Friday April 23, 2021

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How the Budget Connects Our Community

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 21 April 2021
in Wisconsin

door-county-peopleSen. Smith reflects on the budget listening session he hosted last week. The conversation was a reminder of how the budget connects us to one another and will help us build stronger communities.


MADISON - I had an amazing conversation with a number of constituents who attended my budget listening session last week. The attendees, who were strangers to each other, shared personal and heartfelt stories. They made it clear that the decisions made by their legislators truly do affect them and their communities.

We discussed the importance of mental health treatment and appropriate intervention for those experiencing a mental health crisis. Community members shared their support for investing in our public schools and our rural roads. We also hit on ways to strengthen our economy, create jobs and expand broadband access. When community members come together, we open up about our shared values and the ways public policies impact our everyday life.

Governor Tony Evers encourages us to think of the budget as connecting the dots – how one investment can connect and address more than one issue. The budget also shows how we’re all connected and rely on one another. If you succeed, the community succeeds. When the community succeeds, everyone is better off. When the tide rises, all ships are raised. We all do better when we all do better.

It starts with our children and investing in opportunities for them to succeed. Even before the pandemic struck, Wisconsin faced a childcare crisis. Parents need affordable, reliable and convenient childcare. Children need a safe environment that provides developmental support. Most business leaders agree and support initiatives to keep local childcare centers open and staffed by professional providers. Employees are more likely to be productive and stay in their roles knowing their children are in good hands and close by.

When children have early support and a healthy start, they’re better prepared for the educational experience in front of them. But we must invest in our public schools so every student has the same opportunities to succeed.

Governor Evers often says that every dollar invested in our kids is an investment in our state’s future. The Governor backs this up by restoring the state’s two-thirds funding commitment for public schools and proposing significant investments in mental health support, special education funding and sparsity aid for our rural schools. Education prepares the next generation of innovators and workers.

Education investments today prepare children for life’s future challenges and saves our state from an overly expensive correctional system down the road. When we invest in education, we’re investing in safer communities and a reduced incarceration rate. That’s why I’m glad to see the Governor’s budget invest more dollars in the UW System than the Department of Corrections. We need less prisons when we provide more educational opportunities for all Wisconsinites.

The opportunity to learn is easier in today’s world when every household has access to fast, reliable broadband. We must make bold investments in broadband infrastructure now, just like our leaders did with electricity generations before us. The Governor’s broadband plan would invest up to $200 million from the American Rescue Plan Act in addition to the $200 million he proposed in his budget.

jeff-smithWhen we invest in broadband infrastructure and affordability we open up a world of possibilities. We create more opportunities to learn, improve healthcare access and encourage local economic development. Broadband access will be a catalyst for Wisconsin’s future growth and success.

Healthcare access is critical to the success of any family, community and state. That is why the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was important for so many when enacted eleven years ago. Unfortunately, the Republican Majority has stubbornly allowed political ideology to get in the way of expanding Medicaid – a key component of the ACA. For the overall health and wellbeing of our families and communities, Wisconsin must expand Medicaid. In doing so, we could save $2.1 billion in taxpayer funding and offer healthcare coverage to more Wisconsinites.

It’s so clear how the budget is not only a document where one issue is connected to another – it’s necessary that we tie all these proposals together for our individual success and the social fabric of our communities.

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Schools, Children and their Future

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 14 April 2021
in Wisconsin

teaching-studentsSen. Smith writes about the critical investments for our schools that Governor Evers proposed in his 2021-23 biennial budget.


MADISON - You may have heard politicians and the media use the line that schools should “open” or schools have a plan to “re-open.” This has caused a lot of confusion because schools never stopped providing support and instruction to their students. Teachers never stopped teaching. Yes, to protect students and families, many districts had to adjust their methods of instruction, but the work never stopped.

Like everyone, schools were appropriately cautious when the pandemic began last year, keeping students home to protect our communities. That didn’t stop teachers from finding ways to reach their students. In many of our rural communities, teachers found themselves educating from their car in a parking lot where they could access reliable internet. Students and parents also had to adapt if their home internet wouldn’t connect them to the classroom. Throughout everything, school districts faced extraordinary challenges to provide the educational experience we all expect for our children despite inadequate funding.

Governor Tony Evers’ 2021-23 biennial budget addresses many of the inequities that existed before the pandemic and puts schools in a better position to prepare our kids for the future. The investments we make today will help Wisconsin bounce back stronger than before. After all, as Governor Evers often says, “what’s best for our kids, is what’s best for our state.”

The Governor’s budget includes a K-12 general aid increase of $600 million over the next two years – this is the largest increase in over a decade. This badly needed funding will help modernize classrooms, retain quality teachers and reduce the need for local property tax increases. School districts would also see an additional $709 million in state aid for special education funding. This would raise our current state reimbursement rate for special education from 31% to 50% to better support students who need the most help.

This pandemic has strained all of us mentally and we all know children who’ve faced these challenges. School districts across the state reported spending upwards of $270 million on pupil services staff over the last year with only $6 million, or 2% of that total funding, coming from the state. This should concern us all – mental health services are critical.

Thankfully, Gov. Evers recognizes these needs and recommends directing $46 million toward school mental health services and increasing the reimbursement rate for local districts. This would allow schools to bring in more social workers, counselors, psychologists and nurses to address health needs and improve education outcomes.

jeff-smithIn Wisconsin, school districts must provide transportation to all eligible pupils whether they attend a public or private school. Oftentimes, rural transportation costs cut into what school districts can spend in a classroom. It’s great to see Gov. Evers target $4 million over the biennium to fully fund high-cost transportation aid for school districts with relatively high transportation costs. This increased funding is estimated to reimburse 100% of costs and help alleviate the financial strain many of our school districts are experiencing.

Gov. Evers does more to support our rural schools by investing $20 million in sparsity aid. The budget increases sparsity aid to fully fund per pupil payments of $400 for sparse districts with 745 or fewer pupils. In addition, the governor recommends providing $100 per pupil for those districts with 10 or fewer pupils per square mile with more than 746 or more pupils.

These investments are critical for western Wisconsin and all school districts throughout Wisconsin to provide the best educational opportunities for our children. Our teachers, staff and school administrators have gone above and beyond to connect kids to the classroom, despite the unprecedented circumstance. It’s time we show our schools support by passing Governor Evers’ budget.

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Imagine the Possibilities during the Year of Broadband Access

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 07 April 2021
in Wisconsin

cellular-5gSen. Jeff Smith writes about Governor Tony Evers’ efforts to expand broadband access with historic investments and innovative policies in his biennial budget.


MADISON - What year is this? You might quickly answer that it’s 2021 and you’d be right. But Governor Tony Evers also declared this as the Year of Broadband Access in Wisconsin. This declaration is exciting and important in more ways than one.

For starters, Governor Evers’ budget includes a historic $200 million investment to improve Wisconsin’s broadband infrastructure – this is five times the amount invested in the 2013, 2015, and 2017 budgets combined. The Governor is also directing a significant portion of infrastructure funding from the federal American Rescue Plan toward expanding broadband access.

The Year of Broadband Access highlights the opportunity to bring legislators and constituents together around one issue that will make a big difference. I’ve heard from colleagues on both sides of the aisle that this must get done. I’ve heard from my Republican colleagues that they like the ideas I proposed last session. Now, this is something to build on. We may find that we can actually get things done if we work together on this important project.

Governor Evers’ recent budget listening session on bolstering Wisconsin’s infrastructure reminded so many of us why we must focus our efforts on expanding broadband. The Federal Communications Commission reports that there are more than 430,000 people in rural Wisconsin who lack access to high-speed internet; this is about 25% of our rural population. I’d even say it’s much higher than that if they’re relying on what Internet Service Providers (ISP) are reporting. One of the biggest problems is the questionable mapping based on census blocks. If an ISP reports that one house or business in a census block has access, then the entire census block is counted as having access. This is why I’ve been pushing for honest mapping and greater accountability.

internet-rural-s5We also need the Legislature to remove roadblocks for municipalities to expand broadband. Current law prohibits municipalities from offering internet access without having an ISP providing it. This is problematic because private services need to show a profit and they’re not interested in rural areas with low population density. The Governor borrowed an idea from my Better Broadband legislative package by removing this restriction, so municipalities who aren’t currently served could make the investment to provide broadband to their residents. As I’ve suggested over and over, municipal governments don’t want to get in the business of managing this service, but they could own the fiber that an ISP leases to become that provider.

Wisconsin currently has a broadband expansion grant program, which provides funding for projects in underserved and unserved areas. It’s woefully underfunded though, and provides just enough to expand access at a snail’s pace. In the last budget cycle the Legislature invested $54 million for this program. In his budget, Governor Evers proposes directing nearly $150 million into the grant program.

jeff-smithInternet affordability is a challenge that is often overlooked. For too many families, the cost is just not within their budget after rent, food and other basic necessities. Governor Evers’ budget includes $40 million to create an Internet Assistance Program just for that reason. This program would reduce costs and make internet services affordable for tens of thousands of low-income families throughout Wisconsin. The budget also creates a Broadband Line Extension grant program, which will reduce the cost of expensive line extensions from residences to existing broadband infrastructure.

It’s become more obvious over the last year that internet access isn’t just a luxury – it’s a necessity. Broadband expansion efforts go beyond our kids logging on for class, shopping online and streaming movies. Now we use the internet to access health care, pay bills and do our jobs. High-speed internet is a must if we want the next generation to have the option of living in the splendor of rural Wisconsin.

I’m just as excited at the possibility of legislators coming together to work on this critical issue, which will improve our way of life and strengthen our economy. Imagine where this might lead us. We may discover the political process of working together that citizens have been asking for.

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Expand BadgerCare and Bring our Dollars Back Home

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 31 March 2021
in Wisconsin

healthcare-family-drSen. Smith writes about Gov. Evers’ budget proposal to expand BadgerCare in our state. BadgerCare expansion ensures we’re being smart by covering more people while returning our tax dollars back to Wisconsin.


MADISON - On March 23rd, we commemorated the eleventh anniversary of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) being signed into law. Since its passage, 2.6 million Wisconsinites with preexisting conditions have benefited from enhanced healthcare protections. This certainly is an anniversary to celebrate, but it also reminds us that we still have work to do to get more Wisconsinites covered.

Thanks to the ACA, the federal government has offered to return our own tax dollars back to Wisconsin if we expand BadgerCare, Wisconsin’s Medicaid program. Unfortunately, it’s been eleven years and we still haven’t expanded BadgerCare. If Wisconsin expanded BadgerCare when the ACA first passed, Wisconsin taxpayers would have saved $2.1 billion. These savings could’ve been used to lower prescription drug costs, expand mental health services, improve pregnancy outcomes and more. Wisconsin is still being held back by leaders playing politics with people’s healthcare.

If our own tax dollars can be returned right back to us, I suspect most people would consider it a no-brainer to accept. After all, why should we pay to expand health care access in other states– which is what we’re doing now–before addressing our challenges here at home?

Governor Tony Evers’ 2021-23 budget includes a proposal to expand BadgerCare in Wisconsin. In doing so, we’d be able to expand healthcare coverage to 90,900 more Wisconsinites while also saving our state $634 million. We know Wisconsin could draw in an additional $2 billion from the federal government since President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, according to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. These savings could be reinvested back into new and existing healthcare programs serving residents across the state.

Medicaid ensures that Wisconsin residents have access to preventive and lifesaving healthcare. Current Medicaid programs–including IRIS, Family Care and SeniorCare–are available to help individuals living in poverty, people with disabilities and those who may be ineligible for Medicare. Medicaid provides prescription drug subsidies through SeniorCare. Medicaid helps cover screenings and treatment for breast and cervical cancer for women under the age of sixty-five. BadgerCare expansion would help more Wisconsinites by increasing reimbursements and building greater capacity of existing Medicaid programs.

We have an opportunity right in front of us to cover more Wisconsinites while also saving our state money. This would seem like an easy decision, right? After all, this is about bringing back our federal tax dollars to Wisconsin. The Republican Majority has a different idea. Speaker Robin Vos (R – Rochester) called Medicaid Expansion a “nonstarter” doubling down on Republicans’ opposition.

Many politicians seem to believe healthcare is a privilege – as if the quality of care you receive should depend on how wealthy you are. Whether you believe healthcare is a right or a privilege, our federal tax dollars are still being sent to other states to pay for their programs when it should be coming back here.

jeff-smithWisconsin is one of only twelve states that have refused to expand Medicaid. Recent reports suggest Wyoming, Alabama and Texas are stepping closer to final passage. We’re paying for these states to expand Medicaid without taking care of residents here in Wisconsin.

We need Medicaid because of our current healthcare system that predicates profit over public health. With a broken healthcare system driven by insurance companies and big pharmaceutical corporations, the most humane thing we can do as a society is ensure that all Americans have access to affordable, high-quality health care. BadgerCare expansion ensures we’re being smart by returning our dollars to lower the cost of Medicaid programs overall.

We can get this done, right here in Wisconsin, by expanding BadgerCare.

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Wisconsin Women to Remember

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 24 March 2021
in Wisconsin

women-preparing-leadIn honor of Women’s History Month, Sen. Smith writes about five inspiring women from west-central Wisconsin.


MADISON - March is Women’s History Month, an opportunity to remind ourselves of the contributions of women that history books may often overlook. From my own experiences, the women in my life, including my wife, daughters, friends and relatives are almost always the most reliable, determined, innovative and trustworthy.

Some women stick out in Wisconsin history such as Ada Deer, Vel Phillips, Shirley Abrahamson or even Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was born in Pepin. But I’d like to focus on women from west-central Wisconsin who may not be as familiar, but who have significantly impacted the lives of others.

Betsy Thunder was born near Black River Falls in the 1850s. She was a member of the Ho-Chunk tribe, also called the Winnebago Sky Clan. Known for her skills in medicinal remedies from roots and plants, Betsy treated both Ho-Chunk and white patients. She was credited with saving the life of a child of businessman and politician, Hugh Mills, who in turn built her a small cabin as a sign of appreciation. In the early 1900s, the US government ordered Thunder’s tribe to be moved from Wisconsin to Nebraska. Betsy, however, refused to leave and hid in the hills of Jackson County until her death in 1912.

Mountain Wolf Woman also resided on the land we recognize as Jackson County. She was born in 1884 into the Thunder Clan of the Ho-Chunk tribe. In 1958, she shared her life story as a Native American woman to a University of Wisconsin anthropologist. This autobiography was seen as an important point in Native American history as it was one of the earliest first-hand accounts of the experiences documented of a Native American woman. Her story detailed seventy-five years of Native American life and the role of women in native cultures.

Sarah Harder was born in 1937 in Chicago. She moved to La Crosse and started teaching later at UW-Eau Claire. She revolutionized the maternity leave program for the UW System and founded the women’s studies program at UW-Eau Claire. She is a strong activist for women’s rights and has been involved with many women’s organizations, serving as a founding member of the Wisconsin Women’s Network and President for the American Association of University Women.

Carol Bartz was born in 1948 in Minnesota and moved to Alma, Wisconsin at a young age. She earned a degree in computer science from UW-Madison in 1971. She worked at multiple companies and faced frequent gender discrimination. She persevered and was named CEO of Autodesk, Inc. Despite being diagnosed with breast cancer while at Autodesk, she increased the company’s revenue by hundreds of millions. She then became the CEO of Yahoo!, a Fortune 500 company, restructuring the organization to address discrimination in the workplace.

Ellen Kort was born in Glenwood City and lived in Menomonie. She wrote poetry throughout her whole life and was appointed as the state’s first poet laureate in 2000 by Governor Tommy Thompson. She shared her poetry widely; her words are inscribed in multiple buildings throughout Wisconsin. She received multiple awards for her poetry as well, including the Pablo Neruda Literary Prize for Poetry. She also helped survivors of AIDS, cancer, and domestic abuse heal through her writing workshops.

jeff-smithThe women I’ve spotlighted should serve as inspiration for all of us. They came from humble beginnings but were determined to achieve great success, despite facing adversity.

We can all learn and be inspired by the women who accomplished so much and are remembered in our history. Even more so, we can be inspired and motivated by the dedicated women we’re with day-to-day. Too often, women have to work twice as hard as men to earn the recognition they deserve. If more people recognize women’s contributions, I think we can reach a day when this is no longer the case; I look forward to this day.

Thank you to all the women I’ve had the pleasure to work with throughout my life for they have always inspired me and made me a better person.

***

Note: Information about the women mentioned in this column is attributed to the Wisconsin Women Making History partnership.

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