In his State of the State address to the state Legislature on Tuesday evening (Jan. 15) Gov. Scott Walker returned to his pledge of creating 250,000 new jobs in the private sector and emphasized his interest in getting passage of a new mining bill.
As he talked about the importance of lawmakers sending him a mining measure he could sign quickly this spring, Walker had a group of mining engineers, carpenters and other workers in hard hats come out in front of the Assembly chamber and hold up a state flag.
The governor named each of the workers and pointed out that mining is enshrined on the state flag and state seal with images of a miner and mining tools. Even the state nickname "badger" came from the state's early mining history, he noted.
"With that history, Wisconsin should be able to pass a mining bill and see a resurgence of mining in the state," he said.
Mining is needed in Iron County, Walker said, where unemployment stands at nearly 12 percent. People there and all over northern Wisconsin would welcome the mining industry's return, he said.
"A mine would be a lifeline to people in northwestern Wisconsin, but the benefits will be felt all across Wisconsin.
The governor suggested to lawmakers that they start with the legislation that was approved last year in the Joint Finance Committee, make sensible modifications and send him a "safe and environmentally sound mining bill early this year that I can sign."
In the last session, a mining bill failed to pass the state Senate when one Republican senator sided with Democrats in defeating the bill.
"We are moving forward with a bold vision and hope for the future," Walker said. After making tough choices in the face of a $3.6 billion state budget deficit, state government now has a $342 million surplus and has put money in a rainy day fund for the last two years, he said.
"We're heading in the right direction and unlike other states we have avoided huge tax increases. We thought more about the next generation than about the next election."
Walker said the state's pension fund is the only one in the country that is fully funded. In his budget address next month he said he would "reduce the burden on hardworking families by lowering the income tax in the middle class.
"We want to continue to put more money in the hands of the hardworking people of Wisconsin and small business owners."
Walker named a number of businesses that have moved to Wisconsin, or added jobs including Nueske's Meats in Wittenberg. "Employers feel good about our state. We're turning things around. We're heading in the right direction."
In this week's address Walker returned to his campaign promise to create 250,000 new jobs by 2015 - something he didn't mention at all in his speech last year. The governor said some have suggested that this goal will be too tough to reach. "In Wisconsin we don't make excuses, we get results.
"With this in mind, we're going to double-down and be even more aggressive in creating an environment for the state to create jobs."
Part of the jobs-creation package will be workforce development and a "transformation" of education, he said.
Most new jobs will come from building on the state's existing companies and businesses. Walker plans to help them grow by "lowering the cost of doing business" and "reducing bureaucratic red tape."
During his address he released a report on 300 state rule modifications that will make it easier to do business in Wisconsin and improve the state's regulatory climate.
The next priority will be to fill jobs with qualified, skilled workers. Surveys show tremendous need for skilled workers in various clusters from manufacturing to health care to information technology, he said.
As part of a Wisconsin Workforce Development program, the state collaborated with the University of Wisconsin to create a "UW Flex Option" to offer adult learners with some college credits a way to finalize a degree.
"I can identify," said the governor, adding that when he was a senior at Marquette, he left for a job with the American Red Cross. Then he got married and eventually two sons arrived - one now in college and one a senior in high school.
This new initiative, he said, will offer a less costly way to get a degree.
Walker said he wants to continue to transform education, rewarding teachers with pay based on performance and forcing school districts to be accountable.
His budget message next month will lay out financial incentives to reward successful schools all across the state.
At the same time the state grows jobs, it will need to help employers grow by providing skilled graduates for today and tomorrow, the governor said.
Walker also said his effort to reform government through the "waste, fraud and abuse" task force, had found $456 million worth of savings. The effort has allowed state government to focus on efficiency.
The state's $16 billion tourism industry is one of many that benefits from a healthy transportation system, he said, and he will place an emphasis on transportation as the state moves forward.
"For tourism or for taking products to market - from dairy products to iron ore - Wisconsin will depend on a strong transportation backbone." Businesses in the state are at a competitive disadvantage "if we don't have a great transportation infrastructure."
In addition to investment in transportation, Wisconsin needs to expand the reach of high-speed internet for state residents, he added.
"There's still much more work to be done. It's clear that creating 250,000 new jobs in the private sector is about much more than a campaign promise. Adding a job is about more than a number. It means another family has another person working."
In his response to the governor's speech State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), the Senate's Minority leader, said forcing through an "extreme mining bill" in Wisconsin won't create jobs for at least seven years.
"The governor's failed policies have left us floundering," he said, as the state lost jobs far behind the pace Walker had promised when he took office. "We have the lowest job creation in the Midwest, tied for 42nd nationally."
Larson said Wisconsin employers report a "skills gap" with 35,000 jobs remaining unfilled despite a high unemployment rate.
Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), in his response said "Wisconsin is 42nd in the nation in job creation and at the bottom in the Midwest. Forbes Magazine predicts we will continue to lag behind much of the country for years to come.
The magazine also ranked us 42nd - among the worst states to do business in. Forbes noted that Wisconsin "job growth is projected to be second worst in the U.S. through 2016," Barca added.
Larson said that it's time to shed some light on the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the corporation that was created to replace the Department of Commerce and which was entrusted with $85 million in taxpayers funds. In the course of its first year of operation it lost track of $50 million in loans.
The governor's office announced that following the speech Walker would tour the state to talk more about his vision for Wisconsin. On Wednesday, he was scheduled to visit businesses in Hartford and Green Bay.