MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker declared in his seventh State of the State address Tuesday that workforce development will be his top priority going forward, a shift that comes after he failed to fulfill his signature job-creation promise and as he considers seeking a third term.
Speaking to the largest Republican legislative majorities in decades, Walker said that the future of the state is “bright” and echoed president elect-Donald Trump by saying Wisconsin is “winning.”
“Are the people of Wisconsin — you, me, us — better off than we were six years ago?” Walker said. “The answer is a resounding yes.”
The speech comes as Walker eyes running for re-election to a third term in 2018 after flaming out as a presidential candidate in 2015. He traveled to all 72 counties to hold invite-only listening sessions last year as he attempts to improve his approval rating, which sits at around 40 percent.
Walker used the 35-minute State of the State speech to tout the state’s lowest unemployment rate in 15 years, billions of dollars in tax cuts passed under his watch and economic growth.
He promised to increase funding for K-12 schools, cut tuition for in-state undergraduates at the UW System by an undisclosed amount and push initiatives to help returning veterans find work.
“Our biggest challenge is not creating jobs, but finding people to fill them. We went from a focus on ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ to talking about ‘workforce, workforce, workforce,‘” Walker said. “This is my top priority for 2017 — and beyond.”
Walker’s campaign promise in 2010, which he repeated in the 2012 recall, was to create 250,000 private sector jobs in his first four years in office. After five years only about 168,000 had been created. Now Walker is shifting his focus to making sure everyone who can work does so by making sure they are getting trained for high-need jobs and existing vacancies.
Rep. Gordon Hintz D-Oshkosh, accused Walker of delivering a “State of Denial” speech. He and other Democrats said Walker has been a failure, citing a nearly $1 billion transportation budget shortfall, an ongoing criminal investigation at the Lincoln Hills youth prison, complaints of neglect at the veterans home in King, sluggish economic growth compared with neighboring states and cuts in funding for K-12 schools.
“Walker’s speech was a storm of empty words and false promises,” said state Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee. “The only thing remarkable about his address is that anyone is bothering to listen.”
Heading into their seventh straight year in the minority with Walker as governor, Democrats don’t have the votes to block his agenda. Republicans have the largest majority in the Senate since 1971 and in the Assembly since 1957.
Republicans praised Walker, saying he accurately described progress being made in the state.
“The reforms we put into place over the many years Republicans have had control of the Legislature are clearly making a difference,” said Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa. “Our message is resonating with the good people of Wisconsin.”
In a break from custom, Walker’s wife, Tonette Walker, took a brief turn in the spotlight. With Walker standing beside her, she took the podium to tout an initiative she formed in 2011 called Fostering Futures that works to prevent and reduce childhood trauma.
Walker said having access to a great education is both a moral and economic imperative. He promised to target rural schools to help address higher transportation costs, broadband access and declining enrollment.
Walker repeated his promise to significantly increase funding for K-12 schools, but didn’t say by how much or if it would be structured in a way to send the money to classrooms or for property tax relief.
Those details, and many others, will have to wait for the release of Walker’s budget next month, the blueprint of spending and policy priorities for the next two years. Walker has already called a special session of the Legislature to pass a series of bills targeting opioid abuse.