With a re-election campaign now less than two years away, Gov. Scott Walker delivered his third State of the State speech Tuesday night, waxing familiar on themes ranging from tax cuts to regulatory reform, and urging the Legislature to get a mining bill passed.
If the governor appeared less polarizing this time around, he was no less reform-minded, however, and Democrats were no more impressed.
For his part, the governor stressed the accomplishments of his first two years in office and promised more change to come.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are moving Wisconsin forward with bold vision and bright hope for the future,” Walker said. “Two years ago, when I first stood here as your new governor, Wisconsin was facing a $3.6-billion budget deficit, property taxes had gone up 27 percent over the previous decade, increasing every year, and the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent.”
Today, he observed, Wisconsin has a $342-million budget surplus, while property taxes on a median valued home have declined in each of the last two years, and the unemployment rate has dropped to 6.7 percent.
Democrats had a different take on the state’s direction. Sen. Mark Miller (D-Madison) derided Walker’s record on job creation and his promise to create 250,000 new jobs.
“212,000 jobs,” Miller said. “The governor is 212,000 jobs short of his promise to Wisconsin. The governor and legislative Republicans have seemingly taken their eye off of the ball in the interest of more political posturing and have lost sight of what is important to the families of Wisconsin.”
For his part, newly minted Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) liked the governor’s focus on mining, saying an iron mine would be especially beneficial to northern Wisconsin.
“At a time when other states are still facing budget deficits and repeated tax increases, Gov. Walker has laid out a bold vision to pursue a middle-class tax cut for Wisconsin’s working families, reinvest in our infrastructure, and, most importantly, getting a new mining bill passed, which will create jobs for northern Wisconsin and have a positive impact on our state’s economy overall,” Tiffany said.
State Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander) was one of four lawmakers selected to escort the governor into the legislative chambers, and he said that gratified him. He also said he was eager to push forward with mining legislation.
“As a freshman legislator, it was quite an honor to be asked to escort Gov. Scott Walker into the Assembly chambers for the State of the State address,” Swearingen said. “... I agree with Gov. Scott Walker’s stance on responsible and environmentally safe mining. Personally I believe if Michigan and Minnesota can mine safely, so can Wisconsin.”
Walker said that, unlike the message coming out of Washington, he believed in putting more money in the hands of people instead of the government, and a critical way to do that was to create jobs.
He cited an improving business climate, greater employer confidence, and recent jobs announcements by various companies. But at the top of the jobs’ list was an iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.
“One of the best ways we can show the people of Wisconsin that their state government is focused on jobs is to pass a bill that streamlines the process for safe and environmentally sound mining,” Walker said. “Start with the legislation that was approved in the Joint Finance Committee last session, include some reasonable modifications, and send me a bill to sign into law early this year. A mine would be a lifeline to people in northwestern Wisconsin, where the unemployment rate in Iron County is the second highest in the state at nearly 12 percent.”
In a seminal moment in the speech, the governor then introduced unemployed union workers who stood with him and raised the state flag, emblazoned as it is with the image of a miner and miners’ tools.
“And on the top of the (flag’s) seal is a badger, which comes from the nickname given to early settlers who were miners,” Walker said. “If any state can move forward with a way to streamline the process for safe and environmentally sound mining, shouldn’t it be the Badger State?”
The governor said another way to put money in people’s pockets was to reduce the cost of doing business in the state, and he vowed to continue to streamline the regulatory process. He cited his reformed Small Business Regulatory Review Board, which, after searching for unnecessary, obsolete, and burdensome regulations, has identified 300 rule modifications in 218 administrative code chapters.
Reducing taxes is yet another key way to put money in people’s pockets, the governor said.
“With the introduction of my proposed budget next month, I will lay out a clear plan for reducing the burden on hard-working families by lowering income taxes on the middle class,” Walker said. “We want to continue to put more money in the hands of the hard-working taxpayers and small business owners in our state.”
Walker has recently suggested coming tax cuts could lay the groundwork for ending the state’s income tax altogether.
The governor also stressed the need for further transforming the state’s education system, including an expansion of school choice and an emphasis on performance.
He pointed to the state’s new report cards for schools as one step in that direction.
“In our budget, we will lay out plans to provide a financial incentive for high-performing and rapidly improving schools,” he said. “We want to reward and replicate success – all across the state. At the same time, we will outline a plan to help failing schools fundamentally change their structure and dramatically improve their results.”
Our goal is to help each school excel, so every child in the state has access to a great education, Walker said.
“We continue to expand the number of choices for families in Wisconsin – be it a traditional, a charter, a voucher, a virtual, or a home school environment,” the governor said. “Moving forward, we want to continue to dramatically improve existing schools and give parents the opportunity to choose legitimate alternatives to failing schools.”
That’s not only a moral imperative as a parent, he said, it’s an economic imperative as the governor.
“If we want to help employers grow here in Wisconsin, we must show them there is a steady supply of graduates with the skills needed to fill the jobs – not only of today – but of tomorrow,” Walker said.
Richard Moore may be reached at email@example.com.