Tuesday January 21, 2020

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Good Government Demands Redistricting Reform

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, 15 January 2020
in Wisconsin

door-county-peopleSen. Smith writes about measures we can take for fair maps in Wisconsin, including the passage of Senate Bill 288/Assembly Bill 303 and the constitutional amendment he recently introduced.


MADISON, WI - Every new year is an opportunity to reflect on what we can do better moving forward. When the New Year is the first of a new decade we think even bigger. What can we do in this new decade to become the sibling, parent, neighbor, colleague or citizen we’re expected to be?

While being a parent may arguably be the most important role many of us take on, being a good citizen is a close second. You may already say you never miss voting during an election, and that’s a good thing. But can we do better?

As we prepare for the next decade, we must commit ourselves to be the best citizen we can be. There are many opportunities to be a better citizen: participate in the census, call your elected officials and demand nonpartisan redistricting reform. Every day in my role, I work to ensure each vote counts – it’s a responsibility I take seriously, and I hope you do too.

Every ten years, citizens are required to complete the U.S. Census by providing information about themselves for officials to identify demographic shifts in our country. Data collected in a census year is then used to draw legislative districts.

wi-dist-maps-currentRedrawing political lines can be very controversial. Currently, Wisconsin statutes allow legislators to draw their own lines, which can be easily manipulated for political advantage, known as gerrymandering. Consequently, if Wisconsin has uncompetitive maps, legislators are far less likely to make decisions reflecting the will of their constituents.

In 2011, Republican leaders paid a private law firm to draw the lines, according to their specifications. The attorneys forced legislators to sign a document agreeing they wouldn’t disclose how the redistricting occurred.

Advocates challenged this undemocratic process all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Millions of our tax dollars were paid to the law firm that drew the lines and to defend their actions in court. The Supreme Court took no action other than to suggest each state should handle this problem in their own way.

Before this happened, most citizens didn’t pay much attention to legislative redistricting. Now, it’s clear we need a better system to protect our vote.

With the start of a new decade, the Legislature can change the way legislative districts are determined. All we need to do is pass a bill. In October, Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) and Representative Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa) introduced legislation to create a fair process for nonpartisan redistricting reform.

This legislation makes the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) responsible for re-drawing Wisconsin’s legislative districts. The LRB is the full-time, nonpartisan agency made up of lawyers we already rely on to turn your ideas into law. With no outside political pressure or affiliations, this is the agency perfectly suited to handle this important task. As legislators, we should approve fair maps, not draw favorable maps for our own protection.

jeff-smithSince Senate Bill 288 and Assembly Bill 303 were introduced, the Republican Committee Chairs haven’t held a public hearing. Public hearings allow legislators an opportunity to learn more about an issue and listen to Wisconsinites. In 2009, as the Chair of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, I held a public hearing on similar legislation to establish a process for nonpartisan redistricting reform.

This session, it’s important, if not more than in 2009, that legislators in the Majority hold a public hearing to create fair maps. That’s why legislators sent a letter today to the Senate Committee Chair requesting a public hearing. Make sure you know where your legislator stands and advocate for a public hearing.

Last week we also took steps to prevent gerrymandering in future redistricting efforts. I introduced legislation with Representative Hesselbein to create a constitutional amendment for nonpartisan redistricting reform, modeled after SB 288/AB 303.

We can’t move these proposals forward without the support from more legislators. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: contact your elected officials and urge their pledge of support for nonpartisan redistricting reform. While you have your own personal intentions for 2020, let’s all commit to be better citizens to make every vote count and restore trust in government.

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Senator Dave Hansen Announces Retirement

Posted by Dave Hansen, State Senator Dist 30
Dave Hansen, State Senator Dist 30
Dave Hansen, State Senator Dist 30 has not set their biography yet
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on Thursday, 09 January 2020
in Wisconsin

dave-hansen-jane-gbAfter 40 years of public service, popular local leader, 72, retiring from the State Senate at the end of the current term.


GREEN BAY - After much thought, reflection and discussion with my wife Jane and my family, I have decided not to seek re-election to the State Senate and retire at the conclusion of my current term.

I have been blessed in so many ways: meeting Jane and her agreeing to marry me, the birth of our three daughters Kathy, Cari and Christy; the addition of our three sons-in-law who together with our daughters have further blessed Jane and me with eleven terrific grandkids and also being given the privilege to serve on the Brown County Board and in the Wisconsin State Senate.

I am proud to have led a life of public service for more than forty years. First as a teacher and coach at Annunciation Catholic School in Green Bay, as a truck driver for the city of Green Bay, as a member of the Brown County Board and finally as a state senator. I’ve always tried to do my best and I hope the people I have had the privilege to serve believe I have had their best interests at heart and that I have done well by them.

dave-hansen-jane-victoryOn December 18th I turned 72. And as much as it has become a cliché in politics, I truly am retiring to spend more time with my family. I have no fears about my chances for reelection having survived an attempted recall in 2011 and winning handily in a district that Republicans told me they gerrymandered specifically to defeat me. I believe had I chosen to run again I would win.

But as anyone who knows me will tell you, Jane and my family are the most important people in the world to me and it is important to me that I spend more time with them at this stage of our lives.

dave-hansen-seniorcareI will miss the many friends I have made in the Legislature and state government just as I look forward to continuing the many friendships I have made back home as a state senator. It truly has been a privilege to represent what I consider to be the best place in the world, with the best people, to live and raise a family. It is an honor I will always carry with me.

I will also miss the opportunity being a state senator has given me to meet so many people who I otherwise wouldn’t have and to learn about them, their families, their accomplishments, hopes, dreams and concerns. I have especially enjoyed doing what I can to support our young people by visiting their classrooms, meeting with them during school tours of the Capitol, and helping them celebrate important achievements like attaining Eagle Scout, succeeding in their academic and athletic endeavors and more.

As much as I’ve enjoyed my time in the State Senate, however, after what will be 40 years of public service I am looking forward to January 2021 and beginning a the next chapter in my life with Jane and my family.

To all the people of the 30th District thank you for the honor and privilege to serve you.

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Let's Finish What We Started

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, 08 January 2020
in Wisconsin

capitol-crowd-wiSen. Smith writes about issues to prioritize going forward, including Medicaid expansion and gun safety reform. In 2019, we saw a glimpse of what compromise looks like and he's hopeful we can all come to the table to finish what we started.


BRUNSWICK, WI - During this time of year, we’re surrounded by reminders to set goals for the next twelve months and fulfill our New Year’s resolutions. As the weeks pass by, we typically find ourselves falling back into our old habits and routines. Once we slip up, it may seem like our resolutions are hopeless and we push off our goals to next year.

While preparing to head back to Madison, I thought about small, yet realistic intentions to continually motivate me in this New Year. Step by step, I’m hopeful these intentions will guide me to put differences aside and finish what we started in 2019.

To begin, I’m determined to stay away from holding grudges and I’ll encourage others to do the same.

Of course, we won’t suddenly lock arms and sing “Kumbaya.” After all, I wouldn’t expect anyone to turn their back on their own personal values or beliefs. The basic principle of our political system brings two separate parties with at least two ideas to the table to solve any problem. That’s the standard most citizens expect and hope for from their elected officials.

jeff-smithI intend to follow through on this expectation while advocating for policies to support all Wisconsinites. In the last year, I heard from constituents over and over about the necessity and urgency of expanding Medicaid to improve healthcare affordability for Wisconsinites. Medicaid expansion will also save our state more than $300 million to later re-invest back into essential health programs. With 62% of Wisconsinites supporting this proposal, Medicaid expansion must be a top priority.

I’ll continue advocating for commonsense gun safety measures. Last year, my Democratic colleagues introduced legislation to implement universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders to remove firearms from individuals who may be suffering from a mental illness and present a danger to themselves or others. These lifesaving proposals, supported by more than 80% of Wisconsinites, still haven’t moved forward, even though Governor Evers called a special session to debate and vote on the bills.

I intend to find common ground so we can have a civil discussion to find solutions we can agree on. Considering the overwhelming support from Wisconsin residents on these ideas, I hope my colleagues can come to the table and do the right thing.

The effort to gather together isn’t futile – there’s hope for more compromise in 2020. Last year, there were signs that legislators could find themselves in agreement, in principle, on some major issues. I was pleased and surprised to see legislation introduced by Republicans mirroring bills that had previously been introduced by Democrats. The most prominent examples that jumped out included contraception accessibility and medical marijuana legalization.

Earlier in the year, Republicans introduced Senate Bill 286, which would allow pharmacists to sell contraceptives to customers over the age of 18 without a doctor’s prescription. I was impressed to hear one Republican author identify the hurdles that existed for women to access contraceptives as a primary reason for introducing this legislation. This may be one area we can finally break through and have a civil conversation about women’s health and access to birth control.

Recently, two Republican legislators introduced a version of a bill to legalize medical marijuana. Though it was quickly criticized by their own leaders, it gave many hope that the conversation could be resurrected and not take a partisan stance like it’s been in the past. I applaud this effort and others that give us a glimpse at what might be.

In 2020, I will keep fighting for the issues that matter most to Wisconsinites. My Republican colleagues have begun to show they’re capable of recognizing the challenges Wisconsinites face. Now we need them to act on Medicaid expansion and gun safety reform. Let’s all hope that 2020 brings us closer to the type of shared governance that most of us wish for and expect so we can finish what we started.

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Every Conversation Sparks a New Idea

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, 01 January 2020
in Wisconsin

tom-sieber-peopleThis week’s column describes how the discussions in western Wisconsin help Sen. Smith craft new legislation to help all of the state. This is the second of three columns detailing reflections from 2019 and what the Senator is looking forward to in 2020.


BRUNSWICK, WI - The past year pushed me to learn and grow as a leader. As I spent time with my family over the holiday season, I reflected on the value of collaboration, a lesson learned in 2019. I thought about all the conversations I had with others, and how accomplishments were possible from the time spent learning from others.

We’ve collaborated with Democrats, Republicans, local leaders, industry experts and others to introduce 24 new bills. However, I don’t use this number as a measuring stick for our progress through the year, it is a reflection of the discussions I’ve had with folks throughout the district.

Every conversation sparks a new idea. The best ideas come from advocates understanding a certain issue or professionals who have expertise in a specific field.

jeff-smithI appreciate hearing from constituents who contact my office directly, but I also want to meet people where they’re at, whether that’s coming home from work or heading to a community event. In the last year, I routinely parked my pickup truck along roads throughout the district and invited folks to “Stop ‘N Talk” about the issues they’re facing or things they’d like to see changed.

After Governor Tony Evers introduced his 2019-21 budget, I held 8 budget town halls from Black River Falls to Ellsworth and Alma to Eau Claire to discuss Wisconsin’s priorities. Folks consistently said they wanted to properly fund our public schools, fix our roads and expand Medicaid, which would provide healthcare coverage to more than 3,000 individuals in counties throughout the 31st Senate District.

As the year progressed, I prioritized meeting with constituents of diverse backgrounds, including farmers, teachers, students, town leaders, county board members, tribal members and many more. These meetings resulted in new ideas, innovative investments and inspired much of the legislation I introduced.

This fall, I had the chance to speak with local farmers on a milk hauler route ride along. The challenges farmers face are just as diverse as the solutions needed to help. These conversations with local farmers provided me with valuable insight for offering new bills to support small family farms, farm succession planning or help with sustainable agricultural practices.

Throughout the year, I visited local school districts, meeting teachers, reading children’s books with elementary students and participating in a high school civics classes. These visits remind me of the valuable role our schools have in preparing children for Wisconsin’s future workforce and ensuring our schools and teachers are well supported. As a result of these visits, I introduced legislation to make it easier for rural school districts to hire trained, qualified teachers by allowing retired teachers come back to the classroom.

In 2019, I also introduced two bills to address Wisconsin’s healthcare workforce shortage. Earlier in the year, I toured Gundersen Tri-County Hospital in Whitehall and learned about the consequences of the nursing shortage and how it affects the quality of care in rural communities.

Over the summer, I joined commuters on City of Eau Claire bus routes to listen to the issues that matter most. This experience motivated me to introduce legislation to recreate the Chippewa Valley Regional Transit Authority.

As Wisconsinites prepared for hunting season, I introduced legislation with my Democratic colleagues to allocate funding for CWD research, testing and carcass disposal sites.

During the gun hunting season, I toured CWD testing kiosks with Senator Schachtner and met hunters and scientists concerned about the growing spread of CWD. These conversations reinforced the need for these preventative measures to stop the spread of CWD and preserve Wisconsin’s hunting heritage.

I’m looking forward to meeting more advocates and introducing new bills to support Wisconsinites in 2020. However, we won’t be able to address the most critical issues or have meaningful accomplishments without non-partisan redistricting reform. Next week, I’ll be writing about my 2020 priorities and the need for fair maps.

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Senator Jeff Smith: Lessons Learned in 2019

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 Thursday, 26 December 2019
in Wisconsin

new-year-happyThe Senator from western Wisconsin shares lessons learned in 2019 and his hope for cooperative shared government. He’ll be writing about 2019 reflections and his hopes for 2020 for the next three weeks.


BRUNSWICK, WI - This time of year offers an important opportunity to reflect and be grateful for the experiences we’ve earned. It’s been an honor serving as your state senator this year. As I returned from my last Madison trip of 2019, I had so much to think about, including the lessons learned, accomplishments made and what to look forward to in 2020.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be writing about my 2019 reflections and what drives me to serve the 31st Senate District. This past year created so many opportunities to learn from advocates, constituents and my legislative colleagues.

When this year began, I knew this would be a year of learning for myself and the entire legislature. After all, this was the first year Wisconsin had shared government since the 2007-2008 session, when Republicans controlled the Assembly, Democrats controlled the Senate and there was a Democratic governor.

I cringe when people call shared government divided government. Democracy is supposed to be messy, it’s supposed to be deliberate. Putting aside our ambitions and doing our part in the democratic process isn’t about division, it’s about finding unity.

In 2018, before officially taking office, I attended a legislative forum with area leaders. During the forum, I explained the reality of the situation: to get a committee hearing scheduled or a bill passed, I’d need support from Republicans, like the senator I was sitting next to. The Republican senator quickly replied, letting me know my help would be needed to prevent their bills from being vetoed. This optimistic conversation gave me hope of a cooperative environment within the Capitol.

jeff-smithHowever, my initial expectations fell far short of what happened this year. Stripping the Governor and Attorney General of power during the Lame Duck Session set a bad precedent and an uncooperative tone. The state senate only met 9 times in 2019, without bringing up important policy proposals, including Medicaid expansion or closing the dark store loophole. Less Senate floor sessions isn’t a bad thing if committees are thoroughly vetting policy and producing quality legislation. But this hasn’t been the case.

This year, I became the Ranking Democratic member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Financial Institutions and Revenue, a responsibility I take very seriously.

During the final Committee hearing of the year, we were scheduled to debate and vote on three bills relating to labeling dairy and meat products. These bills stem from farmers’ concerns for consumers not understanding the labeling for plant-based foods and imitation animal products. I understand we aren’t saving lives or farms with such legislation, but it’s something we can agree on that may help famers know we care about protecting Wisconsin’s proud agricultural legacy.

Under these bills, a grocer could be imprisoned if they sell products that are labeled as milk, cheese or meat if they aren’t produced by a mammal or come from an animal. Before we voted on these bills, I introduced amendments to remove the bill’s imprisonment penalty. Typically, in committee, we discuss and vote on the amendments and pass the bills with or without the amendments. Instead of following this procedure, the Republican Committee Chair ruled he wouldn’t even consider a vote on the amendments.

Even a member from his own party spoke against this process. Additionally, Senator Risser, the longest serving legislator in the nation, stated “I can safely say that if it has happened, it is a rare occurrence. The Chairman’s failure to allow deliberation of amendments perverts the very nature of committee meetings, to scrutinize legislation before it is sent to the full Senate for final review.”

This entire session, I’ve tried to say we have shared government to acknowledge the need for bipartisanship, but it feels more like divided government. Despite setbacks in 2019, I will renew my optimism for the good government concept of cooperation in 2020.

I’ve met advocates who have inspired my hope and lifelong endeavor to continue learning. My office has become my classroom where I learn from people of all backgrounds and identities. In next week’s column, I’ll share how conversations with others and lessons learned resulted in accomplishments over the last year.

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It's Cold Outside for Our Furry Friends

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 December 2019
in Wisconsin

dog-winter-snowThe Senator talks about looking out for our vulnerable furry friends. He works with a constituent to learn about unattended tethering,  and introduces legislation to prohibit this harmful practice.


BRUNSWICK, WI - While it’s not officially here yet, the winter season has come to western Wisconsin. Snow has fallen and temperatures have dropped close to zero. During these winter months, my family’s two dogs enjoy exploring the outdoors. But, as the days get even colder, you’ll find the dogs spending more time inside near the wood burning stove in our family room.

Not all animals find winter so enjoyable, especially if they’re unable to warm up indoors. I recently learned the dangers for animals when kept outside for extensive periods of time. Even their furry coats aren’t enough to keep them warm as their body temperatures drop and their paws freeze.

As a legislator, I’ve come to learn the value of an advocate’s voice, while meeting community members and activists, and hearing their stories. These conversations are important reminders to look out for those who are vulnerable, including our furry friends who can’t speak for themselves. Our voices have power – we must speak up to take care of others.

jeff-smithIn 2009, I introduced the Commercial Dog Breeders Licensure Bill, as a State Representative. This bill, enacted by Governor Doyle, created a licensure process and stronger regulations for puppy mills. The passage of 2009 Act 90 was an incredible accomplishment, but I quickly learned the work to protect dogs didn’t stop there.

During the 2018 campaign, I met Becky who previously worked as a rural mail carrier. While on her route, she came across too many dogs who were permanently chained or tethered in a yard. Becky even saw dogs who were chained for such a long time that their collars became embedded into their skin.

She noticed other signs to indicate a dog has been chained for long periods of time. The area around the dog is a hardened dirt patch, and typically, the dog doesn’t have any shelter, if any. Of course, with little-to-no social interaction with others, these dogs become very defensive of their territory, aggressive and can be dangerous to humans. According to the animal welfare advocacy group, UnChain Wisconsin, tethered dogs are nearly three times “more likely to bite, with children almost always being the innocent victim.”

Too many dogs are permanently chained year-round. People often find themselves in unfortunate places in life and don’t know what to do with the dog they adopted. Some owners forget about the responsibilities or a family member loses interest in the pet. Whatever the reason, the dog becomes victim of circumstances brought on by poor judgement. This neglectful practice heightens the risk for entanglement, dehydration, starvation, heatstroke, frostbite, trauma, disease and death.

The United States Department of Agriculture condemned unattended tethering, defining the practice as “inhumane.” Despite their opposition and advocacy against this practice, little has been done to stop it. Many Wisconsin municipalities don’t have ordinances to prevent these abusive practices or they don’t have the resources to enforce it. The responsibility is left to neighbors and friends to intervene, which isn’t always easy or successful.

Throughout the past year, I worked with Becky and others to develop the “Unattended Tethering” bill to prohibit these harmful practices and provide appropriate shelter for dogs. Specifically, the bill will prohibit owners from tethering their dogs during extreme weather or under unsafe conditions, ban tethering to treadmills or training devices and prohibit owners from leaving dogs unattended in a motor vehicle under life-threatening circumstances.

After years of working with dog owners, Becky rescued some dogs from these dangerous circumstances. However, she wanted to advocate for these animals, who have no voice, in a different way. Her experience and advocacy moved this policy proposal forward. During the holiday season, I encourage you to advocate for others, like Becky. Be sure to look out for others who may not be able to advocate for themselves and find a way to use your voice to get involved and to help.

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Next President Should Not Hide Behind Justice Department Policy

Posted by Laura Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Laura Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Laura Kiefert lives in Howard and is a Partner in the Green Bay Progressive. Mem
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on Saturday, 14 December 2019
in Wisconsin

whitehouse-crimals-lkkWe need the Congress to specifically state in law what many of us have always taken for granted - that no one, including the President of the United States, is above the law.


GREEN BAY, WI - Like many patriotic Americans, I believe that no one is above the law, not even the President. However, with the rampant corruption and pending impeachment of Donald Trump, the ambiguity of whether or not a sitting President can be indicted is currently being debated.

Presently, the Constitution is silent on whether a president can face criminal prosecution, the U.S. Supreme Court has not directly addressed the question, and the U.S. Justice Department has a decades-old policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Therefore, criminal charges being brought against Trump, regardless of the severity of his crimes, just aren’t going to happen.

The thought of a criminal residing in the White House sickens me, and I would hope it would be troublesome for everyone. Therefore, in order to keep crooks from occupying 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue, in the future, voters must do a better job of vetting Presidential candidates.

In addition, we need the Congress to specifically state in law what many of us have always taken for granted - that no one, including the President of the United States, is above the law or has the right to obstruct justice by ignoring a lawful subpoena in an effort to cover his/her crimes. Every American deserves to be assured of this fundamental principle of our government.

I would hope that all candidates for President will show he/she will follow the law and has no crimes to hide by supporting such a clarification in law.

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Wisconsin Democrats Introduce Bills to Protect Property Taxpayers

Posted by Jon Erpenbach. State Senator 27th District
Jon Erpenbach. State Senator 27th District
State Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Madison) - A former radio personality and legisla
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on Thursday, 12 December 2019
in Wisconsin

school-bus-kidsLegislation attempts to reverse the increasing bill for the costly school choice and voucher programs at the expense of public schools.


MADISON - Property taxpayers have a hidden cost on their bills this month. According to the Department of Public Instruction, this hidden fee will cost the 27th Senate District $3.1 million, and upwards of $95.6 million statewide. If left unchecked, this fee – voucher schools – will increase year after year without oversight or authority.

This week Democrats introduced legislation to give the power back to taxpayers, instead of making them blindly foot the increasing bill for the costly school choice and voucher programs at the expense of public schools. Representative Sondy Pope (D-Mt.Horeb), Representative Dave Considine (D-Baraboo), and I introduced legislation to freeze the number of participants in the 3 main voucher programs and require teachers in the voucher programs to be licensed. Additionally, our bills will limit the voucher to lesser of the current payment or the school district’s general aid per student, and limit voucher payments to no more than tuition charged. Additionally, Senator Janet Bewley (D-Mason) introduced legislation to require a referendum before a district faces increased property taxes from vouchers taking away aid.

These proposals would ensure that property taxpayers don’t lose more to voucher operations than they would receive in state general aid per student, would ensure that voucher operations don’t take in more from taxpayers than they would have received in tuition, and would give the power back to taxpayers to decide how their tax dollars are spent.

school-meeting-crowdThis is not the first time that Democrats attempted to increase transparency and accountability this year. In Governor Evers’ budget proposal, he included several of the same proposals that we have reintroduced today. However, Republicans on the Joint Committee on Finance (JFC) removed all provisions aimed at increasing the standards of voucher programs on their first vote.

Voucher school operators, on average, takes $2,618 more per student than the general aid a public school district receives. In 97% of districts statewide, property taxpayers would pay more per student to voucher schools than for their public schools, and although general aid is designed to limit the cost of public schools to property taxpayers, homeowners are on the hook for their increased taxpayer contributions to voucher programs.

Additionally, many private schools in the voucher programs charge significantly less in tuition than the voucher payments. In those cases, private schools make more from school district property taxpayers than they would have received in tuition. Choice schools often funnel these tax dollars to statewide lobby organizations that are designed to demand more from taxpayers without oversight. In other words, these voucher schools are draining resources from public schools, while profiting at property taxpayers’ expense.

Our public schools are already tragically underfunded, and taxpayers are forced to raise their own taxes through referendums in order to keep their doors open. Taxpayers deserve full transparency when it comes to the unreliable voucher programs, and the legislation that we introduced this week is a step in the right direction.

As avid supporters of public education, we are proud to work alongside our Democratic colleagues to fight back against the bad policies and burdens that taxpayers have to endure under Republican leadership. These bills are common-sense proposals that allow property taxpayers to choose whether or not they shell out hundreds of millions of dollars without oversight or authority.

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What Will It Take to Close Lincoln Hills?

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, 11 December 2019
in Wisconsin

lincohn-hills-youth-prisonWe must close Lincoln Hills and take steps to reduce recidivism in Wisconsin. If we don’t invest in the rehabilitation of our youth, we will continue to see institutional racism in our corrections system.


IRMA, WI - Within the last decade, Lincoln Hills has reached a state of crisis. New reports emerged this fall, citing the violence taking place at this youth detention facility. This revelation reminds us that nothing yet has happened to resolve the serious issues in Wisconsin’s youth prisons.

Lincoln Hills, located in Irma, opened in 1970 for male youth offenders. While most of us live far from Lincoln Hills, and few people know individuals housed at the facility, we should all be concerned about the future of these young men.

The way Wisconsin handles youth offenders directly affects whether they end up on a lifetime path within our justice system. We should all want a system that provides a safe space and promotes practices to reduce the rate of recidivism once these young men are released.

After high profile incidents, criminal complaints, civil lawsuits and a federal investigation, officials determined Lincoln Hills needed to shut down. During the 2017-18 session, the State Legislature passed Act 185, to restructure the state’s juvenile correctional system. This legislation was an attempt to fix, what appeared to be, a broken system.

Act 185 will convert Lincoln Hills from a youth facility to an adult correctional institution by establishing Type 1 facilities for serious juvenile offenders and establishing Secured Residential Care Centers (SRCCs) around the state.

Officials needed new facilities for the young adults, currently at Lincoln Hills, to reach their goal of closing this facility. Act 185 appropriated $25 million for the construction of Type 1 facilities for serious offenders under the age of 17 who were convicted of class A or B felonies, including homicide, sexual assault or armed robbery.

Act 185 also appropriated $40 million to build multiple SRCCs around the state. The Department of Corrections (DOC) invited counties to apply for a grant from the $40 million budgeted for this project. I was disappointed when the March grant application deadline passed and the only counties interested were Milwaukee, Racine, Dane and Brown.

After having conversations with DOC officials, I learned that counties are reluctant to apply for the grant because it only covers construction, and they fear the constraints placed on their budgets wouldn’t allow them the resources needed to run the facilities. Thus, the goal of having youth facilities closer to families may not be met.

It does make some sense that counties in Southern Wisconsin would jump on the opportunity to bring their youth back home. After all, 60% of the youth currently at Lincoln Hills are from Milwaukee County.

Something is very wrong with Wisconsin incarcerating disproportionate amounts of African Americans compared to our total population. According to Youth Justice Milwaukee, 70% of the youth in Lincoln Hills are African American, despite comprising only 10% of Wisconsin’s total youth population.

This trend in our youth facilities is seen on a larger scale in Wisconsin’s adult correctional system too. Wisconsin incarcerates African-American men at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country. According to the State Bar of Wisconsin, 43% of males incarcerated in our state are African-American. Wisconsin’s total African-American population is only 6.6%, indicating another example of the racial inequalities in the state.

jeff-smithIf we don’t invest in the rehabilitation of our youth, we will continue to see institutional racism in our corrections system. Keeping young offenders close to home is a good first step on the path of reducing recidivism.

The DOC has done everything they can to help counties apply. This year the Legislature passed a bill, signed into law by Governor Evers, to double the amount of funding. We also extended the deadline for closure of Lincoln Hills to allow counties more time to get the SRCCs built and running.

But still nothing is happening. The Republican-led Joint Finance Committee, has refused to meet and vote on the funding. Political games are continuing while time is running out to prevent violence in Wisconsin’s youth prisons. What else will it take?

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Homeless Wisconsinites Left out in the Cold by GOP

Posted by Jon Erpenbach. State Senator 27th District
Jon Erpenbach. State Senator 27th District
State Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Madison) - A former radio personality and legisla
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on Friday, 06 December 2019
in Wisconsin

homelessState Republican “A Hand for the Homeless” package just another stall tactic says Erpenbach.


WEST POINT - In Governor Evers’ budget proposal, he included funding to combat homelessness in Wisconsin. The funding was based on recommendations from an Interagency Council on Homelessness that was created in 2017. The recommendations were drawn from the council’s “A Hand and a Home: Foundations for Success,” an action plan that asked for $3.75 million annually to prevent and decrease homelessness in Wisconsin. Additionally, in February 2019, Republicans introduced a series of eight bills that had the same goals – the “A Hand for the Homeless” package. With both sides of the aisle working on the issue, there was hope that, before winter hit Wisconsin, the state would release funding and get to work on this pressing issue.

While all the funding was approved in the Joint Committee on Finance (JFC) for the purpose of combatting homelessness, Republicans opted to hold the money in their supplemental appropriation fund, instead of releasing the dollars to the agencies charged with implementing the programs. Governor Evers included a detailed list of the programs that the funds would be used for, including increases for the Homeless Prevention Program, State Shelter Subsidy Grants, the Housing Assistance Program, and the creation of grants for Housing Navigation, etc. Yet, Republicans held back the funds, waiting instead for their own package of bills to be signed into law. Once again choosing partisanship over the good of Wisconsin.

This legislation passed unanimously in both Senate and Assembly committees and before the full Assembly, but despite Democratic effort, Republicans blocked the bills in the Senate, and adjourned until January 2020.

On July 15, 2019 the Department of Administration (DOA) requested the release of the funds passed in the budget and several months later they have not received a response. Despite the funding already being designated for this purpose, Republicans are forcing our most vulnerable to needlessly wait while they leave for their holiday vacations.

jon-erpenbachGovernor Evers sent a letter to the Republican JFC Co-Chairs, Senator Alberta Darling and Representative John Nygren, to release the funds on November 14, 2019, and JFC Democrats followed the call by requesting that the JFC convene to release the funding. Still, Republicans have stayed silent on the once bipartisan issue.

Those who are facing homelessness should not have to wait through the freezing Wisconsin winter months for Republicans to decide to do their job. There is support on both sides of the aisle for the legislation that was introduced by Republican Assembly members, yet Senate Republicans refuse to address this crucial issue.

Wisconsinites are sick of the constant political games. This is just another example of Republicans using tactics to stall progress in our state. Releasing the funds that the JFC is holding to combat homelessness should not be a partisan issue, and, with the funds already being slated for this purpose, the cost should not be preventing the programs from being executed.

Republicans have come out in support of these proposals. Democrats have pushed for the bills to be taken up in the Senate. Governor Evers has advocated for the funds. What is holding Senate Republicans back from taking the vote to help those in need?

There are only a few weeks left this year, and the legislature has yet to take up some of the most important issues to Wisconsinites. Wisconsinites expect more from their elected officials than to “play goalie” to issues that would have enormous positive impacts on our communities.

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The Ho-Chunk Code Talkers: Honoring Native American History

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 December 2019
in Wisconsin

wwii-code-talkersNative American Heritage Month is an important time to remind ourselves of our country’s past, the role of the World War II Ho-Chunk Code Talkers, and honor Native Americans’ contributions to our country.


BRUNSWICK, WI - Since 1990, our country has recognized November as Native American Heritage Month. This commemorative month provides an opportunity to remember Native Americans’ roles in our country’s history and appreciate their cultural contributions. This should be a time for us to look deeper into our history and the contributions of all Americans.

Native American Heritage Month is an important time to remind ourselves of our country’s cruel past and violence towards Tribal Nations. During this month, we also honor Native Americans’ remarkable contributions to our country, including the World War II code talkers. The code talkers’ service is an example to the fortitude and social fabric within Native American tribes. Their role in World War II tells the story of American endurance, collaboration and the importance of sharing our strengths and skills.

ho-chunk-code-talkers-medalsHistory is often re-written by those with privilege to remove disturbing, violent accounts. We grew up learning of the Thanksgiving story and the “friendly” relationship between early settlers and the Indigenous people. This story disregards our country’s troubled past, while also ignoring the important role Native Americans have had in American history.

Our country has a complex, painful history regarding the treatment of Native Americans. Despite attempts to help European settlers when they first arrived, Native Americans were forcibly removed from their land, introduced to deadly diseases and became victims of mass genocide. For many decades, even as late as the 1950s, white Americans suppressed members of the Tribal Nations, forcibly placing children in boarding schools and promoting assimilation policies in an attempt to destroy their culture.

Many Native Americans still held onto their native languages, despite this traumatic history and the attempts to strip them of their heritage. During the World Wars of the twentieth century, members from Tribal Nations were willing to enlist and fight for the same values that other soldiers believed in. As Native American members joined the military, they realized their ability to speak another language would make it difficult for enemies to interpret intercepted messages. These enlisted members of Native American tribes became known as code talkers.

Although Native Americans were enlisted for this important duty, they still faced challenges working predominately with English-speaking soldiers.

jeff-smithI heard a story about an enlisted Ho-Chunk Code Talker, selected for this role because he could speak his native language. He began his assignment in the radio room waiting for a message with a commanding officer. When a message arrived, the code talker couldn’t understand the sender’s message. The officer was puzzled and demanded to know why he told them he could speak his native language but then couldn’t understand this message. He replied that he is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and the sender was speaking Navajo. This anecdote reminds us of the presumptions we may have of others, but the importance of learning from others’ backgrounds.

As a nation of many cultures, religions and ethnicities, we should celebrate the code talkers’ legacy and their contribution to our country’s history. With this in mind, I recently introduced legislation to designate a stretch of Interstate 90 from La Crosse to Tomah in honor the

Ho-Chunk code talkers for their instrumental role protecting our values of freedom and democracy.

This bipartisan proposal is one small measure to honor Native Americans in our state, but we must do better to educate ourselves of these vital roles that are, too often, overlooked in our country’s history. Be sure to do what you can to learn more about our country’s history by listening, reading and having conversations with others.

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What Are You Thankful For?

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, 27 November 2019
in Wisconsin

uwec-teacherworkshopSen. Smith reflects on the amazing conversations he had and the lessons he learned during his first year representing the 31st Senate District.


BRUNSWICK, WI - We’re nearing the end of another year and already getting ready for Thanksgiving. Everything seems to speed up during these last weeks as we prepare for the holiday season and the New Year. As we try to slow things down, we have time to reflect on and remember what we accomplished this year and ask ourselves what we’re thankful for.

Personally, I have many reasons to be grateful. Barely a year ago, I was elected as your state senator, something I’m eternally grateful for. In the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and learn from community members and connect with legislators from across the state and country. While reflecting on the year and anticipating the time ahead, we must remember to listen, respect and learn. Let’s all do our best to build relationships and develop trust to make our state the place we want to leave for our children and future generations.

Learning really is a lifelong experience. Serving as your senator, I’m given more opportunities to learn than most people get. My personal style of listening evolved, allowing me to be outdoors and visible to constituents. During the week, I’d take out my truck and park, hoist up my flags and the Stop ‘n Talk sign and invite anyone to have a conversation. My mobile office hours offered the opportunity for folks to talk as they headed home from work or on the way to an event.

jeff-smithI’m thankful for all of the amazing advocates who visited me in my office or on the streets and shared personal stories, experiences and lessons. You can visit my Facebook page and find pictures and descriptions from many of my Stop ‘n Talks.

When I’m not in the district, I also have the fortunate opportunity to learn from Capitol colleagues, staff, statewide advocates and people serving in other parts of our great Nation. This past year, I met with community leaders at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) annual Legislative Summit and the NCSL Broadband and Cable Policy Summit. In fact, these were the best opportunities I had to mingle with legislators from the other side of the aisle. These learning opportunities make me a more knowledgeable and well-rounded representative for you. I’m thankful for any opportunity to listen and learn other perspectives and ideologies.

Although I had incredible experiences, this year also presented some challenges. After all, before I was even sworn in, Republicans passed new laws in a lame duck session that limited the powers of the governor and attorney general. It wasn’t a good start to the 2019 legislative session and the Republican’s failure to work with us hasn’t improved.

There’s more to be grateful for than the challenges that set us back. We must remember to rise above and remember everything we are grateful for. I’m truly thankful for shared governance. After all, democracy was always meant to be a shared style representing the people. This was Wisconsin’s first attempt at shared governance since 2008. In 2009-10 Democrats had the governor’s office and majorities in both houses and Republicans had the same from 2011 until this year.

Let’s be thankful for the prospect of shared governance and a new opportunity to work together. Hopefully by next Thanksgiving, I can share there’s been more opportunity to build relationships and trust with colleagues from the other side of the aisle.

Thanksgiving means different things to different people. It’s a time when we get together with family and friends. Maybe it’s a time for others to get away from those family and friends or the obnoxious uncle pushing political views at the Thanksgiving table. We need to come together and appreciate our commonalities and celebrate this unifying tradition. It’s called Thanksgiving for a reason – giving is how we pay forward, while we give thanks for what has been passed on to us.

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Stop the Spread of CWD

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, 20 November 2019
in Wisconsin

hunting-deerThree days away from gun hunting season, Sen. Smith writes about the threat CWD poses to the future of hunting in Wisconsin and legislation introduced to help stop the spread of this disease.


BRUNSWICK, WI - We’re only three days away from gun hunting season in Wisconsin. Hunters are prepared and eagerly anticipating the time to look out from their deer stand. It would seem Wisconsin is prepared for the upcoming hunting season.

Think again. Wisconsin hasn’t done nearly enough to curb the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). The disease sounds scary enough without even knowing all the details... and it’s continuing to spread. As conservationists and hunters, we must test our deer and stay educated to understand the threat it poses to the future of hunting in Wisconsin and the ramifications on our rural economies and public health.

deerCWD is caused by abnormal proteins called prions, which lead to brain damage and attack the central nervous system. According to the Centers for Disease Control, CWD affects many different species of hoofed animals including whitetail deer. CWD belongs to a family of diseases called prion diseases, which also includes Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, understood as “mad cow disease” in people.

CWD is always fatal. Scientists believe CWD spreads between animals through direct contact with contaminated body fluids and tissue or indirectly through exposure in the environment while drinking water or sharing food. Due to the easy nature of CWD spreading, there are serious concerns raised about commercial deer and elk farms that force animals around one feeding area.

With over 380 registered commercial deer and elk operations in our state, it’s critical there are measures in place to prevent the spread of CWD. Officials have ordered warnings and bans on baiting and feeding stations and there’s been recent discussion about fence height and other needed regulations.

There’s more we must do to stop the spread of CWD – hunters must test their deer and properly dispose of their deer carcasses. Prions make CWD such a scary disease because they can survive in extreme temperatures and never leave the soil. When an infected carcass is left in the woods or fields for other animals to feed on, predators can scatter the prions across the landscape. Even when a carcass isn’t fed on, but just left to decay into the soil, prions can live in the roots and plants for the next deer to feed on and potentially become infected.

Scared yet? We all should be.

I’ve taken action with my legislative colleagues to get a grip on the spread of this deadly disease. Recently, we introduced legislation to address the spread of CWD in a few different ways. A bipartisan group of legislators introduced Senate Bill (SB) 325, which would require the Department of Natural Resources to create a carcass disposal grant program for county deer management advisory councils.

jeff-smithAdditionally, I authored legislation with my Democratic colleagues to promote CWD education and testing. SB 473 provides funding for CWD research; SB 474 requires the DNR to provide self-service CWD testing kiosks; SB 477 requires the DNR to provide carcass disposal dumpsters and CWD education. These measures and more are needed to address this critical issue facing our whitetail deer population and the great hunting heritage in Wisconsin.

Republican leadership hasn’t shown any inclination to move on CWD preventative measures this session. SB 325 is the only bill that’s had a public hearing; none of these bills have passed committee and been voted on. With that in mind, I stood before my senate colleagues during floor session on November 5th and requested SB 474 be moved to the calendar for a vote. Disappointingly, my motion was struck down on a partisan vote. So here we are, going into another hunting season without the additional resources to halt this dreaded disease from spreading further.

I’ll continue advocating for these preventative measures, but we still need hunters to test their deer and properly dispose of their deer carcasses. Learn about the steps you can take to stop the spread through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

This Saturday, I’ll be joining Senator Patty Schachtner and DNR officials to visit CWD Kiosks and carcass disposal sites in Eau Claire. If you see me, please do not hesitate to stop and talk. I want to hear from you.

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Wisconsin: Playing the Blame Game

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, 13 November 2019
in Wisconsin

wisc-capitol-domeSen. Smith examines the consequences of elected officials playing the blame game. Specifically, this column mentions the vote of DATCP Secretary, Brad Pfaff, and the increase to title and registration fees.


MADISON - President Harry Truman followed the mantra, ‘the buck stops here.’ These are honorable, and even courageous words to lead by. His motto was displayed on his White House desk and was proudly expressed in his speeches. He reminded us not to pass blame on to others.

This is exactly what’s happening now in Wisconsin.

It’s easy to blame the top officer when things don’t go the way someone would like. I’ve heard folks sarcastically say “thanks a lot, Governor Evers!” in response to a policy with which they disagree. It’s a danger to our democracy to single out one individual and play the political blame game – it threatens our country’s fundamental practice of shared governance.

brad-pfaffJust last week, Republican Senators voted against Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protections Secretary-designee Brad Pfaff. Some Republicans claimed their “no” vote was because of changes to livestock siting rules, even though the Walker administration started the process for these changes. The Republicans’ role in the blame game cost Pfaff his job and left our state without a qualified agriculture advocate at a time when we need it most.

The blame game is even taking a visible toll on Wisconsin taxpayers. When Governor Evers introduced the state budget proposal in early 2019, he knew he couldn’t ignore the growing need to fix our crumbling roads, like his predecessor had. We heard over and over again that constituents were fed up with potholes and rough roads. Like most drivers and taxpayers, Governor Evers concluded the cost of fixing our roads should be spread fairly.

Governor Evers’ proposal included a modest 8 cent gas tax and reinstated the automatic indexing so infrastructure investments wouldn’t fall behind. There wasn’t a raise in the gas tax since 2005, when the Republican-led Legislature repealed automatic indexing, which was then signed by the Democratic Governor at the time.

This may not be the perfect answer as technology is making vehicles more fuel-efficient, but it would’ve meant that everyone using our roads and filling their tank in Wisconsin fairly contributed to the roads they traveled on.

Unfortunately, the Republican dominated Joint Finance Committee (JFC) thought otherwise. Republican JFC members threw out the Governor’s proposal and re-introduced their version of the budget, which increased the title and registration fees. After October 1st, the title and registration fees jumped. The title fee, which was $69.50 increased significantly to $164.50. The registration fee increased from $75 to $85. It doesn’t matter who uses them or how many out-of-state trucks pass through our state – now, only Wisconsin residents are expected to pay for road repairs.

It’s understandable that folks are shocked and frustrated to see, what were once reasonable fees, increased so dramatically in one budget. In the typical blame game style, Governor Evers is taking the heat for the costly decisions made by Republicans.

jeff-smithThese sneaky practices are typically done in the dark. However, we certainly were clued in when Republicans held a lame-duck session day last year to strip powers from the newly elected governor and attorney general. As it turned out, this was only the beginning. In the first ten months of 2019 we only met 7 times to consider legislation, including the first session day when new members were sworn in and we adopted session rules.

A recent AP article, featuring Wisconsin, highlighted the challenges and frustrations Democratic Governors have in working with Republican-led Legislatures. According to the article, Governor Jim Doyle was able to sign 491 bills the last time Wisconsin had a Republican majority in both houses with a Democratic governor during the 2005-07 session. So far this session, Gov. Evers has only been able to sign 19 bills into law.

It’s clear that Republicans never intended to work with our Democratic governor. Shared governance was never on their radar. When the tendency is to blame the governor for a hike in title fees or lack of attention to important issues facing our state, don’t forget he is supposed to have partners in the legislature willing to work. It’s time to put aside the political blame game and work together on the people’s priorities.

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GOP Failure to Confirm Brad Pfaff as DATCP Secretary

Posted by Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert, Green Bay Progressive
Bob Kiefert is the Publisher of the Northeast Wisconsin - Green Bay Progressive.
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on Thursday, 07 November 2019
in Wisconsin

farmersSenator says move is further proof that the Republicans have gerrymandered the state to the point that they no longer feel accountable to the people who elected them.


MADISON - Senate Republicans voted on Tuesday to fire the Governor's Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection cabinet appointment, Brad Pfaff. The move left Wisconsin's leading agricultural agency without its top leader in the midst of rising trade tensions on the federal level and a growing dairy crisis that is threatening family farms across the state.

Brad was raised on a family farm in western Wisconsin and had dedicated his life to improving outcomes for our farmers. Since his nomination in December of 2018, Secretary-designee Pfaff was a trusted and credible partner of farmers, agribusinesses, and rural communities. His rejection by Senate Republicans shows how far they have strayed from representing the interests of farmers.

The following statement comes from Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) on the GOP failure to confirm Brad Pfaff as DATCP Secretary.

dave-hansen“Everything we know about Secretary-Designee Pfaff is that he is a smart, caring and dedicated public servant who has developed very close and strong relationships with the people he has been tasked to help. There is near unanimous support among the various groups in agriculture and the dairy industry supporting his appointment.

“And everything we know about what’s happening in the dairy industry and agriculture at large in our state is not good news. Our dairy industry is in crisis. We are losing family farms in terrifying numbers everyday—something that started well before Secretary –designee Pfaff took office. Our farms have run into extremely poor weather that has made their jobs even more difficult than they typically are and they are getting battered by the tariffs and trade wars.

“Senate Republicans could have stood up for family farmers today. After all they are the folks who are struggling and suffering the most in an industry that being taken over by large corporate farms at their expense.

“Instead, they chose to follow the lead of President Trump’s agriculture Secretary by reinforcing the message he had for state farmers when he visited only weeks ago: You aren’t big enough or rich enough to matter.

“This is further proof that the Republicans have gerrymandered the state to the point that they are no longer accountable to the people of this state and yet another reason why non-partisan redistricting reform must happen if there is to be any chance of electing a legislature that will truly represent the people.”

****

Thanks to Wisconsin Senate staffer Jay Wadd for his contribution to this article.

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Broadband for Those Who Need It Most

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, 06 November 2019
in Wisconsin

broadband-map-northwoodsThis is the second of two columns describing the importance of broadband expansion in Wisconsin.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - We’re facing one of the largest infrastructure challenges in Wisconsin history. The decisions we make today on broadband expansion can either make Wisconsin a leader or allow us to fall behind in the digital age.

Last week, I discussed the challenges of getting better broadband. This week, I will break down how Wisconsin can get broadband out to those areas companies call “not profitable.”

Private internet service providers (ISPs) have to show a profit. They must balance the cost of connecting hard to reach homes and businesses with the amount of customers willing to pay for their service. During a recent broadband summit in Colorado, I learned ISPs need a 50% “take rate” (half of all homes in a village must take their service) for them to consider it profitable enough to provide the service.

New technologies can span long distances such as fixed wireless, low-orbit satellite or TV white-space, but they can be unreliable when the weather is bad or there are obstructions between towers and homes. The most expensive way to provide broadband is by using fiber optics. The average cost is $27,000 per mile, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. However, fiber optics provide the most reliable service and offers the speeds that are needed to keep up in an era of continual technological obsolescence.

Cheaper, line-of-sight technologies won’t work in the coulees and bluffs of the Driftless area. The high cost of installing fiber optics and the low population density are reasons why western Wisconsin is skipped over by ISPs.

There are cheaper ways to deploy broadband, but we need to get creative. I will be introducing “dig once” legislation to allow local governments to require empty conduit lines be installed in the right of way when work is being done along highways or roads. After the conduit is installed, ISPs can add fiber optics without digging up the right of way again. This allows ISPs to easily install fiber optics in the empty conduit at a significantly lower price. Dig once policies can save ISPs up to 90% of the cost to run fiber optics.

It will take significant public investment to get broadband to our sparsely populated areas. Wisconsin created a state broadband expansion grant program in 2013, but former Governor Walker and Republican leaders failed to fund the program. While Minnesota was investing $85 million from 2014-2017, Wisconsin only spent $3.9 million. The Legislature did better in the 2017-2019 biennial budget by adding $14 million to the program, but failed to make the necessary changes to target rural communities.

Thankfully, Governor Tony Evers set the tone for getting serious about broadband expansion by requesting $75 million for the grant program. The Legislature cut the Governor’s plan by $30 million, but still increased Wisconsin’s efforts to fund broadband expansion grants overall.

jeff-smithWe’ve turned a corner for getting serious about our financial commitment for broadband expansion. The next challenge is ensuring public dollars are spent in the most effective way. We must focus our public dollars on projects ISPs have considered not profitable. Instead of using taxpayer-funded grants on projects to make private companies more profitable, we should be using those funds for the hardest to reach areas. That’s the whole point of public investment.

No matter what we do to coax ISPs to rural Wisconsin, the map for expansion still belongs in the pockets of private companies. The only way Wisconsin can lure private companies into rural communities is by allowing municipalities to create publically-owned broadband infrastructure. Broadband, like many other services should be considered a public utility, just like electricity, water or gas if the public ever wants to control the expansion of service.

Ask any private ISP whether municipalities should create their own digital infrastructure and you will be told of all the difficulties. What you won’t hear is how it forces private companies to expand faster.

As we invest more resources, we need to take a good hard look at where the money is going. The public needs more say over how to get critical broadband internet service. We are not quite there, but I’m confident we can get ALL of Wisconsin hooked up for our future.

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Larson Supports Legalization and Decriminalization of Marijuana

Posted by Chris Larson, State Senator, District 7
Chris Larson, State Senator, District 7
Chris Larson (D) is the Wisconsin State Senator from the 7th District in Milwauk
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on Thursday, 31 October 2019
in Wisconsin

marijuanaplantshandsMILWAUKEE – I commend Lt. Gov. Barnes and Rep. Sheila Stubbs for continuing to spotlight the need for marijuana decriminalization. Every legislative session since 2015, I have introduced bills to decriminalize and legalize marijuana.

Support for legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana in Wisconsin has grown to be popular for many reasons. Including so sick people can get their medicine, because it is an additional source of revenue, and also to alleviate the burden on our criminal justice system. Our sick neighbors shouldn’t be subject to criminal penalty or jail time for getting medicine they can readily get in other states. Moderate taxation on marijuana sales would help fill budget holes. Decriminalization will reduce arrests of non-violent drug offenders and decrease the population in our over-crowded prisons. It would also ensure we’re not needlessly giving someone a criminal record, making it harder for them for find a job, rent an apartment, and live productive lives.

Decriminalization is both a fiscal and moral imperative. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimated that Wisconsin spent $170.5 million in 2008 on marijuana prohibition.

chris_larsonAcross the nation, states are quickly moving to capture the benefits of both legalization and decriminalization with 33 states allowing medical use, 15 states have decriminalized marijuana, and 11 states have allowed recreational use. It is long past time for Wisconsin to take this next step.

The latest Marquette poll shows 59% of Wisconsin residents support making marijuana legal. Republican leaders in the legislature will continue to ignore their constituents – and our budget - at their political peril.

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Broadband Expansion: Better Broadband

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, 30 October 2019
in Wisconsin

internet-ruralSen. Smith writes about some of the ways Wisconsin can improve internet speeds and accessibility. This column is the first of two columns describing the importance of broadband expansion in Wisconsin.


MADISON - After spending three days in Denver for a Broadband Summit with legislators from across the country, I came away with even more of an urgency to help Wisconsin catch up to other states on broadband internet expansion.

Wisconsin has a lot of opportunity to improve. In 2016, Wisconsin was ranked 49th in the nation for internet speeds according to the technology firm Speedtest. More recently, Wisconsin jumped to 41st for internet speeds. There’s no way around it, we need to provide internet speeds designed to keep up in a global economy.

Speeds may be increasing in Wisconsin, but progress is slow. Slow speeds don’t just force our TV streaming services to buffer. It’s more than that. Internet speeds determine the education of our children, the health care of our sick and the sales of our local economies. Every second counts on the Internet for almost every facet of our lives.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers broadband speed to be at least 25 megabytes per second (Mbps) while downloading website content and 3 Mbps while uploading. If fiber optics reach your home, speed is not an issue. But in rural areas like mine and many of yours, it’s like riding a moped on the Interstate – you’ll get there eventually, but the rest of the traffic is whizzing by at an alarming pace. For those who use dial-up internet, you know just how important it is to have adequate speeds. For people in rural communities with only satellite internet service, you know the hardships of having spotty internet service and data limits.

Technology continues to advance with new low-orbit satellites, 5th Generation (5G) capabilities, whitespace technology and fixed wireless antennas. The only tried and true method for delivering the speeds needed for today and tomorrow’s internet is fiber optics. Installing fiber optics may be expensive, but it provides assurance that Wisconsin can compete in a global economy.

Speed isn’t a luxury for internet usage – it’s a must. It’s truly an accessibility issue when determining whether a user has internet or not.

Understanding which speeds are where is another challenge. Wisconsin is not alone. Across the nation, the data informing regulators where broadband exists and where it doesn’t are completely inaccurate. We need honest mapping now.

The FCC uses census blocks to determine what areas are served. Urban census blocks can be as small as a few blocks and rural census blocks can be miles in size. Building broadband maps from these census blocks is a problem because they only show us where broadband MIGHT be available. I say might, because using census blocks, if one house can be connected in that block, then ALL of the homes are considered connected.

Fortunately, the FCC is taking steps to address these egregiously inaccurate maps by using multiple data streams such as shape-file mapping and crowdsourcing. This is important because there is a general belief that 80% of the population is being reached and some of us are skeptical of that claim.

jeff-smithWe can’t expand broadband to areas unless we know where it is needed. With the right data, we will not only be able to expand broadband to all areas, but we will be able to effectively lay out our infrastructure more efficiently.

Big things are in store for Wisconsin. During the summit in Denver, we learned about the applications of Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computers, 10G capability, microbiomes and other mind boggling science. In fact, as we wrestle with decisions on our 5G service, we learned that the science is already complete for 10G service! Technology is advancing at a break-neck pace and Wisconsin needs to keep up.

We need to think ahead for broadband expansion – speeds are the bottleneck of many users and accurate maps are the most immediate issue for understanding where broadband is needed. In my next column, I will be focusing on how we should use our state resources for broadband expansion and new ideas for making progress in our rural communities.

The 31st Senate District includes all of Buffalo and Pepin counties and portions of Trempealeau, Pierce, Dunn, Eau Claire and Jackson counties and very small portions of Chippewa and St. Croix counties.

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Our Financial 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, 23 October 2019
in Wisconsin

family-worried-billsSen. Smith talks about the importance of budgeting, saving and learning about our personal finances. Lawmakers have a responsibility to address important policy issues affecting financial wellness, including healthcare affordability, insurance accessibility and payday lenders.


EAU CLAIRE - October is “Financial Planning Month,” so we should all think about how we plan for our financial future, especially this week as we recognize “Save for Retirement Week” and “Get Smart about Credit Day” on Thursday.

While celebrating “International Credit Union Day” on Thursday last week at a local credit union in Melrose, I was inspired to write about the importance of protecting our personal financial future. October is a great time to think about our finances, but we should be committed to financial wellness year-round. We also need to push for progressive policies aimed at improving the lives of everyone.

The general rule for saving is to have 3 to 6 months of wages saved up for an emergency. However, for those of us who live paycheck-to-paycheck that’s easier said than done. The benefits of having an emergency fund alleviates financial stress and provides families with a little bit of breathing room to make important job decisions if laid off or while being unable to work.

Budgeting is critical – each hard-earned dollar should have a purpose. Sometimes it’s for rent or the mortgage payment and sometimes it’s for our future retirement. Tracking how much we spend on food, gas, utilities and other essential personal expenses gives us a better understanding of the value of a dollar.

Having personal savings can help us avoid predatory lenders too. Payday lenders, auto title loans and credit cards shouldn’t be part of our “emergency plan.” Students, the elderly and low-wage earners can be susceptible to predatory lenders, scams and fraud. Having a better understanding of our personal finances and creating savings is a good defense against falling prey to these lending practices.

During my time in the State Assembly back in 2009, I worked on bills to prevent payday lenders from taking advantage of consumers and introduced legislation to keep credit card companies away from students on campus. This session as Senator, I’ve signed on as a co-sponsor of SB 132 to prohibit caller-ID spoofing practices. This will prevent solicitors from deceptively masking their phone numbers when calling people to commit fraud and identity theft.

Not everyone has the income security to fall back on and the ability to set aside money for a “rainy day fund.” Wages are stagnant for most Americans, but livable wages for everyone holding a job is a good start. Neither the federal nor state minimum wage has kept up with inflation or the rapid pace of change in the world. Wage inequality is the worst we’ve seen in 5 decades. According to data from inequality.org, the top 10% earn 9 times more than the bottom 90% on average.

Bankruptcies are too high and not because families don’t plan well. The leading cause of bankruptcy is an unexpected health crisis. Health insurance, if a family can afford it, doesn’t always cover everything. Not only do health care costs affect our finances, but our ability to work is also affected with health-related problems. Too often, an unexpected health crisis can set a family back so far they never recover financially.

jeff-smithIt’s well-documented our health system is broken and we are behind the rest of the developed world. We desperately need to convert our health care model to a national health system that doesn’t leave people behind. Even Medicare needs improvement, but Medicare for ALL could be the answer.

Each of us are stewards of our personal financial future. The unexpected should always be expected and our personal savings should reflect it. Policymakers are responsible for making an economy that works for us – decreasing health care costs, increasing living wages and curbing predatory lenders is what each of should expect from our leaders in Madison and Washington.

We all need to work together to help everyone become financially independent. We can’t forget about people who are far too often forgotten. Maybe part of our planning as society should include advocating for a system that works for everyone so nobody gets left behind. As Paul Wellstone used to say, “We all do better when we all do better.”

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Recognizing Indigenous People’s Day

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, 16 October 2019
in Wisconsin

native-americanSen. Smith writes about Indigenous People’s Day, the day to recognize the rich ancestral history and cultural impact of Native Americans in our state.


MADISON, WI - There’s quite an interest in genealogy these days. We can now order a kit to learn what ethnicity make up our DNA to better understand our heritage and ancestry. Even beyond this initial discovery, we can connect to unknown relatives. It’s a privilege to learn more about who we are from our ancestry.

Last week, Governor Tony Evers declared the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day. This day is an opportunity for Wisconsinites to recognize the rich ancestral history and cultural impact of Native Americans in our state that often goes unappreciated. Just as important, this day allows us time to reflect on our country’s troubling history towards Native Americans. Together, we should reflect on the diverse ancestries that make up Wisconsin and continue to strive for a more equitable state for all.

For centuries, indigenous people have suffered in many ways while European settlers stole their land and left them displaced. They’ve been victims of genocide, racist government policies and forced assimilation of European customs. Throughout history, popular American culture has portrayed this group in racist, derogatory ways.

Despite the historic and modern day challenges that Native Americans have endured, they still demonstrate enormous pride in their own history and traditions. Their stewardship of the land and water for generations has shown everyone the importance of our environment. We owe a lot to the people of the First Nations. Indigenous people deserve our gratitude and respect.

jeff-smithThis legislative session, I’m proud to support initiatives for Wisconsin’s indigenous population. I introduced Assembly Bill 497 that will allow all tribal members to receive in-state tuition through the University of Wisconsin system. This bill will allow our UW System to become a magnet-school for all First Nations People across America. I’ve also sponsored Senate Bill 493 that would create a task force to investigate the unreported epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Wisconsin.

I’m proud to have sponsored Senate Bill 25, which passed into law as Act 250 in 2009 that prohibited the portrayal of Native Americans as a mascot in the state. This legislation passed, but has since been weakened by current legislative leaders. We should put a stop to this racist practice and ban it for good.

In September, I was honored to attend the Labor Day Pow Wow on the Ho Chunk grounds. As an outsider, I was welcomed and even invited to participate. I was impressed by the strong community presence and the traditions practiced. They’re dedicated to preserving their heritage by passing on stories from one generation to the next. Relationships between tribal members ran deep – their closeness between distant relatives was seen in their respect toward each other and their shared respect toward the land.

Recently, my wife and I had a discussion about what it would be like to live in the same place as our ancestors. Before my wife asked, I hadn’t thought too much about it, but it must be amazing for my distant relatives in Norway and Poland. These distant relatives do know what it’s like to know our family’s story and understand our heritage.

We can all agree it is fascinating for people of all backgrounds to learn about ancestral history. We must recognize our heritage – the good, the bad and the progress we continue to make as Americans.

As we observe Indigenous People’s Day in Wisconsin, we must stay committed to valuing the rich diversity of our state. Indigenous People’s Day is long overdue. Let’s all show the respect our state’s indigenous population deserves. It’s time we recognize everything they’ve done to protect this land and honor their contribution to our state.

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