Long before Tony Evers was elected Governor, the Wisconsin GOP began an effort to mislead the public about the state of the Wisconsin economy and the impact of Gov. Walker’s economic policies. Their purpose is to convince the public that Walker’s radical supply-side economic experiment was a success and to ensure their continued stranglehold on political power in the state.
Walker and his allies surely failed on the latter as Democratic candidates swept all statewide offices in November. But they continue to promote a rose-colored view of the Walker economy that ignores its impact on working- and middle-class Wisconsinites. They are trying to position Gov. Evers to take the fall when the inevitable national recession comes, as the U.S. is now in the second-longest economic recovery in its history.
Let's bust this myth of Walker’s good economic record now:
1) Walker “pledged” to create 250,000 private sector jobs as the "minimum acceptable number" in his first term. He failed. He did not reach that goal until his last month in office, four years late!
2) During the Walker years, Wisconsin's average hourly wage growth was been poor. In 2018, his last year in office, Wisconsin trailed all but one of its Midwest neighbors. Meanwhile, neighboring Illinois and Minnesota already had higher wages than Wisconsin and they rose by more than twice Wisconsin's paltry growth rate of 2.2 percent.
3) Twenty percent of Wisconsin workers (675,000) make a poverty-level wage of less than $11.95 an hour. To add insult to injury, Walker and his Republican allies refused to raise the minimum wage even as 29 states raised theirs, and the GOP made it illegal for local communities to enact living-wage ordinances. Currently, the federal (and Wisconsin's) minimum wage is at 1950 inflation-adjusted levels.
4) Walker and Vos like to point to the unemployment rate as evidence that the economy is strong. Walker came into office with an unemployment rate 1 percent below the national average. He left office with it slightly under 1 percent of the national average. In short, Wisconsin even slightly lost ground by this national benchmark. Wisconsin’s low unemployment rate is partly a function of young people leaving the state for better opportunities. Wisconsin is among the top 10 states people leave. As they leave the unemployment rate is artificially reduced.
5) Wisconsin median family incomes were more than $9,500 below neighboring Democratic-led Minnesota when Walker was voted out of office, and that gap grew, not shrunk, under Walker's rule.
6) For most of Walker's rule Wisconsin was dead last in new business start-ups. Now, here's the rub: Many new businesses are started by married couples where one spouse has solid benefits in the public sector. So Walker’s attacks on public workers wages and benefits have undermined new business start-ups in the state.
7) Wisconsin dairy farmers have suffered under Walker. Wisconsin lost 500 dairy farms in 2017 and 638 in 2018 (7.25 percent), the biggest drop since records began in 2004.
8) Walker rejected the return of $800 million from D.C. for high-speed passenger rail, forfeiting that additional spending and job creation that would have driven income and business growth in state. Investments in passenger rail also drive up property values, stimulate business creation at station stops, and generate more tax revenues. Oh, he also refused $23 million for high-speed internet designed to bring increased connectivity to rural communities that would have sustained their businesses.
9) Walker, Vos and Fitzgerald rejected the return of a billion dollars of Wisconsin taxpayer dollars from Washington, D.C., for Medicaid expansion. Thus, 60,000 to 80,000 Wisconsinites (enough people to fill most professional baseball stadiums) were denied coverage as a result and the economy was starved of yet another $190 million that would have fueled income and business growth.
10) Walker, Vos and Fitzgerald’s legacy will be the biggest state giveaway in U.S. history to a foreign corporation: $4.6 billion in credits and payments with little effective accountability. Foxconn has already reneged its commitment to build a big factory for the highest-tech big Generation 10.5 screens and dramatically reduced the projected number of production workers it will hire. And it has already missed its first job creation promise target.
In short, the state GOP's ruling triumvirate of Scott Walker, Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald eight years of joint rule were an anchor that slowed Wisconsin's economic turn-around during a period of national recovery and were harmful to the state’s working people. Wisconsin is now one of the failed "Koch belt" states (e.g., Kansans, Oklahoma and Missouri) run by the dirty-industry (e.g., oil and coal) Koch brothers of Wichita, Kansas. Their radical economic experiment failed to deliver growing wages and family supporting jobs to the Wisconsin’s working men and women at rates many other states delivered.
Jeffrey Sommers is professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and senior fellow at its Institute of World Affairs. He also is visiting professor at Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. His views are his own and do not represent UW-Milwaukee's.
Michael Rosen is a retired professor of economics at Milwaukee Area Technical College and retired head of their faculty union AFT Local 212.
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