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Jobs report looms large in Wisconsin recall race

By   /   May 11, 2012  /   News  /   No Comments

Embattled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker got some good economic news Friday and is awaiting the upcoming jobs report.

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — In Wisconsin’s compressed recall election campaign, every day is important for the combatants.

But there are few days in this four-week race arguably more critical to embattled Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrettthan Thursday.

That’s when the state Department of Workforce Development is scheduled to release Wisconsin’s employment figures.

Barrett and his backers have made Wisconsin’s economy, what he claims is Walker’s poor handling of it, a main point of their campaign attack.

It’s an evolving point, after the Democratic Party of Wisconsin admitted their original motive to recall Walker and some fellow Republicans — the dismantling of collective bargaining for most public employees — wasn’t resonating with the average voter.

The latest Marquette Law School poll drove home the point.

Forty-six percent of the registered voters polled listed job creation as the most important issue in the recall election. On the other hand, 12 percent of Democrats likely to vote said restoring collective bargaining was the most important issue.

“Perceptions of jobs have been one of the most dynamic elements of public opinion this spring,”Charles Franklin, the University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist who leads the Milwaukee poll, wrote in an email to Wisconsin Reporter.

And perception often is reality in politics.

In March, after reports showed Wisconsin’s economy added more than 15,000 jobs in January and February, despite job losses for all of 2011, 34 percent of Marquette poll respondents said the state gained jobs, with 24 percent believing the state had jobs.

By the end of April, after the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the Badger State economy shed 23,900 jobs between March 2011 and March 2012 — the worst record in the nation in year over year comparisons — voter perceptions reversed.

The poll found 38 percent of respondents said the state lost jobs, with 21 percent saying the state gained jobs, despite the gains of more than 10,000 jobs so far this year.

“There are very few issues we’ve asked about in our poll that show such large shifts from month to month,” Franklin said.

Both sides have spun the jobs issue, declaring winners and losers when economic experts, and even Walker himself, have said governors and lawmakers have only so much to do with the up-and-down numbers of an economy.

But Barrett’s camp has made the economy one of its key rallying calls in its bid to topple Walker, tapping into fears of Wisconsinites, like many in America, waiting for recovery to fully kick in.

“Wisconsin needs a governor who is focused on jobs, not ideology,” Barrett asserts on his campaign website. “A leader committed to bringing our state together and healing political wounds, not pitting people against each other and catering to special interests.”

On Friday, the Walker campaign said it’s still waiting for Barrett to provide details on how he would lead the state.

Art Cyr, director of the A.W. Clausen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha, called Barrett a savvy politician for bringing out the economy trump card, and said Walker is savvy, too, in making the cases for his economic successes.

And there is a growing body of evidence, despite stalled jobs growth, that Wisconsin’s economy is beginning to pick up steam.

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has declined to 6.8 percent, its lowest rate since December 2008. The most recent data show more Wisconsinites working and fewer people unemployed year over year, March 2011 to March 2012.

The state’s fiscal body is much healthier than it was over a year ago, when Wisconsin faced a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

On Thursday, the state Department of Revenue released updated estimates, projecting revenue will run ahead of projections by some $275 million June 30, not factoring in long-term debt, and $154.5 million above projections June 30, 2013, the end of the current biennial budget. The increase, the department said, is thanks to larger-than-expected tax collections through April, with revised federal Bureau of Economic Analysis forecasts indicating a better showing in personal income growth in 2011.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau in February had projected a $143 million deficit at the end of the two-year budget cycle.

If the revenue projections hold, half of the money, or about $45.4 million, would be placed in Wisconsin’s rainy day fund. That would mark the first time in state history state officials put money into the fund in consecutive years, according to Department of Administration spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster. The Walker administration added $14.78 million last June.

State Rep. Peter Barca, the Assembly’s minority leader, sneered in a statement that the announcement by the administration was all about politics with fewer than four weeks before the June 5 recall election.

“The timing of this announcement from Gov. Walker’s partisan budget office is highly suspect given the fact that the governor is in the middle of a campaign,” said the Democrat from Kenosha.

Barrett’s spokesman Phil Walzak echoed the sentiments.

The Barrett campaign did not respond to Wisconsin Reporter requests for an interview.

Walker has argued that the state is creating a better environment for business and job creation, cutting taxes, reforming regulation and creating incentives to build in the Badger State.

New business formation was up 12.2 percent during the first quarter of the year, compared to the same period last year, according to John Dipko spokesman for Workforce Development.

And initial unemployment claims are down this calendar year during the same period in 2011, according to Dipko.

“Overall, we expect that Wisconsin’s economy will continue to improve,” he said in an email.

The Walker campaign may be banking on those signs of improvement.

Cyr said improvement in the April jobs numbers will help Walker’s campaign, marginally.

“But unless there’s some really surprising information, some startling information, I would be surprised if it had a major impact on the campaign,” the academician said, pointing to a politically divided electorate with few undecided voters.

But if the rhetoric and the polls are any indicator, next Thursday’s jobs report could fuel feeling less than three weeks before voters head to the polls.