Walker: State headed in right direction
Walker did not mention the recall in his address delivered under tight security.
“We are turning things around. We are heading in the right direction,” Walker said during his 37-minute speech.
Walker’s argument that the changes he pushed through that spurred the recall effort were necessary and are working has been the crux of his campaign to keep his job after just over a year in office.
Democrats countered that Walker has torn the state apart and there’s nothing he can say now to reverse the will of an estimated 1 million people who signed recall petitions that were turned in last week.
“Gov. Walker’s way has not worked,” said Democrat Kathleen Falk, the former Dane County executive who announced she would run against Walker in a recall.
Hundreds of protesters in the Capitol rotunda shouted, whistled and booed throughout the speech. Inside the chamber, Republicans applauded loudly for Walker, but he was interrupted multiple times from people in the galleries, including by a woman who screamed, “Liar! Recall Walker!”
Walker appeared to be unfazed, carefully laying out his case for why the state is on the right track under his leadership. He noted that unemployment has dropped from 7.5 percent before he took office to 7.1 percent last month. The state added 13,500 private sector jobs in 2011 — evidence, he said, the economy is improving.
However, Wisconsin reported job losses each of the past six months while there were increases nationally. Democrats say that shows Walker’s agenda is not working.
“It is unacceptable that the governor suggests he has kept his promises, while the facts prove otherwise,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller. “He is living in a state of denial.”
Walker campaigned in 2010 on the promise that given four years in charge, 250,000 more people would be put to work in the private sector. He didn’t mention that pledge on Wednesday.
Walker did call on the Legislature to pass a bill easing the way for an iron ore mine to locate in northern Wisconsin. He called it a “tremendous opportunity for job growth.”
The Assembly was expected to approve the measure on Thursday, but it was unclear when it may be debated in the Senate given opposition from some Republicans there who hold a narrow 17-16 majority.
Walker also urged small businesses that are poised to grow to add at least one more person this year.
The governor finds himself in a political maelstrom a year after he shook up the state by proposing eliminating nearly all collective bargaining rights for most state workers as part of his plan for balancing a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
He said the collective bargaining changes empowered local officials to make decisions about their schools. He thanked teachers for their hard work and dedication.
“We are glad that Wisconsin avoided the massive layoffs of government employees experienced in other states,” he said.
The union proposal, along with other policies he pushed like requiring photo identification at the polls and cutting state aid to schools by $800 million, helped spark the recall drive. But Walker stood by his record.
“We thought more about the next generation than we did about the next election,” Walker said. “And isn’t that what you elected us to do? We kept our promises.”
Only two governors in U.S. history have ever been recalled from office.
Walker has been raising money at a record pace, collecting $12.1 million since last year and blanketing the airwaves with advertisements touting his achievements. Four Republican state senators, as well as Walker’s lieutenant governor, are also targeted for recall.
Republicans spent the past year working to balance the budget without raising taxes and improving the state’s business climate, while Democrats were focused on “protesting, recalling and playing politics,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.
“They know that recalls are bad for Wisconsin, but they’re pushing them anyway,” said Fitzgerald, who is one of four GOP senators facing a possible recall. “For the Democrats, the state of our state won’t ever be good enough unless they’re in the driver’s seat.”
Walker announced few new initiatives in his speech.
“I think we deserve a leader who will look at the facts and lead us,” said Democratic Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee. “Instead we got window dressing.”
Walker said he was creating a task force to follow up on government waste, fraud and abuse identified by a special task force he created last year. That group, which issued its report earlier this month, identified more than $400 million in potential savings.
He also asked state agencies to work with a small business board to eliminate old and unnecessary regulations that hinder state job growth.
Democrats were not impressed.
“These are not innovative ideas,” Miller said. “Nor do they create jobs for Wisconsin working families now.”
The address came hours after the release of a new poll that showed Walker leading four potential Democratic opponents in a recall election and with more voters approving of his job performance than opposing it. The Marquette University Law School telephone poll was conducted Jan. 19 through Jan. 22, just days after recall organizers turned in the signatures.
The speech also comes as a secret probe by the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office into current and past Walker aides continues. Two former Walker associates were charged last month with embezzling more than $60,000 from veterans and their families and Walker has repeatedly denied he’s the subject of investigation or has done anything wrong.