Sunday September 15, 2019

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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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Wisconsin: Questioning Our Economy

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, 07 August 2019
in Wisconsin

family-worried-billsAn economy should work for all people, not just our country’s corporations. A successful economy is more than the unemployment rate. We need to understand the hidden factors in our economy that affect the way people work and raise a family.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - Do you ever wonder how our economy stopped working for all of us? How have we arrived at stagnant wages, mega-rich corporations buying elections and people lacking essential access to healthcare?

Politicians like to cherry-pick numbers to show the economy is doing well under their watch. That’s why every Republican in this state talks about the unemployment rate. Here’s the dirty little secret -- they use the unemployment rate because it’s easy for voters to understand and it’s easy to manipulate. And it seems to work, too often, on people. They’re willing to overlook the insulting tweets from the White House because they’ve been told the economy is so great. But who is the economy really working for?

The unemployment rate is measured by how many people are looking for work. It doesn’t factor in many people who are underemployed or have given up on their work search. These people are forgotten. They gave up and were ignored. These individuals include people who took an early retirement, our adult children living in our homes, low-income workers who scrape by on whatever means they can or people who lost it all and are homeless. Just because the “numbers” sound good, doesn’t mean that people aren’t struggling.

The media judges our economy by the numbers. And, as we know, numbers can be skewed to show whatever we want. It seems the media takes the easy way out by reporting how the stock market does each day or over a period of time. That means stockbrokers and corporations are doing well, but where are the wages? It’s just rich people getting richer off of us.

A number I never see is how many jobs some people work to pay their bills. The most important measure of our economy is income.

Income disparity has never been greater. Why should anyone work one full-time job and still struggle to live? Everyone deserves a chance to live free and have a quality life. We are not put on this earth just to serve others without the chance to enjoy our own lives. That’s why you’ve heard so often about $15 per hour as a “living wage.” That’s the minimum anyone should be paid to afford health insurance, food, and a place to live. So why’s our “minimum wage” stuck at $7.25? That should be called “less than half a wage.” Why should someone have to work more than one job to get by?

There are numerous “hidden” factors in our economy affecting everyone, one way or another. Access to healthcare and college affordability are two of the biggest factors that can either enhance or hurt our earning potential.

During the 1940s, employers started offering health insurance policies as a way to attract workers and keep them healthy. It seemed like a win-win at the time. Nowadays, with the health insurance market too expensive, employees are stuck in jobs they may not like or they cannot afford to leave even if the pay is substandard. What if healthcare access wasn’t a factor in our career decisions? Would you, or someone you know, change jobs?

uwgb-studentsCollege affordability is becoming more difficult for our younger generations. Millennials and Generation Z graduates are entering the workforce with mountains of student loan debt. Sure, it’s easy to say don’t take out loans, but what jobs in our current economy don’t at least require a college degree or technical training? Unless wages increase, we cannot expect young people to save for retirement, buy houses or start families.

Our economy could do better if we start treating people better than corporations or treating people less like numbers. Every day, I hear stories from people in western Wisconsin trying to scratch out a living, raise a family and enjoy life. These stories can be uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time. When you hear how well the economy is doing, don’t be afraid to ask yourself: “Is it working for everyone?”

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