Kathleen’s Answers to Questions at the Forum Sponsored by the La Crosse Chapter of Our Wisconsin Revolution

Senator Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) answers questions for the Wisconsin Gubernatorial Candidate Forum hosted by Our Wisconsin Revolution in La Crosse. Topics discussed include the environment, education, healthcare, racial relations, and inspiring voters.

Environment:  What course of action do you propose to restore the environmental protections with regard to the competing demands of need for local control, business, tourism, and outdoor enthusiasts?

The goal of our environmental policy should be what economists call “internalizing costs”. All of the costs associated with producing a product or engaging in an activity should be borne by the person or company producing the product or doing the activity. It is basically what we were all taught as children. Clean up your own mess. Wash your dishes. Make your bed. 

Don’t put pollutants into the air for others to breathe. Don’t put contaminants into water for those downstream to drink. It is good policy. It is also good economics. Economists of all kinds agree the economy is most efficient when all costs are “internalized” and no costs are shifted to someone else.

So sand mines don’t release small particles for neighbors to breathe, or put arsenic into the ground water that kills the horse on the farm next door. So high capacity wells don’t make surrounding wells dry. So CAFOs don’t contaminate the groundwater with nitrates and e. coli.

We don’t avoid costs by not cleaning up – we just shift them. We may have saved money by not putting scrubbers on coal fired power plants 30 years ago, but we are paying a lot more today rebuilding Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico because the CO2 buildup is causing climate change. Every activity has to internalize its costs. No cost shifting to others.

We also need enforcement. We should go back to having DNR run by a an independent Secretary appointed by the Natural Resources Board rather than a Secretary appointed by the Governor. We need to rehire all the scientists who have been fired, remove the gag order on DNR employees, and hire enough employees to monitor and enforce regulations.

Education:  How do you propose to restore funding to Wisconsin’s  educational systems taking into account the voucher system in place and possible demands that would place on the state budget?

In the alternative budgets I have written over the past eight years, I have taken dollars from corporate tax breaks and cash payments and increased aid to K-12 education. I have taken dollars from voucher schools and put them in public schools.

Of the two major problems with school funding, the first is the level of state aid.

Even with the increases in this election year budget, schools have not recovered from the massive cuts in state aid in 2011. In real dollars schools will be getting less in the next two years than a decade ago.

The second is the state aid formula itself.

At the heart of the problem is the economic disconnect between district revenues and district costs. Revenues assume education is a constant cost industry. You get so many dollars for every student. Education, however, is not a constant cost activity, it has high fixed costs and low marginal costs. As time passes this disconnect causes a lot of problems, particularly for districts with declining enrollments.

We need to move toward an “adequacy formula” that takes into account fixed costs, recognizes that some students cost more to educate than others, and recognizes that school districts in different situations face different costs.

We also need to reduce our reliance on the property tax to fund schools. The basic building block of school funding should be state aid. What I am suggesting is that tinkering is not enough. Since the formula was first enacted, our demographics have changed, our economy has changed, and we need to rethink the way we fund schools.

We have to rethink how we go about teaching and what we want to accomplish. The creativity, excitement and challenge of teaching have been stifled by rules, regulations and testing requirements. We spend so much time and money on testing and evaluating that teachers don’t have the time to teach or the resources and energy to try innovative approaches. We need a different plan.

Health Care:  In light of the current state budget situation, Scott Walker’s actions regarding health care availability, and federal actions, how do you plan to address the problem of health care insurance availability?   

First, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is here to stay. Wisconsin needs to accept Medicaid expansion, cover 79,000 more people and have about $286 million in cash to spend on other needs such as mental health and substance abuse programs.

Second, we must create a Wisconsin based marketplace. The Badger Health Benefits plan that I have authored in four different legislative sessions would, under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, give Wisconsin the ability to assure patients and providers that our healthcare system will be stable despite changes at the federal level.

In addition, our own marketplace could use the state’s regulatory authority to review, justify, and if necessary, stop rate increases, keeping plans affordable for small businesses and those who buy insurance on their own.

Further, creating our own marketplace provides Wisconsin the vehicle to offer BadgerCare as a public option, something Minnesota’s governor proposed in his last budget.

Solving Wisconsin’s health care crisis has been at the top of my list since I first ran in 2006. In 2007, before the ACA, I was one of three Senate authors of Healthy Wisconsin, a plan that covered everyone in our state. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called the changes to  health insurance I was able to pass, “the most extensive in a decade”.  Fixing health care is my passion. I won’t rest till it’s done.

Racial Relations:  Despite our progressive history, Wisconsin is one of the worst states in the country to live for African-American families. This means massive disparities in employment, income, incarceration, access to quality education and healthcare, and more. How will you work to address the structural racism in Wisconsin?

First, we have to recognize there is no easy fix. To address the problems surrounding race, justice and inequality will take a lot of hard work by a lot of people, in every community, and from every walk of life.

We have to change the political, economic and social structures that continue to contribute to our present experience. If we want to make progress, poverty and inequality have to be alleviated. We need a living wage of $15 an hour. The free tuition I have proposed for our technical colleges and 2-year campuses will remove a barrier for everyone to have access to technical skills or a college education.

We have to change our criminal laws so we are not jailing twice as many of our citizens as Minnesota. Sentencing standards need to be revisited. We need treatment alternatives to prison for those with substance abuse and mental health problems. We need more effective probation and parole to help people transition. 

We need to improve our inner city public schools and recognize that many children from low income families will cost more to educate because their parents didn’t have the resources to prepare them for kindergarten.

We need to reform our housing statutes so landlords are held accountable to maintain the properties they rent. Renters are not evicted unjustifiably. Foreclosures are not arbitrary. 

We need to build trust between our citizens and law enforcement. That will not be easy. Words will not be enough. Trust will depend on actions.

Finally, we must move toward more local control so that people who live in a community feel they have a real say in how the community is run.

Economy:  How do you plan to create jobs in Wisconsin that will support families, workers’ rights and environmentally sustainable growth in our state?

The governor doesn’t create jobs. The state doesn’t create jobs. Giving tax breaks and cash payments to corporations doesn’t create jobs. This administration has tried that and it doesn’t work. The Republican theory is that the private sector will grow when taxes are low and there are no regulations – trickle-down economics. That also hasn’t worked.

Wisconsin has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years luring corporations. Environmental and other regulations have been gutted. What are the results. We still don’t have the 250,000 new jobs that were promised eight years ago. Wisconsin recovered from the recession one full year after the nation did, and two years after Minnesota.

What the state can do is create an environment in which the private sector thrives.

Study after study demonstrates that people want to live and businesses want to locate where there are great schools, good transportation, safe streets, recreation opportunities, clean air and water, and amenities—all of the things that are the traditional jobs of the  public sector. If the public sector does those things well, does its own job well, our communities will thrive, businesses will locate, jobs will come.

Over the last 3.5 years Eau Claire has added 3000 jobs – the same number promised by Foxconn. And it didn’t cost the state $3 billion. The companies that have started and come to EC say they came because of good schools, a quality university, efficient transportation, recreation, arts – just a good place to live.  

The public sector should be focused on enriching the economic soil so that all plants can start and grow, not just the few selected by our political leaders.

Given the polarization of our state and the diversity of its people, how will you inspire Wisconsinites to get out and vote for your vision of Wisconsin’s future?

In the Good Book the Apostle writes, “If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle? 

Democrats lose when our vision is uncertain. We lost last year not because voters changed their minds and switched from voting for Obama in 2012 and then for Trump in 2016, but because many who voted for Obama in 2012 stayed home in 2016 and Trump energized a whole lot of new people who never voted before and went to the polls for the first time.

To win for Governor in 2018 our candidate must have a clear, compelling and relevant message that talks to the hopes and aspirations of our neighbors in words that are easily understood and passed on.

A message that demonstrates the Democratic vision is far different from the Republican vision. That we put People First. And elections matter. Nobody should be able to say on election day, what we have heard so often in the past, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, they are all the same.”

I can commit that in campaigning for Governor this next year my message will be clear and certain. The voters will decide if it inspires.