KATHLEEN VINEHOUT
PEOPLE FIRST

Potato Disease, the UW and the Wisconsin Idea

Late blight is a devastating potato and tomato disease that spreads quickly in late summer. It can wipe out a crop in just a few days. This disease caused the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s which led to the starvation or relocation of millions of Irish, including my ancestors.

Blight happens when it’s humid and muggy. The disease spreads very fast. Spores can move 40 miles a day. There are 30,000 spores in a patch the size of a dime. Because the devastating disease can “scale up quickly,” state laws exist for its control.

Wisconsin is home to 63,000 acres of potatoes. Our state is ranked third nationwide in potato production. For over one hundred years, the University of Wisconsin has helped potato farmers work with the weather, disease and new varieties of potatoes.

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Tribes and Lawmakers Meet to Resolve Issues

“Can you fix Syria?” a woman asked me. “No,” I said as I shook my head. “Syria is a bit above my pay-grade. My international work [as State Senator] is limited to work with our Native Tribes.”

Native Tribes are sovereign nations.

Tribes have their own government including legislatures and courts. Many federal laws and treaties govern Wisconsin Tribes. But so do our state laws.

The delicate intersection between Wisconsin Tribes and the State of Wisconsin is the purview of the Special Committee on State-Tribal Relations.

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New Study: Speed and Secrecy in Lawmaking

“The length of time bills were deliberated [in the Wisconsin Legislature] dropped significantly soon after Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators took control in 2011,” wrote investigative reporter Teodor Teofilov.

In the Governor’s first two years in office, average deliberation time of a bill was 119 days, compared to a 20 year average of 164 days. For comparison, during the 1997-98 session under Governor Thompson, it took an average of 227 days for a bill to move from introduction to becoming law.

The new study is a project of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The center sought to answer the question Is Wisconsin’s democracy declining? Former Capitol reporter Dee J. Hall is Managing Director of the Center.

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Local Leaders Call for Fixing the Road Budget

“We budget, and have to save up, for over three years to do one mile or less [of road],” wrote Barb Traun the Maxville Town Clerk. Even with the savings, the Buffalo County Township must borrow to pave roads.

Maxville Township is not alone. Local governments are trying to cobble together a road budget because local road aid hasn’t kept up with inflation for years. According to a report released by the Department of Transportation (DOT) local road aid, in real dollars, dropped almost 4% from 2006 to 2019.

Many local units of government are tired of being told the lack of local road money would be fixed in the next budget – only to see, year after year, the local road aid budgets fall further behind. Locals are committed to keeping roads and bridges in good repair but cannot provide these services if the state does not deliver the funds.

Now they are working to make the issue a top state priority.

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Supporting the UW Helps All of Wisconsin

“Investing in the UW System is an investment in Wisconsin,” said University of Wisconsin President Ray Cross, calling for an investment of another $107.5 million in the next biennial budget.

Over the past several years, budget cuts and tuition freezes hampered the UW System’s ability to retain professors, continue research and deliver high quality affordable education.

To bolster his argument, President Cross cited a recently released study by NorthStar Analytics that showed the UW System adds $24 billion each year to Wisconsin’s economy. The study estimated UW’s economic contribution at a 23-fold return on state dollars invested.

The UW Board of Regents agreed with the President’s proposal, sending the budget forward to Governor Scott Walker. The Governor, for his part, called on the university system and all other parts of state government to submit budgets with no funding increases and a five percent cut.

Budget cuts, and policy changes coupled with a tuition freeze created difficulties for the UW.

Think of tuition and state aid as a teeter-totter. As one goes down, the other must come up. When tuition is frozen, state aid must be increased to pay for the freeze. In addition, the cost of doing business constantly rises. Meaning, budgets must be increased to keep up with rising costs – the cost of inflation.

Here’s actually what happen. Tuition has been frozen since 2013. The same budget cut $65.6 million. The freeze was never funded. Both the 2011-13 and the 2015-17 budgets were cut by $250 million. The most recent budget returned a meager $36 million – nowhere near what was needed to make up the cut – let alone allow for funding the tuition freeze (since 2013) and the needed cost of living increases (since 2011).

Tuition was frozen, no cost of living increases provided, and a deep cut to the base was never repaired. Holding down both ends of the teeter-totter caused real stress.

To make matters worse, changes in policy – like the loss of the protection of statutory tenure – sent a clear message: higher education was not valued by state leaders.

Much of the UW budget pays for people. Without funding increases, professors and staff are paid less. People leave the system. Courses and programs are cut. The general reputation of the UW declines.

For example, research reported by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau pegged UW professors’ salaries well below other institutions. UW Stevens Point professors fared the worst, nearly one-quarter below the national average. At seven of thirteen four-year campuses, senior faculty were twenty percent or more below the national average. At two-year campuses, associate professors were thirty percent below the national average.

As a result, it’s increasingly difficult to retain high quality faculty and recruit qualified professors, especially in high demand fields like nursing and engineering. Professors departing the UW System, coupled with difficulties in recruitment, lowers the overall quality of faculty. This also makes it harder for faculty to obtain grants and lowers the quality of education and advisement students receive.

“We lost some of our best people,” UW Madison Chancellor told Atlantic reporter Jon Marcus last year. “It is our very best faculty that get outside offers. If you’re looking at research dollars, those are the people who are bringing in millions in research funding. And the people you replace them with bring in much less. So those retention issues have a real impact.”

The new NorthStar study shows the UW economic impact more than doubled since the last study in 2002. The biggest change was the economic development activities contributing to “a very significant start up activity.” It’s well known Wisconsin lags the nation (the least or near last) in start-up companies.

Fixing the UW means a significant increase in state funding. If policy makers want to keep tuition frozen, let’s begin by funding that tuition freeze. Next, we need to fill in the big budget holes created since Walker’s first budget in 2011. Then we need to create a steady increase pegged to inflation. Finally, let’s truly honor the work of our scholars by rescinding the numerous policy changes that undermine higher education.

Supporting the UW helps all of Wisconsin. It’s time we invest our dollars where we can really grow our state.

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State Shared Revenue: Not Much Sharing Going On

“I just hope the county doesn’t cut the budget,” a local judge told me. We were discussing how effectiveness of his alternative treatment court program and how much he needed money to keep the program operating.

Across the State, local governments – counties, cities, village and towns – are preparing budgets for their 2019 operations. A major source of their income is shared revenue from the state.

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Fix State-Local Mental Health Partnerships

“Let me tell you a story,” the county supervisor said.

A man I’ll call Frank was picked up for drunk driving. Frank faced a felony charge. Frank was sent by our local judge to a county-based program funded with a grant. Over the years, the county supervisor helped the county get funding from the Treatment Alternatives and Diversion (TAD) program.

“The drug counsellor asked the man why he drank a quart of vodka a day,” the supervisor told me. The man said, “My teeth hurt.”

Counsellors worked to get Frank BadgerCare, and medical care. They got him to a dentist, who pulled all his teeth. Frank spent two months on antibiotics. He’s now sober and able to do some fishing – something he loves and hadn’t done in years. The supervisor thanked me for my help, saying the TAD program saved money and saved lives.

 

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Federal and State Decisions affect Health Insurance Premiums for Wisconsinites

Recent news on the health front should give Wisconsinites pause when considering the direction our state is headed related to affordable health coverage.

Earlier this year, the Governor signed Special Session bills into law that limit access to needed healthcare. For example, one provision of the new law will essentially require cash strapped farmers to sell their cows or essential farm equipment to obtain BadgerCare. Another example is a provision that will set in place outside work requirements for caregivers (who already have a full-time, non-paying job) but rely on BadgerCare.

For the state to enforce these new provisions, the federal government, through a waiver process, must grant approval. The state filed its waiver request, which is pending approval by the Trump administration. However, a recent federal court ruling stopped similar plans in Kentucky. The legal wrangling leaves uncertainty for the Governor who hopes to save costs by eliminating BadgerCare coverage for some Wisconsinites.

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Honoring Our Aging Veterans

“How are things at our veterans’ homes?” the Korean War vet asked me at a forum on veterans’ issues. The man was particularly concerned about what he heard about care at our Veterans Homes.

Veterans issues are personal for so many, including my family. Both my parents were veterans. My nephew serves now. My dad was a medic who flew rescue missions into Korea. Like so many, his experiences haunted him. He never talked about the trauma until he was dying.

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Critical Needs Go Unmet - Study Provides Insight to Struggling Schools

How can a rural school meet critical needs when money for schools is less than adequate?

“A school board member went door-to-door asking for support,” Birchwood Superintendent Diane Johnson said to members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding. “He raised $3,000 to get the front doors locked.” The money raised was for purchase of a long-needed intercom system at the front door. “The doors were not locked during the day until this month,” Dr. Johnson told Commission members in May.

Dr. Johnson went on to say next would come an effort to buy key fobs for the staff and re-key the doors. The school didn’t lock the doors or change the locks for over 50 years. With a population of less than 500 in Birchwood, “everyone has a key to the school.”

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