Gov. Scott Walker has traveled outside of Wisconsin at least 56 days this year, or about half of the 115 days since Jan. 1, according to a State Journal review of his official monthly calendars, press releases and media reports.
The extensive out-of-state travel comes as Walker crisscrosses the country exploring a potential 2016 presidential bid. It also comes during a contentious biennial budget debate in Wisconsin during which public opinion has soured on Walker and many of his proposals.
Walker has maintained the travel has not affected his ability to govern effectively and communicate with lawmakers as they amend his budget proposal, noting he carries two cellphones.
“When you look at the bigger issue, the work every week, I meet with the Speaker and the Majority Leader, and their counterparts in the opposing party when they’re in session,” Walker told reporters during a recent conference call from Spain. “The record clearly shows we’re just as engaged today as at any point over the last four years.”
Walker’s office did not respond to an interview request, but said in a statement that he “is focused on making sure Wisconsin is a great place to live, work, and raise a family.”
“The proposals included in Gov. Walker’s budget follow his focus on reform and are the result of months-long work with staff, legislators and stakeholders,” spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said.
Democrats are criticizing the governor’s out-of-state travel, saying it has distracted him from selling his budget to the public.
“We have not seen that because he has been selling himself,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse.
Former GOP state Sen. Dale Schultz, who is backing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for president, said the public is frustrated by Walker’s budget proposal cutting funds to K-12 schools and the University of Wisconsin, while increasing borrowing for roads.
“The public understands that when someone is running for president they’re going to be gone,” Schultz said. “The problematic issue for (Walker) is our state’s a mess.”
The state’s Republican legislative leaders have said Walker’s travel schedule has not been a problem and that they have been able to stay in frequent communication.
“Whether he’s in Burlington, Vermont, or Burlington, Wisconsin,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said last month, “the exact locale where he is doesn’t really matter as long as he’s doing his job, and I haven’t seen a single example where he’s not.”
Approval rating falls
Two statewide polls in the last two weeks have found Walker’s approval level in the state has dropped to 41 percent. The Marquette Law School Poll approval level was the lowest in its three-year history, while a St. Norbert College poll found it was the lowest since fall 2011 — in the months after the Act 10 collective bargaining protests and the first wave of Senate recall elections.
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The polls found widespread opposition to Walker’s 2015-17 budget proposal, which includes a $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System, a $112 million cut in K-12 funding, increased borrowing for roads and a freeze in conservation land purchases. It also reduces property taxes on an average home by $5 in each year and freezes UW tuition for two years.
Marquette Law School Poll director Charles Franklin said Walker’s travel could be a factor in the poll results.
“With him traveling as much as he has, he has not been here going around the state defending why the budget looks the way it does,” Franklin said.
The frequent trips also have raised questions about how much state taxpayers should be spending on Walker’s security detail, which accompanies him on all trips. Last week Democrats on the state’s budget committee tried unsuccessfully to pass an amendment that would have required quarterly reports of the taxpayer cost of the governor’s travels. The motion failed on a party-line vote.
But the next day Walker’s political nonprofit Our American Revival said it would reimburse the state for “all hotels, flights, rental cars, and any other travel expenses for the troopers when they are on political trips.”
The Department of Transportation, which oversees the Dignitary Protection Unit, has not yet released records on the cost of Walker’s security this year. His trip to the United Kingdom in February cost $138,000.
“The taxpayers, the voters, the residents of this state deserve a governor who is committed to this state and committed to governing,” Shilling said, adding that Walker “has visited more states than I can count on two hands.”
So far this year Walker has visited at least 14 states and Washington, D.C., as well as taken official state trade missions to the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and France. He previously took two trips abroad in his entire first term.
The trips include official state business, such as dining with President Barack Obama during the four-day National Governors Association annual conference in Washington, D.C.
But they mostly involve travel with Our American Revival, an effort he unveiled Jan. 27. Walker has shot into the top tier of all state and national presidential polls, and last week was identified as one of five contenders for the support of billionaires Charles and David Koch’s vast political fundraising network.
Early primary states
Since late January, Walker has been to the early primary states of New Hampshire twice and South Carolina once. He has also returned to Iowa for an Ag Summit in March and was back this past week to meet with GOP lawmakers, attend a fundraiser in the northwest corner of the state on Friday and a faith-based event just outside Des Moines on Saturday.
He has also attended private fundraisers, from Indian Wells, California, to Lakewood, New Jersey. He toured the Texas border with Gov. Greg Abbott, rallied Christian broadcasters and gun advocates in Nashville (on separate visits) and learned about foreign policy at an American Enterprise Institute resort in Sea Island, Georgia.
On some of the days Walker traveled out of state, he also spent part of his time in Wisconsin attending to state business. For example, on Feb. 26, he attended a Manufacturing Matters conference in Milwaukee in the morning before flying to Washington, D.C. to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference. On other days, he traveled to multiple states.
The 56 travel days outside of Wisconsin so far in 2015 may not be a complete record of his out-of-state travels through April 25. His gubernatorial and OAR spokeswomen declined to provide information on his whereabouts on several dates when it’s unclear from his public calendars and other publicly available information whether he traveled outside of the state. Official calendars for April aren’t available.
His public calendars for January, February and March contain information about all official state business, but on many days his calendar blocks out large periods of time for non-state business. The amount of blocked out time totaled 656 hours, or 7.3 hours a day, including weekends, up 57 percent from the same period last year.