Where’s the meat? There’s some in Walker, Burke economic plans

When a gotcha-politics issue like the lifting of a few paragraphs in Mary Burke’s 37-page economic plan is center stage, the state’s voters are being served up some pretty thin soup.

Was it a mistake by Burke’s staff and Burke in terms of oversight? Absolutely. It could prove to be a pivotal gaffe in a very tight race.

But let’s get a grip on what a gubernatorial contest is supposed to be all about. The campaign is supposed to address the big, tough challenges facing the state. The debate should be aimed at the over-riding issues, such as run-away state health costs; the existential threats facing the Great Lakes and Green Bay; the brain drain of 10,000 college graduates per year; the poverty and crime issues that cripple our two largest cities; the financial straight jacket on UW-Wisconsin and its role in the economy; and, as the two candidates have recognized, the four-decade slide in the state’s share of the nation’s GDP.

Health costs haven’t been touched even though Medicaid is chewing up about half of the new revenues coming into state coffers. Private companies and local government are taking the issue head on with growing success, but their disruptive new business model hasn’t affected either Burke’s or Gov. Walker’s campaigns.

The Great Lakes have been devastated by an invasion of foreign species like the quagga mussel and overloads of phosphorous that have caused a dead zone in Green Bay. You wouldn’t know it from the campaigns. Wisconsin politicians could be calling for closing the St. Lawrence Seaway, which has minimal economic value; for reversing the reversal of the Chicago River; for plugging the outflow from the St. Claire River, and for throttling back fertilizer run-offs into the lakes.

Poverty and crime in Milwaukee and Madison have been virtual non-issues in the campaign, even though the state’s prosperity goes as its two most populated regions go.

The center of the campaign has been the economic issues: lagging job creation, the brain drain and the under-stimulated start-up economy.

Both Walker and Burke have put forward extensive campaign documents to outline their economic programs if elected, more than any governor candidates before them — ever. Both track heavily with the Be Bold –Wisconsin Prosperity Strategy drafted in 2010 by representatives of more than 40 of the state’s biggest economic stakeholders. That is appropriate, because it was a consensus, non-partisan document on the way forward.

Both campaign papers are extensively footnoted. Both largely are in the voice of the candidate and are geared specifically to this state. On Burke’s side, that lessens the impact the plagiarism accusation.

Walker’s document is more political in style than Burke’s in that it sets up his record against that of former Gov. Jim Doyle, in whose administration Burke served as a cabinet me member. It is a resprise of much of his 2010 campaign.

He leads with his tax cutting and budget balancing and has promised more of the same in a second term. That track record got him to the governor’s office from executive of Milwaukee County, so he is completely believable in that arena.

He doesn’t duck his miss on his 2010 goal of creating 250,000 jobs in his first term, choosing to highlight the 100,000 that were created and the low unemployment rate. Burke has been hammering away on the shortfall. Their tit-for-that with highly selective statistics does little to shape a forward agenda.
Some arm-chair pundits aside, the 250,000 goal was doable, requiring only a match of the U.S. average growth of 2% plus over the last four years. The state grew at less than half that rate. In former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s first term, more than 250,000 were created.

Most economists concur that politicians at the state and federal levels have limited impact on the economy in the short run. Job and prosperity creation are long-term undertakings that extend beyond one four-year term.

Walker contends that his macro issues on tax cuts, regulation and tort reform and the Act 10 curbing of the bargaining power of public unions created a better business climate for the long term. I agree with that contention. But we won’t know the full impact for a decade. Burke has been essentially non-committal on tax cuts or hikes.

Analysts know that tax cuts, in and of themselves, don’t set the destiny of a state. Some high tax states do well; others don’t, and vice versa on low taxes. This state has long had favorable tax policies for manufacturing and agri-business, and Walker doubled down on that score. Guess what? Both strategic sectors are leading the recovery here.

Both candidates devote a lot of space in their economic platforms to workforce development. Walker cites his administration’s many programs to prepare people for open jobs. Burke has an equivalent array of proposed initiatives. This is safe ground for any politician. Who can argue with job training?

But the reality is that workforce training is always secondary to job creation. It doesn’t make much sense to train people for jobs that don’t exist.

There are common many themes in the two plans, and there are differences. Walker is longer on business climate improvement; Burke is long on stimulating startups. Both agree on the need to center economic development efforts on the clusters, also known as “driver export industries.” (Future blogs will examine their agreements and their differences on major planks in their campaigns in more depth.

Neither plan is remarkably bold, but both draw heavily on what has been learned in the last two decades about what works and what doesn’t for job creation.
So, the serious side of the campaign, as expressed in the two economic documents, is far more encouraging than the dispiriting, superficial, negative, gotcha stuff that shows up on the air waves.

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