MADISON, Wis. – For fiscal conservatives, there seems to be much to like in Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017 State of the State address.
For liberals, Tuesday’s message was all just more rhetoric from the devil.
Such is life in the deep partisan divide that is Badger State politics.
In his latest address before a joint session of the Legislature, the two-term Republican governor laid out his vision of the biennial session ahead and very much sounded like a candidate seeking a third term in the governor’s seat.
“We are working and winning for Wisconsin,” Walker repeated several times throughout the course of his address.
The governor promised to not only freeze college tuition again but to cut tuition for all undergraduates in the University of Wisconsin System. He promised more tax cuts. And he held firm on his pledge of no gas tax or fee hikes without a corresponding reduction in expenses.
“I believe firmly we were not sent here by the people of Wisconsin to raise taxes,” Walker said.
Such an intractable stance wasn’t welcome news to Democrats that have jumped on board the Transportation funding train alongside some very powerful Republicans pushing an everything-on-the-table approach to filling a $1 billion Transportation budget shortfall.
A new poll by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce shows voters split on the gas tax issue, with 49 percent in favor, 48 percent opposed. But a majority of Republicans – the people most likely to vote for Republicans like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester – oppose an increase, while 57 percent of Democrats – people much less likely to vote for Republicans like Vos – support a tax hike.
Walker hailed the tax-reduction work of his administration and the Republican majority over the past six years.
“I’m proud to report since taking office we cut taxes by more than $4.7 billion,” the governor said. That figure includes multiple taxing categories, according to the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
But there’s much more work to be done, Walker said. Wisconsin remains one of the higher-tax states in the nation.
Sounding confident in his administration’s pursuit of job creation, Walker said his top priority in the 2017-19 budget cycle is workforce development.
“More people were employed in Wisconsin last year than at any point in the history of our great state,” the governor said. “Unemployment levels are the lowest in more than 15 years. And the percentage of people working in Wisconsin is one of the highest of any state in the country.”
Walker’s opponents attempted to pick his “rosy picture” apart.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, pointed to Walker’s pledge that Wisconsin employers would create 250,000 jobs in his first term, arguing that the job numbers remain “woefully under” Walker’s 2010 campaign promise six years later.
“Six years ago, Gov. Walker spoke before an audience in the Assembly chamber and made a lot of promises. He said Wisconsin would lead the economic recovery. He said we would stop kicking the can down the road on funding transportation. He said we can’t rely on short term fixes, and we can’t borrow excessively anymore,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha said in a statement following the governor’s address.
“Yet here we are, as the Governor begins his seventh year and delivers the State of the State, we have a $700 million budget deficit, an economy that is lagging significantly behind the rest of the nation, the 3rd worst roads and the most diminished middle class in the nation.”
Barca’s $700 million assumption, however, is based on what state agencies have asked for, not necessarily how much taxpayer money they can collectively expect.
Just how Barca came to his assertion that Wisconsin has the most diminished middle class in the nation is not clear.
A Pew Research Center study in May found that Wisconsin is a prime example of middle-income America. The state boasts the top three middle-income metropolitan areas in the nation – Wausau, with 67 percent of adults characterized as middle-income, followed by Janesville-Beloit (65 percent), and Sheboygan (63 percent). Eau Claire is No. 9 on the list.
There are some troubling signs, however, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out in a story on the Pew study last year.
“The state as a whole has the country’s fourth-highest percentage of middle-income adults. But from 2000 through 2014, only eight states experienced a greater decline in the real median income of their middle-tier households,” the newspaper reported.
In his address, Walker invoked the $3.6 billion question.
“Are the people of Wisconsin – you, me, us – better off than we were six years ago? The answer is a resounding yes,” he said.
He noted the 133,000 jobs lost in the four years prior to when he took office in 2011, a couple of years after the job hemorrhaging of the 2007-09 recession. Unemployment peaked at 9.2 percent in 2009, compared to 4.1 percent in November, the latest data available. Walker began his first term facing a $3.6 billion budget shortfall. Recent budgets have finished with surpluses, much of which was used to buy tax cuts.
Today, Wisconsin’s economy has more than recovered the jobs lost under the final term of Democrat Jim Doyle’s administration, Walker noted, albeit not at the 250,000 new Walker first ran on. Wages are up and more than 50,000 new businesses have been created, he said.
“We went from a focus on ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ to talking about ‘workforce, workforce, workforce.’ This is my top priority for 2017 – and beyond,” he said.
While Democrats and some in his own party have been critical of the governor’s transportation agenda, Walker noted that the state has invested more than $18 billion in transportation over the past six years – $2 billion more than his predecessor did during the previous six years. The 2005-2010 time period, however, included the recession years.
Walker noted the previous administration “raided” $1.4 billion from the state transportation fund. Over the course of his two terms, Doyle transferred the marked transportation funding into the state’s general fund.
The governor reiterated that his is placing a priority on safety and maintenance of Wisconsin’s existing roads.
“Looking ahead, we will provide local governments with the largest increase in transportation aids since the 1990s,” Walker said. “This includes an investment of 25% more over last budget alone in the Local Road Improvement Program, $65 million in new local aids, and the largest increase to the Local Bridge Improvement Program in over 20 years. Local governments can use these funds to fix roads and bridges and potholes in their communities.”
Democrats doubled down on their push for more transportation funding, and blasted Walker for what Barca called Wisconsin’s “decrepit infrastructure,” noting that more schools than ever are forced to go to referendum to fill funding shortfalls. Conservatives counter that is precisely why the referendum process was created, to give local taxpayers the ability to decide increased funding questions while lifting some of the burden from state taxpayers.
While not going into too many specifics, Walker did say that his impending budget proposal will include $35.5 million more to expand broadband access, and he pledged a “significant increase for public schools.”
He also called on Wisconsin again to be a leader on welfare reform, continuing the work that Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson began a generation ago.
“Rewarding work will be our top priority,” Walker said. “Here in Wisconsin, we are willing to help people who are down and out. But public assistance should be a trampoline, not a hammock.”
How he intends to pay for tuition freezes and cuts, increased transportation maintenance spending, tax breaks, and significant increases in public education funding remains to be explained.
Walker is expected to get down to details in the coming days leading up to the release of his budget plan.