Monday October 19, 2020

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Legislature Must Act for Unemployed

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 August 2020
in Wisconsin

unemloyment-lines-covid19-bgThe COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us out of work and policy decisions made in more normal times have made it difficult for Wisconsinites to get the help they need now. The legislature must meet to get us through this difficult time.


MADISON - “I’ve been working my whole life, and was doing fine before COVID-19, and now suddenly, I can’t work, and can’t get unemployment. I’m scared of what life will be like in a few weeks when I run out of money for food, let alone bills,” said a man whose unemployment benefits were delayed 10 weeks.

He was one of the hundreds of constituents we’ve helped over the last 4 months. His Unemployment Insurance (UI) was held up because the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) needed to investigate his previous employment.

UI was created so anyone who lost their income would have something to fall back on. As a society, we’ve learned we’re better off if we have insurance programs to support families during tough times. Our economy and family lives are better when unemployment payments can prevent evictions, provide food and supplement lost wages.

/unemployment-lines-hialeah-flWe must always remember the intent of these essential programs. There will always be detractors, but also opportunities to improve. In the past 10 years, detractors got their way by changing the unemployment insurance to a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy. They claimed abuses of the system but forget about people who really need a smooth-running system to help them through what is normally a bump in the road.

For over a decade, Republicans knew DWD’s software and computer system wasn’t prepared for a flood of UI requests, but DWD’s warnings went unheeded by our Joint Committee on Finance. Wisconsin was left with a 40-year-old phone system and software that requires retired technicians to perform maintenance because it is so outdated.

My office, like many others, have become mediators for constituents who’ve had difficulty contacting DWD or have waited an inordinate amount of time for their case to be resolved. With the enormous surge of claims, people have waited up to 15 weeks to receive resolution and payments they desperately need to pay rent, buy food, pay for utilities and afford other vital needs.

One of the changes made by Republicans prevented people who received Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) from receiving unemployment. This resulted in one of my constituents, who is blind, unable to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, even though she worked part-time to supplement the meager SSDI payment she receives due to her disability.

A young, fresh-out-of-high-school worker was let go by his previous employer and found a new job. Due to suitability determinations created by Republicans, his unemployment claim was stuck for weeks in adjudication.

DWD must verify workers’ job history to determine their benefits. Complex cases make the hurdles even greater for DWD to pay out UI. A woman from the district was undergoing cancer treatments. A week or two into the pandemic she was scheduled to go back to work. Her short term disability payments forced her UI claims to be held up in adjudication for verification, which resulted in all her payments being delayed months.

These are just a handful of examples of the hundreds of constituent cases my office has worked on in the past 4 months. Much of the delay and trauma in UI cases could be resolved if the legislature acted. We’ve been on hold for over 100 days because Majority Party leaders are unwilling to bring us together before the November election.

jeff-smithMy colleagues and I introduced bills to motivate the Republican leaders to fix the delays in UI claims, but no response. They are more interested in running for reelection than helping unemployed workers.

Many people have never needed to navigate the UI system before but found themselves trying to figure it all out for the first time. Some may have wondered if UI was ever really needed. This pandemic has clearly shown UI matters and so do the details.

An old neglected system, additional hurdles imposed by Republicans in the last 10 years and their reluctance to address the unemployment crisis have left Wisconsin workers without answers. We can do better, but we have to work together to get the job done and help Wisconsin get through this difficult time.

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Questions Remain Unanswered for Schools

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 July 2020
in Wisconsin

schools-reopening-2020-cnnWith the COVID-19 pandemic spreading, school districts are wrestling with questions to safely bring students back this fall. Schools need answers fast for educating students, supporting teachers and helping parents stay employed.


MADISON - The first day of school has always been an exciting time for children. About this time of year, heading into August, families begin to plan their schedule and stock up on school supplies. For some it might mean new supplies or even new clothes. Kids want to make a good impression that first day and parents want a routine in their busy life.

That was then, and this is now.

Since school buildings closed last spring to protect families from the spread of COVID-19, schools districts have been figuring out the best way to educate our children while keeping them safe. Of course, that was always the objective, but now we’re facing new challenges and school districts are forced to look at this school year through a different lens.

In March, school buildings closed because the COVID-19 epidemic was just beginning in Wisconsin. Now, at a time when many districts are preparing for the students’ return, the crisis only seems to be getting worse in the state. Balancing physical and mental health concerns can always be tricky, but now the public health pandemic presents a difficult element for balancing mental and physical health needs for children.

We also have to consider an economy that has taken a severe hit. Parents are struggling to make ends meet and they are concerned their kids’ education may fall behind. Families want normalcy; parents want to go back to work and kids want to go back to school, but many questions have to be answered before we can get there.

reading-bookDuring these past several months, we’ve been encouraged to stay safer at home so we don’t inadvertently contract the virus and spread it to others. Now, many are demanding children return back to the classroom. What will a classroom look like this fall? It’s clear that schools have a responsibility to keep children at least 6 feet apart whenever possible, which means smaller class sizes spread out in the room. Public health experts have also made it exceedingly clear that the best weapon we have to slow the spread is wearing a mask, but I think many parents know all too well how difficult this will be for young children.

Starting this new school year, how do we transport kids to school in buses that are typically packed shoulder to shoulder? School districts will have to get creative in spreading kids out in buses and covering the additional costs, or leave it to the parents to drive their kids to school themselves.

There’s no doubt in my mind that our teachers love what they do and love their students. They always put their best foot forward and place the students’ interests above their own. But, this decision whether to open schools has caused quite a dilemma for teachers who will soon be in classrooms with multiple children who may very well bring the virus without realizing it. What happens if a teacher becomes sick? What does that mean for their family?

jeff-smithDo we test each child and teacher every day? What happens when (not if) the first case of COVID-19 shows up in the school? Will everyone be placed in quarantine? Does this mean the end of in-person learning? What does this mean for parents who are trying to go to work with a COVID-19 positive child? Who would be held responsible for spreading the virus at the school?

There are so many questions to consider when thinking of children returning to school.

More than 100 days have passed since we passed the COVID-19 relief bill. Unfortunately, the Majority Party has been silent on meeting again to take up legislation to fix the unemployment crisis and any bills aimed at helping our public schools educate our children during this difficult time.

Our public schools have always been the center of our communities, something our communities take a lot of pride in. If we as a community want our schools open again, then we all need to step up. We must take responsibility and take care of each other through this. That means caring enough to wear a mask, social distance and look out for our neighbors and our children.

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The People’s Maps Commission: By the People and 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)
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 22 July 2020
in Wisconsin

voting-2020-538The People’s Maps Commission has an important role in re-drawing Wisconsin’s electoral maps and fixing our broken partisan gerrymandering system. State residents have until July 31st to apply to be a member.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - When representatives of the original colonies gathered to determine the formation of the United States they took the bold step of putting the trust in the hands of its citizens, establishing the United States as a Democratic Republic.

From an early age, we learn the importance of the right to vote and our responsibility to participate in democracy as American citizens. After all, democracy can only happen when people choose their elected officials at every governing level, from the town hall to the U.S. Capitol.

Yet, as with all nations throughout history, the thirst for power overcomes the core belief behind the original intent. Once elected into office to serve the people, many politicians want all the power they can grab and do all they can to protect their power. This is why we must have the People’s Maps Commission to uphold the principles of a Democratic Republic, in which our country was founded on.

scott-walker-signs-voteridThroughout our country’s history, people in power have politically disenfranchised marginalized communities in obvious ways, such as misleading voters on issues or passing laws that make it difficult or impossible for some citizens to vote.  People who have historically been deprived this right have the greatest understanding how valuable the vote is.

Partisan gerrymandering is one of the greatest detriments to truly having a democracy that works. States are obligated to redraw electoral districts after every census. Population shifts over a decade make it logical to adjust lines so districts are evenly represented. In the past, self-serving politicians learned, through trial and error, how to manipulate the district maps in such ways that people of color would be disenfranchised. Eventually, the courts ruled, that drawing district lines to disenfranchise people of color was unconstitutional. This ruling didn’t completely stop partisan gerrymandering, though; it’s just become much more sophisticated and diabolical.

Partisan gerrymandering has become easier for politicians and data experts to determine how people lean politically and draw district lines in such a way that makes the incumbent unbeatable.  This practice diminishes your voice in government and completely defeats the purpose of a representative democracy if politicians can count on winning no matter how poorly they represent us.

In 2009, I co-authored legislation and held a public hearing as Chair of the Assembly Elections and Campaign Reform Committee to fix this manipulative practice, but unfortunately it didn’t pass. In this legislative session, I supported legislation to create a non-partisan redistricting process, and also introduced legislation to establish a constitutional amendment for non-partisan redistricting reform.

Most recently, during the State of the State address, Governor Evers announced the creation of the People’s Maps Commission, which will consist of 9 people in Wisconsin, excluding politicians or lobbyists, to draw the next legislative maps in 2021. Just last week, the Governor released the official details for the People’s Map Commission application and the selection process. The members of the Commission will be chosen by the Selection Panel, which includes 3 retired judges.

jeff-smithThe Commission will hold 8 hearings, one in each congressional district, to hear directly from experts, stakeholders, elected officials and the general public. Following the hearings, the Commission will apply the U.S. Census data to draw the maps. Once these maps are created, the Legislature will then decide to accept the non-partisan Commission’s maps or draw their own. The People’s Maps Commission will help fix our broken partisan gerrymandering system and put an end to politicians picking their voters.

The Majority Party, blinded by the power they hold, hired a bunch of slick lawyers to draw electoral maps for them instead of using a nonpartisan commission. They even signed secrecy pledges to prevent the public from seeing the maps! We need an open process to create fair maps and end map manipulation for good.

Non-partisan redistricting reform is not a partisan issue – it’s a people issue. We all deserve a government that works for us and represents the values of its citizens.

The deadline to apply for the People’s Maps Commission is July 31st. If you’re interested in applying, you can do so by visiting govstatus.egov.com/peoplesmaps.

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A Trip Worth Taking Right Here

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, 15 July 2020
in Wisconsin

trempealeau-co-bikesWe can enjoy all of the great things Wisconsin has to offer, opportunities to go outdoors and explore in these summer months, while staying safe and social distancing.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - Sometimes it seems like we forget what a beautiful state we live in. It’s easy to do when we’re so accustomed to the beautiful, great outdoors surrounding us. Thousands of years ago glaciers carved our northern region and left behind rich soils and minerals and an iconic landscape.

While we may sometimes forget what we have right down the road from our front door, out-of-state visitors have flocked here for decades to escape their own flat or treeless landscape. Over the years, thousands have built their summer homes in northern Wisconsin because of the breathtaking natural beauty and recreational opportunities. But we tend to just drive by the natural landscape and forget how lucky we are. Many of us plan our vacations traveling to other states because it’s a chance to get away from work and explore someplace new.

This year is different, though. COVID-19 has changed how we plan our vacations and interact with others, where we go and how often we go anywhere. Fortunately, we have all we need right here in Wisconsin.

If some Wisconsinites flew to distant places in the past, they’re staying closer to home this summer. If they booked a hotel, they’re now looking at other options like camping in a tent or renting an RV. If they went to a waterpark before, they now feel safer social distancing on a river or lake in their own kayak or boat.

COVID-19 has forced many to look at vacation through a different lens. I’ve heard RV sales are through the roof, and kayaks and boats are hard to find because they just can’t build them fast enough for the demand this year.

There are plenty of ways to enjoy the summer while being responsible and practicing social distancing during the pandemic. And what better place is there to live than in the state where the rest of the nation would come to unwind if they could?

great-river-road-wiWisconsin has over 2,500 miles of hiking trails and 66 state parks. Here in Wisconsin, we’re framed by two great lakes and the Mississippi River. We have over 15,000 lakes and countless streams and rivers meandering through Wisconsin making it a great place to fish, kayak and canoe.

We have Door County, which is nationally renowned for its beauty surrounded by Lake Michigan. If you drive north to the south shore of Lake Superior, you’ll be amazed by the immensity of the largest freshwater lake in the world. And, while you’re there, enjoy some fresh fish from any of the many fisheries around the lake. And don’t forget the wild rice!

There are still ways we can support local Wisconsin businesses while staying safe. If you’re up in Hayward, check out the giant musky, then pick up and enjoy some of that tasty, fresh toffee in the area. Check in with a nearby supper club to enjoy Wisconsin’s infamous Friday fish fry or a local brewery to try creative, new beer.

jeff-smithAnd, of course, there’s also a lot to enjoy right here in western Wisconsin, including the most beautiful drive on Highway 35, which runs through the 31st Senate District, stretching from Prescott all the way south through Platteville, known as the Great River Road. The Great River Road has been rated in national reports to be the most scenic drive in America, which you may not have known because we live it every day. You’ll know it when you take the time and plan your trip on the Great River Road along the Mississippi River. Stop at all the markers and read the historical significance of the river to our predecessors.

So, while some may feel bummed that they couldn’t go to that faraway city or destination, this may be the time to rediscover Wisconsin. We can remind ourselves what we have right here all around us. Take a slow trip and stop at all the unique and interesting places along the way; you might be surprised at what we have missed by leaving. Wisconsin is worth the time. Wisconsin has it all.

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Student Debt and our Future

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, 08 July 2020
in Wisconsin

uwgb-studentsOur kids need an education to get ahead, but the resulting debt can tarnish the degree's value, grow bigger than you thought due to overly burdensome interest payments, and stunt the growth of the economy for all of us. Find out more.


MADISON - Most of us have to take on some debt at some point in our lives, whether we take out loans to purchase a car or to help us become homeowners. Oftentimes, people borrow with clear expectations, understanding the whole process. Student loans are different and for many reasons.

Student loan debt has become a national crisis amounting to $1.6 trillion in total student loan debt in the United States and $22 billion right here in Wisconsin, according to the Department of Education.

Earlier this year, Governor Tony Evers signed Executive Order #67, which established the Task Force on Student Debt. The Task Force was formed to better understand the student loan crisis and find solutions to provide relief to Wisconsin borrowers. In May, I was appointed to the Governor’s Task Force, fortunate for the opportunity to bring along my personal experience helping my daughters navigate the student loan system and my professional experience as the former Vice-chair of the Financial Institutions Committee and Vice-chair of the Higher Education Committee.

Chaired by the Department of Financial Institutions Secretary Kathy Blumenfeld, the Task Force includes a group of experts from financial institutions and members of state government. The Task Force also includes diverse representation from the UW System, the Wisconsin Technical College System, Tribal colleges and universities, and for-profit educational institutions.

seniorsBefore the Task Force on Student Debt officially met, Secretary Blumenfeld, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board (HEAB) Secretary Connie Hutchison held listening sessions throughout Wisconsin to hear directly from student loan borrowers about their experiences. Common themes surfaced at these listening sessions: the need for borrower education and consumer protections; the realization that student debt is a multi-generational issue, impacting students’ parents or relatives; an understanding that student debt affects other finances; and acknowledging the confusion and frustration of the borrowing system.

These themes became wholly apparent in the four Student Debt Task Force meetings we’ve had since May. Our meetings consist of eye-opening testimonials from student loan borrowers along with presentations from leading researchers in the field of student debt and experts who’ve implemented various policy initiatives in other states to help borrowers.

In only the first four meetings, I’ve learned that student loans are unlike any other loan and they are incredibly complicated. The confusion can begin even before a student enters college when they fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which helps students understand their federal student aid eligibility. More often than not, students and parents fill out the FAFSA or other financial aid applications trusting the system will favor the student because, after all, college is about setting up the student for a successful future. Right?

Unfortunately, in many cases, there isn’t anyone advising or answering questions for the person filling out financial aid applications. Many factors contribute to borrowers feeling overwhelmed by the amount of debt they’ve taken on. Student debt can tarnish the degree if the borrower earns less than expected, the debt can grow bigger than expected or the payment plan doesn’t relieve the debt with over burdensome interest payments.

jeff-smithAlso, for those who think the student debt crisis only impacts folks in metropolitan areas, they’d be wrong. In a presentation from the Student Borrower Protection Center, we learned that nearly 20% of Wisconsin’s rural population holds student debt with a 12% delinquency rate, meaning they’ve missed one or more loan payments.

From what I’ve learned in the first several meetings, it’s obvious Wisconsin has a student debt problem that needs fixing. The task force has four remaining meetings where we’ll continue learning about student debt and break down potential solutions to support Wisconsinites. Our discussions will result in a report which will include policy recommendations to be passed along to Governor Evers for consideration.

As a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Student Debt, it’s clear that much depends on how we, as policymakers, come together with solutions that affect America’s future potential.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Governor’s Task Force on Student Debt, please visit LookForwardWI.gov.

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