Monday June 17, 2019

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Passing the Baton

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, 17 April 2019
in Wisconsin

senate-scholar-programSen. Smith writes about learning opportunities like the Senate Scholar Program and internships that provide young people with the skills to take the baton from the older generation.


MADISON - The number of times I’ve heard people say, “We need to help young people engage in our community,” or “We need more young people in politics” is so common I won’t even venture to guess. It’s almost inevitable someone will say something like that at every meeting I attend.

It really hasn’t changed. As someone who grew up through the 1960s and 70s, adults regularly complained about young people engaged in peace, love and rock ‘n roll. Adults were sure the next generation was a lost cause and young people couldn’t care less about their community.

And I’m sure the generation before had the same concerns for their children.

Of course, their fears weren’t founded in fact. My generation was inspired by the generations before even if we didn’t admit it. As a Baby Boomer, I took lessons from the “Greatest Generation” – the ones who made it through the Great Depression and World War II.

Our democracy depends on each generation inspiring the next. Our patriotism becomes stronger through each generations’ contributions to our country.

senate-scholar-lara-boudinotSome have heard me say this before; we’re the surrogates for young people. They will take over when they’re ready. Just like my generation and every generation before, we’re caretakers for the next generation. The new generation is creating its own identity. Careers are established, families are grown and communities are transformed. That’s how it's always worked.

Our greatest responsibility is what we leave for our next generation. How do we create new opportunities and be good stewards of our natural resources? How will future generations judge our actions? Like anyone, we’ve stumbled at times in this race, but all that really matters is if we can hand off the baton without losing too much ground.

Last week, we hosted a group of students as Senate Scholars at the State Capitol. Several times each year, high school students across Wisconsin participate in this week-long program to learn more about state government.

Depending on what’s going on during the week, students become familiarized with all the different processes in the Capitol. They get an opportunity to staff the Senate floor when we’re in session, visit the Governor’s residence and go through the lawmaking process with mock legislation. They learn about the media, legislative staff, lobbyists and legislative agency support staff.

jeff-smithI crossed paths throughout our busy week with a young man named Michael, a Senate Scholar from Eau Claire. It wasn’t until Thursday, I was able to spend some time getting to know him and find out what he learned during his week-long experience.

Michael was inquisitive and attentive, learning all he could about the state government process. This young man’s visit to my office renewed my hope for our future generation. Like so many young people I meet, this experience left me with real certainty that our youth will be ready to lead when the time comes.

If you are a 16-18 year old high school student, or your son or daughter wants to learn more, I strongly encourage you to consider the Senate Scholar Program. Check out the website at www.legis.wisconsin.gov/ssgt/senatescholar to learn more about program eligibility requirements and the curriculum.

Dr. Tammy Wehrle, the Legislative Education and Outreach Officer for the Senate is an incredible asset for the Senate. She can help answer questions about the program. You can reach out to her at 608-261-0533 for more information.

If you're looking for a more in-depth look at the state legislature, we offer unpaid internships to college students and recent graduates. Interns have a chance to research policy and provide information to constituents. They also have the opportunity to attend committee hearings and participate at events in the district. Visit www.legis.wisconsin.gov/senate/31/smith/quick-links/intern-with-me to learn more about this program or to apply.

Opportunities like the Senate Scholar Program and internships give our next generation a glimpse of how government works. Our hope is for students participating in this program become the future leaders of our state and nation. I’m confident we will be in good hands if we keep supporting and building up our next generation through learning opportunities as Senate Scholars and interns.

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Paying Again Through Referendum

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, 10 April 2019
in Wisconsin

school-closedSen. Smith writes about public education and the impact of referenda in funding local schools.


MADISON - Last Tuesday was a big election day for Wisconsin. It was an even bigger election day for public education. Many Wisconsin school districts were able to pass crucial referenda to keep operating, some weren’t so lucky.

Some school districts are one bad referendum away from closing. We cannot educate our children on political whims alone, we need assurance from the state that education funding is a priority.

high-schoolUnfortunately, lurching from one referendum to the next has become the norm for school districts, but it hasn’t always been like this. Don’t get me wrong, K-12 funding has always been a matter of friction between political philosophies for decades, but agreements have been reached.

Disagreements came to a head in 1993 when the state adopted a school funding formula that capped revenue for districts at the level they were at that year. As a compromise, the state also promised to fund 2/3 of the total cost for educating our children.

The twenty-six year old formula is complicated, and it’s influenced by many different factors. The two most important factors are student enrollment and total property valuation within the district. Thus, if a district’s enrollment is bursting at the seams plus their property values are low, they receive a larger per pupil subsidy than a district with decreased enrollment and high property values.

Over the years, this formula has proven to fall short of our constitutional obligation to provide an equitable education to all children in Wisconsin. We live in a time now when one bad election turnout can force schools to close.

Politicians who support the current funding system would often say that voters could determine their support for their schools through referendum. That thinking seemed logical to some when referenda proved terribly difficult to pass. As state funding has been cut, schools are struggling to meet the needs of the communities. Referenda have become the only option to keep up.

Since 2011 the rate of success in passage has been overwhelming. In 2011 39 referenda passed while 31 failed. In 2014 80 passed while 38 failed. In 2018 141 passed and only 16 failed! Just last week 44 of 59 referenda questions passed.

jeff-smithOften political debate is about the obligation of government and how we manage the money every citizen pays through taxes. Will we cut funding or pay more for roads or libraries or even law enforcement? The state budget comes up for renewal every two years. It gets nearly all the attention from your leaders at nearly every level of government.

Municipalities, counties and school districts need to know what they can expect so they can plan their own budgets. Citizens want to know if their taxes will rise and if they can depend on good roads or their summer vacation to a state park. Even contractors pay attention because they want the work that comes out of building projects and road construction in the budget. It’s a big deal. So much depends on the priorities of politicians who find themselves in a position to make these decisions.

Parents, teachers and children want to know if their school is going to open next year. Annual referenda is not a consistent way to fund public education. Referenda should be a tool school districts can use to enhance their already good, properly-funded schools.

There isn’t nearly enough space here to describe the connection that education has to the success of everything in our society. Without state funding, without funding approved in referenda, how do we fund schools? Do we have to hold annual fundraisers just to keep the doors open? Should we continue to rely on this unreliable system for our children’s future?

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State Building Commission: Leaders or Followers?

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, 03 April 2019
in Wisconsin

uwec-campusSen. Smith writes about the budget process and the role the State Building Commission plays in approving Gov. Evers’ capital budget requests. We need bipartisanship throughout the budget process to support Wisconsin’s future.


MADISON - As leaders and policy makers in Wisconsin it is our job to ensure that our state government and operations run smoothly. Our agencies must be funded properly, people must be paid and projects should be moving forward in a timely fashion. It doesn’t need to be complicated. There are processes in place that have worked for decades.

The process begins with the presentation of the budget proposal from Governor Evers in the administrative branch to Wisconsin’s legislative branch. The legislative process is headed by the Joint Finance Committee (JFC), a 16-member bipartisan group of legislators, which reviews and makes recommendations based on the Governor’s budget proposal. These recommendations are then voted on by all members of the legislature before returning to the governor for his or her approval. Sounds simple, right?

Often overlooked in this process is the approval of the Governor’s capital budget requests by the State Building Commission. This commission is made up of the governor, a 6-member bipartisan group of legislators from the Senate and Assembly, and one private citizen appointed by the governor.

The commission is responsible for the state’s building program by approving and managing construction and improvement projects for our state buildings that play a vital role for communities throughout Wisconsin. The legislative members of the commission vote on building funding proposals and share their recommendations with JFC for final approval of the capital budget requests.

budget-hearingMembers of the State Building Commission have a history of working closely with each other to make sure these major projects go smoothly. It was always one place where partisanship did not usually blind the needs of progress.

For instance, during the early years of the Doyle administration (when the Republicans controlled both houses as they do today) the State Building Commission worked together and approved capital projects without any political ambitions getting in the way. The Commission was instrumental in funding key projects to support our higher education and healthcare facilities. That was 2003 and 2005. This is 2019.

On March 18th and 19th, the State Building Commission subcommittees met to vote on the capital requests from agencies to be included in the budget. All members of both subcommittees voted unanimously on the requested projects. However, something happened in the next 24 hours and the Republicans had a change of heart.

The commission began to vote on each individual item on the list. One by one, the votes were taken and each vote ended the same. While the two Democratic legislators, Governor Evers and the private citizen voted to approve each item, the 4 Republicans voted “no” on important projects, including the renovation of Phillips Science Hall at UW-Eau Claire. The tie meant no action taken. Thus, these projects are left in limbo and will be sent to the JFC without the Building Commission's recommendation.

This hasn’t happened before. The locked step negative vote really signals a change and raises a lot of questions. Is there any hope that our legislature can really work together in this shared government? Can the elected legislators in the Republican caucus stand up against the leaders that don’t have their constituents’ best interests at heart? How will this affect the budget process moving forward?

After Governor Evers introduced “The People’s Budget” on February 28th, we heard the usual rhetoric from opposition leaders referring to it as a non-starter. It’s a shame that partisan politics is getting in the way of the historical investments Governor Evers proposed. Improvements in our state’s infrastructure should be an issue that we all rally behind. Previous State Building Commissions worked together to approve projects that have made positive impacts in our local communities. We’ve seen the powerful result of compromise in the past. Now it’s time to be the leaders we were elected to be for the future of Wisconsin.

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Nygren Wrong on State Budget

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 Sunday, 31 March 2019
in Wisconsin

wisconsin-koch-industriesState Senator Dave Hansen of Green Bay responds to Rep. John Nygren’s column on the State Budget in the Marinette Eagle Herald.


GREEN BAY, WI - To hear Rep. Nygren tell it you would think Governor Evers’ budget should be dismissed because it isn’t Republican enough. In truth Governor Evers’ budget is a responsible budget, moderate in its approach and reasonable in its effort to work for all of the people, not just corporations and the wealthy.

Under Walker and the Republicans, the state budget grew by leaps and bounds. Yet we saw embarrassingly little progress on fixing our roads, lowering health insurance costs, or dealing with the public school funding crisis. Despite controlling all branches of state government, Republicans also failed to deliver on Walker’s promise to create 250,000 jobs.

2015-budgetThey did, however, cut billions in taxes for corporations and the rich and while committing over $3 billion of your tax dollars to Foxconn which so far has failed to live up to any of its promises. They also rolled back important environmental protections that protect our air and water and managed to drive down wages for workers by opposing any effort to increase the minimum wage and by repealing the law that would help close the gap in pay between women and men.

For those who like to cry socialism anytime someone suggests ideas to help low-income and middle-class families improve their standard of living, it’s easy to suggest that dependence on government is the problem while ignoring that it’s nearly impossible to raise a family on Wisconsin’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

So it should come as no surprise that our new governor has a lot on his plate.

When he campaigned for governor, Tony Evers did so on some very basic but important promises: Get our fair share of federal MA funding to expand and lower the cost of health insurance.

As governor, Scott Walker refused to take our share of federal MA money because he was running for president. Now that he’s gone we should accept the MA money. Doing so would bring back hundreds of millions of our federal tax dollars making it possible to help families who earn too much to qualify for BadgerCare but not enough to afford their own health insurance. Unfortunately, Republicans in Madison are still opposed.

Close loopholes that help the rich and corporations and provide a real middle-class tax cut.

diane-hendricksThe Manufacturing and Agriculture Tax Credit has done nothing to create jobs but has been very good at taking money out of everyone else’s pockets and giving it to a bunch of rich billionaires and millionaires, many of whom also happen to donate to Republican campaigns. Under the M&A credit billionaires like Diane Hendricks get a check from the state each year averaging $2 million.

Governor Evers’ budget leaves the Agricultural Tax Credit in place but ends the handouts to the billionaires and millionaires, using the savings to cut taxes for the middle class.

teaching-studentsSave our public schools.

Under Walker, the Republicans cut over $1 billion from our public schools. Governor Evers is committed to restoring that funding. Unfortunately, Rep. Nygren and the Republicans seem willing to accept “failing schools” as the status quo in our state, instead preferring to subsidize a second, unaccountable private school system with taxpayer dollars.

Fix our roads and highways.

No one wants to raise taxes. But after eight years of neglect and borrowing to the point that nearly 25 cents of every dollar raised for transportation goes to pay debt rather than fix our roads, something needs to be done. In a truly bi-partisan, Governor Evers adopted part of a Republican plan that Rep. Nygren himself supported but which Republicans now oppose.

This is just the beginning of the budget process. But if the Republicans’ lame duck session and their actions since are any indication of what’s to come it is going to be a very long process indeed. After eight years of neglect, the voters said it was time for a change. It’s past time for Rep. Nygren and the Republicans to admit this fact and start working with Governor Evers for the good of all the people of our state, not just their wealthy friends.

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State Government: The Budget Mosaic

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 Thursday, 28 March 2019
in Wisconsin

wisc-capitol-domeIt’s important to understand the budget from afar, but we learn even more from looking closer to see how everything connects.


MADISON - Connecting dots can be very satisfying -- when it all clicks together our eyes get big, our jaws drop and we become stunned with our newfound knowledge.

The bigger the conclusion, the more satisfying the result. For legislators, much is the same for comprehending the state budget. Pouring over the details and reading the documents line-by-line can be dull, very dull. But when things start to click and make sense, it’s all worth it.

Governor Tony Evers listened to the experiences and values from many different people and put together a budget that represents a large mosaic - tiny little pictures that make up a larger picture. There is value in viewing the mosaic from afar, but there can also be a benefit peering closely at one of the small pictures within to see how it all connects.

meeting-crowdThe other day, when giving a presentation about the budget at one of our listening sessions, a retired assistant district attorney chimed in about criminal justice changes in the state budget. He was concerned about forgetting the seriousness of some crimes. He stressed that sometimes incarceration is the only safe place for some criminals.

This gentleman had a point - we will never stop all crime. Some crimes are so heinous the guilty need to be locked up from society. Most often, criminals are the product of many factors. Without a good education some may be more at risk of committing a crime. Some grew up in a family stuck in a cycle of violence. Others still may have grown up in a good family, but struggle with mental health.

If we address the ailments of society head on, we have the best chance at fighting crime before it happens. Helping people with addiction and mental health issues get access to affordable and high-quality health care can help. Or fixing our broken school funding formula can help schools better educate at-risk youth. There’s no shortage of opportunities to help society heal.

Just as we think of numerous ways to address a single facet of the budget, let’s now talk about a single issue in the budget and how it affects all different aspects of our society.

It’s hard to go a day as state senator without hearing how broadband internet expansion can help Wisconsin prosper. I was encouraged to see Governor Evers include nearly $100 million in additional broadband funding in his budget. That’s more than double the amount we’ve spent on broadband in the last 5 years combined!

The budget also defines broadband as speeds that can download content at least 25 megabytes per second (mbps) and upload content at 3mbps. That’s also the Federal Communications Commission’s standard of broadband.

Farmers will be able to connect to learn more about best practices, find new opportunities to sell their products directly to consumers and file reports. Kids will be able to do their homework and research at speeds that keep up with the rapidly advancing world. Patients and doctors will be able to use telehealth screenings. Broadband is the difference that makes our communities stronger. Agriculture, education and healthcare all need broadband access.

internet-ruralLike rural electrification, rural broadband access is critical if our small cities, villages and towns are going to thrive and continue to exist. And, like rural electrification, government has a role. Broadband expansion is expensive and most service providers don’t believe there are enough profits to justify the cost in rural areas. They need incentives to expand into underserved communities.

The biggest difference between rural electrification and rural broadband expansion is the benefits to all for connecting more people. Every single person or business that connects to the world wide web not only gets access to the world’s largest repository of advice and information, but they also become a contributor for everyone else in the world.

Now, those are two prime examples of how multiple budget matters connect to affect citizens across all spectrums of life in Wisconsin. The budget is a moral document -- it lays out our values and offers us a glimpse of how everything we do in state government is connected.

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