Tuesday May 26, 2020

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Jeff Smith: Disappointment and Opportunity

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 May 2020
in Wisconsin

congress-unproductiveAlthough the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision to lift the Safer at Home Order was disappointing, we have an opportunity to make Wisconsin stronger while we continue to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.


EAU CLAIRE - Disappointment and opportunity may not always belong in the same sentence, but when addressing conflicts they often work together. We can be disappointed, but we have to consider the opportunity before us to move forward and be better.

This is how I felt about last week’s Wisconsin Supreme Court decision to lift the Safer at Home order. Although we’re left feeling disappointed, we must consider the opportunities ahead to get through this crisis.

In a previous session, the Legislature passed legislation to give the Secretary of the Department of Health Services (DHS) the authority to respond to a public health emergency. During this pandemic, Republican leaders filed a lawsuit requesting the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturn the Safer at Home order. Ultimately, the court determined the DHS Secretary cannot call for a Safer at Home order without first going through a legislative rule-making process. To put that into perspective, think about firefighters showing up at your home to extinguish a fire, but they can’t start without the city council convening to determine if they can turn on the water.

Oddly, the decision allows our county health officers to introduce an order at the local level, the very law Republicans claim the DHS Secretary cannot use. Many local health departments issued their own Safer at Home orders, but last Friday, Attorney General Josh Kaul warned local health departments that the Supreme Court’s ruling may affect local health departments’ decisions. Shortly after that, numerous county health departments rescinded or rolled back their orders, leaving Wisconsin even more confused during a crisis.

alma-main-stIt’s hard to know exactly where to find the best information now that Republicans left us in the lurch during a global pandemic. Seek the guidance of public health experts, like our local health departments, to know what to do and how to do it safely.

It’s all the more disappointing to know that all of the sacrifices we’ve made and the work public health officials have done is now jeopardized without these safeguards in place. Wisconsin was turning the dial under Governor Evers’ Badger Bounce Back Plan. Republicans asked the Supreme Court to flip the switch without a plan in place. More people will be sick, economic impacts will be more severe and recovery will take much longer.

The 4 Justices who delivered the majority decision ignored the law. In fact, Justice Brian Hagedorn argued in his dissent that the people of Wisconsin did not empower the court "to step in and impose our wisdom” on "proper governance during this pandemic" adding "they left that to the legislative and executive branches." He went on to state that "today's decision may or may not be good policy, but it is not grounded in the law."

jeff-smithI agree. We are living in an era of conservative justices playing politics and legislating from the bench for the benefit of a few rather than the public interest. COVID-19 hasn’t disappeared because lawyers and politicians want the world to return to what they consider to be normal.

The Safer at Home order put us in a good place to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Each of us has an opportunity to protect our communities. We know how staying safer at home, practicing social distancing, washing our hands and only traveling when necessary has worked to protect others. Also, wearing a mask protects those around you in case you are carrying the virus without your knowledge.

At a recent roundtable discussion, my colleague, Representative Bob Kulp (R – Stratford), spoke about creating a “better normal.” Throughout this unprecedented time, we’ve experienced disappointment. We’ve realized that we weren’t prepared for the ramifications of a public health crisis. We’ve seen how the lack of investment to support healthcare workers, expand broadband or strengthen our public health infrastructure has affected our response to this pandemic.

This disappointing realization brings new opportunity to draw a fresh perspective and evaluate what it will take to make Wisconsin stronger. I look forward to this opportunity and hope it draws us all closer together to create, not a new normal, but a better normal.

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The Importance of Being Prepared

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, 13 May 2020
in Wisconsin

mandela-barnes-cctfElected leaders have a responsibility to invest in safety nets to protect citizens when disaster strikes. Being prepared by properly investing in our future will ensure we’re successful for years to come.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - As we become responsible adults we are faced with many decisions that can affect our future and the future of our families. We choose a career, decide where we work and how to prepare for retirement. We may choose a life partner, start a family, move and continue to make important decisions because, after all, we’re responsible to prepare our children to be independent.

We buy insurance policies to be prepared for the worst-case scenarios for just about every circumstance: a house fire, car accident, health crisis and even death.

Almost all of the choices we make are with our future in mind, whether it’s next week, next year or 20 years from now. We do this because we know from experience that anything can happen and though we can’t predict the future, we can be prepared for it.

However, during this highly unusual and frightening time, the lack of foresight and planning by Republican leaders is on display. From the White House to Wisconsin, there have been years of tearing down the very safety nets that we, as tax-paying citizens, expected would be there when we needed them.

The safety nets we had in place were intended to support people when disaster struck. But over the last decade, the Majority Party latched onto a buzzword that became their rallying cry against the government: “austerity.” They bolstered the notion that we’d all be better off if we cut government funding.

Now, while facing a public health crisis, we see the visible ramifications of austerity policies. The reluctance to strategize on ways to make healthcare more affordable and accessible, on the part of Republicans, by expanding Medicaid or embracing a universal healthcare system is a significant reason why a pandemic is scary for so many. For almost a decade, Republicans in Wisconsin have rejected Medicaid expansion, even though the expansion would save our state $324.5 million and provide coverage for 82,000 low-income individuals. Looking ahead, Wisconsin would also bring in an additional $1.6 billion in federal healthcare funding if we expanded Medicaid now.

Without adequate health insurance, some may even be putting themselves at risk because they can’t afford a doctor’s visit, thus putting others at risk during this crisis. Republicans still aren’t making public health investments even in the middle of a pandemic; they cut a key provision from Governor Evers’ COVID-19 relief proposal that would have allocated $200 million for costs related to the current or a future public health emergency.

We’re fortunate to have dedicated public servants in local public health departments who grabbed the reins and are making the most of what they have to protect us. But still, Republican legislators choose to ignore the professionals and even look for more ways to limit their resources.

While all of this is happening, there is also the terrifying reality of not collecting a paycheck. That is why we have agencies at both the federal and state levels that work to provide support for those struggling to make ends meet. The Department of Workforce Development is currently left scrambling to help thousands affected by this crisis; the workload is further exacerbated by outdated phone systems.

jeff-smithTo make matters worse, Republicans ignored numerous requests by the Governor and Democrats to lift the one-week waiting period for unemployment compensation which caused Wisconsin to losing an additional $25 million in federal funding. Weeks have gone by and our office continues to handle daily calls and emails of desperate pleas for help.

It’s simple – we need to be better prepared. It’s the same reason we buy homeowners insurance and car insurance or the reason we make sure our local governments are funded to provide police and fire protection.

People choose their elected leader based on whether they appear responsible or have an eye for future comfort and success. Hopefully, when we come out of this pandemic, we realize that our government serves a purpose. We must properly support the people and programs responsible for keeping our communities safe. Being prepared by properly investing in our future will ensure we’re successful for years to come.

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Connecting During Crisis

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 May 2020
in Wisconsin

broadband-map-northwoodsKeeping connected during this public health crisis has again highlighted the lack of reliable internet in rural Wisconsin and the urgent need to expand broadband and better connect our communities.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - Think about it – thanks to technology it’s possible to do so much from the nearest Wi-Fi location during this global pandemic. Some people can work from home or have a video call with their loved ones, and children can get their lessons from their teacher. Folks feeling ill, or dealing with a health condition, can use telehealth to meet with a medical professionals. Many retail establishments are online, offering whatever we need, including groceries, clothing, and hardware. In this day and age, we can do all of this because we have the internet; but all this is only possible if you can access it.

It’s true. Rural Wisconsin doesn’t have the same access to high-speed internet as our urban communities. Many are unaware of the challenges we face in rural Wisconsin while we attempt to connect from our homes to businesses and our loved ones during this difficult time.

internet-ruralDuring the 20th century, electricity started as a luxury for some, but it became essential for people to work and take care of their families. Much like electricity in the last century, internet in the early 1990s was a luxury, but now, during this pandemic, internet access is crucial. While we practice social distancing and stay in our homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19 it’s even more important that we’re connected digitally.

Last week, I participated in a webinar with other legislators around the Midwest and a meeting with the Public Service Commission to discuss the lack of reliable internet. Since schools are closed, many rural school teachers have had to become more creative to deliver their lessons. Oftentimes, teachers and their students don’t have the bandwidth needed to connect to the virtual classroom, so they’ll park outside a library or school for the day to learn. Additionally, rural communities can’t rely on their internet to shop and buy household basics online, which is especially difficult during our current public health emergency.

Many people are becoming experts at using the latest meeting apps on their computers and seeing their co-workers and friends while conducting regular business. It’s still not better than meeting in-person, but it works. However, there are still too many people who cannot rely on it. For instance, when the State Senate convened last month to vote on the COVID Response Bill, I needed to drive to the UW-Eau Claire campus to use their internet. Even our most technologically savvy professionals from the state couldn’t come up with a good solution for me to connect and participate from my home because my satellite internet provides too slow of speeds with too many interruptions.

For others, it can be about life and death. In my district, I’ve heard stories about people who couldn’t get through when trying to call 911 or the EMTs couldn’t find a location in time to save someone. There are some things that cannot be fixed like isolated locations that are a long distance from a hospital, but then there are communication and electronic access issues that can save lives.

jeff-smithBroadband expansion is slow, too slow considering the pace our world operates nowadays. Hard work, creativity and funding are needed to accomplish our biggest modern-day infrastructural challenge. Simple solutions like my dig-once bill could save millions of dollars and plan our internet infrastructure more efficiently. Or my other bill to add $100 million to broadband expansion grants and improve our mapping capabilities can provide the roadmap we need to connect Wisconsin quicker.

Above all, just like the challenges of electrification, we need to think about how Wisconsin can connect the homes that will never be considered “profitable,” or the places too hard to go. Those must be our target so everyone in between gets hooked up and the internet becomes as trustworthy and necessary as the electricity that flows through our homes.

This pandemic has demonstrated how important and valuable that access is in today’s world. Nobody should be at risk just because they can’t visit their doctor or shop for groceries. We are social creatures. Family connections and friendships can be so important to our well-being. Let’s work for better connectedness during this crisis.

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We Will Bounce Back Together

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 April 2020
in Wisconsin

coronavirusSen. Smith writes about the Badger Bounce Back Plan, introduced last week by Governor Tony Evers, to help Wisconsin move forward from the COVID-19 pandemic.


EAU CLAIRE - During the COVID-19 public health emergency, Wisconsinites have had to make incredibly challenging decisions, including Governor Evers. On April 17th, Governor Evers’ administration made the difficult, yet responsible, decision to extend the “Safer at Home” order.

Although the “Safer at Home” order was extended, there are some changes from the original order that became effective on April 24th, which include: public libraries may provide curbside pick-up; golf courses may open again; non-essential businesses can do more things such as deliveries, mailings, and curbside pick-up; arts and craft stores may offer expanded curbside pick-up of materials to make face masks, and residents can take care of aesthetic or optional exterior lawn care or construction.

Throughout this crisis, these policy decisions have been made in the interest of public health and safety in consultation with scientists and medical professionals. Several weeks ago, the Department of Health Services projected that Wisconsin could have 440 to 1,500 deaths statewide if we did not practice social distancing to flatten the curve. The collaborative effort made by Wisconsinites in all corners of the state proved that the “Safer at Home” order works to slow the spread of COVID-19. In just the first three weeks of the “Safer at Home” order, Wisconsin saved at least 300 lives and perhaps as many as 1,400 lives.

This pandemic is far too contagious to eliminate the “Safer at Home” order all at once. As Governor Evers said, we must think of getting through this like turning a dial, rather than just flipping a light switch. The more disciplined we are now, the faster we can turn it. If we simply return to life as normal without taking gradual steps and the necessary precautions, we risk a spike in cases and more severe economic impacts.

Rural communities are not immune to the effects of COVID-19. Although the prevalence of COVID-19 is much higher in urban areas, like Madison or Milwaukee, the virus can easily spread to other counties if these safeguards are not in place. A COVID-19 outbreak in rural Wisconsin could have a detrimental impact on our close-knit communities. Our population in rural communities tends to be older and much more at risk of dying from COVID-19. We have fewer resources and less access to health care options to care for the sick than urban areas.

If one area of our state begins to lift the “Safer at Home” order, there could be a rush to those communities which will create a greater danger of COVID-19 transmission. This statewide plan is in place to protect ALL Wisconsin residents and help our state grow more resilient together.

For Wisconsin to get through this safely and become more resilient, Governor Evers introduced the Badger Bounce Back Plan, which outlines a process to help Wisconsin move forward from this pandemic. It is based on federal guidelines released from the White House on April 16th. It includes certain gating criteria each state should meet before gradually restarting its economy in three phases.

jeff-smithTo move from phase to phase, Wisconsin must have a downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses, COVID-19 cases and symptoms, and positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period. Additionally, hospitals will have to treat all patients without crisis care and have robust testing programs in place for at-risk healthcare workers.

The Evers’ administration is working closely with businesses and private partners to reach the gating criteria and re-open Wisconsin. To do this, the Badger Bounce Back Plan has steps in place to expand COVID-19 testing by 85,000 tests per week; increase contact tracing to better understand virus transmission in Wisconsin, and improve tracking systems to keep Wisconsin better informed.

We are all anxious to return to life as we knew it. I fall into that category as well. But, let’s face it, our world is changed forever from this dramatic experience. Getting back too soon or opening up certain regions will not make things better and could only make things worse. Let’s keep up our diligence and consider those who stayed healthy because we stayed safe at home.

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The Wisconsin COVID-19 Response Bill

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, 22 April 2020
in Wisconsin

unemploymentSen. Smith writes about the COVID-19 Response Bill signed last week and explains what steps we still must take to further help Wisconsin.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - The COVID-19 public health emergency has forced us to quickly adapt and adjust our daily routines for this unprecedented time. Like so many families in rural Wisconsin, my bandwidth isn’t capable of allowing me to always work from home. So, last week from a small room on the UW-Eau Claire campus, I joined my senate colleagues through my computer screen for a virtual Senate Floor Session.

During Senate Session, I voted in support of the COVID-19 Response bill, a legislative package to support Wisconsin during this challenging time. Immediately after passing this bill, Governor Tony Evers signed the bipartisan bill into law. I’m proud to have voted for this bill; however, I know there’s more work to do to support Wisconsin families, businesses, farmers and medical professionals.

There are a number of measures included in the bill to help Wisconsin residents. The COVID-19 Response bill:

  • Suspends the one-week waiting period for a claimant to receive unemployment insurance benefits, which leverages an additional $9 million from the federal government for Wisconsin workers.
  • Makes changes to the state’s Medicaid regulations so that Wisconsin could be eligible for additional Medicaid funding, amounting to approximately $150 million for the first quarter of the year.
  • Allows Wisconsin Retirement System participants to be re-hired for critical positions during the public health emergency while receiving their annuity.
  • Allows pharmacists to extend certain prescriptions up to a 30-day supply during the pandemic.
  • Requires insurance plans to cover the costs of COVID-19 testing.
  • Prohibits an insurer or self-insured health plan from denying or cancelling health coverage based on a current, past or suspected diagnoses of COVID-19.
  • Prevents surprise medical billing during public health emergencies.

These are important measures. However, there were key parts from Governor Evers’ proposal that were missing from the legislative proposal, introduced by Republicans, that would do more to help Wisconsinites impacted by COVID-19. The Legislature must meet again and vote to:

  • Provide hazard pay or workers compensation for ALL frontline and critical workers who are risking their lives going to work every day.
  • Provide additional support for local governments that are currently on the frontline working with their communities to address their unique situation in this pandemic.
  • Further invest in Wisconsin’ small businesses and farmers who are struggling to make ends meet.
  • Offer additional resources for public health officials and enhance the ability of state and local public health officials in their effort to flatten the curve.
  • Make telehealth more available to patients with disrupted care.
  • Support hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities that are working hard to increase the capacity of our healthcare system.
  • Provide relief for families in need of assistance with basic needs like food security or emergency assistance with housing or utility payments.

During Senate Session, I joined my Democratic colleagues in introducing three amendments to fill gaps where the legislative proposal fell short. One amendment would have included the aforementioned relief proposals to provide greater support to front-line workers, business owners, public health professionals and Wisconsin families. The other amendments would move future elections to a mail-in process, ensure Wisconsin residents can vote safely in future elections, and extend relief efforts to any future declared public emergencies. Ultimately, Republicans rejected all three amendments; therefore they weren’t included in the bill signed into law by Governor Evers.

jeff-smithLast week, Governor Evers also extended the “Safer at Home” plan. This is a challenging time for us all, but the easing of restrictions indicates that it is working and we are moving in the right direction. Getting the economy working again is our focus, but COVID-19 is far too contagious to just lift the Safer at Home Order – we must do it gradually to limit the strain on our economy and health care system.

I want to thank the front-line workers, medical professionals and all the people helping our communities during this crisis. Thank you for doing your part by staying home. Our work is not done, not by a long shot. The “Safer at Home” plan is working to keep more Wisconsinites safe. As long as we follow social distancing practices, we’re doing what we can to save lives. Keep it up.

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