It is Easier to Attack than Agree on a Workable Solution

“Senator Vinehout turns her back on Wisconsin women” read the headlines of a recent press release put out by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

The issue has to deal with filling prescriptions for contraceptives. There are two considerations: the right of a woman to have her prescription filled without question or hassle, and the right of a pharmacist not to be compelled to take an action that violates her individual moral conviction.

A bill heard in our Senate Health Committee during the last days of the spring legislative session would have required all pharmacists to dispense contraceptives regardless of conscience.

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What to Do in Tight Times?

Times are tight – for families and for the state. As we make less and spend less, the level of money collected by the state fell short of expectations.  This past week the Senate received a briefing on the state’s financial problems. What we learned is enough to sober even the toughest optimist.

The financial downturn has resulted in a $650 million budget shortfall in just the next fifteen months. Because of national economic trends, state legislatures across the country are facing similar situations. To complicate matters, the federal government’s belt tightening also means fewer dollars available to the states.

The questions the state faces are really not so different from a family trying to balance a budget in tight times. Do we have a savings account we can use? Can we keep less in our checkbook? How can we cut our spending? Where can we get extra money – maybe from Uncle Sam in this case? Can we postpone some spending?

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Playing the Game of “Gotcha”

In the waning days of the 98th Legislative Session there seems to be much activity related to the coming election cycle and little real legislative achievement.

Far too many games are being played. The effect is that important legislative proposals are not being enacted into law because of election year politics.

One game is to pass poor legislation that is guaranteed to fail in the other house.

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When a Bill is on the Fast Track – Watch out!

One of the lessons I learned from my first year as State Senator is when a bill is put on the fast track, people get left behind. The most recent example is a bill that would set rules governing where wind energy towers are placed.

In a single week, the bill went from being introduced through two public hearings to a committee vote.  What I was told is the bill had to be done right away because the tax credits for energy companies are running out.   What I thought was that citizen involvement is being sacrificed for a few bucks in the pockets of developers.

Everyone agrees that citizens should be involved in environmental questions.  The questions we face in placing wind towers is where citizen involvement should take place, how the decisions should be made and who should make them.

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Locking Up the Bad Guys

Senator Jim Sullivan (D-Wauwatosa) is passionate about locking up the bad guys but he sees a justice system in crisis. 

On the Senate floor, Senator Sullivan said, “We are currently short 132 prosecutors across the state and face a cut of 21 additional prosecutors.  We need to lock up the bad guys but we have an overworked and inadequate workforce to do this.”

There are many reasons our justice system is in trouble.  One is that the federal government is cutting money necessary to prosecute drug, gun and domestic violence crimes.  With concerns about the budget, the war and the downturn in the economy - Washington is cutting back.

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“There is no way you’re going to change THAT!”

“There is no way you’re going to change that ! It’s been going on for years,” a senior official told me early last year. “ That” was the giving away of grants and loans to well-connected businesses - with few strings attached. It has been going on for years!

Thanks to the hard work of the Legislative Audit Bureau, many details of the state’s failures were made public in an audit. Thanks to the efforts of a bipartisan working group, the old way of doing business can be a thing of the past.

Last week, the Assembly Committee on Jobs and the Economy and the Senate Committee on Economic Development held a joint public hearing. The two committee chairs, Senator Julie Lassa (D – Stevens Point) and Representative Pat Strachota (R – West Bend) brought forward two bills that will change the way businesses receive help from state taxpayers.

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Raising the Voices of Farmers

“The pipes broke, the motors wouldn’t work, the silo froze up and then I slipped on the ice. My body isn’t getting any younger.” The farm woman was sharing her life with her Senator. This was a memory all too familiar to this Senator.

Life is hard on the farm; especially in January. When farm prices are up, inputs like fuel, fertilizer and protein are also more expensive. There is the constant fear farm prices will fall. Add in health problems, bad weather and old machinery.

This past week I had the pleasure to talk with many farmers. I addressed four state-wide conventions – Farm Bureau, Farmers Union and two other agriculture related groups. When I spoke to farmers, I encouraged them to become a part of the political process. “We need your voice in Madison.” I told them.

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Finding Common Ground and Moving Forward

“Is this BadgerChoice a good thing?” The mother asked me. She had health insurance through her Marine husband, but she really wanted to solve the health care problem. “What is the plan all about? How is it different from Healthy Wisconsin?” she asked me.

Last week Governor Doyle delivered his sixth State of the State address. He spoke of a new proposal called BadgerChoice. The Governor described a one stop shop for small business to buy health insurance. Small businesses will join together to leverage their purchasing clout to drive down costs. People would have a choice of many plans. Details are still a bit sketchy on how the plan will work.

To solve our health insurance problem, we know rising health costs must be controlled and everyone must have affordable choices. The Governor suggested competition among plans and insurance reform, like community rating, would keep costs down.

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Erasing the Stigma

“Wisconsin is really behind the times,” said a physician testifying before the Senate Health Committee last week. “We know there is a connection between mental and physical illness. But, because of the stigma of mental illness, Wisconsin creates an artificial difference.”

“Come out of the basement” challenged Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton. “Wisconsin is only one of eight states that does not have some form of mental health parity.”

Parity means the same; the committee hearing was about mental health “parity”. That is treatingmental illness the same as physical illness. The bill in question would require insurance companies to treat mental illness the same as physical illness.

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