Thursday February 9, 2023

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Building Strong Local Economies, One Small Business At A Time

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 November 2022
in Wisconsin

business-small-openSenator Smith writes about his experience as a business owner, the importance of shopping local for the holiday season, and Wisconsin’s work to lead the nation for utilizing federal relief funds to support small businesses.


BRUNSWICK, WI - I guess you can call me a professional window shopper. For years I worked alongside my father, who founded our window cleaning company in 1954. One of the highlights for me was cleaning storefront windows. It was wonderful to see the unique displays and the twinkling, inviting lights, especially during the holidays.

Small businesses are the backbone of our communities, and I believe the strongest economic driver for local communities is entrepreneurship. One of the highlights of my time in the State Senate has been working with local business owners throughout the 31st Senate District.

Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen an amazing resurgence in small home-grown businesses. Flourishing main streets that had once been written off are revitalizing, with people walking the sidewalks, enjoying the day and invigorating the local economy.

businesses-micro-ethnically-diverseThe owners of our local businesses deserve our support so they can continue to contribute to the quality of life in our neighborhoods. The COVID-19 pandemic was hard on our small businesses, and their continued success is crucial to not only our economic recovery but also to the character and uniqueness of our region.

In the wake of the pandemic, Governor Evers and his administration did a great job providing support to small businesses with a multifaceted approach focused on aiding local mom-and-pop shops. In fact, Governor Evers used more of Wisconsin’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for business support after the pandemic than any other state according to the Center on Budget Relief and Policy Priorities. From investing in infrastructure to distributing grants directly to small businesses, these investments enabled Wisconsin’s economy to come back stronger as we venture out into a post-pandemic world.

We can and should continue this work by supporting infrastructure improvements to make it easier to succeed as a small business in our rural areas. Investments like broadband and road repair provide continuing benefits that help existing business owners and encourage others to pursue their dreams of starting their own companies.

Every year around the holidays, I encourage folks to shop at our local businesses. It’s a nice feeling to know that your dollars are staying here in western Wisconsin, supporting the shops and restaurants that are owned by your hardworking neighbors and their families.

Whether it’s a charming boutique or a unique local restaurant, our communities’ small businesses provide our main streets with a character and charm that can’t be found at chain retailers and shopping malls. When you’re shopping for singular gifts, you can’t beat the handmade jewelry, artwork and home goods that are produced right here in western Wisconsin.

For loved ones that prefer experiences to physical gifts, it’s never been easier to pick up gift cards to local restaurants, breweries and wineries. It’s not just your corner tavern anymore – an increasing amount of microbreweries and local wineries have found success in our part of the state. Encouraging your friends and family to treat themselves can sometimes be the greatest gift of all.

jeff-smithAs someone who worked, managed and owned a small business for most of my life, I can tell you the work is hard, but the reward is great. Small businesses develop the neighborhoods they serve and help folks form lasting bonds. Many of my lifelong friendships grew out of relationships with coworkers and clients. That’s the spirit of local business.

You can share in that special feeling when you visit local businesses in your community. Take your time to get to know the people who work there. Listen to their stories. It’s worth it, and you’ll come away with a new appreciation of the vibrancy and resiliency of your neighbors.

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New Energy Efficiency Incentives Abound

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, 23 November 2022
in Wisconsin

wi-farm-winterAs the weather gets colder, heating costs are rising. Sen. Smith writes about the many state and federal programs that are in place to help Wisconsin residents with heating bills and energy efficiency improvements.


BRUNSWICK, WI - This time of the year leaves most of us dreading to see our heating bills, but this year we have new options to afford our bills and better incentives to make home improvements that will lower our bills going forward.

Last month the U.S. Energy Information Administration released an important warning about higher than expected energy costs this winter. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) forecasts temperatures this winter to be colder than last winter, which will contribute to heating fuel consumption and demand.

In the Midwest, where well over half of households use natural gas to heat their home, costs are estimated to increase by 33%. For electricity, the increase in cost is somewhat less, but still significant, projected at around 10%. WEC Energy Group released an estimate that electric heating prices per household may go up an average of $20 to $30 a month.

home_heatingEstablished by the federal government in 1991, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) annually helps many families afford the cost of heating their home throughout the winter. LIHEAP helped more people than it ever had during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when compared to need, the program is incredibly underfunded. LIHEAP estimates the program is only able to help one out of every six eligible households, leaving many families to find support on their own.

President Biden recently announced an additional investment of $4.5 billion through LIHEAP to help Americans with home heating costs. This comes about a month after Governor Tony Evers announced $13.6 million in funding to Wisconsin’s division of the program, WHEAP. This additional funding will absorb rising prices and rate hikes and help more families keep the heat on this winter.

As a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, I have been serious about incorporating energy efficiency, reducing energy use and finding renewable solutions. Every decision we make for climate change today will save Wisconsin families money down the road. We’ve got to take a diversified approach to tackling climate change and think outside the box for ways we can maximize our energy use and resources.

This winter, consider taking steps to make your home more efficient. In addition to the Biden administration’s LIHEAP funding, the U.S. Department of Energy announced they would allocate an additional $9 billion in funding from the Inflation Reduction Act to support 1.6 million households nationwide to upgrade their homes and decrease energy bills.

Wisconsin’s version of the energy efficiency assistance program is called the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). WAP can help low-income property owners improve energy efficiency and cut down on heating costs. Improvements such as improving insulation, sealing air leaks, installing energy-saving technology devices and repairing or replacing inefficient appliances can dramatically lower energy costs.

jeff-smithThe State of Wisconsin Division of Energy, Housing and Community Resources has a handy map to help you find resources for heating assistance in your county, whether you’re looking for payment relief or assistance to finance energy-efficiency improvements for your home: https://energyandhousing.wi.gov/Pages/Home.aspx. There you can find links to the online application portals for heating and rental assistance programs, as well as contact numbers for the WHEAP and weatherization agencies for each county.

Please check out these resources and learn more about how each of us can do our part to consume less energy while also saving money. An ounce of prevention now using these incredible incentives is worth a pound of cure when this time of year comes around again.

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Our Enduring Responsibility: To Support and Honor Wisconsin’s Veterans

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, 16 November 2022
in Wisconsin

veterans-vietnam-foxLast Friday, November 11, we celebrated Veterans Day. This week, Senator Smith writes about our continuing responsibility to provide support to our veterans and the gratitude we owe them for their honorable service.


MADISON - Last Friday, November 11, we celebrated Veterans Day. The theme for this year’s celebration was honor. The commitment to our country that our veterans have shown by remaining steadfast in the face of peril is one of the truest forms of honor.

Wisconsin is home to over 300,000 veterans, comprising 7.4 percent of the adult population. From Revolutionary soldiers at the very birth of our nation to modern-day soldiers protecting us abroad, our state and our nation owe the utmost respect and gratitude for those who have served and the families that supported them.

Veterans make many sacrifices to preserve our freedom as Americans. Our veterans deserve recognition for their commitment to putting our country ahead of themselves. More importantly, our veterans deserve assurance that the country they served will be there to offer support if and when they need it.

veterans-memorial-day-2020We ask a lot of our service members. It is critical that we address the immediate needs of veterans and their families. These include support for physical and mental health services, education programs, career and job placement assistance, as well as addressing housing insecurity and substance abuse initiatives.

Veterans often face unique challenges affecting their mental, emotional and physical health after completing their service. Many returning veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and substance abuse, and are more likely to die by suicide. According to the census, over 20 percent of Wisconsin’s veterans have a service-connected disability.

The COVID-19 pandemic created staffing shortages throughout our healthcare system, and long-term care facilities for veterans were particularly impacted by this shortage. Rural areas, which often have more limited mental health services, were also disproportionately impacted.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, 67 percent of Wisconsin’s veterans live in rural areas, with long distances to travel to access Veterans Affairs (VA) resources. Since 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs has administered the Office of Rural Health, established to address the unique issues faced by veterans in rural areas when it comes to accessing healthcare.

vets-gi-billTelehealth expansion took off dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Continuing to support telehealth programs will undoubtedly increase health care access for underserved communities. As I discussed in last week’s column, broadband access remains an issue in many rural areas of Wisconsin, therefore limiting telehealth’s adoption. At a recent VA mental health summit, VA psychiatrist Michael McBride estimated that roughly 30 percent of veterans who live in rural areas lack access to the Internet. Telehealth appointments that can reach rural veterans hinge on broadband expansion to these areas.

This year, the Department of Health and Human Services debuted the 9-8-8 crisis line, designed to provide support for people experiencing mental health crises. You can dial “1” from the main menu to immediately access mental health resources for veterans.

For some veterans, mental health struggles have led to substance abuse, financial instability and in some cases homelessness. According to the Housing Assistance Council, at least 300 Wisconsin veterans are experiencing homelessness. The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs administers the Veterans Housing and Recovery Program, which provides temporary housing and supportive services to veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

jeff-smithIt is important to acknowledge your own family members who served. My father’s WWII Navy uniform hangs in my Senate office. He passed away recently, but his service uniform reminds me of the selfless service our veterans endure and how they proudly commit themselves to our country and way of life. I know that many families have similar stories. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum is collecting stories of Wisconsin veterans. You can submit photos and stories of veterans in your family here: https://wisvetsmuseum.com/about-wisconsin-veterans-museum/veterans-profile-submission/

It’s our continuing responsibility to support our brave veterans who truly exemplify the meaning of public service. Let’s ensure that we maintain what we have while we find new ways to support veterans’ physical, mental and financial well-being.

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With Broadband, Strong Connections Build Strong Communities

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, 09 November 2022
in Wisconsin

internet-appsThis week Senator Smith writes about the challenges and opportunities for broadband expansion throughout Wisconsin.


BRUNSWICK, WI - It’s truly amazing the technological strides we’ve made in the past century. Many communities in western Wisconsin were among the last in the state to be hooked up with home electric service in the 1930s. The miles of infrastructure needed to reach these homes was significant, and considered not profitable by electric companies at the time.

Today we have similar issues with broadband. Technology is advancing at a rapid pace, and Wisconsin must stay competitive. Access to fast, affordable broadband is critical for parents to work, kids to keep up on their schooling and businesses to thrive. Broadband must be treated as a public utility, like electricity, water and gas.

broadband-town-mtgThe first issue we’ve faced is knowing where to build the infrastructure. The lack of precise data showing where we need broadband construction muddies the issue. We can’t expand broadband to the areas that need it most if we don’t know who has service and the speed they receive.

Wisconsin initially used broadband surveys produced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to determine levels of coverage. The FCC’s broadband surveys are broken down into census blocks. For their purposes, a census block is considered covered with broadband if even just one house in the block could have broadband.

In cities, a census block can be as small as a couple city blocks, but rural census blocks can span for miles. This produces a map that shows where broadband might be, rather than where broadband is, therefore grossly overestimating the coverage in rural areas.

In response to the FCC’s flawed maps, Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission gathered its own data. According to that data, the estimated number of Wisconsinites lacking internet grew substantially, from 400,000 to 650,000. With the right data, we will not only know where to expand broadband throughout the state, but we will be able to lay out infrastructure more efficiently.

Public-private partnerships are working to leverage investments for attracting broadband development in our rural areas. This works only in some areas though. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must balance the cost of connecting outlying homes and businesses with the amount of customers willing to pay for service. ISPs generally look for at least a 50% “take rate”, the percentage of residents willing to sign up for service, in order to consider it profitable to install broadband infrastructure.

high-voltage-lines-farmsNo matter what we do to persuade private companies to develop broadband infrastructure in our rural communities, companies still determine which homes are worth connecting by focusing on profitability. Public investment can remedy this. Instead of using taxpayer-funded grants on projects that make private companies more profitable, we should be using those funds in the most hard-to-reach areas. That’s the whole point of public investment.

Fiber optics are the way to go, providing fast and reliable internet service that can keep up with the pace of modern life. In the past, I’ve sponsored “dig once” legislation. This bill allows local governments to require empty conduit lines be installed in the right-of-way during highway and road construction. After the conduit has been installed, ISPs may easily add fiber optics without digging up the right of way a second time. This concept provides an efficient way to slash the cost of running fiber optics by 90%.

jeff-smithHere in SD 31, the Town of Cross in Buffalo County is a shining example of what can happen when neighbors come together to develop broadband infrastructure in their community. Residents surveyed their neighbors to determine need, and then approached the town board with their findings. This year, the Public Service Commission awarded Town of Cross $2.1 million in State Broadband Expansion Grant funds. When completed, the service is estimated to provide fast broadband service to 229 addresses.

As we invest more resources into broadband expansion, we need to take a hard look at where that money is going. The public deserves input on how and where we add broadband service. We’re not quite past the finish line yet, but if we empower our communities as we did with rural electrification, I’m confident that we can get all of Wisconsin connected.

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Know Your Rights on Election 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, 02 November 2022
in Wisconsin

votingThe 2022 General Election is next Tuesday, November 8th. Whether you vote early, by mail-in absentee ballot or on Election Day, it is important to know your rights when it comes to casting your vote.


BRUNSWICK, WI - We are days away from another big election – more people will be voting in-person than in recent years. Bustling polling locations, filled with voters and hardworking election staff and volunteers, are always a heartwarming sight.

If you can’t vote in-person on Election Day, you have options. You can still early vote in-person at your municipal clerk’s office until Sunday. You can also request a mailed absentee ballot until 5pm on Thursday. Be sure your mail-in absentee ballot arrives to your polling location by 8pm on Election Day.

As the Ranking Member of the Senate Elections, Election Process Reform and Ethics Committee, I’ve long been focused on preserving voting rights. Everyone, regardless of political party preference, deserves a voice in our democracy. I’ve made this a signature issue of my time in the State Senate.

jeff-smithEven before 2020, I’ve pushed to clarify Wisconsin electoral rights. The first bill I introduced as State Senator in 2019 was the Voter Protection Act (VPA). The VPA would’ve allowed automatic voter registration, increased penalties for voter suppression, deception and intimidation and provided an easy-to-read Voter Bill of Rights. I’ve introduced this bill twice in four years, but Republicans have not scheduled a public hearing. In the last two years, as more doubt has been shed on our electoral process, we’ve seen increased attempts to chip away at our voting rights.

veteran-olderIt shouldn’t be a fight to preserve voting rights. They were hard-won through our Democratic Republic’s history. Despite the attacks, voting remains an unalienable right born from our Constitutional Convention. The silver lining of enfranchising new people over the course of history has been seeing the enthusiasm, empowerment and vindication of the principles on which our country was founded.

It’s only recently that we’ve seen a departure from expanding voter access. Over the last 12 years, Wisconsin has seen more politically-motivated attempts to block people from voting than ever. We’ve been witnessing the slow and continual degradation of our representative democracy. Everyone wants their side to win, but what is gained if we’ve lost sight of what we’ve built?

Democracy’s fragility was seen firsthand on January 6th, 2021 when the plot to overthrow the election narrowly failed. It led to introspection for many, sparked anger in others and emboldened some.

vote-47-milwaukeeNovember 8th will be our first big Election Day since November 2020. Voters not only need to be informed about who they are voting for and how to vote, but now it’s more important than ever to know your voting rights.

vote-poll-workersClerk staff and polling location volunteers do an amazing job during every election. They are unsung heroes of our democracy. They’ve always been under the microscope of election observers, and this election will be no exception.

Observing the election process is a great opportunity to understand how seriously our election officials take their jobs and how it all works. The privilege to witness democracy in action is good for transparency and alleviating any doubts about the process. Voters shouldn’t be surprised to see observers at the polls. This year, there may be more than usual. In recent news, the Republican Party of Wisconsin announced more than 5,000 observers to watch over elections – three times more than usual.

trump-jan6-qanon-shamanVoters must know observers are not allowed to harass, intimidate or interfere with voters or polling location staff and volunteers. If you or someone you know is a victim of intimidation or discrimination during the voting process, you can report the information to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice by calling 1-800-253-3931. Likewise, if you witness corruption or efforts to commit fraud during the voting process, you can report the activity to officials at the U.S. Western District Court by calling 1-608-264-5158, or by calling your county’s District Attorney.

You will have important choices to make on Tuesday, November 8th, but also be aware of your rights. When you go to vote, I hope you will also take the time to thank local polling location workers for their hard work and commitment to our electoral process.

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