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Wisconsin Government: Trust the Voters

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, 10 July 2019
in Wisconsin

wisc-capitol-domeSen. Smith writes about the history of gerrymandering and the consequences this practice has for voters. Our state needs redistricting reform and fair maps to ensure all Wisconsin voices are heard.

MADISON - Redistricting is right around the corner in 2021. New legislative and congressional district maps will be drawn up after the census by the political party in charge. Gerrymandered maps will give the party in charge a secure advantage for the next 10 years.

The term gerrymandering is well-known, but many people don’t know its origins. It comes from a man named Elbridge Gerry. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a delegate to the Continental Congress, a congressman and elected as Governor of Massachusetts. He even served as our nation’s 5th Vice President under James Madison.

While Gerry served as Governor of Massachusetts, he worked with Democratic-Republicans to draw legislative districts to ensure his Party’s control of the State Senate for years. One of the districts looked like a salamander, so the term for drawing oddly-shaped, politically disenfranchising districts has been called “gerrymandering” ever since.

In those times when we recently escaped the governing style of kings we were still slow to embrace the idea that government was to be created by the people and for the people. Elbridge Gerry, and many in our newly formed Republic, did not trust voters to determine our government.

Leap ahead to the Twentieth Century, and politicians still don’t trust voters. Paul Weyrich is also someone most people may not have heard of before. Weyrich is known for co-founding numerous conservative think tanks, such as The Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Think tanks seek power, are backed by money and don’t trust voters. Weyrich, a native of Racine, was famously recorded speaking at a religious conference in 1980 when he said, “Too many Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome, good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote…our leverage in elections goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

Egregious gerrymandering has occurred in state legislatures held by Democrats as well as Republicans. When power is at stake, power brokers will do anything to bypass voters. Gerrymandering has become the most lethal tool against democracy.

jeff-smithThe recent gerrymandering ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) should have us all concerned. In a 5-4 decision, the court dismissed gerrymandering cases by numerous states. They acknowledged the threat of gerrymandering to our democracy, but said it’s not up to federal courts to decide. Even if SCOTUS ruled gerrymandering unconstitutional, we still need redistricting reform.

Advancements in algorithms and modern computing gives political Parties the tools to make perfectly gerrymandered maps. The way to make competitive and fair maps is to allow an independent commission to draw maps.

To date, 47 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have passed resolutions demanding nonpartisan redistricting reform. Despite overwhelming support by voters, the legislature ignores calls for reform.

The consequences of gerrymandering aren’t apparent to all voters, but here’s how gerrymandering affects the way your legislators act. Legislators should be responsive to the people. Gerrymandering creates “safe” districts for legislators. It makes them less willing to listen. Instead, legislators only fear their partisan leaders because their Party will challenge them in the primary election if they don’t toe the party line. Competitive districts will yield more responsive leaders.

If you think your representative is there for you, think again. Voters need to demand that legislators pledge support for nonpartisan redistricting. If they don’t, voters need to replace them with someone who does.

I pledge to support nonpartisan redistricting reform. Tell others to get their senators and representatives to take the pledge too.

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Independence and Freedom for All

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, 03 July 2019
in Wisconsin

4th-statue-fireworksAs we celebrate our country’s independence on July 4th, it’s important for us to remember the incredible progress we’ve made and to look forward to the work that must be done for all Americans to truly celebrate their freedom.

EAU CLAIRE, WI - When we think of the 4th of July, we often think of parades, fireworks and gatherings throughout our community. It’s a day of remembrance and pride for our country. It’s the day we officially recognize that our forefathers declared our independence as a separate nation.

The Declaration of Independence serves as a symbol of freedom and promise of equal opportunities for future generations of Americans. After 243 years, we recognize that we’re still growing as a country and struggling to achieve the original goals our forefathers agreed upon in 1776. We’re aware that our country’s politics have made it difficult for many people to truly celebrate their independence.

The Declaration includes the memorable line, “all men are created equal.” As we celebrate Independence Day, I urge you to think about the work ahead of us to ensure everyone has equitable access to freedom and opportunity that our country was founded on.

It’s been a slow, arduous struggle for women to gain a more equitable status to men in our country. In 1848, activists organized the first women’s rights convention and women adopted their own Declaration of Independence. It wasn’t until 1920 women were finally granted the right to vote. It’s mind boggling now that women weren’t able to apply for credit on their own until the Equal Opportunity Act passed in 1974.

Women finally had more freedom over their own bodies when they could make the decision to have a legal abortion in 1973. In 1978, women could no longer be fired for being pregnant. And in 1993, marital rape was criminalized. We still have a long way to go to ensure women’s bodies and their status and compensation in the workplace are treated equally to men.

Our original declaration in this country did not consider the rights of people of color, despite the phrase, all men are created equal… In fact, laws were passed to protect slavery, which drove our southern economy in the 18th Century and even after emancipation well into the 19th Century. Thus, it was controversial when the original draft of the Declaration of Independence included a passage that called for the abolition of slavery. There was not enough support for these seemingly radical demands at the time and it was stricken from the final document.

Of course, slavery was not abolished until 1865. Beyond emancipation, rights for all people of color has been an ongoing struggle as Jim Crow laws, limiting voting rights and other discriminatory practices have made real racial equality elusive.

There always seems to be battles for different segments of our population.

jeff-smithDuring the past month we celebrated the hard-fought achievements for equality within the LGBTQ community. Throughout our country’s history, laws have criminalized individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Many states, passed laws to ban marriage, adoption, medical access and inheritance for citizens who were gay. People could be fired and even denied hiring if they were gay. As recent as 1986, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could make homosexual sodomy a crime, a clear indication that these laws were targeting only one segment of the population.

If we truly want this to be a nation where all persons are created equal we must continue to raise our voices and we must remain diligent. Rights can be eroded so easily when we forget our neighbors who are different from us.

During June, we observed Wisconsin’s 100th anniversary of ratifying the 19th amendment, Juneteenth Day and Pride Month. These celebrations remind us of the incredible progress we have made. On July 4th, let’s remember these historical achievements and look forward to the work that must be done for all Americans to truly celebrate their freedom.

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Democratic Vision Prioritizes Future Success

Posted by Jennifer Shilling, State Senator Dist 32 (B)
Jennifer Shilling, State Senator Dist 32 (B)
Jennifer Shilling lives in La Crosse with her husband and two children. She curr
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on Tuesday, 02 July 2019
in Wisconsin

door-county-peopleQuality schools, affordable health care and clean drinking water are central to Gov. Ever's budget and vital to restoring Wisconsin's reputation as a place where the next generation wants to live, work and raise a family.

LA CROSSE, WI - Its common for any individual to set goals and plan for their future. Parents want what's best for their kids as they make their way through school, college students prepare for the workforce after graduation, and workers have to plan for their retirement. Having foresight and the ability to plan ahead for these events prepares for the best possible outcomes and reaching those goals.

That same logic should be used when crafting our state budget. If we want our next generation to succeed we need a budget with bold solutions that helps our state grow and flourish. Without it we remain stuck in the same revolving door that gets us nowhere.

That's why there was overwhelming support for Governor Tony Evers' original state budget proposal. It was the first time in eight years that Wisconsinites finally saw a budget vision that is reflective of our needs and connects the dots to propel our state forward.

jennifer-shillingIf we want our workforce of tomorrow to be successful we need to make investments in our students and classrooms today. Gov. Evers' budget invested a total of $1.4 billion more into local classrooms. Republicans rejected that proposal and cut over $500 million in special education funding from the budget.

Gov. Evers' budget accepted $1.3 billion in federal funds to expand Medicaid and increase affordable health care coverage to 82,000 Wisconsinites while also lowering premiums. Republicans blocked that proposal and rejected money that could be used to address the opioid epidemic, improve access to dental and mental health care, and increase funding for nursing home and dementia care specialists. Instead the Republican plan covers fewer people with a higher price tag.

The Governor's budget made historic investments to help communities that are grappling with crumbling roads and flood damage, expand broadband services, and ensure everyone has access to clean drinking water. All were rejected by Republicans.

Gov. Evers' original budget proposal was a responsible plan for families and communities that have been ignored for too long. Rather than living with the failed policies of the past, we need to move forward with innovative solutions that promote a fair economy and expand opportunities for families, students and seniors.

Quality schools, affordable health care and clean drinking water are vital to restoring Wisconsin's reputation as a place where the next generation wants to live, work and raise a family.

Our state, our communities, and our families deserve the Democratic vision that works towards better outcomes and a brighter tomorrow.

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Budget Vote This Week: Rhetoric or What’s Right

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, 26 June 2019
in Wisconsin

wi-senate-swearingThe Senate is scheduled to vote on the budget this week. Sen. Smith reviews Governor Evers’ budget proposals and the many changes in the version passed by the Joint Finance Committee.

MADISON, WI - Two weeks ago, the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) passed their version of the state budget 12 to 4, along party lines. The full Senate scheduled a vote this week on the budget, a vote that may demonstrate the true callousness of politics in our state.

The first thing Governor Tony Evers did after winning his election last fall was go to the people to develop the budget. The first thing Republicans did with the Governor’s budget was throw it away.

It’s the job of party leaders to use their talking points. Republicans and Democrats will always have sharp differences on how to govern, but we can all agree how democracy should work.

The majority of voters chose Governor Tony Evers. He campaigned on Medicaid expansion to help 82,000 more citizens afford healthcare. As a legislator, I am duty bound to consider how to make what you want and voted for a reality.

kidsWhen voters elected our top-public school official as Governor, they were looking for leadership and a vision for fixing the failing school funding formula. We ought to take Governor Evers’ proposals for public education and special education funding seriously. We heard what you wanted in the gubernatorial election and I continue to hear your opinions every day in Madison and out in the 31st Senate District.

The budget we’ll be voting on isn’t what the people voted for last fall. Republican leaders discarded the creative investments in the Peoples’ Budget and replaced them with stale and unimaginative ideas.

We’ll be asked to vote on a budget that abandons the will of the people in so many ways.

  1. The Republican budget rejects full Medicaid expansion. Did Republicans forget they already partially accepted Medicaid in 2013? Why not join the 37 other states that already fully accepted Medicaid? It would free up $325 million more to spend on other priorities. It would lower health insurance premiums up to 11% in the private market.
  2. The Republican budget doesn’t do enough for people who drink lead-contaminated water everyday by rejecting Governor Evers’ proposal to replace lead service lines. Urban and rural communities are struggling with budget constraints, so now is the time for Wisconsin legislators to step up and ensure our children aren’t being poisoned by the water they drink.
  3. Republicans refused to acknowledge the potential for groundwater contamination from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) by rejecting Governor Evers’ plan to raise permit fees to pay for more CAFO inspections.
  4. The Republican transportation plan rejects Governor Evers modest eight-cents per gallon increase and slams Wisconsin drivers with tax hikes by more than doubling the titling fee and increasing registration fees by $10. That means Wisconsin drivers will squarely take the hit for funding our roads instead of collecting gas tax from out-of-state drivers. Why? Because Republicans can’t increase “taxes,” but they are okay with hammering only Wisconsin drivers with excessive fees.
  5. Shocking to some, Republicans rejected Governor Evers’ plan to scale back tax breaks for rich manufacturers to give middle class taxpayers a break. After tossing out the Governor’s plan to give middle class families $236 a year, Republicans bragged about protecting millionaires and giving middle class families only $136 a year.

jeff-smithThe list could go on, but I think it’s clear. The Legislature is missing a great opportunity to really make an impact on our lives. Just remember there was an alternative the next time you hit that massive pothole on your way to work, you get that health insurance bill or when your drinking water becomes contaminated. All for the sake of politics. When thinking about which political Party is “out of touch,” consider the struggles within your own community and the choices made in Madison.

Republicans had eight years to get it right thanks to gerrymandering. They’ve become complacent and they ignored the basic needs of families and communities. Over 175 times, they’ve taken away local decision making. And consider what we could be doing if we just listened to people, followed the basic principles of democracy and worked together as true leaders, representing the citizens of our great state.

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Looking Inward for Juneteenth Day

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, 19 June 2019
in Wisconsin

juneteenth-1900Juneteenth Day, an important date of our country’s history recognizing the official end of slavery as June 19th, 1865, offers us an opportunity to reflect on our history, the progress made and the work that still must be done.

MADISON - Wisconsin is filled with beauty. Sometimes we take our state’s beauty for granted because it’s very apparent all around us. It’s always the less apparent beauty that surprises us and compels us to look deeper in ourselves and appreciate everything around us.

The same is true with people. We see each other, but oftentimes we don’t take the time to meet and get to know others in our own neighborhood and community. We don’t recognize our perceptions of others until we question and reflect on them. For this Juneteenth Day, I hope you will join me by looking inward and recognizing our less-apparent biases.

While the Civil War ended in April 1865, the emancipation of enslaved African Americans didn’t occur until June 19th of that year, when Texas abolished slavery. Every year since 1996, our country has celebrated the official end of slavery as June 19th, 1865. We recognize this important date of our country’s history as “Juneteenth Day.”

Recently I heard something I’ve considered to be true for a long time while watching the show “United Shades of America.” Kamau Bell, the host of the show said, “Whether you think you're biased or not, racism is a part of your life, with or without you knowing it,” in response to an implicit bias test.

Bell revealed he was unfamiliar with the term “implicit bias” until four years ago, when Bell told a friend that he experienced racial prejudice. Bell’s friend told him this interaction stemmed from implicit bias. In this episode, Bell spoke with Dr. John Diamond, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison about implicit bias and its connection to systemic racism, specifically in the City of Milwaukee.

Project Implicit, a test Bell took that made him feel uncomfortable, demonstrates most of us can be biased in our thoughts and actions without realizing it. This test looks at what people are thinking before they have a chance to consider the socially responsible answer. Dr. Diamond explains this concept saying, “You don’t have to necessarily dislike people of other races to be affected by [implicit bias].”

jeff-smithWe all have implicit biases. The Ohio State University Kirwan Institute points out how our thoughts, actions and decisions are influenced by these subconscious biases, which can include both favorable and unfavorable automatic assessments of others.

How does this happen?

We’re all influenced by our surroundings; whether it’s from our family members, our community or the entertainment we consume. Oftentimes it can be from stories or rumors we hear. Those influences shape our actions in ways can’t recognize. For instance, you might choose to not stop in certain neighborhoods based on news you saw on TV or a story you heard.

Redlining, the discriminatory practice of refusing to invest in communities of color, is a real thing in Milwaukee. Real estate values, critical community services, access to health care and even grocery stores are impacted by redlining.

It’s clear there is racial bias in our local communities when thinking of redlining. This bias doesn’t stop there. Racial bias plays more of a role than losing opportunity – it can be the loss of freedom.

The criminal justice system has been fueled by generational racial bias and prejudice; one example is the mass incarceration rates in our state. According to UW-Madison’s Racial Disparities Project, Wisconsin has either led or been second in the nation for disproportionately incarcerating African Americans since 1998. African American males comprise 43 percent of the prison population, but only 6.6 percent of the total state population.

Most of us don’t think we encounter racism and most of us are sure we aren’t racist. But, are we biased? It’s clear, after 154 years, our state and our communities still have racial bias.

Juneteenth Day offers us an opportunity to reflect on our history, the progress made and the work that still must be done. This day is a reminder to check our everyday biases. Take the time to learn more about injustices that affect our neighbors and communities. One lesson we can learn from Juneteenth Day is that none of us are free until all are free.

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