Nora G. Hertel
Gov. Scott Walker received several standing ovations during his third State of the State address, but when the volume in the Assembly chambers fell, the chants and songs of a few dozen protesters could be heard on the other side of the door.
In his first State of the State since beating back a divisive recall challenge last June, Walker focused on former and future efforts to boost economic development, add jobs and reform state government. He contrasted Wisconsin's successes with ongoing issues in neighboring states and the gridlock in the U.S. legislature, and he laid out five priorities for his second term in office.
These include creating jobs, developing the workforce, transforming education, reforming government and investing in infrastructure. These priorities will be detailed in Walker's upcoming biennial budget, to be introduced next month.
The governor, who is up for reelection in 2014, also called for lowering taxes on the middle class and made several pitches for the state to move forward with mining legislation.
"We're turning things around. We're headed in the right direction. We're moving Wisconsin forward," said Walker, after touting the state's $342 million dollar budget surplus in contrast to the $3.6 billion dollar budget deficit he inherited two years ago.
Walker also drew attention to the drop in the state unemployment rate, from 7.8% to 6.7%, and noted that the state has the only fully funded pension system in the country. Wisconsin does have the funding to follow through on promised pensions and healthcare to retirees, while many states do not, but, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has pointed out, the data on the state's impressive pension funding comes from the fiscal year 2010, before Walker took office.
"In many ways, our position in Wisconsin is a stark contrast to the chaos in Washington, D.C.," said Walker. "While many of our nation's leaders fail to make tough decisions, we decided to avoid failure by embracing true reform."
In a press conference after Walker's address, Senate Democratic Leader Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said Walker's speech was "high on theatrics but low on substance."
Larson said he did agree with the governor on a few subjects -- including his criticism of federal gridlock in Washington D.C. and the Chicago Bears. Larson said he was glad to hear Walker praise union workers and hopes to work with the governor on his stated priorities.
When elected, Walker pledged to add 250,000 jobs to the state. He admitted this goal remains ambitious, but said it could still be achieved by 2015.
One way to add jobs is to open an iron ore mine in Iron County, said Walker. Mining company Gogebic Taconite withdrew a proposal last year after legislation to facilitate mining faced opposition from environmentalists and tribal governments.
When Walker raised the mining issue, more than a dozen individuals in hard hats, including union representatives, joined the governor at the podium. A few held up the Wisconsin state flag. The governor asked legislators for a mining bill to sign into law early this year.
"If there's any state that can move forward for safe and environmentally sound mining, shouldn't it be the Badger State?" asked Walker, pointing out the mining symbols on the state flag.
But in his comments following Walker's speech, Larson said fewer than 700 jobs would be created and it would be seven years before they would be filled. Larson said the governor should instead expand Medicare, which could add 10,000 jobs to the state.
Larson said that he wants Walker to work on jobs with the Democrats. In turn, Democrats are prepared to help close the so-called skills gap, in line with Walker's priority to train workers to fill jobs around the state.
While discussing education in the state, Walker cited a need for parents to have educational options for their children, including homeschooling, vouchers for private schools and charter schools. He said hiring teachers should be based on merit, and pay should be based on performance.
"[We] want to reward and replicate success all across the state," said Walker, later adding, "Give parents the opportunity to choose legitimate alternatives to failing schools."
The governor pointed out two children in the audience, a current and former third-grader he mentored in reading. Walker urged residents to mentor and read with children throughout the state.
He cheered a $16 billion boost in the state tourism industry that he said resulted from a partnership between the tourism and transportation departments. And he said his Fraud, Waste and Abuse commission found $456 million in savings.
Walker wrapped up with a pitch to support the state's infrastructure, stating that it was necessary to sustain local business in the state.
"[Many local] industries rely on our strong transportation backbone,' said Walker, identifying "roads, bridges, freight rail, ports, and airports."
In his concluding remarks, Walker reiterated that he offered a "bold vision" for Wisconsin and believed in its "bright future." But, he acknowledged, there's yet "much more work to be done."