Looking back across two terms in office and a year of brutal unemployment, Gov. Jim Doyle said his final year would be focused on putting state residents back to work.
In his eighth and final State of the State speech in the Assembly Chambers on Tuesday, the Democratic governor offered few new initiatives, focusing on modest plans for creating jobs and existing but controversial proposals such as one to fight climate change.
"I will do everything I can to help our businesses create jobs and give our workers the opportunities to get those jobs. Nothing is more important," Doyle said in the roughly 45-minute speech.
But with low approval ratings and only three months remaining in the legislative session, Doyle will face steep challenges in accomplishing the rest of his agenda.
"I think it was a work of fiction tonight and Jim Doyle was trying to reinvent himself," Assembly Minority Leader Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said, blaming tax increases by Doyle and Democrats for adding to job losses.
Doyle hinted that one piece of major news might come soon.
"With the Obama administration's support, Wisconsin is poised to be the nation's leader in high-speed rail manufacturing," he said.
The state has applied for federal stimulus money for a passenger rail line between Madison and Milwaukee and national news reports have suggested Obama could be making a high-speed rail announcement on Thursday in Florida. Doyle spokesman Adam Collins said only that a federal decision on which states would receive the money is "expected soon."
The seasonally adjusted state unemployment rate now stands at 8.7 percent, below the national rate but still well above the state rate of 5.9 percent from a year ago. The state has lost an estimated 163,000 jobs over the past year and in December actually had fewer jobs than it did in December 2002, a month before Doyle took office.
To spur job creation, Doyle announced the state would establish a $100 million "Green to Gold" revolving loan fund to help manufacturers reduce their energy costs. The fund would use both existing state resources and federal stimulus money.
Doyle took part of the credit for persuading Mercury Marine to keep operations in Fond du Lac last year and bring hundreds of jobs to the state from Oklahoma, saying it was the result of tax credits passed by him and lawmakers as part of the recent state budget.
He said the state has fallen out of the top ten highest tax states in the nation in recent years as his administration has squeezed the bureaucracy and not filled 3,400 state jobs. But Republicans like Fitzgerald countered that ranking could rise after Democrats increased state taxes last year by more than $2 billion over two and a half years to help erase a state budget shortfall of more than $6 billion.
The governor also called on lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to provide property tax relief directly to homeowners but provided no more details. The current state constitution requires all homeowners and businesses to be treated equally on their property taxes.
Budget committee co-chairman Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, noted that changing the constitution would take at least two years and need votes by two successive Legislatures. But he said it could open up such possibilities as lowering the amount of total property taxes paid by homeowners and providing for lower tax rates for the owners of more modest homes.
Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he would need to see more details on that proposal before weighing in.