LARSON REPORT

WEEKLY NEWSLETTER




 

December 19, 2013

     

 










 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


CONTACT ME


Please feel free to contact me with any concerns or opinions you might have.

Office Phone: (608) 266-7505
Toll-free Phone: (800) 361-5487

Email:
Sen.Larson@legis.wi.gov

 

Mailing Address:

State Capitol
P.O. Box 7882
Madison, WI 53707

 

Web Site:

SenatorChrisLarson.com

 

Find Me on Facebook and Twitter:

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COMMUNITY EVENTS
 

Supporting our neighbors and being involved in our community is of the utmost importance. Some community events that might be of interest to you and your family are listed below. 
 

 

The Nutcracker

Date: Now through Sun., December 22
Location: Milwaukee

Description: Milwaukee's magical holiday performance "The Nutcracker" is back for another year. Enjoy this childhood wonder as toys come to life and snowflakes begin to dance. Create memories of your own with this performance that you cannot miss. CLICK HERE or call (414) 273-7206 for more information or to purchase tickets.

Marcus Center for the Performing Arts (MAP)
929 N. Water Street
Milwaukee, WI 53202

 

 

A Christmas Carol
Date: Now through Tues., December 24

Location: Milwaukee

Description: Nineteenth century London comes to life when you and your family join Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, and, of course, Ebenezer Scrooge on a fantastical journey through Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Enjoy the music, dancing, and timeless message of hope, peace, and love, as the Dickens' classic masterpiece celebrates its 38th year at the Milwaukee Rep. CLICK HERE or call (414) 224-9490 for more information.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater (MAP)
108 E. Wells Street
Milwaukee, WI 53202

 

 

A Kick in the Dickens 2: More Stuff in the Stocking!

Date: Now through Sat., December 28
Location: Milwaukee

Description: The popular holiday comedy show returns to The Alchemist Theatre. This time your evening will be packed with even more goodies, original songs, hilarious comedy routines, and improvised silliness. Some of Milwaukee's top improvisers, comedic actors, playwrights, and songwriters have come together to create this fun- filled evening of holiday mayhem. CLICK HERE or call (414) 426-4169 for more information or to purchase tickets.

The Alchemist Theatre & Lounge (MAP)
2569 S. Kinnickinnic Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53207

 

 

Milwaukee Holiday Lights Festival
Date:
Now through Sun., December 29
Location:
Milwaukee
Description: This six-week festival will spread holiday spirit with animated light displays in Cathedral Square Park, Pere Marquette Park, and Zeidler Union Square, as well as hundreds of events. Marvel at the spectacular sights aboard the convenient Jingle Bus, a Coach U.S.A. bus that takes visitors on a 40-minute tour. For $1 per person, visitors can relish in the holiday spirit while admiring a festive panorama. The tour is narrated by Milwaukee Downtown's Public Service Ambassadors who will acquaint riders with key attractions and landmarks. Tours operate Thursdays through Sundays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. from the Shops of Grand Avenue. CLICK HERE for more information.

 

 

Les Miserables

Date: Now through Sun., December 29

Location: Milwaukee

Description: Centerpiece to their season, Les Miserables is the show that inspired Skylight to focus on freedom and revolution as a conversation through the entire year. Set in 19th century France in the midst of revolution, this timeless musical follows Jean Valjean on his quest for redemption after being jailed for stealing a loaf of bread, inspector Javert who relentlessly pursues parole violator Valjean, and an abundance of other compelling and entertaining characters. Skylight looks forward to producing this legendary, Tony Award-winning musical in the intimate Cabot Theatre. This epic tale of passion and sacrifice will be a phenomenal way to share live theatre with the family during this holiday season. CLICK HERE or call (414) 291-7811 for more information.

Skylight Music Theatre (MAP)
158 N. Broadway Street
Milwaukee, WI 53202

 

 

Sheridan Park Centennial Raffle

Date: Now through Fri., February 14

Location: Cudahy

Description: Enter the Sheridan Park Centennial Raffle for your chance to win a grand prize that includes a trip to New York, a tour of Central Park, and tickets to a Broadway play. This is a fundraising effort to help improve the park. Raffle tickets will be available beginning Friday, November 8 through Friday, February 14 at Joe's "K" Ranch, the Cudahy Library, City Hall, Cudahy Historical Society, Pulaski Inn, and through members of the Chamber of Commerce and Friends of Sheridan Park. The raffle drawing will take place during a Valentine's Day dinner on February 14 at Pulaski Inn. Tickets for the dinner will be available at Pulaski Inn. Raffle ticket holders do not need to be present in order to win. Support a great cause to improve Sheridan Park and buy your raffle tickets today.

 

Pulaski Inn (MAP)

3900 E. Pulaski Avenue Cudahy, WI 53110
 

 



 

 

Dear Wisconsin Neighbor,

 

As the New Year approaches, let us reflect on the past year in Wisconsin and the challenges that lay before us in 2014. Continue reading for a year-end review on important issues such as job creation, education, and health care. This week's newsletter also provides an update on what happened when the Senate went in to special session this Thursday.


Sincerely,

Chris Larson
State Senator, District 7

 

 

Challenges Abound for 2014

The Wisconsin State Legislature is in the midst of the 2013-2014 Legislative Session. As we approach the New Year, it is time to examine the challenges facing our state as we continue working to move Wisconsin forward for all.

 

Below we will take a look at where Wisconsin stands in the following areas: Jobs & Economy, Education, Health Care, Accountability & Transparency, Taxes & Spending, Environment, and Public Transit. Continue reading for more on these important issues.
 

JOBS & ECONOMY

While many other states are seeing improvement in their overall economic health, Wisconsin continues to lag behind. Statistic after statistic shows Wisconsin among the bottom states for economic growth. In fact, statistics released just this month by the U.S. Department of Labor show that, unfortunately, Wisconsin is leading the nation in initial jobless claims. The Department reported 4,420 Wisconsinites filed initial unemployment claims during the last week of November, more than the next two highest states--Ohio with 2,597 claims and Kentucky with 1,538 claims--combined.

 

Our lack of economic success is in stark contrast with what the rest of the country is experiencing. While Wisconsin only saw a 1.0% increase in private sector job growth from June 2012 to June 2013, the United States averaged a 1.9% increase, nearly double Wisconsin's rate. As a result, Wisconsin currently ranks 37th among the 50 states in job creation during that time. Even more statistics summarizing where Wisconsin ranks with regard to job creation and economic development are provided below:

 

  • Wisconsin ranks 42nd in best states for business. (Forbes Magazine's Annual "Best States for Business" rankings, December 2012)

  • Wisconsin ranks 49th in economic outlook. (Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia leading index report, April 2013)

  • Wisconsin will be 49th in job growth through 2016. (Forbes Magazine's Annual "Best States for Business" rankings, December 2012)

  • Wisconsin ranks 50th in short-term job growth. (U.S. Chamber of Commerce "Enterprising States" Study, April 2013)

 

Given that legislative Republicans have routinely chosen to prioritize tea party politics and tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations over proven job creation efforts such as education, job training, and public transit, it is no wonder we are floundering. Unfortunately, the Republican budget simply expanded the failed policies of last session, which we know are not the cure for Wisconsin's lagging job creation, falling wages, and growing skills gap.
 

EDUCATION

During the past three years, our neighborhood schools have faced drastic funding cuts, fewer educational opportunities, and reductions in teachers and staff. Not only did schools statewide endure $1.6 billion in cuts--one of the largest cuts to education in Wisconsin's history--during the 2011-2012 Republican budget, but many schools are faring even worse this budget. In fact, 210 of Wisconsin's 424 school districts, or about 50%, have received less general aid in the current school year than they did in the previous one. While general school aid statewide increased slightly overall, much of the increase is being diverted to private voucher schools as a result of Republicans expanding the program statewide.

Vouchers for Kids Already Attending Private Schools
Those of us residing in Milwaukee and Racine counties are already familiar with the damage our children, property taxes, and communities suffer as a result of expanding the unaccountable voucher system. Over the past 20 years, we have spent $1.5 billion on a voucher experiment that has failed the students of Milwaukee and Racine. In fact, study after study has confirmed that voucher school students fare no better and often worse than their public school counterparts. Unfortunately, rather than learning from the mistakes of Milwaukee and Racine's voucher programs, Republicans instead decided to take the rest of the state down with this sinking ship.

At the beginning of the school year, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) released its data about the students that will be participating in the recently expanded voucher program. However, it has become clear that while these students may be new to the voucher program, the majority of them are not new to private schools. In fact, 73.1% of Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) participants, attended a Wisconsin private school in the previous school year. This means that the parents of nearly three-fourths of eligible applicants were able to afford private school tuition or obtain funds without the use of taxpayer dollars. The voucher program was created to provide parents of public school students with a "choice" they may not be able to afford on their own, but it looks like Republicans have quietly changed the program to instead offer taxpayer-funded handouts to the parents who can already afford to send their kids to private school.

Additionally, as our public school students and their parents continue to be penalized by having to support two separate and unequal school districts, the parents of private school students will be further rewarded in this current budget with a tax break totaling $30 million in the 2014-2015 school year for an annual per student deduction of up to $10,000.

Study After Study Confirms Voucher Failure

Yet another study was recently released factually proving that voucher students fare no better and often worse than their public school counterparts. The study, released by the American Educational Research Journal and the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, has conclusions that are nothing short of shocking. Below are the findings:

 

  • Students leaving voucher schools are the same children the program was designed to help. While the voucher program was created to give poorer, low-achieving students the opportunity for a better education, most of the children leaving voucher schools and returning to public schools are these poorer, low-achieving students. Such data reinforces that the voucher program is failing the very kids it was supposed to help.

  • Most students who transfer from the voucher program back into public schools realize significant achievement gains after doing so. Such achievement growth is even more significant for low-performing students. This statistic highlights that students who return to MPS truly do better once they are back in public school.

  • Voucher schools are less likely to identify and assist students who require special education. This means that children needing greater assistance are left behind.

  • Parental dissatisfaction was the most common reason cited by parents for students leaving the voucher program. Next in line was inadequate handling of special needs students. Such results verify that voucher schools do not always live up to the hype they have created and are frequently found to be a worse option for our children than traditional public schools.

 

Click here to access the voucher study mentioned.
 

In addition to this study, data collected by DPI shows a snapshot of just how voucher school students are performing compared to their public school counterparts. This data analyzes how all voucher and public school students in 4th, 8th, and 10th grade performed in reading, math, and science during the 2010-2011 school year. According to the data, Milwaukee Public School students outperformed voucher students in eight out of nine categories.


Voucher Schools Lack Accountability

Much of the failings of schools participating in the voucher program can likely be attributed to the lack of accountability and transparency measures in place. Below are a few of the following standards that are in place in our public schools but are not required by schools in the voucher program:

 

  • Teacher Licensure--Require all teachers to be licensed by DPI.

  • Background Checks--Require background checks on all staff and prohibit a school from employing an individual convicted of certain class felonies, such as sex offenses specified in Wis. Stats. 115.31.

  • Open Records Law Compliance--Require that schools be subject to Wisconsin's Open Records Law.

  • Special Education Staff--Require schools to employ special education teachers or therapists if pupils needing such services attend the school to prevent discrimination.

  • Corporal Punishment Ban--Require schools to follow current laws governing corporal punishment.

 

Voucher Schools Raise Property Taxes

In 2013, state law compelled Milwaukee Public Schools to levy $51.9 million in taxes to subsidize the private schools making up the unaccountable voucher program, which amounts to 22.6% of the total Milwaukee Public Schools tax levy--an increase from the previous year. Due to policy changes in the last Republican budget, the total cost of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) rose significantly this past year to more than $161 million when taking the local taxes and the state's share into account. With the expansion of vouchers statewide and the increased numbers of independently-run, but taxpayer-funded charter schools, taxpayers around the state are spending $519 million annually on schools that have little accountability and transparency to the public.

In truth, Milwaukee taxpayers are now being billed for both the largest school district in the state, Milwaukee Public Schools, AND the fourth largest, which is what the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has grown to be with almost 25,000 students. The tax levy for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program already exceeds the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District by nearly $10 million and is expected to exceed Milwaukee Area Technical College's in the next few years. With the expansion of vouchers statewide this is a burden that may now be endured by all Wisconsin communities. While my Milwaukee colleagues and I were able to successfully achieve some transparency by providing separate cost information for MPS and MPCP schools on Milwaukee property tax bills, such transparency does not exist in the other 423 school districts.

 

Addressing These Challenges in 2014
It is important to note that there are private schools in our community that provide a great educational experience to families interested in receiving a faith-based education. Unfortunately, it is impossible to weed out the bad from the good without the necessary transparency measures in place. As it stands, the voucher program remains unaccountable. Our children and Wisconsin's property taxpayers cannot afford to support the bad, unaccountable institutions that have failed our children and taken advantage of the voucher program. If we continue down this path, it is not only Wisconsin's future workers that will suffer, but also our state. Our children's success or failure dictates whether Wisconsin will succeed or fail. Therefore, we must address the lack of accountability and transparency in the voucher system head-on in 2014.

 

The future success of our education program also requires us to adequately invest in our children. Providing proper funding to local schools is simply a matter of priorities. Our neighbors to the West illustrated this perfectly. By prioritizing properly, Minnesota was able to surpass its pre-recession job level, achieve a $1.08 billion surplus, and repay funding that was shifted away from their K-12 schools. They were able to do all of this and avoid the record cuts that Wisconsin's schools sustained. While it is not possible to go back in time and correct the mistakes that were made to education in 2011, 2012, and 2013, there is still time to provide a better tomorrow for our children by supporting education in 2014.

 

HEALTH CARE

Health care was one of my top priorities in 2013 and this will continue into 2014. Wisconsin will face a number of health care related challenges coming into the New Year. Many Wisconsinites will be affected by adopting policies that include paying more to cover fewer Wisconsinites and the recent implementation of regressive anti-women's health legislation.

 

Wisconsin Pays More for Less in 2013 and Beyond

During 2013, residents across the state asked Governor Walker to accept federal dollars to strengthen BadgerCare and implement a state-run exchange. This funding--from a pot of money that Wisconsin families already paid into with their federal tax dollars--was a win-win for Wisconsin's working families and taxpayers, and would have insured nearly 85,000 more Wisconsinites and saved Wisconsin taxpayers $109 million in this biennium. Further, saying yes to strengthening BadgerCare was estimated to create over 10,000 Wisconsin jobs. At a time when our economy remains sluggish compared to our Midwestern neighbors, an additional 10,000 jobs would be more than welcome. Instead, the Legislature adopted the governor's plan, which entails spending even more Wisconsin tax dollars to cover the cost of the gap he created, and breaks a promise made to 83,000 childless adults who will be delayed health care coverage until April 1.


There are two simple actions the governor and legislative Republicans could take in 2014 to fix the problem they created:

 

  • Accept the federal money so Wisconsin can provide access to health care to thousands more people at a lower cost for taxpayers.

  • Create a Wisconsin exchange so we have a solution that works for the people of our state.

 

Wisconsin can do better. While big mistakes have already been made costing Wisconsin families hard-earned money and coverage, the New Year provides an opportunity for Wisconsin to right the ship, better insure our people, and move Wisconsin forward.

 

Silencing Women by Passing Extreme Bill

Recently, the Senate took up bills threatening reproductive health care access for women. Senate Bill (SB) 206 is one such bill that improperly interferes with the very private relationship between a woman and her physician. This proposal aims to increase barriers on all women, including rape victims, through mandates related to politically motivated and medically unnecessary ultrasounds. SB 206, which mandates invasive ultrasounds, is a step backwards for women's reproductive health for the following reasons:

 

  • It is difficult to get an accurate picture of a fetus during the early stages of pregnancy; therefore, it is likely that those administering the ultrasound will push for a transvaginal ultrasound instead of an abdominal ultrasound, which is highly invasive compared to its abdominal counterpart.

  • The "technician" who administers the ultrasound is not required to be a licensed medical professional and must only meet one requirement: that they are not a registered sex offender.

  • This mandate is costly; ultrasounds can cost upwards of $1,200 and can be a large financial burden on low-income women.

  • 54% of sexual assault goes unreported to the police, and these victims are not exempt from receiving an ultrasound according to SB 206.

  • 44% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 18. These children are likely to have been assaulted by a family member or friend and are often not emotionally prepared to cope with the effects of sexual assault, let alone endure the humiliation of a transvaginal ultrasound.

 

Not only did Republicans make this debate personal, but they also used their majority power to end debate, barring Wisconsin senators from arguing against mandating this highly invasive procedure. The bill's author suggested that this bill was necessary because "[abortion] became popular in the '60s. It became the thing to do. You know, you almost had to get one to be a woman." This outrageous claim, in addition to her suggestion that one senator's personal sexual assault story was "theatrics," insults the experiences of women who face these devastating circumstances. Although others and I stood to speak, the presiding senator refused to recognize us and broke his gavel while trying to silence those speaking out against the bill.

 

 

Click here or on the video above to watch the debate on SB 206.
 

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, women have been granted a constitutional right to privacy, as well as the authority to make decisions related to their own body. This legislative war on women's health is an insult to women across Wisconsin. An unplanned pregnancy is a difficult and emotional situation for any woman to manage. And while there are many legal options available to her, including raising her baby, adoption, or abortion, it up to each woman to choose her path based on her personal circumstances without undue barriers. That is why I firmly support a woman's right to choose and will continue to stand up for the reproductive health rights of Wisconsin's women as we enter into 2014.

 

ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY

Another challenge Wisconsin has had to grasp is how to stretch what little money we have during these tough economic times. One of the best ways to ensure our tax dollars are being used wisely and as intended by the people of Wisconsin is to increase accountability and transparency measures so we can all track where the money is going to determine if the investments we are making are sound. In 2013, we saw what can happen when accountability and transparency are sacrificed in Wisconsin.

 

Reforming WEDC

Job creation is imperative as Wisconsin continues to lag behind its neighbors and the nation. Yet Governor Walker's Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) has made our economic development efforts a running joke across the country. The people of Wisconsin are at their breaking point with this agency Republicans hastily-created--to replace the Wisconsin Department of Commerce--as it has had persistent problems since its inception in 2011. These include circumventing Wisconsin's fair and competitive bidding process and ignoring federal and state laws when giving out grants. The final straw was losing track of over $50 million in loans, including about $12 million that were overdue.

Unfortunately for taxpayers, it appears WEDC's problems have not been relegated to the past. In fact, the revelations made in four audits of the agency, particularly the report released earlier this year, are nothing short of shocking. Below are some problems that were mentioned in the WEDC audit:

 

  • Provided awards to ineligible recipients, for ineligible projects, and for ineligible amounts.

  • Disregarded the law by not requiring grant and loan recipients to disclose their financial statements.

  • Ignored requests to put policies in place for handling delinquent loans.

  • Failed to put policies in place or track use of agency credit cards resulting in purchases of iTunes gift cards, Badger football tickets, and alcohol with taxpayer dollars.

  • Mismanaged record-keeping preventing WEDC from assessing its effectiveness in creating jobs.

  • Lacked transparency on staff compensation, staff fringe benefits, and gifts from businesses and other organizations with a financial interest in WEDC.

 

Click here to read more about WEDC's complete failure, which was detailed in a past Larson Report.

In fact, WEDC's reported problems are likely impeding much-needed job growth in Wisconsin. Their attempt at creating flexibilities within the agency have actually created a free-for-all that has left even prospective businesses confused about what programs are offered, the qualifications for each program, and how to apply. While Republicans failed to properly address this festering problem in 2013, Democrats offered legislative initiatives to help put Wisconsin's job creation agency on the right track. Some of the common sense provisions included in these proposals are listed below and I hope they will be given proper consideration in 2014:

 

  • Comply with state laws by reporting criteria regarding claw back provisions, loan forgiveness, and how out-of-compliance loans will be handled.

  • Restructure WEDC's Audit Committee, which will be required to oversee WEDC's compliance with state law and board directives. This committee will be required to meet monthly.

  • Describe each program WEDC will pursue or plans to create, the amount of money this will cost, and how many companies or entities will participate in the program.

  • Establish clear goals for each program, including the number of jobs to be created and provide benchmark indicators of success.

  • Review every out-of-compliance contract since July 2011, the action taken, and the justification for it.

  • Offer a comprehensive report on all jobs created to date since the creation of WEDC.

 

Change needs to happen, and the New Year is the perfect time to pursue greater accountability and transparency measures at WEDC. Losing track of taxpayer dollars, especially during difficult economic times, is unacceptable. Therefore, my colleagues and I will continue to push for this good government legislation in 2014.

 

Wisconsin in Need of Nonpartisan Redistricting

Wisconsin currently uses a legislative redistricting process, where the maps are drawn up by the majority parties in the Legislature, are voted on by the Senate and Assembly, and are then signed by the governor.  For the past 50 years, Wisconsin's elected officials have had to work together with bipartisan cooperation or leave the task of redistricting up to the courts. The most recent redistricting was the first time in 60 years that one political party had complete control over the process, causing Wisconsinites to seriously consider if the current process is best for our democracy.

After legislators, advocates, and neighbors voiced concerns over the new legislative district maps drawn and hurriedly passed by Republicans, two former legislators and 13 others filed a legal challenge. The group raised concerns that the partisan boundaries violated the federal Voting Rights Act and the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution because of the way they treated minority communities, broke apart neighborhoods, and shifted voters from one district to another. The three-judge panel ruled that Republicans had indeed violated portions of the federal Voting Rights Act, which had to be corrected.

These events help confirm that our current redistricting process promotes gerrymandering, or manipulating the redrawing of districts to achieve political gain and help ensure the re-election of incumbents, by those in power. The majority of states still use a Legislative Redistricting Model, however, many states are shifting to using bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions to draw up their maps in an effort to decrease partisanship as well as legal fees involved with the process. So far 21 states use some form of a Commission Redistricting Model. 


In an effort to make our electoral process more accountable to the people, my Democratic colleagues and I have introduced legislation that would convert Wisconsin over to the Nonpartisan Commission Model. Under this model, which is used in Iowa, maps are drawn by a redistricting commission comprised of nonpartisan members. If the Legislature rejects all three plans proposed by the commission, the state Supreme Court makes the final decision. No matter which party is in control, we need more accountability and transparency, not less. I will continue doing what I can to promote such policies as we continue on to 2014.
 

TAXES & SPENDING

The last few months of 2013 were spent trying to fill a hole that Governor Walker and legislative Republicans dug in the most recent budget. As a result, Republicans legislators rushed through legislation recently in an attempt to lessen the property tax increase their budget creates over the next two years.

 

Under this recent property tax bill, the average homeowner is expected to save about $33 over the next two years. However, property taxes are still expected to increase overall thanks to Governor Walker's regressive policies, meaning some homeowners will be harder hit when Governor Walker's tax increase goes into effect.

 

In addition to altering Wisconsin's tax code, Republicans also exempted themselves from having to balance the budget. Wisconsin state statutes currently require the Legislature to balance each biennial budget. That means, spending cannot exceed projected revenue. This law was implemented in 2001 to protect the taxpayers of Wisconsin and has been followed until now. With the passage of this budget, Republicans again told Wisconsinites that they are above the law by including a provision exempting them from this common sense statute. As a result, Republicans were able to spend, spend, spend at the expense of Wisconsin taxpayers, which created a $500 million projected deficit in the most recent budget.

 

While Democrats introduced a number of proposals aimed at providing real tax relief to Wisconsin's middle-class, working families, all of these recommendations were rejected by those in the majority. These common sense proposals included:

 

  • Property Tax Cut Amendment (Budget Amendment 15): An amendment to decrease property taxes by an average of $77 per household.

  • Middle-Class Income Tax Cut Amendment (Budget Amendment 16): An amendment to decrease the income tax rate for just the lowest tax bracket to ensure a fairer tax cut.

  • Earned Income Tax Credit Amendment (Budget Amendment 18): An amendment which sought to restore the cuts to Earned Income Tax Credit that occurred in the 2011-13 state budget.

 

My colleagues and I have also introduced the Higher Ed, Lower Debt bill, legislation aimed at providing real financial relief to Wisconsinites that graduate with debt after attending a higher education institution. The student debt crisis is very real here in Wisconsin. According to the U.S. Federal Reserve System, there are 753,000 Wisconsin residents with federal student loan debt. It is estimated that Wisconsin residents paying student loans from obtaining a bachelor's degree are currently paying an average of $388 per month for about 18.7 years. Passing the Higher Ed, Lower Debt bill, authored by Senator Dave Hansen and Representative Cory Mason, would do the following for Wisconsinites:

 

  • Allow Wisconsin's student loan borrowers to deduct their loan payments from their income tax, resulting in annual tax savings of approximately $172 for the typical borrower or as much as $392.

  • Enable Wisconsin's student loan borrowers to refinance their loans at lower interest rates, putting potentially hundreds of dollars back in their pockets and into our economy annually. For example, a borrower with an interest rate of 6.8% and the average University of Wisconsin graduate's loan debt of $27,000 who could lower their interest rate to 4% could save over $40 per month, putting nearly $500 back in their family's pocket over the course of a year.

  • Provide students and parents with detailed information about loans, the best and worst private lenders, and ensure that students receive loan counseling so that borrowers can make informed financial decisions about student loans.

  • Ensure data is collected and tracked about student loan debt in Wisconsin to help policymakers and the public better understand the depth and breadth of the debt crisis in our state.

 

I certainly hope that with the arrival of a New Year, legislative Republicans will come to their senses and consider adopting these economic proposals put forth by those across the aisle. A good idea is a good idea, no matter where it comes from.

 

ENVIRONMENT

Wisconsin is also expected to face a number of environmental complications in the upcoming year, given the environmental rollbacks approved during 2013. One regressive policy included in the most recent budget prevents citizens from challenging the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) approval of high-capacity wells based on the cumulative negative environmental impact the high volume water withdrawal would have on neighboring drinking water wells and area lakes and streams.

This move shows a complete disregard for the quality of our highly valued ground and surface waters. Implementation is expected to result in environmental issues, such as wells running dry due to over pumping of aquifers. Further, it could also have a negative impact on the health of Wisconsinites as water for consumption could be increasingly contaminated. Anglers, farmers, families, and those living in our rural areas should remain deeply concerned with the negative environmental, social, and economic impacts of this proposal.

This is not the only provision damaging to our natural resources. In addition to high-capacity well changes, the Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship Fund, which preserves and maintains Wisconsin's valuable natural resources and outdoor recreational activities, also saw drastic cuts of $18 million to bonding in the latest budget. The budget also requires the DNR to sell off 10,000 acres by 2017.

 

Stewardship funds have been used to protect natural or recreational lands in 71 of Wisconsin's 72 counties. The Stewardship program also benefits the state's economy, including the $11 billion tourism business, $22 billion forestry industry, and $4 billion in hunting and fishing recreation. Wisconsinites recognize the importance of preserving Wisconsin's wildlife and public lands. In a nonpartisan poll conducted by the Nature Conservancy, nearly 90% of Wisconsin voters agreed that even in tight fiscal times this program should be a priority.

 

A number of other anti-conservation bills passed in 2013, including:

 

  • Providing privileges and tax exemptions for the open-pit mining company participating in the Managed Forest Law program, and denying these benefits to the other 30,000 program participants.

  • Ignoring the voices of our northern neighbors by passing the extreme open-pit mining bill and rejecting the bipartisan compromise.

  • Cutting conservation officers used to monitor exponentially expanding frac sand mining operations.

 

Further, the Legislature has to do what it can to move past the recent United Sportsmen scandal. Stories about the $500,000 sweetheart deal for a group with ties to Republican legislators, campaigns, and organizations flooded Wisconsin newspapers in 2013. Below are some of the shocking facts that came to light regarding the sporting grant:

 

  • Narrowly-tailored language in the Republican budget creating the grant prevented established hunting, fishing, and conservation groups from applying.

  • The only eligible group for the grant was United Sportsmen, which had ties to the Assembly Republican Leader in charge when the grant was drafted and awarded.

  • Republican legislators ignored federal warnings that awarding the grant to this political ally could cost Wisconsin up to $28 million in federal funds.

  • Lobbyist for United Sportsmen offered free fishing excursions to then-Assembly Majority Leader just days before the $500,000 grant was awarded.

  • A top DNR official was featured at a fundraiser for United Sportsmen in May, just weeks before the group was awarded the state grant.

  • 18 Tea Party legislators signed a letter encouraging the grant be offered to United Sportsmen.

 

Although after closer examination, it appears that even the sole qualifying sporting group, may not have qualified after all. In fact, here are some of the problems with the group awarded the grant that have since become public:

 

  • Lied on multiple occasions, about their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status having been approved, a grant requirement, when that was not the case.

  • Had no history of doing the type of training for which the grant provides funding.

  • Admitted that the funds would almost solely fund staff salaries and consultants.

  • Their president was cited, convicted, and fined for a hunting violation. The violation involved state fish and game law that the group would have been receiving taxpayer money to teach to new hunters and anglers as part of the grant.

 

Moving backwards in conservation policies threatens to do long-term damage to the environment that we have fought to maintain with Wisconsin's future generations facing the consequences for years to come. For that reason, I will continue to fight for the reversal of these ill-conceived policies in 2014.

 

PUBLIC TRANSIT

A 2012 report titled Transportation and the New Generation released by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group revealed that for the first time since World War II, Americans are driving less. Despite the fact that public transit use is increasing while people are driving less, highway expansion projects continue to be highly prioritized in Wisconsin.

 

Currently, our state has stalled when it comes to providing support for our public transit infrastructure, which can have a negative impact on our economic health. Having a well-supported public transit system is vital to maintaining and creating jobs in our community. According to the Milwaukee County Transit System's 2011 ridership counts, on average 151,000 rides are provided daily. Of these, 42% are commuters traveling to and from work or heading to job interviews, 12% are students making their way to classes to learn valuable skills for their future careers, 15% are taking the bus to their medical appointments, 11% of riders are shoppers frequenting area businesses, and 6% use the bus for other reasons. Therefore, my colleagues and I will continue to do what we can to encourage the bipartisan passage of key public transportation initiatives as we move into 2014.

 

 

Fast Facts

Here are some fast facts about what happened in Wisconsin during 2013 and what challenges we face in the upcoming year:

 

  • The U.S. experienced nearly double the rate of job growth (1.9%) compared to Wisconsin (1.0%) from June 2012 to June 2013.

  • About 50% of Wisconsin's 424 school districts received less aid this school year compared to the previous one as funds are being diverted to the unaccountable statewide voucher program, which is comprised mostly of students that were already attending private school (73.1%).

  • Accepting federal funding to strengthen BadgerCare would insure nearly 85,000 more Wisconsinites, save state taxpayers $109 million over the biennium, and create over 10,000 Wisconsin jobs.

  • We need more accountability, not less. It is unacceptable to continue supporting a redistricting process that encourages secrecy and gerrymandering, and an economic development agency that is better at creating scandal--such as losing track of over $50 million in loans--than jobs.

  • Property taxes are currently expected to increase due to Governor Walker's regressive policies. In 2013, Legislative Republicans also exempted themsevles from having to follow Wisconsin State Statute requiring them to balance the budget so they could spend, spend, spend creating a $500 million deficit in the latest budget. 

  • The state passed a number of environmental rollbacks including those that could damage our water quality and prevent us from adequately protecting our natural and recreations lands. Further, a recent budget provision to reward a political ally nearly cost the state $28 million in federal funding.

  • Milwaukee County Transit System provides an average of 151,000 rides daily, highlighting the importance of a well-supported public transit infrastructure. Of these riders, 42% are commuters traveling to and from work or heading to job interviews, 12% are students making their way to classes to learn valuable skills for their future careers, 15% are taking the bus to their medical appointments, and 11% of riders are shoppers frequenting area businesses.

 

 

Ask Chris

I often have neighbors contact me looking for my perspective on various local and state issues. I very much appreciate our neighbors' questions and want to dedicate a portion of my newsletter to common questions that I hear to maintain an open dialogue. Please continue reading for this week's question.

Q: I read an article this weekend in the paper that says voting "yes" for the special session bill means denying Wisconsinites health care coverage and voting "no" also means denying Wisconsinites coverage. How is this possible?
 

A: During 2013, residents across the state asked Governor Walker to accept federal dollars to strengthen BadgerCare and implement a state-run exchange. This funding--from a pot of money that Wisconsin families already paid into with their federal tax dollars--was a win-win for Wisconsin's working families and taxpayers, and would have insured nearly 85,000 more Wisconsinites and saved Wisconsin taxpayers $109 million. Further, saying yes to strengthening BadgerCare was estimated to create over 10,000 Wisconsin jobs.

 

However, rather than do what is best for Wisconsinites by taking advantage of this opportunity to expand affordable health care coverage, Governor Walker and legislative Republicans chose to move forward with their own plan. This plan will not only cost Wisconsinites more money, but it also creates a coverage gap that has ended up pitting two impoverished groups of Wisconsinites against each other.

 

 

Click here or on the video above to watch the Senate Floor debate on this special session bill.

 

If the Legislature passes the governor's plan, it will result in 83,000 childless adults who would have received health care coverage on January 1, 2014, being denied coverage until after March 31, 2014. However, the plan also delays kicking off 74,000 parents and caretakers above 133% of the federal poverty level who currently have BadgerCare, ensuring they have health care coverage until March 31, 2014. On the other hand, if the Legislature votes "no" on the governor's plan, it would mean that 83,000 childless adults would begin receiving coverage on January 1, 2014, but would also kick off those 74,000 parents and caretakers who currently have BadgerCare three months earlier than expected. Under the current scenario, Wisconsinites lose either way.

 

The governor's plan breaks a promise made to 83,000 childless adults. However, there is a third option that would ensure that all of these individuals could receive BadgerCare. If Wisconsin were to accept federal funding to strengthen BadgerCare, then these neighbors would have access to health care coverage through BadgerCare for at least three years at no additional cost to taxpayers. Unfortunately, Governor Walker and legislative Republicans have thus far chosen to play politics with people's health by refusing to go against the Tea Party's demands to reject the federal funding.

 

My colleagues and I offered amendments to allow Wisconsin to take the federal funding to cover all of these Wisconsinites for three years for less money than under the governor's plan and to fulfill the promise made to the 83,000 childless adults who need medical care. Unfortunately, all of these common sense and compassionate amendments were rejected by Senate Republicans. Therefore, my colleagues and I were forced to vote in a way that ensures the most people get coverage. Therefore, I voted against the special session bill to try to ensure that 83,000 childless adults would begin receiving coverage on January 1, 2014. However, the bill--which has already passed the Assembly--passed the Senate and will now be sent to the governor for his signature into law. I am sorry to those that will be needlessly delaying their coverage and encourage those that fall into this group to contact me if you reside in the 7th Senate District and require assistance in finding health care alternatives for the time being.

 

I am saddened that the governor and legislative Republicans would rather force this immoral vote than accept the federal funding. Wisconsin is now an island, surrounded by states--run by both Democratic and Republican governors--that accepted federal funding to cover more residents and are reaping the benefits of their investment. Clearly we have chosen to forgo the common sense path for the path of extremism.
 

 

Did You Know...?

You may be aware that the Golden Globe awards will be presented in the New Year on January 12, 2014. But did you know that some of these nominations have ties to both our state and our local community?

 

John Ridley Jr., a Milwaukee-area native, received a Golden Globe nomination for his screenplay "12 Years a Slave." While Homestead High School alum John Ridley Jr. got his start in show business doing standup comedy, he eventually changed course to pursue being a writer. He has proven successful at his career, which has included writing novels, TV shows, screenplays, internet series, stage plays, and graphic novels in a wide range of genres.

 

The HBO drama "Behind the Candelabra" about Milwaukee native Liberace was also nominated. The show received four nominations, including best miniseries or motion picture for television. Liberace was a child music prodigy who went on to win two Emmy awards, six gold albums, and two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

 

Click here to learn more about the 2014 Golden Globe nominees.

 

 

Take the 2013-2014 Neighborhood Survey

I created a survey for the 2013-2014 Legislative Session asking about various issues that are important to our community and our state. The input of neighbors is greatly appreciated. My staff and I will be working hard to deliver as many surveys door to door as possible before winter arrives. In addition, I have also made this survey available online.

Click here to download and print a copy of this survey, which you can return to my office via mail, email, or fax upon completion.

Click here to save a stamp and take the survey online.

I look forward to hearing your views on these important issues!

 

 

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