Gov. Scott Walker delivered his third State of the State address last Tuesday night at the state Capitol, where he said he would continue his focus on jobs and push for an income tax cut for the middle class.
In a roughly half-hour-long speech, Walker told viewers across the state his top priority continues to be ensuring Wisconsinites have jobs.
The governor cited some favorable figures in job creation, including the drop in unemployment during the past two years from 7.8 percent to 6.7 percent. He also cited Wisconsin moving up in a number of publications’ rankings on which states are more favorable to business, the highest of which ranked Wisconsin as 13th-best.
Walker reiterated his campaign promise of creating 250,000 private sector jobs by the end of his first term.
“With the protests and recalls combined with the slow recovery at the national level, the fiscal cliff and ongoing worries about health care mandates coming out of Washington, [some] say there are plenty of reasons why it has been hard to create jobs,” Walker said. “But in Wisconsin, we don’t make excuses. We get results.”
Still, a report from the federal government released this month showed the state gained only 35,381 private sector jobs from June 2011 to June 2012. The 1.5 percent growth in jobs put Wisconsin as the 42nd worst state in job creation, down from 37th in the previous report.
In their response speeches, Democrats used that report to criticize Walker on his progress in job creation. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, criticized Walker for giving “rosy scenarios” rather than giving an honest portrayal on how the state was doing.
“This is unacceptable,” Barca said. “I don’t think any Wisconsin citizen that’s used to seeing Wisconsin being at the top of the class for things like job creation, things like public education, things like open and transparent government – all the values that we care so deeply about – would be happy with this assessment.”
Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said Walker’s speech was “high on theatrics, but low on substance.”
Several unemployed, unionized mining workers accompanied Walker on stage when he called on the Legislature to pass a mining bill soon and reduce the high unemployment rates in northwest Wisconsin.
Walker also said he would continue to convince businesses to move to the state, but also wants to help grow local businesses by passing a venture capital bill and reducing “unnecessary regulations,” some of which he outlined in a report he released earlier that night.
Education budgeting takes center stage
Experts and legislators agree one of the biggest issues facing Wisconsin is the skills gap, in which employers have jobs available, but do not see enough qualified applicants. Fixing that issue, Walker said, would help the state right now as well as in the future.
“If we want to help employers grow here in Wisconsin, we must show them there is a steady supply of graduates with the skills needed to fill the jobs – not only of today – but of tomorrow,” he said.
At the K-12 level, Walker said his biennial budget, which will be released next month, would have a performance-based funding plan that would work off the school report cards rolled out last year. He also called for more choices in schools, from traditional schools to other educational methods, such as charter schools, voucher programs, online ventures and home schooling.
Regarding higher education, the governor hinted toward including funding for job training in his budget.
“The next step will come in the state budget, as we align new resources with our critical needs in the workplace,” Walker said.
Walker praised the University of Wisconsin System’s new flexible degree program, which will soon help adults gain UW System degrees in a “less time-consuming [and] less costly way.”
Larson said in an interview with The Badger Herald he hopes the new resources Walker mentioned would include giving back the cuts education took in the last budget.
“If he doesn’t restore those funds, the surplus he’s touting isn’t actually a surplus,” Larson said. “It’s a values deficit because it was balanced on the backs of our kids.”
Since he took office, Walker has cut more than $300 million from the UW System, more than $800 million to public schools and has also cut funding for technical colleges – although he faced a $3.6 billion deficit when he passed his first budget.
The last budget, which included decisions that Walker called “tough, but prudent,” has led to the current $342 million surplus and the first-ever consecutive deposit to the state’s rainy day fund – two figures Walker touted as a sign the state is “moving forward.”
The upcoming budget, Walker said, would reduce income taxes on the middle class, although he gave few details on how large the tax cuts would be.
The new legislative session began earlier this month and follows a contentious session that brought tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol and a historic number of recall elections, including a failed recall campaign against the governor himself. During the speech, a number of anti-Walker protesters were outside the Assembly chambers, where their chants and singing were faintly heard.