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Clockwise from top left: Sheila Harsdorf, Scott Walker, Dean Knudson and Kathleen Vinehout.

Local lawmakers respond to Gov. Walker's State of State Address

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With a re-election bid 21 months away, Gov. Scott Walker reviewed his accomplishments thus far and promised to "double down" on efforts improve Wisconsin's job climate as he delivered his State of the State address Jan. 15.

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While Republican lawmakers who represent Pierce and St. Croix counties in the state Legislature were complimentary of the governor's speech, the area's lone Democratic representative advised a wait-and-see reaction.

During the 30-minute message, Walker called 10 out-of-work union members to his side, introducing them by name as "people who really want to work."

As they and eight other union members held up a Wisconsin flag, Walker pointed to the image of a miner to the right of the state seal, to mining tools in the upper right corner of the flag and to the flag's badger -- a nickname for the state's early settlers, who were miners.

"If any state can move forward with a way to streamline the process for safe and environmentally sound mining, shouldn't it be the Badger State?" asked the governor.

He said one of the best ways the state can prove it is focused on jobs is "to pass a bill that streamlines the process for safe and environmentally sound mining."

Calling a mine "a lifeline to the people in northwestern Wisconsin" where employment rates are nearly 12 percent, Walker also said a mine's benefits would be felt throughout the state.

When he was first elected two years ago, said Walker, the state was facing a $3.6 million budget deficit, property taxes had increased 27 percent over the previous decade and unemployment was at 6.8 percent.

Now, said the governor, the state has a $342 million budget surplus, property taxes on most homes went down in each of the last two years and the unemployment rate has dropped to 6.7 percent, said the governor.

"With the introduction of my proposed budget next month, I will lay out a clear plan for reducing the burden on hard-working families by lowering income taxes on the middle class," promised Walker. "We want to continue to put more money in the hands of the hard-working taxpayers and small business owners of our state."

Walker said the state needs to make administrative code changes to make it easier to do business here and must work to align educational programs with the needs of the workplace and current and future employers.

Reaction

"Gov. Walker presented a solid foundation for what I anticipate to be a successful and productive legislative session," said Republican Warren Petryk, Eleva, who represents much of Pierce County in the Assembly. "I was encouraged by his enthusiasm and his plan to build on the successes of our last legislative session..."

Calling the speech, "extremely positive and encouraging," Assemblyman John Murtha, R-Baldwin, said the governor has "given us a road map to success in job creation and reform."

Not so fast, said Democratic Senator Kathleen Vinehout, who also has most of Pierce County in her district.

"As every governor does in the State of the State, he made a lot of positive statements and general promises. We will know what is real when we see his budget next month," said Vinehout.

She was equally skeptical about Walker's taking credit for turning the state's economy around.

"In the last two years of slow recovery with a Republican governor and a Democratic president, Wisconsin has trailed other states in job creation. During the recession when we had a Republican president and a Democratic governor, the Wisconsin economy didn't fall as far or as quickly as other states," said Vinehout. "It seems to me to be a matter of political choice who gets the blame and who gets the credit in either case."

Republican lawmakers, though, called attention to the state budget surplus and the declining unemployment rate as evidence of a turn-around.

"Our jobs numbers have improved and our state has reversed the trend of job losses," said Senator Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls. "However, there is more work to be done to encourage job growth and get people back to work."

The drop in unemployment is significant, said Assemblyman Dean Knudson, R-Hudson.

"This is particularly true in Pierce and St. Croix counties," he said. "The 'turning around' refers to the fact that Wisconsin was headed in the wrong direction, with huge job losses, high unemployment and massive deficits. We have put Wisconsin on a new track toward a more prosperous future."

With a balanced budget and even a surplus, the state can now look to the future rather than struggling with past mistakes, said Assemblyman Erik Severson, R-Star Prairie.

"When we look back at the last two years, we have made great strides in bringing fiscal responsibility back to Wisconsin and in improving our jobs climate," said Harsdorf. She added, "Additionally, our state's ranking on lists of best places to start or expand a business has improved according to a number of news outlets and publications."

"The most important thing (Walker) accomplished was balancing the budget without raising taxes" said Murtha "Any state can balance their budgets by raising taxes, but the governor stood strong to his word. He froze property taxes, kept people in their jobs, and created a surplus."

Petryk agreed: "The governor's accomplishment in creating a more fiscally responsible Wisconsin is, in my opinion, the most important thing he did last session. We now have a budget surplus and money set aside in a rainy day fund for a record two consecutive years."

Vinehout was less complimentary about accomplishments during Walker's first two years.

"As a people we are more polarized, politics is less civil," she said. "The governor bears some of the responsibility for creating the current atmosphere."

Area lawmakers were also divided along party lines regarding the state's ability to develop environmentally sound mines.

"One of our top priorities coming into this session is to pass legislation that will allow for a streamlined iron ore mine permitting process, rather than limiting opportunities for growth with burdensome regulations and ambiguous timelines," said Severson. He said he is sure the Legislature can develop a streamlined permitting process that will safeguard the state's environmental protections.

Knudson agreed, adding, "In our neighboring states of Minnesota and Michigan, tens of thousands of jobs exist because they have safely allowed iron mining."

But Vinehout disagreed.

"There are so many lakes, rivers and trout streams in northern Wisconsin that it will be almost impossible to develop 'safe, environmentally sound' mining," she said. "As one of my fellow senators who studied the issue closely said, 'God put too much water in the Penokee Range for there to be a mine.'"

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Judy Wiff
Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.
(715) 426-1049
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