What a Difference a Year Makes

By Brian Fraley
MacIver Institute Senior Fellow

It was a far cry from the days where the Blue Fist Whiners set the tone at the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Here are some quick thoughts on Governor Scott Walker’s 2013 State of the State Speech:

For a speech that is generally retrospective, the Governor spent a good chunk of his half hour speech previewing his upcoming biennial State Budget. A tax cut for the Middle Class, expanded educational options for Wisconsin families, a major push for regulatory reform, and of course, the Iron County Mine. He also touched on two issues his detractors predicted he would backtrack on.

Regarding the Zoo Interchange, it sure doesn’t sound like a speech from someone who is going to delay the project:

“With this in mind, I am committed to a healthy transportation system that includes roads, bridges, freight rail, ports, and airports. Whether it is traveling to a tourism destination or taking product to and from market, so many of our key industries–manufacturing, dairy products, timber and paper products, cranberries, vegetables, grain, sand–and soon, iron ore mining; so many of these industries depend on our strong transportation backbone.

“They need it to keep their competitive edge. The MillerCoors Brewery in Milwaukee is a good example. The plant manager told us that MillerCoors is in a hyper-competitive industry. Every day, they are looking to find any competitive advantage to see who can get a cold beer on a bar in Madison, Green Bay, or even Chicago the fastest. If beer trucks are tied up in the Zoo Interchange, the MillerCoors Brewery here in Wisconsin is at a disadvantage.

“In a similar way, a dairy farmer from Independence or a lumber company from Antigo or a crop farmer from Dodgeville or a dock worker from Superior all have a competitive advantage, if we have a good transportation system. That’s why I am committed to improving our infrastructure.”

Oh and that jobs promise? Contrary to the hand wringing and teeth gnashing of the Left, he hasn’t scrubbed that promise from his website, or his agenda.

“As I travel the state, it is clear to me why our focus on helping create 250,000 jobs by 2015 is about much more than just fulfilling a campaign promise.

“Simply put, it is about helping improve the lives of 250,000 more families in Wisconsin.

“You see, adding a new job is about more than just a number. Every time another job is created, and a new employee is hired, it means that another family has someone working in their household. For many, that means fewer worries about putting bread on the table or clothes on the backs of their kids–or even making the mortgage payment on the house.

“I will work hard each and every day, so we can help people all across Wisconsin have the chance to have a job, and work hard to support themselves and their families for generations to come.”

The State of the State is generally a victory lap for the accomplishments of the past year. While the Governor clearly understands the job creation efforts are a laudable work in progress, he was able to tout many accomplishments since the last time he addressed a joint session of the Legislature.

Chiefly, he was able to point to the dramatically-improved State finances.

“Two years ago, when I first stood here as your new governor, Wisconsin was facing a $3.6 billion budget deficit, property taxes had gone up 27 percent over the previous decade, increasing every year, and the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent.

“Today, Wisconsin has a $342 million budget surplus, property taxes on a median valued home went down in each of the last two years, and the unemployment rate – well – it’s down to 6.7 percent.

“We’re turning things around. We’re heading in the right direction. We’re moving Wisconsin forward.

“And unlike other states, we avoided significant tax increases, massive layoffs and cuts in programs, like Medicaid. Instead, we put in place long-term structural reforms that helped us balance state and local government budgets for years to come. What we did was think more about the next generation than we did about the next election–and it worked.

“For the first time in our state’s history, we set money aside in two consecutive years for the rainy day fund. Our bond rating is solid and our pension system is the only one in the country that is fully funded.

“We made tough, but prudent, decisions to get our fiscal house in order. Today, unlike the federal government and many of our neighboring states, we have a surplus, which will allow us to invest in our priorities.”

By far, however, the big push in the speech was for the mining regulation reform bill and it was the one point where the wonky Wisconsin Governor pulled out a little showmanship. As he made this appeal, more than a dozen workers in hardhats surrounded him on the Speaker’s rostrum, where two of them held up a large Wisconsin State Flag.

“A mine would be a lifeline to people in northwestern Wisconsin, where the unemployment rate in Iron County is the 2nd highest in the state at nearly 12 percent. But the benefits will be felt all across Wisconsin.

“We have the potential for a billion and a half dollar investment here in our state that could lead to as many as 3,000 construction-related jobs and 2,800 long-term jobs. It’s no wonder that I’ve heard from people in places like Clinton and Wausau, Green Bay and Prairie du Chien, Superior and Chippewa Falls, all who want us to pass this bill.

“We need to get started on this project as soon as possible. Tonight, please join me in welcoming a number of people who really want to get to work.

“Joining me are Josh Dennis, Larry Youngs, Cindy Lafortune, Karl Krall, Richard Galarno, Curt Lusua, Adam Kaseno, Steve Anderson, Harold Wickman, and Ryan Haffenbredl. These operating engineers are members of Local 139, who are looking for work.

“Also joining us tonight are carpenters and millwrights from northern Wisconsin locals of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, welcome Dana Tonnelli, Bob Polencheck, Charlie Steed, Al Ida, Dan Gillespie, Pete Langreck, David Grottke, and Jim Berrens.

“Together, these folks are holding up the flag of the great State of Wisconsin. On the right side of the seal is the image of a miner. In the upper right corner are the tools of a miner. And on the top of the seal is a badger, which comes from the nickname given to early settlers who were miners. If any state can move forward with a way to streamline the process for safe and environmentally sound mining, shouldn’t it be the Badger State?”

It was a stirring moment. Just think of it. Less than a year removed from a recall election financed and engineered by state and national public sector labor unions, here was Walker, surrounded by union members on whose behalf he is diligently working.

“We’re still here,” chanted a small group of protesters in the Capitol Rotunda prior to the speech.

Perhaps. But so is Scott Walker–STILL the Governor of the Badger State. And both he, and the state, are in a stronger position than at any time in the last two years.