This week's Larson Report takes time to honor the brave men and women who fought to protect our nation's freedoms. An update on important legislative events from the week--including passing discriminatory legislation, supporting a bill that provides unfair tax breaks, and moving forward proposals that would negatively affect women's health--is also provided.
State Senator, District 7
Join in honoring the brave men and women that fought for our country to preserve our nation's freedom this Veterans Day, November 11. Veterans Day, or Armistice Day, falls on the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice ending World War I. This federal holiday seeks to honor the service of all U.S. military veterans.
While the Veterans Day National Ceremony is held on November 11 at Arlington National Cemetery, there are also several community events taking place nearby during the Veterans Day weekend where you can honor our neighbors who served. These events are listed in the sidebar of this newsletter.
In the 2009-2010 session, the Legislature passed bipartisan legislation that would give community members the option to petition to end the use of of race-based mascots at local schools in their area. Of the 65 schools that had Native American related mascots in 1989, 30 schools changed their nickname prior to the 2010 law while 32 schools still have Indian mascots. Despite only four schools having been affected by this bill--three changed their names and one is challenging the change request in court--legislative Republicans have felt compelled to overturn the law designed to diminish discrimination.
This past Tuesday, the Wisconsin State Senate took up this legislation, Assembly Bill 297, which will send Wisconsin backwards in the fight to end discrimination of all kinds, including towards Native Americans across the state. This bill eliminates the current process allowing people to file complaints with the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) over race-based mascots and team names, and giving DPI the authority needed to enforce mascot changes at these schools. I was disappointed to see that so many of my Republican colleagues refused to even participate in the debate on this offensive bill.
Those who support this discrimination bill and the continuing use of race-based mascots argue that these mascots are used out of respect for the tribes. However, the reality is that these mascots and their continued use represents an incredible level of disrespect that reflects a disturbing lack of tolerance in our state. It was not until 1924 that Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted all Native Americans, on or off the reservation, citizenship and the possibility of suffrage. While the act gave Native Americans voting rights, states often passed laws that limited this right. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited states from discriminatory voting practices and ensured all Native Americans had access to the polls. These mascots are the last remnants of this past racial discrimination.
This bill maintains discrimination and insensitivity in our state. The schools that still retain race-based mascots, as well as the schools that compete against them, tend to reinforce offensive stereotypes by turning this ethnic group into a cartoon, mocking cultural traditions, and shouting racial slurs or bigoted comments. We can no longer justify the continued use of such disrespectful terminology as "Redskin" and "Savages."
The truth is that the use of race-based mascots promotes discriminatory actions against neighbors in our community and around the state. It is a fact that no other ethnic group has as many mascots parroting their identities in our state, and we must do something about that. This type of discrimination is not only unfair, but wrong. For this reason, I voted "no" to Assembly Bill 297.
Click here to view Assembly Bill 297.
In Wisconsin, we currently have a managed forest law in place. This generous tax relief program was created in 1985 to encourage timber production and provide more recreation space for outdoor enthusiasts. Under the program, land owners receive a tax break if they agree to follow a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) approved forest management plan and keep the property open to the public. There are approximately 30,000 Wisconsin landowners who participate in the program and play by the rules.
Recently, Republican senators introduced legislation, Senate Bill 278, that would allow the open-pit iron mining company drilling in Northern Wisconsin to be exempted from some requirements of this program. Under the bill, this property owner would be allowed to close public access of up to 4,000 acres of managed forest land indefinitely. This sweetheart deal is excessive, unjustified, and unfair not only to taxpayers and outdoor recreation enthusiasts, but also to the other 30,000 Wisconsin landowners participating in the managed forest program. It also treads on our stewardship tradition and shared Wisconsin values.
Forty acres might be modest but 4,000 acres by any rationale and reasonable standard is excessive. Therefore, in contrast to this partisan proposal, Senators Cullen, Jauch, and Schultz introduced an alternative that would provide additional protections to mine workers, while still allowing the public to utilize these lands. This bipartisan solution would create a defensible public safety zone around bulk sampling and drilling locations to protect workers and the public. It would require football field separation from the five bulk sampling sites and a 50-foot safety zone away from a drill site. If explosives would be used a separate safety zone could be determined by the permitting agencies.
Unfortunately, Republicans ignored this bipartisan alternative, opting instead to slightly amend their own proposal. The amended bill still allows this out-of-state mining company the ability to play by a different set of rules in order to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Further, the minor improvements to this bill do not address the fact that the out-of-state corporation will still be able to close public forest land to the public for undefined reasons. Even the DNR remains unclear on this process and how it will be applied to the company. As a result, Senate Bill 278 remains both unfair and uncertain for local businesses and Wisconsin citizens. Additionally, most hunting and recreation will still be restricted on closed property.
It is important to remember that this company is no better nor is it more important than the other 30,000 property owners who respect and follow the law, as well as Wisconsinites who use the land. Therefore, I voted against this bill, which has been sent to the Assembly.
Click here to view a copy of Senate Bill 278.
On Tuesday, the Senate passed Senate Bill 320, legislation that will eliminate minimum wage protections for outside salespersons. Outside salespersons, such as insurance agents, have a similar work situation as independent contractors. Unlike independent contractors who have no employment protections, outside salespersons work as employees of a business, and are therefore are entitled to certain benefits, including minimum wage standards, which require that an employee receive at least minimum wage in all pay periods.
Individuals who work in sales can see dramatic swings in income pay from month to month, so these minimum wage requirements are crucial to ensuring that these Wisconsinites are able to support their families by minimize these fluctuations. By removing this important protection, outside salespersons will face greater financial instability. This bill is a small piece of Republican efforts over the last three years to reduce important employee protections for workers across Wisconsin. This, and the fact that a strong minimum wage is the cornerstone of a healthy middle-class economy, is why I voted to oppose Senate Bill 320.
Click here to view a copy of Senate Bill 320.
Last session, in response to concerns raised by law enforcement officials, the Legislature passed a bill to ban the sale of synthetic drugs. Synthetic, hallucinogenic drugs are dangerous to the health of our communities and neighbors. Synthetic drugs--also referred to as "bath salts," "herbal incense," "plant food," "K2," and "spice"--initially gives the user a euphoric high, but that is coupled with severe side effects that are often stronger than the drugs they were created to mimic. One such side effect is a psychological low, which can last up to two weeks after synthetic drug use. During this time, the drug user may experience psychosis or suicidal or homicidal tendencies.
The dangers of these side effects are real and can result in harm or death of the drug user or others. According to the Christian Science Monitor, a 21-year-old Louisiana man recently cut his own throat then shot and killed himself after being treated by doctors for bath salt use. Another man from Maine, under the influence of bath salts, got off his motorcycle in the middle of a highway and started trying to hit passing cars with a piece of wood. A woman, also from Maine, thought her teeth were filled with ticks and tried to cut them out with a knife, after ingesting bath salts.
Synthetic "marijuana" is now the second most frequently used illicit drug behind marijuana in the country. However, unlike its natural counterpart, synthetic marijuana resulted in 20 deaths last year. Further, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the number of calls to poison centers related to synthetic drugs soared from about 3,200 in 2010 to more than 13,000 in 2011. Doctors also say there is no way to test if a patient has taken bath salts, so the only way medical professionals know is if the patient reports it. This makes treating someone who has taken bath salts extremely difficult.
Unfortunately, in Wisconsin the drug trade quickly found a way to bypass the new law restricting synthetic drug use. Despite the law being written in a way that proactively prohibited current synthetic drugs and any similar "analogs" in the future, it proved difficult for prosecutors to show that confiscated drugs were in fact an analog of the ones listed in the law. Prosecutors not only had to prove that the substance in question had a similar chemical composition, but also that it had a similar effect on the body as listed synthetic drugs.
To correct this problem, Senate Bill 325 was introduced. This bipartisan bill, which was authored by Sen. Hansen, Sen. Harsdoff, Rep. Bewley, and Rep. Bies will help close this loophole that allows some drug manufacturers to avoid prosecution. Under this bill, even if a drug is altered, if it maintains the same chemical structure as other listed synthetic drugs--it is illegal. This bill was supported unanimously in the Senate in session this past Tuesday, but has yet to be voted on by the full Assembly. Passing this bill would be a positive step forward in making our community safer for our family, friends, and neighbors.
Click here for more information about Senate Bill 325.
Today, the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services passed two anti-women's health bills along party lines. As a result these bills--Senate Bill 201/Assembly Bill 217 and Senate Bill 202/Assembly Bill 216--which have already passed the Assembly can now be scheduled for a vote before the full Senate. A vote in the full Senate is the last step these bills need to take before being signed into law by the governor. Continue reading for more information about these bills and the negative impact they can have on women across Wisconsin.
Restricting Birth Control Coverage
Women have long faced discrimination when it comes to health insurance coverage. Over the years, insurance companies in Wisconsin have been required to cover basic women's health care like mammograms, maternity care and, in 2009, birth control. In addition, the Affordable Care Act put in place federal protections to ensure that all women had access to preventative services under their health plan--including birth control. Organizations from the National Institute of Medicine to the World Health Organization to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists tell us that access to birth control is the single greatest investment in women's health that a community can make.
Despite the clear evidence of positive effects birth control has on our community, a bill that would allow religious employers to discriminate against women by denying them affordable access to birth control is being pushed by legislative Republicans. The proposal is illogical given that a fall 2012 study released by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) demonstrated that access to no co-pay birth control coverage leads to significantly lower unintended pregnancy and abortion rates.
Birth control methods are widely used, and restrictions could affect a significant number of women. In fact, another CDC study released this February found that virtually all women of reproductive age between 2006 and 2010 who had ever had sexual intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method at some point in their lifetime (99%, or 53 million women aged 15 to 44). In addition, birth control is not only a valuable family planning tool, but it also has many other medical benefits, According to the Guttmacher Institute, 58% of women use birth control for noncontraceptive health care reasons, which include:
- Alleviating cramps and menstrual pain, which can sometimes be debilitating
- Regulating the menstrual cycle
- Preventing anemia, which can lead to dizziness, fatigue, and headaches
- Helping in treatment of endometriosis, which often leads to infertility if untreated
- Treating polycistic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which if left untreated can lead to weight gain, hair loss, depression, and infertility
Additional Intrusion into Doctor-Patient Relationship
This proposal, Senate Bill 201/Assembly Bill 217, could put our medical professionals at legal risk by allowing the mother, father, or grandparents of an aborted fetus to sue the physician if the abortion they provided was "sex-selective." This proposal also has the potential to put undue strain and suspicion on a woman after she receives an abortion, even if it was not sex-selective.
Let me be clear, response to an unplanned pregnancy is a personal medical decision that is not taken lightly. And while there are many legal options available to a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy, including becoming a parent, adoption, or abortion, it is up to each woman to choose her path based on her personal circumstances and beliefs. The idea that Wisconsin women would choose an abortion because they are displeased by the gender of the fetus is outrageous. According to WebMD, the sex of a fetus can sometimes be determined by about the 18th week of pregnancy and Planned Parenthood states that in-clinic abortion is only offered up to 19 weeks after the start of a woman's last menstrual period. This leaves a small to non-existent window for a woman who opts to have an abortion the potential option to determine the gender of the fetus beforehand. Therefore, this scenario is likely not one that is occurring in Wisconsin, and thus is a nonexistent problem that does not require legislation.
Government interference in matters of family planning, which are intrinsically private and personal, is unacceptable. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, women have a constitutional right to privacy, as well as the authority to make decisions related to their own body. To wage a legislative war on women by attacking and chipping away at this fundamental freedom is an insult to women across Wisconsin.
In an ideal world, women would never face such a difficult and deeply personal situation as whether or not to continue a pregnancy. The unfortunate reality, however, is that they do, and I can only imagine how distressing it must be.
Ensuring access to affordable, quality health care is a priority of mine. Thus, I support health care coverage for all aspects of women's health. That is why I firmly support a woman's right to choose as well as access to contraception and will oppose these bills if they reach the Senate floor for a vote.
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 haven't heard any updates in a while about the sale of water to Waukesha. Has anything new happened on that issue lately?
A: As you may know, the proposed deal between Waukesha and Oak Creek regarding the sale of Lake Michigan water could have negative effects on our community. This potential deal would allow the city of Oak Creek to sell water--over 10 million gallons daily-- from Lake Michigan to Waukesha.
In recent years, Lake Michigan has seen a disturbing drop in water levels. In fact, the lowest water level in the 160 year history of this data was observed in January 2013. This deal could contribute even further to this alarming trend of decreasing water levels, which could resultantly impact our aquatic life and our economy.
Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes are essential to maintaining a healthy, growing economy in Wisconsin and other states surrounding these magnificent bodies of water. The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory estimates that about 65 million pounds of fish per year are harvested from the Great Lakes, contributing more than $1 billion to the local economy. The Great Lakes also support a $4 billion sports fishery industry. These low water levels could further negatively impact our economy if they prevent ships from operating as they normally would because 240 ships and 120,000 trucks come in and out of the Port of Milwaukee annually, according to the Department of Transportation.
In addition to the economic and water level impacts, this deal could also damage the water quality of Lake Michigan and the connected bodies of water. Under the Great Lakes Compact, any water diverted away from Lake Michigan must be returned to the source watershed. This returned water is often treated sewage, and Waukesha would return this treated sewage water to the Root River which deposits into Lake Michigan in Racine. This could potentially decrease water quality and cause additional flooding in Milwaukee and Racine counties, something that is already an issue in the Milwaukee area.
Four town hall meetings on this proposal have been scheduled during the month of November. I encourage you to make your voice heard regarding this issue by participating in these public events. The dates and locations are listed below:
- November 7: Carroll University Center for Graduate Studies Auditorium, 2140 Davidson Road, Waukesha
- November 13: Oak Creek Community Center, 8580 S. Howell Avenue, Oak Creek
- November 14: Racine Campus Conference Center's Great Lakes Room, Gateway Technical College, 1001 S. Main Street, Racine
- November 18: Zilber School of Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Rooms 109, 119, and 129, 1240 N. 10th Street, Milwaukee
Click here to read a letter from Rep. Cory Mason regarding these concerns.
You may be aware that Wisconsin and the rest of the country are facing a student debt crisis with nearly 40 million Americans now holding over $1.2 trillion in student loan debt. But did you know that the annual tuition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison totaled only $20 in 1900?
Now, that same $20 will likely not even cover the cost of one book. Tuition and fees at UW-Madison are currently $10,402 for residents and $26,652 for nonresidents. Those numbers do not factor in the costs of room and board, books, or other expenditures. That is an increase of about 520% since 1900.
Exponential increases in tuition and fees coupled with challenging economic times over the years have made it nearly impossible for students to work their way through school, as was commonplace in the past. In fact, nearly 40 million Americans now hold over $1.2 trillion in student loan debt nationally.
Wisconsin's Student Debt Crisis
Unfortunately, Wisconsin currently ranks 10th in the nation for number of college students with debt, with 67% of graduates from four-year schools having loans to repay. According to the U.S. Federal Reserve System there are 753,000 Wisconsin residents with federal student loan debt (this does not include those with private student loan debt). Further, college tuition costs have doubled over the last 12 years and Wisconsin's student loan borrowers have an average debt of $22,400. 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.
Student debt is the only kind of household debt that continued to rise through the Great Recession, and is now the second largest consumer debt in our country, more than credit cards or auto loans. Having this money tied up in debt is a huge drain on our already struggling Wisconsin economy as the money spent on student loans could instead be spent on cars, new homes, and at local businesses in our communities.
Some issues related to student loans can only be dealt with at the federal level. Unfortunately, Congress' current partisan gridlock leaves little hope for real relief for student loan borrowers in the near future. We cannot wait for Congress to act. It is time for innovative, common sense solutions that will provide real relief for Wisconsin's student loan borrowers.
Therefore, I am asking that the Wisconsin State Legislature passes the Higher Ed, Lower Debt bill, authored by Senator Dave Hansen and Representative Cory Mason, which would do the following:
- Allow Wisconsin's student loan borrowers to deduct their student 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 student loans at lower interest rates, putting potentially hundreds of dollars back in their pockets and into Wisconsin's 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. That would put nearly $500 back in their family's pocket over the course of a year.
- Provide students and parents with detailed information about student loans, the best and worst private lenders, and ensure that students receive loan counseling so that Wisconsin's student loan 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.
Sign the Higher Ed, Lower Debt Petition
If you would like to see the Higher Ed, Lower Debt bill become law, I encourage you to sign onto the Higher Ed, Lower Debt petition. The petition states the following:
I support the Higher Ed, Lower Debt bill authored by Sen. Hansen and Rep. Mason. It is a positive step forward in making higher education more affordable in Wisconsin and frees up money for Wisconsinites to spend in local communities and our state.
Click here if you would like join me in supporting the Higher Ed, Lower Debt bill by signing on to the petition to encourage the Wisconsin State Legislature to pass the bill.
I also encourage you to tell your family, friends, and neighbors to join you in taking action. The more Wisconsinites that advocate for the bill, the more likely it is to pass.