MacIver News Service | January 25, 2012[Madison, Wisc…] Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker delivered his annual State of the State address Wednesday night before a polarized state legislature and with a potential recall looming.
“When I addressed you in the chamber last January, Wisconsin had suffered through three years of 150,000 of our fellow citizens losing their jobs,” Walker said. “The unemployment rate was 7.5%. And after years of tax increases and budget tricks, Wisconsin faced one of the largest budget deficits in the country.”
Walker boasted about the progress made in the last year.
“Tonight I’m happy to report that after three years of losing 150,000 jobs Wisconsin actually added thousands of new jobs in 2011,” said Walker. “New business formations are up by over two percent and our unemployment rate is down from a year ago. In fact, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is much better than our neighbors to the south in Illinois.”
The governor outlined three priorities for his Administration
- Helping the people of Wisconsin create more jobs
- Keeping a balanced budget
- Improving education for our kids by working together
“Last year, we passed some of the most aggressive pro-jobs legislation in the country,” Walker said. “And we did it with the help from lawmakers in both parties because these aren’t Republican or Democrat jobs, they’re Wisconsin jobs.”
Walker used the occasion to again push for passage of a bill to modernize Wisconsin’s mining laws and regulations.
“There is another tremendous opportunity for job growth,” he said. “We can pass legislation that will streamline the process for safe and environmentally sound mining. The proposed project in northwestern Wisconsin could provide at least 700 jobs at the mine and thousands across the state.”
Walker’s optimistic tone was belied by the fact that Big Labor and the Democratic party attempted to recall six Republican senators in 2011. They failed to gain the senate majority, defeating only two of them.
In 2012, four GOP Senators, the Lt. Governor and the Governor himself may be facing recall elections, depending on the certification of signatures pending before the Government Accountability Board.
Walker’s speech ignored the pending elections, although his speech highlighted past success as much as it laid out a vision of the future.
“[F]rugality in government leads to freedom and prosperity for our people,” Walker said, quoting from the Wisconsin Constitution. “I believe our founders had it right.”
Walker went on to promote his ‘brown bag’ frugality.
“Think about it, when I spoke here last January, Wiscosnin faced a $3.6 billion deficit,” Walker said. “In the past, state government took more than a billion dollars away from building safe roads and bridges, illegally raided the fund to support malpractice victims and ignored a payment to Minnesota for tax reciprocity. And one-time federal stimulus money was used for ongoing costs—all of thse practices left us with a more than $3 billion hole to fill last year.”
Walker then drew distinctions between the approach Wisconsin took with those of other states who also faced budget crunches.
“Some, like Illinois, raised taxes, but that only made matters worse,” Walekr said. “Other states used massive layoffs to balance their budgets; we avoided that in Wisconsin.”
He continued, “Some states cut core services like Medicaid. But in Wisconsin, we added some $1.2 billion to Medicaid and our reforms allow us to expand FamilyCare (our long-term care program for seniors) all across the state.
Walker did not ignore the controversial changes to public labor union bargaining that has spurred and financed the recall efforts.
“Just as important as saving money, our reforms help government work well in places where it does have a legitimate role, like education,” he said. “For example, before our reforms, school districts often had to buy their helath insurance from one company which cost them millions of dollars.”
Since the passage of ACT 10, several districts have been able to save money by putting their health insurance out for competitive bidding.
“[O]ur reforms now allow local school districts to staff based on merit and pay based on performance,” said the Governor. “That means we can put the best and brightest in our classrooms, and we can keep them there.”
The governor told of a superintendent of a small school district in Wisconsin who praised his labor reforms and told him “now I get to go back to my office and focus on curriculum instead of grievances.”
Governor Walker then made a direct appeal to Wisconsin’s public employees.
“Tonight, I want to again thank the many teachers and public servants across the state of Wisconsin,” he said. “We appreciate your hard work serving the public. And we are glad that Wisconsin avoided the massive layoffs of government employees experienced in other states.”
Walker used the final quarter of his speech to highlight three education reform efforts that, after a year of discussion and consensus building, will be in the hands of the legislature this spring.
He promoted his Read to Lead, school and school district accountability plans.
“[State School Superintendent] Dr. Evers and I have been working with a diverse group of individuals to develop our plan to let parents, teachers and communities know which schools are performing well so that we can replicate their success,” Walker said. “And we do need to know which schools are failing,” so we can help them.
Whether or not the legislature is able to pass these and other measures like the mining bill in such a caustic atmosphere poisoned by the threat of ongoing recall elections remains to be seen.
One early test, the State Assembly is scheduled to take up the mining proposal on Thursday.
“In just one year, Republicans fixed a $3 billion deficit, cut new debt in half, held the line on taxes and improved our business climate in nearly every ranking,” said State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau). “On the other hand, the Democrats spent the last year protesting, recalling and playing politics with our business climate.”
Fitzgerald continued to express pessimistic tone.
“They know that recalls are bad for Wisconsin, but they’re pushing them anyway. For the Democrats, the state of our state won’t ever be good enough unless they’re in the driver’s seat,” said Fitzgerald. “But Wisconsin needs jobs, not politics.”
Full text of remarks, as prepared for delivery: SOSText
Ed: We will update this story to include more reactions in the hours ahead.