Tuesday July 14, 2020

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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)
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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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Patriotism: Protecting the Health of Americans

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, 01 July 2020
in Wisconsin

coronavirus-mask3-jennifer-anistonAmericans can express their patriotism and respect for their fellow citizens during this public health crisis by wearing a face mask.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - As we move through a year that has already been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we think ahead to when we can resume normal activities, be part of community gatherings and celebrate holidays, like Independence Day.

Independence Day invokes strong feelings about patriotism and freedom. Many Americans use this time of year to celebrate the holiday and express these feelings, whether it’s in the form of yard displays, fireworks or even red, white and blue clothing.

Patriotism is celebrated during this holiday, but what does it mean and what makes someone patriotic? Is it wearing red, white and blue, flying the American flag or watching the fireworks during this time of year? These traditions can help any American feel patriotic for a day, but how can we continue to show our pride for our country and respect for our fellow Americans?

One way to show our admiration for our country is by simply wearing a face covering to protect the health of those around us. This is one of the easiest and greatest opportunities we all have to support our state and country in a unified manner. Wearing a mask is one simple step we can take to protect our fellow citizens and avoid the spread of a disease that impacts our health, economy and every other aspect of life.

covid19-masks-hiltonheadIn the past few months, we’ve become accustomed to social distancing and other public health practices to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Although some restrictions have been eased, it’s important to remember we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic and we need to take certain precautions.

Public health experts have emphasized one of the best ways for us to limit the spread is to wear a mask. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges individuals to wear cloth face coverings when in public to prevent community spread of the contagious virus. In fact, the CDC website offers valuable information on how to properly wear and wash a face mask and even provides directions on how to make a cloth face mask.

jeff-smithI wear a mask when I venture out in public. If I happen to be carrying the virus even without showing symptoms, I could pass it onto someone else just by speaking to them or even breathing near them. It’s not worth the risk to be in public without a mask and potentially infect others.

Unfortunately, the public health recommendation that masks be worn in public has strangely become a partisan issue. It appears that many would rather excuse themselves from wearing a mask because our president refuses to wear a mask, political allegiance and the appearance that it’s unpatriotic.

Similar to the small safety measure of a face mask, many things have become twisted to be viewed as a partisan issue. When the pandemic first started impacting Wisconsin and we had the “Safer at Home” plan in place, we heard some residents proclaim their freedom was taken from them.

However, I understood, as did the majority of Wisconsinites, some sacrifices would have to be made to get through this crisis and grow stronger from it. Similar to breathing in dangerous carcinogens, which we do all we can to avoid, our health is at risk due to COVID-19, even though it could have been easily prevented. We can be good citizens of our state and country by simply wearing a mask to lower the chance of passing on an infectious disease.

As we head into Independence Day weekend, I ask that you consider what you can do to be a good citizen. If you haven’t done so already, start wearing a mask to protect members of your community. Pay attention to where your red, white and blue clothing or the fireworks you just bought are made. Buy local and American-made products.

Patriotism isn’t just the annual display of colors and fireworks. We can celebrate our patriotism every single day by being thoughtful citizens and respecting the people all around us.

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Senator Hansen In Response To Violence In Madison

Posted by Dave Hansen, State Senator Dist 30
Dave Hansen, State Senator Dist 30
Dave Hansen, State Senator Dist 30 has not set their biography yet
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on Wednesday, 24 June 2020
in Wisconsin

madison-violence-102320-gmtodayViolence needs to stop, but inaction by State Legislature on Police reform only fueling the fire says Green Bay Senator.


GREEN BAY, WI - For the past few weeks we have seen peaceful protests in our state in response to the killing of George Floyd and other black lives that have been taken before and since his death.

tim-carpenterThe violence we saw last night in which a state senator and others were assaulted and state property damaged cannot be tolerated. Senator Carpenter is not only a good legislator but a decent man who has supported efforts to end racism, police brutality and reform the way in which we provide public safety. No person should feel unsafe in their community.

dave-hansen-gbThe violence needs to stop so we can return the focus to the original intent of the protest: to provide systemic reform to our police departments so the rights of every person, regardless of their race, are protected.

In Colorado they passed significant police reforms in 16 days. As we sit here today nothing is being done thanks to Republicans like Robin Vos, Scott Fitzgerald and John Nygren.

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Aging in Rural Wisconsin

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, 24 June 2020
in Wisconsin

door-county-peopleSen. Jeff Smith writes about the existing challenges farmers face when aging in rural Wisconsin.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - Growing old is an inevitable part of life. When it comes to aging, we can’t help but wonder where we’ll live when we retire, the quality of life we’ll have and how we’ll stay healthy. While most of us want to remain in our homes for as long as possible, aging in place is almost a must for farmers in rural Wisconsin.

Last week, I participated in a webinar about aging on the farm in rural Wisconsin. We learned about the unique challenges farmers face when it comes to aging, compared to older adults in other areas of the state.

Farmers have to be more than just an agricultural expert. They must be efficient in welding, woodworking, plumbing, machine repair and more. Farming is so multi-faceted that it’s hard for a farmer to imagine why they need a hobby. Even between planting and harvesting, there’s always plenty of repair work, while advising and supervising the next generation of farmers. This explains why farmers never really retire.

wisc-dairy-farmFarming families take pride in how many generations have grown up and continued the legacy of farming. I recently saw a report on television about a dairy farmer named Mr. Anderson who was ending his business after five generations. When asked what he’d do next, Mr. Anderson said he’d have to figure it out.

Like Mr. Anderson, when there isn’t that next generation ready to take over, there comes a time when a farmer is forced to make the tough choice and sell their equipment, land and other assets.

Often, even after selling assets, a farm couple will stay in their home and lease out the land. That way, they can age in place on their own terms. But, even under those circumstances, challenges exist.

In urban areas, medical care is within reach and grocery stores are usually nearby. However, aging in place in rural Wisconsin is more difficult. A hospital might be an hour or more away and groceries may be just as far. Neighbors, of course, don’t just happen to walk by and check on you when you are living on the farm.

When the time comes and it’s clear that more support is needed, they may search out long term care. It was common for small cities and villages to have assisted living facilities. I recall when my wife’s grandfather, who farmed in the Town of Chimney Rock, moved into the facility in Strum. Gramps knew many of the staff and appreciated that his own sister worked there and could look after him.

That isn’t the case anymore. It’s hard to find any village with a facility because they’ve mostly closed. Now, it’s not only more difficult to age in place, it’s difficult to even make the move into a facility nearby. Since many aging adults don’t have the option to choose their own facility, many find themselves far away from their loved ones, taking a toll on their physical and mental health.

While a semi-retired, seasoned farmer faces many challenges while on the farm, we must find ways to support those who choose to age in place in rural Wisconsin.

jeff-smithWisconsin must expand Medicaid to ensure residents have accessible and affordable healthcare. These federal funds would allow us to pay home healthcare workers a livable wage, empowering more of us to stay in our homes and communities as we age.

It’s equally important that Wisconsin expands its broadband infrastructure to ensure residents in rural Wisconsin have access to telehealth services, social media to stay in touch with loved ones and the opportunity to order groceries and medicine.

Even the professor leading the discussion on our call listed broadband expansion as a top solution. I didn’t expect this forum to become another opportunity for broadband expansion, but I shouldn’t be surprised it’s part of every conversation these days and the solution to so many issues we face.

Generations of farmers have supported our communities and the state as a whole; their contributions are what makes rural Wisconsin such a great place to live. We owe a lot of gratitude to our farmers – we must continue finding ways to support Wisconsin farmers in all stages of life.

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The Movement America Has Been Waiting For

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, 17 June 2020
in Wisconsin

george-floyd-protest-eau-claireWe still have a lot of work ahead of us to address systemic racism and injustice, and it will take a collective effort to achieve equality.


MADISON - This Friday, on June 19th, our country celebrates Juneteenth, an important holiday commemorating the emancipation of slaves dating back to 1865. In the 155 years since the Emancipation Proclamation was read to freed slaves, many Americans have believed our country simply fixed its biased attitudes and racist behavior.

However, this assumption is far from the truth. The legacy of racism within our country wasn’t resolved because of the Emancipation Proclamation or the civil rights demonstrations in the mid-20th century. The fight for racial and social equity is nowhere near close to being finished.

Today, because we’ve never actually addressed racism and injustice through systemic societal change, we are experiencing a reaction that should not surprise anyone. Like a volcano that erupts after we’ve ignored it when it’s only boiling within its boundaries, racism hasn’t gone away because we chose to look away.

Racism is weaved into the social fabric blanketing our country. The everyday reality of racism may not be visible to many Americans, but it is very much there and will continue to exist unless we do more to reveal racial prejudice and expose institutional racism within our society.

The terrible murders of unarmed Black persons have continued to expose racial discrimination within America and have set off a powerful reaction across this country. Ahmaud Arbery was a young man out jogging when he was chased down by white supremacist vigilantes and killed. Breonna Taylor, an EMT in Louisville, was murdered in her own home by police. George Floyd was killed after an officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

juneteenth-1900These recent deaths have shed light on the horrific violence invoked by racial prejudice, but appallingly there’s a much longer history of suffering and brutality, at the hands of white vigilantes and police, against the Black community.

Activists throughout the country are raising awareness of racial injustice, while challenging all Americans to not only condemn racism, but actively work to be anti-racist. This movement and the call to action from young people, especially, allow me to feel optimistic. This eruption of social activism may be the push our country needs to think critically about changing the landscape and creating a more equitable society.

Last week, members of the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus sent a letter to Governor Tony Evers requesting a special session to take up legislation to reform the justice system at the state level. Their letter cites the emergent need for a special session while laying out the existing support from civilians and law enforcement alike. I’m proud to stand behind my colleagues within the Legislative Black Caucus in supporting a call to reform the justice system.

Achieving equality will take hard work and persistence. It isn’t enough for people to want justice and peace – we have to make it happen. Don’t walk away when the going gets tough. Be sure to hold your elected officials accountable. Don’t let your elected officials ignore this movement and move on, like so many already do.

jeff-smithToo many legislators know that if they just hide from the issue it’ll be forgotten and they’ll never have to answer the tough questions or take the tough vote. This movement will take endurance from all citizens who are demanding justice right now.

The change we need won’t happen tomorrow or next fall just because there are elections. It won’t even happen next year until laws are debated and votes are taken.

Just like any lesson we learn from history, we cannot ignore the work that must be done to truly achieve the promise of the Declaration of Independence for all Americans to obtain, “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

A more just, equitable society will take more than changes in the law; it will take a change in attitude and willingness to learn and grow. I’m optimistic that our collective efforts will make a difference.

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