MADISON, Wis. – While the left and the right staked out their positions on the Badger State’s condition, Gov. Scott Walker’s 2016 edition of the State of the State address was replete with the kind of core conservative ideas that had gotten lost in the din of his failed presidential campaign.
“For too long, government programs have entrapped individuals … into extended dependency,” the Republican governor said Tuesday in laying out his executive blueprint, which promises to be somewhat muted by election-year inertia. “Our reforms help people get the training they need to get back up on their feet.”
While the diminishing minority Democrats vehemently disagree with Walker’s latest appraisal on Wisconsin’s vitality, the governor seems to be settling back into hands-on governing after his short-lived moment on the national political stage.
It was that message, of ending government dependence and stressing the independence of the individual, that seemed to resonate in the months leading up to Walker’s unsurprising announcement in July that he would run for president. The wheels quickly came off the campaign, just about the time a certain reality TV show celebrity jumped into the race, and by September Walker’s run was over.
On Tuesday, the governor sounded like a man who was ready to take up the mantle of Wisconsin government reformer, a leadership role some conservatives say he all but abdicated during his unofficial and official quest for the White House.
Still, the campaign to limit the size and scope of Wisconsin government went on with and without him last year.
Walker noted his party’s reforms to the state’s food stamp program that “helped transfer 8,334 people from government dependence to true independence.”
The law, which went into effect in April, demands that able-bodied adults without children living at home work at least 80 hours a month or look for employment to be eligible for food stamps. Participants have a grace period of three months in which to do so.
In December, the mainstream press headlines screamed that 15,000 people “lost access” to FoodShare, Wisconsin’s food stamp program, because of the law. Conservatives saw the numbers as a success story, for the thousands of recipients who found work and for the taxpayers who are no longer picking up the bill for those able-bodied adults, without dependents, who now must at the very least spend some time looking for work to be eligible for food stamps.
Walker highlighted the story of a young woman he identified as Jessica, in attendance in the state Assembly chamber during the governor’s address. Jessica enrolled in the transitional program in June, and by August she had a job housekeeping at a local hotel, Walker said. She now works full-time at a wood flooring mill. Along the way, Jessica finished her studies at Northcentral Technical College to be a certified nursing assistant.
“When we first proposed these reforms, some in this Capitol argued that we were making it harder to get government assistance. The truth is: we’re making it easier to find a job,” the governor said.
In a line that garnered some chuckles, Walker said no one signs a yearbook with, “Good luck becoming dependent on government.”
But Walker asserts government has a role to play in opening the door to opportunity for those trapped in the welfare state. He pointed to the millions of dollars Wisconsin has invested in job training programs during his five eventful years in office.
While the governor laid out initiatives to take on the rising costs of higher education, hold the line on taxes, connect veterans with job opportunities, and help Wisconsin families dealing with the strain of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, the thrust of his message got back to conservative basics: limiting government.
“Over the last five years, Governor Walker and Republican legislators focused on resuscitating Wisconsin’s struggling economy by lowering taxes, cutting red tape, and reducing the size of government,” state Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, said in a statement. “These prudent choices and fiscal discipline have put Wisconsin’s fiscal house back in order, creating a stable economic environment for private sector growth and providing ordinary families much needed tax relief.”
Of course, Democrats do not share in that assessment.
“The truth is the State of our State is being neglected by Republicans putting their own needs above the needs of everyday Wisconsinites,” state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, the Assembly’s minority leader, said in a statement.
He chided legislative Republicans for turning their “backs on Wisconsin’s interests in order to help Governor Walker in his failed run for president.”
Walker’s absence last year more than likely has contributed to his flagging poll numbers, and that of the Republican-led Legislature.
In a reversal of fortune, 53 percent of voters say Wisconsin is heading in the wrong direction, compared with 41 percent who feel positive about the state’s path to prosperity, according to Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce’s latest Survey of Voter Attitudes in Wisconsin.
The latest numbers are a near flip from December 2014, when 52 percent said the Badger State was on the right track, and 41 percent said it was not.
While Democrats lambasted massive layoffs in 2015 and Wisconsin’s comparatively smaller rate of job growth, Walker pointed to the state’s unemployment rate, at the lowest level in nearly 15 years. And, at least based on monthly employment data (which is volatile at best), the Badger State in October posted its largest monthly jobs gain since April 1992. Perhaps more positive is Wisconsin’s Labor Force Participation Rate. At 67.8 percent, it is 5.3 percentage points higher than the national rate, ranking Wisconsin among the top 10 states.
Walker sounds, again, ready to engage. In his address, he announced his “2020 Vision Project.” He plans to travel to every region of the state to hold listening sessions with residents, eliciting ideas, dreams and visions on what they want their state to be in the next 20 years.
For Walker, the vision seems to begin with an end to dependence on government.
“You see, true freedom and prosperity do not come from the mighty hand of the government,” the governor said. “They come from empowering people to live their own lives through the dignity that comes from work.”