Wisconsin U.S. Senators cosponsored the proposal.

Hemp is one of the few bright spots in Wisconsin’s agriculture community. WFBF’s Rob Richard noted, “The economic hardship and morale of farmers is really low right now.” Farmers are looking for alternatives and hemp provides some hope for better cash flow.

Some farmers are sitting on the fence watching their neighbors solve problems related to agronomy and marketing. “I really think you are going to see big growth in Year Two and Year Three,” Mr. Richard said.

Farmers looking for help finding a market for their product or folks interested in being advocates should contact the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance. Especially helpful are people willing to buy hemp.

“If you are a processor or buyer, we know of farmers who would like to connect with you!” Folks can reach Larry Konopacki and the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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Supporting Wisconsin Farmers

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
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on Wednesday, 27 June 2018
in Wisconsin

wisc-dairy-farmJune is Dairy Month, and we need to thank all the hardworking dairy producers, milk processors, and local farm families that make Wisconsin “America’s Dairyland.”


LA CROSSE, WI - I don’t know about you, but my family always enjoys the month of June. Not just because school is out, but because June is Dairy Month in Wisconsin!

It’s a time for us to celebrate all of our hardworking dairy producers, milk processors, and local farm families that make Wisconsin “America’s Dairyland.”

Over the past month, you may have taken advantage of the family-friendly activities, including parades, cheese tastings, and my favorite – dairy breakfasts on the farm.

These events highlight the importance of our farming heritage and are a great way to learn more about where our food comes from. This month also serves as a reminder to ask ourselves how we can better support local farmers and strengthen our communities.

Years of Republican policies that favor large corporations over smaller family farms and drive down milk prices are having detrimental impacts on our local communities.

jennifer-shillingWisconsin has been losing dairy farms at an alarming rate – roughly 1.5 farms lost every day since 2011 – and our state has led the Midwest region in farm bankruptcies in 7 of the past 8 years.

Over the past few months I have listened to local farmers about the economic issues affecting them and the struggles they face with volatile markets. The reckless trade war imposed by President Trump is undermining our economic potential, adding more strain on family farms, and having a devastating impact on our local communities.

In the legislature, Democrats have championed successful initiatives like Farm to School and the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program. We’ve fought to expand health care access, invest in broadband infrastructure and protect funding for UW-Extension agents who work one-on-one with area farmers.

By promoting financial security and expanding economic opportunities, we can support Wisconsin’s family farmers and ensure everyone can enjoy healthy, affordable and locally-grown food options.

I want to thank the families in La Crosse, Monroe, Vernon and Crawford counties and all across the state for opening their farms to the public and hosting delicious and nutritious breakfasts. Their dedication to farming does not go unnoticed and I look forward to continued discussions on how to improve the lives of Wisconsin farmers.

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Joint Legislative Audit Committee Explores Agency Accountability

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 June 2018
in Wisconsin

wisc-capitol-domeAt a recent Committee hearing, members made it clear the UW must enact Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) recommendations regarding the UW and affiliated organizations. Regardless of the audit, the recommendations provide a roadmap to resolving issues found by the auditors.


MADISON - What should we do if the folks in charge don’t fix things they know are broken?

At a recent public hearing of the Joint Committee on Audit, on which I serve as ranking minority member, lawmakers publically pondered how to hold government accountable if they repeatedly ignored audit findings.

The audit of the University of Wisconsin System came about from the alleged illegal transfer of public money to a private foundation by former UW-Oshkosh administrators. Two former administrators recently appeared in court on felony charges.

The recently released audit by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) did not address the court case but provided details on the relationship between UW, its foundations, and other affiliated organizations.

Auditors found an array of problems. For example, a UW-Oshkosh employee placed public money in an affiliated organization and did not return all the money despite being instructed to by the Chancellor. In other situations, UW employees received full-time UW salaries, but they worked part-time at an affiliated organization. UW foundations did not always reimburse the UW for the public space or staff.

Most disconcerting for lawmakers was the apparent lack of compliance by the UW in correcting recurring problems and a lack of full access to records to complete the audit. As a consequence, auditors could not fully answer lawmakers’ questions.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle publically explored what to do to force compliance with audit recommendations.

Over and over again, lawmakers repeated some version of “sending as strong a message as we can” to hold the UW accountable. I explored the possibility of using subpoena powers to require agencies to turn over documents. My colleague, Senator Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), suggested we take a much stronger approach to compelling agencies to release necessary information and comply with LAB recommendations.

Senator Kapenga proposed the UW and any other noncompliant agency should face strict financial penalties for either withholding information or refusing to comply with audit recommendations. He shared that when companies did not provide information to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) - the federal financial watchdog would assess financial penalties. Senator Kapenga suggested a $50,000 fine for every instance of repetitive noncompliance.

kathleen-vinehoutAll members of the Joint Audit Committee share Senator Kapenga’s frustration with agencies not providing auditors complete and accurate information and agencies not complying with audit recommendations. Too often, audits include recurring findings that should have been resolved when the agency complied with the LAB recommendations.

Our recent hearing dealt, in part, with recurrent computer security issues at the UW. For many years, auditors found problems with IT controls over accounting, payroll and student data. Without protections, data is vulnerable. The state could suffer losses.

Unresolved, recurring problems that leave the state vulnerable affect many agencies.

Other audits found that the Department of Health Services failed to enact recommendations to address poor compliance with required computer matches to stop inmates from receiving FoodShare benefits. The Department of Employee Trust Funds had repeated findings related to internal financial controls in seven of the prior ten years.

One of the most egregious repeated audit finding was with the state’s economic development programs. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporations (WEDC) did not independently verify whether companies that promised to create jobs with public money actually created those jobs. Further, auditors called into question the job numbers released by WEDC.

These examples of noncompliance, repeated year after year, are only known because of the continual auditing conducted by the LAB.

The steadfast work of auditors to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of state government is critical to the public and to our legislators. Reports provide us reliable information about the action (or inaction) of state government, an assessment of whether or not programs met their purpose and whether money was properly spent. Moreover, the recommendations offered by the LAB provide a roadmap forward in addressing problems.

How seriously agencies take these recommendations falls on lawmakers. The clear message to the UW from the members of the Joint Audit Committee was “get the job done.”

The audit recommendations are the means to the end, which is better government. If we are going to be better stewards of the peoples’ money, lawmakers must now hold government accountable.

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Suicide: A Tale of Access

Posted by Patty Schachtner, State Senator 10th District
Patty Schachtner, State Senator 10th District
State Senator Patty Schachtner represents Wisconsin’s tenth senate district. The
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on Friday, 22 June 2018
in Wisconsin

suicidebygunEase of access to firearms contributes to suicide risk, as does lack of access to mental health resources in many communities. We can reduce the suicide rate, but we must recognize it is an epidemic driven in part by systemic, policy decisions.


SOMERSET, WI - Suicide has touched communities across the nation. The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain – like all deaths from suicide – are tragic. While tragic, their deaths refocused the national attention on what is a growing suicide epidemic.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that suicide rates in the United States increased by 25 percent between 1996 and 2016.

Behind these numbers are lives. Stories that were cut short. Suicide is also a story - but one of access: ease of access to firearms and lack of access to mental health resources.

More than half of all people who die by suicide use a firearm – the most lethal method for suicide. Wisconsin’s rate is even higher - nearly three in four who die by suicide use a firearm. Close to 85 percent of suicide attempts by firearm are fatal. In contrast, five percent of people who attempt suicide through other widely-used methods die.

A suicide attempt by firearm is near-instant. There is not the same level of planning required compared to other methods, meaning there is less time for people to reconsider or seek help during an attempt.

The time between suicidal thoughts and a suicide attempt is important because of how it relates to impulsivity. A 2001 study regarding suicide attempts and impulsivity found that 70 percent of people spent less than one hour between considering suicide and committing an attempt; 24 percent said less than five minutes. Not having a firearm can reduce the effects of impulsivity, and in turn, reduce the number of suicide attempts among individuals who are in that mental state.

patty-schachtnerEase of access to firearms can also contribute to elevated suicide risk. Most notably, this includes unsecured storage of firearms at home. Researchers found that gun owners who practiced safe storage of firearms at home were 60 percent less likely to die from a firearm-related suicide, relative to gun owners who did not safely store their firearm.

Unsecured storage of firearms has implications for children too. In 2016, 633 children committed suicide with a firearm. Many of these children found the firearm at home: unlocked, easily accessible, and loaded.

Compounding this problem is the lack of access to mental health resources in many communities. In Wisconsin, 46 of its 72 counties contain federally-designated mental health professional shortage areas. Mental health shortages make it difficult for individuals contemplating suicide to seek professional help. It also makes it more difficult for individuals with a mental illness, who are at greater risk of suicide, to receive care.

Rising suicide rates are an epidemic, and it is an epidemic driven in part by systemic, policy decisions.

Wisconsin’s suicide rate has been higher than the national average for all but one year between 2008 and 2018. We can reduce the suicide rate, but we need to have real conversations about where we are and where we want to be.

*****

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK [8255]. Trained counselors are available 24/7.

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Court Case Challenges Policy Penalizing People for Being Poor

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
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on Wednesday, 20 June 2018
in Wisconsin

grocery-store-checkoutThe Trump administration invited states to create new policies with more strict work requirements and barriers for people to qualify for Medicaid and FoodShare. A new court case challenges the harmful effect of these new policies.


MADISON - Do new strict requirements for Medicaid adopted by states violate the law? A federal court is set to decide after recent arguments presented by policy experts who said the requirements do violate law.

The case arose from Kentucky’s decision to create strict work requirements for getting healthcare through Medicaid. In January, the Trump administration invited states to submit “demonstration proposals” that make it much harder for people to qualify for or remain on Medicaid.

Experts say the Kentucky case could have implications for Wisconsin and six other states that have pending application for the restrictive Medicaid policy changes.

Wisconsin acted quickly to take advantage of the change. Governor Walker touted the changes stating, “public assistance should be a trampoline not a hammock.” In just a few weeks, GOP leaders passed nine bills as part of the new policy initiative. The bills added work requirements and other strict limitations to our state’s version of Medicaid known as BadgerCare.

I dubbed the effort, kicking people when they are down. The bills created strict work requirements for people with children, created insurmountable barriers for some trying to get help and restricted coverage. At risk were poor families, hungry children, and the disabled.

farm-familyFor example, one bill had the effect of forcing the wheelchair bound to sell their wheelchair accessible van, if it was valued at more than $10,000, in order to keep their BadgerCare and FoodShare (the modern version of the old Food Stamps program). The same bill had the effect of forcing dairy farm families to sell their cows before obtaining BadgerCare.

The federal court will decide if similar Kentucky requirements violate federal law and, according to Kaiser Health News, could determine “how far the Trump administration can go in changing Medicaid without Congressional action.”

In the same article, published in Governing Magazine, Kaiser reported that most legal experts say the administration’s approach is “backward because enrollees need health coverage so they are healthy enough to work.” Many scholars agreed and supported the Medicaid enrollees.

Forty policy scholars submitted in an amicus brief supporting the Kentucky lawsuit. They found no evidence to support “depriving people of Medicaid will lead to greater levels of employer insurance.” Work requirements do not make people healthy. Work requirements have no long-term effects on employment or income. However, Medicaid does improve health, and healthy people are more able to work.

The scholars wrote in their brief the new federal policy goes against the “core mandate” of Medicaid to provide medical assistance to all eligible individuals.

The scholars noted that under the Trump administration policy, “States are thus encouraged to pile on new eligibility conditions and coverage requirements, erect barriers and push people out of the program, all in the name of making people healthy.” Experts estimate over 100,000 people in Kentucky will lose healthcare over the next five years.

kathleen-vinehoutPart of Wisconsin’s initiative is to increase premiums. The scholars wrote there is “extensive research showing the adverse impact of unaffordable premiums on low-income persons with little or no disposable income.” Not being able to pay premiums leads to fewer people with health coverage.

Wisconsin, and some other states, already has work requirements in place for FoodShare. The forty scholars reported studies of these requirements show as many as fifty percent to eighty-five percent of folks now receiving benefits could lose them. Parents, of course, face additional obstacles including a lack of affordable childcare.

Wisconsin’s policies are crafted in a completely backwards way. If we want a farmer to do better or a wheelchair bound person to succeed why would the state make them sell items essential to their livelihood?

All these requirements add up to a fundamental question we face; do we have public programs to give a hand-up to those facing hard times or do the policies exist to punish the poor?

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The Way Wisconsin Funds Schools Must Change

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
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on Wednesday, 13 June 2018
in Wisconsin

school-kidsWe heard expert testimony at a recent hearing of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding Reform that Wisconsin’s formula is an outlier in the US. and failure to change it leaves children vulnerable, taxpayers paying more in property tax and the state open to lawsuits.


MADISON - The way Wisconsin pays for schools is unfair, inequitable and antiquated.

Over the past few months, I heard parents, community members, business leaders, teachers, students, and school officials speak about the flawed school funding formula. I serve on the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding Reform.

We took public testimony across the state. Recently, these criticisms were validated by national experts who testified at the last scheduled public hearing of the Commission.

Our state is changing. These changes are reflected in student needs. Compared to years ago, we have more students in poverty, with special needs, English learners, students suffering from mental illness and experiencing trauma. These students facing challenging situations cost us more to educate.

The state has failed to keep up with changing student needs. As a consequence, the schools with those of greater need are forced to divert funds from all other students to pay for these needs.

For example, the state funds only 26 cents on the dollar for special education needs. But federal law requires all special education needs be met. As a result, general education money is used for students with special needs.

Peter Goff, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin, Madison described the situation. “Huge chunks [of general education money] are getting torn off to pay for these special education mandates – that is the state’s responsibility but [the state] is not paying for it.”

kathleen-vinehout“Wisconsin’s school funding system is inflexible, unpredictable, and not well designed to respond to changes in educational conditions,” said Zahava Stadler, Policy and Research Director for EdBuild, a nonprofit dedicated to school funding reform.

Commission members heard testimony about how Wisconsin’s approach to paying for public schools is unique in the US – and not in a positive way. Experts said Wisconsin’s method of paying for schools makes students more vulnerable. Using “categories” of aid makes these programs more vulnerable to budget cuts because of political winds and economic downturns.

Emily Parker, a Policy Analyst for the Education Commission of the States, tracks school legislation. Ms. Parker described the evolution of school funding across America. At first, schools were funded in a flat dollar amount. Then schools were paid based on community wealth as measured by property value. This is how Wisconsin’s main formula works.

Over the years, states added student need (Wisconsin includes only in limited grant-like categories), then states made funding flexible and, recently, more states are basing resources for schools on student needs.

The effect of our obsolete formula is harmful to all students, as schools are forced to take money from general aid to pay for the increasing needs of some students.

Dr. Goff, testified about the effects of Act 10, revenue limits and budget cuts.

“Without a doubt, there has been a net loss to school districts over time,” said Dr. Goff. At the same time, the costs school districts face increased over time. “Every year there isn’t a revenue limit adjustment, it is essentially a cut to schools’ spending.”

“Local districts are taking on more, asking for more, going to referenda more often and passing more… this is not a sustainable model for school funding. At the end of the day, education is a state right. When you can’t give more of local effort, that is when the state opens up to potential lawsuits as well as ethical issues of underfunding schools. … At some point, local districts will exhaust [resources] and that puts the state at risk,” said Dr. Goff.

“There is a glaring omission that the state that has the largest achievement gap in the nation has a funding system … [that] does not mention student disadvantage at all. Or ethnicity at all.”

We must fundamentally change the way we pay for schools. We should throw out the antiquated formula based on property wealth. Instead, schools need a flexible, consistent commitment from the state to pay districts based on student needs and the costs of educating the students of today.

At risk, are our children. At stake, is our future. It’s time for the Blue Ribbon Commission to earn its blue ribbon.

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An Honest Discussion about Transportation Needs

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
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on Wednesday, 06 June 2018
in Wisconsin

highwayAs roads and bridges continue to deteriorate, former DOT Sec. Gottlieb presented a comprehensive long-term transportation funding solution that was rejected by Governor Walker. Sen. Kathleen Vinehout takes it to build an alternative state budget that provides solutions, not continued borrowing.


MADISON - Farmers in western Wisconsin are worried new bridge weight limits will add time and cost to their already stressful lives.

“This is a very serious concern for us,” Farm Bureau spokesman Rob Richard told Chris Hubbuch of the La Crosse Tribune. “We want to make sure farmers can get to and from their fields. If they can’t make the quickest, most efficient route they’re just adding wear and tear to other roads.”

The Department of Transportation recently lowered the weight limit on 184 bridges, mostly in western Wisconsin. This action met a 2018 federal deadline requiring a state evaluation of bridges.

Engineers looked at what is known as short-haul vehicles. These are vehicles defined by the feds as “closely spaced, multi-axle, single unit” trucks like dump trucks, milk trucks and manure hauling tankers. The vehicles have closely spaced axles that “concentrate weight in a much smaller footprint”, which can put more stress on, and possible damage to, the bridges.

leo-frigo-bridge-gbLocal bridges were low on the Governor’s spending priority list. In his first budget, the Governor cut money to local bridges by over 8% compared to the prior (Recession) budget, then provided no increase in the next four years. This year, his election year budget did provide new bridge funds.

Perhaps budget cuts are partly to blame for the results of a recent study by the American Society of Civil Engineers that reported Wisconsin has over 1,200 structurally deficit bridges.

The same study reported 27% of roads in Wisconsin are in poor condition. Motorists pay an average of $637 per year on vehicle repairs due to roads in need of repair.

“Our roads are all junk,” farmer Clint Sampson was quoted in the La Crosse Tribune story. “These county roads are worn out. The roads haven’t been touched for 30 years. Some of them are beyond patching up.”

Perhaps this is why county officials tell me they have turned asphalt roads into gravel for years.

The underfunding of roads comes in spite of several studies showing a decline in road conditions and a shortfall in state resources, just to maintain current conditions. For example, the 2014 Commission on Transportation Finance and Policy found, without additional highway funding, 42% of Wisconsin roads will be in poor or worse condition by 2023. The 2016, the study No Easy Answers found rural roads are twice as deadly as other roads in Wisconsin and more than twice as deadly as the national average.

I learned a great deal by reading the budgets of former Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Mark Gottlieb. Many of the ideas I used in my Alternative Budgets came from these documents, especially his 2015-17 budget request submitted in November of 2014. In this document, Mr. Gottlieb included 24 issue papers discussing solutions to the crisis facing DOT.

Reporter Katelyn Ferral of the Capitol Times recently interviewed the former Secretary. In the interview, former Secretary Gottlieb talked about how the Governor signaled that in 2016, Gottlieb should not submit another budget that “contained a comprehensive solution.”

kathleen-vinehout“I think it was done because they didn’t want a repeat of what was done in 2014. They didn’t want the department to submit a budget that seriously dealt with this issue.” Instead, the administration wanted a budget that “pretended if we just went along like we were going along, everything would be fine. … That is not the budget I would have submitted based on my judgement of what was needed.”

“We got to the place where the facts were being ignored in favor of political spin”, former Secretary Gottlieb continued. “It is easy enough to evaluate statements about how much the state is investing or not investing by looking at historical budget data. We are not investing.”

Looking at state transportation budgets, one can see that Walker chose borrowing more money over developing a long-term transportation funding solution.

Potholes are real. Deteriorating bridges are real. Wrecked axles and other unexpected repairs are real. I agree with former Secretary Gottlieb, it’s time we have an honest conversation about how to fix transportation.

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Conservation Voter's Ads Spotlight Drinking Water Pollution In Kewaunee County

Posted by Wisconsin Conservation Voters, Ryan Billingham
Wisconsin Conservation Voters, Ryan Billingham
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on Wednesday, 30 May 2018
in Wisconsin

clean-drinking-waterNonpartisan League of Conservation Voters launches Ad campaign in Northeastern WI Senate District 1 race with Manure is ‘In Our Shower and Our Faucets’.


MADISON – A new ad campaign focused on the special election in Senate District 1 features a Kewaunee County resident whose faucets ran brown with liquid manure and spotlights the anti-conservation record of Rep. Andre Jacque.

The television ads tell the story of a Kewaunee County resident who lives the reality of the drinking water crisis and the risk it poses to her family and thousands of others in the district – and beyond.

kewaunee-countyIt provides graphic footage of pure liquid manure running from a shower and a sink faucet – explicit proof of the horrifying pollution pouring from Kewaunee County faucets – and points to Andre Jacque’s numerous votes against clean water protections.

Over the course of his legislative career, Andre Jacque has voted against clean water protections in the most high profile environmental legislation. Even more telling, Andre Jacque provided no leadership on the biggest threats to drinking water in his district. He was one of the only local legislators to not co-sponsor legislation to help families’ whose wells have been contaminated by manure (2017 Act 69).

The radio campaign further details the family’s story and introduces candidate Caleb Frostman, a conservation champion dedicated to protecting clean drinking water and the state’s water resources.

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters PAC paid for the campaign.

Watch the television ad here.

Listen to the manure pollution ad here.

Listen to the ad introducing Caleb Frostman here.

Click here for the ad campaign’s justifications.

# # #

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to electing conservation leaders, holding decision makers accountable, and encouraging lawmakers to champion conservation policies that effectively protect Wisconsin's public health and natural resources.

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Sand Mine Spill Exposes the Consequences of Poor Regulation

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
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on Wednesday, 30 May 2018
in Wisconsin

sand-mining-wiThe recent Hi-Crush Mine spill highlights how the poorly regulated sand mining industry has consequences on local communities. Wisconsin can do better to protect the public and the environment.


WHITEHALL, WI - “A really unfortunate series of circumstances,” was how Kevin Lien described a recent spill of ten million gallons of orange sludge from a sand mine processing facility.

A bulldozer and its operator slid into a deep settling basin at the Hi-Crush mine and sand processing plant in Whitehall, Wisconsin. Mine workers, working with emergency responders, dug through an earthen berm and intentionally released the thick, orange sludge.

frac-sand-spill-wiscThe sludge ran into Poker Coulee, making its way downstream into the Trempealeau River. Eventually the material made its way to the Mississippi River.

Mr. Lien is the Director of Land Management for Trempealeau County. He spent nearly the past decade at the epicenter of sand mining in Wisconsin. Using the regulatory powers of the county, he worked with county board members to develop protections for the environment, communities and public health. The county continues to monitor many mines.

But the mine that discharged the orange sludge is out of his jurisdiction.

“The county has no jurisdiction,” Mr. Lien told me. “And, the city is unregulated.” The county has no jurisdiction because the mine is in both the cities of Independence and Whitehall. Several years ago, the mine sought and received approval to annex into the two cities – some five miles apart – to avoid county regulation.

Annexation was approved in late 2013 by the Whitehall and Independence City Councils.

A lack of regulation allowed the mine to avoid expensive but necessary protections.

“We would have required safety measures,” said Mr. Lien. “There should be fail-safe protections downstream.” For example, a check dam downstream would contain any spills. The settling basin contains a large amount of sludge—water, mixed with sand and chemicals.

“But the discharge is in the county, and that’s my jurisdiction.” After the spill, the county sent the sludge out for testing but won’t receive the results for several days. “Now, its Memorial Day weekend. Families are headed to the beaches along the Mississippi River. We have no idea how hazardous [the sludge is].”

Sand companies use the chemicals – a proprietary mix including polyacrylamides – to treat sand destined for use in hydraulic fracturing. The sand acts as a proppant to allow oil and natural gas to flow from the well.

For years, I’ve worked with Mr. Lien and many other constituents on “balloon on a string” shaped annexations that allow cities to avoid county regulations.

kathleen-vinehoutThe bills I wrote relating to mine operations and annexations never received a hearing. Since 2010, the state made it easier for companies to avoid penalties through the “Green Tier” program.

In the summer of 2017, Hi-Crush applied for exemptions from some state regulations through the “Green Tier” Program. In November, the state approved the application promising “protection from any civil penalties that the DNR might otherwise impose.”

Hi-Crush has a history of violations that resulted in penalties. For example, in 2014 the company was fined $52,500 for operating two high capacity wells without required permits according to WKOW. In 2017, the Whitehall site reported 8 worker injuries. According to Chris Hubbach, of the La Crosse Tribune this rate is more than 10 times the national average. The company received 18 fines related to worker safety since 2014.

Hi-Crush Proppants operated facilities in Trempealeau, Jackson, Eau Claire and Monroe Counties. The “Green Tier” regulatory exemptions apply to all of its Wisconsin mines.

“I don’t have faith in the system,” Kevin Lien concluded. Neither do citizens. And, they are concerned about the consequences. As one woman wrote to me from Eau Claire:

I watched in horror as the events of the recent Hi-Crush breach. It is prime nesting season for waterfowl. …Once the sediment settles and covers the vegetation on the bottom of the River and backwaters, that vegetation will die. The mallards and other bottom-feeding ducks and Canada geese will lose their food supply… fish… will cease as a food source for diving ducks such as mergansers, loons, canvasback, ring-necks, and scaup. Frogs and other crustaceans will suffocate and no longer be a food source for the already declining herons and egrets.

Who truly pays for a poorly regulated industry? The simple answer is: we all do.

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Attorney General Causes Scare for Local Hemp Farmer

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
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on Wednesday, 23 May 2018
in Wisconsin

hemp-farmer-wiscWhen a AG memo muddies the waters on the possession and distribution of CBD oil, local Ag officials, hemp growers and farm groups move to clarify the issue. Wisconsin used to be a leader in hemp production and many farmers are hoping to make us a leader again.


RIVER FALLS, WI - Abbie Testaberg is a soon-to-be Wisconsin hemp farmer. She and her husband will be planting, growing, harvesting and processing hemp this year at the Kinni Hemp Company near River Falls. They are among the many farmers who received a license to grow hemp this year.

Two children with chronic conditions led Abbie to learn more about hemp and the oil extracted from the hemp plant called cannabidiol or CBD oil.

CBD oil is used for many purposes. There is evidence the oil helps those with autism, Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis. A few years ago, parents of children suffering from severe seizures lobbied lawmakers to eliminate the legal gray area so they could use CBD oil to help control seizures.

Farmers recognize the value of hemp and are eager to expand their farming practices.

Last fall, in a bill that unanimously passed through the Legislature, Wisconsin created the Industrial Hemp Pilot Research Program. According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), the state received 368 applications for hemp growing or processing licenses. This is the first growing season for hemp. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 38 states allow farmers to grow hemp.

Just as farmers were gearing up for planting, the Wisconsin Attorney General (AG) issued a memo saying the possession and distribution of CBD oil was illegal.

“Scared us beyond belief,” Abbie confided. The family already invested in a 4-acre outdoor field and created a separate building for an indoor hydroponic system.

“[We are using the farm] as a showcase facility for our system,” she told me. Abbie’s husband Jody created a proprietary technology to grow plants indoors. The couple intended the indoor/outdoor plots as a research project to highlight the differences between the two growing systems. The family is working with a local farmer and collaborating with two University of Wisconsin-River Falls professors on hemp research.

Abbie’s long-term goal is to manufacture the trays used for indoor growing out of hemp. She told me only four or five companies in the world produce the type of plastic from hemp she needs for the growing trays.

Short term, Abbie and her husband plan to grow and harvest hemp plants for CBD oil. Processing the oil from the plant is a time-consuming, detailed process but provides a high-value product much in demand. Not being able to process the plant and extract CBD oil would have thrown a huge monkey wrench in their plans.

Abbie’s reaction to the AG’s opinion? “That’s a bunch of bananas. I spent a long week after the DOJ announcement, reading and re-reading the bill, the CBD bill, the farm bill, the hemp bill. There was a clear mechanism [for processing CBD oil].”

Abbie’s research along with the efforts of the lead Republican authors, Agriculture officials and members of the Farm Bureau, caused AG Brad Schimel to change his original position. He announced that farmers who process CBD oil would not be prosecuted.

The Wisconsin hemp law, Act 100, clearly states processing hemp is legal. But those who buy CBD oil seem to still be in a legal gray area.

“I’m confident this is legal but the [administrative] rules don’t fully articulate the bill language,” Abbie said. “The local co-ops will be worried.”

kathleen-vinehoutWisconsinites can buy CBD oil without going to a doctor for a certificate, as it should be. CBD oil is a supplement, like ginseng.

Wisconsin farmers are hurting. Dairy prices are well below the cost of production and other commodity prices seem locked in the basement. A late planting season as a result of late April snow and May rains has farmers worried.

The USDA forecasts this year’s net farm income in real dollars will drop over 8% from 2017. If realized, this forecast would be the lowest real-dollar level since 2002.

Hemp is a bright spot in a gloomy agriculture economy. For many years, Wisconsin was a leader in hemp production. With our climate, farm support system and ingenious farmers we can again rise to become a leader.

It’s time for the state to get out of the way and let farmers grow and process hemp. If you want to help make Wisconsin hemp history, you can volunteer to help Abbie plant the first hemp crop May 31 through June 2. Learn more at the Kinni Hemp Company Facebook page.

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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
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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
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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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