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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 There wasn’t a raise in the gas tax since 2005, when the Republican-led Legislature repealed automatic indexing, which was then signed by the Democratic Governor at the time.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.
User is currently offline
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
User is currently offline
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)
User is currently offline
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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