Op Ed

Walker Speech More About Politics Than Policy

State-of-the-state speech was politically crafty, but ignored some major issues.

By - Feb 2nd, 2018 10:00 am
Gov. Scott Walker at the executive residence, Dec. 30, 2014. Photo by Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Gov. Scott Walker at the executive residence, Dec. 30, 2014. Photo by Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Looking ahead at what promises to be a tough election year for Republicans, Gov. Scott Walker’s state of the state address last week was as important for what it didn’t say as for what it did.

The headline coming out of his speech was $100 in tax credits or cash going to parents for each child. This tax gift is an election year piece of cotton candy, a one-timer that will have little strategic impact on the state.

Looked at another way, Gov. Walker is pre-empting the Democratic 2018 issues. They have been critical of his previous budgets that short-changed education, so he upped K-12 spending in his recent budget, continued the tuition freeze at the University of Wisconsin System and then followed with per-child crowd pleaser.

Think of his tactics like those used in competitive sailing. A skipper in the lead just matches every move by the top follower. It’s called “covering.”

The governor has also “covered” the Democrats on health care. As premiums continue to soar on the Obamacare exchanges, a Democratic vulnerability, Walker appropriated that issue by proposing a $200 million infusion into health care reinsurance, with the intent of moderating premiums.

Side note: At my company, the reinsurance premium to cover catastrophic health cases runs about $400,000 on a total health care bill of $5 million, or only about 8%. The Walker subsidy, a small bite out of the 8%, will be a boon to the Medical Industrial Complex (MIC), but will do nothing to address the screaming issue in health care, the out-of-control costs.

In fairness to the Governor, he pushed for self-insurance for state employees in his 2016 state of the state address and subsequent budget, which would cut costs. His fellow Republicans in the legislature yielded to MIC lobbyists and shot it down.

At any rate, don’t get your hopes up for premium reductions. The reinsurance move is unlikely to trickle down.

The 2016 and 2018 addresses bragged up the Governor’s two-term track record on the economy, making a positive comparison to his predecessor, Democrat Jim Doyle. The comparison is more political than valid, because Doyle had to weather the biggest recession in U.S. history, while Walker has enjoyed one of the longest expansions in U.S. history.

Governors have something to do with the long-term prosperity in a state, but national trends almost always trump state dynamics.

Nonetheless, Gov. Walker can brandish some nice numbers, mainly the very low jobless rate of 3% and high labor participation.

Further, the money flowing from the strong economy into the state treasury has enabled funding of a wide range of workforce training programs for veterans, handicapped people, youth and adult apprentices, the mentally disabled and the under-skilled. It had been blessedly bipartisan as the rising tide lifts boats.

The surplus of open jobs gives the governor an opening for tougher work rules as a condition for government subsidies. He played that card in his address.

The new tax revenues have allowed modest reductions in property and income taxes, which is a Walker highlight at every campaign stop.

Those are the issues he will stress. Here’s a partial list of major issues he is ducking:

  • A Conservation Message. How can Republicans look past the invasive species threat to the Great Lakes? Asian carp are at the door. There is a dead zone in the middle of Green Bay.
  • The Startup Imperative. The Wisconsin economy can no longer rely on manufacturing and agri-business for job creation; they have become uber-efficient. Entrepreneurs and their ventures reinvent the economy and add most new jobs. Walker is on the sidelines on this dimension of the economy.
  • Other Strategic Clusters. In the same vein, state economic strategy, if there is one, needs to focus on job champions like insurance, investment management, information technology in many dimensions, education innovation, energy management and new models for health care delivery.
  • Reorganization of Higher Education. The University of Wisconsin System faces enormous challenges in affordability and access, declining enrollments, lower state support, rising student debt and on-line courses and degrees. Is there a plan?
  • Health Issues. These include lead in Milwaukee drinking water, high levels on unintended pregnancies to single mothers, the resulting poverty for mother and child, and a fall-off in immunizations.

Note that the playbook for the 2018 campaign has not been fully written. The battalion of Democratic candidates has yet to spell out compelling messages beyond a call for more education and infrastructure and opposition to Walker’s Foxconn subsidies and lack of environmental impact statements.

Recall that candidate Walker does not always follow script when he becomes Gov. Walker. There is usually a submerged big agenda, often a big one, such as Act 10 to undercut public unions in 2011 and Right to Work in 2015. Neither got airtime in the preceding campaigns.

Conclusion: regard the state of the state address and campaign rhetoric to date as only a partial map of what lies ahead for public policy in Wisconsin. It is certain, though, that the campaign will be more about politics than policy.

John Torinus is the chairman of Serigraph Inc. and a former Milwaukee Sentinel business editor who blogs regularly at johntorinus.com.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

3 thoughts on “Op Ed: Walker Speech More About Politics Than Policy”

  1. frank schneiger says:

    The thematic consistency between Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech and Scott Walker’s minor league version is quite striking. In some ways, that consistency highlights the untold story of the ways in which Walker’s plutocratic and corporate controlled Wisconsin has been a prototype for Trump’s America and for post-modern Republicanism. Here are the basic themes that threaded their way through both speeches:

    Theme One: American exeptionalism: Americans are the greatest, most amazing, most resilient, most generous people on earth. These are the real Americans, narrowly defined as white, non-urban, conservatives, except for those few exceptions who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps or have taken a bullet for a white person.

    Theme Two: The recent past was horrible beyond belief, and Walker and Trump have done an amazing job of pulling the state and the country out of the hell hole of failure and into the bright new future of jobs for everyone, no taxes and happy businesses. The timetable here is a little problematic. In Walkerland, Doyle was responsible for the Great Recession and all of its fallout. Trump simply alludes to the terms of the hated Negro, and that is all the true believers need to confirm the nightmare of the previous eight years and the shiny future..

    Theme Three: Taxes are evil, and we are getting rid of them, especially for the “middle class” and “the small businessmen.” Despite these cuts, the budget picture is a rosy one. And these small businessmen are going to benefit from that eternal favorite, the “streamlining” of regulations, especially those that protect the environment, public health and worker safety.

    Theme Four: Closely linked to American exceptionalism: the state and nation of “heroes,” the obligatory guests up in the bleachers. All of the heroes are either military people or the new heroic group, the first responders, and, in Walker’s view, F-35 fighter jets (“the sounds of freedom”). Teachers, nurses, home health aids, social workers are never heroes, especially if they have their snouts in the public trough as government-paid workers.

    Theme Five: In the current environment, race is always the subtext, but it is never mentioned; therefore, anyone who does mention it is “playing the race card,” which white people and Republicans never do. So, when Governor Walker states “We also propose putting limits on public assistance so people with giant mansions and fancy cars don’t get welfare checks, while hard working taxpayers have to pay the bill,” it really has nothing to do with race. Except that it sure sounds a lot like the bigots that I grew up with who always saw the black person driving the (non-existent) pink cadillac going to the (non-existent) welfare office to pick up their check. Or, in the present, the person in the all white community who is always behind the black person in the supermarket using food stamps to buy a 40 ounce malt liquor. (It would be interesting to have Walker identify one person on TANF with a mansion or a fancy car.) Or with the fact that “welfare” has not existed for twenty years, since the great Clinton reform, even though Donald Trump, that ever-reliable source of lies and misinformation informs us that “welfare is out of control.”

    Walker and Trump each descended into the disgraceful in their uses of race in these speeches. For Walker, it was to use an autistic youngster as a prop to make his Million White Man March audience feel good about themselves as they gave the black kid an ovation. See, we’re clapping for the black kid, how can you call us bigots? For Trump, the prop was to use the family of teen victims of MS-13 gang violence to make his point about evil (non-white) immigrants. Walker gave his entire speech without mentioning Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, but also the home to “the others,” while Trump avoided mention of cities, except to praise his non-existent “welfare to work” initiatives and to mourn the drugs and gangs and the “loss of many innocent lives,” and to link immigration to the opioid epidemic.

    There can be little doubt that the Mercers, Kochs, Adelson, Hendricks, the corporate elite, and the 30% loved both speeches. Why wouldn’t they? As for the rest of the country, they don’t matter much these days.

  2. Terry says:

    DUMP WALKER 2018!

  3. Eric J. says:

    Frank : Well written and summarized. Captures current “conservative ” thinking / themes .

    -Walker never delivered on the 250 K jobs promise / “pledge”
    -Road funding never addressed.
    -Trump’s economy just suffered a 600 point one day loss on the Dow . ( Donald ;where’s my safety net ?) That’s not tremendous ,” never been higher “.
    -Trumps economy will flatline if they raise interest rates.( No new investment in plants , no new jobs in America),big deficit coming

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