Friday September 20, 2019

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Have a Conversation for Democracy’s Sake

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, 18 September 2019
in Wisconsin

congress-unproductiveSen. Smith talks about the importance of having conversations with people that have different points of view. We can overcome the political divisiveness in society if we remember we have more in common than what sets us apart.


MADISON - Politics is everywhere around us – when you turn on the television, open a newspaper or scroll through Facebook. It’s hard to get away from it all. When we see the divisiveness all around us, it’s easy to think our system is broken.

Political divisiveness affects our attitudes of others and the way we communicate with neighbors or members of our own family. It’s easy for hurtful rhetoric to drive a wedge in these relationships, which makes it difficult to realize the values we share: hard work, a supportive community and what’s best for our family. It’s time we learn how to progress forward together.

Oftentimes, politicians use fear to make people angry and pit one group against another. It’s a simple tactic that has a big impact determining who we interact with and who we ignore.

During my time as a state senator, I’ve hosted many Stop n’ Talks throughout the 31st Senate District. It’s my own way to get around the district to learn from anyone who wants to talk. Folks have busy lives, and it’s difficult for people to find the time to attend official town hall meetings or scheduled hearings. I find the best way to have a conversation is to show up where citizens congregate or invite anyone to stop and talk on their own terms.

A couple of weeks ago, I held a Stop n’ Talk near an event that attracted many from the farming community. As their state senator and the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions, I wanted to make myself available to learn. Most folks are polite; they acknowledge me with a cordial hello, talk to me about their concerns or simply ignore me. However, there were many who had no qualms about insulting me, while refusing to have a conversation.

jeff-smithI’ve also been uninvited from public events, as a state senator, because organizers thought my presence was politically-motivated. I find these examples to be so sad, yet telling about where we are now. My attempts to meet and learn about the issues that matter most to community members are seen as “photo opportunities” or “campaign stops.”

It’s a dangerous cycle we’ve fallen into when we refuse conversations with others based on political beliefs, pushing us further apart. Without the opportunity to openly communicate, we’re unable to discuss the issues that matter most to us.

This broken cycle pushes us back into our own bubble, reinforcing preconceived notions of others groups, which affects the way our democracy works and functions. Voting is a practice that should provide all citizens the opportunity to have their voices heard, but that isn’t always the reality. Poll taxes, literacy tests and other restrictive measures have limited a citizen’s ability to express views at the ballot box. More recently, voter ID laws limit certain people’s right to vote. To this day, politicians gerrymander, creating districts that guarantee an election win for a certain party.

Voters are disenfranchised even when voter suppression attempts fail. Lame duck session laws from last fall changed the jobs our elected officials can do after the election.

Recently, Attorney General Josh Kaul found it impossible to perform the job he was elected to carry out due to the enormous roadblocks from last fall’s lame duck session. The extraordinary session created a process that ties the hands of our Attorney General by requiring the Republican-led Joint Finance Committee to sign off on settlements.

These practices, from voting disenfranchisement to the unprecedented lame duck laws, silence voters and prohibit productive debate or negotiation, pushing things to be more partisan.

I see firsthand the damage all this political divisiveness has done to us. Citizens don’t see a cohesive government working for their best interests, especially when legislators only meet on rare occasions. The fear-based rhetoric, harmful voting policies and the lame duck laws erode whatever trust citizens might still have in their government and their elected officials.

We all have a responsibility to repair the system. Set aside the blame game. Start a conversation with someone with a different point of view. Contact your legislators and tell them to do the same. Insist that your legislature work for your best interests by meeting, debating and working toward solving problems together. After all, we have more in common than what sets us apart.

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Wisconsin: America is Best When Labor is Strong

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, 04 September 2019
in Wisconsin

electrical-workersSen. Smith talks about his upbringing in Eau Claire and the impact of organized labor in the community. Leaders before us worked to put protections in place for workers, but there’s still more to do.


EAU CLAIRE - Another Labor Day has come and gone. Summer is beginning to wind down and we’re taking our last chance to fish or camp for the season. Children are reflecting on their summer and eagerly anticipating the new school year.

This time of year is also an opportunity to reflect back on my upbringing in Eau Claire and remember the hardworking families in my community. I think about the great strides made in the 20th century because of organized labor. Unions knew at the core of their mission, that nobody should live to work. We should be able to work, so we can live a comfortable life.

Growing up on the north side of Eau Claire, I had a pretty ordinary childhood. My mother worked hard to raise seven children and my father opened his window cleaning business and ran the business for decades. It was common for families to have one parent working outside the home and one parent in the home.

jeff-smithFamilies in our neighborhood were lower-middle income level by today’s standards. I grew up near the Uniroyal factory. We weren’t too far from the paper mill, and Presto was just a couple of miles north. Many of the kids I grew up with had parents who worked in one of these places. Their parents could support their family because they earned union wages and benefits. It was at the height of a comfortable working class that made America work.

Many of the families were able to afford fishing boats, camping trailers and cabins on the lake. My neighbors were able to spend more time doing the things they enjoyed with their families. These were all things my family couldn’t afford.

The union jobs in the community provided my neighbors an opportunity to have a comfortable lifestyle and build the middle class. These jobs allowed families to own cabins in the resort areas of northern Wisconsin. It was common for a family to take two weeks off for family vacation in the summer and a week off for deer hunting.

None of this would’ve been possible if it weren’t for the courage and foresight of organized labor in the early 20th century that advanced worker’s rights in America. Federal legislation, including the Occupational Safety & Health Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, and Labor Relations Act supported workers, ensuring fair wages and safe working conditions. The Social Security Act was revolutionary, putting protections in place for citizens of all ages. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal for employers and unions to discriminate against individuals based on race, national origin, religion or gender.

Although there has been tremendous progress for worker’s rights, there is still more we must do for workers in our country. Today, too many families need multiple jobs to get by. According to the U.S. Census, there are approximately 13 million Americans that have more than one job. Also, based on U.S. Census data, women are more likely than men to have a part-time job to support themselves and their families.

Union jobs guaranteed most workers would have a comfortable future after retirement. The decline of unions and well-paying jobs in our country, force workers to consider how they’ll retire without a pension or 401K plan to supplement their Social Security.

There are steps we can take to support everyday hardworking men and women. We should begin by increasing the minimum wage, restoring prevailing wage, implementing paid family and medical leave and repealing the “Right to Work” law. Governor Evers included all of these proposals in the 2019-21 Biennial Budget, but they were deleted entirely by Republicans.

Oftentimes, we forget the impact of organized labor in our own community. The leaders before us worked tirelessly to improve working conditions and living standards for all. We can’t fall behind. As we push forward, let us remember our hardworking leaders and the example they set to support our neighbors. Remember, we all do better when we all do better.

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Wisconsin: Kiddos and Mental Health

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, 28 August 2019
in Wisconsin

teaching-studentsAfter a visit to Northwest Journey and the Menomonie School District, Sen. Smith writes about the importance of mental health funding for our children.


EAU CLAIRE - We always want what’s best for our children. We want our children to be happy, comfortable and safe. If we could provide all the tools for our children to succeed, why wouldn’t we?

The urgency for mental health funding is not going away. We need to face it head on. You’d think an issue affecting so many people would lead us to come together to find solutions on this important issue. What is the biggest hurdle we face?

It all comes down to funding. Without proper funding it’s very difficult for families, school districts and community agencies to afford the resources and professional staff needed to treat mental illness. As lawmakers, it’s our job to address the serious issues affecting our communities. We have many funding responsibilities as legislators. The welfare of our children must be the most important.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had the privilege of meeting professionals who deal directly with mental healthcare for our children, or “kiddos,” as the professionals call them. I recently visited Northwest Journey, a care center for school-age children in crisis. I learned about the incredible services offered at the organization. The professionals spoke about their passion to help children overcome their doubts and achieve a bright future.

The stories I heard and read were heartbreaking, but encouraging to think of a child’s potential, if given the resources to succeed. One of the children wrote, “A year ago around this time I thought I didn’t have a future but I can take a step back and see that my future holds an endless amount of possibilities.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise to most that families in crisis are less likely to have the means to afford private services or even private insurance. Northwest Journey is able to offer these critical services through the Medicaid program, which is managed by the state and provides assistance to families in-need.

If Republicans would’ve expanded Medicaid, organizations like Northwest Journey would have the potential to do so much more for their clients. This is our money that we’ve already paid to the federal government. I don’t understand why we would fund other states’ Medicaid programs, while ignoring the critical needs of our own children right here in Wisconsin.

There’s more we must do to support our children, besides expanding Medicaid. Prior to meeting with professionals at Northwest Journey, Senator Patty Schachtner (D-Somerset) and I learned about similar challenges Menomonie School District faces relating to providing mental health service. You see, our schools are woefully short of counselors and psychiatrists to help children in crisis.

Since 1993, Republicans imposed revenue limits on school districts. This dramatically restricted each district’s ability to fund our schools. Incremental increases based on 1993 education funding levels while using a broken funding formula has been disastrous for Wisconsin schools.

School districts have made deep cuts just to afford core curriculum, forcing mental health services onto the chopping block. Republicans cut $38 million in school mental health aid from Governor Evers’ budget, which would’ve funded more mental health professionals and programs.

School funding and how the formula works (or doesn’t work) has been debated for years. And, like so many other important issues, Republicans haven’t done anything about it.

jeff-smithOur children are relying on us. All children will be affected in some way, even families who aren’t directly affected. No matter the circumstances, we all walk the same path, breathe the same air and rely on the same democracy. We are all one community.

You can do your part by contacting legislators in your area. Ask them if they believe a child’s well-being is the most pressing priority. If so, tell them you will be holding them accountable based on their decisions. Those actions need to result in more success stories like those children at Northwest Journey who have found hope in their future.

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Wisconsin: The Politics Behind Gun Violence Inaction

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, 21 August 2019
in Wisconsin

las-vegas-shootingSen. Smith talks about legislation to expand the background check requirement for all firearm purchases as a way to fight against gun violence.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - I can’t imagine the horror victims go through when face to face with an active shooter while in a place of worship, school, shopping center or night club. How do families cope with the news of a loved one being murdered by a domestic terrorist, coworker or significant other? Or the news of a loved one who took their own life?

A few weeks ago, in a neighboring town, a young man shot and killed his mother, brother and nephew before driving to the home of a young woman he may have planned to abduct. He shot the parents of this young woman before killing her and himself. The family didn’t know the shooter before this happened, but his own family may have been aware he was dangerous.

Would a background check have saved those victims? We can’t be certain. Would a temporary law enforcement firearm removal order, also called a “red flag law,” stop this horribly tragic event? We’ll never know.

As a gun owner, I firmly believe in an individual’s right to own a firearm. I also believe gun violence prevention is long overdue. Countless lives have died in vain from our state and our nation’s inaction on gun violence.

Sadly, policymakers seem frozen with indecision when it comes to gun safety. We are trapped in a cycle of unexpected tragedies like El Paso, Dayton or Lake Hallie followed by the expected “thoughts and prayers” and then inaction by leaders to do anything to stop the cycle from happening again.

A Marquette Law School poll conducted in March of 2018 showed 81% of people favored background checks, with only 18% opposed. In the same poll, 56% of Wisconsinites supported assault-style weapon bans and 40% opposed the ban. More recently, a NPR poll conducted in February this year showed 65% of Americans believed a high-capacity magazine ban would reduce gun violence.

Polls consistently show people from all walks of life and political views favoring universal background checks. Wisconsin is ready for commonsense gun violence reforms, so why aren’t Republican lawmakers?

Pro-gun lobbying groups like the NRA use the 2nd Amendment as the reason for inaction. They use it to tie the hands of Republicans who might be willing to do something about gun violence.

Our Constitution has stood the test of time while our country has evolved. Take action now to stop the cycle of gun violence with commonsense reforms, and let the Constitution do its job. If the NRA wants to explain why simple background checks are wrong, or why they believe the founders thought it was necessary to have high-capacity magazines and assault-style weapons when drafting the 2nd Amendment then let them try.

For decades, gun rights have been a wedge issue. It’s near the top of the list among single-issue voters. With that being the case, it isn’t any wonder why politicians do nothing. After all, when we are divided, those in power keep power.

jeff-smithBut, not everyone is so easy to predict on this issue.

Last week the Task Force on Suicide Prevention held a hearing in Eau Claire. It lasted over 7 hours, most of it being agency reports. The public who attended, and stuck around long enough, got their chance to testify.

A gun shop owner from Dane County came to tell us about the Gun Safe program he started with other shop owners. It allows anyone in a mental health crisis to temporarily store his or her weapons in a gun shop safe until the crisis passes.

A Republican lawmaker mistakenly thought the gun shop owner would be opposed to a Red Flag Law. The shop owner surprised the lawmaker by saying he was in favor of a properly worded law to help responsible gun owners make the right choice in a crisis. It was refreshing to hear such a thoughtful response. It reminded me that we should never make assumptions of where people may stand on any issue.

We can own guns responsibly and still demand action for gun violence. We’ve gone too long without commonsense solutions to fight against gun violence. The time to act was long ago, but the opportunity to act still exists.

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State Government: Legislators Gather for Nonpartisan Conference

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, 14 August 2019
in Wisconsin

jeff-smithState Senator's experience at Summit meeting of legislators from other states and around the world gives opportunity to talk, including on redistricting reform.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - Last week I joined over 7,000 legislators and staff from other states and around the world in Nashville at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) annual Legislative Summit. NCSL is a bipartisan organization that has been around 45 years with a mission to advise, train and advocate for state government, regardless of party affiliation.

I went to the conference with no real expectations or hopes. The bipartisan approach seemed so refreshing from the divisive politics we have become accustomed to.

After registering, we all received nametags showing our state and position, but no party affiliation. Though there may have been plenty of caution by some, we were able to strike up real conversations with many of the 7,000 attendees without mentioning our political party.

One morning I sat across from a fellow in the hotel. After chatting for a while, I learned he was from South Africa, and he was the leader of the African National Congress. It was fascinating and impressive that leaders from around the world were there to share and learn.

Another day I sat down again for breakfast in the hotel, and I met three legislators from Germany. In fact, one mentioned he had relatives in Eau Claire before he even knew I was from there. It truly is a small world.

During the course of the week there were sessions on elections, water, education, transportation, writing legislation, resolving conflict and just about every topic involving government you can think of. Throughout all these sessions we learned from experts and legislators who‘ve been deeply engrossed in the topic at hand while never taking a political stance on the subject. Of course, we all had our own biases, but it was left to each of us to fit the information shared into whatever way we viewed the world or our values.

Early in the conference, I attended a session on school safety. This is particularly timely as we approach a new school year and the concerns over the rise in mass shootings.

The school safety session was well attended. While taking questions, one panelist confessed that he had spent his political career voting against funding for school counselors, free breakfast programs and additional funding for classrooms. He now has such regret that he is using his retirement to volunteer for schools and do whatever he can to raise awareness for the needs of students. That’s what a bipartisan conference has the potential to bring out in people. His comments gave me hope that we would hear more open and honest dialogue through the week. And, for the most part, it played out that way.

On the last day I was surprised to find out there were separate Democratic and Republican legislator breakfasts. Not necessarily a terrible idea, I suppose, but it was surprising. The day before we left, there were opposing sessions regarding redistricting. Yes, there was a Republican Legislative Redistricting session and a Democratic Legislative Redistricting session simultaneously. They may as well have called these sessions Gerrymandering 101 for Republicans or Democrats. I did not attend. I can’t say for sure what was learned, but it was seriously concerning to me.

On the Republican side, former Governor Scott Walker ran the redistricting session. After overseeing the most extreme partisan gerrymandering of any state in the history of our nation, Scott Walker is now conducting lessons on how to do the same for other states. We should all be alarmed by this effort.

We can’t afford to allow bipartisan conferences to be hijacked by something as vile as extreme partisan gerrymandering. Wisconsin has already lost so much from corrupt redistricting. Let’s protect whatever small vestige of cooperation is left and rid our system of all forms of gerrymandering rather than accept it as normal.

We must take the opportunities, like NCSL, for Democrats and Republicans to come together, communicate and learn from each other. This is the only way we can work together and find solutions to the most pressing issues in our state.

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