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(608)266-5780 | State Capitol, Room 307 West, P.O. Box 8953, Madison, WI 53708 | rep.billings@legis.wi.gov

 

COMMUNITY EVENTS:

Rotary Lights Display

Saturday, December 5 through Thursday, December 31

Riverside Park

(MAP)

 

Home for the Holidays at the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra

Saturday, December 19 at 7:00 p.m.

Viterbo University Fine Arts Center

 (MAP)

 

Gift of the Magi Performance

Saturday, December 19 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, December 20 at 2:00 p.m.

Weber Center for the Performing Arts

(MAP)

 

Pump House New Year's Celebration

Thursday, December 31 at 8:00 p.m. - Friday, January 1 at 12:00 a.m.

Pump House Regional Art Center

(MAP)

 

 

CONTACT ME:

State Capitol
Room 307 West
P.O. Box 8953
Madison, WI 53708

Phone:

(608) 266-5780
Toll Free:

(888) 534-0095

rep.billings@legis.wi.gov

 

 

Friends and Neighbors,

It's officially holiday season in La Crosse -- with the downtown all lit up, holiday decorations around the neighborhood, and festive music all around, it's hard not to get in the celebrating spirit! This newsletter features a roundup of the most important state news, as well as information on exciting community holiday celebrations.


This week's will be the last newsletter of the year. Weekly newsletters will resume again on January 14. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday and happy New Year!


 

Best Wishes,



Jill Billings
State Representative
95th Assembly District

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2015: Year End Wrap-Up

2015 was a busy year in the state legislative houses. This year we faced a biennial budget, a number of divisive bills, and the challenge of improving our state and local economies. Here are a few of the top issues of the year:

1. Campaign Finance, G.A.B. and John Doe law changes

This issue came before our state very recently, and dealt us a number of changes that reduce transparency in government. The John Doe bill was signed into law in November, with the Campaign Finance and G.A.B bills being signed by the Governor just last week.

The Campaign finance bill allowed for essentially unlimited corporate money in elections, and anonymous spending of up to $5,000 in any race. The bill also doubled contribution limits. This bill was particularly noteworthy because it would allow corporations to donate anonymously to campaigns - allowing for more corporate influence on politiciansí actions in our state.

The G.A.B bill acted as a complement to the campaign finance bill by dismantling the nonpartisan oversight agency for elections and ethics and replacing it with two politically-appointed commissions. By dismantling the G.A.B, it is highly unlikely that corrupt politicians can be brought to court for misusing their offices.

And to further establish immunity from political corruption investigations, Gov. Walker signed into law the John Doe bill. This bill stopped the Department of Justice from conducting secret John Doe probes into legislators' activities. As you may recall, Governor Walker was the subject of a John Doe investigation for his activities as a County Executive.

Changing these laws will not benefit the public, they will benefit corrupt politicians. I and my fellow Democrats stood firmly against these laws, and will continue to stand for open, transparent and honest government to serve our constituents.

This week, the G.A.B was officially shut down, and the process to convert it into two commissions started. Further details for the composition of the two commissions, or which duties of the G.A.B they will tackle, are not yet available.

2. Democrats' Economic Opportunity Agenda


In February to offer a commonsense counter to negative legislation passing through our state, Assembly Democratic legislators proposed the Economic Opportunity Agenda -- otherwise known as "15 for 15" -- to restore economic opportunity for Wisconsin families and workers by helping create good-paying jobs, connecting workers with available jobs, increasing wages and rebuilding Wisconsin's middle class.


The Economic Opportunity Agenda consisted of 15 bills  - including one that I introduced on rural broadband expansion. The remaining bills ranged from accepting federal funding for BadgerCare to supporting our small businesses and future workforce through grant programs.


The 15 bills included:


Entrepreneurial Assistance Grant Program

Noting that research, initiative, and human resources are essential to creating a new small business and our colleges and universities are rich with bright, young individuals who are looking forward to real world experience, this bill creates grants through WEDC that would go to businesses that have been recently founded for the purpose of facilitating paid internships for business and business-related students. It also provides grants directly to a college or university that is providing and guiding groups of interns working with three or more companies for the cost of the professor overseeing the work of the interns, guiding research, and developing any necessary assistance to successfully implement the program.

Create a Nanotechnology Hub

The "Wisconsin Idea" comes from our history of fostering the technological breakthroughs pioneered at our universities and making the best scientific information available to our citizens. Nanotechnology, covering diverse scientific fields like molecular biology, organic chemistry, semiconductor physics, and computer chip microfabrication, is an example of the type of cutting edge scientific research currently being explored. This proposal creates a Nanotechology Hub at the UW-Extension to further exploration in this field and promote the development of nanotechnology businesses in our state. It can provide information and resources to guide the commercialization of the stateís best research. It also creates a Nanotechnology Council to set policies and priorities for the nanotechnology hub and to develop plans for the hub to sustain its own funding.

Rural Broadband Expansion

Provides greater access to grants for public schools, technical schools and libraries to get them expanded access to broadband internet in underserved areas to ensure they can compete in a 21st Century global economy.

Increase the minimum wage to $10.10

To lift hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin workers out of poverty, this proposal raises Wisconsin's minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for full-time workers in three increments, and indexes the minimum wage to inflation. It is estimated that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour will benefit more than 600,000 Wisconsin workers.

Refundable Angel and Early Stage Seed Investment Credits

Makes investing in high-tech start-ups and entrepreneurs from Wisconsin appealing to investors across the nation and around the world by offering a tax refund to investors. It makes both the angel and early stage seed investment tax credits refundable if the amount of credit owed to the investor exceeds their Wisconsin tax liability. (The proposal was also included as SSAB 15/SSSB 15 on Gov. Walkerís Fall 2011 Call for Special Session, but Republicans in the Assembly and Senate refused to act on the bill.)

Index the Homestead Tax Credit

The Homestead Credit is a property tax and renter's refund that benefits low income families and the elderly on fixed incomes. This proposal restores indexing of this program to ensure the credit keeps up with inflation.

Made in America

The Made in America Act requires state and local units of government to give preference to U.S.-made products when purchasing materials. It builds on Wisconsin Democrats' earlier effort, the American Jobs Act, which prohibits the state from spending tax dollars on services overseas. It's also a response to the disturbing new trend of states purchasing prefabricated bridges and building materials from China.

Fund Farm-to-School Grants

The state's farm-to-school program connects schools with locally grown foods, provides nutrition and agricultural education, and improves the incomes of farmers. However, the Republicans cut funding to this in the 2013-15 budget. This proposal restores full funding to this program.

Restore the Earned Income Tax Credit

Economists on both side of the aisle agree that the Earned Income Tax Credit is one of the most effective ways to boost the income of working citizens. This proposal restores the cut made to the program by Republicans, and extends the Earned Income Tax Credit to individuals.

Create a Clean Energy Jobs Task Force

Opportunities around clean and renewable energy present some of the greatest possibilities for long-term job creation in our state. There are numerous areas where new science and technology are developing and our state could be positioned to take advantage and be a leader. This proposal will create a legislative task force to partner with stakeholders including the utilities, scientific experts, innovative businesses, building trades representatives, and local communities to take testimony to better understand how our state can control energy costs and grow Wisconsin jobs, while being better stewards of our environment.

Workforce Growth 2.0

Creates a competitive grant training program based on the needs of Wisconsin businesses aimed at closing the skills gap facing our state. The proposal also provides for a dual enrollment pilot program between K-12 schools and technical colleges and creates an innovation grant program for faculty, staff, and students to apply for grants for commercialization activities for technical college-developed products and processes. Finally, the bill creates Veteran Success Grants to reach out to veterans, assist them in exploring career options, and provide veterans training for employment or higher education.

Small Business Innovation Research and Technology Transfer Matching Grants Program

To build on the successful federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, this proposal would create a competitive state matching program for Wisconsin small businesses awarded federal SBIR or STTR grants through the Small Business Administration.

Buy Wisconsin

To ensure we are relying on our local businesses, this proposal requires the state to attempt to purchase at least 20% of materials and contractual services from Wisconsin-based businesses. The bill also sets a goal that at least 20% of products and services purchased by local governments be from Wisconsin-based businesses, as well as a goal that local governments not purchase less from state-based businesses than the prior year.

Small Business Tax Credit Now

Helps small businesses take advantage of existing tax credits for business investments by offering them up front as a grant. This bill will make state tax credits work for small businesses. (The proposal was also included as SSAB 16/SSSB 16 in Gov. Walkerís Fall 2011 Call for Special Session, but Republicans in the Assembly and Senate refused to act on the bill.)

Wisconsin Food First Bill

The University of Wisconsin System purchases millions of dollars' worth of food each year for their facilities around the state, including campus dormitories, student unions, and sports facilities. This proposal modifies the UW Systemís purchasing process to allow for extra consideration to be given to locally produced food, rather than the lowest bidder.

Instead of considering bills from the Economic Opportunity Agenda to improve our economy, Republican leadership instead prioritized purely-political maneuverings such as the Campaign Finance, John Doe, and G.A.B bills.

 

3. 2015-2017 Budget: Education, Energy and Long-Term Care

The 2015-2017 budget, which was signed into law in July, saw many cuts to our state's most important programs, including public and university education, environmental conservation and effective healthcare options for our elderly and disabled. Some described this budget as "the worst in Wisconsin history." For my part, it was surely the worst I've seen in my legislative career. Here are a few of the changes that came to our state through the budget:

UW System Cuts

Initially, a $300 million cut was proposed to the university system. Over five months of debate, the cut was reduced  to $250 million. In La Crosse alone, cuts to the UW System are expected to create cuts of over $1 million jobs. Some opponents to these cuts noted that Republican legislators seemed eager to give $250 million to a new stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks, but couldnít do the same for the stateís largest job-creator, the UW System.

As a strong supporter of Wisconsin universities, I stood firmly against each of these proposals. I ultimately voted against the budget because I refuse to stand behind the same budgeting decisions that have pushed our state so far behind.

Public Education

Changes to K-12 education that remained in the budget included a zero-sum increase in general aid funding to public schools, a potential $800 million subsidy for unaccountable voucher schools and significantly decreased standards for public school teaching licenses.

Wisconsinís post-budget levels of K-12 funding put our state below federal funding levels for the first time in history.

Much like changes to the UW System, I stood opposed to funding cuts to public education. I believe our state needs a strong educational system to ensure future growth, and that starts in our public schools.

Environment

Significant changes were made to DNR operations and environmental grants that could greatly impact Wisconsinís ability to effectively carry out environmental conservation efforts.

Cut to Recycling Grants -- Republicans on Joint Finance Committee rubber stamped the Governor's proposed a $4 million cut to municipal and county recycling grants. 

Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Grants -- The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program was created to allow our state to preserve valuable natural areas and wildlife habitats, protect water quality and fisheries, and expand opportunities for outdoor recreation. Each year, investments from the Stewardship program provided jobs across the state, along with billions in revenue. La Crosse was the first recipient of a Stewardship grant, and continued to use grants for environmental conservation.

Cuts to Transportation Alternative Programs -- Alternative transportation grants in our state incentivized eco-friendly commuting, by emphasizing community designs that incorporate bicycling and pedestrians. The most harmful repeal in this category was to the Complete Streets program. The Complete Streets program mandated that all roadways be designed with consideration for all possible users including bicyclists, pedestrians, public transportation, and motorists. The Complete Streets program was repealed as part of the final budget.

Long-Term Care

While the budget was being debated I traveled around the 95th district and held public hearings to listen to your thoughts. One of the most concerning issues to residents of the 95th was the change to Long-Term Care programs.

Under Gov. Walker's proposals, the Department of Health Services would be able to cease operation of other long-term care programs, including IRIS (Include, Respect I Self-Direct) and ADRCs (Aging and Disability Resource Centers). The IRIS program served more than 11,000 Wisconsinites. Under the program, those with disabilities were allowed the latitude to choose their own caregivers and use funds in ways to best fit their lifestyles.

After the budget passed, I called for the Department of Health Services to hold a listening session explaining to residents of La Crosse how changes to long-term care programs would affect them. Thankfully, DHS held a hearing in La Crosse, and allayed some of the concerns long-term care participants had about their health coverage.

4.  BadgerCare

Early this year, states were given the option to receive federal subsidies for Medicaid programs such as BadgerCare. Many states enrolled in the program, noting that it provided a large economic benefit as well as providing affordable care to low-income citizens. Unfortunately, Wisconsin did not accept federal funds.

A bill introduced this year prompted the Governor to accept federal funding for Medicaid expansion, giving Wisconsinites approximately $345 million in funding for our statewide BadgerCare program. Several neighboring states, including Indiana and Iowa, accepted similar funding packages. Accepting federal funding would provide coverage to over 80,000 Wisconsinites.

Recent findings from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau indicate that, if Wisconsin were to accept federal funding for BadgerCare it would experience an additional $1 billion in revenue. To read more about this, click here.

Access to affordable health care is a vital step on the path to economic stability and a key factor for the security of Wisconsin's middle-class families, and I urge Republican legislative leaders to reconsider accepting federal funding.

5.  Safe Harbor

I have been working on the issue of human trafficking in Wisconsin since 2013, after joining the efforts of La Crosseís Taskforce to Eradicate Human Slavery. Since starting work on this issue, I've heard countless heartbreaking stories from victims, and shocking information on Wisconsinís lack of protections.

Women and children are being trafficked and exploited right here in Wisconsin, with the state having the 3rd highest number of underage trafficking victims reported during a recent FBI sting.

To help victims of trafficking, I proposed Wisconsin's "Safe Harbor" bill. The Safe Harbor bill would help child victims of sex trafficking by changing the notion Ė that is currently defined in our state statutes -- that there is such a thing as a child prostitute. This legislation would change our state statutes to recognize that children are coerced into sex trafficking as victims -- not criminals -- and provide them necessary intervention and protection services. For child victims of sexual exploitation, our state should be focused on ensuring their safety instead of putting them behind bars or worse, back on the streets.

Representative LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) and I have been working hard to pass this legislation, and were able to get the Safe Harbor bill to a public hearing in October.

I will continue to fight for a full Safe Harbor law in Wisconsin, and advocate a vote on this legislation in the near future.

6. Rail Safety

I have been working on the issue of Rail Safety in Wisconsin for several months, and following last month's train derailments in Alma and Watertown, I felt increased an urgency to introduce legislation now to improve Wisconsinís Rail Safety.

The Rail Safety bill has gained bipartisan support and the attention of local news sources. You can read more about the Rail Safety bill in the following article.

 

 

 

 

Rail Safety Column

As you may know, I recently introduced the Rail Safety and Protection Act before the legislature. This bill would increase oversight into railroad activities in our state, and keep our communities safe. This week, I released a column explaining the state of railroads in Wisconsin, and why we need rail safety legislation. The original text of the column is below:


In early November, Wisconsin was the site of train derailments in Watertown and Alma. Both trains were carrying hazardous materials, with Alma's train derailment causing 18,500 gallons of ethanol to spill into the Mississippi River.
After these incidents I felt an increased urgency to introduce rail safety legislation that my office has been working on for months. The concern surely rings true with residents of any Wisconsin railway community -- what if this happened in our town?


With the increased amount of rail travel in the United States and Wisconsin, derailments have become all too common and could happen in communities across the state.


This year, Wisconsin has seen 16 train derailments, not including last month's in Alma and Watertown.


In Galena, Ill., a city minutes from Wisconsin's border, the derailment of six train cars caused an explosion and fire that burned into the night. People living near the crash site were encouraged to evacuate. In Watertown, a derailment of 13 cars caused a crude oil spill of about 500 gallons, which forced dozens from their homes.


After the derailment in Alma, La Crosse officials said that communication between local and state agencies with railroad companies could have been much better. Although local responders reacted well, communication with state agencies and the railroad could be improved. In each of the derailments in our state, there were thankfully no injuries and limited environmental damage. The outcomes could have been much worse.


There are several factors that contribute to derailments, including a high volume of rail transport, outdated or faulty rail equipment, and a lack of training of first responders. According to an October analysis by the Los Angeles Times, track problems are the most common cause for derailments in the United States, accounting for 59 percent of all crashes.

Without proper and frequent track inspections, faulty rail tracks and associated accidents can continue to increase.
In case of a derailment, itís important everyone responding to an emergency understands the procedures, timeline, response protocol and paths of communication necessary to handle the situation. That is why I have introduced Wisconsin's Rail Safety Act -- to ensure everyone is responding appropriately to a derailment. This bill addresses both of these key areas by bolstering current rail safety and ensuring a plan to respond in case of future derailments.


The Rail Safety Act is a multifold effort to address many of the issues contributing to rail accidents. The bill proposes specific legislative action to improve track inspection, improve emergency response, and require reports from state agencies on areas of progress and areas for improvement in rail safety.


The bill addresses Wisconsin rail safety by mandating the following:

  • Providing for more state rail track inspectors.

  • Requiring railroad companies to submit prevention and response plans to the state.

  • Providing training for local emergency first responders along railroad routes.

  • Providing guidelines for coordination and response timelines in the event of a derailment.

  • Requiring the Office of the Commissioner of Railroads to submit a report to the Legislature about its emergency preparedness, along with an assessment of training needs.


Federal rail safety legislation introduced by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., passed the Senate on Dec. 3 with bipartisan support and is awaiting the presidentís signature. My legislation acts as a state-focused complement to the actions in this bill, covering rail safety issues where states can have an impact.


My bill has generated bipartisan support, most notably from its Senate author, Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, and Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, because of its common-sense solutions to the most pressing issues in rail safety. The bill has been circulated to the Legislature, and Iím working to encourage my legislative colleagues to join me in supporting this sensible railroad reform.


In 2013, a runaway oil train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, a city just minutes from Maine's border. The explosions and fire resulting from the derailment killed 47 people and destroyed Lac-Megantic's business district.


In Wisconsin, we were lucky that derailments have not caused significant harm. We cannot continue to count on luck and hope a more severe derailment will not happen in the future.

 

 

 

 

Check Out the Wisconsin Snow Conditions Report

Even though snow is a little late this year, avid winter sports Wisconsinites are hoping for a blanket of snow soon!

For skiers, snowmobilers and more, Travel Wisconsin has put together a "Winter Snow Conditions" report, so that you can see what the conditions are around the state.

Make sure to check the report before heading out to your favorite trail or ski hill: http://www.travelwisconsin.com/snowreport/downhill

 


 

 
 
 

Rep. Billings Around the State!

 

 

Thank you to the community theater for inviting me on stage to read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" at intermission - I had a great time reading, and a great time at the show!

I'm so lucky to have such a beautiful district! I got a chance to sneak in a bluff-top lunch hour last week!

 

My staff and I by the beautiful Capitol Christmas tree!

Bo Ryan's last game was my first game! Here I am pictured with fellow Representatives Mark Spreitzer, Dave Considine, and Katrina Shankland. On Wisconsin!

 

 

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