Walker touts income tax cut, job push in state of state speech
MADISON Gov. Scott Walker promised during his State of the State speech Tuesday night to deliver a significant income tax cut to the middle class and a renewed focus on putting people back to work.
Speaking to a joint session of the Republican-controlled Legislature, Walker said creating jobs was his top priority. He also said he was "doubling down" on efforts to meet his 2010 campaign promise to create 250,000 private-sector jobs over four years.
The Republican, just seven months past his recall victory, remains far from fulfilling that signature campaign promise. But he said there are signs that the state's economy is improving, including a drop in the unemployment rate and lower property taxes.
"We are moving Wisconsin forward with bold vision and bright hope for the future," he 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.
Democrats were not impressed, saying Walker has shown no willingness to focus on job creation or urgency to act.
"It's far past time to stop spending large amounts of time on polarizing, less pressing partisan issues," said Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca.
Whether to pass an income tax cut or backfill some of the cuts in Walker's last budget is likely to be the heart of the budget debate this year. 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 said property taxes dropped in each of the past two years on median-valued homes. 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, which 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 a new iron ore mine could be opened in northern Wisconsin 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.
Lawmakers couldn't agree on a mining proposal last year, but Republican legislative leaders say they hope to have a bill passed by early March. The latest proposal, which calls for changing rules and requirements for opening new mines in the state, was expected to be introduced as soon as this week and hearings could be held this month.
On education, Walker voiced support for expanding choices available to parents, including charter and voucher schools.
"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.
The voucher program 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.
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.