Sunday August 14, 2022

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Restore the Voice of Wisconsin Conservation Congress

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, 27 October 2021
in Wisconsin

fishing-flyThe Congress allows citizens to advise the DNR Board on issues affecting hunting, fishing and conservation practices in Wisconsin.


EAU CLAIRE - The best policies come from citizens themselves. Subject matter experts, hobbyists or trained professionals are the best advisors lawmakers have when proposing new bills.

The Wisconsin Conservation Congress (WCC) may just be the best example of how policies can be introduced and adopted by citizens’ own initiative. Established in 1934 by the State Conservation Commission – the predecessor to the Natural Resources Board (NRB) – the WCC allows citizens to share their input with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

In 1972, Governor Patrick Lucey signed legislation that legally recognized the WCC. Under Wisconsin State Statues, “The conservation congress shall be an independent organization of citizens of the state and shall serve in an advisory capacity to the natural resources board on all matters under the jurisdiction of the board.”

There are five board members from every county chosen each spring to participate in the Conservation Congress. During the spring meeting, held simultaneously in each county, any citizen present is given a ballot with proposed policy measures for the DNR. This is where Wisconsinites can discuss ideas and express their opinions about what happens in our woods and waterways. It’s often the first place lawmakers look when crafting new bills. Since the 1930s, the WCC guided the Natural Resources Board in their decision-making based on how citizens voted at the spring meetings. It can’t get more democratic than that.

wi-assembly-hearingThe process by which the WCC works is exactly how policies should be developed in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, during last week’s public hearing in the Senate Committee on Sporting Heritage, Small Business and Rural Issues, we realized that many current legislators are ignoring this formula and dismissing citizen involvement altogether. Recently, lawmakers hastily introduced a package of bills affecting hunting, fishing and conservation practices; soon after, they rushed to hold a public hearing.

Dozens of Wisconsinites and advocacy groups testified during the six-hour long hearing. When the National Turkey Federation testified with concerns about one bill that would affect the turkey hunting season, I asked if they’d been approached and consulted by the bill authors. They said they had not. I asked the same question to members of Trout Unlimited who shared their concerns regarding a bill that increases the stock of brook trout in Lake Michigan; they also responded in the negative.

This went on all day. It became evident that the bill authors had no regard for what Wisconsin sportsmen and women really cared about. The only group, as it turned out, that was consulted and registered in favor of all the bills came from Kansas. Even the Wisconsin Conservation Congress was taken by surprise by this package of legislation they did not ask for.

jeff-smithThis is all very troubling, but I can honestly say I’m not too surprised. We should’ve seen the writing on the wall when back in 2011, the Majority Party passed legislation that essentially prevented conservationists from directly offering rule revisions to the NRB. 2011 Act 21 created an 18-step process that can take two-three years to complete. This has made the rule-making process so difficult that Conservation Congress meetings rarely adopt rule changes in even years of the biennium.

Despite these changes, I still attend the meetings in my county because I trust the discussion to be honest and sincere. I also introduced a bill to reinstate the power of the WCC. As we’ve seen this year, there are people, like Fred Prehn, who don’t respect our democratic processes or Wisconsin’s conservation record. We can avoid bad policies and protect Wisconsin’s natural resources by restoring the voices of the WCC. The Senate must also act and approve Governor Evers’ appointment to the NRB.

The best legislators are wise enough to consult with citizens who know best how a policy will affect the state. No one should think they know all they need to know simply from their own experiences. That’s not to say that all advice given is perfect right away, but it’s all part of the process. The Wisconsin Conservation Congress has worked well for Wisconsin – and it’s what we need today to preserve our natural resources for the next generation of Wisconsinites.

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Stop and Talk

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, 20 October 2021
in Wisconsin

farmer-wicornSen. Smith writes about his “Stop & Talks”, one way he uses to get out and have conversations with residents throughout the 31st Senate District.


EAU CLAIRE - For many, a favorite thing to do this time of year is taking a drive to enjoy the natural beauty of our state. I often mention how fortunate we are in Wisconsin to have such a beautiful landscape all year-round, particularly now when the fall colors really draw attention and attract driving tours.

When asking folks to meet with their legislator, it’s understandable why they’re not too thrilled. Most people would prefer to be out-and-about, enjoying the beauty Wisconsin has to offer. When elected officials schedule office hours or listening sessions, it’s not always convenient for folks. Usually they’re scheduled in the town hall during business hours when people are at work. It always bothered me when I scheduled office hours and sat there alone waiting for someone to show up. It even felt like I was hiding while people drove by without knowing their elected representative was inside for them to talk to.

That never really sat right with me. Elected officials should be more accessible to their constituents. It should be as convenient and easy as possible for you to connect with your legislator. We should be where you are.

That’s why I constructed a 6 foot sign for the top of my 1999 Dodge Ram that I can fold down when driving, but then lift up for drivers to see when I’m parked in a place that they can easily pull into. It’s your chance to Stop and Talk.

jeff-smithAlthough I’m not able to schedule mobile office hours every day, or even every week, I enjoy this way of connecting immensely. Even though I thought—like most of us—that I knew how to listen, I’ve honed my listening skills even more since being parked near the side of the road talking with constituents.

Life teaches us that building relationships is vitally important. Whether it’s with family, colleagues or friends, relationships make life better. But relationships rely on trust. And that’s where listening skills are necessary. If we only have conversations so we can be heard, then we’re missing something. Nobody is 100% correct on everything; we can learn a lot from others if we really listen.

When asked what I enjoy most about my job as a Senator, the answer is always the same: listening to people’s stories. I’m so privileged that people will share their most personal life stories with me. Some stories bring tears while others bring smiles. When I listen and learn from a personal story, we build that trust that forms a relationship. Even if it’s brief, it is a relationship that impacts me as I work with my colleagues, vote on legislation and as I grow as a person.

If you haven’t yet seen me on the road or wonder when and where the next Stop and Talk might be, here’s how it works. I used to do Stop and Talks during my free time at the spur of the moment, but then there were many people who commented saying they wished they had known where I would be. Or they’d say they saw me, but were unable to stop because they were on a tight schedule.

Now we do a better job of scheduling when and where I’ll be with my truck. The pandemic in 2020 impacted our ability to connect with people, but with vaccinations, face masks and social distancing, I’m out crisscrossing the district to hear from you.

The best way to know when and where I’ll be is by following me on my Facebook page @SenSmithWI. I’ll usually post when and where I’ll be a couples days in advance. Otherwise, when you’re on that drive through western Wisconsin enjoying those fall colors, stop by when you see my big, red truck and share your thoughts. I look forward to listening to you.

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What Does It Take to Fix a Problem?

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, 13 October 2021
in Wisconsin

tutor-readingSen. Smith writes about the public hearing for Senate Bill 454, which aims to improve early childhood literacy, and how state lawmakers can better support parents and children with a reading disability.


MADISON - Constituents expect their legislators to solve problems. I know that’s what is expected of me and it’s what I enjoy doing. It’s truly satisfying coming up with new ideas that make a positive impact on people’s lives.

We hear concerns and suggestions from constituents for how to fix the problem. In fact, many bills we propose come directly from the minds of the people we’re elected to serve.

Public hearings happen nearly every day in the Capitol for legislators to hear about an issue and how a bill can help fix it. Last week was no different. I serve on the Senate Committee on Education and I attended the public hearing for Senate Bill 454, which aims to improve early childhood literacy. The bill authors introduced this legislation intending to help students with reading disabilities, like dyslexia. Improving early childhood literacy is an issue we can all support. However, I do have serious concerns about the unintended consequences of this bill and the failure to address the actual problem.

Currently, school boards and independent charter schools are required to assess students from four-year-old kindergarten to second grade on reading readiness. This bill overhauls the assessment practices Wisconsin has in place. Ultimately, this will impact the way students are taught by implementing more testing for all students, thus delaying the time needed to actually intervene and improve an individual student’s reading ability. Additionally, I found it problematic that there was little input from teachers and the bill specifics that schools must use private companies for this testing.

What may seem incredible to some is that the bill authors modeled this legislation after Mississippi. Before you jump to conclusions, you should know that Mississippi really has made strides in raising the level of reading competence over the last eight years. They’ve almost reached the same level that Wisconsin scores have been at for the last thirty years. They did this through reading assessments and by making the investments needed to provide teachers with training and schools with specialists.

Senate Bill 454 only focuses on discovery, not the investment in services. Undoubtedly, the sooner a parent or educator identifies a child’s reading difficulties, the better. But, also the sooner we invest in the services that child will need, the better. Mississippi also implemented a strict retention policy to hold students back a year, which raises some concerns about how they raised their scores.

We are well aware there is a problem with reading proficiency in Wisconsin, especially for students of color, but it doesn’t make sense for us to implement more testing to identify a problem we already know exists.

jeff-smithSome of my committee colleagues and I attempted to raise concerns, but the committee chair dismissed them and made the decision to not allow any more questions. There just seems to be no appetite to actually fix these problems.

We then heard testimony after testimony from parents who have experience taking their child to a clinic to be “evaluated by a private neuropsychologist.” This might cost them anywhere between one to two thousand dollars. After their diagnosis they then might spend $600 per month for private tutoring.

Throughout this six-hour hearing, all I could think about was how disingenuous we were being to these desperate parents who seemed to believe this bill would fix everything. But we wouldn’t be funding a neuropsychologist for school districts who already can’t afford one more staff person. Nor would we fund more specialists trained to tutor students with reading disabilities. All the legislature is willing to do is mandate more class time on assessments, so the teacher might be able to tell parents that they will need to find private tutoring to help their child.

Wisconsinites expect their legislators to fix problems, not push the problem onto someone else. This bill is telling parents, “We want to assess your child’s reading skills, but you’re on your own for helping them.” If the Legislature is serious about closing Wisconsin’s achievement gap, we need to put our money where our mouth is and move bills forward that will truly make a difference.

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Helping Students Reach their Dreams

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, 06 October 2021
in Wisconsin

hospital-icuSen. Jeff Smith writes about the “Reaching Higher for Higher Education” package he introduced with legislative colleagues to invest in Wisconsin’s higher educational institutions and make college more affordable for students and families around our state.


MADISON - If you ever asked a kid what they want to be when they grow up, I’m sure you heard a good answer. Kids dream of being an astronaut, firefighter, teacher or doctor. With all the confidence in the world, a kid can assert they want to grow up to be the President of the United States. Kids have big dreams and see endless opportunities in their future.

Unfortunately, kids can lose some of this ambition as they get older and learn about the expensive costs that come when pursuing a higher education. In Wisconsin, the median student loan debt is $17,323. In 2016, Wisconsin ranked 14th among states based on average student debt, and 7th overall for the proportion of graduates with debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. These statistics are a reality check for many students as they’re planning their future. This information can deter students from achieving their dreams, but it doesn’t have to be like this.

jeff-smithLast week, I introduced the “Reaching Higher for Higher Education” legislative package, with my colleagues Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point), Rep. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay) and Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire). These seven bills invest in Wisconsin’s higher educational institutions and make college more affordable for students and working families around our state. This package sends a strong signal that Wisconsin values students pursuing their dreams.

The “Reaching Higher for Higher Education” package builds off of Governor Evers’ commitment to college affordability. The Majority Party made significant changes to the governor’s 2021-23 budget proposal, but there is still time to fix higher education by passing these bills.

One of our proposals freezes UW System tuition to keep costs low for students and it fully funds this freeze to ensure educators have the resources to keep teaching. Another one of our proposals takes a step further requiring that all future tuition freezes be funded to ensure UW System schools are supported and can properly teach students.

A third bill in the legislative package expands the Tuition Promise program to UW System institutions. In 2018, the UW-Madison created a program called Bucky’s Tuition Promise to provide resident low-income students with free tuition. The program provides four years of free tuition to students in a household with an adjusted gross income of $60,000 or less. Under our proposal, the Tuition Promise would be available to students at other UW System schools who fit the eligibility criteria.

matc-studentsIn addition to the Tuition Promise, another bill from the “Reaching Higher for Higher Education” package invests in need-based financial aid for UW System and technical college students to ensure more grants are available to those who qualify.

To support those studying to become educators, one of our proposals provides a one-semester tuition remission for student teachers. We hope this bill will alleviate the financial strain prospective teachers face and encourage more individuals to go into the profession.

Lastly, the other two bills provide the state support for the UW System and Wisconsin’s technical colleges needed to hold onto their outstanding education institutional reputations. We’ve proposed directing $50 million to Wisconsin technical colleges and district boards, and $16.6 million to the UW System.

The goal of introducing the “Reaching Higher for Higher Education” package wasn’t only to help Wisconsin students achieve their dreams of attending college, although that reason would be good enough. The investments we make today are critical to make sure students learn new skills and are prepared to enter the workforce. Supporting higher education investments today will address our current labor shortage and encourage business owners to grow our economy for tomorrow.

We want to support our kids to achieve their dreams, whatever they may be. Well, here’s our chance. Let’s move the “Reaching Higher for Higher Education” package forward to help the future generations of dreamers and doers.

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We Can Build Back Better

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 September 2021
in Wisconsin

business-small-openSen. Smith writes about the work to help communities across the state recover from the pandemic and build our state up for success. He shares an example from Jackson County to support childcare providers, working parents and local employers.


MADISON - The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives in more ways than one. I think many of us, myself included, expected to pick up right where we left off, but it’s now very clear there’s a lot we need to do to help recover from the pandemic and address the challenges that existed long before this crisis.

In March, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) into law, which directed relief to working families and small businesses. ARPA also included emergency funding for states and local governments to respond to the pandemic.

So, how should this relief be distributed to help our communities recover? How can our local municipalities best allocate these dollars to help Wisconsin move forward? These questions are currently being asked and studied throughout the country. Local leaders have formed committees and created websites in search of ideas that match the needs of their communities. There are opportunities for you, as citizens, to add your input to the mix.

And your input really can make a difference. In Jackson County, right here in western Wisconsin, the County Board listened to the needs of its residents and agreed to direct $105,500 toward improving childcare access. Marianne Torkelson, who leads the Jackson County Childcare Taskforce said, “These dollars will go directly to providers in Jackson County for retention bonuses and for new providers to help with start-up costs.”

The pandemic directly hit the childcare industry which, in turn, negatively affected businesses and the local economy. When parents lack reliable childcare, they’re less likely to be at work, putting a burden on their employer. Like many essential services, childcare access has often been overlooked and providers have been taken for granted. Even before the pandemic, many employers were concerned by the lack of childcare options. The Jackson County Childcare Taskforce was formed without knowing it would have such an important role in pandemic recovery efforts. Now it’s become abundantly clear that if businesses are to be successful, access to affordable and reliable childcare is essential.

Of course, other essential needs must also be met and the ARPA funding is vital in the success of our recovery efforts. Thus, decisions made now by elected officials will have a lasting effect on all aspects of our economic recovery.

If any municipality is going to help the community recover, they must prioritize the projects that have the greatest impact for all of its residents. Maybe it’s partnering with Internet Service Providers to lay fiber to every household and business. It could be using ARPA funds to improve aging and inadequate infrastructure or boost our Main Street businesses. Or, like Jackson County, elected officials can ensure essential workers, like childcare providers are paid properly and parents can hold a family supporting job.

jeff-smithBefore 2020 I’m not sure everyone recognized essential workers’ invaluable role in our lives. I doubt people thought twice of the work performed by a custodian, grocery store clerk, warehouse worker or childcare provider. Only when we missed them or saw that they worked right through the pandemic did it become more obvious how essential essential service workers really are in our lives.

Essential workers’ service was undervalued and unappreciated before the pandemic, and made worse by it. Many workers have been reluctant to return to the same job for the same pay now that they know how much their work is really worth. Some have made life changes like retraining for new jobs they hope will better support their family. Childcare, along with long term care services, are perfect examples of jobs that have become increasingly hard to fill. Employers, working with community stakeholders and local elected officials, have gotten creative to attract and retain workers; the Jackson County childcare initiative is one example, and I hope there’ll be more.

I applaud local elected officials, like the leaders in Jackson County that are making these decisions for the recovery and advancement of the community. That is what real leaders do; they solve problems and look to the future with their solutions. We will recover and build back better with leaders that make wise investments.

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