Wednesday March 29, 2023

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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)
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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 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 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)
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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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State Government: The Budget Mosaic

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 Thursday, 28 March 2019
in Wisconsin

wisc-capitol-domeIt’s important to understand the budget from afar, but we learn even more from looking closer to see how everything connects.

MADISON - Connecting dots can be very satisfying -- when it all clicks together our eyes get big, our jaws drop and we become stunned with our newfound knowledge.

The bigger the conclusion, the more satisfying the result. For legislators, much is the same for comprehending the state budget. Pouring over the details and reading the documents line-by-line can be dull, very dull. But when things start to click and make sense, it’s all worth it.

Governor Tony Evers listened to the experiences and values from many different people and put together a budget that represents a large mosaic - tiny little pictures that make up a larger picture. There is value in viewing the mosaic from afar, but there can also be a benefit peering closely at one of the small pictures within to see how it all connects.

meeting-crowdThe other day, when giving a presentation about the budget at one of our listening sessions, a retired assistant district attorney chimed in about criminal justice changes in the state budget. He was concerned about forgetting the seriousness of some crimes. He stressed that sometimes incarceration is the only safe place for some criminals.

This gentleman had a point - we will never stop all crime. Some crimes are so heinous the guilty need to be locked up from society. Most often, criminals are the product of many factors. Without a good education some may be more at risk of committing a crime. Some grew up in a family stuck in a cycle of violence. Others still may have grown up in a good family, but struggle with mental health.

If we address the ailments of society head on, we have the best chance at fighting crime before it happens. Helping people with addiction and mental health issues get access to affordable and high-quality health care can help. Or fixing our broken school funding formula can help schools better educate at-risk youth. There’s no shortage of opportunities to help society heal.

Just as we think of numerous ways to address a single facet of the budget, let’s now talk about a single issue in the budget and how it affects all different aspects of our society.

It’s hard to go a day as state senator without hearing how broadband internet expansion can help Wisconsin prosper. I was encouraged to see Governor Evers include nearly $100 million in additional broadband funding in his budget. That’s more than double the amount we’ve spent on broadband in the last 5 years combined!

The budget also defines broadband as speeds that can download content at least 25 megabytes per second (mbps) and upload content at 3mbps. That’s also the Federal Communications Commission’s standard of broadband.

Farmers will be able to connect to learn more about best practices, find new opportunities to sell their products directly to consumers and file reports. Kids will be able to do their homework and research at speeds that keep up with the rapidly advancing world. Patients and doctors will be able to use telehealth screenings. Broadband is the difference that makes our communities stronger. Agriculture, education and healthcare all need broadband access.

internet-ruralLike rural electrification, rural broadband access is critical if our small cities, villages and towns are going to thrive and continue to exist. And, like rural electrification, government has a role. Broadband expansion is expensive and most service providers don’t believe there are enough profits to justify the cost in rural areas. They need incentives to expand into underserved communities.

The biggest difference between rural electrification and rural broadband expansion is the benefits to all for connecting more people. Every single person or business that connects to the world wide web not only gets access to the world’s largest repository of advice and information, but they also become a contributor for everyone else in the world.

Now, those are two prime examples of how multiple budget matters connect to affect citizens across all spectrums of life in Wisconsin. The budget is a moral document -- it lays out our values and offers us a glimpse of how everything we do in state government is connected.

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“You be the Judge of the Budget”

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, 20 March 2019
in Wisconsin

crowdSen. Jeff Smith will hosting nine budget listening sessions in northwestern Wisconsin in March and April.

EAU CLAIRE, WI - Ever since my two daughters were young and able to ice skate, I attended their figure skating practices and competitions. I’ve respected the work and dedication these young women put in for such an incredible sport. I became so interested that I started volunteering as the announcer for the Eau Claire Figure Skating Club competitions.

Competitive figure skating is mostly a solo sport. This changes however on the last day of the competition when many of the athletes get the opportunity to skate as a team. Synchronized skating has become a standalone competitive sport which adds that special team element to the skills they honed as solo artists. It's on that final day that I'm the announcer at the rink and introduce each team.

I’ve learned to appreciate the countless hours these young skaters put in with their coaches to perfect their spins, jumps, speed, and coordinating it all to music. Watching the perfect figure skating routine is the final product of hours of practice and countless falls and mishaps. There’s so much more than the few minutes the judges get to see on the ice including rivalry, high emotions, tears, and clashes in practice or the locker room.

I’ve found that description rings true for politics as well. There’s plenty of competition in the legislature as well as high emotions, disagreements, and tears at times. Certainly, it’s a rivalrous atmosphere with passionate individuals vying over sensitive issues.

At the end of the day, the young figure skaters put aside their craving for individual recognition to create a perfectly synchronized skating routine. I’m always amazed when they come together and create something great.

Just like a skater putting together a routine, Governor Evers put in his time practicing and training to perfect what he called the “People’s Budget.” Throughout this process, the Governor asked the people what he should include in his budget. To get suggestions, he hosted listening sessions in Superior, La Crosse, Milwaukee, Green Bay and Wausau.

As you can imagine, everyone has different ideas to move Wisconsin forward. Governor Evers embraced these diverse opinions and so do I. In the budget development phase, Governor Evers heard Wisconsin residents echo a few common ideas. Much of the suggestions revolved around affordable health care, roads that don’t bust up our cars, fully-funding public schools, and reforming our criminal justice system.

jeff-smithI will be hosting nine budget listening sessions to discuss Governor Evers’ biennial state budget proposal. I need you to be the judge for the Governor’s work on the People’s Budget, so please join me at one of the locations below.

Each budget listening session is from 5:30pm - 7:00pm and open to the public. Here are the details of our events:

· Thursday, March 21st: Whitehall - Whitehall Memorial High School

· Friday, March 22nd: Ellsworth - Ellsworth High School

· Monday, March 25th: Eau Claire - Joint Listening Session with Rep. Jodi Emerson - L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library

· Thursday, March 28th: Holmen - Joint Listening Session with Sen. Jennifer Shilling and Rep. Steve Doyle - Holmen Public Library

· Thursday, April 11th: Durand - Durand City Hall

· Monday, April 15th: River Falls - Joint Listening Session with Sen. Patty Schachtner - River Falls Public Library

· Thursday, April 18th: Alma - Alma High School

· Tuesday, April 23rd: Menomonie - Joint Listening Session with Sen. Patty Schachtner at the Shirley Doane Senior Center

· Date is TBD: Black River Falls - Location is TBD

For more information, check out my website or Facebook page. I look forward to seeing you at one of these events. If you can’t make it to one of our listening sessions, please call, write or email me with any feedback about the budget.

The synchronized routine of 132 legislators trying to work together on the budget has just begun. It won’t be easy, but we rely on you to be the judge of how we work together.

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