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Wisconsin's political war shifts to jobs numbers

By   /   April 26, 2012  /   No Comments

By Kirsten Adshead and Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — If political news releases are to be believed, Wisconsin’s economy may be in bad hands come this summer, no matter who wins the June 5 gubernatorial recall election.

“(Gov.) Scott Walker put ideology ahead of jobs, and as a result Wisconsin is leading the nation in job loss. It’s unacceptable,” said a statement Thursday from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the front runner heading into the May 8 primary that will decide Walker’s Democratic opponent.

Barrett’s statement follows one from Walker’s camp that came out Wednesday.

“The City of Milwaukee, under Mayor Barrett’s failed policy, is an anchor weighing on Wisconsin’s ability to create jobs,” the release said, adding, “Wisconsinites can’t afford to let Mayor Barrett take us backwards by spreading his abysmal record on job creation to the rest of the state.”

Welcome to the monthly battle over jobs numbers, when Republicans and Democrats alike comb the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, hoping to find something for which they can take credit, or for which they can blame the other side.

It’s hardly surprising, given that Wisconsin is in perpetual election mode and the economy is the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds.

“For three months we’re going to be bludgeoned with ‘this is my argument, this is your argument,’” University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist Kathy Dolan said. “Certainly, politicians and officeholders are going to use numbers as a political advantage.”

Back and forth

Democrats jumped on a BLS report this week that showed Wisconsin lost 23,900 jobs from March 2011 to March 2012. No other state posted a statistically significant job loss during that period.

The Walker campaign, in response, was quick to note that while the state overall lost 4,300 jobs in March, the Milwaukee metropolitan area lost 4,400 jobs last month.

Other municipalities’ gains helped the state offset the losses in Milwaukee and elsewhere.

“Blame Milwaukee,” though, is an overly simplistic explanation.

What to do, for example, with the fact that Green Bay lost 1,500 jobs last month — giving it a per-capita job loss greater than the Milwaukee metro area?

What’s the effect of the year-to-year loss of 17,800 government jobs as indicated by the March 2012 preliminary BLS report?

How can politicians jumpstart construction — an industry that has cut 7 percent of its jobs since March 2011?

Is Barrett to blame for Milwaukee’s workforce contraction, as the mayor blames Walker for Wisconsin’s?

Economic experts argue that assigning all the blame to governors and mayors is the same as laying all of the U.S.’ economic ills at the feet of the president.

There are a lot of moving parts.

“There isn’t one way to read the numbers, and there isn’t one cause for them,” Dolan said.

Politicians seem to spend plenty of time blaming each other.

Ironically, though, it may be Wisconsin politics, collectively, that is keeping Wisconsin’s economy down.

Recall economy

Nine Wisconsin senators faced recall elections last summer, with two Republicans losing their seats.

Now the state is preparing for statewide recall elections against Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and for additional recall elections in four state Senate districts — with a potential recall of state Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, still to come.

In addition to that, major legislation pushed by Walker and passed by the GOP-led Legislature — from collective bargaining changes for public employees to redistricting maps to the new voter ID law — has ended up in the courts. Some issues still aren’t decided.

Businesses care about public policy — tax credits, tort reform and the like may encourage businesses to come to a state, UW-M economics professor Keith Bender said.

But, Bender said, “Uncertainty is the worst thing that can happen because you’re just not sure as a business person, for example, whether to put the time and effort” into hiring more people or expanding a business.

“It’s really difficult (to plan) if you don’t know what exactly the policy is,” and business owners can’t count on consistent public policy in a time of political upheaval, Bender said.

He does think the winner of the gubernatorial recall will get an economic boost after the recall elections, just as a result of some certainty returning to Wisconsin politics — although the November elections still loom.

And there is a bit of hope, too, from the state’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

WMC is supporting Walker in the recall.

WMC has released a new report indicating that 87 percent of its members said they will create new jobs in 2012.

“The business community in Wisconsin is very confident in the state in terms of reforms at the Capitol, controlling spending, controlling regulation,” WMC spokesman Jim Pugh said. “They see a new direction in Wisconsin’s business climate. They’re ready to invest.”

‘Unemployment’ explained

At first glance, it makes little sense.

Somehow Wisconsin managed to lose 4,300 jobs last month while simultaneously posting a 0.1 percent decline in the unemployment rate.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Bender explains:

“Unemployment rate” doesn’t measure the number of people who are out of work. It measures the number of people who are out of work and looking for a job.

It doesn’t measure people who have dropped out of the workforce by deciding they no longer want to work. And it doesn’t measure what economists call “discouraged workers,” those people who are no longer seeking a job but would take one “if one landed in their lap.”

So, technically, month-to-month, the state could have the same number of people out of work. But if some of those people stopped looking for a job, the unemployment rate would drop.

How many “discouraged workers” does Wisconsin have?

Bender knows of no state-level data. But he said, according to the BLS, there are about 800,000 “discouraged workers” nationwide.