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Governor Should Veto Last Minute Attempt to Take Cap Off Private Voucher 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
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on Tuesday, 25 June 2013
in Wisconsin

teacherThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout’s column focuses on voucher schools.  In a last minutes amendment included in the Assembly version of the budget, the Assembly majority created a loophole in the agreed upon cap on enrollment in the voucher school expansion.  Kathleen explains the impact of this provision and calls for a veto.

MADISON - Senators had debated budget passage for nearly eight nonstop hours. In a little over six hours the two-year state budget would be headed to the Governor.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca beckoned me off the Senate floor. “There’s something you need to know,” he said. “Something in the budget no one seems to understand.”

A few of us gathered in a nearby conference room. “There are two ways a private school can get state tax dollars,” Representative Barca explained.

If a “choice” private school is in Milwaukee or Racine, the school can enroll any number of students. The state would pay tuition, up to a new dollar limit, for these students.

New to this budget was a statewide expansion of public money for private schools. Twenty-five schools would be chosen across the state. Together these schools could enroll up to 500 students in the first year of the budget and 1,000 students in the second year.

But, in a last minute amendment, a loophole was created.

A third option allowed any of the 112 “choice” schools in Milwaukee and Racine to move around the state and enroll an unlimited number of public school students in their private school at taxpayers’ expense. These schools would not be subject to the enrollment ‘cap’ of 500/1,000 students.

Listening to the explanation I was concerned this last minute amendment would cost more money, leaving less to our struggling public schools. I also worried private for-profit schools could set up ‘satellite’ schools across the state. Others expressed similar concerns.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers issued a statement saying, “Without any advance notice or debate, Assembly Republicans passed a last minute amendment that will increase the cap on statewide vouchers by 40 percent in each year.” He pegged the total cost of the state cost of the private school program at $420 million over the next two years.

Senator Schulz who voted with Democrats to remove the voucher expansion said in a statement, “When my Senate colleagues negotiated the statewide expansion of the voucher program with the Governor and the Assembly, a hard cap on enrollment was the deal breaker. It appears the deal is already broken.”

Public money for private schools has not proven to be an effective use of taxpayer dollars. The over twenty-year-old program should be reevaluated with the same rigor applied to our public schools. Instead a coalition of the politically well-connected sought to expand the reach of private, sometimes for-profit, schools across Wisconsin- beginning with suburban Milwaukee and Racine.

Lobbying groups hired three former Assembly Speakers and, according the Democracy Campaign, spent nearly $10 million over the past 10 years- much of this in the last election cycle.

Beneficiaries of the expansion include the School Choice Wisconsin Board Chairman, Mr. Andrew Neumann who oversees operations of several voucher schools.

Andrew’s father, Mark Neumann started his first “taxpayer-funded school with 49 students and in eight years has mushroomed to nearly 1,000 students in four schools,” according to a 2010 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.

The article went on to report that Mark Neumann, a former gubernatorial and US Senate candidate, “operates three religious based schools in Milwaukee, a fourth nonreligious school in Phoenix and has plans to build clusters of schools across the country”. By 2010, the Journal Sentinel reported, Neumann’s Hope Christian schools received nearly $22 million from state taxpayers.

It’s hard for western Wisconsin residents to understand the intense marketing and efforts of enticement that come with public spending for private schools. What once began as an effort to help poorer families escape failing inner city schools has turned into a rush for taxpayers’ cash with little oversight or accountability.

I urge the Governor to veto budget provisions that allow taxpayer funded ‘franchise’ private schools to expand statewide without limits. These majority party efforts to slip changes into the state budget without debate or knowledge by the minority party or the press is a bad practice.

The state budget is already loaded with nearly 100 items of unrelated policy. Like each of those record-breaking number of policy items, this new expansion of private, franchise schools needs its own public vetting.

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State Senators Pass Budget at Midnight, Bill Goes to Walker

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, 21 June 2013
in Our View

scott-walker-clapsBudget includes statewide school voucher plan and rejects federal assistance to provide access to affordable health care options for state residents. Republican plan does little to cut taxes for average citizens or create jobs.

MADISON - Senate Republicans passed the state budget by a one-vote margin just after midnight Friday, moving it on to Gov. Scott Walker’s all but assured signature.

The budget passed 17-16, with Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) joining all Democrats in opposing it. Walker can alter the plan using his vast line-item veto powers, but few expect any substantial change to it’s key provisions.

The budget would cut state income taxes by $651 million, mostly for wealthy taxpayers, and create a new statewide school voucher program that would allow children who meet income thresholds to use taxpayer money to attend private schools, including religious schools.

In a statement released after the budget was approved, Walker said he was proud of the Legislature for its work on the budget.

The state schools superintendent raised concerns a little-noticed provision in the school voucher plan that could lead to a flood of students attending private schools at taxpayer expense. Superintendent Tony Evers said late Thursday that attorneys are reviewing the issue but that he is worried about it.

The provision could "essentially negate any kind of caps," Evers said. "That would make a separate system of publicly funded private schools."

However, the matter is far from clear, Evers said. Bob Lang, the director of the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, said it would be up to Evers to determine whether such satellite schools would be subject to the cap.

While the Republicans wanted to characterize the budget as a big tax cut, it would actually only cut income taxes by an average of $150, raise property taxes by $29 on the typical home and reject a key element of the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

The budget passed includes the governor’s plan to reject nearly $1 billion in federal assistance to provide access to affordable health care options for all state residents. Experts estimate Walker’s plan will stick Wisconsin taxpayers with approximately $75 million in additional costs the first year, with fewer people under coverage.

The budget provides no major provisions to improve Wisconsin’s dismal performance in job creation under Walker. The Democrats stressed that Wisconsin ranked 44th in private-sector job creation in the last quarterly jobs census.

"We are worse now than we were two years ago," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton). "And we’re not trending up. We’re trending down. Wisconsin’s economy is actually contracting … And this budget won’t do anything about that."

Sen. Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) denounced the budget as a "road map to mediocrity" that "doubles down on the failed policies of the past."

Three and a half hours into the debate, the Senate fell briefly into turmoil as protesters chanted, "Focus on jobs, not on vaginas" — a response to the Legislature’s vote last week to require women seeking abortions to get ultrasounds.

In a statement issued early this morning, State Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) said that “since 2011 Governor Walker and the Republican majority have been doing everything they can to move Wisconsin 60 years back and 1,000 miles south”. He goes on to say that “this is the wrong budget at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons”.

In a summary provided by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the nearly 1,400-page Joint Finance budget bill would:

Tax cuts. Cut income taxes by $651 million over two years and provide $30 million a year in income tax savings for the parents of the nearly 100,000 private school students in Wisconsin. Families could receive an income tax deduction of up to $4,000 for private school tuition paid for each kindergarten through eighth-grade student and up to $10,000 per high school student.

School funding. Provide public schools with $150 more per student in state aid and local property taxes this fall and another $150 increase in 2014-’15, for a total of $289 million over two years. However, because of the $50 one-time per-pupil bump to many districts in this past school year, the proposed $150 per pupil funding increase in 2013-’14 would represent a $100 per-pupil increase this fall over current spending.

Health care. Shift nearly 90,000 people from the BadgerCare Plus program into a new online insurance marketplace, where the participants are supposed to find replacement health coverage. A detailed analysis of the plan by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau found that many of the people now receiving BadgerCare Plus coverage through Medicaid likely would not buy the more expensive insurance through the marketplaces.

In doing so, Republicans are passing up a federal offer to cover 84,700 more people in Medicaid than their plan and receive enough additional federal tax money over the next two years to pad the state budget by $119 million even after covering the cost of those additional people, according to the Fiscal Bureau.

Walker has said he wants fewer people on government coverage and is concerned that the federal government won’t keep its commitment to the higher Medicaid funds over the long term.

Residency. Repeal all residency rules for teachers and other workers for local units of government with one exception: Local officials could still require police, fire or emergency personnel to live within 15 miles of the boundaries of their jurisdictions.

Bail bonds. Allow for-profit bail bondsmen in Wisconsin for the first time since 1979, with judges able to opt out of the system. The program would be limited for the first five years to Milwaukee, Waukesha, Kenosha, Racine and Dane counties.

State property. Allow the Walker administration to sell state assets including parking garages, university dormitories and roads.

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Walker's “Eat Dessert First” Budget

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, 19 June 2013
in Wisconsin

walkerSenator Kathleen Vinehout gives an overview of provisions included in the AB 40, the 2012-15 State Budget Bill and the impact of some of those provisions. Spending in this budget does not decline and includes the revenue lost to the state as a result of the tax cuts, leaving less revenue for the state’s largest financial investments: local government, education, health care and corrections. It also increases debt and leaves a structural deficit for the future.

MADISON - “I love to eat dessert first,” the Prescott man said as he munched on cake. He smiled and said, “The problem is you don’t have room for the good things you need to eat.”

The first course of dessert in the state budget is a tax cut for about seventy five percent of tax filers. For a taxpayer making $30,000 a year the tax cut would be about $50 a year and for someone making over $300,000 about $1,500.

Tax rates would be collapsed - income at the $14 an hour range would be taxed at the same rate as income made at the $150 an hour range.

“It’s hard to be against a tax cut,” my colleague told me. “But the rest of the budget suffers because of this cut.”

The tax change would permanently remove about $600 million of state revenue. Because spending is not reduced – this budget spends $4 billion more than the last – a half a billion dollar structural deficit is created down the road.

The second course of dessert is almost 100 policy changes unrelated to the state’s finances that, in many cases, reward special interests or benefit certain lawmakers. One example is elimination of the UW sponsored Center for Investigative Reporting; another is overturning a Supreme Court decision on lead paint.

The real meat and potatoes of state government are state operations and funding sent to our local communities, colleges and universities. The state budget affects many parts of our lives. For simplicity’s sake I’ll mention just a handful of major programs with a few details on what’s in the budget.

Six items make up 85 percent of the state budget: health, K-12 education, corrections, transportation, the UW system and local government. Each of these areas of spending deserves a thorough look at how to improve operations. Unfortunately most of the discussion on the budget hasn’t focused on the meat and potatoes.

Health spending increases by over two billion dollars despite the Governor’s proposal to end BadgerCare for nearly 100,000 people. A simple change in eligibility would have saved over one hundred million in state funds. Instead the state spends more and fewer people are covered by Medicaid.

K-12 education receives a slight increase, but a large part of this goes to fund a statewide expansion of public spending for private schools.

The prison budget adds millions more to account for an increase in the prison population. Drug court, community policing and other programs to reduce crime and addictions are eliminated or in jeopardy.

Money for roads and bridges is dwindling, as autos are more efficient. As gas tax collections fall, lawmakers consider other ways to fund transportation. Instead of solving this long-term problem, the budget transfers nearly half a billion from the general fund – leaving less to fund K-12 schools, UW and other state expenses.

Local government and the university system receive very little additional money leaving questions about how these entities will cut services as they try to cover increasing costs.

Long-term finances are stable but precarious. The economy is improving. Tax collections are expected to increase. But financial forecasts are inconsistent. For example, budget writers built into the budget several hundred million in new tax collections. Yet a recent forecast by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve shows Wisconsin’s economy contracting over the next six months.

This budget continues to increase debt. Not enough money is put away should the state face another economic down turn. Following the law and setting aside 2% of the general fund as a cushion in the state’s checkbook could improve finances. Instead, the Governor changes the law and keeps a mere half a percent as a financial cushion in the reserve fund.

Every parent who tells their children not to eat dessert first knows there will not room for the meat and potatoes. They also know there’s going to be a crash from eating all that sugar.

Wisconsin’s fiscal sugar crash is likely to show up in the spring of 2015 when the next Governor and lawmakers pick up the pieces set in motion in June of 2013.

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Freedoms Lost Are Hard To Regain

Posted by Dr. Steve Kagen, M.D.
Dr. Steve Kagen, M.D.
Dr. Steve Kagen, M.D. is a physician and a former congressman from Appleton.
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on Monday, 17 June 2013
in Wisconsin

reid_ribble_congressAPPLETON - In 2011, Rep. Reid Ribble voted to give away our right to privacy and, last week, we see its shameful consequences.

With Ribble’s permission, federal agents searched and seized personal telephone and electronic communications. In a single vote, Ribble erased what thousands of patriotic Americans died for — our right to privacy and our freedom of speech. As events in Washington show, freedoms lost are hard to regain.

The excuse offered by Ribble to allow the government to spy on all Americans was based on ignorance and fear. His statement reads in part, “While I have reservations with programs that put civil liberties at risk, the provisions that we voted on yesterday are carefully balanced to protect our vital, constitutionally protected civil liberties. These provisions permit law enforcement engaged in foreign terrorism investigations to carry out their duties without curtailing our rights. I’ve heard from law enforcement officials, other members of Congress and leaders from both parties that these tools have prevented attacks on our country and are necessary in our fight against terrorism.”

Without curtailing our rights? Ignorance is no excuse, for there is no reason to give up our freedoms. Ben Franklin agreed: “Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.”

Thomas Jefferson also warned about ill-informed politicians: “If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Human history has proven there will never be an honest excuse for giving away our freedoms. Never in Wisconsin’s 8th District history has an elected official been so easily duped into giving away our civil liberties.

By contrast, this same issue arose in the House of Representatives late at night on Aug. 4, 2007. Due to time constraints, I was not permitted to speak against a similar bill to deprive us of our Fourth Amendment rights. Instead, I submitted this handwritten statement:

“Our nation has faced many challenges in our history, and none more serious or deadly than our battle against violent extremists. Make no mistake, we must do whatever it takes to defend America and keep hostilities from our shores. We must be tough and we must be smart. We have the tough part right, and now more than ever we must be smart.

“The bill now before the House asks the American people to give up our Fourth Amendment rights without firing a single shot, even when the facts reveal we already have laws to allow intelligence agencies to protect all of us.

“The Senate-sponsored bill trades our Fourth Amendment rights for a false promise of security. It pretends to offer our people the reassurance that the current attorney general — a man few believe to be honorable or honest — will exercise good judgment in defending all of us.

“Our nation has lost faith in this administration’s competence and has lost faith in the ability of President Bush to understand and obey the rule of law. Having lost our faith in this president, we must not lose our constitutional rights as well. We must defend our nation, and we can continue to do so under the rule of law.”

Elections are about choices and consequences, and sadly the election of a man with poor judgment resulted in the loss of our right to privacy and a diminution of our freedom of speech.

It will be difficult to regain our freedoms, but by working together, we will. Next election, vote for someone else, someone with good judgment who will fight to restore and protect all our rights and freedoms.


— Dr. Steve Kagen is an Appleton resident who represented Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District from 2007 to 2011.

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Do State Lawmakers Really Know All the Details of Walker's Medicaid Plan?

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 Monday, 10 June 2013
in Wisconsin

walker-rejects-med-moneyWill the truth on Walker's medicaid blunder get out of the Madison-Milwaukee echo chamber? Republican lawmakers are fooling themselves and the public if they believe Walker's talking points on health care reform, says Senator Kathleen Vinehout in her latest column on the Governor’s plan for Medicaid that was affirmed by the Joint Finance Committee.

MADISON - “We want to make things better,” one of the Finance Committee members recently told his colleagues. This Medicaid plan, he said, “Protects taxpayers, strengthens the safety net and lowers total cost to taxpayers.”

What actually happened would cost the state a hundred million more dollars than full Medicaid expansion, drop coverage for 84,000 people and leave almost half a billion of federal dollars on the table in this coming budget.

Only half of those who lost Medicaid will likely ever sign up for private insurance. When they do, their federal cost to taxpayers will be $3,000 more per person than if they had stayed on the Medicaid program.

Some lawmakers argue the safety net will be strengthened by opening up the Medicaid doors to all those who make less than $11,500 a year for a single person; that those who lose Medicaid are easily covered under the exchange and in the long run taxpayers save.

The problem: private insurance costs more to buy and more to administer. Poor people are unlikely to sign up for something they can’t afford.

Fiscal Bureau analysts caution the “take-up” rate, meaning those poor families who actually sign up for private insurance, will be much less than the near perfect number estimated in the administration’s budget.

This concern is justified. According to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study from last summer, an estimated one half of those losing Medicaid will never buy private insurance.

Those who do will receive federal tax credits and subsidies. Because of the increasing cost of subsidies and credits, CBO estimates federal spending would rise by roughly $3,000 per person by 2022. This is the difference between exchange subsidies of about $9,000 per person and estimated Medicaid savings of roughly $6,000.

Some analysts are quietly grateful at least the Governor decided to allow those up to 100% of the Federal Poverty Limit (FPL) - $11,500 for a single person - to receive Medicaid. Anyone below 100% of FPL is not even eligible for subsidies or tax credits. This limited lawmakers’ choices.

The majority of the state’s budget writing committee affirmed the only choice the Governor had if he wanted to continue to argue that he still opposed “ObamaCare”: cover those with incomes at or below 100% of FPL and drop (or phase out) Medicaid for parents who now receive Medicaid and make up to twice the FPL.

Simply put – if you make under $11,500 as an individual or $15,500 as a couple you will be eligible for Medicaid. If not, you’d better find out about the exchange because you can’t get on Medicaid.

Three additional factors add sting to this decision. Unlike the federal law, the Governor’s plan does not modify your income by dropping 5% to determine eligibility. Second, the plan changes the law to require that depreciation be counted as income. This is a big change for farmers who argue depreciation is not real money they can save but an adjustment on tax forms. Third, 18 year-olds are no longer covered unless they are still in high school or technical college and will graduate by age 19. Foster children are still covered until age 26.

Republican leaders appear to be following the Arkansas approach of partial Medicaid expansion. However, if Arkansas is the model, the Governor might have duped Republicans on the Finance Committee.

To move towards the Governor’s plan, the feds require the state to seek a waiver of federal law. If Arkansas’ case is prologue, Wisconsin may be required to treat those dropped from Medicaid as if they are still on Medicaid - with choice of at least two qualifying health plans and “wrap-around” Medicaid-like services if benefits are less or cost sharing is more.

Correspondence from the feds to Arkansas makes it clear the feds will evaluate each waiver on a case-by-case basis. Budget language makes it a clear this waiver must be sought and followed. This leaves a lot up the air.

Especially for elected officials who want to hit the campaign trail saying, “I said ‘no’ to ObamaCare.”

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Vouchers Pass, While you were sleeping...

Posted by Chris Larson, State Senator, District 7
Chris Larson, State Senator, District 7
Chris Larson (D) is the Wisconsin State Senator from the 7th District in Milwauk
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on Wednesday, 05 June 2013
in Wisconsin

MADISON - At 3 o'clock in the morning, in the dark of the night while most of Wisconsin was fast asleep, Republicans in the Joint Finance Committee voted to expand statewide taxpayer-funded vouchers for private education in our state.  This vote occurred after weeks of closed door backroom meetings with special interest groups.

The Senate Republican plan for statewide voucher expansion is even more extreme than what Governor Walker initially proposed.

It was bad enough that Scott Walker wanted to expand vouchers schools into 9 school districts throughout the state, but now EVERY community will see voucher expansion.

This voucher scheme forces all families to pay for their neighbor’s children to attend private schools, which have been proven to under perform compared to our neighborhood public schools and are not held accountable to the taxpayers.

In addition, taxpayers whose districts are forced to accept private school vouchers will see their property taxes increase and their local school aids cut to pay for a separate under performing, unaccountable school system.

Please contribute today to show Republicans you do not support their plan to expand vouchers schools to all of Wisconsin’s school districts.

We can do better in Wisconsin. Instead of doling out millions of taxpayer dollars to private school special interests in the middle of the night, we can invest in our children's future by supporting our public schools.  The only way to ensure that happens is by taking back the majority in the Wisconsin State Senate.

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Coming to Wisconsin? Dog the Bounty Hunter?

Posted by Peter Barca, Assembly Democratic Leader, District 64
Peter Barca, Assembly Democratic Leader, District 64
Representative Peter Barca is a lifelong citizen of Kenosha and Somers. He curre
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on Wednesday, 05 June 2013
in Wisconsin

As you are aware late night backroom deals are alive and well in the Wisconsin State Capitol.

With the state budget now on its way to the Assembly and Senate for approval, it is safe to say that at least Dog the Bounty Hunter will be celebrating this recent development, while the middle class and the economy will continue to suffer.

While you were sleeping last night, the Republican controlled Joint Finance Committee approved extreme motions, one of which included permitting a private bail bond system to be implemented in Milwaukee and four other counties.

Commercial bail bonds have been banned in Wisconsin since 1979 and faced near universal opposition from judges, lawyers and law enforcement. This opposition continues today on the basis that bail bonds are ineffective and a threat to public safety.

Please help us fight against this measure with your contribution of $100, $50, $25 or $10. Republicans should not be allowed to let special interests trump the safety of Wisconsin’s citizens.

Other major motions approved exclusively by Republicans on the JFC and further undermine the middle class were:

  • Income tax cuts of $651 million that will primarily benefit the wealthy or top earning 1% of taxpayers—not the middle class
  • An expansion of taxpayer funded, unaccountable private school vouchers across the state, which DPI estimated could cost nearly $2 billion annually
  • Public school students will see an increase of only $300 per student over the next two years after suffering historic cuts of $1.6 billion in the last budget. This cut created the surplus that is now being used to bailout private school vouchers and fund tax cuts for the wealthy

You can help us stop these radical attacks on Wisconsin’s middle class by contributing $100, $50, $25 or $10. Your contribution will help ensure that we have the resources to stand up to Republicans.

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Is the Dairy State Ready for Tax Reform?

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 Monday, 03 June 2013
in Wisconsin

dairyfarmThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about Rep. Kooyenga’s proposed tax reform plan.  Kathleen appreciates that he wants to have a conversation about tax reform, but she does not support his proposal.  She offers to work with him on a bi-partisan proposal that is modeled after what experts tell us: Taxes should be low, broad-based, and transparent. Tax policy should not favor one type of business over another.

MADISON - Get rid of tax credits for dairy farmers? No tax breaks for meat or food processing plants? Get rid of credits for ethanol? Cut beginning farmer credits?

You’ve got to give Representative Dale Kooyenga credit. The Brookfield Republican isn’t afraid to take on the dairy state’s sacred cows.

Just as the state’s budget writing committee is wrapping up their work and Legislative leaders are about to broker a deal on public education and health, Rep. Kooyenga announces a proposal to rewrite the income tax code.

He seems to start with agriculture in mind. I bet there aren’t many cows in Brookfield.

Last summer, Representative Kooyenga and I served on a committee studying changes to the state’s income tax code. So it didn’t surprise me to see he was working on income tax reform.

But his timing in unveiling the proposal and what seem to be big changes for farmers and ag-related businesses almost ensure its demise.

That’s too bad because Wisconsin’s complex tax system needs reform.

The complexity is the product of tax loopholes, not tax rates. The State Legislature rarely meets a tax credit it doesn’t like. The result is a cumbersome tax code that hasn’t been seriously evaluated since 1999 and then the Legislature ended work without repealing a single tax credit.

There are 73 possible state adjustments after you file your federal taxes and there are dozens of credits to modify those adjustments. In the 2013 Department of Revenue report, I counted 37 credits that totaled $1.5 billion in lost revenue. My friends at the Revenue Department will remind me that the credits interact with each other and can’t always be added together: more complexity.

Messing around with state income tax is frightening for anyone who runs an operation dependent on the state. That’s because so much of what the state buys is paid for by income taxes. State income tax makes up over half of the general fund – the source of state money for health, education, local government, corrections and universities. Wisconsin is more dependent on income taxes than all but 11 other states.

While I commend the Brookfield Republican for getting this conversation started, I don’t agree with details of his proposal. For example, the proposed lowering of tax rates for high income earners - over $300,000. I don’t support his plan to allow millionaires to offset high off-farm earnings with (part-time?) farm losses. Currently no farm loss is allowed if it exceeds $600,000.

The plan favors the wealthy and doesn’t include serious reform of property tax – the part of our tax system most out of line with the national average. Start-up companies are most burdened by property tax which impacts job creation.

In the interest of advancing reform, I’d offer to be a bipartisan partner in the discussion.

First, let’s agree on a few ground rules. The goal of tax reform must be revenue neutral – meaning when all the tax breaks and loopholes are ended, every dime must go to lowering rates – but not one penny below the total dollars saved by tax changes.

I know Republicans who are too tempted to lower rates more than what we can afford. And some Democrats are very tempted to plow savings into new spending.

Second, reform must be bipartisan, regardless of the party in power. Why? Because in this hyper-negative political environment, no rookie in a swing district is going to be comfortable voting to end a tax break to (name your favorite good cause) unless they know the party against them also voted to end the same break.

Third, all taxes should be on the table. Property taxes can be regressive. Sales tax is almost always regressive. An income tax change on one group should be considered in the context of all other taxes that groups pays.

Finally, no tax break is sacred. All should be regularly evaluated even if they are not eliminated. We badly need a process to evaluate what we get for our investment.

The experts agree. Taxes should be low, broad-based, and transparent. Tax policy should not favor one type of business over another. But getting there is not for the faint-hearted. And timid does not describe my friend Dale.

So, while you’re at it, Dale, maybe get rid of the Lambeau Field tax check-off?

Oh, you just did?

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Sand Mine Inspectors Needed

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 Friday, 24 May 2013
in Wisconsin

sand-mining-wSenator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the need for DNR staff to inspect the growing number of frac sand mine operations. The number of sand mine operations has grown significantly since the summer of 2012 and staff is needed at DNR to monitor them. The Joint Finance committee voted down a motion to fund the needed 10 positions.

MADISON - “We really need concerned citizens to be our eyes and ears,” wrote DNR Storm Water Specialist Ruth King in response to citizen complaints about frac sand mines. “I am only a half-time employee and cannot be everywhere at all times.”

Ms. King’s appeal was reported in an article written by Kate Prengaman of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism who closely follows the growing sand mine industry.

“Nearly a fifth of Wisconsin’s 70 active frac sand mines and processing plants were cited for environmental violations last year,” wrote Prengaman. She quoted Air Management Specialist Marty Sellers who said he sent letters of noncompliance to “80 to 90 percent” of the sites he visited.

The DNR’s limited resources means some frac sand mines are not inspected or only inspected when citizens complained about the mine.

To address the staff shortage, the state budget includes two positions as dedicated sand mine monitors. However, additional positions were recently considered by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

Monitors are needed to oversee air quality during mine construction and operation. New inspectors would monitor compliance with storm water rules, high capacity wells, wetlands and endangered resources. Inspectors review permits, blasting and fugitive dust control plans, discuss best management practices with the operator, inspect equipment and review company operation reports.

The Joint Finance Committee was informed about the sand mine industry through a paper written by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) which provided detailed information on the industry that has exploded in western Wisconsin.

“Three years ago there were 5 industrial sand mines and 5 industrial sand processing plants in the state,” wrote LFB analyst Kendra Bonderud. “DNR officials recently estimated that as of April 1, 2013, there are 105 industrial sand mines and 65 industrial processing plants in the state, which is two to three times the number the Department was aware of in the summer of 2012.”

The LFB paper noted last summer the DNR reviewed staffing needs for permitting, compliance and monitoring of frac sand operations. At that time, the Department estimated 10.2 full-time positions were needed to oversee the 54 known sites. The fast growing industry now needs two to three times more inspectors.

Joint Finance Committee member Senator Jennifer Shilling offered an amendment to fund at least those 10 positions. Still, the majority of Finance Committee members voted down Shilling’s amendment.

Adequately funding sand mine monitors is important for neighbors, local government and the mine owners and workers. I receive many calls of neighbors concerned about mine operation. Local government officials are stretched thin and are often unable to monitor the mines. Most counties have few staff dedicated to the inspection of mines. Workers need necessary health and safety protections. Owners that do follow the rules are at a competitive disadvantage with those who do not.

Citizens are rightly concerned when the state relies on them to monitor mine safety. It was from citizens that I learned of one of the most serious violations. Last year Preferred Sands’ mine in Trempealeau County had a mudslide that affected a neighboring property. The WI Center for Investigative Journalism reported this mine also had “multiple violations of its air quality permit”. The violations are now being considered by the Department of Justice.

Trempealeau County is the epicenter of sand mining. With 28 mines there is no higher concentration in the state. Recently, citizens delivered to Trempealeau County Board Supervisors petitions with 821 signatures in favor of a year-long sand mine moratorium. Petitioners were upset when supervisors ignored the stack of signatures and instead failed to pass the moratorium on new county mines.

Citizens should not be charged with the monitoring of mines in their neighborhoods. If Wisconsin allows sand mining, Wisconsin must invest in staff to monitor compliance with the law.

Not all 170 mines and processing plants are up and running. But it is reasonable to expect they will be by June of 2015, the end of the upcoming state budget. The Legislature should act to phase-in the funding for all 32 needed positions before the final passage of the two-year state budget.

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State Land for Sale in No Bid Contracts?

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 Tuesday, 21 May 2013
in Wisconsin

mill-bluffsMADISON - “I strongly supported the bipartisan Wisconsin Stewardship Fund,” a self-described Republican man from Eau Claire wrote to me.

“Conservation issues are near and dear to my heart. I will oppose any politician who does not listen to all Wisconsin constituents and give these issues due process.”

The letter came the week the state budget writing committee took up the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund.

Named for Wisconsin conservation minded Republican Governor Warren Knowles and Democratic Governor Gaylord Nelson the bipartisan program usually gathers broad support. Created in 1989, the Stewardship Program provides money for purchase of lands for recreation and preservation.

According to the state’s Blue Book, over the two decades of its existence, the program spent over $500 million to acquire over 500,000 acres. State officials often work with land conservation groups who acquire the land with grants from the state and donations from individuals and use volunteer labor to maintain the land.

Just a year ago the Nature Conservancy purchased the “Twin Bluffs”, 161 acres of bluff land overlooking the Mississippi River village of Nelson. The land acquisition was made possible with a $300,000 grant from the Stewardship Program. Landowners sold land to the Nature Conservancy to protect the land including protection from sand mine development.

The state uses bonding authority – the sale of bonds is how the state takes on debt- to finance the Stewardship Program. Increasing debt was the justification for members of the budget writing committee to vote to cut the Stewardship Program.

In a partisan vote, the committee trimmed funds by a little more than 20% in the first year of the coming budget and another 9% going forward. Land conservation groups were justifiably unhappy with the cuts.

But what they found more disturbing was the Finance Committee’s vote to require the state sell over 10,000 acres of Stewardship land in the next four years and require the sale of at least 250 acres more of farmland every year for the next seven years.

The Finance committee action will have conservation officials draw a line around the boundaries of projects established by May 1, 2013 and sell all land not within those boundaries and acquire no new land that is not within these boundaries.

In this rather cryptic description I was left to wonder what exactly the budget committee had in mind for land sales over the next few years.

Using increasing debt as the justification for the seeming shutdown of future projects may be the way Republicans obtain citizen support for the changes to the Stewardship program.

The gentleman who wrote to me about the Stewardship Fund shared his thoughts on spending:

“I voted Republican in the last election largely because I thought it was imperative to bring our state spending under control by making tough decisions. I still support that objective and the way it was done”.

That debt is climbing is indisputable. But conservation groups, like Gathering Waters Conservancy, argue the cause is not the Stewardship Fund. While state debt has increased, the program’s contribution to the debt remained relatively stable.

Cynics in the Capitol suggest there is another intent among leaders that has nothing to do with reining in state debt. Some allege there is a connection between the Governor’s request in the budget to sell off state assets in possible “no bid” contracts and the sale of thousands of acres of Stewardship land.

Clean Wisconsin, an environmental leader in the state, in a prepared statement, asked “What will they sell? The 400 acres of Stewardship land at Devil’s Lake? Protected parts of the Ice Age Trail? It’s disheartening and frustrating that the Legislature put stewardship back on the chopping block and now wants to sell off these precious resources to the highest bidder.”

I would argue that if the sale of state assets passes as written, there may be a sale – but it doesn’t have to be the highest bidder.

No conservation-minded Democrat or Republican should support a no-bid sale of state Stewardship land.

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Walker GOP Milwaukee County Bill Is An Outright Attack On Local Control

Posted by Chris Larson, State Senator, District 7
Chris Larson, State Senator, District 7
Chris Larson (D) is the Wisconsin State Senator from the 7th District in Milwauk
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on Friday, 17 May 2013
in Wisconsin

MADISON - Earlier this week, the Senate and Assembly passed legislation, Assembly Bill 85, that is an outright attack on local control. This is only the most recent in a series of Republican-sponsored legislative attacks on their political enemies. This time, the victim is local government in Milwaukee. This big government move mandates the micromanagement of local government in our community, and leaves us wondering: who is next?

Below are just some of the concerning provisions contained in this bill, which has now been sent to the governor for his signature:

  1. Cut the county board budget to 0.4% of the property tax levy immediately upon passage of the bill, which equals an 85% budget reduction after paying existing commitments
  2. Transfer authorities away from the county board and department heads to the county executive
  3. Grant additional authorities to the county executive to prevent supervisors from working too closely with department personnel
  4. Reduce term length from four years to two years
  5. Change contract negotiation, signing of contracts, consolidation of service agreement processes, and administration and management of certain departments
  6. Limit supervisors' salaries to median income and the prevent them from obtaining health care coverage and pension benefits
  7. Reduce salary and benefits of supervisors in 2016 regardless of the outcome of the 2014 binding referendum
  8. Limit the referendum in April 2014 to only asking about possible pay and benefit reduction of supervisors, not the other provisions of the bill

county-board-debateClick here to watch the floor debate on AB 85 on WisconsinEye.

How the Milwaukee County Board Compares

The Milwaukee County Board is comprised of 18 supervisors, each representing between 50,000 and 55,000 neighbors, which is the same size as most State Assembly districts. Additionally, the County Board employs about 38 full-time staff members, including constituent service professionals, committee clerks, auditors, and budget analysts. Having a board and professional staff of that size allows supervisors to remain informed about county issues, be responsive to neighbors' concerns, and provide legislative oversight of the county executive and sheriff.

Furthermore, the proposed cut raises fundamental issues about maintaining a system of checks and balances in local government, and whether the Wisconsin State Legislature should have the authority to intervene in what is clearly an issue of local control. Although groups supporting the severe restrictions argue that no other Wisconsin county has a supervisory board comparable to Milwaukee, we must also remember that no other county in our state has such an economically and ethnically diverse population of nearly 1 million people, or more than one-sixth of the state's total population. Additionally, the Milwaukee Supervisory Board oversees a $1 billion dollar budget, and is responsible for oversight of a regional airport, county zoo, and county-funded mental health complex.

Critics of the current full-time board have compared the current structure of 18 supervisors and an annual salary of about $50,000 to the salary and structure of the Board in 1970. What critics have failed to mention, however, is that the Board in 1970 had 25 members, who were each paid a salary of $68,000 (when adjusted for inflation).

Watering Down Our Checks and Balances

While this bill makes enormous changes to the Milwaukee County Board, it leaves the County Executive Office completely untouched. With the long history of Milwaukee County Executives abusing their power, this proposal sets us on a dangerous course in the wrong direction. Milwaukee County has seen past executives, as recently as 2006, attempt to sell off our valued and profitable state assets, which include the Milwaukee County Airport, the Milwaukee County Zoo, and even our neighborhood parks.

By preventing the board from continuing its watchdog role of the county executive, he will now have the ability to continue where others left off with regards to selling our assets. Hopefully the people of Milwaukee county will see past the smoke and mirrors and realize that this bill is less about supervisor salaries and more about hampering oversight and removing the necessary checks and balances in local government to concentrate power in the County Executive Office.

Ignoring the People of Milwaukee County

In addition to circumventing Milwaukee County's local leaders, Assembly Bill 85 also ignores the wishes of the people residing in the county who are directly supporting the board. The Milwaukee County Board is an elected body and if Milwaukee County residents have a problem with their representation, it is their right to make their voice heard to promote change.

Further, while this bill allows Milwaukee County residents to vote in a referendum regarding the pay of county board supervisors, that is the only provision of the passed bill that residents will be able to vote on. They will not be able to vote on increasing the power of the county executive, decreasing the budget for the board overall, or reducing term lengths by two years.

Additionally, rather than putting the limited referendum to a vote during a major election, Republicans chose April 2014, an election where not all municipalities will even have major races and thus have significantly lower voter turnout. The main proponents of this legislation is an out-of-county special interest group, the county executive, and former supervisors that will not be affected by the changes. Clearly the residents of Milwaukee County were not the main consideration for furthering this bill.

Republicans Continue Their Attack on Milwaukee

This bill continues what we have already seen: a calculated attack on the city and county of Milwaukee. This attack has become so brazen that a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel headline even asked: "Is the GOP-run state Legislature at war with Milwaukee?" Considering the proposals introduced this session, the answer appears to be yes.

In addition to passing this anti-local control measure against Milwaukee County, while leaving other counties untouched, for now, legislative Republicans have also pursued legislation or proposals to:

  1. Kill the Milwaukee street car project
  2. Revoke residency requirements for local employees
  3. Expand vouchers while refusing to give public school children a single additional dollar in the classrooms

What Republicans seem to be forgetting is that city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County play a pivotal role in the overall economic success of our state. In reality, as goes Milwaukee, so goes the rest of the state. Instead of continuing an unfair attack on our only world-class city, Republicans should be focusing on how to better support this economic engine.

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WEDC Board Changes Key to Reform

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 Tuesday, 14 May 2013
in Wisconsin

MADISON - “There’s a heck of a lot of things they didn’t tell me when I signed on,” admitted the chief of the Governor’s lead jobs agency during a recent hearing before the Joint Committee on Audit.

Reed Hall, CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), spent several hours grilled by Audit Committee members. He agreed troubles existed but insisted WEDC was on a new track with plans to correct problems. Later in the hearing two lawmakers with experience as business executives provided solutions.

“I voted for WEDC and thought it was a good idea,” said Senator Tim Cullen, a former insurance executive. “Taking the best practices of the private sector and using them in WEDC was a good idea.”

But what was exposed in a recent audit of WEDC was the worst, not the best, of any business. The agency was run without basic managerial processes in place, without policies, without oversight of delinquent loans or consistency in loan or grants awards, without a clear budget or consistent accounting practices.

Accounting records couldn’t be reconciled to the point that the year-end financial report of the state of Wisconsin included only an estimate of the agency’s expenses.

And there was no evidence to support claims of tens of thousands of jobs created.

State law requires jobs be independently and annually verified through a sample of records. The public must know if jobs ‘promised’ by companies are actually created. Auditors determined this never happened. In more half of the company awards made, the business never even filed required reports.

State law also lays out a process to ensure dollars go to programs whose effectiveness can be measured. Because the agency failed to follow the law auditors were unable to determine if any program was effective in creating jobs.

For example, laws require WEDC to establish goals and expected results for each program. Reports should then be compared with expectations so lawmakers can make proper future funding decisions based on actual program outcomes.

WEDC failed to even identify expected results for a third of all programs it administers; let alone whether companies achieved expected results. Without expected results or company required reports detailing compliance it was impossible to determine if any program met its intended purpose.

WEDC awarded over $60 million in loans and grants and over $100 million in tax credits. They supervised local government in the sale of almost $350 million in bonds for projects.

But they kept members of the WEDC Board in the dark about inadequacies in oversight, internal processes and compliance with the law.

“The Board is toothless,” testified Board member and Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca. “The Governor loves to control everything.”

“The Board must make the hiring decisions,” said Barca. “I’ve never served on a Board that does not hold the CEO accountable. They [WEDC executives] are free to ignore anything the Board says.”

Lawmakers Barca and Cullen recommended the Board be restructured and empowered. Audit and Finance committees be established and meet bimonthly, committee chairs and a lead director be created; committee chairs should set their own agendas; board members should serve for fixed terms.

Barca concluded with an ominous observation, “Key staff people are still misleading this committee, even today…. To this day they go around obfuscating jobs created, what role did they play to retain them?”

The answer is unclear and not auditable. With no budget, no company reports in over half of cases reviewed and no program expectations for a third of programs, one might think lawmakers shouldn’t increase WEDC’s funding.

But that’s exactly what happened in the Joint Committee on Finance only hours after the conclusion of the Audit Committee hearing.

Law requires the co-chairs of Finance to serve on the Audit Committee to ensure audit findings are reflected in budget decisions. Neither co-chair attended the Audit hearing. None of the recommendations on board changes were included in the Finance Committee action.

Rather than rush to create the appearance of a problem solved, legislative leaders should heed the advice offered the Audit Committee and create a board that bulldogs WEDC management into complying with the law. It’s the board’s responsibility; it’s time they were given the authority.

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Open the Pantry Door and Shine the Light on Economic Development Programs

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 Monday, 06 May 2013
in Wisconsin

walkerMADISON - “In Wisconsin, we don’t make excuses, we get results,” said Governor Walker as quoted by the Associated Press. The governor was unveiling his $75 million budget initiative earlier this year to economic development professionals across the state.

While the new dollars are still being the debated, the spending of existing economic development dollars recently took center stage among Legislators.

The Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) released a stinging indictment of mismanagement and poor oversight at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). The audit reviewed 30 economic development programs during the 2011-12 fiscal year. WEDC awarded $41.3 million in grants, $20.5 million in loans, provided $110.8 million in tax credits to businesses and individuals, and authorized local government to issue $346.4 million in bonds.

Auditors found not a single job created by this investment was verified by WEDC. More than half of the required reports had not even filed by businesses receiving assistance. Without evidence it was impossible for auditors to determine if contractually specified performance, including required job creation, ever happened.

In page after page of the 120-page report auditors outlined management failures and violations of current law.

Companies and projects that were not eligible still received awards. In violation of the law, WEDC paid for activities provided before the date of the company’s contract. Awards were given by WEDC over amounts limited by law. One company received $2.5 million in credits through a job creation program and never even promised to create jobs. Another company received $57,000 per job in clear violation of program limits on dollars given per job.

Delinquent loans were not tracked and collected. One loan was restructured six times to avoid the business making payments. Another business that failed to pay on a loan that was almost 14 years old received another loan twice as big. Some loans were forgiven; one of which was made to a company that hired the same firm WEDC hired to improve its record keeping.

Auditors documented at least seven instances where this firm, Baker Tilly, had potential conflicts of interest because the firm represented and provided consulting services to companies seeking awards with WEDC during the time Baker Tilly had access to information on WEDC’s awards and recipients.

Wisconsin’s premier metric “Job Creation” could not be verified on any of the millions of taxpayer dollars that went out the door.

The metrics for tracking job creation programs were set to law following a disturbing audit over six years ago. Senator Lassa and I along with other now retired lawmakers spent a year fixing these problems. Following systems in other states we set rules requiring goals, benchmarks and evaluation to make sure the business did what was promised and the people’s dollars were wisely invested.

In January, 2011 I wrote:

All this work is about to be thrown out the window. And to be replaced by a dark pantry with a sign on the door reading ‘Just Trust Us’.

Moving at break neck speed through the Legislature is a bill to abolish the state commerce department and create a private corporation. The bill gives this private corporation unlimited state bonding (or borrowing) privileges and makes it exempt from many state laws including employment law.

Two years later auditors found even the limited version of what remained of the law was not followed. The problems of mismanagement and the appearance of impropriety are not limited to Wisconsin.

Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune reported the federal government is investigating the Illinois economic development agency and the state auditor warned for twenty years controls on state money are not adequate. New York Times reporters documented Governor Cuomo’s actions using New York’s economic development agency to hire friends and shore up contributions for his possible run for president.

Both Illinois and New York have Democratic governors. Regardless of party, there is no excuse for mismanagement and poor oversight.

Lawmakers must demand change. If everything doesn’t have to be made public, the temptation to break the law is much greater. Every parent knows you can’t leave kids in the pantry with the door closed.

Note: The Joint Legislative Audit Committee has scheduled a public hearing on the WEDC audit for Thursday.

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Surprising UW Cash Reserve Needs Audit

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 Monday, 29 April 2013
in Wisconsin

buckyMADISON - “What’s happening to the UW reserve money?” the woman asked. She was concerned about criticism of the University of Wisconsin. “It seems like they want to attack the UW,” she told attendees at the Mondovi Town Hall Meeting.

A recent memo from the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) revealed nearly a billion dollars in what appeared to be reserve funds carried over from the last budget year.

Legislative leaders reacted by calling for a freeze on UW tuition. Other lawmakers want to cancel the promised $181 million increase to the UW. University officials cautioned most of the money was obligated to student financial aid or support of high demand programs like business and engineering. They say unrestricted does not mean uncommitted.

Nothing was clear except the UW’s so-called “unrestricted net assets” took a big increase in the past few years.

LAB reported in January the sizable growth of UW unrestricted net assets – or dollars not restricted by the funding source. Auditors reported UW unrestricted assets at $860.2 million. These assets increased by $624.9 million over five years.

The discovery of a large sum of unrestricted net assets comes on the heels of sustained tuition increases. It also comes at a time when the Legislature gave the UW new freedoms in how to spend money.

In recent years, as state funding to the UW dropped, university officials asked for and were granted new authorities. Changes in the last budget made funds formerly directed for a specific purpose into a flexible block grant; to allow the UW to spend as it saw fit while honoring the needs of all campuses.

New authorities granted in the last budget allowed the UW to set its own travel policies. Beginning this summer the state gave the university system contracting authority for supplies and materials unique to the UW, and the UW Madison was to develop a new system-wide personnel system.

This decision was made after many problems and much expense with the last personnel system. Even with recognition of the system’s problems, officials failed to stop recent overpayment of the health insurance and retirement of some employees. This discovery led the Joint Committee on Audit to approve an investigation of the UW personnel system as its first audit of 2013.

The discovery of large sums in reserve fractured the trust building between the UW and the Legislature. Sharp words and threats came from leaders when details about the exact purpose for which the money was set aside were hard to find.

My legislative colleagues on both sides of the aisle called for a freeze in tuition. Some said planned UW budget increases should be scrapped.

The surprise in the Legislature over the discovery of these dollars may reflect the general obscurity of the financial matters of the state and not any attempt by the UW to conceal cash.

Across the country, as in Wisconsin, legislators turn to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) to learn of the state’s fiscal health. Hoping to find cash to balance the budget, legislators identify what appear to be cash balances.

But few state reports are as opaque as the CAFR. Auditors examine finances according to governmental accounting standards. While this method may assist bonding agencies in comparing risk, it does not provide legislators with necessary detailed financial and management information. So in Michigan, California and Wisconsin lawmakers seek funds the universities say are already committed.

Exactly what money is in reserve and what money is already committed is unclear.

This is why my Audit Committee colleagues and I recently directed the Legislative Audit Bureau to review the dollars and their oversight.

It is right for us to ask questions and we know the questions to audit: are the unrestricted net assets commitments or reserves? They can’t be both. What is the appropriate level of reserves necessary for a $5.5 billion operation like UW? What oversight do system officials provide and is this oversight adequate?

My legislative colleagues should slow their rush to judgment until auditors complete their investigation. It’s always better to make decisions based on facts.

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Rural Folks: Ag Budget Cuts Ill Advised

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 Monday, 22 April 2013
in Wisconsin

BLACK RIVER FALLS - “Black River Falls is grappling with high phosphorus in the water,” the woman told me at the Town Hall Meeting. “The phosphorus is coming from farms up river. Why cut funding to conservation staff that help farmers keep manure out of the river?”

Buried in the 2013-15 state budget is removal of almost $5 million or over a quarter of cost-share funding to create structures to reduce run-off and preserve topsoil. The budget proposal also cuts nearly $2 million for local county conservation staff who assist farmers in creating and monitoring these structures.

It’s been a difficult spring for farmers. Many turned to spreading on frozen and snow covered ground. Now with the melting season underway, phosphorus from the manure finds its way into waterways.

State and federal rules clamped down on phosphorus discharged by city wastewater treatment plants and cities are crying foul. They claim the state is shortchanging them by taking away money used to help farmers control run-off. The increased cost of phosphorus cleanup will fall unfairly on city ratepayers.

Local people also raised concerns about several other changes in the budget of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). The Governor proposes getting rid of popular programs like the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin, the Agriculture Development and Diversification, and the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative programs.

Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin is a competitive grant program launched in 2008 to strengthen the ‘value added’ aspects of Wisconsin agriculture. If we can keep more of the food dollar in Wisconsin, the entire state benefits. Local folks used these programs to develop markets for local produce, meat, fish, and cheese. With a small investment, the program created $4 million in new food sales over three years.

The Agriculture Development and Diversification grant program was created in 1989. Since then it has funded 342 projects with an investment of $6.9 million according to its website. This program leveraged $49 million in new capital investments and over $140 million in economic returns.

For example, James Altwoes of Mazomanie wanted to reestablish hops growing and processing in Wisconsin. With grant support he developed new technology, reached out to new buyers and involved 1,000 people through workshops focused on growing hops.

I often hear from farmers who benefited from the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative Program. Intensive rotational grazing is a technique many used to keep cattle rotating from one pasture to another to increase the consumption of high quality feed and preserve plants and topsoil. The practice is not as easy as you might think.

Technical assistance from the Grazing Program helped farmers hone their skills at recognizing noxious weeds and early signs of needed pasture maintenance. The popular local ‘pasture walks’ were part of the outreach provided by this program.

Cutting popular and effective programs was not the only part of the state budget that drew complaints from rural people. Many were concerned about the changes facing rural schools and BadgerCare. I will cover these topics in upcoming columns.

Removing the ban on foreign corporations and foreign individuals from owning large tracts of Wisconsin land has many farmers upset. Older folks express concern about the control of food by foreign companies. They remember the rationing of World War II. They see land ownership as a way to protect the security of our country.

Younger farmers, trying hard to get started in farming, are worried foreign companies will increase the competition for land and drive up prices. I have yet to find a person attending a town hall meeting who thinks changing the law on foreign companies owning large tracts of land is a good idea.

Like foreign land ownership, the change in conservation funding is an issue that cuts across city dwellers and rural residents alike. People see the connection between high costs for city ratepayers and dirty water from farm run-off. They do not see cutting conservation money as a wise decision when cities are facing higher phosphorus standards.

Especially this year the late spring snow keeps cattle on concrete pads and winter manure storage over capacity. As one rural woman said, “we all live somewhere down stream.”

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Thoughts and Prayers with Boston

Posted by Chris Larson, State Senator, District 7
Chris Larson, State Senator, District 7
Chris Larson (D) is the Wisconsin State Senator from the 7th District in Milwauk
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on Saturday, 20 April 2013
in Wisconsin

MADISON - Like many others across the country, I was devastated by the news coverage of the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon. My thoughts and prayers go out to the lives that were torn apart by this act of terror.

Finishing a marathon is not just an achievement, it is the culmination of months, if not years, of hard work a runner puts in just to get there. It is about overcoming hardship and adversity. The cowards that did this not only struck out against that American spirit of endurance and achievement, but they also struck out against a world community of runners from all 50 states and 90-plus countries across the globe.

As an avid runner who had family and friends attending and participating in the Boston Marathon, this affected me on a personal level. While my family and friends were uninjured, none of us were left untouched by this unthinkable event. My hope is that the people responsible for this horrible act of terrorism are found and brought to justice so that the those affected by this tragedy and their families are able to find peace.

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State Finances: Stuck in the Mud

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 Monday, 15 April 2013
in Wisconsin

State Senate leader, Kathleen Vinehout, gives the inside story of how Walker and the Republicans in Madison have spent our State into a structural debt that will hold Wisconsin’s economy back for decades.

MADISON - “Pardon my tardiness,” I told the crowd gathered at a Town Hall Meeting. “I spent 20 minutes stuck in the mud.” Rural folks nodded in understanding. Spring has turned many unpaved roads into mud.

Stuck in the mud is an apt metaphor for Wisconsin state finances.

Debts and deficits; GAAP and gaps; bonding and borrowing; all these terms make it hard to follow what’s happening with the state’s fiscal health.

Wisconsin cannot run a deficit. Unlike the federal government, every budget must be balanced. But what exactly does that mean?

When state leaders make funding commitments to coming years they can create a ‘structural deficit’ which means the future years’ expected revenue won’t cover the expected spending.

This happened regularly over the past 20 years. A 2013 memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) shows more in store in the future.

My colleague summed up the concern. “I cannot support a budget that has that kind of a structural deficit and I know several other Senate Republicans who feel the same way,” Senator Rob Cowles (R-Allouez) told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Commitments made in the proposed 2013-15 state budget leaves the following two-year budget with a significant shortfall.

Much has been made of the work done to create a budget surplus at the end of this fiscal year. LFB staff report the state ending up with a nearly $500 million surplus. The main reason is improvement in revenue from tax collections.

But the LFB memo has many folks talking about projections for a shortfall of $644 million in the 2015-17 state budget.

Deficits, structural or otherwise, should not be confused with debt. The state sells bonds to raise capital with a commitment to later pay back the bondholders. This is state debt.

The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance calculated debt per person rose 131.9% over the past decade. My research with the LFB shows state debt more than tripled from $4.4 billion in 1996 to $14.2 billion in 2012.

Money spent on debt payments can’t be spent on roads or classrooms so financial staff remind legislators to hold spending in check. Historically the state's debt management threshold is no more than 4% with a target of annual GPR debt service between 3% and 3.5% of all general fund spending. Debt payments go well into the danger zone at 5.28% in the first year of the 2013-15 budget.

One very troubling part of the current budget was the sale of more debt to avoid making payments coming due.

Even though the current budget had $1.8 billion projected in new revenue, the Governor did not pay $560 million in debt payments coming due. More debt was incurred as some bonds were sold at a premium to gain cash up front. This gave the appearance of the state having more cash. But the long-term effect was an increase in principle and interest.

The 5.28% of tax money spent on debt in the 2013-15 budget is the direct result of payments owed but not made in the past.

Deficits and debt are two measures of fiscal health. A third, rather unique to state government, is the GAAP Gap. This measures the gap between how the state budgets - on a cash basis - and generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).

Since 1982 when the Attorney General interpreted the constitutional requirement for a balanced budget as “cash” accounting not “accrual” accounting, the state often committed more to spending than available resources. According to the Taxpayers Alliance, in 2011 only California and Illinois had a larger GAAP deficit than Wisconsin.

When revenues came in higher than expected, Governor Walker put half of these revenues into the rainy day fund as required by law. This, and his work paying other commitments, helped lower the GAAP deficit from $2.9B to $2.2B. But spending in his new budget increases the GAAP gap to $2.8B by 2015.

It’s important to remember the GAAP deficit only looks at the gap between money coming in and money going out in the next year. The real long-term health is better measured by the long-term commitments – i.e. debt.

Looking ahead, Wisconsin finances do seem stuck in the mud.

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Why I Voted Against the Open-Pit Mining Bill

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 March 2013
in Wisconsin

I am writing to provide you with an update about the open-pit mining bill. I voted against the bill when it was before the Senate. Prior to this, my colleagues and I tried to improve the bill with 20 bipartisan amendments, which were voted down. Since this is such a significant issue, I wanted you to know the latest.

The open-pit mining bill passed the state Senate by one vote. Recently the Assembly passed the bill 58 – 39. The Governor signed the bill into law last Monday, March 11th.

I want to explain a little about the bill and why I opposed it.

Wisconsin has a long history of mining. We also have a carefully crafted law that allows mining. In fact, as recently as 1993, the Flambeau Mine in Rusk County operated under the current law. I have read this law in detail. It is very thorough and has evolved over the years to accommodate changes in the industry and in public health and environmental needs. It is well balanced, involves local citizen input and provides resources to local communities affected by mining.

A few years ago, a West Virginia coal mining company, Gogebic Taconite (GTAC), asked Wisconsin to change the law. The concern conveyed to the Legislature by the company was the lack of certainty and predictability in the mining permit process. Both Democrats and Republicans agreed there could be positive changes to the law to bring certainty for mining companies and to streamline the permitting process.

I agreed there needed to be a clear deadline by which the state must agree to permit or not permit a mine.

Changes in creating the right process and timing had to be carefully balanced because Wisconsin is not the only player in permitting a mine. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must approve a federal permit that shows the mine will comply with the federal Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The Corps acknowledged that one of the most significant opportunities to speed up the process was to make sure the law allowed for the collaboration between the state and the federal government by respecting federal law and the time needed by the federal agency.

The timelines had to be carefully established to allow for the concurrent review of the permitting application by the state and federal government. Also, it would be in the best interest of all those involved if the law allowed one single environmental impact statement be submitted. These statements are very expensive, highly technical and often disagree.

This particular location for the mine will affect the streams leading into the Bad River. This river flows through the reservation of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa. Native American tribes and bands are sovereign nations. As such they have their own clean water standards and laws that the mine must agree to follow if the mine engages in activities that would affect these waterways.

This past summer and fall the Senate Select Committee on Mining, led by Senator Cullen, collected over 20 hours of public testimony. Input was gathered from the mining association, industry experts, environmentalists, Native Americans, the Department of Natural Resources, the US Corps of Engineers and many others.

From this work Senator Cullen, Senator Schultz and Senator Jauch drafted a bipartisan bill to change the process. This bill, known as Senate Bill 3, added a 520-day deadline to the permitting process. The bill allowed for a collaborative process between the mine owners, the state and the Army Corps of Engineers. The bill that was only 25 pages did not change Wisconsin environmental law, nor did it release the mine from any existing environmental law. The bill allowed for a master public hearing once the DNR approved the permit and made immediate payments to the local communities affected by the mine. The bill did not release the mine from following local laws.

I found this bill to be a carefully balanced approach. I cosponsored and voted for a version of SB 3 on the Senate floor.

Unfortunately there was a parallel process to draft a different mining bill. The bill was drafted behind closed doors during the last legislative session. Modifications were made in secret during December of 2012. Newly elected Senator Tiffany introduced the bill in January of 2013. The bill, known as Senate Bill 1, received one public hearing in January and was modified by the committee on Finance and brought to the Senate floor in late February.

Senate Bill 1 had a number of problems that my colleagues and I tried to correct on the Senate floor. Chief among the problems were the potential environmental damage caused by the mine to local water sources, ground water and harm to navigable waterways.

The open-pit mine proposed by GTAC would be the largest of its type. The iron ore deposit is roughly 22 miles long. The first phase of the mine would be 4 ½ miles long and a mile and 1,000 feet deep. The waste from this mine (434 million cubic yards) would fill 3 times over the volume of Lake Monona. The waste materials would be used to fill lakes and streams – contaminating water with toxins like arsenic, lead and mercury.

The bill allowed the mine to not follow a number of environmental regulations related to water. For example, the bill allowed the mine to fill streams less than two miles long and ponds less than two acres wide. Proponents claimed this filling of streams and ponds was necessary. Senator Schultz argued on the Senate floor so many streams would be filled they would stretch from Lambeau Field to Camp Randall – 108 miles.

The taking of Wisconsin’s navigable waterways may violate Article IX of the Wisconsin Constitution that contains a clause known as the Public Trust Doctrine. The constitution protects the rights of the people of Wisconsin to use the water ways as common highways and forever free.” During the Senate debate I heard testimony that the filling of streams and lakes would likely result in an immediate court challenge.

Taken in its entirety, SB 1 added longer delays and higher costs to the mining permitting process particularly because of the unworkable time frame from the federal agencies position. The bill creates a fractured and uncertain process that will likely lead to a many year delay by the US Corps of Engineers. The bill will almost certainly result in lawsuits from the tribe and others concerned with the violation of the Wisconsin Constitution. The fiscal estimate – or cost to the state- prepared by the Department of Justice recognized these likely court costs to the people of the state of Wisconsin. The DOJ said they were unable to determine how high the court costs would be.

Mines pay fees to the state for the right to extract minerals. Unfortunately SB 1 uses the net proceeds tax” and allows the mine to write off” expenses and avoid making payments to the local communities impacted by the mine. This is especially troublesome during the early years of the mine when the communities would most incur costs like new road construction or the hiring of additional law enforcement officers.

Because of the lack of local resources to cope with the effects of the mine, the environmental damage and the permission to avoid following local ordinances, many local elected leaders in the Northern Wisconsin opposed the bill. For example, the Mayor of Mellon, the city nearest the mine, strongly opposes the mine. I also received a resolution from the Washburn City Council opposing the mine.

The strongest argument the proponents of the mine made was the possibility of job creation in an economically depressed area of the state. But even this argument is questionable. I carefully reviewed the only economic impact statement used to demonstrate the jobs created by the mine. The analysis by NorthStar Economics is made up almost entirely with assertions about dollars and jobs but without any supporting evidence. There are only two sentences in the 26 page document that describe the author’s assertions. There was no basis by which to evaluate the author’s assumptions, methodology or accuracy.

Taken in its entirety, SB 1 did exactly the opposite of what it claimed to do: It created a more uncertain, less predictable and longer process than we now have in Wisconsin’s mining law. The bill undermines the authority of the Department of Natural Resources by taking away the discretion the department has to work with a mining company. The bill releases the mine from many environmental protections. The bill releases the mine from complying with local ordinances. The bill does not provide resources to local communities –especially in the early years of the mine. The bill creates a mining process that will almost certainly end up in court.

There is a clear alternative to SB 1. We can choose a mining bill that gives greater certainty to the process, does not change environmental law, will not end up in court and provides resources to communities affected by the mine.

I’ve been hired by the people of the 31st Senate District to represent their interests in Madison. I received over 200 contacts related to the open-pit mining bill. Overwhelmingly the people of my district opposed this bill. Over 95% of those who contacted me opposed the bill. These numbers are similar across Wisconsin. It is clear to me that people want a bipartisan bill that does not destroy the pristine North Woods.

We should not presume the only way to have mining in Wisconsin is to degrade our wetlands, rivers, lakes and streams and ignore the rules and needs of local people.

For these reasons I voted against the open-pit mining bill SB1.

Thank you so much for your email. Please feel free to share this message with your friends. Please contact me regarding any issue of concern or interest to you.



Kathleen Vinehout
State Senator - 31st District

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Republican Open-pit Iron Ore Mining Bill Bad for Wisconsin

Posted by Dr. Steve Kagen, M.D.
Dr. Steve Kagen, M.D.
Dr. Steve Kagen, M.D. is a physician and a former congressman from Appleton.
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on Wednesday, 13 March 2013
in Wisconsin

APPLETON - Shame, shame, shame on all legislators who voted for dirty air, dirty water and bad health for people in Wisconsin.

Remember, we have seen this movie before. It's called the China Way, and it did not have a happy ending. China sacrificed its environment for short-term economic gain, and their people are now paying the highest price possible: more cancer, more dirty air and water pollution that can never be undone.

The Wisconsin Way must never become the China Way, for in Wisconsin we believe in clean air, clean water and healthy people - not corporate greed.

Please join me in supporting the Bad River Band of Lake Superior in their efforts to protect Wisconsin's precious environment. Together, We Will...

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Rand Paul Right On This One

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 Thursday, 07 March 2013
in Our View

rand_paulGREEN BAY - Yesterday, Rand Paul spent thirteen hours on the Senate floor conducting an old fashioned filibuster questioning the U.S. drone policy. Rand Paul has a lot of lame ideas, but on this one he was right on both questioning the policy and the method in which he did it.

In the first place, he had the guts to actually stand up on the Senate floor and speak his mind for as long as he could in a filibuster as intended by the framers of our Constitution. Of course, it was theatrics, but that’s what a filibuster is. He did not hide behind the questionable rule commonly used in the Senate to stop discussion by merely saying you want to filibuster. He stood up and talked. He took responsibility for his words. It was a fundamental exercise in democracy that progressives should applaud.

But in a larger sense, in forcing a discussion of the Constitutionality of our government’s use of drones to kill people without charge or even demonstration of just cause in a Court of law, Rand Paul has forced us to face a question we have dodged for over ten years. Under our Constitution, even in a time of fear, how do we keep our form of democratic government viable while still providing for our defense.

It is a thin line and delicate balance. As progressives, we all love President Obama and generally trust him to do the right thing. But our founders had just cause to fear too much arbitrary power in the hands of one leader, as in a King, and placed in our Constitution a division of power between three branches. A President could lead us in war, but only after the people through their representatives in Congress declared it a war, and even then the President’s power was limited by the Courts and the law of the land.

On September 11, 2001 our nation was profoundly shocked by a dastardly attack by an international group of terrorists, and in the atmosphere of fear that followed President George W. Bush embarked our nation on a war-like foreign policy that lead to our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and a number of policies on the treatment of combatants that clearly stretched the limits of our law and national character. The Congress, too timid to appear to question the public mood, looked the other way rather than declare it a real war. The draft was gone, and the majority of people really didn’t have to get involved. And the undeclared war against some shadowy, undefined terrorist enemy has continued for over ten years.

Osama bin Laden is dead, our adventure in Iraq has concluded, and the commitment of troops in Afghanistan is winding down. Our national treasury has been bled dry. The question now is “when does it all end?” When do we go back to being the nation of law and rules I remember as a boy?

Rand Paul has done us a service in pushing this debate, at least a little bit, back into our public consciousness. As citizens of a country we declare a democracy, we should not let it slip back under the rug.

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