Wednesday February 28, 2024

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Policymaking by the People, for the People

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 26 February 2020
in Wisconsin

lines-farmsRecently-introduced legislation, which would change Wisconsin’s current livestock siting standards, serves as an important reminder why legislators must listen to constituents and stakeholders when developing new policy says Sen. Smith.

MADISON - Before a bill becomes a law, a process exists to ensure policymakers develop the most effective policy proposal, and with good reason. Decisions made on the state level influence the way folks work and live in all corners of the state. Legislation should be a product of the conversations policymakers have with the stakeholders who will be impacted.

But that’s not what happened when Republicans introduced Senate Bill (SB) 808, a bill which would rewrite livestock siting and expansion standards in Wisconsin. When making significant policy changes, the safety and health of individuals involved must be our first priority. Rather than create hastily-made policy, we need to think critically and develop well-informed policy that will assure Wisconsin’s a better place for all.

In 2003, the State Legislature passed the Livestock Siting Law, which gave the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) the ability to create standards for local governments regarding the location and expansion of livestock operations which have more than 500 animal units, according to the Wisconsin Farm Bureau.

Before legislation was passed, town boards and their constituents wanted an opportunity to voice their thoughts on growing livestock facilities. These standards were created to ensure neighboring properties were protected from the negative consequences of expanding facilities. For example, a farm wanting to expand from 400 to 4,000 cows would have more manure, which will spread and eventually affect the groundwater.

Livestock siting isn’t a simple process or law. After all, livestock siting affects Wisconsin’s agricultural practices, our environment and public health. When legislators introduced a new bill regarding livestock siting rules, there were many concerns over the changes it would make. Considering the proposed changes SB 808 would have on current livestock siting laws, many of us were shocked with how fast it moved through the legislative process.

Typically, the legislative process for a bill to become a law takes months from the time a legislator drafts the bill, talks through the proposal with subject experts and stakeholders, introduces the bill to the Legislature, has a public hearing and committee vote, passes both houses and is signed by the Governor. The length of this process is imperative for experts and constituents to provide input.

In just under 9 days, Republicans introduced the bill and scheduled the bill for a vote in the Senate and Assembly. The way in which this bill sprinted through the legislative process with very little scrutiny took my breath away. The bill authors skipped consultation with subject experts or professionals at DATCP and the Department of Natural Resources when moving this bill forward. Why wouldn’t you work alongside the two agencies responsible for administering this law?

Although The Livestock Siting Law certainly could use updating, SB 808 went too far. If passed, SB 808 would move siting approval from local governments to DATCP, essentially stripping away local control while eliminating public input on the CAFO permitting process, which threatens our clean drinking water.

SB 808 would also create the Livestock Facility Technical Review Board, a new DATCP board, operating separately from the already established Livestock Facility Siting Review Board. Questions are still unanswered as to the new board’s role and purview, the rulemaking process or the public’s role on the board.

jeff-smithFortunately, SB 808 was pulled at the last minute. I credit the advocacy of citizens who contacted their legislators and demanded an end to this bill.

As a state senator, I believe we need to offer resources to make it easier for town officials to do their job – I’ve heard this from my constituents too. I believe there are improvements to the current livestock siting process that can be made, only with the input of local government leaders and community members.

More importantly, I understand with any change to current law, we must consult constituents and the professionals in the community who truly understand the impact of the proposed policy. Now think about what you can share with your elected official. Be sure to speak out and share your thoughts – we need to hear from you.

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Cutting Taxes by Supporting Schools

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, 19 February 2020
in Wisconsin

teaching-studentsSen. Smith writes about Wisconsin’s expected budget surplus and how we can use that to invest in our public schools while providing tax relief to homeowners.

MADISON - Every other January the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB), a nonpartisan agency, reviews Wisconsin’s general fund and projects an economic forecast for the state. Recently the LFB reported an expected $450 million surplus by the end of this biennium, on June 30, 2021.The question now is what do we do with that surplus?

Governor Tony Evers has a plan. Two weeks after the LFB released their findings, the Governor called for a special session to invest in our public schools and reduce property taxes. He did this because he knows that what’s best for our kids is what’s best for our state. However, Republican leaders rejected Governor Evers’ plan and touted a one-time tax break to property owners in Wisconsin.

Governor Evers’ plan would restore the state’s commitment to fund two-thirds of public education costs, invest more in special education and increase mental health services available for school children. Additionally, it would prioritize funding rural schools through sparsity aid.

Schools in the 31st Senate District would see new investments over $3.9 million in general school aid, $880 thousand in sparsity aid and $2.1 million in special education aid. And these are just part of Governor Evers’ recommendations.

The complete package would also fund special education readiness grants, aid for mental health programs and service grants and tribal language revitalization grants. Altogether, the schools in the 31st Senate District would receive more than $12 million.

Properly supporting our public schools at the state level would decrease the burden on homeowners by not requiring school districts to pass referenda just to keep operating. These much needed, overdue contributions would ensure all students have access to a quality education while fulfilling shared goals to provide tax relief. Residents of the 31st Senate District would see more than $7 million in property tax relief under Governor Evers’ proposal.

If there is a way to satisfy both sides, shouldn’t we at least be open to discussing it? We should lay all ideas out on the table and figure out how to use the best ideas of both sides to work for the better good of Wisconsin. I know it can be done and I know there are legislators on BOTH sides who want to work together.

We need long-term solutions to address the challenges our public schools and rural communities are facing. I don’t think tax credits are a long term answer to any subject we try to tackle, especially not critical issues like education. The other side of the aisle is saying the opposite and adds that the governor’s proposal is not the answer either.

jeff-smithAnd just like the call to work together on other fundamental issues from helping our farmers to gun safety; why does it have to be one or the other? The Governor has one package of bills he would like passed and the Republicans have their own. Once again I ask, “Why does it have to be one or the other?” After all, the most common questions I hear from our constituents is “Why can’t you get along and work together?”

I want to believe there is room to agree because we all care about these issues and can collaborate to find a solution. If government worked as it should, we would lay all proposals down side by side and hash it out. This is a great opportunity to prove to citizens that we can work as a shared governance.

This place in history is the perfect opportunity to restore shared governance as it once was. No, we don’t need to bring back the practice of making decisions in “smoke-filled rooms.” However we may benefit from adapting a collaborative spirit and restoring faith and trust in our elected officials. Now is the time to work for everyone and cut taxes by prioritizing Wisconsin’s future.

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Pay Attention Before Your Car is Towed

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 February 2020
in Wisconsin

car-repoRecently, Senate Bill 613, legislation that could devastate the life of someone who relies on their vehicle to drive to work or take their children to school, was quietly introduced under the radar in Madison.

MADISON - Every day, we consume so much new information. While watching TV, reading the local paper or scrolling through social media, we may even feel overwhelmed by all the news available to us.

I start feeling the same way when I think about the legislation introduced this session. There have been more than 800 bills introduced in the Senate, alone. Most likely, you’ve learned about some legislative proposals; however, there are some policies quietly introduced or adopted under the radar that have huge implications for Wisconsinites.

Despite everything that’s going on in our lives and the news everywhere around us, it’s important to pay attention and be aware of the policies affecting our future.

jeff-smithRecently, I joined my colleagues on the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Technology and Consumer Protection for a public hearing. Public hearings serve a useful purpose for legislators. Once a bill is introduced, it’s assigned to a committee and the committee Chair can decide whether to hold a public hearing on the proposal. During a public hearing, legislators can learn a lot about the bill, its background and the potential consequences of the policy before taking a vote.

During the recent hearing, we learned about Senate Bill 613, a seemingly simple bill that could have a huge impact on the lives of Wisconsin residents, like in the following scenario.

If a lessee missed payments on a car loan, the lender may employ someone to repossess the vehicle right out of the lessee’s driveway. Of course, the lender has the legal right to do so if the lessee truly missed payments. If the lender believes a lessee missed payments, the lender will send a letter notifying the lessee of the overdue fees.

If the lender hasn’t heard back in 15 days, they may contact a repossessor. The next day, the tow truck pulls up and the driver begins to hook up the vehicle. However, the lessee may not have received the letter, their payment may have come in after the repossession order was made or the lender may have mistakenly given the repossessor the wrong vehicle identification number. The lessee comes outside, insisting the repossessor stops the towing process.

Currently, the lessee has the ability to stop the repossession temporarily through this “breach of peace” until the lender can prove they deserve repossession to a court. Situations like these have the capacity to escalate. The “breach of peace” policy is in place to protect everyone involved and prevent escalation and potential violence.

Senate Bill 613 redefines “breach of peace” which, consequently, weakens the rights of consumers and holds the repossessor harmless from charges even if they took the lessee’s vehicle. During the executive session, I proudly voted against this bill.

The passage of this bill on the Senate floor could be devastating to someone who relies on their vehicle to drive to work or take their children to school, but mistakenly had this vehicle taken. This could cause the individual to miss work and lose pay to support their family, which could continue to snowball causing great harm to the family. Yet, there still would be no repercussions for the lender or repossessor.

This bill is so tilted against the consumer, it’s ironic that the bill was assigned to the Committee tasked to protect consumers. It’s shameful, but unfortunately, not surprising.

Over the last decade, Republicans have turned their back on consumers at the request of an industry. This proposal adds one more weight in the scales of justice against Wisconsin families. The same shift in the scales occurred in the relationship between tenants and landlords, which has greatly contributed to the affordable housing crisis Wisconsin is facing.

As session continues and some proposals move forward to public hearings, I’m committed to protecting families from harmful policies, like Senate Bill 613. Consumers and families working to make ends meet are overdue for attention to their needs. Let’s find solutions for those dealing with debt, rather than doubling down on their despair.

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Connect Wisconsin with Better Broadband

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 February 2020
in Wisconsin

broadband-map-northwoodsLast week, Sen. Smith introduced the “Better Broadband” package, 6 bills to expand broadband and better connect our communities. Today he covers accessing high speed broadband to guarantee rural prosperity for our future.

MADISON - Governor Tony Evers shined a bright light on the urgency of strengthening our rural communities by calling a special session to take up agriculture bills, creating the Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity and establishing the Office of Rural Prosperity. In western Wisconsin, we have an opportunity to step up and continue leading the way.

We should think of rural prosperity as a jigsaw puzzle.  Rural prosperity relies on our agricultural industry, job security, entrepreneurial opportunity, tourism, quality schools, community spaces and more. Each individual piece contributing to rural prosperity has a purpose and need. However, these pieces don’t create an image and illustrate rural prosperity unless all the pieces are connected.

internet-ruralAccess to reliable broadband matters for the many Wisconsinites who want to continue enjoying rural life or for those who want to settle down in a new community. These connections will only strengthen rural prosperity in Wisconsin.  Investments in broadband reliability and connectivity correlate to investments in our rural communities – let’s make it happen.

While there may be plenty of good reasons to live in a metropolitan area, I find it hard to believe that most people who grow up in the beauty of rural Wisconsin wouldn’t continue living here if they had access to a job or entertainment for themselves or their family.

Reliable internet access would help farmers connect to UW-Extension, potential dealers and markets, loan offices, mental health resources and more. Small town businesses must also be able to connect to the rest of the world to compete and offer the same level of services as any large city business.

Every household and business should be connected, period. In this ever changing world of technology, it’s increasingly more possible for employees to work from home and for students to study at home, only IF they’re connected to true high speed internet. We must expand broadband to offer the same opportunities in our rural areas to what’s available in our metropolitan areas.

Last week, I introduced the “Better Broadband” bill package, 6 important bills to connect communities and help our state attain real rural prosperity. The “Better Broadband” package will:

·         Increase funding for broadband expansion grants to $100 million annually in 2020-21, improve broadband mapping and require internet service providers to disclose to the Public Service Commission which properties have service and their minimum average speed.

·         Prioritize grant funding for projects to expand fiber optics to farms.

·         Protect consumers by prohibiting companies from advertising their service as “broadband” unless it’s capable of providing minimum download speeds.

·         Allow a city, village, town, county or the Department of Transportation to require installation of empty conduit lines for future fiber optics expansion.

·         Give municipalities the authority to use broadband expansion grant money for project planning purposes and encourage municipalities to create and expand municipal-owned broadband networks.

·         Require grant recipients to provide broadband speeds that are at least 25 Mbps (megabits per second) while downloading and 3 Mbps while uploading, or the speed set by FCC if higher than 25/3.

jeff-smithThese proposals seem so logical that many may wonder why we’d need to pass legislation for the proposals to go into effect. But, just like routing electrical power into rural America, government leaders have a responsibility to connect all homes, businesses and communities. While private Internet Service Providers are driven by profit margin, government is driven by the public good.

In today’s world, we need high speed broadband to guarantee rural prosperity for our future. Let’s put all our best resources, both private and public, into expanding broadband for Wisconsin. We need to make Wisconsin a state that works for all of us. After all, when rural Wisconsin thrives, all of Wisconsin thrives.

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It’s Time to Prioritize Rural Prosperity

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 January 2020
in Wisconsin

wisconsin_farmSen. Smith writes about the SOS Address and the urgency of prioritizing rural prosperity. He shares information about Evers’ three-part plan to support our farmers and invest in our agricultural industries and rural communities.

MADISON - During the State of the State, Governor Tony Evers reflected on the accomplishments made in 2019 and the priorities we must carry out in the year ahead. As we draw closer to the end of this legislative session, we have a stronger sense of urgency to get things done.

Governor Evers showed exemplary leadership and his willingness to tackle the serious issues in our state during his State of the State Address. Along with his effort to create a Fair Maps Commission and Task Force on Student Debt, Evers announced a 3 part plan to address the visible challenges affecting our farmers and rural communities.

Finally, Wisconsin has a leader who values the dedication of our family farmers, recognizes Wisconsin’s role as America’s Dairyland and wants to learn from those who live and work in rural Wisconsin.

The Legislature is wrapping up session too soon. The Majority Party has neglected to hold public hearings or schedule votes on legislation that offer solutions to some of the most pressing issues in our state, including the dairy crisis. Wisconsin lost more than a third of dairy farms in the last decade, losing 800 in 2019 alone. At a time when local, family farms are disappearing rapidly and Wisconsin is leading the nation in farm bankruptcies, we need to take action.

During the State of the State, Evers called for a special session for the Legislature to take up 8 bills to support our farmers and invest in our agricultural industries and rural communities. I’m especially proud of the proposal to create a small farm diversity grant program to help new producers with initial start-up costs, a bill I introduced earlier this session with Rep. Vruwink (D – Milton).

  • In the agriculture special session bill package, Governor Evers also included proposals to:
  • Create the Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports to help build Wisconsin’s presence in international dairy markets.
  • Offer more opportunity for dairy processors who want to innovate and become more efficient in their practice through the dairy processor grant program.
  • Expand the Farm Center to assist farmers in financial planning and farm succession.
  • Increase resources and partnership opportunities for farmers through UW Extension.
  • Provide additional mental health services and peer support programming for farmers.
  • Connect farmers to education and training assistance through new grant programs.
  • Promote producer-consumer relationships in local communities through the Farm-to-School program.

The announcement of the special session was not the only productive news Governor Evers shared during the State of the State. As the second part of his agricultural investment plan, Evers announced the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity.

The Commission will be made up of members of Wisconsin’s rural communities and agricultural industries. Together, members will travel around the state learning about agricultural issues directly from key stakeholders. This experience will qualify them to advise the Governor and Legislature on critical agricultural and rural economic solutions we must make moving forward.

Under the third part of the agricultural investment plan, Governor Evers directed the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) to create the Office of Rural Prosperity. This new division within the agency will focus on broadband expansion, accessible healthcare in our rural areas, housing availability and more.

The creation of WEDC initially overlooked the impact of our rural economy, a critical piece of the puzzle. Now we’re really going to be a major player in building the economy like we always knew we were capable of.

The day after the State of the State Address, I had the opportunity to sit down with community members and members of Governor Evers’ cabinet to discuss rural prosperity. I realized these are just the beginning steps toward prioritizing the issues that matter most to our economy and way of life in our rural areas.

Now we need leaders from the Majority Party to step up and prove they understand the urgency of our agricultural industry and farm families. This may be the greatest opportunity yet to demonstrate how shared governance can work. Let’s get to work!

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