Monday April 22, 2024

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School Safety Office on Life Support

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 2024
in Wisconsin

sandu_hook_victimsSenator Smith writes about the work of the Department of Justice Office of School Safety and their role for protecting our schools across Wisconsin.


This legislative session could’ve been better, but there was one glimmer of hope. The Office of School Safety (OSS) at the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) was a bright spot for lawmakers this past session.

In February 2018, the Parkland, Florida school shooting occurred. The nation was shocked once again by yet another tragic and horrific school shooting. 17 children were killed that day and another 17 were injured with wounds and horrific memories they will carry for the rest of their lives.

sandy-hook-motherIn less than a month after Parkland, Republicans and Democrats in Wisconsin from the Senate and Assembly came together and passed 2017 Assembly Bill 843, which was signed into law by then Governor, Scott Walker (R). Throughout the years of senseless violence, this was the one of the few times we’ve seen swift and responsive action against gun violence. The newly created OSS was funded with $100 million for a grant program geared toward helping schools make updates and perform training for school district personnel. Sadly, though, only one full time position was created to staff the office in its infancy.

Fast forward to spring of this year, and now, the OSS is run by 14 full time staff and they are doing incredible work to keep schools safe. However, the funding for the OSS was set to run out in December of last year, so we needed to act fast to keep the OSS afloat. Thankfully, strong bipartisan support from lawmakers helped Assembly Bill 1050 pass through both houses of the legislature and it was signed into law by Governor Tony Evers (D) as 2023 Wisconsin Act 240 on March 28, 2024.

While providing the OSS with the funding they needed to stay in operation was a step in the right direction, it essentially just puts a Band-Aid on the problem. The bill funds the OSS until September 30th, 2025. Normally, we could all agree this was a great action by the legislature and we could laud our efforts, pat each other on the back and say it was a job well done. While Wisconsin sits on billions of dollars in surplus funding, it feels like less of a win and more like putting the program on life support.

jeff-smith-2022Since 2020 when the 24/7 “Speak Up, Speak Out” tip-line started at the OSS, staff have responded to over 10,000 contacts in Wisconsin schools, including 196 tips concerning planned school attacks. Additionally, there were 223 tips for guns and other weapons from schools that resulted in violence intervention and prevention situations for schools. Countless school district personnel and local law enforcement professionals have utilized the OSS for protecting our schools.

It should come to no one’s surprise when most people were shocked to learn the OSS has only been funded until September next year. The work they are doing is making a serious impact for Wisconsin schools and their achievements have been remarkably quiet. Quiet is good, but we need to make sure people know how important their work is for all our students, school professionals and our communities as a whole.

The Office of School Safety is an excellent service and it deserves more than short-term funding offering no guarantees after Oct 1, 2025.  I fully expect Gov. Evers to include more funding for this program next year when we begin the budget process in earnest leading up to its final approval in June.


Senator Smith represents District 31 in the Wisconsin State Senate. The 31st Senate District includes all of Buffalo, Pepin and Trempealeau counties and portions of Pierce, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson and St. Croix counties.

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The People’s Work Undone

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 2024
in Wisconsin

assembly-wiSenator Smith writes about how the local elections last week paint a different picture about Wisconsin’s finances and the inaction by Republicans to invest in our local governments.


MADISON - Last Tuesday the 2nd of April was the spring election. It was clear based on the referenda questions on ballots throughout Wisconsin that something isn’t right. Headlines throughout the past year proclaimed Wisconsin had a record surplus, but our ballots painted a different story of our state’s finances. It begs the question, what didn’t get done?

Decisions are made in town halls and municipal board rooms that determine how funds from the state, or collected through property taxes, are spent. Ever since the state capped how much local governments can raise in taxes, it falls on the state to make sure municipalities have the resources to meet their local needs. The passage of the two constitutional amendments on the ballot last week adds additional pressure for the state to adequately fund elections administered by our local municipalities.

school-meeting-crowdBut those weren’t the only referenda questions on the ballot in many places. School boards across the state have struggled to keep up due to the legislature failing to properly fund public education. There were 91 school referenda questions on ballots this spring. While the legislature sits on a $4 billion surplus, school districts are asking their local taxpayers to help them scrape by.

Our state’s surplus didn’t appear out of nowhere. It’s revenue that will come in thanks to a healthy economy and after all expenses are covered. It comes from taxpayers like you. It raises the question why there should be any need to force local governments to ask for more from you and why the legislature quit working before winter turned to spring.

Wisconsin has a two-year legislative session. On the first day of our current session, a calendar was presented by the Republican leaders. We were scheduled to work through April 11th of this year, but Republicans gaveled out the Assembly in February and the Senate followed suit March 12th.

It would’ve been nice to report that we ended early because we accomplished so much and solved every concern facing Wisconsinites. But that’s far from the truth.

Shortchanging public schools isn’t the only way the majority party failed you. Republicans refused to consider real solutions to the childcare crisis families are experiencing. Yes, the governor signed their tax credit for parents, but that falls woefully short of solving this issue. PFAS continues to go unchecked because Republicans wanted to strip the DNR of any real enforcement power over the polluters. We did nothing to protect women’s reproductive health or guarantee paid family medical leave.

jeff-smithSome bills made it through one house but did not get a vote in the other house. Here is a partial list of such bills.

·         Assembly Bill 51 which would’ve allowed DACA individuals (or lawfully present immigrants) to be appointed as law enforcement officers. We are suffering a shortage of corrections officers as well as sheriff deputies and police officers and this bill would’ve done a lot to help.

·         Assembly Bill 102 would’ve expanded the eligibility for the Veterans and Surviving Spouses Property Tax Credit. Currently, the disability rating is 100% for qualification. This bill lowered that to 70%.

·         Assembly Bill 129 was aimed at closing a loophole in state statute relating to sexual assault by a healthcare provider.

·         Assembly Bill 419 was meant to create an online carbon calculator for farmers to help them adopt best practices while also being compensated for their efforts.

·         Assembly Bill 567, the “Monday Processing” bill would’ve allowed clerks to begin processing absentee ballots on the Monday before the election to make Election Day go smoother and end earlier. Instead Republicans made it harder for election workers with the constitutional amendments they put forward mentioned above.

·         Senate Bill 155 hits home here as it would’ve enforced closure notifications for nursing homes or community-based residential facilities. We will likely introduce something similar next year to include hospital closures as well.

There were several bills recommended through bipartisan efforts, but were ignored from various task forces on Human Trafficking, Child Obesity and Truancy.

Every bill that failed this session must be reintroduced next session. So much was left undone, while efforts to make it harder for municipalities were accomplished throughout. Although this legislative session was a bust, we can do better. It may just take a better crop of legislators to get the job done instead of hanging it up early next time around.


Senator Smith represents District 31 in the Wisconsin State Senate. The 31st Senate District includes all of Buffalo, Pepin and Trempealeau counties and portions of Pierce, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson and St. Croix counties.

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Inexcusable

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, 03 April 2024
in Wisconsin

emtSenator Smith sets the record straight on the need for Republicans in the legislature to release $15 million from the Joint Finance Committee to Chippewa Valley health care providers.


EAU CLAIRE - On February 28th Governor Evers signed Senate Bill 1015 into law. This bill moved $15 million that had been targeted for HSHS to expand behavioral health services into a new fund for helping with the HSHS closure. The bill was brought to the floor and passed with overwhelming bipartisan support after the announcement that HSHS was closing two regional hospitals.

In their haste, Regional Republican legislators introduced a second bill, Senate Bill 1014, to restrict the $15 million only for emergency department capital improvements, despite local health care providers asking for flexibility with funds to address staffing and for a whole host of other urgent needs.

Since the bill fell short of what we needed to address the crisis, Representative Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) and I introduced amendments to incorporate the on-the-ground information we were hearing so we could take full advantage of the $15 million. Admittedly, $15 million is not going to truly fill all the gaps from two hospitals and 19 clinics being closed, but it was what the Republican majority was willing to offer.

It is a good thing Governor Evers was listening to local health care providers too. He vetoed Senate Bill 1014 that unnecessarily restricted the money. Thanks to the Governor’s action, area health care providers can now use the $15 million to expand emergency departments, urgent care services, OB care, mental health treatment and other urgently needed services left behind since HSHS’ closure.

That’s what happened, despite what Republicans might be saying. Now, Republicans are so upset about screwing this up that they are withholding the $15 million.

chippewa-valley-hshsWhile my Republican colleagues make excuses, we’ve waited over a month for them to release the $15 million to DHS. The current red herring excuse to distract from their inaction is that the money will go outside of Eau Claire and Chippewa counties, despite the request from DHS explicitly prioritizing Eau Claire and Chippewa counties.

Investments outside of our two counties isn’t needed, as evident by the fact that Oakleaf has already begun purchasing four clinics in Cornell, Ladysmith, Menomonie and Rice Lake. The most pressing needs are in Eau Claire and Chippewa counties – that’s why the Department of Health Services is requesting the Joint Committee on Finance to release the $15 million to help our communities.

jeff-smithWhile Republicans refuse to release $15 million for our communities, the ripple effect in our region is being noticed. Rusk County, one of Wisconsin’s most impoverished areas, recently approved $1.6 million to purchase a clinic and is now leasing it out to Oakleaf. Everyone is pitching in, but Republicans are noticeably absent with the $15 million already approved.

We’ve also seen local news stories reporting that the hospital closures have dramatically affected EMS services. It was reported that Sacred Heart took in roughly 150 ambulance deliveries each month that the remaining hospitals are having to cover. If Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee release the $15 million, this could really help fill the gap for local EMS providers.

Mayo is at capacity and Marshfield Clinic is hanging on by a thread based on their recent bond rating report. We can’t let Republicans play games with the $15 million that could go a long way for a new partner or existing providers to invest in critical health care needs.

Republicans need to stop making excuses, stop playing politics and release the $15 million. The lies and partisanship are inexcusable for the crisis facing the Chippewa Valley.


Senator Smith represents District 31 in the Wisconsin State Senate. The 31st Senate District includes all of Buffalo, Pepin and Trempealeau counties and portions of Pierce, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson and St. Croix counties.

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Is Your Healthcare Access at Risk?

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, 27 March 2024
in Wisconsin

healthcare-family-drSenator Smith explores the HSHS closure and what it means for preventing other large-scale health system closures in Wisconsin.


EAU CLAIRE - We were hit hard in west central Wisconsin with the announcement that Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS) would permanently close Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls and all of its Prevea Clinics throughout the region. The announcement happened on January 22nd and the final closing happened March 22nd already. The original 90 day plan quickly turned into 60 days leaving over 40,000 patients with fewer healthcare options.

While we continue brainstorming for how to plug holes left behind by HSHS, we should also consider how the system failed us all.

Many people who contacted me wanted the state to stop HSHS from closing. Since HSHS is a private company, there’s nothing that could’ve prevented them from closing. HSHS made their own decisions based on fiscal viability as a corporation responsible to their investors.

chippewa-valley-hshsThe one thing the state could do was move the $15 million that had been set aside for HSHS for behavioral health to other area providers to expand vital, stopgap services right now. It’s been almost a month and Republicans have refused to release the money.

We have the greatest and most caring medical professionals in the world. The healthcare workers we encounter in a hospital setting are there for all the right reasons. They want you to be comfortable during what can be a very trying time and they want to cure whatever ails you. No question, medical professionals are there to serve. But, can we count on corporations to have the same values and goals? Is it right to rely completely on corporations with our medical needs?

The healthcare system we live under operates through a network of hospitals, clinics and insurance providers. That network relies on compensation for services provided like any other business. That means each of us paying premiums to insurance companies which we expect to pay most, if not all, of the costs charged for care. But it goes deeper than that and can be complicated. Many people have needs that aren’t covered easily by an insurance plan or they cannot afford insurance. Then Medicaid is needed.

Medicaid is managed by the state and funded with federal and state funds. Something we can depend on in our healthcare system is that nobody can be turned away if they show up in the Emergency Department. But somebody has to cover the costs and it is always each of us in one form or another. Medicaid is meant to ensure that the aging population, blind and disabled will be covered. Medicaid in Wisconsin also covers children and pregnant women with incomes up to 300% of poverty and other adults with incomes up to 100% of poverty. But that still leaves nearly 90,000 people in our state without any coverage at all. It’s been over 10 years that Republicans have failed to fully expand Medicaid, and Wisconsin has lost billions of dollars.

jeff-smithHospitals are under pressure to serve everyone despite the fact that Medicaid reimbursement is too low to cover costs. Fully expanding Medicaid may not be the savior that prevents these hospital closures, but Wisconsin is forgoing billions of dollars that could help for purely ideological reasons.

These closures may be the first on this scale in Wisconsin, but they will not be the last if we do not take necessary steps to protect our healthcare system. I’ve requested a Legislative Study Committee to look specifically into hospital closures and dive into what we can do to prevent this from happening again.

HSHS took on the tough health care needs for our community – drug and alcohol abuse, emergency mental health care and served a high percentage of Medicaid recipients for many years. These services may not be profitable, but they’re necessary. Area providers or new ones must be willing to fill the need. Our region needs a strong commitment to serve the community.

Looking even further to the future we need to consider if an overhaul of our system is needed and how we get to a place where nobody is left wondering if they can get the care they need when they need it.


Senator Smith represents District 31 in the Wisconsin State Senate. The 31st Senate District includes all of Buffalo, Pepin and Trempealeau counties and portions of Pierce, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson and St. Croix counties.

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Who Wants to Serve?

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, 20 March 2024
in Wisconsin

wi-assembly-hearingSenator Smith writes about the rash of childish appointment rejections by Republicans in the state senate and how it is impacting Wisconsin’s ability to attract talented people to serve.


MADISON - In the five years since taking office, Governor Evers has offered appointments ranging from cabinet secretaries to numerous boards and commissions for confirmation in the Wisconsin State Senate. The Republican-controlled senate has rejected 21 total appointments from the Governor.

The 21 appointments rejected in the last 5 years is far from normal. In fact, in the 40 years before Governor Evers, only 4 appointments were rejected. Rejecting appointments is usually reserved for the most egregious cases.

In the last five years, when the votes happened on the Senate floor, Democrats would ask for a reason why there were objections. Questions were mostly met with silence from the other side of the aisle. Occasionally, Republicans made excuses that had to do with how they didn’t like the applicant’s answer to a question. But it was always clear that it was either an ideological objection or punishment.

Since the start of Governor Evers’ first term, Republicans refused to bring the secretaries and other appointees to a vote. As frustrating and childish as that was, it only meant that those appointees would go about their business anyway and wait for an eventual confirmation. Strangely, for some of the appointments, the Senate has had to appoint and reappoint in the same session day because the Senate has failed to bring the appointments forward for so long.

In November of 2019, one year after Governor Evers was elected, the Senate majority placed the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) Secretary designee, Brad Pfaff, on the calendar for a vote. They chose to make an example of Brad Pfaff, who has since been elected to the State Senate. Not a single Republican voted to confirm his appointment and the Governor had to find a new secretary for DATCP. The message was clear that the Republicans had this power and were willing to abuse it when they didn’t get their way.

You may recall the mess created by one member of the Natural Resources Board, Fred Prehn, who refused to step down at the end of his term in the spring of 2021. For over a year Mr. Prehn held out as a Governor Walker appointee while Governor Evers’ appointee sat on the sideline unable to perform her duties. He held out to retain influence over chemical regulations in our water and decisions surrounding wolf hunting in Wisconsin. That case went to the then conservative State Supreme Court who ruled 4-3 that he didn’t have to leave if the state senate didn’t approve his replacement. That decision only emboldened Republicans to ignore appointments as long and as often as they want.  Furthermore, citizens had to foot the legal bills. Taxpayers spent roughly $76,000 to fund the legal fight for Prehn to remain on the board after his term expired.

During our final session day last week we voted on many appointments. But like any group of bullies there were eight people pulled out of the lineup of appointees and made examples of. Republicans needed to everyone one more time how petty they can be. What’s worse is that on Equal Pay Day, Republicans rejected five women of the eight total appointments.

jeff-smithDana Wachs was one of the chosen eight. Dana previously served Eau Claire for 6 years in the State Assembly. Last year Dana was appointed to serve us again on the Universities of Wisconsin Board of Regents. Serving in the legislature as a Democrat might have been enough reason for retribution by Republicans. But Dana Wachs’ real sin was that he disagreed with the decision to eliminate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion on UW campuses.

Finding qualified and passionate people to serve is hard enough. Finding people willing to serve is even harder. With a rejection threat looming, talented people are understandably nervous about serving our state. Who can blame them?

We should applaud, not punish, citizens who take time out of their lives to serve. It has been embarrassing to witness firsthand this vulgar display of politics in our Capitol. It is just one more reason why legislators must be held accountable by the citizens they are supposed to represent.


Senator Smith represents District 31 in the Wisconsin State Senate. The 31st Senate District includes all of Buffalo, Pepin and Trempealeau counties and portions of Pierce, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson and St. Croix counties.

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