By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON –What a difference an issue makes.
If there was any doubt that job creation would be the primary theme of Gov. Scott Walker’s State of the State address Tuesday, the people who joined him at the front of the Assembly quickly put those doubts to rest.
Rattling off the list of names of the operating engineers, carpenters and millwrights standing behind him, union members, all, Walker said, “A mine would be a lifeline to people in northwest Wisconsin. The unemployment rate in Iron County is the second-highest in the state, at nearly 12 percent. But the benefits would be felt all across Wisconsin.”
Politics does make strange bedfellows. Two years after many private-sector unions joined their public-sector brethren in opposing Walker’s Act 10, the organized labor-hated law that dismantles all but the basics of collective bargaining for unionized public employees in the state, Tuesday marked a show of labor solidarity with Walker – at least for some unions, on this one issue.
Motioning to the state flag the workers standing behind him held, Walker noted that not only does the flag feature a miner and mining tools, but Wisconsin’s nickname also references Wisconsin’s mining settlers.
“If there’s any state that can move forward with a way to streamline the process for safe and environmentally sound mining, shouldn’t it be the Badger State?” Walker asked, to applause.
Walked touched on a number of policy initiatives — deregulation, tax cuts for the middle class, education reform and, yes, mining — through his 33-minute speech.
But he repeatedly circled back to job creation, emphasizing how each proposal is tied to getting Wisconsinites back to work.
That focus is hardly surprising, given the fact that boosting the economy’s slow growth is tops on Wisconsinites’ minds.
But it also may be a tacit acknowledgment of the political reality Walker faces and an effort to stave off the criticism already coming his way.
The hallmark of Walker’s administration thus far has been the changes made to collective bargaining for unionized public employees, the protests those changes prompted and the recall elections that followed.
Walker survived his own recall election last summer.
But political experts say the governor also is keeping an eye on his own political future, particularly as he contemplates a possible re-election bid in 2014 or, as some suggest, has an eye on a future presidential run, perhaps as soon as 2016.
And the albatross around Walker’s neck may be the jobs numbers.
Wisconsin’s unemployment rate stands at 6.7 percent and consistently remains below the national average.
Yet Walker famously campaigned on creating a business-friendly environment that would enable Wisconsin to add 250,000 jobs in his first term, and even Walker’s own calculations put him off pace to reach that number in two years’ time.
In mid-December, Walker claimed that Wisconsin has added 86,000 jobs since the start of his administration. But that’s a number that others have not corroborated.
In its fall 2012 economic outlook report, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue said the state added about 38,000 jobs in 2011 and 2012 and predicted that another 36,000 jobs will be added this year.
Regardless of the exact number, the nearly stagnant economic growth has left an opening for Walker’s critics to claim his policies have done little if anything to bring more jobs to Wisconsin.
“Despite our repeated calls for a true special session on job creation and closing the skills gap, it simply has not happened,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, wrote in his State of the State response sent to the media prior to Walker’s speech. “At times it seems Republicans are prioritizing everything but job creation. Whether it is taking away workers’ rights, rolling back equal pay protections or making it tougher to vote – these things have been given priority over creating jobs.”
“It’s past time to stop inflating and contorting numbers,” Barca said. “It’s far past time to stop spending large amounts of time on polarizing, less pressing partisan issues.”
Bringing unionized workers to the State of the State speech — people Walker says could use the mining jobs — didn’t do much to silence the governor’s critics.
“Mining may or may not be good (depending on environmental protections) but that’s far down the road,” Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, said after the speech. “A lot of the guys who were here today probably won’t be working then. It could be seven years or 10 years (before a mine opens). I’m not saying mining can’t happen, but that’s down the road.”
“There needs to be an emphasis on training and education, we can’t just put an emphasis on mining,” Hansen said.
Walker touted Wisconsin’s successes, including reports that business leaders believe the state is headed in a positive direction.
“You see, adding a new job is about more than just a number,” the governor said, closing out his speech. “Every time another job is created, and a new employee is hired, it means that another family has someone working in their household. … I will work hard each and every day so we can help people all across Wisconsin have a chance to have a job and work hard to support themselves and their families for generations to come.”
Republican legislative leaders praised the governor for his vision, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said a mining bill would be the first legislation of the session.
“(The governor and I) share a similar agenda of private-sector job creation, regulatory reform and cutting income taxes for the middle class. … Wisconsin families need jobs and we need to help make a better business climate so that the private sector can create them,” Vos said in a statement after Walker spoke.
Earlier in the day, University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Barry Burden said that, politically, Walker has to address the concerns of two groups of people – the general public who will be voting in 2014 and the conservative GOP base who will largely be the ones choosing a Republican presidential nominee for 2016.
But Burden predicted it wouldn’t be difficult to satisfy those two constituencies.
“It’s really the taxes and jobs issues,” Burden said. “If he can continue to try to scale back the size of government, to reduce the tax burden to create incentives for jobs to be created, those are things that (for) the average voter, are going to appeal to them, and things that Republican voters are going to like.”
Contact Adshead at [email protected]