Walker touts income tax cut, job push in speech
MADISON Gov. Scott Walker promised during his State of the State speech Tuesday to deliver a significant income tax cut for the middle class and to renew his focus on putting people back to work, saying he was “doubling down” on his campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs.
The 30-minute speech was brief on details and drew derision from Democrats, who said Walker has shown no urgency to create jobs over the first two years of his term — noting he is far from fulfilling that jobs promise, even by his own count.
But the Republican governor, just seven months past his recall victory, said there are signs that the state’s economy is improving, including a drop in the unemployment rate.
“We are moving Wisconsin forward with bold vision and bright hope for the future,” Walker said.
Two years removed from the bitter partisan fight over his first budget that led to his recall election, Walker has been striving to cast himself in a more moderate light midway through his first term as governor.
His first budget imposed deep cuts to education funding and infuriated public employee unions by going after their collective bargaining rights. His new budget plan, expected to be released next month, figures to be less divisive — but he revealed few details Tuesday.
On education, Walker voiced support for expanding choices available to parents, including charter and voucher schools. He also called on lawmakers to quickly pass legislation that would ease regulations so a new iron ore mine could be opened in northern Wisconsin near Lake Superior.
During his speech, Walker was joined by several private union workers as he discussed his commitment to building the mine. The workers, who could potentially work at the mine, held a Wisconsin state flag, which shows a miner and mining tools on it.
The move didn’t impress Democrats.
“It was high on theatrics but low on substance,” Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chris Larson said after the speech. “We saw a lot of fluff but we didn’t see the details that would come from it.”
Democratic Assembly Leader Peter Barca said Walker needs to work with Democrats on passing bills to address worker training and create jobs.
“It’s far past time to stop spending large amounts of time on polarizing, less pressing partisan issues,” Barca said.
But the heart of this year’s budget debate will likely be whether to pass an income tax cut or backfill some of the cuts in Walker’s last budget. The state is expected to have about a $342 million budget surplus.
When discussing the income tax cut, which Walker has said would be phased in over a few years, the governor said: “We want to continue to put more money in the hands of the hard-working taxpayers and small business owners in our state.”
As evidence of an improving economy, he pointed to the drop in property taxes in each of the past two years on the median-valued home. He also noted that the statewide unemployment rate decreased to 6.7 percent in December compared to 7.8 percent when he took office in January 2011.
Still, Walker is far from meeting his 2010 job creation pledge that he reiterated during the recall election and in the months since then.
Depending on the measurement used, the number of private-sector jobs has increased by either 37,000 or 86,500 since Walker took office. Additionally, the new public-private agency he created to head economic development and job creation efforts has been plagued by management problems.
Wisconsin ranked 42nd in private-sector job creation from June 2011 to June 2012, based on the most recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
On Tuesday, he referred to his pledge to create 250,000 by 2015 as an “ambitious goal.”
“After all that we’ve gone through in Wisconsin over the past few years, some have suggested that this goal is too difficult to reach,” the governor said.
“With the protests and recalls combined with the slow recovery at the national level, the fiscal cliff, and ongoing worries about health care mandates coming out of Washington, they say there are plenty of reasons why it has been hard to create jobs.”
But he said he was focused on results, not excuses.
“We are going to double down and be even more aggressive with our efforts to improve the jobs climate in this state,” he said. “People want us focused on things that will improve the economy and our way of life.”
Walker called on the Legislature to quickly pass legislation that would ease regulations so the iron ore mine could be opened near Lake Superior. Walker said such a mine would be a “lifeline” to people in Iron County, where the unemployment rate is nearly 12 percent.
A new mine could result in a $1.5 billion investment and creation of up to 700 jobs, “but the benefits will be felt all across Wisconsin,” Walker said.
Republican lawmakers scheduled a Wednesday news conference to unveil the latest version of the bill, which leaders have said they want to pass by early March. The bill will make changes to the rules and requirements for opening new mines in the state.
Even if a new mine opens, it would be years before any of the mining jobs materialize, Larson said.
In discussing education, Walker cited a voucher program that subsidizes private education for students in struggling school districts. The program had been limited to Milwaukee, but last year Republicans expanded it to all of Milwaukee County and the city of Racine.
“Moving forward, we want to continue to dramatically improve existing schools and give parents the opportunity to choose legitimate alternatives to failing schools,” Walker said.
Walker also touted a report released just before his speech that identifies 300 rule modifications in 218 state administrative code chapters he said need to be changed to make it easier for businesses to operate in the state.