KATHLEEN VINEHOUT
PEOPLE FIRST

Audit: Disturbing Lack of Sunshine on State Contracts

Who sells to the government and for how much is information that should be available to the public. But recently members of the Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee heard different.

In describing the difficult audit process Interim State Auditor James Chrisman said, “We encountered questions at every step. Who was to report; what was to be reported; when was it to be reported; how was the reporting mechanism working or not working.”

The ‘Contract Sunshine’ law requires most state purchases of $10,000 or more to be reported within 24 hours to the Government Accountability Board (GAB). In turn, contracts are posted on a website to allow the public to see who is buying what and for how much.

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Exchange Tackles Rising Health Costs

“Rising health costs are the single biggest problem we face,” the Menomonie non-profit administrator told me. She saw double digit inflation in health insurance costs for years. “We are having a serious talk with our employees about options. None are good.”

“With the drop in milk prices,” the Tomah dairy farmer told me. “Health premiums now take up a quarter of our milk check.” Insurance premiums for the farmer and his brother add up to over $900 a month. “What can you do to help?” he asked.

This week I unveiled a bill to create affordable health insurance exchanges for small businesses and individuals. An exchange is a competitive marketplace where health insurance companies compete for business.

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Little in the Governor’s “Jobs Package” Deals with Jobs

When I heard the Governor had convened a “Special Session on Jobs” I was anxious to take look at the proposals.

Business owners tell me they need access to capital, lower health insurance costs and a skilled workforce. Just last week the Eau Claire Leader Telegram headline read Employers: Jobs are there, Skills are not.

Being from the country, I like to kick the tires and lift up the hood before I buy anything. Was anything that small business owners needed on the list?

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Investing in Higher Education Reaps Rewards for All

“Tuition is SO expensive,” a local business owner told me. She shared the sacrifices her family makes to keep their oldest son in college.

“My husband has been away for three weeks,” she continued. The time-and-a-half her husband earned working out-of-state made the difference between sending and not sending their son to college.

At a time when most agree the road to prosperity leads through college, the state is paying less and struggling families are paying more for college. Deep budget cuts this year forced most colleges into a 5.5% tuition increase. Many families tell me it’s harder to pay college bills.

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Tackling Rising Health Costs: Now is the Time to Act

The Heath Affairs magazine arrived this week at my Capitol office. The headline shouted to me: “New Urgency to Lower Health Costs.” The words echoed the calls of many who pay too much and get too little for their health insurance dollar.

Often conversations with constituents turn to the continued struggle folks face with rising health premiums. New research published this month in the journal Health Affairs confirm when it comes to health care we are paying more and getting less.

One study by the Rand Corporation found workers’ monthly health care bills doubled in the past ten years. The L.A. Times reported, “Rising out-of-pocket medical bills were so corrosive... they virtually wiped out income gains over the decade, leaving the typical family with just $95 more a month to spend on things other than health care in 2009, compared with 1999.”

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Bills to Create Jobs? Let’s Learn From Our Mistakes

A small business owner approached me concerned about tax credits given for job creation. “The government doesn’t have to pay our taxes to create jobs,” he said. “That’s transferring revenue to a liability.”

The business owner was concerned the company receiving the tax breaks “gains an unfair advantage”.

With the focus on jobs, it’s not surprising lawmakers would write a multitude of bills creating various job funds. The idea is to free up dollars through investors to help new companies. The problem is sometimes these funds become a real benefit to investors with little payoff in new jobs and a big price tag to taxpayers.

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Do Schools Need a State-wide Student Computer System?

Did Joey show up to school today?  What grade did Britney receive in third grade English?  Did the Larson Family pay the towel fee?  Does Mrs. Rendell cover metrics in her math class?

Some in Wisconsin are making plans for a state-wide student information system set for implementation next year. The plan is to have every school in the state use the same web-based system. A single private company will be awarded a five year contract.

Most of the cost for operating the system will be shouldered by cash strapped schools.

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State Inspectors - the Shoppers’ Watchdog!

“I called my inspector and he stopped by on his way to another business. He was very helpful,” said the owner of a small specialty grocery store.  He shared with me his concern about the impact of recent budget cuts on state inspectors.

“If inspectors are cut back,” he said “I am not so much worried about my shop, but my competition.” Not everyone is scrupulous in their business practices. Sometimes consumers get burned.

Just last year a man in St. Croix County was convicted for stealing heating fuel from customers. The man, John Rassbach of Rassbach Oil, was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay $165,000 to his customers.

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Nurses: We can bring Health Costs Down

Early last Friday morning I was joined by two of my Chippewa Valley legislative colleagues at a forum with area nurses.  The forum gave us an opportunity to exchange ideas on how nurses can help bring health costs down.

My job was to listen and learn. The nurses educated us on how they can play an important role in reducing health costs.

Public health nurses shared the struggle to provide basic health screening to low income women. New budget rules stop money from flowing to nonprofit women’s health clinics. Instead the dollars must go to public health departments.

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It's Fair Time!

County fair time is upon us: carnivals, rodeos, monster trucks, flower shows, quilts galore, animals and children of every shape and size. I love spending time at the fair!

"Look at those horses,' the woman said. The shiny, high stepping steeds definitely turned heads.

"This is MY cow!' a young man proudly told me. "I raised her, I fed her and I gave her a bath!'

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