Tuesday August 20, 2019

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State Legislature: "Politics or the People’s Priorities?"

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 Monday, 03 June 2019
in Wisconsin

wisc-capitol-domeMADISON - My role representing the 31st Senate District didn’t just start when I was sworn into office on January 7th this year. It began last year when I started talking to voters in the 31st Senate District. I heard over and over from voters that they want lawmakers to work together to support our rural schools and fix our roads.

The people’s budget presented by Governor Tony Evers provided a $1.4 billion increase for k-12 education. The Governor’s plan included sparsity aid for rural districts and a start for restoring dramatic cuts made in the past eight years. Just last week, the Republican Joint Finance Committee members cut the Governor’s education plan and replaced it with barely one-third of what was requested. Legislative leaders appear to have not heard the people’s priorities.

Every single superintendent I talked to said special education is the greatest need for our public schools. Governor Evers included $600 million to help with special education. Republicans only added $50 million – this is an 83% cut from what the Governor proposed. Do we need to raise the volume of our voices?

Public schools aren’t the only ones struggling. Towns and other municipalities have struggled for years to keep up with road repairs, and some have resorted to grinding up their roads to go back to gravel. The restrictions on raising revenue along with the flat level of road aids and shared revenue have left towns in dire straits.

On top of inadequate road aids, towns are also punished for sending late spending reports to the state after the May 15th deadline. Towns lose 1% of their road aids per day after the May 15th deadline, and up to 10% of their total aid lost! When you consider that town clerks take office the first week of May without support staff, they may not be aware of important deadlines. It happens more often than you’d think. A 1% penalty may not seem like a big number, but small towns with road aid payments around $100,000 can lose up to $10,000 of an already sparse aid payment.

jeff-smithThat’s why, after hearing about a $6,300 penalty for a town in Pierce County, I partnered with my Republican Assembly colleague Joan Ballweg from Green Lake County to introduce Senate Bill 167/Assembly Bill 184. Our bipartisan bill lowers the penalty for towns to only $100 per day. It’s the least we can do until our leaders make the people’s priorities their own priorities.

Recently a local official asked me why we were taking votes on paddle wheel games (yes, we did that) when all she hears are complaints about roads. She wondered if all legislators were hearing the same concerns and why would we be ignoring the people’s priorities?

Citizens may not have the direct power to choose what bills we debate, but that doesn’t mean our legislative leaders shouldn’t be asked why. Better yet, we should inquire as to how many citizens have been asking for us to loosen restrictions on paddlewheels rather than helping towns repair our roads.

Of course, there are always other critical issues like the dairy crisis, addiction epidemic, health care worker shortage, clean water, medical marijuana and countless others. The common thread among all of these issues is why we can’t work together to solve these serious problems.

If we buckle down and start working on the people’s priorities, Republicans and Democrats could find the common ground to get things done. We could accomplish great things for Wisconsin if we can put the politics aside and do what people sent us to Madison to do. Raise the volume!

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We Are All One Wisconsin

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 May 2019
in Wisconsin

affordablecareState Senator writes about the issues that bring people together. It’s important that we don’t let politics get in the way of doing what’s right.


MADISON, WI - This past week, I met with several healthcare leaders from around the state. Dentists, dental hygienists, physicians, nurses, social workers and others discussed a whole gamut of healthcare topics.

Each professional was unique, but the message was the same – we need Medicaid expansion. It’s been a long eight years for our health care professionals while they watched 37 other states fully expand Medicaid. It should be no surprise that taking back our money from the federal government was their number one request.

We need to listen to the professionals’ recommendations. Let’s set aside the partisanship and expand Medicaid. Playground politics is a dangerous game when it prevents people getting the care they need.

Wisconsin has lost $1.6 billion since 2009 because we haven’t accepted full Medicaid expansion. Wisconsin spends $3.5 billion on Medicaid annually. Wisconsin would dramatically decrease the amount we spend on health care by expanding Medicaid. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, before Minnesota expanded Medicaid in 2013, they typically spent $4.9 billion. Now Minnesota only spends $61 million because they took the expansion.

We all face health challenges at some point in our lives. We’ll need to access oral healthcare, address an addiction in the family or find long-term care for a loved one or ourselves as we age. That’s why, according to a recent Marquette Law School poll, 70% of Wisconsinites support Medicaid expansion. Some issues are so paramount they surpass partisanship. Medicaid expansion is one of them.

clean-drinking-waterAnother issue that brings people together is water. We have never been so divided politically, but important issues like water unite all of us. Neighbors and strangers stand together for clean water, despite the choice of political yard signs. We’ve seen enough “divide and conquer” politics. It gives me hope to see people unite around important issues like keeping our water clean.

school-kidsThe same goes for our public schools – citizens of all political stripes work together to support local schools. When restrictions like revenue limits undermine our school districts, citizen groups often campaign for referenda to fill gaps in school funding and meet the needs of our students. Seeing neighbors and strangers with potentially contradicting political views accomplish shared goals give me hope there is a chance to do what’s right.

Communities hit with natural disasters also see an incredible effort to work together. Disasters such as spring floods bring hundreds of people together to protect everyone’s homes and businesses. Strangers are willing to step up, fill sandbags and provide comfort. It’s in these life-or-death situations we find ourselves standing shoulder-to-shoulder working for what truly matters. In other words, when faced with shared challenges, we have shared values.

Medicaid expansion is another chance for neighbors and strangers to pull together right now to do what’s best for everyone. It may not be your contaminated well water, your school district’s referendum, your house in the floodplain or your child without health care. But we are one community. We care about one another.

jeff-smithMaking the right choices doesn’t have to depend on political affiliation. After all, everyone pays taxes. Each tax dollar isn’t put into separate pots for Republicans, Democrats or Independents. The money we paid into federal and state programs belong to all of us. We can’t let politics get in the way for doing what’s right.

Contact your legislators today. Call the members on the Joint Finance Committee, who are reviewing the budget and making crucial decisions that will affect each of us. Tell them to stop prioritizing their own political ambitions and jeopardizing health care access. Demand we come together to accept our Medicaid expansion money now.

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Your Government: Knowledge is Power

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 May 2019
in Wisconsin

capitol-night-wiscThe powerful keep the powerless from knowing the truth. When we see injustice and the spread of misinformation, we need to stand up to it.


MADISON - How many times have you heard the expression, “Knowledge is Power?” I heard it from an unexpected source last week during one of our public hearings in the Senate Government Operations, Technology and Consumer Protection Committee.

Who could disagree with the statement that knowledge is power? In fact, when someone used that line representing the conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, I thought it might be an opportunity to find agreement. The person testified in favor of a bill (Senate Bill 179) to force gas stations to post a sticker on each gas pump stating the tax being charged per gallon.

I asked the woman testifying if she also supported transparency regarding Governor Evers’ budget provision to post on each homeowner’s property tax bill the amount of tax money used for voucher schools. It seemed the perfect time to ask if we could agree that taxpayers should also have the knowledge so they can have the power. The woman refused to answer my question. Knowledge shouldn’t be limited because “limited knowledge is limited power.”

The same week Republicans said “no” to Medicaid expansion, they sent a flurry of anti-choice bills through committees. Senate Bill 174, called “A Woman’s Right to Know” also received a public hearing in our committee. Doctors are supposed to know the facts and patients trust their recommendations because they are based on years of medical knowledge and expertise.

SB 174 forces a doctor to inform a woman she may be able to reverse the process after taking a drug to chemically induce an abortion (despite lack of scientific evidence). So, I guess, it’s really just a woman’s right to know rhetoric rather than what is right. This would be “Wrong Knowledge is Wrong Power.”

jfcphotoWhat most people may want to know is that while Republicans were removing Medicaid Expansion from the budget they were passing bills to misinform women about important healthcare decisions. Here are the facts. Wisconsin has an opportunity to save $324.5 million, provide healthcare for 82,000 more residents and lower health insurance premiums for people with private insurance by 7-11% if we expand Medicaid. It’s a no-brainer. It all comes down to whether we put people before politics.

REAL knowledge IS real power. If we’re going to follow that philosophy, then we should be honest and consistent. If we really believe in knowledge and how citizens should be empowered, we should be forthright about our intentions behind our actions.

jeff-smithIt takes trust. Trust between legislators and the public. We can’t build trust when the information provided is not complete or is outright wrong.

Knowledge happens from firsthand experience, fact-based information and trustworthy sources. One or all of those things need to happen if knowledge is transformed into power. Then there is the power side of the equation. What sort of power? Where is the power applied? How is the power applied? That’s when things can get really sticky. Power can corrupt, and if power is the goal then the knowledge can also be corrupted to attain that power.

Too many times we’ve seen the powerful keep the powerless from knowing the truth. The facts are there for those that want to learn, but it takes effort on everyone’s part. In my office, one of my staff members has a quote from Edmund Burke near her desk that says, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” When we see injustice and the spread of misinformation, we need to stand up to it. That is the true purpose of the “power” behind the statement knowledge is power.

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Valuing Our Voices on Health

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 May 2019
in Wisconsin

school-meeting-crowdSen. Smith writes about key initiatives in Gov. Evers’ budget to make our communities healthier, including Medicaid expansion, lead testing and abatement programs, and investments to the Women’s Health Block Grant.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - During the past two months, I traveled throughout the 31st Senate District and met with constituents to hear their thoughts on the budget introduced by Governor Tony Evers. I joined Governor Evers at listening sessions in Eau Claire, Oshkosh, Kenosha, Superior and sat alongside Joint Finance Committee (JFC) members in River Falls for a public hearing. These were opportunities to listen to the comments and reactions from hundreds of Wisconsinites.

We’re now on to the next step of the budget process. Despite what the Republican JFC members heard from men and women at hearings in Janesville, Oak Creek, River Falls and Green Bay, they’ve decided to start from scratch, disregarding the vast support for “The People’s Budget.” They refused to consider the long-term impacts these political actions have on Wisconsin’s children and women. It’s time we pay attention and speak up louder – we must make sure the needs and voices of all Wisconsinites are valued.

While meeting with constituents in the 31st Senate District and joining Governor Evers at the budget listening sessions, one thing was clear: Wisconsinites support Medicaid expansion. They back Governor Evers’ proposal to accept federal funds to expand healthcare access for 82,000 people in our state. Folks understand the value of Medicaid expansion, which would save our state $324.5 million.

By leveraging state funds, we would see an additional $1.6 billion in new federal funding to invest in local programs and services that address Wisconsin’s most concerning health needs. From that investment, there would be $106 million going directly towards the counties that I represent, including Buffalo, Pepin, Trempealeau, Pierce, Eau Claire, Chippewa and Jackson. A significant portion of these funds would be used to improve health outcomes for women and their newborns by extending postpartum coverage for a whole year, rather than the current 60 days.

We must make sure that Wisconsin’s children continue to grow up in a healthy community. That’s why I strongly support Governor Evers’ proposal to invest $52 million in programs to improve lead testing and abatement. It’s shocking to know that children in Wisconsin have elevated lead levels in their bloodstream that are higher than the national average. In fact, Buffalo County has higher rates of lead poisoning than in Flint, Michigan, according to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

jeff-smithI was encouraged to see that the Governor included $2 million in the budget towards preventing childhood lead poisoning in the counties that I represent. It's vitally important for the JFC to add this to the budget. These investments are necessary to ensure our children have access to clean drinking water, which will contribute to their intellectual and developmental growth.

The “People’s Budget” commits to strengthening women’s healthcare by restoring Women’s Health Block Grant Funding. These grants are directed to local public health departments and health clinics to provide essential services, including pregnancy testing, cervical cancer screenings, perinatal care, STI testing and treatment and general health screenings.

The restoration in grant funding is incredibly important to make sure access remains available for women that need it. Under the previous administration, the block grant funding was cut by 10%, according to the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health. This resulted in five Planned Parenthood clinics, including one in Chippewa Falls, to close their doors on approximately 3,000 women. These clinics did not provide any abortion services, rather they were open to provide critical primary care. These closures were politically motivated. Investing in women’s health initiatives isn’t about politics, it’s just plain common sense.

Republicans shouldn't play politics when it comes to the health and well-being of Wisconsin women and children by not expanding Medicaid. Although the listening sessions are over, it’s not too late to raise your voice to advocate for these programs in the “People’s Budget.” The Joint Finance Committee will begin voting on the budget on Thursday, May 9th. Soon they will be making their decision to include Medicaid expansion and determining the fate of programs to support women and children.

Call the JFC co-chairs, Senator Alberta Darling at (608) 266-5830 and Representative John Nygren at (608) 266-2343 or a JFC member from the list that can be found here: https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2019/committees/joint/1968

Let them know you support these health care investments. Encourage your friends and family to get involved. This is an important time – let’s make sure all of Wisconsin’s voices are valued.

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Mental Health is Real Health

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 May 2019
in Wisconsin

depression-suicidebygunSen. Smith highlights the challenges Wisconsin faces in addressing the mental health needs of communities.


MADISON - So much can be said about mental health and yet so little has been done. We all know someone struggling with mental illness. So few receive the help they need.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been at eleven budget listening sessions. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive about Governor Tony Evers’ budget. Time and time again, many of the conversations I have with attendees is about mental health.

Some people are born with mental illness, some form destructive habits after experiencing traumatic events. Despite the causes, we fail to treat the seriousness of the issue.

Last week, I attended a briefing by the Children’s Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators tasked with finding ways to help our children get the care they need. The briefing was about the importance of early childhood mental health consultants. Before we can crawl we are susceptible to mental illness. It takes a keen eye to spot it and it takes early intervention to treat it.

Childhood trauma can lead to serious mental illness. Children are resilient, but they struggle with communicating their needs. As parents, grandparents, teachers and child care professionals, we all play a part in identifying mental health needs. Excessive worrying, problems concentrating, extreme mood changes, avoiding social activity, changes in sleep activity, substance abuse, and hyperactivity are just a few indicators of mental illness.

According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 4 individuals will be affected by mental or neurological disorders. Two-thirds of those with mental illness will not seek help due to the stigma associated with the disease.

For those who do decide to seek treatment, there is a serious lack of qualified professionals in Wisconsin. According to a study done by the Wisconsin Policy Forum in 2018, 55 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties has a significant shortage of psychiatrists, and 20 counties have no psychiatrists at all. Compounding the problem, the average age of psychiatrists in Wisconsin is 50 years old.

jeff-smithIf someone needs mental health treatment, it is covered by insurance thanks to a law I helped pass in 2008 called the Mental Health Parity Bill. That was a good start for treating mental illness, but very little has been done since.

Governor Evers’ budget, developed by listening to the people of Wisconsin, makes big investments for mental health treatment -- especially for kids. Schools will receive $44 million in categorical aids over the biennium for mental health professionals like nurses or counselors. He also adds $14 million for grant programs to help schools districts collaborate with community health organizations for mental health services.

The Governor also makes critical investments at our state treatment facilities. He adds 24 new beds and 58 new staff positions at Winnebago Mental Health Institute. He adds 14 new beds and 50.5 new staff for Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center. He adds 58 new beds and 34 staff to the Wisconsin Resource Center so inmates can receive the treatment they need.

For low-income individuals, the Governor invests $37 million for crisis intervention services and $23 million for postpartum care. Additionally, for substance abuse treatment, the Governor proposes creating three “hub-and-spoke” models designed to help regional hospitals refer patients to treatment centers, physicians and social service agencies.

We have a lot of work to do, especially for substance abuse challenges. Opioids and meth continue to ravage our state. Treatment alternative and diversion programs are a great way to keep people focused on healing from addiction rather than being locked up for it. The Governor adds an additional $2 million in grant funds for the program.

No one is immune to mental illness. Too many times we’ve seen people take their own lives because they didn’t get the help they needed or the pain was too unbearable. The illnesses we can’t see on an x-ray or in a blood test are the hardest to overcome. Mental illness is real and “toughing it out” isn’t how to handle it. We owe it to all those suffering to do whatever we can to help them through the hardest times in their lives.

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