Looking Forward, Looking Back

In the early morning, I take the opportunity to answer letters. People have written about cuts to schools, tourism, agriculture, services for the disabled and hospitals – all within the past Christmas week. I find myself explaining the effects of the recession on state government and resulting budget cuts.

Looking back, the state budget dominated legislative work in 2009. Wisconsin, along with most other states, faced an unprecedented deficit. After the budget was written by the Governor, tax revenues fell more significantly than anyone imagined. In just one month - April of 2009 - income tax revenues were 35% lower than April of 2008.

The Governor did not want to raise overall taxes and rejected most proposals to raise income or sales taxes. He did propose raising income taxes by 1% on those making over $250,000 a year. The Governor and the legislature also worked hard to close tax loop holes used by very large corporations to shelter income from Wisconsin in other states. But, despite the campaign rhetoric you hear to the contrary, deep cuts were made to balance the budget.

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Setting Standards, Achieving Excellence

Last week the Governor brought together concerned Legislators to discuss the struggling Milwaukee Public Schools. Invited to the meeting were officials with experience turning around failing school districts in Boston and Chicago. The discussion centered on proposals to significantly overhaul the Milwaukee Public Schools system.

Many of our schools are struggling to provide a quality education, but the problems Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) face make our troubles pale in comparison. Milwaukee’s public schools have failed. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, in the last three years, MPS students have not met Adequate Yearly Progress in math and reading.  And a review of statistics for the last five years clearly demonstrates this is not an uncommon result.

Just last week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that more than 6 out of 10 MSP eighth graders scored at or below the most basic level of math proficiency in a national study comparing achievement levels of public school students in the nation’s largest cities.  Only students in Detroit scored worse than Milwaukee students. 

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Keeping the People’s Interests First

“Are you in session right now?” my friend from Minnesota asked. In Minnesota, the Legislature went home a long time ago. But I am regularly traveling to Madison to conduct state business.

“Our ‘session’ doesn’t actually end until the campaign season officially begins next June,” I told him. The official ‘session’ begins on inauguration day in early January following an election year and ends in May with the beginning of the next election cycle.

The two-year calendar begins with the introduction and debate of the state’s two year budget.  Legislators begin the important work of addressing issues brought forward by the people. 

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Making Health Insurance Affordable One Step at a Time

“You are getting things done one step at a time, aren’t you?” the man said to me. He was talking about the new law requiring insurance companies to cover adult children up to age 27 on their parents’ plan.

The law – set to go into effect on New Years Day – was part of a Five Point Plan to Reform Health Insurance I wrote last January.

Reforming health care is no small task. But as Washington grapples with the big picture, the final part of my plan was signed into law this past week.

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Taking Time to Give Thanks

“I love my job,” I told the radio announcer who called to interview me about my job and running for re-election.  I explained that a legislator’s job is really about solving problems. I spend many hours working on legislation to help solve the state’s problems.  But I am thankful for the time I spend working to solve the problems of people who call or write asking for my assistance.

Some are starting a new business, some are retiring. Many are worried about making ends meet and many more are without health insurance.  And lots of people are at wits end trying to navigate the confusing maze of government bureaucracy. 

This is true for folks who are working hard to improve their communities.  From a walkway along the river, to supplying clean water, to building a safe intersection, I am thankful for the opportunity to help people work through the bureaucratic maze necessary to bring federal recovery dollars to their communities.

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The Legislature & Governor Take Action

As the year winds down to its final days, so does the Legislature’s fall Session.  A flurry of bills were acted on by the Senate and Assembly and sent on to the Governor for the final stop in the legislative process.  Governor Doyle took his ink pen to numerous bills – some that grabbed much attention across the state.

Of particular interest to outdoor groups including many local rod and gun clubs and the Conservation Congress was legislation returning the appointment of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Secretary to the Natural Resources Board.  I heard from several hundred local people who expressed their support for my co-sponsorship of the bill.  I joined the majority of my colleagues in voting in favor of giving the Natural Resources Board authority to appoint the Secretary. 

But late Friday afternoon, Governor Doyle vetoed this legislation arguing a Secretary appointed by the Governor is better able to accomplish more for Wisconsin’s environment.  Those supporting the Governor’s veto say the DNR must be responsive to the people and the best way to do this is to have the Governor, who is elected by the people, appoint the head of the department.

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Untangling Rules and Law

A worried father called me early one morning. His 22-year-old daughter needed health insurance. He heard about the bill I wrote to allow adult children to be covered on their parents’ health plan until the adult child turned 27.

I explained to the father that my bill was picked up by the Governor and added to the state budget.  The new law takes effect on January 1, 2010 and applies to young adults who are not married and have not been offered health insurance through their employer at less cost than their parent’s plan.

The father asked a lot of questions. He said he contacted his health insurance company and didn’t receive clear answers.

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Stewards of Sacrifice

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month fighting on the Western Front ceased.  In 1918, November 11th marked the end of hostilities between the Allied nations and Germany.  The armistice signed designating that date and time effectively ended World War 1 – “the war to end all wars”.

The next year, President Wilson officially proclaimed November 11, 1919 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day.  President Wilson said, “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride for the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory...” 

Every year following, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month we pause as a nation to remember with pride and profound gratitude the heroism of those who answered our country’s call to protect our most valued principals:  freedom, liberty, equality and justice for all. 

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Working for Schools

“I remember going to a one room school house,” the Buffalo County man told me. “Judging by those buildings, I’d say the schools were doing mighty fine.”

“Things might look good on the outside, but it’s tough on the inside,” I told him.

It doesn’t matter which school district you visit, once you step inside the building the story is the same.

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Fixing What’s Broken

Earlier this year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on fraud and abuse within the ‘Wisconsin Shares’ program. Wisconsin Shares provides a child care subsidy to low income families struggling to hold a job and was part of the historic Tommy Thompson era overhaul of the state’s welfare program.

When “Welfare to Work” or W2 was enacted the state experienced a dramatic decrease in the number of people ‘on welfare.’ In the mid nineties, Wisconsin had over one hundred thousand people on welfare. Today about 9,000 families participate in the W2. In order to receive W2 program support, these families must follow strict rules about working.  The child care subsidy provided through Wisconsin Shares is important to help these parents maintain their employment.   

Unfortunately, this critical program has become the subject of newspaper stories about fraud, abuse, lack of background checks and even sex offenders giving the same addresses as child care providers.  These shocking stories have spurred action from Legislative and state officials.

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