Tuesday October 15, 2019

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Have a Conversation for Democracy’s Sake

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, 18 September 2019
in Wisconsin

congress-unproductiveSen. Smith talks about the importance of having conversations with people that have different points of view. We can overcome the political divisiveness in society if we remember we have more in common than what sets us apart.


MADISON - Politics is everywhere around us – when you turn on the television, open a newspaper or scroll through Facebook. It’s hard to get away from it all. When we see the divisiveness all around us, it’s easy to think our system is broken.

Political divisiveness affects our attitudes of others and the way we communicate with neighbors or members of our own family. It’s easy for hurtful rhetoric to drive a wedge in these relationships, which makes it difficult to realize the values we share: hard work, a supportive community and what’s best for our family. It’s time we learn how to progress forward together.

Oftentimes, politicians use fear to make people angry and pit one group against another. It’s a simple tactic that has a big impact determining who we interact with and who we ignore.

During my time as a state senator, I’ve hosted many Stop n’ Talks throughout the 31st Senate District. It’s my own way to get around the district to learn from anyone who wants to talk. Folks have busy lives, and it’s difficult for people to find the time to attend official town hall meetings or scheduled hearings. I find the best way to have a conversation is to show up where citizens congregate or invite anyone to stop and talk on their own terms.

A couple of weeks ago, I held a Stop n’ Talk near an event that attracted many from the farming community. As their state senator and the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions, I wanted to make myself available to learn. Most folks are polite; they acknowledge me with a cordial hello, talk to me about their concerns or simply ignore me. However, there were many who had no qualms about insulting me, while refusing to have a conversation.

jeff-smithI’ve also been uninvited from public events, as a state senator, because organizers thought my presence was politically-motivated. I find these examples to be so sad, yet telling about where we are now. My attempts to meet and learn about the issues that matter most to community members are seen as “photo opportunities” or “campaign stops.”

It’s a dangerous cycle we’ve fallen into when we refuse conversations with others based on political beliefs, pushing us further apart. Without the opportunity to openly communicate, we’re unable to discuss the issues that matter most to us.

This broken cycle pushes us back into our own bubble, reinforcing preconceived notions of others groups, which affects the way our democracy works and functions. Voting is a practice that should provide all citizens the opportunity to have their voices heard, but that isn’t always the reality. Poll taxes, literacy tests and other restrictive measures have limited a citizen’s ability to express views at the ballot box. More recently, voter ID laws limit certain people’s right to vote. To this day, politicians gerrymander, creating districts that guarantee an election win for a certain party.

Voters are disenfranchised even when voter suppression attempts fail. Lame duck session laws from last fall changed the jobs our elected officials can do after the election.

Recently, Attorney General Josh Kaul found it impossible to perform the job he was elected to carry out due to the enormous roadblocks from last fall’s lame duck session. The extraordinary session created a process that ties the hands of our Attorney General by requiring the Republican-led Joint Finance Committee to sign off on settlements.

These practices, from voting disenfranchisement to the unprecedented lame duck laws, silence voters and prohibit productive debate or negotiation, pushing things to be more partisan.

I see firsthand the damage all this political divisiveness has done to us. Citizens don’t see a cohesive government working for their best interests, especially when legislators only meet on rare occasions. The fear-based rhetoric, harmful voting policies and the lame duck laws erode whatever trust citizens might still have in their government and their elected officials.

We all have a responsibility to repair the system. Set aside the blame game. Start a conversation with someone with a different point of view. Contact your legislators and tell them to do the same. Insist that your legislature work for your best interests by meeting, debating and working toward solving problems together. After all, we have more in common than what sets us apart.

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Wisconsin schools put students first, Legislature should do the same

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, 13 September 2019
in Wisconsin

school-kidsSenator Jon Erpenbach is hopeful that Republicans will join Democrats and work to restore what they have cut from education.


WEST POINT - Under Governor Tony Evers’ leadership, Republicans agreed to make a down payment on the People’s Budget and increase funding for our schools. Unfortunately, with school just getting started for the year, communities across Wisconsin are already realizing that their schools need more. Education should be one of our state’s biggest priorities, yet schools are facing teacher shortages and closures - with at least one entire district considering dissolution- and heartbroken students.

Schools and communities across Wisconsin are already beginning the process of putting referendums on the ballots, asking property taxpayers to pay more to keep school doors open. They are doing so because the state once again failed to fully fund education. Governor Tony Evers proposed funding education to the full amount that taxpayers are already paying through referendums. Yet, Republicans apparently believe that local taxpayers should carry far too much of the weight of funding their schools, throwing aside equity, as rural, underfunded schools fall behind, and unaccountable voucher programs steal funds away from communities.

On average, students in Wisconsin have lost 11.8% of the local teaching experience that they had in the classroom since 2011 due to teachers being underappreciated and underpaid. Communities are facing more challenges to attract and keep talent in because Republicans have slashed compensation. There is no denying that politicians disrespecting teachers hurts kids.

Cuts have hit our rural schools especially hard. Republicans cut, altered, or eliminated their own Blue Ribbon Commission proposals that Governor Evers included in his budget, including an increase in sparsity aid for rural districts. The GOP cut the Governor’s proposal significantly, cutting $10.1 million from sparsity aid for rural schools compared to the Governor’s plan. Their rejection of the task force recommendations led to schools in my district, Senate District 27, losing $600,000, with 82 other districts statewide also losing funds.

jon-erpenbachThese major cuts do not come without consequence. According to data released by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), under Republican leadership, standardized test scores in English and math are declining. For English, reading, and writing, only 39.3% of students met proficiency standards, with math at 40.1%. DPI notes that declining scores may be attributed to underfunding classrooms. In order to continue moving Wisconsin forward, it is vital that we give students and teachers the support that they need. Thankfully, Governor Evers is already moving us in the right direction by signing a budget that will increase funding by $570 million over the next two years. Unfortunately, the budget he was sent cut hundreds of millions from his original proposal, including 84% of his proposal to live up to the state’s responsibility to fund special education.

Wisconsin communities are suffering because Republican lawmakers would rather use our tax dollars to support corporate giveaways instead of funding public schools. The People’s Budget would have funded schools to virtually the same amount that taxpayers have approved in referenda under eight years of GOP control, but Republicans refused to make that investment. While I am thankful that Governor Evers was able to restore some funding with his veto pen, we should have, and Democrats fought to, fully fund education. Unfortunately, the Republicans in the Legislature put a tax handout that is resulting in fewer jobs and an infamous giveaway to Foxconn ahead of 830,000+ students in 422 Wisconsin communities.

There is no better investment in Wisconsin than improving chances for future generations to thrive. Under Republicans, Wisconsin’s priorities have not aligned with what the state needs, or what voters chose last November, and we are now paying the price. Governor Evers was able to make historic investments in our schools, yet as he has pointed out, it was only a down payment on the People’s Budget. Our communities and schools deserve more, and I am hopeful that Republicans will join Democrats in approving more of their Blue Ribbon Commission proposals, and work to restore what they have cut to education.

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The time for redistricting reform in Wisconsin is now

Posted by League of Women Voters WI, Erin Grunze
League of Women Voters WI, Erin Grunze
Erin Grunze is the Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin
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on Friday, 13 September 2019
in Wisconsin

voter-us-electionsLeague of Women Voters continues the fight for nonpartisan redistricting legislation.


MADISON - The need for redistricting reform in Wisconsin is critical. Concerned voters across the political spectrum are calling to end the practice of gerrymandering by our elected officials. The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin has advocated for nonpartisan redistricting for decades. Over these decades, the control of the legislature has teetered between the two major parties. The response from the party in power has always been to accuse the League of siding with the minority party and that the League is looking to push that party’s agenda. The League has been accused of siding with Republicans and then siding with Democrats.

But in fact the League has always been looking out for the voters in our advocacy. The voters who are packed together or cracked apart because of gerrymandering. It’s a problem with power, and when those in power can determine how they keep their power, we no longer have a representative democracy. Republican voters are cheated when Democratic politicians gerrymander like in Maryland. Democratic voters are cheated when Republican politicians gerrymander like in Wisconsin. No party is innocent.

Gerrymandering isn’t a problem of one party. It’s the partisan cling to power that damages the will of the voters and erodes our democracy. Voters should pick their elected officials, not the other way around. With our current system in Wisconsin, politicians draw their own district lines to pick their voters and to lock in their own political power.

Yet, there is a solution.

Representative Robyn Vining (AD 14) and Senator Dave Hansen (SD 30) drafted redistricting reform bills that will make this process more open, more representative, and more transparent by taking the redistricting process from the partisans and moving it to an independent and nonpartisan Redistricting Advisory Commission. There is bi-partisan support because this is a solution that is right for democracy. Wisconsin voters across the political spectrum want to see this change.

And now is the time for the nonpartisan redistricting bills SB 288 and AB 303 to get a public hearing and deserve serious consideration by lawmakers in Wisconsin as we expect the representatives we elect to be held accountable to the public’s unified call for reforms. Elections should be determined by voters, not politicians who draw maps.

Fair voting maps are fundamental to what makes democracy work. The League will keep pushing for this reform with unrelenting energy and motivation of our members and partners. It has been and will continue to be a long, difficult fight, but it may be our most important work. Wisconsin deserves better and the League is committed to making it happen.

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Wisconsin: America is Best When Labor is Strong

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, 04 September 2019
in Wisconsin

electrical-workersSen. Smith talks about his upbringing in Eau Claire and the impact of organized labor in the community. Leaders before us worked to put protections in place for workers, but there’s still more to do.


EAU CLAIRE - Another Labor Day has come and gone. Summer is beginning to wind down and we’re taking our last chance to fish or camp for the season. Children are reflecting on their summer and eagerly anticipating the new school year.

This time of year is also an opportunity to reflect back on my upbringing in Eau Claire and remember the hardworking families in my community. I think about the great strides made in the 20th century because of organized labor. Unions knew at the core of their mission, that nobody should live to work. We should be able to work, so we can live a comfortable life.

Growing up on the north side of Eau Claire, I had a pretty ordinary childhood. My mother worked hard to raise seven children and my father opened his window cleaning business and ran the business for decades. It was common for families to have one parent working outside the home and one parent in the home.

jeff-smithFamilies in our neighborhood were lower-middle income level by today’s standards. I grew up near the Uniroyal factory. We weren’t too far from the paper mill, and Presto was just a couple of miles north. Many of the kids I grew up with had parents who worked in one of these places. Their parents could support their family because they earned union wages and benefits. It was at the height of a comfortable working class that made America work.

Many of the families were able to afford fishing boats, camping trailers and cabins on the lake. My neighbors were able to spend more time doing the things they enjoyed with their families. These were all things my family couldn’t afford.

The union jobs in the community provided my neighbors an opportunity to have a comfortable lifestyle and build the middle class. These jobs allowed families to own cabins in the resort areas of northern Wisconsin. It was common for a family to take two weeks off for family vacation in the summer and a week off for deer hunting.

None of this would’ve been possible if it weren’t for the courage and foresight of organized labor in the early 20th century that advanced worker’s rights in America. Federal legislation, including the Occupational Safety & Health Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, and Labor Relations Act supported workers, ensuring fair wages and safe working conditions. The Social Security Act was revolutionary, putting protections in place for citizens of all ages. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal for employers and unions to discriminate against individuals based on race, national origin, religion or gender.

Although there has been tremendous progress for worker’s rights, there is still more we must do for workers in our country. Today, too many families need multiple jobs to get by. According to the U.S. Census, there are approximately 13 million Americans that have more than one job. Also, based on U.S. Census data, women are more likely than men to have a part-time job to support themselves and their families.

Union jobs guaranteed most workers would have a comfortable future after retirement. The decline of unions and well-paying jobs in our country, force workers to consider how they’ll retire without a pension or 401K plan to supplement their Social Security.

There are steps we can take to support everyday hardworking men and women. We should begin by increasing the minimum wage, restoring prevailing wage, implementing paid family and medical leave and repealing the “Right to Work” law. Governor Evers included all of these proposals in the 2019-21 Biennial Budget, but they were deleted entirely by Republicans.

Oftentimes, we forget the impact of organized labor in our own community. The leaders before us worked tirelessly to improve working conditions and living standards for all. We can’t fall behind. As we push forward, let us remember our hardworking leaders and the example they set to support our neighbors. Remember, we all do better when we all do better.

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Wisconsin: Kiddos and Mental 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, 28 August 2019
in Wisconsin

teaching-studentsAfter a visit to Northwest Journey and the Menomonie School District, Sen. Smith writes about the importance of mental health funding for our children.


EAU CLAIRE - We always want what’s best for our children. We want our children to be happy, comfortable and safe. If we could provide all the tools for our children to succeed, why wouldn’t we?

The urgency for mental health funding is not going away. We need to face it head on. You’d think an issue affecting so many people would lead us to come together to find solutions on this important issue. What is the biggest hurdle we face?

It all comes down to funding. Without proper funding it’s very difficult for families, school districts and community agencies to afford the resources and professional staff needed to treat mental illness. As lawmakers, it’s our job to address the serious issues affecting our communities. We have many funding responsibilities as legislators. The welfare of our children must be the most important.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had the privilege of meeting professionals who deal directly with mental healthcare for our children, or “kiddos,” as the professionals call them. I recently visited Northwest Journey, a care center for school-age children in crisis. I learned about the incredible services offered at the organization. The professionals spoke about their passion to help children overcome their doubts and achieve a bright future.

The stories I heard and read were heartbreaking, but encouraging to think of a child’s potential, if given the resources to succeed. One of the children wrote, “A year ago around this time I thought I didn’t have a future but I can take a step back and see that my future holds an endless amount of possibilities.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise to most that families in crisis are less likely to have the means to afford private services or even private insurance. Northwest Journey is able to offer these critical services through the Medicaid program, which is managed by the state and provides assistance to families in-need.

If Republicans would’ve expanded Medicaid, organizations like Northwest Journey would have the potential to do so much more for their clients. This is our money that we’ve already paid to the federal government. I don’t understand why we would fund other states’ Medicaid programs, while ignoring the critical needs of our own children right here in Wisconsin.

There’s more we must do to support our children, besides expanding Medicaid. Prior to meeting with professionals at Northwest Journey, Senator Patty Schachtner (D-Somerset) and I learned about similar challenges Menomonie School District faces relating to providing mental health service. You see, our schools are woefully short of counselors and psychiatrists to help children in crisis.

Since 1993, Republicans imposed revenue limits on school districts. This dramatically restricted each district’s ability to fund our schools. Incremental increases based on 1993 education funding levels while using a broken funding formula has been disastrous for Wisconsin schools.

School districts have made deep cuts just to afford core curriculum, forcing mental health services onto the chopping block. Republicans cut $38 million in school mental health aid from Governor Evers’ budget, which would’ve funded more mental health professionals and programs.

School funding and how the formula works (or doesn’t work) has been debated for years. And, like so many other important issues, Republicans haven’t done anything about it.

jeff-smithOur children are relying on us. All children will be affected in some way, even families who aren’t directly affected. No matter the circumstances, we all walk the same path, breathe the same air and rely on the same democracy. We are all one community.

You can do your part by contacting legislators in your area. Ask them if they believe a child’s well-being is the most pressing priority. If so, tell them you will be holding them accountable based on their decisions. Those actions need to result in more success stories like those children at Northwest Journey who have found hope in their future.

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