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Seeking to rehabilitate his sagging standing in the state, Gov. Scott Walker pledged Tuesday to spend more money on public education using savings from changes to state employee health plans.

Walker — who has previously cut funding for K-12 and higher education while expanding the private school voucher program — said in his sixth State of the State address that his pledge could mean tens of millions of dollars for the state’s public schools.

“Tonight, I commit to investing every penny of savings to the general fund from these specific reforms to support public education,” Walker said. “People tell me that they appreciate our efforts to get the state’s fiscal house in order and that now is the time to use savings to help our students prepare for the future.”

That proposal, and support for college affordability and job training measures, counter Democrats’ sharpened criticism of Walker’s education cuts.

The 40-minute speech came after a roller coaster year in which Walker briefly led the 2016 Republican presidential field before a colossal campaign collapse returned him to a state where his approval level had dipped below 40 percent.

In the address, Walker offered a variety of smaller proposals to harness the power of government to help educate residents and find them jobs, but none of the “big, bold” ideas that he championed in the past and touted on the presidential campaign trail.

Walker’s comments about the state’s health insurance plan for employees were his strongest yet, but he didn’t specify which option he supports. The Group Insurance Board is set to vote Feb. 17 on adopting a self-insurance model, in which the state would pay benefits directly and assume the risk for large claims. Consultants have said such a plan could save as much $40 million or cost up to $100 million more per year. Another option of reducing the number of HMOs from 17 to seven could save $45 million to $70 million a year.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said after the speech that lawmakers want to examine the proposal even further before getting on board.

“I think it would take a lot of convincing to get the Legislature to move forward without seeing some hard numbers on what the benefit would be,” Fitzgerald said. He said the proposal likely wouldn’t come up for debate until the next biennium “and maybe even beyond that.”

Fitzgerald also said the Legislative Fiscal Bureau is expected to release tax revenue figures soon that are far shorter than the $150 million in additional funds that was anticipated, which could put a damper on any new spending this legislative session.

Walker also:

  • Announced an additional $3 million for a dual enrollment program, known as Wisconsin Fast Forward, that allows high school students to take courses at technical colleges.
  • Said he would work with University of Wisconsin System leaders to promote on-time graduation, to expand the online UW Flex Program to include as many students as a new UW campus and to explore a three-year degree option.
  • Called on the Legislature to pass a package of bills that would lift the cap on tax deductions for student loan interest, add $1.5 million in need-based student college grants, increase internships and require state higher education institutions to provide financial literacy instruction.
  • Highlighted new information to assist employers whose workers have loved ones suffering from dementia.
  • Asked for feedback from the citizens of Wisconsin as part of a “2020 Vision Project,” which he described as a state listening tour with diverse small groups to discuss what makes Wisconsin great, where it should be headed in the next two decades and how to measure success.

Says Wisconsin on track

Declaring “the Wisconsin comeback is real,” Walker highlighted how employment levels are near an all-time high, state finances are stable, students are performing well, college tuition is frozen and property and income taxes are down from before he took office.

“We have an aggressive plan over the next year to ensure that everyone who wants a job can find a job,” Walker said. “We will enact this plan by helping the people of this state improve the economy and by investing in K-12 education, higher education and worker training.”

Democrats have fired back that job growth in Wisconsin has lagged other states, the labor participation rate has declined and higher education funding remains below 2010 levels. The state is set to spend $5.4 billion on K-12 general school aids in 2016-17, the first year since Walker took office that aid will rise above 2010-11 levels.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, took issue with the governor’s characterization that the state was “strong.”

“I’d like for him to tell that to the 1,200 workers who have been laid off at Oscar Mayer. I’d like for him to tell that to the 400 workers who were laid off from Tyson Foods,” she said. “For these workers and their families, the state of the state is not working for them.”

Democrats also have criticized the Republican higher education proposals for not going far enough to help Wisconsinites with student loan debt. They have proposed making all student loan payments, not just interest, tax deductible and setting up a student loan refinancing authority, which Walker has rejected.

Walker highlighted budget measures requiring able-bodied adults without children to be enrolled in job-training programs before they can receive food stamps.

“When we first proposed these reforms, some in this Capitol argued that we were making it harder to get government assistance,” Walker said. “The truth is: we’re making it easier to find a job.”

Laying foundation for 2018 run?

Walker also has been talking up a potential run for a third term in 2018. His presidential campaign sent out a fundraising appeal Monday noting “our re-election campaign may seem like a long way off but the other side is already gearing up for a bruising battle.”

Over the past year the Legislature has controlled much of the agenda, passing a contentious state budget, making Wisconsin a right-to-work state, adopting new campaign finance rules, and replacing the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board with two bipartisan commissions.

Two years ago, heading into an election season, the state had $912 million in unanticipated tax revenue that Walker and legislative Republicans used to reduce property taxes. This year finances are much tighter, with the state ending last year with $136 million in reserves. The state had $517 million in reserves at the end of the previous year.

Last year’s fast-paced 24-minute speech was largely overshadowed by Walker’s widely anticipated presidential run and a looming $2.2 billion budget shortfall. Walker proposed balancing the budget with $250 million in cuts to the University of Wisconsin System, increased borrowing for roads, higher park fees, fewer scientists at the Department of Natural Resources and other austerity measures across state government.

Walker has been traveling the state extensively since dropping out of the presidential race on Sept. 21, and he said he plans to visit every part of the state to hold listening sessions throughout 2016.

State Journal reporter Molly Beck contributed to this report.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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