It’s a little difficult to divine the way forward for Wisconsin, despite complete political control in the hands of the Republican Party.
In Gov. Walker’s first term, there was a clarion call, whether you agree or disagree, to make the state more open for business. Again, agree or disagree, much of that has been accomplished on that major agenda over his first five years in office, including:
• Rolled-back anti-business regulations.
• An elimination of most state corporate taxes on companies in manufacturing and agri-business.
• Small reductions in personal income taxes and property taxes, taking Wisconsin out of the top ten for the combination of state and local taxes — far better than tax increases.
• A recovery of jobs lost in the Great Recession, though at a slower pace than the national average for states.
• Passage of a right-to-work law, joining 26 other states.
• With the passage of Act 10, a huge reduction in the leverage of unions, public and private, in political outcomes in the state.
Perhaps, the most prominent reflection of the lower sway of unions on state politics is the certain reelection of West Bend’s Annette Ziegler to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She has been part of the controlling conservative block on the court over her first term. Her first election ten years ago was fiercely contested, as have all high court races since.
This time around she is uncontested and therefore will win a second ten-year term in April. She will continue be part of a 5-2 conservative majority.
Ziegler is generally respected as a justice, and she is a good fundraiser. That has something to do with the Democrats not being able to find and fund a candidate to challenge her.
It also has much to do with the diminished stature of unions here and their reduced funding capacities.
Wisconsin had a reputation heretofore as being a relatively tough union state. Union and business lobbies were often a standoff. That just isn’t so any more. Currently, just 8% of the state’s workforce is unionized. It bused to be 21%.
I would contend then, agree or disagree on the merits, that much of the Walker mandate to improve the business climate has been accomplished.
There will always be pro- and anti-business bills in the legislature, but they are on lesser issues.
So, where will the GOP take the state next? There does not seem to be an overriding vision or theme to the party’s initiatives. In the governor’s recent state of the state message, he declared the state strong, called for a tuition reduction at state university campuses and pushed workforce training.
He cited the low statewide unemployment rate, but avoided the lagging job growth in the state’s major city, even job losses in recent years. That’s a surprising omission for a former Milwaukee County executive.
Let’s acknowledge that lowering tuition, and therefore student debt, is a major issue that will help many households. That qualifies as big stuff.
A focus on workforce training is also on target, though it has been a major emphasis in state policy for three decades. The state already ranks 14th in dollars spent on post-secondary education, but strangely ranks only 33rd on job growth and 34th on wage levels. Something is amiss. We are not getting the payoff we deserve from workforce investments.
Ergo, the Republicans need a broader agenda. Here are some suggestions, derived from some of the state’s best thinkers on economic development:
• Accelerate the state’s burgeoning startup economy. Recognize that almost all of the state’s great employers, the ones that drive the economy, started here. There is a lot of recent forward movement at the ground level, but an enlarged initiative could get the state to the front of the pack for prosperity, instead of lagging. It could put more money in state coffers for thing like tuition reduction.
• Tackle health care costs, which are killing the state budget and crowding out priorities like education, transportation, public safety and environmental advances. This is the state’s biggest economic issue. Innovative private payers and payers in local government have shown the way to cut costs sharply by improving the delivery of care. It’s win-win for employees and the state.
• Get serious about protecting our natural resources, such as potable drinking water. Start with a master plan for improving all the Wisconsin tributaries to Lake Michigan. Then do a master plan for the state’s ground waters, the other major source of potable water.
• Pitch in to help the City of Milwaukee get on a better track for reducing crime and finding jobs for the unemployed. Move more state offices there. To a great extent, the state goes as its largest city goes.
• Reorganize the University of Wisconsin’s 26 campuses along regional lines. Economic development needs to operate at the regional level.
These are big, bold ideas, like making college more affordable, that the citizenry could get behind. Leaders can’t be called leaders unless they take on the big issues facing the state.
If the GOP can’t come up with a stirring vision for the state, maybe it‘s time to talk about term limits so we can bring on some fresh blood.