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Saturday, December 24, 2011

WALKER - ONE YEAR IN - Larson Report

Walker's Wisconsin--One Year In
January 3, 2012, will mark the one-year anniversary of Governor Walker taking over the state of Wisconsin. His broken promises and misplaced priorities have pushed Wisconsin in the wrong direction. Few can remember a time when those in power were this divisive and promoted an agenda that was this extreme.

Below we will take a look at just how our community and state have been harmed by the Walker administration's radical policies and devastating cuts in the areas of jobs, education, health care, public transit, the environment, accountability and transparency, and taxes and investment in our communities.

Earlier this week, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics released its report on national jobs statistics from last month, showing that Wisconsin lost 14,600 more jobs in November and continues to lead the nation in job losses.

Governor Walker has also held two special jobs sessions, which were both complete failures as they focused on corporate giveaways, producing little to no jobs. His inability to create job growth over the past year has left Wisconsin ranked 43rd in the nation for job growth.

The governor was quick to use the monthly jobs figures to boast with at a press conference in June when they showed gains, primarily in seasonal tourism jobs. Since his budget plan took effect in July, the numbers have fallen every month. Now Governor Walker refuses to take responsibility and ownership for this economic drought.

Governor Walker promised the people of Wisconsin that he would create 250,000 jobs statewide during his term, but has failed to create even 1/10 of the jobs he promised. According to BadgerStat, Wisconsin needs to gain about 5,210 jobs per month on average to reach that goal, but is currently moving at a pace below what is needed.

In order to increase Wisconsin's job growth prospects, Governor Walker should be focusing his efforts on supporting factors that encourage businesses to start-up or relocated to Wisconsin. We need our governor to start investing in K-12 education, our technical colleges and our universities so that we will have a skilled workforce. He also needs to work on protecting our natural resources and reducing crime and poverty rates so that employers can see Wisconsin is a state with a high quality of life. Additionally, we need him to demonstrate that he values an accountable and transparent government, which tells businesses that government will work with them on all aspects of job creation and growing their company. This long-term investment in our state will spur economic development and more sustained job growth for generations to come.

Our children took the brunt of Walker's cuts this year as he slashed funding from our neighborhood schools to give away our taxpayer dollars to special interests and corporations. Under the Republican budget approximately $1.6 billion was stripped from education statewide. These decimating cuts hit some communities harder than others and have been especially detrimental to children in Milwaukee and the surrounding area.

New legislation at the state level recently expanded the voucher program in Milwaukee to allow private schools outside Milwaukee to participate, while also removing all enrollment caps on the program and raising the income limits on participants. Under these changes, Milwaukee Public Schools will be forced to funnel 22.6% of its tax levy into the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, leaving City of Milwaukee taxpayers on the hook for $55.4 million. 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 22,400 students.

The effect of Governor Walker's cuts to education and his continued allegiance to private and religious schools over our neighborhood schools can already be seen across the state. Below are results from the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrator's annual survey:
Wisconsin lost 4,000 educational jobs, leaving our schools understaffed and our children underserved
2/3 of responding school districts expect to make the same or greater cuts next year as a result of no longer receiving one-time federal dollars
4 in 10 students attend a district with larger class sizes in grades K-6
40% of students are in districts that eliminated sections or increased class size for the core subjects of English, Math, Science and Social Studies
Districts are offering fewer art, music, physical education, Advanced Placement and foreign language classes
Roughly 3 in 4 students attend school at a district that reduced at least one essential support program.
The biggest cuts were to special education programs, which are followed by library and media center staff, reading coordinators, programs for at-risk youth, and drug and alcohol abuse programs
Cuts to education far out weighed the savings from increased pension and insurance contributions
Similar results can also be seen right here in our own community. Here is how Milwaukee County's 18 school districts have been negatively impacted by Governor Walker's sweeping education cuts:
Milwaukee County is struggling with 1,719 fewer teachers, aides and administrators this year compared to 2010
Most Milwaukee County school districts expect to make the same or deeper cuts to balance their budgets for the next school year, with only one of the 18 reporting that they expect to make fewer cuts next year compared to this year
1/2 of Milwaukee County school districts reported increased class sizes and higher student-to-teacher ratios
Cuts to support services, such as special education, were made in five of our 18 Milwaukee County School districts

Governor Walker’s misplaced priorities have left our children and educators struggling to get out of an impossible situation. His actions have also jeopardized the future economic success of our state and limited opportunities for our children. Educating our children is not like riding a bike. If you fall off you cannot just get back up again and ride. Our children only have one shot at early education and developing the skills they need to succeed.

Currently, about one out of five Wisconsin residents rely on Medicaid programs, for their health care needs. The number of individuals enrolled in the state's Medicaid programs has been steadily increasing in recent years due to the ongoing recession and increased health care costs, making it one of the worst times to consider chopping away at our health safety net.

Unfortunately, Governor Walker did just that this year, beginning with his budget proposal. Nearly $500 million was cut from Medicaid programs, which is hurting families in every community throughout Wisconsin. Notable health care cuts are listed below:
Only extends SeniorCare through 2012, bringing uncertainty to the long-term availability of the program, which is a cheaper option to Medicare Part D for our seniors and taxpayers.
Places a cap on the FamilyCare program, which provides access to vital health services for frail seniors and individuals with disabilities. There are currently 2,000 people on the FamilyCare waiting list in Milwaukee County alone.
Substantially restricts women's access to preventative health care, including: cancer screenings, pap tests, birth control and medical exams.
Reduces the eligibility and services for BadgerCare, which provides services to working families and had a wait-list of 50,000 Wisconsinites in June 2010.
The Governor continued his extreme agenda announcing an additional $554 million in cuts this past October. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) has estimated that almost 65,000 Wisconsinites, including 30,000 pregnant women and children, will lose their current BadgerCare health care coverage. Another group that will be disproportionately affected by these additional Medicaid cuts are people suffering from chronic illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease. Chronic and life-threatening illnesses often leave individuals unable to work, causing them to exhaust their lifesavings and unable to cover their medical expenses without the use of Medicaid.

Wisconsin's vital health care programs ensure that our families and neighbors are able to receive quality, affordable health care to prevent costly emergency room visits. These programs also help keep loved ones out of nursing homes and in-patient facilities, saving taxpayers money.

Walker's Republican legislators are pushing legislation to repeal current comprehensive sex education standards. According to the Wisconsin Alliance for Women's Health, approximately 87% of Wisconsin voters support requiring comprehensive sex education instruction that includes information about both abstinence and contraception.

The positive impact of comprehensive sex education on Wisconsin's young adults can also be seen right here in our neighborhood. According to the Milwaukee Health Department, Milwaukee's teen birthrate has dropped dramatically for the second year in a row, from 46.73 births per 1,000 teens in 2008 to 35.68 births per 1,000 teens in 2010.

Governor Walker opted to push massive highway expansion projects this year rather than support our local roads and public transit. According to a WISPIRG study release earlier this year, Wisconsin taxpayers will be footing roughly $2 billion to fund questionable and unnecessary transportation projects in the Republican budget rather than putting those funds towards local roads and public transit. In addition to a loss of $77 million in shared revenue, the following communities can expect cuts to state transportation funds in the amounts listed below:

Cudahy = $98,181
Milwaukee = $2,546,188
Oak Creek = $164,524
Saint Francis = $65,933
South Milwaukee = $90,118

Governor Walker's cuts to public transit and our local roads had an even greater domino effect in our community as it led to the end of the new Regional Transit Authorities and high-speed rail. There are also communities in Wisconsin that are now facing the very real possibility of being forced to shut down their transit systems.

Having a well-supported public transit system is vital to maintaining and creating jobs in our community. According to the Milwaukee County Transit systems, on average 140,000 rides are provided daily. Of these, 39% are commuters traveling to and from work, another 5% are heading to job interviews, and 11% are students making their way to classes to learn valuable skills for their future careers.

Wisconsin has a long tradition of protecting our natural resources, as they are not just a part of our landscape, but a part of who we are as stewards of this great state. This year, Governor Walker and Republican legislators pushed an agenda that has left our state's natural resources vulnerable. Many of these changes were instituted under the most recent budget, including:
Cutting funding for recycling programs by 40%. According to Recycle More Wisconsin, recycling programs keep 1.69 million tons of materials out of Wisconsin's landfills, supports 97,000 jobs and contributes $5.4 billion to our state's economy.
Eliminating $26 million in Stewardship program funding used to safeguard Wisconsin's precious lands and valuable natural resources for today and tomorrow.
Reducing funding for the Focus on Energy program that promotes in-state economic development, helps Wisconsin residents and businesses manage rising energy costs, and protects our environment. In the past 10 years, more than 91,000 businesses and more than 1.7 million residents used the program and saved $2.20 for every $1 spent on average.
Eliminating the Office of Energy Independence, which provides long-term planning and development of fuels, technologies and business practices in Wisconsin to reduce our state's dependence on foreign energy resources.
Eliminating the Renewable Grants and Loan Program and the Green to Gold Program. The former provides incentives for Wisconsin businesses to develop renewable technologies including biofuels, while the latter helps Wisconsin's industries lower their energy costs and encourages job creation and growth.
Repealing water quality standards that require communities to reduce the total amount of suspended solids in local water supplies. Without such regulations to protect our water quality, sewerage waste, toxic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides could make their way into our drinking water and lakes, and significantly harm the health of our families and communities.
Holding up wind siting rules forcing alternative energy investors to send jobs elsewhere.
This agenda to place polluters over people continued with the introduction of Senate Bill 326, legislation that undoes important environmental protections that keep our air clean and our water safe for drinking and recreation. The following concerns can be found in this environmentally harmful legislation that threatens our natural resources and families by:
Tying the hands of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) by not allowing follow-up requests for information from permit applicants
Encouraging DNR permit applicants to submit incomplete or false information since DNR is restricted in follow-ups
Giving DNR the authority to issue permits without a public hearing
Removing air quality protections, such as requiring industries to model their expected air quality impact to ensure the health of neighbors is not adversely impacted by pollutants they produce
There is an undeniable link between a healthy environment and sustainable economic growth. Therefore, we should not allow polluters to bully us into making a false choice between conservation and economic growth.

The Republican budget broke significant fiscal promises by increasing spending by over $1 billion compared to the last budget, raising taxes and fees by over $180 million, and raiding $411 million from segregated funds.

Not only did Governor Walker and Republican legislators increase spending and raise taxes, but they did it on the backs of Wisconsin workers, middle-class families, children and seniors rather than having all Wisconsinites share the burden. This current budget also favors CEOs and big corporations by creating a $196 million corporate slush fund and $2.3 billion in tax giveaways.

Wisconsinites have sought to preserve accountability and transparency in our government since the days of fighting Bob La Follette. This is illustrated by our laws requiring open meetings and records, thoughtful checks and balances in our government structures, and significant disclosure for political campaign contributions.

Governor Walker and his rubberstamp Legislature began their attack on these common sense protections with their first special session. The following are just some of the bills authored and passed by Republican legislators during that session, reversing Wisconsin's progress in ensuring open government:
Special Session Senate Bill 1--Prevents victims and their families from obtaining justice against negligent corporations and manufacturers. Republicans rejected Senate Amendment 2, a Democratic amendment to ensure reports relating to health care violations are not kept secret.
Special Session Senate Bill 3--Creates tax incentives for corporations that relocate to Wisconsin. Republicans rejected Assembly Amendment 2, which would have required tracking the number of jobs created by these incentives to ensure tax dollars are being spent wisely.
Special Session Senate Bill 4--Gives $25 million more to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation for corporate tax credits. Amendments were rejected by Republicans, which would have required the Audit Bureau to conduct an annual audit of the program and recoup credits if a business submits false information or fails to fulfill promises.
Special Session Senate Bill 6--Replaces the Department of Commerce with the public-private Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. To protect against the potential for corruption, an amendment was introduced to require all WEDC employees to be subject to the open records law. It was rejected by Republican legislators.
Special Session Senate Bill 8--Requires approval by the Governor on all administrative rules. This is an unprecedented power grab that decreases the power of the Legislature and makes Wisconsin's executive branch one of the most powerful in the country. I introduced Senate Amendment 8 that would have prohibited a Wisconsin governor from accepting campaign donations from those that would benefit financially from rule changes. Republicans ultimately rejected this amendment that would have eliminated the potential for conflicts of interest and maintained integrity in the rule process.
Following these bills, Governor Walker and Republican legislators continued to send Wisconsin in the wrong direction by pushing through the Republican budget, which was brimming with special interest giveaways, sneaking nearly 80 non-fiscal policy items into what was promised to be a purely fiscal document. The following provisions are some of the most egregious:
Approved a $162 million corporate slush fund for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, but provided no details on how the agency would use these funds.
Eliminated the clean election initiatives in Wisconsin, taking power from voters and giving more control of our elections to wealthy, out-of-state corporations.
Seized powers from the constitutional offices of the Secretary of State and State Treasurer.
Granted unprecedented dictatorial authority to Secretary Smith at the Department of Health Services who will be able to make unilateral, unspecified changes to Wisconsin's medical Assistance programs, which could include dramatic service cuts to our most vulnerable.
Ripped authority from the Department of Public Instruction regarding its educational authority and stunted DPI’s power to develop important education improvement initiatives.
Allows the Walker Administration to sell state assets without bidding for the best deal for taxpayers.
My Democratic colleagues and I introduced amendments to remove such backwards provisions from the budget in order to ensure Wisconsin maintains its tradition of clean, open and transparent government. Unfortunately, Republicans voted down these amendments with little consideration for Wisconsin’s traditions.

In addition to placing the wish lists of special interests ahead of working families when pushing his legislative agenda, Governor Walker and his rubberstamp legislators have also tried a variety of methods to keep the doors of the Capitol locked to the public, by doing the following:
Abruptly halting public hearings on controversial legislation before citizens were able to speak
Violating Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law
Physically locking the public and legislators out of the Capitol
Implementing guidelines that makes it nearly impossible for individuals or groups that are not wealthy to utilize their constitutional right to free speech and assembly
We need more accountability and transparency, not less. I will continue doing what I can to promote good government policies, not follow in Governor Walker's footsteps by forwarding legislation and policies aimed at keeping our neighbors in the dark.

Disappointing DOT Decision
Last Friday, December 16, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) announced its decision to ignore the thousands of cycle enthusiasts, commuters, and business leaders that advocated for a bike and pedestrian lane on the Hoan Bridge as part of the bridge restoration project scheduled to begin in 2012.

As you know, WisDOT concluded a feasibility study earlier this year that included five possible options for adding a bike and pedestrian lane to the bridge. Had the project been approved by WisDOT, the addition of a bike and pedestrian lane could have been constructed within the current estimated budget for the reconstruction of the Hoan Bridge. The proposed project would have also served as the last puzzle piece in connecting the Oak Leaf Trail, a multi-state trail network that runs from Downtown Chicago through Milwaukee and up to Sheboygan.

On November 9, I was joined by Rep. Richards, Rep. Sinicki, county and local government officials, and the Coalition to Bike the Hoan at a press conference, where we presented the results of the "Petition to Bike the Hoan." The petition generated over 5,000 signatures from individuals requesting that WisDOT add a bike and pedestrian lane during the bridge's upcoming reconstruction. The Bike Federation of Wisconsin also presented a letter to the Governor from over 40 business leaders, who employ more than 4,000 Wisconsinites, in support of the project.

I am disappointed that WisDOT refused to listen to the voices of business leaders and the thousands of neighbors who advocated for this once-in-a-generation opportunity. The vast majority of constituents I heard from supported this project and it is truly unfortunate that we will probably have to wait at least another 40 years to revisit this. Friday's decision by the DOT represents a missed opportunity for Milwaukee as expanding access to the Hoan would have been a positive step forward in cementing our city's commitment to providing multi-modal forms of public transit.

I will continue with working to move our community forward by expanding safe alternatives for bicyclists and pedestrians in Milwaukee County. Furthering such efforts will help to simultaneously promote tourism and encourage economic growth.

Capitol Access Policies Remain Unclear
Last week, Governor Walker and his administration implemented a new policy to prevent Wisconsinites from using their First Amendment right to free speech and to freely assemble. This policy stipulated that groups of four or more people would need to obtain permits for all activity and displays in state buildings, including the Capitol, and apply for those permits at least 72-hours in advance. Additionally, families and groups of four or more could also be required to pay a fee or obtain liability insurance or a bond before getting a permit.

Governor Walker and his Department of Administration appointees were rather vague in the language used to draft the policy. It is expected that Capitol Police will be responsible for determining who is in violation of this policy and what action should be taken on a case-by-case basis. Because of the unclear language and the inability of the Department of Administration and Capitol Police to list examples of what does or does not violate the provision limiting access to the Capitol, many people may unknowingly be in violation of this order and be forced to face the consequences.

While the rules have been slightly modified, serious concerns remain over the cost barriers and the potential for selective, or even biased, enforcement.

Our governor should be encouraging input and participation from his neighbors, not seeking retribution and suppressing those that may disagree with his policies. We must work together to encourage a more open government and increase accessibility to our elected officials, rather than adopting policies that aim to restrict First Amendment rights.

If Governor Walker and his administration continue to pushing for these policies of exclusion, it will only be a matter of time before a lawsuit is filed against the state.

Making Our Roads Safer with Ignition Interlock Devices
We are now in the holiday season, which tends to be one of the most dangerous times of the year for alcohol-related driving offenses. This should be a time of celebration with family and friends, not tarnished by a tragedy resulting from drunk driving. Our family, friends and neighbors cannot afford to wait any longer for stronger drunk driving laws. Wisconsin’s drivers and passengers deserve greater peace-of-mind while on the road.

Like many in Wisconsin, I understand the tragic cost of the drunk driving epidemic that has touched all corners of our state. Too often drunk drivers cause accidents that kill or injure our family, friends and neighbors, shattering lives and tearing the fabric of our communities. We must do more to end these preventable tragedies and safeguard our loved ones.

In the past, the solution has simply been to take away the driver’s licenses of convicted drunk drivers. However, we know this does not do enough to prevent them from driving. DOT estimates for 2010 show that over 32,000 people were convicted of driving drunk in Wisconsin and nearly 32% of these were repeat offenders.

It is time that we do more to stop the fatalities, injuries and property loss caused by drunk drivers, which is why Rep. Tony Staskunas (D–West Allis) and I have introduced bipartisan legislation recently to strengthen our state’s drunk driving laws through increased use of ignition interlock devices.

Click here to view a copy of this legislation.

This legislation strengthens our lax drunk driving laws by stipulating that all first-time convicted drunk drivers have an ignition interlock device placed in their vehicle. Currently, ignition interlock device are only installed in vehicles of first-time offenders with blood alcohol content of .15 or higher and repeat offenders. This life-saving technology has been proven to reduce drunk driving recidivism by 67 percent, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

This legislation is a step in the right direction. I will continue to work with advocates and law enforcement to untangle and improve Wisconsin's drunk driving laws.

Senator Larson

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