Wednesday February 8, 2023

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Breaking Down Barriers and Celebrating Black Resistance

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 February 2023
in Wisconsin

juneteenth-flag-buffalo-soldiersThe theme for Black History Month 2023 is Black Resistance. This month serves as a reminder that the fight for racial and social equity is nowhere near finished, and none of us should be on the sidelines.


MADISON - When the state of Wisconsin first tried for statehood in the 1840s, Wisconsin’s constitution allowed for referenda to expand suffrage to new groups. Activists wasted no time in getting Black suffrage on the ballot. Wisconsin’s first referendum for Black suffrage failed in 1847, but two years later in 1849 Black suffrage was approved by voters.

In reality, however, African-Americans would wait twenty years to exercise their franchise. In 1866, Ezekiel Gillespie, a prominent member of Milwaukee’s Black community, sued for the right to vote. The case went all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which affirmed that Black men had the right to vote since the 1849 referendum.

This illustrates one of the most enduring lessons Americans have learned from struggles for equality. Just as Black men in Wisconsin had to wait to exercise their franchise, equality under the law has not always translated to equality in practice. Commitment and courageous action of individuals defied the odds against an entire system of injustice.

From the early years of the Republic through the Civil Rights movement into the present, many courageous Black Americans have made their voices heard while facing physical violence or even death. Too often, narratives – written by white authors – focus on Black victimhood. That is not the story we need to tell.

The theme for Black History Month this year is Black Resistance. This is meant to reframe the conversation about Black history around a theme of empowerment. By celebrating Black Resistance, we honor Black people throughout Wisconsin’s history and rightly center their experiences and their accomplishments. While there are many important Black leaders that we celebrate by name, there are even more heroes whose names we’ve never heard. It takes the efforts of many to accomplish sweeping change.

jacob-blake-shooting-protestA quick glance at the news will show you many Americans who have a difficult time believing that racism still exists in our country. Since before America’s founding, both American leaders and the American populace have ignored so many brutal injustices, both individual and systemic. For decades, politicians have been aware of racial disparities in America. Yet it seems our country’s leaders either deny the disparities completely or only give lip service to how terrible they are, taking no meaningful action.

Meanwhile, the legacy of racism continues to impact Black communities and individuals, from income disparities impacting communities of color, to horrific acts of violence fueled by hatred, to stereotypes broadcast in the media. Any effort to eradicate racial injustice requires a comprehensive and multi-pronged approach. This injustice has impacted every aspect of our society, and there are no simple answers when it comes to untangling hundreds of years of bias and oppression.

Racial injustice cannot be fully addressed on an individual level. It is not enough to simply educate individuals; we must change the institutions that treat some citizens differently from others. Atoning for centuries of racism and discrimination is an effort that requires systemic and transformative social change.

jeff-smith-2022As I’ve discussed in previous columns, it is the job of legislators to evaluate state laws and change them when they are out-of-date. As state legislators and leaders, it’s our job to prioritize racial equality in our legislative work. We do this by introducing new legislation to tackle problems, but also by removing barriers to inequality that are currently ingrained in our laws.

As an ally and a public servant, I remain committed to working toward a more just and equitable future for all Wisconsinites. I am here to listen and learn. The fight for racial and social equity is nowhere near finished, and none of us should be on the sidelines.

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Local Government is Democracy in Action

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 February 2023
in Wisconsin

gb-city-hallSenator Smith writes about the different levels of local government and the importance of ensuring that the legislature funds them adequately.


MADISON - “Where do you live?”

There are a lot of ways to answer that question. I live in the United States, in the state of Wisconsin, in Eau Claire County, and in the town of Brunswick. Each of these jurisdictions is a “unit of government” and each has its own powers and responsibilities.

The term “local units of government” can mean cities, villages, towns or counties. Each of these local subdivisions has its own role and its own kind of authority. Each has limits to its powers, as determined by statute, and there are differences in the way each is governed and operated.

Seventy percent of Wisconsin’s population live in a city or village. Cities and villages are both created by the state, which delegates authority to local units of government. Our constitution describes these units of government as “home rule,” which means they have the ability to govern themselves as they see fit, so long as they abide by the state and federal law.

gb-bridge-closeHome rule is meant to ensure that cities and villages are able to be responsive to local concerns. Villages and cities have their own legislative branches, known as city councils or village boards. Members of the council or board can determine policy locally, as long as it does not conflict with the state or federal constitutions.

Many cities, like La Crosse, elect a mayor who works with the council. Others, like Eau Claire, operate with a hired city administrator who answers to the elected city council. In cities, city council members can be elected at-large (representing the entire city) or by districts.

Most Wisconsin villages elect a board president and board members. The Board of Trustees or village board, which acts as the legislative branch, is generally elected at-large.

In contrast, Wisconsin towns are not home rule entities, but their authority is granted by state law. Voters elect a town board, but citizen participation may be exercised at annual meetings and special meetings called for specific purposes.

Voters in a town can exercise direct powers, such as approving a tax levy to fund an improvement for the community or reorganizing local government. State law also allows town voters to grant authority to the town board to acquire property or exercise zoning authority.

I highly recommend you attend one of these meetings. They offer great examples of direct democracy in action. This kind of direct participation in democracy is a rare experience, otherwise only experienced by those who have been duly elected and sworn in.

gb-policeWhile cities and villages have constitutional powers of home rule, and towns offer more power to citizens in special meetings, counties are very different. Counties are the administrative arms of our state government. The members of the legislative body of the county are usually called county supervisors.

As in cities, some counties have an elected county executive, while others have a county administrator appointed by the county board of supervisors. While the method of appointment differs, responsibilities are the same across the state. Counties only perform functions that are expressly allowed or mandated by state statute or the constitution.

The state gives counties responsibility for a broad swath of services mandated by the state. These include road maintenance, jail and law enforcement, court administration, public health, human services, libraries, vital records, land conservation, property tax collection and elections.

jeff-smithThe problem comes when the state’s requirements are not supported by the funding necessary to fulfill those services. In areas like education and criminal justice, there are many examples of the legislature mandating services but not funding them. This impedes the ability of local units of government to provide essential services to our citizens.

As we enter into this year’s budget deliberations, it’s important to consider all that we expect from our local units of government and provide the resources they need to meet those expectations. As state legislators, as county supervisors, as city alderpersons, as village board members and as town supervisors, we are all elected to make sure the citizens of Wisconsin prosper. Let’s make sure we are doing everything we can to make that possible.

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Fifty Years After Roe, The Struggle Continues

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, 25 January 2023
in Wisconsin

abortion-2022Senator Smith writes about changing policies and attitudes towards reproductive health throughout America’s history. Abortion is healthcare, and the right to an abortion must be protected in Wisconsin.


NEW BRUNSWICK, WI - As Americans we take pride that we live in a land of freedom and opportunity. Every July 4th we light fireworks to remind ourselves of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 that General Order No. 3 was issued, finally proclaiming the freedom of enslaved people in Texas. And on August 18th, we celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which affirmed the right of women to vote.

This past Sunday marked the anniversary of another such occasion. On January 22nd of 1973, the United States Supreme Court passed down a decision that gave women the freedom to determine their own path when it came to pregnancy.

While we’ve been talking a lot about Roe v. Wade, particularly this week, it’s one event in the long history of reproductive health in America. In fact, there was nothing particularly controversial about abortion in the early years of this country. Reproductive healthcare, including abortions, was the vocation of midwives, a profession dominated by women.

But as the medical field grew increasingly professionalized, a coalition of male doctors led a movement that resulted in many state governments outlawing abortion across the board. By 1910 abortion was banned nationwide. Abortion care was unavailable to many women, with the exception of those who could afford to travel to skirt the law.

abortion-2022-zoe-thayer-sauk-cityWomen’s lives and careers could be transformed forever by an unexpected pregnancy. Some women died due to unsafe and unregulated abortion procedures. Layers of restrictions on the rights of women kept them in the domestic sphere.

These restrictions were based on the idea that the purpose of a woman’s life was to bring forth and nurture children. Never mind any responsibility that men have when bringing new life into their families; women were expected to shoulder most of the work at home. Unpaid “women’s work” was not valued at the same level as so-called “productive” labor, and often the full-time work of raising a family was taken for granted.

It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, prohibiting “discrimination … on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin,” that women were finally officially treated by the law as equals in the workforce. During the 1960s, many states pushed to update their abortion laws.

In 1973, the Roe decision was handed down. Reproductive healthcare allowed women freedoms that had been the domain of only men, including the ability to pursue career outside the home.

Even then, progress was incremental and often painfully slow. In 1975, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Taylor v. Louisiana that not including women in juries violated the right to be tried as a jury of your peers. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act became federal law, making it illegal for an employer to fire an employee due to their pregnancy. The Uniform Marital Property Act of 1983 honored homemakers’ valuable contributions to the family by protecting their property rights. Each of these changes built on each other, giving women greater autonomy in our society.

jeff-smithBut now, 50 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe, an activist Supreme Court reversed the ruling. In states like Wisconsin, which have laws on the books banning abortions, this opens up doctors to prosecution for providing basic reproductive healthcare to pregnant people. This especially impacts people with limited resources, who have lost so much opportunity to control their own lives and futures.

In this week’s column, I’ve taken you through centuries of changing policies and attitudes towards reproductive health in this country. It’s been a long road getting here, and we’ve still got a long way to go. I know it’s easy to become discouraged when circumstances set us back, but our history shows us that each victory will bring us a step closer. Reproductive freedom must be once again protected in Wisconsin and across the nation.

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Don’t Take Amending Our Constitution Lightly

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, 18 January 2023
in Wisconsin

assembly-wi-robin-vosSenator Smith writes about Wisconsin’s constitutional amendment process and expresses concerns about recklessly amending our state Constitution.


MADISON - For any laws not governed by federal law or the U.S. Constitution, Wisconsin’s Constitution serves as the ultimate guide when crafting legislation. Our Constitution is sacred – it’s the framework for our state government. It determines protections and guides our justice system in how laws should be interpreted.

If the Constitution is a title, statutes (state law) are subtitles, providing clarity and specifics in the way we interpret expectations set forth in our Constitution. Statutes begin as legislation, and in order to become law, must be passed by both chambers of the Legislature. The Legislature then sends these bills to the Governor, who may veto part or all of the bill or sign it into law. The Governor’s administration executes the law and the court system interprets laws when confusion arises. Wisconsin’s system of checks and balances is modeled after our U.S. Constitution.

This process is designed so that statutes can be more specific and responsive to recent developments in our society. Your members of the State Legislature are sent to Madison to do just that.

When a legislator introduces a bill, the legislature reviews the proposal through debate and public hearings. If a bill meets opposition, we can add specific amendments to the bill or we can re-introduce the legislation, modifying the bill to take into consideration what we have learned through the deliberative process.

Even once passed, it’s common for the legislature to re-examine a law once we’ve had a chance to evaluate its impact on the public. Laws written decades ago may not apply to current circumstances, or need updating to work in the world we inhabit now. When a statute is out-of-date, it can be revised and updated. Statutes are not static; they can easily be changed with the input of our citizens.

constitutional-conventionThe Constitution is not so quickly and easily revised. To pass a constitutional amendment, the legislature must pass it as a resolution through two consecutive legislative sessions. The language of the bill, without any of the context provided by the legislative process, is then placed on the ballot for voters to approve or reject in the next general election.

The constitutional amendment process is designed to deal in broad terms, not specifics. There is a difference between passing a constitutional amendment that enumerates a specific right and passing one requiring specific procedures to be changed. That’s why we must hold the Constitution to a higher standard.

In recent years, I fear the respect for our Constitution has been eroded. Legislators are too quick to amend the constitution, often for purely procedural reasons, including the desire to do an end-run around the very checks and balances that protect us from hasty changes to the Constitution. Checks and balances make democracy messy, but they safeguard us from poorly vetted laws.

When political initiatives are passed as constitutional amendments, we miss the opportunity to truly examine the changes that an amendment may make in the courts and in the daily lives of our citizens. Wording is important, and sometimes the slightest change may have broad and unintended consequences. When a dramatic change is made to our constitution that turns out to be harmful to our citizens, it is often too late and too difficult to fix easily.

This session, it appears that the Republicans who hold the majority in both chambers of the legislature have decided they would rather play fast and loose with our State Constitution, rather than work with Governor Evers. By the time you see this column, it’s likely that such a resolution – or resolutions – have already been hurriedly passed.

jeff-smithAs your State Senator, I take the trust you have placed in me very seriously. Using the Constitution as a means to sacrifice bipartisanship for political expediency is wrong and dangerous. When actions are taken that affect the lives of families across Wisconsin, it’s important to do it thoughtfully, with an eye towards future implications.

I encourage all of you who read this column to stay engaged with what’s going on as these political maneuvers make their way through the Legislature, including the attitude of noncooperation shown by the majority party. Let’s make sure that we don’t take amending our Constitution lightly.

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Flat Tax Helps Rich Get Richer and Solves Zero Problems

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, 11 January 2023
in Wisconsin

executive-moneySenator Smith writes about Republican flat tax proposals. Instead of providing tax relief for those who need it the least, Wisconsin has an opportunity to invest our surplus in targeted programs and put money in the pockets of the middle class.


MADISON - In the last year, Republicans talked a lot about a flat tax. They call a flat tax a “simplification” of our tax system, but that’s a simplification of the truth. They make it sound good, but in reality it shifts a bigger share of the tax burden onto middle class families.

So why do Republicans want it? Just last week, Senate Republican Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) said, “We have the resources to do this.” Just because you can do something doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Why spend our hard-earned surplus on the wealthy when we face so many challenges?

Our income tax system only applies higher rates to “marginal” income, or income in excess of the base tax rate. This means wealthy residents pay the same as the rest of us on a certain amount earned, any income in excess of that is taxed at a slightly higher rate. Lowering the rate at which marginal income is taxed provides a windfall to the wealthy, while passing the middle class and the working poor by.

working-poorIt seems intuitive that the same tax rate across the board makes everything “equal,” but “equal” does not mean “equitable.” The working poor and middle class already pay a greater percentage of their total income when it comes to sales and property tax. These types of taxes concentrate the tax burden on the very poorest.

Let’s do some quick math for the Republicans’ 3.54% flat tax scheme. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin’s average estimated individual income is $53,120 per year. That equates to roughly $2,076 in taxes paid for single filers (adjusting income to reflect the state sliding scale standard deduction and personal exemptions). Someone making $1 million per year is paying $69,537 in income taxes. With a flat tax, someone earning the state average income would see a $484 tax cut, or about a 23% cut. Someone earning a million would see a $34,161 tax cut which equals just under a 50% tax cut.

The broader numbers further illustrate this. As cited by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) projected the effect of Wisconsin moving to a 3.54% flat tax. This proposal resulted in enormous gains for the richest taxpayers, with a corresponding dramatic drop in state revenues. Under this tax shell game, state revenue would drop by $5.59 billion in the first year and $3.86 billion per year after the first.

Spending $5.59 billion of Wisconsin’s hard-earned $7 billion surplus on a big tax break for the rich doesn’t curb inflation. It doesn’t add more workers to Wisconsin businesses. It solves zero problems Wisconsin currently faces. We must maintain an equitable tax system and make the investments Wisconsin needs.

door-county-peopleThankfully, Governor Evers continues to advocate for a tax cut targeting the middle class. Wisconsinites want a middle class tax cut and problems solved, not handouts to the wealthy.

Accepting the $5.59 billion hit to state revenues means less funding available for roads, bridges, public education, higher education and healthcare. Rather than disinvesting in local communities, we should provide them with the resources they need. This means fully funding our public schools and making sure local governments have the money they need to run essential emergency services. We can do this – as long as we don’t give tax breaks to those who need them the least.

jeff-smithUsing the surplus for targeted investments and putting the money in middle class pockets with progressive tax reform will keep our dollars here, not in some off-shore hedge fund for rich people. We must look to the future. If wealthy people weasel their way out of their fair share with a flat tax, that leaves the middle class picking up the pieces when revenues fall.

We haven’t seen specifics on this proposal as of the writing of this column. As details of this proposal are released, it’s my hope these issues are examined thoroughly. I look forward to working alongside my colleagues to fully vet this legislation and ensure taxpayers get fairness when they file their state taxes in coming years.

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