Scott Walker winds down his first day of campaigning for the recall election with an appearance at Maynard Steel Casting on April 10.
The governor and lawmakers got distracted by other issues – and Walker overpromised during his 2010 campaign.
Certainly, Gov. Scott Walker is responsible for politicizing job creation in Wisconsin – and then taking his eye off the ball as his fellow Republicans embarked on fulfilling a conservative wish list ranging from concealed carry to the castle doctrine to voter ID. But is Walker responsible for the state’s dreary job numbers? And is any politician really capable of creating significant job growth?
Walker made a promise over which he had little control – essentially he was betting on the come – by pledging that Wisconsin would create 250,000 new private-sector jobs during his first term. That may have been a political mistake.
But the actions of any single politician are bound to be feeble when it comes to quickly turning around an economy as dynamic and complex as ours. What’s ailing Wisconsin’s economy has much more to do with global winds that are blowing from Asia and Europe, where our biggest exporters sell their goods, than with policy decisions in Madison.
Businesses make decisions about hiring based on whether that additional worker will help them sell more goods or services and improve their bottom lines. The actions of state government in such matters as tax policy and business regulation are important at the margins in those decisions – but only at the margins.
Businesses have to have demand for what they do before they hire. And for whatever reason, Wisconsin companies are doing less hiring over the past few months than their peers in other states. Even the much-maligned Illinois has performed better. There is no obvious answer to this riddle.
Walker will claim the reason is the recall elections – that they are creating an overwhelming arc of uncertainty. That’s overblown, but we do think it is a mistake to underestimate the effects of the ugly political warfare of the past 16 months. While we believe those battles have had only a marginal effect on the business climate, it would be inaccurate to say they have had no effect. There is tremendous political uncertainty in the state at the moment, and at the margins that might translate into caution on the part of some businesses.
Walker is popular with business, as every survey of business leaders shows. And he deserves credit, especially early in his term, for attacking Wisconsin’s most pressing problem: a lack of jobs. His effort to reform the moribund Department of Commerce into the more nimble Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. was successful. Tort reform, regulatory relief, tax incentives for business creation and a pioneering venture capital effort by the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority all were sound policies. But despite these efforts, job growth has lagged.
One reason may be that the incentives and programmatic changes Walker’s administration has pursued simply need more time to work. But we also think there were strategic missteps and problems with execution.
Walker seems to believe the magical thinking that Wisconsin can recruit businesses from other states. This approach has seldom worked for the Badger State. It is far better to create incentives and capital pools for start-up businesses. But the centerpiece of that effort – a bill to jump-start venture capital – flopped because Walker couldn’t persuade his own party to abandon a risky version of the bill in the Assembly last year. Another centerpiece initiative – to loosen mining regulation – did too little to protect the environment and couldn’t achieve bipartisan support. Republicans thought they could ram it through without proper input. They were wrong. We suspect former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson would have found a way to get both bills passed.
Walker’s Republican colleagues in the Legislature did find time for voter ID, promoting abstinence in the place of comprehensive sex education and other issues that play well with social conservatives. But their lack of political discipline was disappointing at a time when the state needs smart strategic thinking and execution and to maintain a laserlike focus on the main problem the state has: a lack of jobs.
Like we said: The eyes came off the ball.