"That's opportunity knocking for all of us now."
Gov. Scott Walker got his biggest applause line for that off-hand remark, made midway through his keynote address Thursday at an annual housing conference at UW-Madison.
It came right after four hard, booming knocks — clearly audible over Walker's words in the packed Fluno Center auditorium — as protesters opposed to the governor's budget-cutting policies pounded their disdain on the outside walls of the building.
Walker's quick improvisation broke the rising tension, as hearty laughter and clapping from the rows of housing industry professionals briefly drowned out the competing clamor.
Before and throughout Walker's half-hour talk, the 60 or so protesters marched in a circle on the sidewalk outside the main building doors near University Avenue and Frances Street, chanting and drumming and blowing high-pitched horns — though only the horns and pounding could be heard inside while Walker spoke.
Except for that one remark, Walker ignored the disruptions. He also spoke relatively little about housing in his half-hour address, using most of his time to defend administration proposals and policies that the Republican governor, who took office in January, says will balance the state budget and reposition Wisconsin for better economic times.
"It's never been about the teachers," he said, in reference to the continuing controversy over his plan to save money by curbing bargaining rights for most public workers and making them pay more for their health care and pension benefits. "It's been about fixing a broken system."
Walker also took two questions from the conference audience. Asked if there was anything he wished he had done differently, Walker said he should have "spent more time building a case" for his view that collective bargaining should be seen as "not a right, but an expensive entitlement" for public employees.
Walker also said his plan, now tied up in court, to make public workers pay more for their benefits was a better approach than other savings methods, such as "massive layoffs and property tax increases."
Another conference participant questioned the deep spending cuts — for schools, higher education, revenue shared with local governments and other areas — in Walker's proposal for the next two-year budget, which starts July 1
He asked why Walker couldn't have taken "a more moderate" approach by including both tax increases and spending cuts. Walker said he believed his plans have been moderate.
"Well, maybe 'moderate' isn't the right word," he quickly added, "but (they've been) pragmatic."
Walker also maintained that the changes and cuts he was pushing would lead to increased prosperity and improved state revenues. At that point, he said, some of the funding he wants to cut could be restored for K-12 education, higher education and for "safety nets for the poor and for our elders and for those with special needs in our community."
When Walker was done speaking, the audience of some 165 bankers, developers, housing agency staffers, real estate agents and others gave him a standing ovation — though, of course, he didn't convince the people outside.
"The priorities of this administration are completely wrong-headed," said Jen Hadley, a state worker who carried a sign that read, "Wisconsin, We Can Do Better" on one side and "Recall Walker" on the other. "I'm ashamed of the political games they're playing," she said. "This is a positive (protest). We really can do better than this."
Other topics at the conference included panels about affordable housing, the state's economic outlook and financial reforms enacted after the 2008 fiscal crisis. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan — also targeted by the protesters for his plan to privatize Medicare — was slated for an afternoon panel along with university housing experts and private economists.