Judges Weigh In on Drunk Driving

How do we stop drunk driving? That question is the subject of news articles and editorials across the state.  It is also the subject of committee hearings and much debate in Madison. The Wisconsin Assembly recently passed a bill addressing drunk driving and the State Senate is expected to take up the legislation by the end of the month. During this process many citizens are weighing in on the issue.

Recently I had the opportunity to meet with several judges who shared their perspective and research on the issue of drunk driving. Their expertise and experience was very valuable because they see both the success and the failure of a justice system that must deal with the underlying causes of drunk driving and the often tragic consequences.

“Putting any one in jail has an adverse affect,” one of the judges told me. “Lengthy jail or prison sentences are not an effective way to treat alcoholism.”

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Committees Are the Workhorses of the Legislature

The State Legislature, unlike Congress, does not take a summer recess.  Committee work continues all summer.  Recently legislative work in Madison has intensified with committee and caucus meetings filling my week. 

Committees are where the bulk of the Legislature’s work is done.  Every bill introduced is referred to a committee that deals with its particular issue.  This smaller subset of bills is examined by a subset of legislators who consider the variety of perspectives on an issue.  Committee members make recommendations for amendments and compromises to accommodate different concerns.

An important task of all committees is taking the input of citizens on the effect of proposed legislation. The committees on which I serve have taken public input or “testimony” on a variety of topics.  I have truly benefitted from the testimony of people from all over our Senate District and the state on both sides of a particular topic.

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Healing our Wounded Warriors

Last Saturday I was honored to participate in the Annual Vietnam Veteran Appreciation Gathering in Altoona. Veterans from around northern and western Wisconsin gathered to share camaraderie and memories. The day, sponsored by Thuy Smith and her husband Steve, was particularly special as we celebrated the creation of a new law to honor and remember Vietnam Veterans.

All who attended were invited to speak about their experiences. Listening to each other was an opportunity to share and to heal. As I listened, I learned the internet and DNA samples have become useful tools in finding fellow veterans, locating Amerasian children and finding those still missing or killed in action.

But mostly I learned making connections and telling stories can heal.

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What’s a Health Insurance ‘Exchange’?

“What’s an exchange?” the woman asked me. She heard President Obama talk about the idea during his speech on health care reform.

“Do you remember the Progressive Insurance commercials?” I asked. “Where Flo, the sales clerk, chooses between a number of white boxes on the shelf and hands one to the customer, saying something like ‘this one should meet your needs’ – that’s the idea behind an exchange for health insurance.  But the exchange would include a variety of health insurance companies.”

This past week the President explained the idea this way: a market place where individuals and small businesses will be able to shop for health insurance at competitive prices… as one big group, these customers will have greater leverage to bargain with insurance companies for better price and quality coverage.

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Remembering ‘Mother’

“Why do we celebrate Labor Day?” I asked the 8th grader.  He replied “I don’t know. But it’s a day off school.”

On Labor Day we pay honor and respect to our American workers and remember those whose sacrifice and courage created the workplace we often take for granted.

Fair wages, the eight hour day, the forty hour week, a safe workplace free of harassment and discrimination are benefits we reap from the seeds sown by those who came before us.

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Rationing by Any Other Name

A man from Jackson County called me asking for help finding affordable health insurance. He ran a small tourism related business that suffered this summer from too few visitors.

This business owner had insurance. “I can’t afford not to – with my business,” he told me.  But he paid too much for a policy that covered too little; “I have a $5,000 deductible. I need health care but I just can’t afford it.”

You see, every day this gentleman goes to work with one hand holding his intestines in place. Years ago, after a surgery, he developed a hernia. Unable to afford to get the hernia repaired he is forced to hold his insides in to keep doing his job.

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Is it Rationing or is it Better Health Care?

“Tell me,” said the gentleman visiting my office, “when Medicare cuts costs won’t that result in rationing? Isn’t it logical if Medicare pays less, we will get less and someone will have to do without?”

I told him, depending on the studies you read, anywhere from 30 to 40% of all the health care dollars are spent on over-use, under-use, misuse, duplication, inefficiency, unnecessary repetition and poor communication. And some of the easiest ways to save money are the simplest and the most cost effective.

What if you are a newly diagnosed diabetic? You look in your refrigerator and realize you have to go grocery shopping for the first time since you found out you are diabetic. You have a habit of heading for the candy aisle. But today, you call a diabetic educator, a registered dietitian, and she helps you prepare a shopping list. She reminds you not to go shopping on an empty stomach. She provides you the confidence to change your eating habits and the knowledge to stay with your new diet.

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Astroturf Organizing Heats up Debate

In the August heat, lawmakers are back home talking with constituents about health care reform.  At Town Hall Meetings, the heat is turned up by individuals who sole focus is preventing that civil discourse.  News reports of lawmakers shouted down at town hall meetings capture more airtime than reports on the details of the health care reform proposals.  And we hear the incredible myths about reform plans - Obama wants to kill your grandparents, Obama will ban private insurance, Obama will ration care…and so on.

Groups such as Freedom Works, Patients First, Recess Rally, Tea Party Patriots and Operation Embarrass Your Congressman are behind the organized protests.  They are conducting what is known as Astroturf Lobbying.  Just as astroturf resembles real grass, astroturf lobbying may look like genuine grass-roots lobbying but is created and funded by corporations, industry trade associations, and public relations firms.

During the Clinton Administration, front groups like “Rx Partners” and “Coalition for Health Insurance Choices” fought against health care reform.  Both groups were created by public relations firms.  Today, fact-checking groups like Media Matters find that industry representatives serve on the boards of the organizations out to defeat health care reform.

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Serving as Stewards of the People’s Money

“The audit reveals serious and significant problems,” State Auditor Janice Mueller reported to our Audit Committee.“including $20 million in improper payments in 2008, budgeting cost overruns and fraud. We have referred the fraud to law enforcement. This is a very troubled program and deserves your attention today.”

Last week the Joint Committee on Audit, on which I serve as the Senate Chair, heard testimony on a state program that provides child care subsidies to low-income Wisconsin families.

Wisconsin Shares, as the program is known, was created in the mid-nineties as part of Wisconsin Works, also called “W2”. The W2 program, which is funded with federal and state dollars, was designed to help low-income families become self-sufficient through work and ‘eliminate welfare as we know it’.

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Veterans remembered with a Day of Their Own

Robert Bloom, Jr, grew up in Sparta. As a boy he joined his friends at the local Dairy Queen. As he grew, he knew he wanted to follow his father’s footsteps.

Bob’s father was a career Army Officer. Robert Bloom, Sr, served as Company Commander of the 76th Construction Engineers which was part of the unit that constructed the building at Pan Mun Jon where, on July 27, 1953, the armistice was signed - bringing an end to the Korean War.

Late in 1970, Bob Bloom, Jr, joined the Army and was stationed in Can Tho, part of the Mekong Delta region in Vietnam. He served as an Army intelligence Officer.

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