KATHLEEN VINEHOUT
PEOPLE FIRST

Saying Goodbye

“Good Bye,” I said to my friend. “I remember the first time I met you,” she said in reply. “It was at the ‘New Legislator Training’ …I was going through my spiel. You kept asking questions about auditing and program evaluation. I was impressed way back then.”

Twelve years – to that day – my Senate career is history. My, how time flies.

Cleaning out my desk, I found notes I took on my orientation day. I set my goals as part of the training. Here’s what rookie Senator Vinehout promised herself: vote my conscience; match my votes to my district; be honest; respond to constituents; show respect to everyone in the Capitol; be the ‘servant leader’ – humble and listening; be the professor and folksy farmer.

I’d say, I did pretty darn good.

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Conversations with Constituents

“You all lie, steal and cheat,” the Sparta woman told me. I did not know her, and when I disagreed, she said “Well, you will.”

Then she smiled and handed me a piece of the chocolate bar she was eating.

The year was 2006. I was a rookie candidate passing out literature at the Butterfest parade. I don’t think I will ever forget that woman.

Just the act of having a brief conversation caused something to soften in her. Listening to constituents is a powerful act. By itself, listening can heal.

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A Tribute to the Dean of the Senate

If I had a mentor in the State Senate, it would be my colleague from Madison, State Senator Fred Risser. He and I share a head for details, a dedication to the legislative process and a love of western Wisconsin. He often traveled to his grandparents’ farm near Fountain City. “I like that country. I would climb the bluffs and look out for rattle snakes.”

Senator Risser is the longest serving Legislator in the United States. He was born in 1927 and first elected to office in 1956 and elected to the state Senate in 1962.

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Speed and Secrecy: The Last Act

If you were a legislative leader in Wisconsin, and had an opportunity to pass new laws before your party’s governor left office, what would you do? What would you fix as your last act in power?

As I face my last Senate votes, I am working hard to understand what laws my Republican colleagues choose to pass before the new Democratic Governor takes office.

Late last Friday night, after Senate staff went home for the weekend, Republican leaders released their last act. Five bills detailing changes to over 400 sections of state law.

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Boards & Commissions: Opportunities to Serve

“I’m retired and I want to stay that way,” the gentleman told our Senate Agriculture, Small Business and Tourism Committee. “But I am looking for opportunities to give back to our state.”

This gentleman was one of many who crossed my path over the past twelve years. His nomination to a council came before our committee prior to confirmation by the full Senate.

Wisconsin is a state of many opportunities for citizens to serve in appointed boards, councils and commissions. These positions are mostly volunteer, although some offer reimbursement for related expenses. This type of service provides citizens the opportunity to share their experience and expertise in a statewide leadership role.

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Preserving our Hunting Heritage

Opening weekend of gun deer season, conditions were nearly perfect. The weather was cool, but not too cold. The sun came out and warmed us. A light dusting of snow made it easy to see critters’ tracks from the night before.

I saw nine deer opening morning. What an abundance!

By 7:30 a.m., my hunting partner Lisa and I bagged deer. Lisa shot a nice six-point buck and me a tender doe. My husband will be happy with new meat in the freezer. I recalled my husband said we served up the final helpings of last year’s stash of venison.

Time for the sportswoman of the family to deliver. No pressure there.

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Citizens Vote to Raise Property Taxes to Pay for Schools

A little-told story from the recent election is the change happening across Wisconsin as citizens voted to increase their property taxes to pay for local schools.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2018 was another record year for school districts to pass referenda. State law imposes caps on school spending, so voters must approve referenda to exceed their spending limits to fund property tax increases for their local schools. 

According to the Department of Public Instruction, citizens approved at least $1.3 billion more for schools across Wisconsin in last Tuesday’s election. These decisions by local voters will result in higher property taxes in the coming years.

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Menominee Nation Honored for Assisting Victims of Peshtigo Fire

November is National Native American Heritage Month

On October 8, 1871, an intense firestorm roared through the village of Peshtigo, Wisconsin and the surrounding area. The Great Peshtigo Fire burned parts of northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan on the same night as the Chicago Fire, however there are little similarities between the two fires.

The prolonged drought and extreme summer heat made conditions in the region tinder dry. Combine that with the 50 miles an hour winds that whipped the area, it was perfect conditions for a firestorm.

Flames from the Peshtigo Fire reached a thousand feet into the sky. The intense heat melted the church bell, turned sand into glass, and caused trees to literally explode into flames. The fire burned a total of 2400 square miles, which is larger than the state of Delaware.

While 250 people lost their lives in the Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo Fire took the lives of an estimated 1,500 people. Some reports note it is possible as many as 2,500 souls perished. The Peshtigo Fire remains the most costly in loss of life in American history.

That fateful autumn, Menominee tribal members knew the forest was too dry. Back in the spring, the Menominee worried they would not have enough food for the winter. Elders warned the settlers large fires were on the way, but few paid attention to the words of the Natives.

One settler, named Abraham Price, defied convention. He married a Menominee women, Elizabeth. They had one son, Henry. He built a trading business in a Menominee village. Even though some of his white neighbors looked down on him, Abraham was considered a “substantial citizen” owning 800 acres of land. The tribe and his family worked closely, with Mr. Price respecting Menominee knowledge.

Mr. Price took great care to heed the Elders’ warnings of possible large fires. He and his extended tribal family prepared for the risk of fire by plowing large circles of land around their home to form a barrier between it and the forest.

As the firestorm approached, Mr. Price and his extended family protected their house by covering the roof with water-soaked burlap bags and blankets. One of the tribal members pumped water steadily for nine hours showing “an endurance possessed by very few white men.”

When the Great Fire receded, only one building was left standing – the home and trading post of Abraham Price and his Menominee extended family.

That lone-standing building became the center of recovery efforts. Mr. Price and the surviving members of the Menominee Nation welcomed other survivors regardless of their race. His home became a field hospital and the tribe provided emergency care for victims. Later, the home became the survivors’ protection for the fast-approaching winter.

The history of the tribe assisting the victims of the Great Peshtigo Fire has largely gone unrecognized. However, in October, the city of Peshtigo recognized the Tribe.

At a recent public hearing of the Legislature’s State Tribal Relations Committee, our Chairman, Representative Jeffrey Mursau, presented long-neglected honors to Tribal Lawmaker Representative Gary Beesaw.

In accepting the recognition, former Tribal Chairman Beesaw said, “We are all related… all tribes understand there are the four colors of [peoples] in our prayers – red, yellow, white, and black. We are all related. When we say our prayers and when we have our ceremonies, we pray for all of us because it is important that we do that. The Creator loves all of us, so we do that. Sometimes it seems like we have disagreements politically, and those pale compared to something like this that speaks of what really is important.”

Every November, we celebrate National Native American Heritage Month. We remember and celebrate the achievement and contributions of our Native people. We remember our ancestors who benefited from the kindness and service of our Native Heroes.

We also celebrate the work of Tribal members today. These Native Heroes work tirelessly to create communities of support. We are deeply grateful for our Native Tribal members who teach children Native languages and culture, serve our veterans (who are disproportionately from Native Tribes), care for our Elders and those suffering from addiction and mental illness. And we owe profound gratitude for Tribal members work tirelessly to protect Mother Earth and all its riches.

We are blessed by their service and sacrifice.

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What Does Foxconn Mean to Me?

“Hard to wrap my head around,” the woman shared as she considered Foxconn. Just what do big budget decisions mean to us?

Work has begun on crafting the next state budget. Over the next few months, this work will continue in earnest. One hefty unbudgeted expense added to upcoming budget math is a large taxpayer funded payment to a foreign corporation.

Foxconn is the Taiwanese company building a manufacturing plant in southeast Wisconsin. To lure the company to our state, majority lawmakers and the governor created the largest state corporate give-away in American history.

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WEDC: Facts Don’t Jive with Rhetoric

What happens to state money given to companies to create jobs? Do the jobs get created? How do we ensure the money is not misspent?

These questions came to mind as I recently communicated to a constituent who feared state economic development money was being misused. I encouraged, among other actions, a call to the Legislative Audit Bureau’s Fraud, Waste and Mismanagement Hotline (877-372-8317).

Hopefully, the case is now under investigation.

About the same time, former Secretary/CEO Paul Jadin came under reproach by the governor for his handling of the state’s economic development organization the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC).

Mr. Jadin recently made news by joining two other former Secretaries from the Walker Administration who shared in a public letter their disapproval of the governor’s actions.

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