Scott Walker has transformed Wisconsin politics, winning three elections in four years and signing laws that weaken unions, crippling a key ally of the Democratic Party.
But the likely Republican presidential contender has had less success changing Wisconsin’s economy and budget. The state lags in job growth and its budget faces a shortfall. It’s a record that complicates Walker’s path in early primary states as he sells his Wisconsin record as a showcase of what he’ll do for the nation.
“Most of his activity was more politically focused than economically, job-creation focused,” said John Torinus, a Milwaukee businessman and venture capitalist who nevertheless praises some of Walker’s moves. “He was going to concentrate on job creation with a laser-like focus and he got distracted.”
Wisconsin has added private-sector jobs at a lower rate than the national average since July 2011 — six months after Walker took office. Walker promised in the 2010 campaign that if elected his policies would create 250,000 private sector jobs. But only about 145,000 such jobs were created over his first four years.
Wisconsin ranked 40th in private sector job growth for the 12 months ending in September, said the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Walker has called hiring in his state the “gold standard” for measuring his performance.
Still, the state has seen a higher rate of new businesses starting than the rest of the country and income growth for Wisconsin residents has exceeded the national average.
But at the same time, Wisconsin is in the top tier of states in which the middle class is rapidly shrinking, according to a state-by-state analysis conducted the Pew Charitable Trusts.
In 2000, 54.6 percent of Wisconsin households belonged to the middle class, which is defined as those earning between 67 percent and 200 percent of a state’s median income. By 2013, less than half — 48.9 percent — of Wisconsin households were defined as middle class. In Wisconsin, inflation-adjusted income fell from $60,344 in 2000 to $51,467 in 2013.
Walker, with the help of the state’s pervasive right-wing media, has cherry-picked data that paints a far rosier picture, and Walker’s many die-hard fans choose to believe only the positive numbers — even when their own lives reflect the contrary. They’ve become something of a personality cult, bristling at any information that reflects negatively on the governor.
As a result, Wisconsin is one of the most politically divided states in the nation, with a line drawn in quicksand between Walker’s die-hard faithful and progressives. The latter are alarmed by his massive cuts to education, huge tax giveaways to the very wealthy, relaxation of environmental regulations, the adoption of photo ID laws to give GOP candidates an electoral advantage and a host of other controversial policy moves. Others are angry over the constant questions of corruption and pay-for-play that hover over his political career.
Walker’s political group Our American Revival is concentrating on spinning his record as one of economic success.
“The governor is now taking his reform ideas that led to this economic success in Wisconsin and sharing them nationally,” said spokeswoman AshLee Strong.
Of course, not all of the state’s economic woes are Walker’s fault alone. Heavily reliant on manufacturing, Wisconsin has perennially lagged the nation in job creation and often used fiscal tricks to paper over budget deficits. Walker vowed to change that when he ran in 2010, but his latest budget resorts to the same tricks.
The Republican right adores Walker over his signature move, just six weeks into his first term in 2011, to curtail public unions’ collective bargaining power while also forcing them to pay more for pension and health care benefits.
Following weeks of protests, and the fleeing of Democratic state senators for three weeks to try to block a vote, Walker got his way. That drama, along with Walker’s 2012 recall victory and other laws he’s signed legalizing concealed weapons and last month’s right-to-work law are central in his stump speech, as he presents himself as a man of action with a record of conservative accomplishments.
M. Kevin McGee, an economist at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, said Wisconsin’s job performance kept pace with its Midwestern peers until Walker took office. Then it fell behind. His theory: Walker’s public sector union moves, and subsequent benefit cuts, shocked those workers into cutting consumer spending.
“What happened here changed the behavior of enough people in the state that it affected economic growth,” McGee said.
Last year, facing forecasts of a nearly $1 billion increase in tax revenue, Walker and Republicans who control the Legislature passed an $800 million tax-cut package. The state is on pace to collect only about half of the tax revenue previously projected, exacerbating the latest budget problem.
“We dug our own hole,” said former state Sen Mike Ellis, a Republican, adding that he still thinks the fiscal picture is better than when Walker took office.
Heading into this year the state faced an $800 million shortfall just to continue spending at the current level and $2.2 billion when state agency requests were taken into consideration. Walker’s plan calls for more massive education cuts and borrowing more than $1 billion to pay for roads. The proposal has run into widespread opposition, including from Republicans.
Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, said Walker’s initial budgets were responsible, but the more recent ones resemble those of his Democratic precedessor, Jim Doyle.
Berry said the state’s lackluster jobs record shows Walker overpromised in the campaign. Governors, he noted, rarely have a significant impact on job creation. “This slow rate of job growth is nothing new,” Berry said.
The Associated Press contributed to this analysis.