On Friday, December 20, 2019, the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce celebrated the holiday season with their Eggs & Issues Holiday Legislative Breakfast. The breakfast took place at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Dakota Ballroom— the room was filled with attendees eager to hear from the state legislators on pressing issues that citizens of the Chippewa Valley are concerned about. Representative Jodi Emerson (D-91), Representative Jesse James (R-68), Representative Rob Summerfield (R-67), Senator Jeff Smith (D-31), Senator Patty Schachtner (D-10), and Senator Kathy Bernier (R-23), were brought on to the stage to discuss issues regarding the state government’s partisan divide, mental health beds in local hospitals, state requirements for certified nursing assistants (CNA), criminal justice assistance, and general advice on how community members should go about speaking to lawmakers. The panel discussion was led by the Chamber’s Government Affairs Committee Chair Jennifer McHugh.
The Wisconsin State Government is facing the challenges of government with a Republican led legislature and the Democratic governor. Each lawmaker discussed how they saw this as one of the most important issues the state government is facing. Emerson argued that the divide has slowed down success within lawmaking, noting that the assembly has met a total of 14 days in 2019 for floor sessions compared to the last time Wisconsin government was considered to be shared in 2007-2008 and the assembly had met 29 days. An idea that many of the legislators touched on is that they need to find the right people to connect with across the aisle to discuss the issues they see pertinent. Representative Summerfield used the phrase “shop around” in order to find the right way to gain support for a bill. Senator Schachtner ended the discussion by saying “we need to ultimately realize that the decision we make as legislators affects lives.”
A regional issue that has gained attention this year is the need to improve mental health services. Governor Evers vetoed $15 million in funding for regional mental health beds that was proposed in the state budget. Both parties have worked on separate bills to address the need for mental health beds in this part of the state. Senator Bernier said that she’s been involved with working on a bill to solve this issue for six years; she ensured that with how much work has been put into this issue, the discussion will not be stopped by the governor’s veto. Both Senator Bernier and Representative James took a visit to Sacred Heart Hospital to talk with the people that this issue is affecting in order to gain a new perspective to bring back to Madison. Overall, mental health is not being dealt with in the best manner at the capitol and Senator Schachtner noted that fixing adding more mental health beds is “a piece of the mental health pie, that is needed to solve the entire issue.”
Recently, AB 76 that would have worked to ease the CNA shortage by matching training requirements to federal standards and those for adjacent states was vetoed by the governor. Proponents argued that the change would allow CNAs to enter service more quickly, as well as avoid requiring CNAs moving from neighboring states to take additional training to work in Wisconsin. In his veto message, Evers said "there are better ways to address the shortage of nurse aides than reducing the quality of training programs," and said he has directed his recently-appointed Governor's Task Force on Caregiving with developing strategies to attract and retain the direct care workforce. Additionally, nurse training and degree programs are being plagued with a faculty shortage. The legislators acknowledged the issue and talked about potential solutions.
The discussion panel was brought to another pertinent issue regarding the workforce— criminal justice. If done in a correct manner, criminal justice has the potential to solve the workforce issue. The legislators discussed how there are around 23,000 people in Wisconsin prisons. Out of these 23,000 inmates, Representative Emerson stated that 75% of them suffer from mental health and they’re not getting adequate help, and Senator Schachtner said that about 6,000 of the total people in prison are incarcerated because of crime-less convictions. These two issues are making it hard for citizens to experience success when released from prison. Representative Emerson went on to say that to solve the first issue “there needs to be more treatment courts, mental health treatment, and drug and alcohol treatment” offered to those while they are in prison. She then goes on to say that to fix the second issue, the Assembly wrote AB 33 that will work to expunge certain lower level convictions; the bill is waiting to be accepted by the governor. The legislators understand that these changes need to be made so prisoners aren’t leaving jail conceived as predators by society.
With the 26th Annual Chippewa Valley Rally approaching, the final question was directed at how community members can be prepared and effective when talking to lawmakers. The most important tip they gave is to be ready with a bullet point list to help articulate the issue that one is trying to verbally present. Senator Schachtner emphasized to “have a collective message that’s clear and prioritized and know which bills are connected with issues.” The legislators showed much enthusiasm to meet with members of the Chippewa Valley on February 25.
The Chamber’s next Eggs & Issues will be on Friday, January 17, 2020 at The Lismore. The discussion will be centered around the State of the County. For more information and to register, click here.
Area lawmakers discuss mental health, workforce challenges (Leader-Telegram)
Chippewa Valley lawmakers clash on mental health funds (WQOW News 18)
Posted by Amy Oldenburg, Legislative Intern