LARSON REPORT

WEEKLY NEWSLETTER



 

April 3, 2014

     
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. 

 

 

Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life
Date: Now through Sun., June 15

Location: Milwaukee

Description: BODY WORLDS & The Cycle of Life is the latest exhibition from physician and pioneering anatomist Dr. Gunther von Hagens. At BODY WORLDS & The Cycle of Life, you will see the body throughout the human life cycle and across the arc of aging. More than 200 real human specimens preserved through Dr. von Hagens' invention reveal the human body in all its stages, across youth, growth, maturity, and advanced age, and in all its conditions, from health to distress to disease. CLICK HERE or call (414) 278-2702 for more information.

Milwaukee Public Museum (MAP)
800 W. Wells Street
Milwaukee, WI 53202

 

 

South Shore Veterans Update

Date: Mon., April 7 from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Location: Cudahy

Description: Join me in stopping by this meeting at the local Cudahy Public Library to discuss veteran issues with State Representative Christine Sinicki, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary John Scocos, Board Member Rev. Carl Krueger, Veterans Service Officer James Duff, and Tracey Sperko, Executive Director of the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative & Women Veterans in Need. There will be a coffee and conversation portion, presentations, and a Q & A discussion.

 

Cudahy Family Library (MAP)

3500 Library Avenue

Cudahy, WI 53110

 

 

Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy Presents
Alice in Wonderland
Date: Sat., April 12 and Sun., April 13

Location: South Milwaukee

Description: "Alice in Wonderland" features students from the Milwaukee Ballet Academy. This family-friendly performance is by students, for children of all ages and those who are children at heart. CLICK HERE for more information.

 

South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center (MAP)

901 15th Avenue

South Milwaukee, WI 53172

 

 

Young Professionals Week

Date: Sat., April 12 through Sat., April 19

Location: Milwaukee

Description: Young Professionals Week is almost here. YPWeek is a week-long platform for discovery, adventure, and meaningful conversations about the issues that matter. Milwaukee is home to many organizations and community assets that engage, develop, and retain the local young professional community. Each year, NEWaukee partners with over 50 different local organizations to create a springboard for idea and goal sharing among Milwaukee's millennial workforce. With the platform of Young Professional Week, NEWaukee and local partners create a national audience for idea sharing, an increased sense of connectivity, and an investment in our local community among Milwaukee's millennial workforce. CLICK HERE to learn more about the events that will be happening across Milwaukee as a part of YPWeek.

 

 

DNR Spring Hearing

Date: Mon., April 14 at 7 p.m.

Location: 72 hearings with one per county

Description: Every spring, each person in Wisconsin has the opportunity to help direct how the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages our natural resources. The DNR holds a hearing with survey questions and resolutions that are voted on by all who attend. The hearing happens at the same time in each county across our state and is scheduled to convene on Monday, April 14, 2014, at 7 p.m. Additionally, the DNR will provide a brief overview of the status of the deer herd and some upcoming changes to the deer season that are a result of the implementation of the Deer Trustee Report. In conjunction with the hearing, Wisconsin's Conservation Congress holds a brief meeting to elect officers who help carry the voice of conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts to the Natural Resources Board through out the year. The Conservation Congress is unique to Wisconsin and reflects both our rich tradition of conservation and our commitment to grassroots democracy. Meeting results, along with written comments on the evening's questions and DNR recommendations, are used to advise the state Natural Resources Board. Votes are non-binding and are presented to the Natural Resources Board as advisories. If you are interested in outdoor recreation, conservation, or our heritage of being citizen stewards of our natural resources, I encourage you to attend and provide your input to this important process. CLICK HERE for more information about this event.
 

 

10th Annual Eggs-travaganza
Date: Sat., April 19 at 9 a.m.
Location: Milwaukee
Description: All are welcome to join the fun at the 10th Annual Eggs-travaganza scheduled for the Saturday, April 19 at 9 a.m. in the children's play area of Riverside Park. Bring your containers, cameras, smiles, kids, and grandkids for this annual egg hunt. Several thousand eggs are "hidden" for the hunt, including traditional colored eggs, plastic filled eggs, and special ceramic eggs and eggs d'art created by the artists at Murray Hill Pottery. Eggs-travaganza is sponsored by Murray Hill Pottery Works, the Upper East Side Business Improvement District, Walgreens, and the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association. Want to be a good neighbor and help out? Pick up eggs to color before the event or help hide the eggs. CLICK HERE for more information.

 

Riverside Park (MAP)

1500 E. Park Place

Milwaukee, WI 53211

 

 

Wisconsin's Free Fun Weekend

Date: Sat., June 7 and Sun., June 8

Location: Wisconsin

Description: On these days, the following activities will be free and open to the public: state parks, fishing, state trails, and ATV riding on public trails. CLICK HERE for more information.

 

 

The Crossings

Date: Thurs., May 1 and Fri., May 2

Location: Various Milwaukee Intersections

Description: Join me at this unique event that boasts a street performance aimed at making Milwaukee a city that sees and stops for pedestrians. You will also be invited to join in a mass street crossing (will follow all traffic laws). These events will take place at the following times and locations:

 

Site 1--Intersection of KK, Logan, and Russell on May 1 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

 

Site 2--Intersection of KK and St. Francis on May 2 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

 

Site 3--Intersection of Packard and Ramsey on May 2 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

 

CLICK HERE for more information about this event.

 

Dear Wisconsin Neighbor,

 

This week, we review the events of the recently concluded 2013-2014 Legislative Session. Not only will we look at the legislation passed this session related to a number of issues--jobs, education, health care, etc.--but we will also examine what the Legislature could have done, but didn't.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions, concerns or opinions you may have about our community or state.

Sincerely,

Chris Larson
State Senator, District 7

 

 

Regular Session Concludes for the Year

The Legislature has concluded its 2013-2014 session. However, the Legislature could still come back if called into special session. In anticipation of fewer legislative obligations in the Capitol, representatives and senators will be spending more time in their local community and less time in their Madison offices. Continue reading for more information about what was taken up by the Senate on the final session day.

 

Freedom for Wisconsinites to Choose Their Cancer Treatment
Chemotherapy administered in pill form, rather than through an IV, is becoming the standard course of treatment for many cancer patients. These medications are less invasive, pose fewer complications, and are the only course of treatment for some conditions. Despite this, oral chemotherapy treatment is often more expensive than its intravenous counterpart. Therefore, a bipartisan group of legislators co-authored Senate Bill 300, the Cancer Treatment Fairness Act, legislation that would ensure chemotherapy patients in Wisconsin regulated health care plans receive equal coverage for these two treatment methods.

People across Wisconsin were shocked to learn that Republican legislators were playing political games with this lifesaving legislation. My Democratic colleagues and I have always been supportive of expanding freedom from the high cost of health care, which is why we fought to take up Senate Bill 300. Unfortunately, despite widespread support for this bill, it was held hostage in a political game, to the detriment of Wisconsinites battling cancer and their families.

In the end, thanks to pressure from people with cancer, cancer survivors, and their families; advocacy groups; Democratic legislators; and the media, Republican leadership was forced to reconsider their tactics and schedule Senate Bill 300 for a vote on the floor. This bill ultimately passed both houses of the Legislature and was sent to the governor for his signature. Our family, friends, and neighbors fighting against cancer should never be forced to forgo treatment as a result of health care coverage discrepancies impeding access to the vital, lifesaving medication they need. Therefore, I was proud to support this bill and see it pass the Legislature in spite of the obstacles it had to bypass.

 

Providing Relief to Seizure Sufferers

Another bill that will help our neighbors suffering from debilitating health conditions was passed in the Senate this week. Assembly Bill 726 legalizes the use of nonhallucinogenic cannabidiol (CBD) to reduce the frequency of seizures in children and adults.

CBD has become an innovative, noninvasive treatment for epilepsy. During the public hearing on the bill, several physicians testified to the medical benefits and effectiveness of CBD use in treating seizures. As medical technology and treatments continue to advance and improve, it is important that state policies reflect these changes. Therefore, I was pleased to have the opportunity to vote for Assembly Bill 726 on the Senate floor. Passage of this bill will go a long way towards improving the quality of life for our fellow Wisconsin neighbors living with a seizure disorder.
 

Investing in Community Safety

After cutting the investment to Milwaukee's ShotSpotter program during the last budget, relenting to public pressure, Republicans have decided to change course. This week, the Senate approved legislation that would invest an additional $175,000 in the ShotSpotter program. This program uses sensor technology to broadcast an address to police if gunfire is detected. With this technology, Milwaukee's police force is able to analyze scenes where shots are fired quickly, which can mean getting more criminals off the street and preventing additional crimes in our community. This program is highly valued by the city, Milwaukee police, and neighbors. I was pleased to see this legislation reach the floor for a vote and cast my vote in support of the bill, which has been sent to the governor for his approval.

 

Increasing Safety on Our Roads
In session this week, the Legislature also took up legislation to improve public safety in our communities. Alternative transportation such as bike travel is economical, environmentally friendly, and popular in the Milwaukee area. Therefore, it is imperative that our state ensures safe opportunities for neighbors to travel by bike. Unfortunately, in recent years there have been a number of fatal crashes, which mobilized Wisconsinites to advocate for stricter penalties against motorists that are at fault for injuring or killing a bicycle rider.

The legislation passed on Tuesday, Assembly Bill 388, aims to do just that. The bill will allow for stiffer penalties for those drivers who negligently injure or kill vulnerable highway users, including bicycle riders. It also includes an education requirement for driving courses to prepare drivers to be more mindful of vulnerable users. This bill will ensure that bicyclists and drivers of cars and trucks both have the freedom to safely drive on our streets.
 

 

We Should Have Done More This Session

The 2013-2014 Legislative Session followed a similar path as the previous session. Rather than focusing on job creation and economic growth, those in control used their power to push an agenda that will only continue to impede both the freedoms of Wisconsinites and our economic recovery. Further, instead of making wise investments, Republican initiatives hurriedly passed will likely result in wasted taxpayer dollars. In the end, five words sum up this past legislative session best: we should have done more.

Below we will take an in-depth look at just how our community and state have been impacted by legislation related to jobs, education, health care, accountability and transparency, limiting freedoms, taxes, and our shared public lands.


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. Our lack of economic success is in stark contrast with what the rest of the country is experiencing. While Wisconsin only saw a 1.2% increase in private sector job growth from September 2012 to September 2013, the United States averaged a 2.1% increase, nearly double Wisconsin's rate. As a result, Wisconsin currently ranks 35th among the 50 states in job creation during that time. Further statistics released just this week show Wisconsin is still losing jobs at a faster rate than other states. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin ranks second nationally for job losses in February 2014, losing an estimated 9,500 jobs.

 

Even more statistics summarizing where Wisconsin ranked this session 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 giveaways for the wealthy and corporations over proven job creation investments such as education, job training, and public transit, it is no wonder we are still floundering. Unfortunately, Republicans simply expanded their failed policies from 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 session, our neighborhood schools have faced drastic cuts, fewer educational opportunities, and reductions in teachers and staff. All of this on top of record cuts of $1.6 billion made in the previous session. 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 unaccountable private voucher schools as a result of Republicans expanding the program statewide.

Vouchers for Kids Already Attending Private Schools
At the beginning of the school year, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) released 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.

Study After Study Confirms Voucher Failure
Those of us residing in Milwaukee and Racine counties are already familiar with the damage our children, property taxes, and communities suffer by 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. Study after study has confirmed that voucher school students fare no better and often worse than their public school counterparts. 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.

 

Additionally, the current unaccountable voucher program allows school owners to flee with our tax dollars without upholding their promise to education our children. At the beginning of 2014, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel uncovered that Milwaukee's LifeSkills Academy, a private K-8 school participating in the voucher program, abruptly closed in December after receiving $202,278 in taxpayer dollars. As a result, all students, including voucher program participants, were forced to relocate to other schools. More recently, it was reported that Learning Bridges Kingdom Academy had followed a similar path. Again, due to the loophole in voucher funding laws, Learning Bridges Kingdom Academy, a K-7 voucher school in Milwaukee, was able to collect $1 million in taxpayer funds without accreditation for almost four years.

These recent events are just a couple examples of the problems associated with an unaccountable voucher system. Under current law, DPI is required to pay voucher schools up to $7,856 per pupil based on the school's 2014-2015 fall enrollment count. These payments are made in four installments during the school year. If voucher schools break their commitment to educate our children, there is no mechanism set up to recoup these funds. In the case of LifeSkills Academy, they were able to cash in half a school years' worth of funding, but only educate the children for three and a half months out of the nine-and-a-half-month school year.

Even more concerning than the millions of dollars wasted on LifeSkills Academy and Learning Bridges Kingdom Academy is the horrible education they provided attending children. It was noted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that "no students attending LifeSkills were proficient in reading or math in 2012-13, except for a single fourth-grade student, according to the state achievement test score results." As for Learning Bridges Kingdom, not only did 76% of tested students fall into the lowest of four performance categories, but a majority of students even lacked the most basic reading skills. Paying millions to schools that foster illiteracy is exactly the kind of abuse of education investments Democrats have been fighting to prevent. I think we can all agree that Wisconsin should not continue to give millions of dollars to schools that fail to teach our children the necessary skills to succeed. Our children deserve better.

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. 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 the expansion of vouchers statewide this is a burden that may now be endured by all Wisconsin communities.

Improving Our Children's Educational Opportunities
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. As our Minnesota neighbors proved earlier this year, it is possible to restore funds raided from education and still have a budget surplus. We simply have to prioritize our values correctly. 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 when session resumes next January.

 

HEALTH CARE
Health care was one of my top priorities this session and will continue to be when the Legislature returns for regular session in January 2015. A number of legislative proposals passed this session will impact the everyday freedoms of Wisconsinites to access needed health care that is affordable. Continue reading for more about these policies.

Wisconsin Pays More for Less This Session and Beyond
This session, 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 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 $119 million in this biennium. Further, saying yes to strengthening BadgerCare was estimated to create over 10,000 Wisconsin jobs. Instead of investing in increased access to health care, the Legislature adopted the governor's plan, which entails wasting Wisconsin tax dollars on covering the coverage gap he created.

There are two simple actions the governor and legislative Republicans could have taken this session to fix this problem:

 

  • Accept the federal money so Wisconsin could invest in expanding BadgerCare, which would provide thousands more Wisconsinites access to affordable health care at a lower cost to taxpayers.

  • Provide our state with the freedom to create a Wisconsin-based exchange to provide health care in a way that works best 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, our state still has the opportunity to act responsibly by holding a special session to address this issue.

Silencing Women by Passing an Extreme Bill
The Senate also took up bills this session that threaten 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, forced ultrasounds. SB 206, which mandates invasive ultrasounds, is a step backwards for women's reproductive health for the following reasons:

 

  • Difficulty getting an accurate picture of a fetus during early stages of pregnancy means those administering an ultrasound will push for an invasive transvaginal ultrasound instead of an abdominal ultrasound.

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

  • This mandate is costly as ultrasounds can cost upwards of $1,200--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 invasive 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 passage of this highly invasive proposal. 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.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, women have been granted a constitutional right to privacy, as well as the freedom to make decisions related to their own body. An unplanned pregnancy is a difficult and emotional situation for any woman. And while there are many options available to her, including raising her baby, adoption, or abortion, it is up to each woman to choose her path based on her personal circumstances and beliefs 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.

ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY

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. This session, 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. 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 in 2013, 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.

  • 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.


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 this session, Democrats offered legislative initiatives to help put Wisconsin's job creation agency on the right track. Some of the common sense provisions include:

 

  • Describe each program, the overall cost, and how many companies will participate

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

  • Review each out-of-compliance contract, the action taken, and the justification

  • Offer a comprehensive report on all jobs created since WEDC's creation


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. In an effort to make our electoral process more accountable to the people, my Democratic colleagues and I 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 in the next legislative session.

 

LIMITING FREEDOMS

Wisconsin currently ranks in the top five for highest voter turnout rates in the nation. Unfortunately, this trend may not continue given the passage of anti-freedom legislation, passed by legislative Republicans and signed by Governor Walker, aimed at suppressing voter access to the polls. With elections right around the corner, it makes sense that the Republican majority would adopt bills aimed at changing our voting rules and procedures. After all, if you are afraid you may not win why not change the rules of the game at halftime? Continue reading for more about these restrictive bills that passed this session.

Limiting In-Person Absentee Voting Access
This bill intends to make it harder for voters to partake in our fundamental constitutional freedom and right. For proof, look no further than the relating clause, or one-sentence bill description, which literally contains the words "limiting" and "voting." Under current law, voters can apply to vote in-person absentee with the local municipal clerk beginning on the third Monday preceding the election and ending at 5 p.m. or the close of business on the Friday preceding the election, whichever is later. Senate Bill 324 penalizes local municipalities seeking to provide greater access to the polls for qualified voters by changing this existing law.

With the passage of this bill, in-person absentee voting applications may only be received by each municipal clerk's office Monday to Friday between the hours of 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. each day. This means that municipalities that choose to offer extended hours during weekdays or open their doors on weekends prior to an election will no longer be allowed to do so.

Unfortunately, the people that really lose out under this proposal are Wisconsin's workers who may be unable to leave their job to vote absentee during normal business hours. While employers often provide workers the opportunity to leave work in order to cast their vote on Election Day, many of these workers do not have the luxury to take their employers up on this offer. Put simply, this bill is an attack on our freedom.

In addition to making it more difficult for hard-working Wisconsinites to exercise their constitutional right to vote, this bill also infringes on the rights of local government. Who better to know if the municipal clerk should offer extended hours for voters than the office that conducts the elections for those Wisconsinites each Election Day? This bill does not allow large communities, such as Milwaukee, to adapt their policies and procedures to accommodate the fact that they have a population 1,200-times the size of a small town with only 500 Wisconsinites.

In the end, pretending these communities are the same will have a catastrophic effect, as the passage of this one-size-fits-all restriction will not work in a community like ours. Absentee in-person voting has been an essential tool utilized by larger communities to reduce Election Day voting waiting time. Due to their size being larger than Wisconsin's smaller communities, it is not uncommon for cities like Milwaukee to experience wait-times of one hour to vote, a problem that will only be exacerbated by limiting in-person absentee voting hours. Parents trying to vote after work with their kids in tow should not have to wait in line for an hour to exercise their constitutional right to vote. All Wisconsin communities are not the same, which is why decisions as important as this should be conducted at the local level.

This is not the only controversial election-related bill that passed this session. There was also a bill, Senate Bill 655, which further creates a pay-to-play atmosphere in governing as it allows lobbyists to contribute to legislative campaigns earlier than under current law. Not surprisingly, this bill was seemingly the work of a conservative corporate lobby group and Senate Republican leaders. Another couple of proposals that passed, Senate Bill 20 and Senate Bill 265, place additional restrictions on local municipal clerks by dictating who can volunteer to assist on Election Day.

Senate Democrats Introduce Proposal to Protect Voting Freedoms
When it comes to election reform this session, the difference is clear. While Governor Walker and legislative Republicans worked on restricting the freedom to vote, Senate Democrats tried to make it harder to cheat. In response to efforts by the majority aimed at restricting access to the polls for qualified citizens, Senate Democrats introduced a proposal that would have protected our individual freedom and constitutional right to vote. This resolution, also known as the Right to Vote Act, reaffirmed that each qualified elector has a fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the district in which they reside. Adoption of this proposal would have further enabled Wisconsinites to continue our proud tradition of high voter participation and turnout. Unfortunately, this proposal did not pass before regular session ended. Therefore, the proposal will have to be reintroduced next session if it is to pass.

 

TAXES & COMMUNITY INVESTMENTS

Governor Walker betrayed our trust by prioritizing the rich over the rest of us. During the past two years, numerous special sessions were called, which often aimed at filling the fiscal holes dug by Governor Walker and legislative Republicans. Included in one such special session was legislation to lessen the property tax increase the most recent Republican budget created. Property taxes are still expected to increase overall thanks to Governor Walker's regressive policies.

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 Wisconsin taxpayers and has been followed until now. With the passage of the most recent budget, Republicans again told Wisconsinites that they are above the law by including a provision exempting them from this responsible, 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 tax fairness 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.


This session, my colleagues and I 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.

  • 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.

 

SHARED PUBLIC LANDS
Wisconsin also faced a number of environmental rollbacks this session that will impact the overall health of our shared lands and water. 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. Such laws could mean wells running dry due to over pumping of aquifers and increasingly contaminated water that can harm the health of plants, animals, and people. Anglers, farmers, businesses, 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 lands and outdoor recreational activities, also saw drastic cuts of $18 million to bonding in the latest budget. 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 this session, 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 this session. 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 respected 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. After closer examination, it was found that even this group did not qualify as they lied on multiple occasions about their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.

  • 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.

  • The group had no history of doing the type of training for which the grant provides funding and admitted the funds would almost solely fund staff salaries and consultants.


Reversing on conservation policies threatens long-term damage to the shared public lands we have fought to maintain for Wisconsin's future generations. For that reason, I will continue to fight for the reversal of these ill-conceived policies when the Legislature convenes in January 2015. 
 

 

Join Me at Upcoming Listening Sessions

Hearing your thoughts and concerns is important to me. While serving you, I have held town hall meetings, listening sessions, coffee and conversations, business tours, and in-district meetings. I advertise these by posting on my Web site, Facebook and Twitter, via neighborhood groups, with media alerts, and through direct emails.

Below are a few of the upcoming events that I invite you to attend if you are interested in talking to me about issues facing our community or state, or if you want to listen to the concerns and thoughts of our fellow neighbors.

Please do not hesitate to contact my office for additional information. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014
5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Bay View High School
2751 S. Lenox Street
Milwaukee, WI 53207

Thursday, April 24, 2014
5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
St. Francis Library
4230 S. Nicholson Avenue
St. Francis, WI 53235

Wednesday, April 30, 2014
5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Cudahy Library
3500 Library Avenue
Cudahy, WI 53110

Thursday, May 1, 2014
5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
MATC, Oak Creek Campus
6665 S. Howell Avenue
Lecture Hall A
Oak Creek, WI 53154

Tuesday, May 6, 2014
5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Gordon Park Pavilion
2828 N. Humboldt Blvd. (at Locust St.)
Milwaukee, WI 53212

Wednesday, May 7, 2014
5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
South Milwaukee Library
1907 10th Avenue
South Milwaukee, WI 53172

Tuesday, May 13, 2014
5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Riverside High School
1615 E. Locust Street
Milwaukee, WI 53211
 

 

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