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It’s Time to Stand Up for our Agricultural and Rural Communities

Posted by Jon Erpenbach. State Senator 27th District
Jon Erpenbach. State Senator 27th District
State Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Madison) - A former radio personality and legisla
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on Friday, 31 January 2020
in Wisconsin

door-county-peopleState Senator says family farms are Wisconsin’s legacy and makes proposals to better address the real issues that our rural communities are facing.


West Point - The story is starting to become cliché. Wisconsinites overwhelmingly support a proposal that benefits our state, Republican leadership cries “partisanship”, and blocks action until an undetermined future date. We saw this happen with funding to combat homelessness, which still has seven pending proposals awaiting Republican action, and now we are watching this happen with Governor Evers’ call for a special session to help our agricultural and rural communities.

During the State of the State Address, Governor Evers announced that he will be prioritizing Wisconsin’s farmers, and called for a special session to take up proposals to help alleviate the strain on our rural communities. The special session was scheduled for Tuesday, and unfortunately, the day came and passed with no discussion, no debate, and no progress. In fact, Republicans chose instead to ignore our farm crisis and hold a partisan political rally of their own.

Democrats stand ready to take up a plethora of proposals, from passing the Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports (WIDE) to providing grants to small dairy processing plants and increasing support for farmer mental health. Unfortunately, Republicans were nowhere to be found. For generations, farmers have served as the backbone for our state, and it is time that we step up and support our agricultural industries and rural communities.

Wisconsin unfortunately leads the nation in farm bankruptcies, with an average of 2 dairy farms closing per day. Whether it is effects of global warming wiping out crops, bad federal policies disrupting trade or slapping on unnecessary tariffs, or massive corporate farms shutting down their competition, each day these challenges stack up and get harder to address. These challenges are outside of the control of Wisconsin farmers, and it will take legislative action to keep our state alive.

jon-erpenbachThe truth is, agricultural diversity is one of Wisconsin’s greatest strengths. That’s one reason why it’s vital we do everything we can to maintain our smaller family farms. Agriculture contributes nearly $105 billion to our state’s economy and thousands of jobs. From vegetables, to cranberries to leading the nation in cheese production, our agricultural industry should not be taken for granted.

Thankfully, Governor Evers did more than call a special session, he also signed an Executive Order to create the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity. The commission is tasked with going out into our communities to listen to the issues that are affecting farmers, the agricultural industry and rural businesses. The commission will create recommendations based on the information they gather and report back to the Governor, so that we can better address the real issues that our rural communities are facing.

Additionally, the Governor announced his plan to work with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) to establish the Office of Rural Prosperity. This action will help to ensure that our farmers, agriculture, and rural communities are a part of Wisconsin’s economic development strategy.

Wisconsin depends on our farmers, so this crisis is not their burden to carry alone. It is the food that comes to our tables, the farmer’s markets that bring people together, the businesses that depend on access to locally grown food, and the communities that keep our state afloat. Our farms are Wisconsin’s legacy. The least we can do is show up to the discussion.

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It’s Time to Prioritize Rural Prosperity

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, 29 January 2020
in Wisconsin

wisconsin_farmSen. Smith writes about the SOS Address and the urgency of prioritizing rural prosperity. He shares information about Evers’ three-part plan to support our farmers and invest in our agricultural industries and rural communities.


MADISON - During the State of the State, Governor Tony Evers reflected on the accomplishments made in 2019 and the priorities we must carry out in the year ahead. As we draw closer to the end of this legislative session, we have a stronger sense of urgency to get things done.

Governor Evers showed exemplary leadership and his willingness to tackle the serious issues in our state during his State of the State Address. Along with his effort to create a Fair Maps Commission and Task Force on Student Debt, Evers announced a 3 part plan to address the visible challenges affecting our farmers and rural communities.

Finally, Wisconsin has a leader who values the dedication of our family farmers, recognizes Wisconsin’s role as America’s Dairyland and wants to learn from those who live and work in rural Wisconsin.

The Legislature is wrapping up session too soon. The Majority Party has neglected to hold public hearings or schedule votes on legislation that offer solutions to some of the most pressing issues in our state, including the dairy crisis. Wisconsin lost more than a third of dairy farms in the last decade, losing 800 in 2019 alone. At a time when local, family farms are disappearing rapidly and Wisconsin is leading the nation in farm bankruptcies, we need to take action.

During the State of the State, Evers called for a special session for the Legislature to take up 8 bills to support our farmers and invest in our agricultural industries and rural communities. I’m especially proud of the proposal to create a small farm diversity grant program to help new producers with initial start-up costs, a bill I introduced earlier this session with Rep. Vruwink (D – Milton).

  • In the agriculture special session bill package, Governor Evers also included proposals to:
  • Create the Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports to help build Wisconsin’s presence in international dairy markets.
  • Offer more opportunity for dairy processors who want to innovate and become more efficient in their practice through the dairy processor grant program.
  • Expand the Farm Center to assist farmers in financial planning and farm succession.
  • Increase resources and partnership opportunities for farmers through UW Extension.
  • Provide additional mental health services and peer support programming for farmers.
  • Connect farmers to education and training assistance through new grant programs.
  • Promote producer-consumer relationships in local communities through the Farm-to-School program.

The announcement of the special session was not the only productive news Governor Evers shared during the State of the State. As the second part of his agricultural investment plan, Evers announced the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity.

The Commission will be made up of members of Wisconsin’s rural communities and agricultural industries. Together, members will travel around the state learning about agricultural issues directly from key stakeholders. This experience will qualify them to advise the Governor and Legislature on critical agricultural and rural economic solutions we must make moving forward.

Under the third part of the agricultural investment plan, Governor Evers directed the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) to create the Office of Rural Prosperity. This new division within the agency will focus on broadband expansion, accessible healthcare in our rural areas, housing availability and more.

The creation of WEDC initially overlooked the impact of our rural economy, a critical piece of the puzzle. Now we’re really going to be a major player in building the economy like we always knew we were capable of.

The day after the State of the State Address, I had the opportunity to sit down with community members and members of Governor Evers’ cabinet to discuss rural prosperity. I realized these are just the beginning steps toward prioritizing the issues that matter most to our economy and way of life in our rural areas.

Now we need leaders from the Majority Party to step up and prove they understand the urgency of our agricultural industry and farm families. This may be the greatest opportunity yet to demonstrate how shared governance can work. Let’s get to work!

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Fighting for America’s Dairyland

Posted by Jennifer Shilling, State Senator Dist 32 (B)
Jennifer Shilling, State Senator Dist 32 (B)
Jennifer Shilling lives in La Crosse with her husband and two children. She curr
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on Friday, 24 January 2020
in Wisconsin

farm-familyWe need a meaningful and comprehensive approach to help our farmers and rural communities succeed.


MADISON - When you say ‘Wisconsin’ what is the first thing that comes to mind? For me, I think ‘America’s Dairyland.’ As Wisconsinites, that title is something we take deep pride in, knowing that our state produces the finest milk and cheese in the nation.

It isn’t surprising that Wisconsin produces more than 26 percent of the nation’s cheese and accounts for more than 14 percent of the nation’s milk productions. Between cheese, dairy and vegetables, agriculture contributes almost $105 billion to our state’s economy.

What’s easy to forget is the people whose sweat, hard work, perseverance, and dedication built the foundation of our state pride.

Despite this honorable farming heritage, Wisconsin has been losing dairy farms at an alarming rate – roughly two farms a day – and our state leads the nation in farm bankruptcies. We cannot abandon those generations of families that have dedicated their lives to feeding our families and communities.

jennifer-shillingOur local farm families are the backbone of communities across Wisconsin, but the federal trade war is making it impossible for many to stay afloat. Rather than closing markets and eliminating trade opportunities, we should be supporting our local farmers and helping them compete on a level playing field.

The time for action is now, and Governor Evers is seizing this moment by calling a special session for the legislature to address these challenges head on. The package of bills he announced in his State of the State address aim to do the following: create the Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports to help build Wisconsin’s dairy brand in international markets, expand the Farm Center that currently provides no-cost services to farmers, increase staffing at UW Extension to ensure farmers have partners and resources closer to home, and help connect farmers and their produce to local universities, tech colleges, hospitals and businesses through a farm-to-fork program.

Additionally, the Governor wants to expand rural access to broadband services, improve access to affordable health care, and help rural communities harness the technologies, opportunities and jobs of the renewable energy economy.

This is a meaningful and comprehensive approach to help our farmers and rural communities succeed.

By promoting financial security and expanding economic opportunities, we can support Wisconsin’s family farmers and ensure everyone can enjoy healthy, affordable and locally-grown food options.

My Democratic colleagues and I remain committed to working with Gov. Evers to advance these bold solutions and improve the economic security and prosperity of Wisconsin rural communities.

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Healthcare: Surprise! It’s a Bill!

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, 22 January 2020
in Wisconsin

affordablecareSurprise medical billing incidents occur often, and cause major problems for many of us who live within ordinary means. Sen. Smith hopes to establish a meaningful solution.


MADISON - Last week, Governor Tony Evers assigned homework for the Legislature to accomplish in the new year. Governor Evers urged bipartisan cooperation to tackle some of the most pressing issues in our state and create solutions Wisconsinites support to close the dark store loophole, lower insulin costs, protect our water, address homelessness and more.

In his letter, Governor Evers also highlighted an issue that happens far too often, but gets very little attention: surprise medical billing. With only a few more session days left for legislators to debate and vote on legislation, we must prioritize the issues impacting Wisconsinites across the state together to make our state better for all.

Surprise medical billing incidents occur more than you’d think. If you or someone you know hasn’t dealt with surprise medical bills, imagine this: you’re a patient scheduled for a necessary procedure. You know your doctor and the clinic or hospital is in your network, so you don’t think twice about it. Everything goes smoothly, you recover nicely and all is well. But then you get a bill months later, which may be thousands of dollars that you didn’t expect.

It doesn’t make sense because you have insurance and visited the same doctor and clinic you’ve been to in the past. After calling to get answers, you’re told the anesthesiologist was out-of-network and their insurance doesn’t cover that portion of the procedure.

Surprise medical billing causes major problems for people like us who live within ordinary means. Suddenly a family is facing extreme financial stress while considering how to pay for expensive unplanned medical bills.

In fact, something similar happened to me many years ago. When my children were young, I made a skate rink for them in front of our house. One day, I slipped while spraying the last layer of ice. One leg bent unnaturally and caused excruciating pain. After crawling to the house and hoping to recover on my own, I visited my doctor. The doctor insisted I needed an MRI to find out what happened to my knee. Since the machine at my usual clinic was unavailable, I was referred to another clinic for the exam.

Months later, after I had the MRI, I received a shocking bill and learned I would have to pay out-of-pocket because I was sent to another clinic.

jeff-smithI know, personally, the impact of surprise billing and how devastating it can be. When you’re facing an already stressful health emergency, you shouldn’t be expected to worry if a physician is covered by your insurance or any other hidden costs are involved in your care. All a person wants when sick or in pain is to get the help they need and feel better again – paying an expensive medical bill makes it extremely difficult for an individual to recover quickly and comfortably.

Surprise medical billing affects many of us. Policymakers on the state and federal level have been working in search of solutions to prevent these practices. Throughout this session, I’ve worked with Representative Debra Kolste (D – Janesville) and Senator Luther Olsen (R – Ripon) to find a solution for Wisconsinites to relieve the stress and financial burden associated with surprise billing.

We’ve consulted with many stakeholders, including non-partisan policy experts, advocacy groups and graduate students at the UW School of Law and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health to establish a meaningful solution to protect patients from surprise bills. We need to be sure we get this right.

Today, Governor Evers delivers the State of the State address when he will announce the top priorities for 2020 and the remainder of this session. While I listen to his speech, I’ll reflect on all of the constructive policy work we’ve carried out this session and keep considering ways I can work with my colleagues to push substantial healthcare policy proposals forward.

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Good Government Demands Redistricting Reform

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, 15 January 2020
in Wisconsin

door-county-peopleSen. Smith writes about measures we can take for fair maps in Wisconsin, including the passage of Senate Bill 288/Assembly Bill 303 and the constitutional amendment he recently introduced.


MADISON, WI - Every new year is an opportunity to reflect on what we can do better moving forward. When the New Year is the first of a new decade we think even bigger. What can we do in this new decade to become the sibling, parent, neighbor, colleague or citizen we’re expected to be?

While being a parent may arguably be the most important role many of us take on, being a good citizen is a close second. You may already say you never miss voting during an election, and that’s a good thing. But can we do better?

As we prepare for the next decade, we must commit ourselves to be the best citizen we can be. There are many opportunities to be a better citizen: participate in the census, call your elected officials and demand nonpartisan redistricting reform. Every day in my role, I work to ensure each vote counts – it’s a responsibility I take seriously, and I hope you do too.

Every ten years, citizens are required to complete the U.S. Census by providing information about themselves for officials to identify demographic shifts in our country. Data collected in a census year is then used to draw legislative districts.

wi-dist-maps-currentRedrawing political lines can be very controversial. Currently, Wisconsin statutes allow legislators to draw their own lines, which can be easily manipulated for political advantage, known as gerrymandering. Consequently, if Wisconsin has uncompetitive maps, legislators are far less likely to make decisions reflecting the will of their constituents.

In 2011, Republican leaders paid a private law firm to draw the lines, according to their specifications. The attorneys forced legislators to sign a document agreeing they wouldn’t disclose how the redistricting occurred.

Advocates challenged this undemocratic process all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Millions of our tax dollars were paid to the law firm that drew the lines and to defend their actions in court. The Supreme Court took no action other than to suggest each state should handle this problem in their own way.

Before this happened, most citizens didn’t pay much attention to legislative redistricting. Now, it’s clear we need a better system to protect our vote.

With the start of a new decade, the Legislature can change the way legislative districts are determined. All we need to do is pass a bill. In October, Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) and Representative Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa) introduced legislation to create a fair process for nonpartisan redistricting reform.

This legislation makes the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) responsible for re-drawing Wisconsin’s legislative districts. The LRB is the full-time, nonpartisan agency made up of lawyers we already rely on to turn your ideas into law. With no outside political pressure or affiliations, this is the agency perfectly suited to handle this important task. As legislators, we should approve fair maps, not draw favorable maps for our own protection.

jeff-smithSince Senate Bill 288 and Assembly Bill 303 were introduced, the Republican Committee Chairs haven’t held a public hearing. Public hearings allow legislators an opportunity to learn more about an issue and listen to Wisconsinites. In 2009, as the Chair of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, I held a public hearing on similar legislation to establish a process for nonpartisan redistricting reform.

This session, it’s important, if not more than in 2009, that legislators in the Majority hold a public hearing to create fair maps. That’s why legislators sent a letter today to the Senate Committee Chair requesting a public hearing. Make sure you know where your legislator stands and advocate for a public hearing.

Last week we also took steps to prevent gerrymandering in future redistricting efforts. I introduced legislation with Representative Hesselbein to create a constitutional amendment for nonpartisan redistricting reform, modeled after SB 288/AB 303.

We can’t move these proposals forward without the support from more legislators. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: contact your elected officials and urge their pledge of support for nonpartisan redistricting reform. While you have your own personal intentions for 2020, let’s all commit to be better citizens to make every vote count and restore trust in government.

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