WEST POINT — On Jan. 22, Gov. Tony Evers delivered his second State of the State address. 2019 proved to be both a successful and trying year for the Legislature. Gov. Evers was able to deliver on promises and move the needle on many of the issues that Wisconsinites care about by raising the bar for what Wisconsinites deserve. From cutting taxes for middle-class families, to investing in education, to making improvements to our infrastructure, Democrats were able to show up and accomplish many important things for our state.
Despite all the improvements that were accomplished last year, there is still a lot of work to be done to move our state forward into the new year. Gov. Evers highlighted a few issues in his State of the State address, including student debt reform, supporting our farmers and nonpartisan redistricting.
Regarding his first priority, student debt has a disastrous effect on our economy. It prevents people from starting a business, buying a home, saving for retirement and, in many cases, being able to afford basic necessities. Nationally, the student loan debt crisis has an economic impact of over $1 trillion. Here in Wisconsin, students carry an average of nearly $30,000 in debt. With one in five students falling behind on their student loan payments, this crisis needs to be addressed immediately. Student loan companies are preying on students who are looking to get the best education possible, and it is past time that we tackle this issue. That is why I am happy that Gov. Evers will be signing an executive order to create a Task Force on Student Debt in Wisconsin.
For his second priority, Wisconsin farmers are the backbone of our state and they have been struggling. Wisconsin leads the nation in farm bankruptcies and we lose farms every day. We need to invest in and support our farmers and our rural communities. Fortunately, there are some bipartisan efforts to address this issue. For example, the Dairy Innovation Hub was signed into law to help promote research and innovation in farming and processing. Additionally, last week, the Senate passed Senate Bill 387, which adds crop insurance proceeds to the Manufacturing and Agriculture Tax Credit, to help protect farmers in instances where they lose their crops due to storms or other causes. Yet, challenges such as climate change, trade wars and tariffs continue to leave the farming community on edge, and these challenges will only get harder.
Gov. Evers announced in his speech that he will be calling a special session of the Legislature to begin to assist our farmers, agriculture and rural communities. The session will take up a multitude of proposals, including giving Republicans a second change at passing the Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports (WIDE) and prioritizing grants for small dairy processors, and will also include new proposals, such as putting more focus on farmer mental health services and investing in a broader economic development strategy for our farmers, agriculture, and rural communities. Finally, the governor is creating the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity to develop a plan to invigorate the agricultural industry and rural economies.
For his third priority, Gov. Evers highlighted the need for nonpartisan redistricting. Our elections are a fundamental part of our democracy. Voters should be able to choose their representatives, not the other way around. It is apparent that nonpartisan redistricting is needed, because issues that an overwhelming majority of Wisconsinites agree with are unable to make it through the legislative process. Elected officials should not be able to ignore the wishes of their constituents. For example, 78% of Wisconsinites agree on this issue, yet we are unable to make progress in the Legislature. That is why I am proud to be a cosponsor of both Sen. Hansen’s legislative redistricting proposal (Senate Bill 288), and Rep. Hesselbein’s proposal for a nonpartisan and fair redistricting constitutional amendment. Additionally, Gov. Evers announced that he will create a nonpartisan redistricting commission to draw "The People’s Maps" for 2021.
In his address, Gov. Evers laid out a clear vision for Wisconsin. From investing in our communities and our workforce, to ensuring that everyone has a voice in the legislative process, Gov. Evers and legislative Democrats are ready to move our state forward. It is time to put politics aside and work for the people of Wisconsin, not against them. I am excited to continue to work on these priorities and fight for Wisconsin.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-West Point, represents Wisconsin's 27th district in the state Senate.
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