Tuesday March 5, 2024

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It’s Time to Act on Student Debt

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, 26 August 2020
in Wisconsin

uwgb-studentsThe Student Debt Task Force released its final report to Governor Evers, outlining 8 policy recommendations Wisconsin must act on to help students and families.

EAU CLAIRE, WI - Over the last four months, I was honored to participate in the Governor’s Task Force on Student Debt, established by Governor Tony Evers to address the student debt crisis impacting more than 700,000 Wisconsinites. The latest statistic from the Board of Governors shows the level of student debt owed has reached a mind-boggling $1.7 trillion; Wisconsin, alone, has more than $24 billion in student loan debt, according to the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

After learning the extent of the student debt crisis, the Task Force came prepared to strategize on ways to provide necessary relief for Wisconsin families. Just last week, the Task Force released its final report to Governor Evers outlining the crisis and providing 8 recommendations to help solve it.

For all the work we did on the Task Force, one thing is clear: the time to act on student debt relief is now. As a state, we must adopt these policy recommendations and fix this crisis to strengthen Wisconsin’s future.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Task Force was able to hold 8 virtual meetings. This format allowed us to hear testimony from current and former students, parents, borrowers, lenders and officials from other states. Some information was familiar to those of us who have navigated the system with our own children; other information highlighted the urgency in addressing this growing threat to our way of life.

uwec-campusIn addition to the obvious negative effects student debt has on personal finances, it also has an enormous negative impact on our nation’s economy. Student debt delays many graduates from starting their careers or contributing to the marketplace by buying a home or car. Consequently, student debt also affects one’s saving habits. Student debt makes it more difficult for graduates to save for retirement or even get into the habit of putting money aside for emergencies.

As with so many other issues, the state and federal government have passed erroneous bills that have made things worse or have ignored the problem altogether, allowing student debt to become the monster it is today. Due to congressional action, debtors aren’t able to refinance student loans like you would with your home loan. At the state level, the Wisconsin Educational Approval Board lost much of its funding and authority to truly look out for borrowers’ best interests.

jeff-smithAfter we heard from the diverse group of speakers, the Task Force initially thought of 37 recommendations to address the student debt crisis. From there, the Task Force divided into three groups to determine the most pertinent and immediate solutions. As part of the “Consumer Protection” group, I discussed with fellow group members what action Wisconsin can take to ensure residents are informed and protected when making this significant investment in their education and lives. The other groups were “Government, Public and Private Subsidies & Financing Solutions” and “Borrower Education and Management of Higher Education Expenses.”

We winnowed down these 37 original ideas by combining and clarifying needs until we had 8 strong recommendations the entire group could accept as realistic policy changes we can implement at the state level. These recommendations won’t fix everything for everyone, but they will move us in the right direction. Collectively, the Student Debt Task Force proudly released the following recommendations:

1.       Create a borrower Bill of Rights and Student Loan Ombudsman to protect borrowers throughout the entire borrowing process.

2.      Enhance proprietary school regulations and reinstate the Wisconsin Educational Approval Board to strengthen oversight over predatory lending practices.

3.      Expand access to financial literacy education.

4.      Increase need-based and targeted aid for post-secondary education.

5.      Provide loan counseling.

6.      Implement loan forgiveness programs.

7.       Modify existing refinancing practices to benefit more borrowers.

8.      Create state student debt relief tax credits for borrowers and employers.

Many of us can relate to how confusing and misleading the system can be. We must ease the burden for young people to get their footing while pursuing their dreams and future. We must prioritize this issue and take action next session.

You can read the full Student Debt Task Force report at LookForwardWI.gov.

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Big Agenda for Small Farms

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 August 2020
in Wisconsin

farm-familySen. Jeff Smith writes about the ways we can support our state’s family farms and preserve Wisconsin’s status as an agricultural leader in the country.

EAU CLAIRE, WI - When it comes to farming, one thing is certain – it connects us all. Many of us in western Wisconsin can trace our roots to farming. But even if we’ve personally lost a physical connection to the family farm, all Wisconsin residents have an obvious connection to Wisconsin’s agricultural heritage.

Many Wisconsinites share a romanticized view of our state’s family farms: the rooster crowing, cows mooing and machinery running through the field. The same sounds and smells that we remember connects us all to the farm.

But, let’s face it, one of the main reasons many Wisconsinites are connected to the state’s farms is the need to eat. We must remember farming is a vital economic driver for the state, contributing $104.8 billion to our state’s economy every year. Wisconsin has a significant role in agricultural production within the country and even the world. In fact, Wisconsin exported more than $3.3 billion of agricultural products to 151 different countries in 2019, according to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protections (DATCP). It’s also worth noting the agricultural industry’s contribution to Wisconsin’s workforce, which makes up 11.8% of our state’s employment.

4h-paulaTo preserve Wisconsin’s status as an agricultural leader in the country, it’s our job as elected officials to support our family farms. If our rural communities are to survive, our small family farms must survive. It’s as simple as that.

This session, as the Ranking Member on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions, I introduced 9 bills and voted in favor of legislation to support Wisconsin’s family farms and promote rural prosperity throughout our state. These bills strengthen Wisconsin’s agricultural industry by encouraging residents to start farming, establishing sustainable farming practices, developing the state’s hemp program and more. Even the development of the “Better Broadband” bill package I introduced in January had farmers in mind to better connect them to agricultural experts and consumers.

These legislative efforts will support our farmers and sustain Wisconsin’s role of being America’s Dairyland, but there’s still more we can and should do.

Due to the lack of action by the Majority Party, Governor Tony Evers called a special session on agriculture in January to pass legislation to further support our farmers by creating a Small Farm Diversity grant program; bolstering the Farm-to-School program; promoting practices to diversify farm operations; providing additional mental health services; and much more.

Since then, of course, everything changed with the COVID-19 pandemic overshadowing all that we do.

Fortunately, Governor Evers allocated $50 million of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to create the Wisconsin Farm Support Program to provide direct payments to Wisconsin famers who have faced financial challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the first round of Farm Support Program applications, which happened in June, 11,884 Wisconsin farmers received a $3,500 award, amounting to $41.6 million. In counties within the 31st Senate District alone, 1,390 farmers received a Farm Support Program award, which came to a total of $4.8 million.

jeff-smithLast week, the Department of Revenue (DOR) and DATCP announced a second application period to distribute the $8.4 million in funding still remaining for the Wisconsin Farm Support Program. The second round of grant applications are now being accepted until midnight, August 24th. Residents who did not receive a payment in the first application round and who have a gross income from farming between $10,000 and $5 million are eligible. Gross income does not mean profit and is limited to sales. Payments are expected to be made by DOR in mid-September.

Beyond these government efforts, we all can do our part in supporting our state’s agriculture industry by buying local. Insist on Wisconsin farm products. Dairy products produced in Wisconsin are universally accepted as the highest quality in the world. The produce you can get from local farms is the freshest and best tasting by far. Support your neighbors who feed the world. We need them. We need each other.

Wisconsin residents interested in the Wisconsin Farm Support Program should visit Revenue.wi.gov.

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Pass the Healthcare Heroes Act

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, 12 August 2020
in Wisconsin

coronavirus-nurse-tiredThe Legislature must reconvene to pass the Heroes Act, supporting frontline healthcare workers, and work to address the other pressing issues impacting Wisconsinites during this public health crisis.

EAU CLAIRE, WI - Back in April, I participated in a virtual roundtable discussion with Wisconsin’s frontline healthcare workers. Amidst the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic in Wisconsin, this group of healthcare workers shared deeply unsettling safety concerns related to the scarcity of COVID-19 testing, the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and healthcare affordability.

Healthcare workers have gone above and beyond to serve their community throughout this global pandemic while putting their lives at risk. Yet, there’s very little our state has done to show its appreciation for these heroes. Today, our state’s healthcare workers are still sharing the very same concerns they expressed four months ago in April during the roundtable discussion. And they have every reason to do so.

coronavirus-ppeAs of August 10th, there have been 124,813 cases among doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, and 600 American health care personnel have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tragically, many public health experts figure these statistics misrepresent the actual count and believe the number of cases and deaths of healthcare personnel to be higher. As of August 2nd, data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reveal 767 nursing home staff alone have died, a shocking statistic upholding the point made by public health experts.

Our healthcare professionals have been at the forefront of this public health crisis since the beginning. We must do everything we can to show our support for their selfless work. As a legislature, this starts by passing the Healthcare Heroes Act.

In July, I proudly joined my Democratic colleagues to co-sponsor the Healthcare Heroes Act, a comprehensive bill aimed at protecting our state’s essential healthcare professionals. First, this legislation will provide hazard pay to healthcare workers during a public health emergency and provide paid medical leave for healthcare workers who contract a communicable disease. Second, this bill covers COVID-19 testing and treatment for Wisconsin’s frontline health care workers.

The Healthcare Heroes Act will also expand Medicaid in Wisconsin. The COVID-19 public health crisis has clearly identified how important affordable, accessible healthcare is in keeping people safe and healthy. Now, while we’re still experiencing the severe impact of COVID-19 in the state, is the time Wisconsin should join the 39 other states that have already expanded Medicaid. Medicaid expansion is a commonsense solution, supported by 70% of Wisconsinites, to provide critical relief during this tumultuous time.

Unfortunately, it’s now been over a month since we introduced the Healthcare Heroes Act and Republicans have shown no interest in passing this legislation to protect Wisconsin’s healthcare workers.

Instead, Republicans have expressed their eagerness to return for session to strike down Wisconsin’s face mask requirement, a simple, practical measure to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, keep our communities safe and protect our healthcare heroes.

jeff-smith-ofcWe should return for session to pass the Healthcare Heroes Act and also work to address the biggest challenges people are facing throughout our state: the unemployment insurance crisis, rent and mortgage payments, a plan to ensure our children and teachers are safe as the next school year opens and more. Once again, the Majority Party is unwilling to meet to take action on these measures to keep Wisconsinites safe; they’re only interested in scoring political points.

COVID-19 has been a terrible disaster, causing great harm and even death. But there are things we’ve learned about ourselves and others that will be forever engrained in the way we approach things moving forward. Maybe the most valuable lesson has been recognizing the essential workers that keep our communities going.

Never have the words “essential worker” meant so much as it does now. Just as the first responders were recognized for the heroes that they always were after 9/11, every healthcare professional is recognized today. From doctors, nurses, and EMTs, to the dedicated workers performing essential services at our hospitals, we realize now how important they are to all of us.

We’ve made the call for the legislature to get back to work for 4 months now. It’s time for the legislature to pass the Healthcare Heroes Act and show our appreciation for the heroes among us.

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Legislature Must Act for Unemployed

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, 05 August 2020
in Wisconsin

unemloyment-lines-covid19-bgThe COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us out of work and policy decisions made in more normal times have made it difficult for Wisconsinites to get the help they need now. The legislature must meet to get us through this difficult time.

MADISON - “I’ve been working my whole life, and was doing fine before COVID-19, and now suddenly, I can’t work, and can’t get unemployment. I’m scared of what life will be like in a few weeks when I run out of money for food, let alone bills,” said a man whose unemployment benefits were delayed 10 weeks.

He was one of the hundreds of constituents we’ve helped over the last 4 months. His Unemployment Insurance (UI) was held up because the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) needed to investigate his previous employment.

UI was created so anyone who lost their income would have something to fall back on. As a society, we’ve learned we’re better off if we have insurance programs to support families during tough times. Our economy and family lives are better when unemployment payments can prevent evictions, provide food and supplement lost wages.

/unemployment-lines-hialeah-flWe must always remember the intent of these essential programs. There will always be detractors, but also opportunities to improve. In the past 10 years, detractors got their way by changing the unemployment insurance to a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy. They claimed abuses of the system but forget about people who really need a smooth-running system to help them through what is normally a bump in the road.

For over a decade, Republicans knew DWD’s software and computer system wasn’t prepared for a flood of UI requests, but DWD’s warnings went unheeded by our Joint Committee on Finance. Wisconsin was left with a 40-year-old phone system and software that requires retired technicians to perform maintenance because it is so outdated.

My office, like many others, have become mediators for constituents who’ve had difficulty contacting DWD or have waited an inordinate amount of time for their case to be resolved. With the enormous surge of claims, people have waited up to 15 weeks to receive resolution and payments they desperately need to pay rent, buy food, pay for utilities and afford other vital needs.

One of the changes made by Republicans prevented people who received Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) from receiving unemployment. This resulted in one of my constituents, who is blind, unable to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, even though she worked part-time to supplement the meager SSDI payment she receives due to her disability.

A young, fresh-out-of-high-school worker was let go by his previous employer and found a new job. Due to suitability determinations created by Republicans, his unemployment claim was stuck for weeks in adjudication.

DWD must verify workers’ job history to determine their benefits. Complex cases make the hurdles even greater for DWD to pay out UI. A woman from the district was undergoing cancer treatments. A week or two into the pandemic she was scheduled to go back to work. Her short term disability payments forced her UI claims to be held up in adjudication for verification, which resulted in all her payments being delayed months.

These are just a handful of examples of the hundreds of constituent cases my office has worked on in the past 4 months. Much of the delay and trauma in UI cases could be resolved if the legislature acted. We’ve been on hold for over 100 days because Majority Party leaders are unwilling to bring us together before the November election.

jeff-smithMy colleagues and I introduced bills to motivate the Republican leaders to fix the delays in UI claims, but no response. They are more interested in running for reelection than helping unemployed workers.

Many people have never needed to navigate the UI system before but found themselves trying to figure it all out for the first time. Some may have wondered if UI was ever really needed. This pandemic has clearly shown UI matters and so do the details.

An old neglected system, additional hurdles imposed by Republicans in the last 10 years and their reluctance to address the unemployment crisis have left Wisconsin workers without answers. We can do better, but we have to work together to get the job done and help Wisconsin get through this difficult time.

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Questions Remain Unanswered for Schools

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, 29 July 2020
in Wisconsin

schools-reopening-2020-cnnWith the COVID-19 pandemic spreading, school districts are wrestling with questions to safely bring students back this fall. Schools need answers fast for educating students, supporting teachers and helping parents stay employed.

MADISON - The first day of school has always been an exciting time for children. About this time of year, heading into August, families begin to plan their schedule and stock up on school supplies. For some it might mean new supplies or even new clothes. Kids want to make a good impression that first day and parents want a routine in their busy life.

That was then, and this is now.

Since school buildings closed last spring to protect families from the spread of COVID-19, schools districts have been figuring out the best way to educate our children while keeping them safe. Of course, that was always the objective, but now we’re facing new challenges and school districts are forced to look at this school year through a different lens.

In March, school buildings closed because the COVID-19 epidemic was just beginning in Wisconsin. Now, at a time when many districts are preparing for the students’ return, the crisis only seems to be getting worse in the state. Balancing physical and mental health concerns can always be tricky, but now the public health pandemic presents a difficult element for balancing mental and physical health needs for children.

We also have to consider an economy that has taken a severe hit. Parents are struggling to make ends meet and they are concerned their kids’ education may fall behind. Families want normalcy; parents want to go back to work and kids want to go back to school, but many questions have to be answered before we can get there.

reading-bookDuring these past several months, we’ve been encouraged to stay safer at home so we don’t inadvertently contract the virus and spread it to others. Now, many are demanding children return back to the classroom. What will a classroom look like this fall? It’s clear that schools have a responsibility to keep children at least 6 feet apart whenever possible, which means smaller class sizes spread out in the room. Public health experts have also made it exceedingly clear that the best weapon we have to slow the spread is wearing a mask, but I think many parents know all too well how difficult this will be for young children.

Starting this new school year, how do we transport kids to school in buses that are typically packed shoulder to shoulder? School districts will have to get creative in spreading kids out in buses and covering the additional costs, or leave it to the parents to drive their kids to school themselves.

There’s no doubt in my mind that our teachers love what they do and love their students. They always put their best foot forward and place the students’ interests above their own. But, this decision whether to open schools has caused quite a dilemma for teachers who will soon be in classrooms with multiple children who may very well bring the virus without realizing it. What happens if a teacher becomes sick? What does that mean for their family?

jeff-smithDo we test each child and teacher every day? What happens when (not if) the first case of COVID-19 shows up in the school? Will everyone be placed in quarantine? Does this mean the end of in-person learning? What does this mean for parents who are trying to go to work with a COVID-19 positive child? Who would be held responsible for spreading the virus at the school?

There are so many questions to consider when thinking of children returning to school.

More than 100 days have passed since we passed the COVID-19 relief bill. Unfortunately, the Majority Party has been silent on meeting again to take up legislation to fix the unemployment crisis and any bills aimed at helping our public schools educate our children during this difficult time.

Our public schools have always been the center of our communities, something our communities take a lot of pride in. If we as a community want our schools open again, then we all need to step up. We must take responsibility and take care of each other through this. That means caring enough to wear a mask, social distance and look out for our neighbors and our children.

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