Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) returned to the nation’s capital Monday to tout his administration’s policies at a Governors Summit hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The event coincided with the release of a study titled “Enterprising States: Recovery and Renewal for the 21st Century,” which aimed to “highlight successful state strategies for job creation and economic growth.”
Walker was one of six governors to take part in the roundtable discussion — Govs. Bob McDonnell (R., Va.), John Hickenlooper (D., Colo.), Rick Scott (R., Fla.), Terry Branstad (R., Iowa), and Jack Markell (D., Del.) also attended. The lawmakers were joined by business leaders and local Chamber officials from their respective states.
Chamber president and CEO Thomas Donohue said the governors were selected for their records of achieving successful results through bold action. “What unites everyone here is a single goal: creating jobs,” Donohue said. “The question is what works and what doesn’t.” Hickenlooper, who co-chaired the event with McDonnell, said governors across the country were “creating a new norm” in their innovative approaches to solving their states’ fiscal crisis. “The easy choices have all been made,” he said.
Walker argued that his decisiveness was a key factor in eliminating the uncertainly that had been keeping business investment on the sidelines and preventing employers from hiring, citing the January 3 special session of the legislature he called to focus on job creation and economic development. “We didn’t spend time talking about how bad things were, we talked about what we were going to do to fix it,” he said. “Investors don’t like instability.”
Walker then recounted an interview with a reporter in his office during the height of the budget protests in February, when he was asked if the protests weren’t a sign of instability that could discourage investors. On the contrary, said Walker. “This is a little bit of political instability now, but in the end, when we get this job done, we’ll provide long-term sustainability,” he said. “From the long-term perspective, [Wisconsin] is exactly the place you want to invest in.”
The difficult economic environment requires difficult decisions, Walker said, and investors will ultimately reward the states whose politicians are willing to make them. That is why things are looking up for Wisconsin economically, at least insofar as people’s confidence is concerned, he said, citing the results of two recent surveys — one published in Chief Executive magazine that ranks states from 1 to 50 in terms of the best environment for doing business. Wisconsin rose from 41st to 24th in the past year, the biggest jump in the history of the survey. In addition, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) unveiled the results of their annual survey of local business leaders. Asked whether they thought the state’s economy was headed in the right direction, 88 percent answered yes, compared with just 10 percent in 2010.
Bill Parsons, president of Palmer Johnson Enterprises and one of the Wisconsin representatives on the panel, praised the “attitudinal change” in Wisconsin under Governor Walker’s administration. “It’s clear to me that the future for Wisconsin became bright,” Parsons said, pointing out that he was among the 88 percent to give a positive outlook on this year’s WMC survey, having voted negative the year before. “It’s about attitude, it’s about the legislature, and it’s about the courageous stance that Gov. Scott Walker has taken in Wisconsin,” he said.
At one point, Gov. Jack Markell (D., Del.) made a not-so-subtle dig at Walker’s controversial budget reforms, specifically his approach to public-sector-union contracts. Markell pointed out the different approach he took to resolve state-pension issues in Delaware — offering unions a place at the table and still managing to iron out a favorable deal. People, he said, were the most important asset of any business, public or private, and lawmakers should welcome a “healthy conversation” about the best way to approach reforming their budgets. “I can’t imagine there would be too many businesses who would get away with some of the volatility, I guess you would call it, in terms of how some of these changes went down,” Markell said.
This so-called “volatility” served as the impetus for a wave of recall elections — set for August 9 — in an effort to remove GOP lawmakers from the state legislature. Walker tells National Review Online that while the average voter in Wisconsin is ready to move on, outside groups are determined to play a significant role. Big Labor groups, he predicted, were planning to spend as much as $25 million to oust Republican legislators. “To put that in perspective, I spent $13 million on the race for governor” Walker said. “So as much as I feel the public is ready to move forward, you dump that kind of money into a recall election and who knows where the stakes are at that point. You put that much money on TV and on the air, and if there’s not a counterbalance, it could have a tremendously negative impact on these recalls.”
Walker said he expects the economy to improve between now and August, but downplayed the extent to which it could effect the outcome of the elections. “Between now and August 9, even if numbers show the economy improving in Wisconsin, the average citizen still isn’t feeling that yet. Until they feel that, that’s when it has more of a factor,” he said.
The governor remains committed to his pledge to create 250,000 new jobs in his first term. About 25,000 new jobs were created in the first four months of the year, but that number has since leveled off some. Walker explained this as a reflection of the national economy rather than the conditions in Wisconsin, but conceded that additional efforts were needed. “I believe we’re going to have to do more to try and further make an emphasis on private-sector job creation,” he said.
With that in mind, Walker said he plans to pursue additional job creation measures through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which is set to officially replace the state’s Department of Commerce in July, and will drive economic development efforts through public-private partnerships. As long as economic conditions continue to improve and businesses continue to hire in the states, Walker believes his administration may well weather the political storm brought on by his bold reforms. “The more time plays into this, the better off the public is, because the more they look past the protests and the signs and they see the reality — that this saved jobs and has protected property taxpayers as well.”
It was Walker’s third appearance in Washington in as many months, a reflection of his rising prominence on the national scene. Not surprisingly, reporters flocked to the Wisconsin governor when the panel concluded. Republican party officials certainly see a bright future for Walker in national politics. His endorsement will no doubt be greatly coveted by GOP presidential hopefuls in 2012. But for the time being anyways, it looks like he’s going to have his hands full back home.