Tuesday January 31, 2023

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Mental Health is Real Health

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, 01 May 2019
in Wisconsin

depression-suicidebygunSen. Smith highlights the challenges Wisconsin faces in addressing the mental health needs of communities.


MADISON - So much can be said about mental health and yet so little has been done. We all know someone struggling with mental illness. So few receive the help they need.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been at eleven budget listening sessions. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive about Governor Tony Evers’ budget. Time and time again, many of the conversations I have with attendees is about mental health.

Some people are born with mental illness, some form destructive habits after experiencing traumatic events. Despite the causes, we fail to treat the seriousness of the issue.

Last week, I attended a briefing by the Children’s Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators tasked with finding ways to help our children get the care they need. The briefing was about the importance of early childhood mental health consultants. Before we can crawl we are susceptible to mental illness. It takes a keen eye to spot it and it takes early intervention to treat it.

Childhood trauma can lead to serious mental illness. Children are resilient, but they struggle with communicating their needs. As parents, grandparents, teachers and child care professionals, we all play a part in identifying mental health needs. Excessive worrying, problems concentrating, extreme mood changes, avoiding social activity, changes in sleep activity, substance abuse, and hyperactivity are just a few indicators of mental illness.

According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 4 individuals will be affected by mental or neurological disorders. Two-thirds of those with mental illness will not seek help due to the stigma associated with the disease.

For those who do decide to seek treatment, there is a serious lack of qualified professionals in Wisconsin. According to a study done by the Wisconsin Policy Forum in 2018, 55 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties has a significant shortage of psychiatrists, and 20 counties have no psychiatrists at all. Compounding the problem, the average age of psychiatrists in Wisconsin is 50 years old.

jeff-smithIf someone needs mental health treatment, it is covered by insurance thanks to a law I helped pass in 2008 called the Mental Health Parity Bill. That was a good start for treating mental illness, but very little has been done since.

Governor Evers’ budget, developed by listening to the people of Wisconsin, makes big investments for mental health treatment -- especially for kids. Schools will receive $44 million in categorical aids over the biennium for mental health professionals like nurses or counselors. He also adds $14 million for grant programs to help schools districts collaborate with community health organizations for mental health services.

The Governor also makes critical investments at our state treatment facilities. He adds 24 new beds and 58 new staff positions at Winnebago Mental Health Institute. He adds 14 new beds and 50.5 new staff for Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center. He adds 58 new beds and 34 staff to the Wisconsin Resource Center so inmates can receive the treatment they need.

For low-income individuals, the Governor invests $37 million for crisis intervention services and $23 million for postpartum care. Additionally, for substance abuse treatment, the Governor proposes creating three “hub-and-spoke” models designed to help regional hospitals refer patients to treatment centers, physicians and social service agencies.

We have a lot of work to do, especially for substance abuse challenges. Opioids and meth continue to ravage our state. Treatment alternative and diversion programs are a great way to keep people focused on healing from addiction rather than being locked up for it. The Governor adds an additional $2 million in grant funds for the program.

No one is immune to mental illness. Too many times we’ve seen people take their own lives because they didn’t get the help they needed or the pain was too unbearable. The illnesses we can’t see on an x-ray or in a blood test are the hardest to overcome. Mental illness is real and “toughing it out” isn’t how to handle it. We owe it to all those suffering to do whatever we can to help them through the hardest times in their lives.

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Earth Day Should Be Every 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, 24 April 2019
in Wisconsin

earth-dayIn honor of Earth Day, Sen. Smith highlights the importance of taking part in efforts to combat climate change. Now more than ever, it’s important to pay attention to the environment around us for future generations to enjoy.


MADISON - It’s been eight years since anyone in our executive branch of government uttered the words “climate change.” Thankfully, Governor Tony Evers brought science, common sense and the term climate change back to Wisconsin.

Since the 1970s, Wisconsin Governors have shaped our nation’s conservation legacy. In my office, over my desk, hangs an iconic poster from Governor Gaylord Nelson’s campaign. The man from Clear Lake was ahead of his time. He did all he could to raise awareness that the earth is worth protecting.

gaylord-nelsonThis week we celebrated Earth Day. From recycling to burning less fossil fuels, we already felt responsible to preserve and protect our world from our destructive behaviors in 1970, when Earth Day was recognized. It was Governor Gaylord Nelson who created the concept of Earth Day as a reminder to us all that we need to do our part.

The 1970s was a decade marked with milestone environmental changes for our country. President Richard Nixon proposed the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, Congress passed the Clean Water Act and amended the Clean Air Act. At the same time, oil companies were conducting research about how burning fossil fuels affect our climate.

I recently read a story from Scientific American about research conducted by InsideClimate News staff. They spent eight months pouring over documents and interviewing Exxon scientists and federal government officials.

The article described how researchers determined that Exxon knew of climate change since July 1977. James Black, Exxon’s senior scientist told the company’s management team, “In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels."

In a more recent article from The Guardian in September 2018, they described how Shell predicted climate change effects too. Analysts at Shell predicted a disappearance of specific ecosystems or habitat destruction, an increase in runoff, destructive floods, an inundation of low-lying farmland, the need for new sources of freshwater to compensate for changes in precipitation and global changes in air temperature would drastically change the way people live and work.

frac-sand-spill-wiscWestern Wisconsin and our state as a whole is not immune to the effects of climate change. What was considered flooding that should only occur once every hundred years is now happening annually in Wisconsin. Our country is experiencing fiercer tornados and hurricanes and long droughts out west are creating dangerous fire conditions. Globally, we are experiencing stronger and more frequent earthquakes and tsunamis.

Like cigarette companies that knew the health effects of smoking, oil companies knew that burning fossil fuels would harm our planet. The damage may be irreversible. Just like quitting tobacco, we need to change our habits. It takes everyone to pitch in if we are going to make a difference.

It’s encouraging to see so many municipalities adopt the Paris Climate Agreement even if the White House pulls the United States out. Even our Governor is pitching in by including big changes in his budget proposal for reducing our carbon footprint here in Wisconsin. Governor Tony Evers’ budget includes a provision setting a goal of 100% carbon-free electricity generation in Wisconsin by 2050. He also proposes using the Volkswagen emissions settlement funds for purchasing new public buses and installing new electric car charging stations.

We can all play a part. We must all play a part. As I continually say, if we err when making decisions on education or health care or transportation, we can fix it. But if we poison our water, air and earth, we cannot fix it. Think about how we leave this earth for generations to come. Every day needs to be Earth Day!

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Passing the Baton

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, 17 April 2019
in Wisconsin

senate-scholar-programSen. Smith writes about learning opportunities like the Senate Scholar Program and internships that provide young people with the skills to take the baton from the older generation.


MADISON - The number of times I’ve heard people say, “We need to help young people engage in our community,” or “We need more young people in politics” is so common I won’t even venture to guess. It’s almost inevitable someone will say something like that at every meeting I attend.

It really hasn’t changed. As someone who grew up through the 1960s and 70s, adults regularly complained about young people engaged in peace, love and rock ‘n roll. Adults were sure the next generation was a lost cause and young people couldn’t care less about their community.

And I’m sure the generation before had the same concerns for their children.

Of course, their fears weren’t founded in fact. My generation was inspired by the generations before even if we didn’t admit it. As a Baby Boomer, I took lessons from the “Greatest Generation” – the ones who made it through the Great Depression and World War II.

Our democracy depends on each generation inspiring the next. Our patriotism becomes stronger through each generations’ contributions to our country.

senate-scholar-lara-boudinotSome have heard me say this before; we’re the surrogates for young people. They will take over when they’re ready. Just like my generation and every generation before, we’re caretakers for the next generation. The new generation is creating its own identity. Careers are established, families are grown and communities are transformed. That’s how it's always worked.

Our greatest responsibility is what we leave for our next generation. How do we create new opportunities and be good stewards of our natural resources? How will future generations judge our actions? Like anyone, we’ve stumbled at times in this race, but all that really matters is if we can hand off the baton without losing too much ground.

Last week, we hosted a group of students as Senate Scholars at the State Capitol. Several times each year, high school students across Wisconsin participate in this week-long program to learn more about state government.

Depending on what’s going on during the week, students become familiarized with all the different processes in the Capitol. They get an opportunity to staff the Senate floor when we’re in session, visit the Governor’s residence and go through the lawmaking process with mock legislation. They learn about the media, legislative staff, lobbyists and legislative agency support staff.

jeff-smithI crossed paths throughout our busy week with a young man named Michael, a Senate Scholar from Eau Claire. It wasn’t until Thursday, I was able to spend some time getting to know him and find out what he learned during his week-long experience.

Michael was inquisitive and attentive, learning all he could about the state government process. This young man’s visit to my office renewed my hope for our future generation. Like so many young people I meet, this experience left me with real certainty that our youth will be ready to lead when the time comes.

If you are a 16-18 year old high school student, or your son or daughter wants to learn more, I strongly encourage you to consider the Senate Scholar Program. Check out the website at www.legis.wisconsin.gov/ssgt/senatescholar to learn more about program eligibility requirements and the curriculum.

Dr. Tammy Wehrle, the Legislative Education and Outreach Officer for the Senate is an incredible asset for the Senate. She can help answer questions about the program. You can reach out to her at 608-261-0533 for more information.

If you're looking for a more in-depth look at the state legislature, we offer unpaid internships to college students and recent graduates. Interns have a chance to research policy and provide information to constituents. They also have the opportunity to attend committee hearings and participate at events in the district. Visit www.legis.wisconsin.gov/senate/31/smith/quick-links/intern-with-me to learn more about this program or to apply.

Opportunities like the Senate Scholar Program and internships give our next generation a glimpse of how government works. Our hope is for students participating in this program become the future leaders of our state and nation. I’m confident we will be in good hands if we keep supporting and building up our next generation through learning opportunities as Senate Scholars and interns.

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Paying Again Through Referendum

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, 10 April 2019
in Wisconsin

school-closedSen. Smith writes about public education and the impact of referenda in funding local schools.


MADISON - Last Tuesday was a big election day for Wisconsin. It was an even bigger election day for public education. Many Wisconsin school districts were able to pass crucial referenda to keep operating, some weren’t so lucky.

Some school districts are one bad referendum away from closing. We cannot educate our children on political whims alone, we need assurance from the state that education funding is a priority.

high-schoolUnfortunately, lurching from one referendum to the next has become the norm for school districts, but it hasn’t always been like this. Don’t get me wrong, K-12 funding has always been a matter of friction between political philosophies for decades, but agreements have been reached.

Disagreements came to a head in 1993 when the state adopted a school funding formula that capped revenue for districts at the level they were at that year. As a compromise, the state also promised to fund 2/3 of the total cost for educating our children.

The twenty-six year old formula is complicated, and it’s influenced by many different factors. The two most important factors are student enrollment and total property valuation within the district. Thus, if a district’s enrollment is bursting at the seams plus their property values are low, they receive a larger per pupil subsidy than a district with decreased enrollment and high property values.

Over the years, this formula has proven to fall short of our constitutional obligation to provide an equitable education to all children in Wisconsin. We live in a time now when one bad election turnout can force schools to close.

Politicians who support the current funding system would often say that voters could determine their support for their schools through referendum. That thinking seemed logical to some when referenda proved terribly difficult to pass. As state funding has been cut, schools are struggling to meet the needs of the communities. Referenda have become the only option to keep up.

Since 2011 the rate of success in passage has been overwhelming. In 2011 39 referenda passed while 31 failed. In 2014 80 passed while 38 failed. In 2018 141 passed and only 16 failed! Just last week 44 of 59 referenda questions passed.

jeff-smithOften political debate is about the obligation of government and how we manage the money every citizen pays through taxes. Will we cut funding or pay more for roads or libraries or even law enforcement? The state budget comes up for renewal every two years. It gets nearly all the attention from your leaders at nearly every level of government.

Municipalities, counties and school districts need to know what they can expect so they can plan their own budgets. Citizens want to know if their taxes will rise and if they can depend on good roads or their summer vacation to a state park. Even contractors pay attention because they want the work that comes out of building projects and road construction in the budget. It’s a big deal. So much depends on the priorities of politicians who find themselves in a position to make these decisions.

Parents, teachers and children want to know if their school is going to open next year. Annual referenda is not a consistent way to fund public education. Referenda should be a tool school districts can use to enhance their already good, properly-funded schools.

There isn’t nearly enough space here to describe the connection that education has to the success of everything in our society. Without state funding, without funding approved in referenda, how do we fund schools? Do we have to hold annual fundraisers just to keep the doors open? Should we continue to rely on this unreliable system for our children’s future?

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State Building Commission: Leaders or Followers?

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, 03 April 2019
in Wisconsin

uwec-campusSen. Smith writes about the budget process and the role the State Building Commission plays in approving Gov. Evers’ capital budget requests. We need bipartisanship throughout the budget process to support Wisconsin’s future.


MADISON - As leaders and policy makers in Wisconsin it is our job to ensure that our state government and operations run smoothly. Our agencies must be funded properly, people must be paid and projects should be moving forward in a timely fashion. It doesn’t need to be complicated. There are processes in place that have worked for decades.

The process begins with the presentation of the budget proposal from Governor Evers in the administrative branch to Wisconsin’s legislative branch. The legislative process is headed by the Joint Finance Committee (JFC), a 16-member bipartisan group of legislators, which reviews and makes recommendations based on the Governor’s budget proposal. These recommendations are then voted on by all members of the legislature before returning to the governor for his or her approval. Sounds simple, right?

Often overlooked in this process is the approval of the Governor’s capital budget requests by the State Building Commission. This commission is made up of the governor, a 6-member bipartisan group of legislators from the Senate and Assembly, and one private citizen appointed by the governor.

The commission is responsible for the state’s building program by approving and managing construction and improvement projects for our state buildings that play a vital role for communities throughout Wisconsin. The legislative members of the commission vote on building funding proposals and share their recommendations with JFC for final approval of the capital budget requests.

budget-hearingMembers of the State Building Commission have a history of working closely with each other to make sure these major projects go smoothly. It was always one place where partisanship did not usually blind the needs of progress.

For instance, during the early years of the Doyle administration (when the Republicans controlled both houses as they do today) the State Building Commission worked together and approved capital projects without any political ambitions getting in the way. The Commission was instrumental in funding key projects to support our higher education and healthcare facilities. That was 2003 and 2005. This is 2019.

On March 18th and 19th, the State Building Commission subcommittees met to vote on the capital requests from agencies to be included in the budget. All members of both subcommittees voted unanimously on the requested projects. However, something happened in the next 24 hours and the Republicans had a change of heart.

The commission began to vote on each individual item on the list. One by one, the votes were taken and each vote ended the same. While the two Democratic legislators, Governor Evers and the private citizen voted to approve each item, the 4 Republicans voted “no” on important projects, including the renovation of Phillips Science Hall at UW-Eau Claire. The tie meant no action taken. Thus, these projects are left in limbo and will be sent to the JFC without the Building Commission's recommendation.

This hasn’t happened before. The locked step negative vote really signals a change and raises a lot of questions. Is there any hope that our legislature can really work together in this shared government? Can the elected legislators in the Republican caucus stand up against the leaders that don’t have their constituents’ best interests at heart? How will this affect the budget process moving forward?

After Governor Evers introduced “The People’s Budget” on February 28th, we heard the usual rhetoric from opposition leaders referring to it as a non-starter. It’s a shame that partisan politics is getting in the way of the historical investments Governor Evers proposed. Improvements in our state’s infrastructure should be an issue that we all rally behind. Previous State Building Commissions worked together to approve projects that have made positive impacts in our local communities. We’ve seen the powerful result of compromise in the past. Now it’s time to be the leaders we were elected to be for the future of Wisconsin.

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