Sen. Kathleen Vinehout: Speed and secrecy in legislation kill democracy

From my email inbox comes the latest from Democratic State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout calling into question the speed at which Republicans in the Legislature are ramming through their legislative agenda.

“How can we digest all your work in this short amount of time?” Senator Bewley asked the Chair of the housing committee and author of the bill before her. An amendment replacing the bill was released just before the hearing on that bill.

“How can we have a thoughtful and intelligent discussion…we just got this stinking thing a few hours ago.”

The bill, SB 464 (which has an Assembly companion – AB 582) was complex. The bill’s author said he wanted to avoid “moving the goal post” on a development project. Among other things, the bill froze in place laws on an industrial development once a minor approval (like a driveway permit) was granted, even if the project would not be completed for years.

The Towns Association called the legislation, “One of the most damaging bills to local control in recent memory.”

The committee Chair said he negotiated with local groups to remove the most egregious parts of the bill. It was impossible for anyone at the hearing, including the Senators on the committee, to say what was actually in or out of the twenty-page bill they just received.

After 5:00pm, the committee finally took up SB 464. It was the last bill on the agenda and many people had waited since 11:00am to testify.

Citizen after citizen who testified shared their concerns about the bill and offered some version of “I don’t know what’s in the bill and I don’t know if you’ve fixed the problem.”

People who waited all day in the Capitol hearing room to speak said they had no way of knowing a new version had been posted on a website. They gave up a day of work, used a vacation day and left home early to travel to the Capitol. No one told them about the revised bill or offered to give them copy.

During that day, in another hearing room, people testified against removing the effective ban on nuclear power plants. In a third hearing room, people waited to testify against a bill that would make extensive changes to protections for lakes and rivers.

All were controversial making big changes to public policy. There were six hearings happening at the same time. Twenty-two bills were voted out of committee. Many were introduced over the Holidays and rushed to public hearing right after the New Year.

That day the Senate Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry Committee, of which I am a member, heard a bill on fish farming. I asked the Chair why the bill was not assigned to the Ag Committee and he said, “It deals with water.” You’d think it would be sent to the Natural Resources Committee.

Knowing what was in the bill and how it interacted with existing laws related to water and agriculture was important for understanding the consequences of the bill.

Again, I received the bill just before the committee hearing. Supposedly, the bill was introduced the day before the hearing. Details of its exact impact were scarce.

Again, the bill was complex. It changed protections of streams and springs, altered water flow over dams (which affects streams) and interwove state and federal rules.

Again, the Chair was also the author of the bill. He and I were the only legislators at the hearing. All other Senators had two or more hearings at the same time.

I like fish. I keep two large aquariums and fiddle with water chemistry for fun. In full disclosure, the fish farmers named me their Legislator of the Year several years prior. I want fish farmers to succeed, but not at the expense of our Wisconsin waterways.

The homework needed on the bill was not possible with members pulled to other committees and the bill rushed so fast no one had a chance to read it. As I sat in the public hearing, I was pretty sure opponents did not even know the bill existed.

Speed and secrecy have become all too common in the Capitol. Democracy suffers. Public interest suffers.

The process works best when – to use a fish analogy – we treat legislation like fish – open it up, set it on the table, let the sunshine in and see if the fish stinks.

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout: Should Tax Dollars Go to Companies Just to “Create Jobs”?

From my email inbox comes the latest newsletter from Democratic State Senator Kathleen Vinehout.

Imagine how private firms do business with the State of Wisconsin. The companies provide something of value for taxpayers and, in return, receive state money.

This happens all the time in state government: private companies build roads, computer systems, pay Medicaid bills, and even educate children.

What if the sole reason tax dollars went to a company was to create jobs?

Recognizing that taxpayers would want to know companies were actually creating jobs, lawmakers wrote state law requiring verification of information sent by businesses applying for tax dollars. Not really a whole lot different than making sure road builders actually poured the required amount of concrete on our roads.

But the public accountability is a lot less when it comes to job creation.

In 2011, Governor Walker established the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), which administers 29 economic development programs funded almost entirely with state money.

WEDC’s name is misleading – it is not a corporation. It is a state ‘authority’ and is – or should be – accountable to taxpayers for dollars it spends. That’s why the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) has been auditing WEDC since its creation.

Findings from the LAB May 2015 audit revealed that WEDC awarded grants and loans to companies to create or retain jobs, but WEDC staff did not require those companies to submit payroll or other records showing that jobs were actually created or retained.

WEDC staff wrote off some loans not collected, deferred payments due and forgave loans. Program reports did not contain clear, accurate or complete information on outcomes. In some cases, the WEDC Board actually created policies in direct conflict with state law.

Evidence in several audits show WEDC broke state and federal laws. Illegal action in approving Community Development Block Grants led to fines that are still being paid by taxpayers.

During its first three and one half years, WEDC staff didn’t independently verify the job creation or retention information by annually reviewing a sample of grant and loan recipients, as required by state law. They allocated tax credits to projects that started before the company actually contracted with WEDC to start the project. WEDC staff did not consistently collect companies’ verified financial statements for recipients of certain grants and loans.

So, what is the answer to questions about job creation or if the 29 programs were successful? The answer is “We don’t know.” Early in WEDC’s existence, zero jobs were independently verified – which was in direct conflict with state law.

The May 2015 audit is the fourth in two years reporting similar findings.

If a program in any other part of state government failed to follow state laws and failed to deliver goods and services bought with state tax dollars, the public and the press would hound lawmakers until they shut down the program or made massive changes.

It is not so with WEDC. Only recently, after pressure from legislators did the Joint Legislative Audit Committee Co-Chairs schedule a public hearing on the May audit. During this public hearing, scheduled for September 9th, I expect WEDC officials to try to discredit the stellar work of the nonpartisan LAB.

Two concepts are important to remember in reading any news account of the upcoming hearing. What does it mean to verify or make sure jobs were actually created? Is WEDC required to follow state law on when and how to award state tax dollars?

WEDC officials claim that asking a company to sign a “progress report” form is measure enough the company has created the jobs. They also argue laws were not broken even though auditors reported numerous instances when contracts were written or amended and even board policies were created in violation of state law.

In any other part of state government executives would be fired and programs eliminated with the type of negative results found in just one audit – not four audits in two years.

WEDC officials claim they created a ‘business friendly’ environment and placing too many restrictions on businesses receiving state money might discourage the business from applying for grants or tax credits in the first place.

But, if we can’t ensure taxpayer dollars are well spent, why do we have these programs?

Kathleen Vinehout endorses Martha Laning for DPW Chair (VIDEO)

During an interview with WisconsinEye on March 19, Democratic State Senator Kathleen Vinehout shared her thoughts on the state of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. During that interview, Sen. Vinehout endorsed former Democratic State Senate candidate Martha Laning to replace Mike Tate as Chairperson of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Here’s Sen. Vinehout’s interview. Her endorsement of Martha Laning starts around 5:00 into the interview.

EDIT: Credit for tipping me off to this goes to commenter Nonquixote.

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout: “You have got to be kidding!” Advocate Respond to Privatizing Family Care and IRIS

Here’s Democratic State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout’s latest newsletter discussing the changes to Family Care and IRIS proposed by Gov. Scott Walker’s biennial state budget.

“You have got to be kidding!”
Advocate Respond to Privatizing Family Care and IRIS

“You have got to be kidding!” a Chippewa Valley advocate responded when I told her about a plan to potentially turn Family Care over to a for-profit insurance company.

Family Care and its fee-for-service sister, IRIS, provide thousands of Medicaid-eligible frail elderly and disabled people the help they need to remain in their homes. Services could include help getting places; keeping a job; managing money; preparing meals; keeping healthy; bathing and dressing.

People who benefit from Family Care or IRIS might easily end up in an expensive institution. Personal care and other workers help them stay in their own home – and many times – stay gainfully employed.

If the current version of the governor’s budget becomes law, it will mean big changes to care for frail elderly and disabled people of modest means. For the rest of us, it could mean many more of our neighbors and family members end up in expensive institutions. Worse yet, folks could be stranded at home without the services they need to independently live and work.

Buried in the mammoth state budget is the elimination of IRIS as we know it. IRIS serves more than 11,000 people statewide. The philosophy of the program is in its name: Include, Respect, I Self-direct. People hire their own workers who perform many tasks including meal preparation, bathing, and getting people to work.

As Jason Endres of Eau Claire told me, “Without these services, the way IRIS provides, it would prevent us from being part of our community.”

Also eliminated are local centers to assist elderly and disabled people find services. Known as Aging and Disability Resource Centers (ADRCs), these publically run centers would close and their citizen oversight boards disband. They could be reopened by a private company but with no requirement to be conveniently located or to tell people about all the services for which they may qualify. For example, the woman I wrote about in last week’s column who is served by SeniorCare, said without the help of local ADRC staff she would not have known about SeniorCare.

Family Care is a managed care program serving over 40,000 elderly, physically disabled, and developmentally disabled folks. A large number of developmentally disabled people use Family Care in the Chippewa Valley because of the closure of Northern Center. Services such as residential homes, mental health services and job coaches help folks stay in the community. Local providers work with non-profit Managed Care Organizations that oversee service delivery.

Services are tailored to the needs of the individual as determined by an independently completed functional assessment. This way services are based on the needs of the individual and not on what the provider has available.

Changes in the budget would eliminate most of the Managed Care Organizations. Their job could be taken over by a very large for-profit insurance company. Budget language gives the state Department of Health (DHS) authority to hire the insurance company in a no-bid contract and removes any legislative oversight of the contract between DHS and the insurance company.

This new insurance company could become the gatekeeper for all medical, rehabilitative, personal living and employment services for over 50,000 people (DHS enrollment numbers from 2014).

In essence, every service needed by the disabled or frail elderly person of modest means would need approval by potentially one for-profit insurance company.

“This takes the personal choice right out of it,” an Eau Claire woman told me.

It also makes it more likely people will not receive the care they need. Insurance companies are very good at denying care and shifting the cost of care to patients and families.

Jason said to me, “One for-profit, national insurance company in a no-bid contract? It makes me very sad. It’s no longer about local choices. It’s about big business making decisions about very personal things.”

Advocates are working hard to save these important programs. People can learn more at Jason reminded me to thank Amber and Nancy for this awesome website. Check it out. You’ll see Amber, Jason and read many more amazing stories.

Kathleen Vinehout: State Budget: Take Time to Learn and Express Yourself

From my email inbox comes the latest newsletter from Democratic State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.

“What people need to understand is that we are seeing this budget for the first time,” the Republican staff member told me. “There are a lot of things that need to change.”

Recently the Governor made public his proposal for the state’s two-year budget. The day following his speech a Senate page brought around a hand-truck load of budget documents.

When I visited my Republican Senate colleague, the staff had budget papers spread out over a desk and were trying to make sense of it – even as phone calls and emails from constituents were coming in.

As we scramble to find buried details, some constituents already were expressing themselves to lawmakers. The back-and-forth between constituents and legislators is a vital aspect of the political process, and input from citizens is never more important than during the two-year budget process.

We all know the headlines: $300 million cut to the UW; cutting the UW loose from state government; lower funding for K-12 schools; statewide subsidy for private schools; state money to make a small dent in rising property taxes.

But it will take months to identify all the specifics.

That’s where you come in. It’s one thing to see a number on a page. It is quite another to understand the effect of a budget action across the state.

This budget, like in the past, contains hundreds of pages of non-fiscal policy. Said another way, the budget makes law changes unrelated to the money in a budget.

In the last budget, nearly 100 separate pieces of non-fiscal policy were passed. Some were things that might not have passed on their own – like taking away local powers to site TV and cell phone towers or to set protections from erosion on construction sites.

Time and partisanship further complicate our ability to find and react to pieces of the large budget bill. The only documents now available for lawmakers and the public are the summary prepared by the Governor’s own partisan budget staff and the budget legal language itself in over 1,500 pages.

We all must wait for the work of the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB). Analysts are working hard to prepare a plain language summary of the budget including numbers and policy. The work is complex and time consuming. When finished, the summary will be nearly 500 pages. This document is the best single source about details that will affect citizens’ lives for the next two and a half years – sometimes much longer.

As I learn information I will share details in columns and letters. I will hunt down details to put budget policy and fiscal changes in context. I will ask for LFB memos to provide a nonpartisan verified source. But LFB won’t always be able to put answering my requests for data at the top of their to-do list.

After the LFB finishes its analysis of the budget, they begin writing memos covering details of the many budget decisions the Joint Finance Committee will ponder. These papers are very useful. Members of the Finance Committee will have first crack at getting LFB to answer their questions (I am not on this committee).

During April I expect the Finance Committee to hold public hearings around the state. These hearings are often held during the day and can be a long drive away. I will be holding town hall meetings about the budget at more convenient times and locations.

Please take the time to learn how the state budget affects you and your family. I will make my town hall meeting locations public. If you want a personal invitation, let me know (877-763-6636).

Please express your opinions about the budget. Write, call, send an email – let your representatives know. Don’t let past disagreements stop you from writing again.

Only about 20% of people contact their representative. But sometimes only one or two letters can change a bill. Telling your story about how budget decisions affect you and your community can make a real difference.

“If there were just 10 people in every congressional district who really pushed on an issue…we could literally change the world.” – Illinois Senator Paul Simon

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout: Gov’s Higher Education Budget Cuts Bad for Wisconsin’s Future

Here’s Democratic State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout’s latest newsletter discussing Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed $300 million evisceration of the UW System’d budget.

“I love college, Mom,” my son told me. “There is nowhere else I can hear a conversation in a different language every day.”

My son got me thinking about the challenges our students face – competing in a global marketplace, changes in the economy, changes in technology. College has never been so important. Keeping colleges up-to-date costs money.

Getting one’s children through college is harder. Finding the right mix of rigor and value is a real challenge for families.

Wisconsin universities stand out for value. Over and over again UW-Eau Claire and UW-La Crosse rank as two of the best values in the Midwest.

UW-Madison is a world-class research institution. The UW comprehensive campuses statewide are the cultural heart of communities large and small; where would River Falls or Menomonie be without the UW at the center of the city?

A new proposal from the Governor would make deep cuts to the UW, dropping state support – in actual dollars – to below 1997-98 funding levels. The Governor also proposed loosening public control over the UW. The twin actions of cutting funds & cutting the university loose from the state are a recipe for disaster.

The last foray into cutting loose a part of state government – the Department of Commerce – didn’t work well for the Governor. Once a big part of state government is cut loose, its central focus is not on serving the public interest.

The constituency for keeping the university system apart from the state will be so strong it will not be possible to bring the system back. And those constituencies fighting to keep the system separate have private not public goals. Say “good-bye” to the Wisconsin Idea.

The rationale for cutting UW support is to make the system more efficient. Sure, efficiencies are important. But the reduction proposed by the Governor – $300 million over two years – will cut one quarter of current state spending.

And this year’s state funding for the UW is already lower than six years ago.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Wisconsin is one of only six states that continued to cut higher education funding per student by more than 2% following the Great Recession (adjusted for inflation and using data from Fiscal Year (FY) 2013-14).

Over the last decade and a half, state support for the UW has been modest at best. For example, FY 2012 funding fell below FY 2001. Increasing education costs were shifted to steady increases in tuition. Reacting to parents’ concerns, the Governor and Legislative Leaders froze tuition. Other states froze tuition – but many also increased state funding. Not so for Wisconsin.

“Teach more classes,” the Governor said. But teaching more classes and “becoming more efficient” won’t absorb the proposed cuts. Cutting one out of every four state dollars is cutting too deep. As a consequence professors will leave Wisconsin.

The best and brightest on our campuses are not tied to Wisconsin. They are tied to their discipline – be it mathematics or biology. A local businessman once told me, “All jobs are mobile.” Professors are definitely mobile.

Once the best and brightest begin to leave (I’ve been told this is already happening) morale plummets. As more professors find new academic homes they take with them not only their expertise and international reputation – they take their federal grants.

Without federal grants UW loses another big source of funds. (Federal money, including student loans now account for more than a quarter of the UW budget.)

The Governor’s proposed actions place the UW in a downward spiral: less state money, a lock on rising tuition, loss of top faculty, declining federal money, loss of the world-class reputation. The consequences of disinvestment will take generations to recover.

Public universities are just that – “public”. Public universities are supported by the people and serve the people. Wisconsin has steadily eroded state support for the UW. We should be doing just the opposite.

Our public universities are a catalyst for the creative culture that builds the great places in which we all want to live, work, play and start a new business. They are well worth our investment.

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout: “Let’s Not Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water”

From my email inbox comes the latest newsletter from Democratic State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.

“I’m not a clerk. I’m just a citizen who observed several recounts and recalls,” Bill Wasser of Reedsburg told the Audit Committee. “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Let’s make some changes and make it work.”

Mr. Wasser responded to some lawmakers who threatened to dismantle the Government Accountability Board (GAB). The state agency oversees elections, campaign finance, lobbying and ethics.

One of the lawmakers intent on dismantling the nonpartisan agency is Assembly Speaker Robin Vos who told reporters the GAB “will not exist in its current form much longer.”

At the recent public hearing many local elected officials from across the state testified in support of the GAB. The work of the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) confirmed what clerks were saying: GAB staff members were consistent and inventive in training and supporting clerks during a tumultuous time in Wisconsin’s history.

During the study period of the audit, the GAB dealt with several lawsuits; an on-again-off-again photo voter ID law; a historical number of recall elections; a statewide judicial race recount; redrawing of legislative district lines and the passage of 31 separate pieces of legislation affecting operations and elections.

Local clerks run elections with support from the GAB. Auditors found the GAB used innovative ways to administer training to clerks and election workers. Webinars and on-line resources provided in-office training. Many clerks testified GAB staff were quick to return phone calls and spent a great deal of time assisting clerks on the phone and at professional gatherings.

Through random unannounced visits to polling places, GAB staff evaluated accessibility of local polling places. There are more than 2,600 polling places in Wisconsin.

Auditors documented the GAB identified more than 10,000 issues related to accessibility. Nearly a third were considered “high-severity,” most concerned accessible entrances and voting booths. GAB staff helped clerks in remedies to assist disabled voters including using federal money to purchase local supplies.

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration lauded the accessibility audits of Wisconsin as a model of best practices for the nation.

Problems do exist at the GAB. During the study period, auditors reported on many legally required tasks that were either not completed or completed late. GAB officials countered that short staffing and an unusually high workload required managers to prioritize tasks. A new, complex administrative rule-making process increased the time needed to promulgate required administrative rules.

Auditors documented several administrative rules needed, including election laws and penalty schedules. In addition, the GAB didn’t post all of their advisory opinions, (minus the confidential information) on their website. Turned in late by GAB staff, for example, were audits of electronic voting equipment.

Several operational problems were identified by the audit. For example, GAB staff had no written procedures for assessing penalties on lobbyists nor did they have procedures or adequate tracking for reviewing election complaints. Auditors documented a long history of the agency not establishing procedures for complaints.

Complicating the work of auditors this summer was an Attorney General’s opinion that shielded about 70% of complaints to the GAB from the eyes of auditors. For committee members, the lack of access to records was disconcerting.

Lawmakers worked quickly to remedy the problem. Recently Audit Committee members voted unanimously to clarify the law allowing LAB auditors access to all GAB records. This legislation is expected to speedily make its way through the legislative process.

GAB officials supported the bill to allow auditors complete access to records.

Officials also explained to lawmakers the staffing problems facing the agency. Almost two-thirds of positions are funded with temporary federal grants. Strings on this money limit what tasks staff can do. The GAB asked lawmakers to convert these positions to state funded positions as far back as 2011. In 2013 the agency asked for 6 additional state positions. None of these requests were granted.

Unless authorization from the state is provided, some staff won’t be able to work past the end of June. I am currently drafting legislation to resolve this problem.

To me, this case looks like starving the patient, complaining the patient won’t eat and then killing the patient.

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout: “I Don’t Have a Clue” School Play Mirrors Confusion in Assembly Education Committee (UPDATED)

From my email inbox comes the latest newsletter from Democratic State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.

“Edgar: All right, everybody; back to the scene of the crime.

“Ella: New clues?

“Carol: What clues?

“Bob: What’s the next clue?

“Carol: I don’t have a clue.

“Norman: (At the window box, dramatically.) Guys, the body’s gone!”

So goes the hilarious comedy written by Craig Sodaro and performed by Alma students. The play begins as a murder mystery dinner invitation and ends wrapped up in an international smuggling ring.

Students spent the last three and a half months practicing lines and preparing costumes. Play Director Tom Brakke coordinated a cast of roughly a quarter of Alma’s Middle and High Schoolers with precious few resources. He even directed students to buy up half-priced dresses and police uniforms at After-Halloween-Sales.

The work shows. The fast-paced comedy pulled in record crowds at the rural high school. Teens of all ages delivered their lines flawlessly and kept everyone entertained.

I took in the show on a brief break. I couldn’t help but see parallels between the confusion of the dinner guests and the lines delivered at a recent Assembly Education Committee hearing.

While the students were putting final touches on the performance, the Assembly Education Committee was considering how to turn local public schools into ‘independent charter’ schools.

In what was described as the “worst run hearing in Capitol history”, the author of the bill began by saying he was changing it but he didn’t know exactly how. The bill’s main component – an unelected, unaccountable, politically appointed board – would not be in the final version.

Nevertheless, the chair was committed to quickly passing the bill through the full Assembly. Committee members were incensed a bill that didn’t really exist was being rushed and asked if there would be another public airing before its final vote. The answer was ‘no’.

The bill was numbered Assembly Bill 1 to signify its importance. Proponents explained the bill would force schools to be ‘accountable’. Critics, and there were many, described the bill as ‘stripping powers from locally elected school boards’, using different tests for public and publically-funded private schools, reducing aid for every public school, and creating a board with power to decide if schools should be converted to privately run charter schools operated by a company headquartered in, say, Texas or California.

The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) testified there have been no fewer than 7 laws passed in the last 6 years requiring schools to test students and publically report performance. The DPI testified the bill would “trigger sanctions” on roughly one of every 8 state students and move about a sixth of state aid away from public schools.

A day before the “I Don’t Have A Clue” hearing, the Senate Education Reform Committee Chair released another version. This bill created 2 unelected, unaccountable boards to run schools – one housed in DPI; the other, for taxpayer funded private schools, housed in the Department of Administration (yes, they administer things, but schools aren’t yet on their list).

All this makes no sense unless you understand that private school interest groups, not good public policy, are driving the agenda. Some legislators try to appease the many private school groups. Instead, we should look at what research tells us about high-performing schools and how they got that way.

First, there is no consistent evidence that converting a public school to an independent charter school will produce superior results.

Second, top-performing schools got that way because of an investment. Across countries with well-performing schools, needy students and remote locations garnered more resources. Schools followed a rigorous curriculum; paid teachers and educated them well; tests were tied to the curriculum and measured critical thinking; and everyone – students, teachers and parents, took school seriously.

I spoke with a local school board member about the Assembly hearing. “I felt hopeful,” she told me. “There are so many grassroots groups all over the state and this [threat] could pull them together. We need community conversations about public schools. We need to start now and keep the conversation going.”

That’s good advice. We certainly don’t want our next generation waking up one day asking, “What happened to our local schools?” and hearing, “Guys, the body’s gone!”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this response to Sen. Vinehout’s latest newsletter, courtesy of longtime commenter Duane Dubey.

Senator Vinehout, I cry out to the Heavens, “Stop the meddling and educational abortion or abuse of our children by the Wisconsin legislators and a Governor Doe!”

I am sick and tired of ignorant and inept, politicians attempting to be “educators.” We have a constitutionally mandated DPI with a publically elected superintendent accountable to Wisconsin citizens; not the Koch brothers or any other profiteers, or outside political interests. The education of our children is too important to to be determined by political bullies; leave it to parents and concerned citizens on school boards at the local level and trained educational professionals in accordance with DPI standards and oversight for the education of our children guaranteed by our State Constitution. My deep concern includes that for my thirty grandchildren!

If not, we need some recalls and/or lawsuits to curb the abusive and intrusive behavior by political and incompetent meddlers. If they hurt my family members, they hurt me!

Sincerely, Grandpa Duane Dubey

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout: “LAB Fraud Hotline: Working to Stop Waste, Abuse and Mismanagement”

From my email inbox comes Democratic State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout’s latest newsletter about the Legislative Audit Bureau’s Fraud Hotline.

“We waited and the ride never came,” said one disabled man. “I was so cold” another woman said. “They said the heater in the van didn’t work.”

The disabled folks from Black River Falls who called me were on to something. They described problems (like waiting for a van that never came) with state contractors who were supposed to transport Medicaid patients to a doctor or therapy appointment. The problems they described were happening in many parts of the state.

The complaints led to a public hearing. Last spring lawmakers directed the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) to conduct an investigation into contactors hired by the state to provide non-emergency medical transportation. Auditors were to investigate the complaints raised about substandard service.

But some people were afraid to complain. For a kidney dialysis patient, life depends on the ride to the dialysis center. Auditors and legislators faced a problem: how to get details on real problems while protecting the innocent.

People responded by calling the LAB’s Fraud, Waste and Mismanagement Hotline.

The hotline serves a vital role in the checks and balances of state government. The LAB operates the hotline completely outside of the purview of the Executive Branch of government – keeping investigations independent and confidential.

The hotline was created in 2007 to “allow the public and individuals within state government to report alleged fraud, waste, mismanagement and other improper activities.” Since the beginning of operation in April 2008, the Bureau has tackled more than 700 hotline reports.

Whistle-blower protections afforded hotline callers are some of the strongest in state law. Callers may remain anonymous. The LAB Fraud Investigators must protect callers even if other information related to an investigation is made public. Legislative actions in 2013 further strengthened confidentiality protections for callers.

People may call 1-877-FRAUD (1-877-372-8317) or complete a secure web-based form at A Certified Fraud Examiner answers most calls to the hotline. Your complaint can make a real difference in shining a light on what needs to change.

The LAB recently released its biennial report including an update on what’s happening with the hotline. In the past two years over 200 state-related reports of fraud, waste and mismanagement were received by the hotline. The vast majority – over 60% – were related to state contractors and vendors. Other complaints involved agency mismanagement (17%); people ineligible for benefits they were receiving (10%); waste and inefficiency (9%) and other topics (4%).

Some people who contacted the hotline complained about difficulties getting through to file Unemployment Insurance claims. A recently released LAB investigation of unemployment claims showed from July 2013 to July 2014 nearly 1.7 million calls coming into the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) call center were blocked. People weren’t able to complete their unemployment compensation claim. In the peak months for filing claims, nearly 80% of calls to file initial claims were blocked.

Other investigations were opened when reports were received about an employee not accurately reporting work absences. The employee was fined through a reduction in hours set aside for leave. In other cases people fraudulently applied for benefits. In one case an energy assistance application was cancelled and the fraudulent dollars repaid.

Seventeen cases of people ineligible for Medicaid or Food Share led to referrals to the Office of Inspector General – a relatively new position in the Department of Health. Some cases were referred to law enforcement. Other cases were referred to the agency responsible for investigating fraud – for example, tax fraud or avoidance cases were sent to the Department of Revenue. Others are still under investigation.

The LAB resolved 19% of the issues identified by hotline callers; 8% were unfounded or required no action; 73% of reports still remain under investigation. Many of the 147 reports still under review relate to the complaints about non-emergency medical transportation – like the disabled folks in Black River Falls traveling to dialysis in the cold of winter without a heater.

The first-hand knowledge of problems callers report help the auditors do the careful work of examining the ineffectiveness of a program and recommending changes to fix programs.

I expect the report on non-emergency medical transportation to be released later this winter.

Senator Kathleen Vinehout: Pay Attention ~ There’s a New Legislature in Session

From my email inbox comes the latest newsletter from Democratic State Senator Kathleen Vinehout.

“Raise your right hand and repeat after me,” the Supreme Court Justice directs newly elected and re-elected lawmakers.

So begins the new 2-year Legislative Session.

On the first working day of 2015 a new group of freshman legislators began their work. Ordinary folks from ordinary lives receive a crash course in state services, agencies, budgeting and parliamentary procedure.

Soon an onslaught of proposed bills will appear in the email in-boxes of lawmakers.

Over 1,500 bills will be introduced before the 2-year legislative session adjourns. These bills will flow through 16 Senate and 33 Assembly committees. Certain proposals will also be reviewed by 10 joint committees.

Each lawmaker is assigned a number of committees, other appointed commissions, boards or special study committees. This year I will serve as the Ranking Minority member of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee and the Agriculture, Small Business and Tourism Committee. I am also assigned to the Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry Committee, the State Tribal Relations Committee, the Joint Committee on Information Policy and Technology and the Education Reform and Government Operations Committee.

Education leaders are preparing for numerous proposed changes widely anticipated to include an expansion of state money for private schools. Special education advocates are concerned about public money going to private schools for special ed students. Others are concerned about a proposed expansion of independent charter schools run with tax dollars. Funds are limited and any tax dollars to private schools must be argued in the context of a tight budget and many needs.

Work on the state budget begins right away. The governor is expected to unveil his proposed budget near the end of January. Lawmakers will be crafting additions to the budget before they see the Governor’s details. Once the two-year spending plan is unveiled, I’ll be picking through the details and crafting changes. This work will be my focus for the spring.

As a rookie lawmaker, several years ago, I found it curious that my very first job was the most demanding task of the two-year session. This year more than one in five lawmakers never voted on a state budget. Special efforts must be made to educate newly elected ‘ordinary citizens’ on the impact of decisions on our local communities.

The task of understanding the budget is made more difficult with the addition of non-fiscal policy – law changes unrelated to the financial matters. This practice is seldom a good idea but has been popular among recent governors. Perhaps the practice is popular because the budget is the only bill the governor writes.

Last session nearly 100 separate pieces of policy unrelated to the state’s finances became law with the passage of the state budget. This policy included unpopular items like taking away local powers to set locations for cell or TV towers.

The most important work of the Legislature will be the passage of this budget bill by midyear. The decisions made in the next few months will affect all our lives. Some of the results of these decisions will not be seen for several years.

Because of the widespread and important decisions made by the Legislature – a group of ‘ordinary citizens’ from all walks of life – it is very important for us all to take the time to let our Legislators know the local effects of what is being discussed.

People want things fixed and nowhere is that more evident than with potholes and bridges. One closed bridge made life harried for all the residents near Taylor, Wisconsin. Getting a grip on the money needed for transportation repairs and new construction will be a real challenge in the coming year. Finding a way to pay will not be easy. It’s the general “wisdom” about taxes: “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax the fellow behind the tree.”

Tight dollars will increase the lure of tricks and smokescreens to balance the state budget. My plan is to do the homework to unravel the details and then bring the budget home to you with Town Hall meetings around western Wisconsin. We all need to know what’s being discussed and how it affects you and your neighbors.

So stay tuned. There will be a lot happening!