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Wisconsin’s new Legislature will tackle a number of issues likely to be controversial in spite of new promises of bipartisanship. Partisan divisions have plagued the Assembly and the Senate.[/media-credit]

Wisconsin’s new Legislature was sworn in the first week of January, and the group has begun to focus on a number of issues early on.

With Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign promise of 250,000 private sector jobs created by 2014 not yet complete and the skills gap issue getting more attention,Walker said in his State of the State speech the Legislature’s main priorities should be jobs and education.

This semester, the Legislature will largely focus on the 2013-2015 biennial budget, which, with a $342 million surplus, starts better than the $3.6 billion deficit the last Legislature began with.

Walker will release his proposed budget next month, and the Legislature will then work on it and eventually pass it as a regular bill.

Income tax cuts

Walker touted Wisconsin’s budget surplus in his State of the State speech – a figure that serves as an impetus for income tax cuts he and other Republicans have pushed.

“I believe that putting more money in the hands of the people – instead of the government – is good for the economy,” Walker said in his address.

The National Federation of Independent Business supports such an approach. Bill Smith, Wisconsin state director of NFIB, said the vast majority of the state’s employers file as individuals. As a result, he said, the tax cut would have a dual impact: cutting employers’ taxes as well as employees’ taxes.

Andrew Reschovsky, a University of Wisconsin professor who is an expert in state spending and taxation, said the tax cut would stimulate the economy by increasing consumer spending and fostering employment. He added, however, the state must consider that some of that money may not be spent in Wisconsin.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said in an interview with The Badger Herald that Republicans must “reprioritize in the things that Wisconsin actually values.”

Larson said that would include restoring the more than $1 billion in funding Walker cut from education in the last biennial budget, rather than giving tax cuts to individuals making more than $200,000.

Jobs

In his State of the State speech, Walker reminded Wisconsinites of his promise to create 250,000 private sector jobs by the end of his term. However, a number of reports have shown the state is far from meeting that promise.

A recent PolitiFact analysis estimated job creation so far to be just under 40,000, and federal jobs data showed Wisconsin was 42nd in the nation in job creation from June 2011 to June 2012.

The most recent monthly data showed Wisconsin added 4,500 private sector jobs in December. However, with 3,200 job losses in the public sector, the total jobs gained last month added up to 1,300. 

Among the policies that Republicans will push to create jobs is income tax cuts.

Walker hinted to some other job creation measures in his speech, among them a venture capital bill and reducing regulations.

But Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said Walker’s speech was not a “candid assessment” of the state’s job market, citing the report that showed Wisconsin as 42nd in job creation.

Barca is charging Walker and Republicans with not having a “sense of urgency” on job creation, which he said should be the top priority, along with the “lagging” incomes for the middle class.

“No more broken promises, no more glossing over real problems,” Barca said. “And I agree with the governor in one respect: No more excuses.”

Mining

The last Legislative session ended with a failed push for a mining bill, which fell flat when one Republican senator crossed lines and voted against it because of environmental concerns.

Last week, Republicans introduced a new version of the mining bill, which many legislators say is similar to the last one. With the Republicans now having an 18-15 majority in the Senate, it is more likely to pass.

“This bill has more transparency – more input – from any faction of government, industry and business than any piece of legislation I’ve seen,” Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee, said.

Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, said she thinks the bill still diminishes environmental standards through the permit process and limits citizens’ participation. 

“It weakens the ability of the people of the state to determine their own quality of life,” Bewley said.

Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, is scheduled to introduce an alternative bill that builds from hearings he held at the Capitol last year.