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Gov. Scott Walker made an election-year pitch in his eighth annual State of the State address Wednesday, introducing a new $100-per-child tax credit and calling for more funding for rural schools and businesses.

“A couple hundred dollars more in the family budget could really make a difference, particularly when getting ready for the next school year,” Walker said after calling a group of children and parents up to join him on the Assembly chamber dais.

Walker touted a record-low 3 percent unemployment rate, increased spending on K-12 schools, lower income and property taxes, an improved bond rating and the largest economic development project in state history — a $10 billion Foxconn plant in Racine County supported by $4.5 billion in taxpayer subsidies.

“We are getting positive things done for the people of Wisconsin,” Walker said.

He repeated the theme more than 10 times during a speech that lasted more than an hour. It’s a message he said Republicans need to do a better job broadcasting after losing a solidly Republican Senate seat in a northwestern Wisconsin special election last week.

The address came as the Republican governor runs for a third term. A sprawling list of Democrats have lined up to challenge Walker in November, and he will also contend with head winds generated by an unpopular GOP president.

Walker laid out his plan for a $385.2 million budget surplus, which includes a recently announced $137.5 million unanticipated surplus generated partly by higher-than-expected tax revenues. He’s calling the plan — which includes many proposals he has previously opposed — his “Ambitious Agenda for Wisconsin in 2018.”

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin accused Walker of “lurching all over the political landscape in a political cover-up to buy votes.”

“An attentive governor who loves Wisconsin would spend all four years taking care of Wisconsinites and doing what is best for all our people, our communities and our economy,” said party chairwoman Martha Laning. “Scott Walker has spent seven-plus years giving away our taxpayer resources to billionaires, Foxconn and his presidential campaign donors.”

Child tax credit

Walker’s seven-part agenda includes more money for schools, a career program for college students, work and drug-testing requirements for public assistance recipients, rural small business grants, conversion of the state’s troubled youth prison into a medium-security adult prison and setting up smaller regional juvenile facilities, stabilization of the health care market and the child tax credit.

Under Walker’s tax credit plan, all parents in Wisconsin with biological or adopted children under the age of 18 as of Dec. 31, 2017, would qualify for the credit. The Walker administration estimates 671,000 families would benefit.

The credit would be paid out through a tax rebate check in the current year to families that fill out an online form and through the typical income tax process in spring 2019.

If the Legislature adopts the proposal, Wisconsin would be only the sixth state to provide a child tax credit. The others are California, Colorado, New York, North Carolina and Oklahoma, according to Tax Credits for Workers and Their Families, a nonprofit Maryland group.

The federal government provides a $1,000 partially refundable child tax credit that will go up to $2,000 under the tax bill passed last month.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, both said they support the proposal, but didn’t know enough details Wednesday to say whether their caucuses would support it.

“We anticipate that the vast majority of the caucus will agree with the idea of making sure it goes back to the families and (is) not spent on government,” Vos said. “We haven’t discussed this exact mechanism but this idea is what we strongly support.”

Last year, Democrats proposed a different nonrefundable dependent child care tax credit based on a similar federal credit. That bill has yet to receive a public hearing.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said Walker’s borrowing of Democratic proposals he has previously rejected was audacious “even for an election year.”

“I think one of his main points is we want to send $100 checks to voters before the election,” Hintz said. “This speech today seemed to resemble a going-out-of-business sale and hopefully that’s the case come November.”

Contrast with Democrats

In his speech, Walker contrasted his record with how the state fared under Democratic leadership before he took office. He criticized his predecessor’s 2009 budget proposal, which increased taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent and used federal stimulus funding to offset a reduction in state funding for K-12 schools, all in the midst of the worst national economic recession since the Great Depression.

“Eight years ago, things were not very good in our state,” Walker said. “We don’t want to go back to those days. That would be a giant step backwards. Thankfully, many of us in this chamber today had the courage to make some tough decisions. The results from those tough decisions helped turn our state around.”

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said Walker is attempting to “improve his public approval in a tough election year.”

“There is no way you can paint these statistics as ‘better,’” Shilling said. “This election year enlightenment has shown that he has failed to deliver on his empty promises and his misguided priorities have taken the state in the wrong direction.”

She pointed to lagging job growth when compared to other states, low activity among business startups and Walker’s cuts to K-12 spending in his past budgets. Democrats also have criticized Walker for making cuts to higher education funding, backing environmental regulation changes that favor businesses rather than air, water or soil quality and polarizing the state with Act 10, the anti-union law.

Series of election-year proposals

Leading up to the speech, Walker announced plans to stabilize the state’s marketplace under the Affordable Care Act, permanently extend the state’s SeniorCare program — which he previously tried to pare down — require parents to work in order to receive food stamps and provide more funding to rural schools — including allowing some districts to increase property taxes, a provision he vetoed from the 2017-19 state budget. Rural school districts would get an additional $6.4 million in new funding.

The rural proposals announced Wednesday include a new $50 million rural economic development fund that would support economic development grants in 56 of the state’s most sparsely populated counties. The program would be overseen by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., which Walker created in 2011 to help fulfill his failed pledge to create 250,000 jobs during his first term.

Grant recipients would be required to repay the money if they provide false information or if the business fails to meet agreed upon job or investment targets.

“A couple hundred dollars more in the family budget could really make a difference, particularly when getting ready for the next school year.” Gov. Scott Walker
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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.

Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.