Scott Walker finds making bumper stickers is easier than creating jobs

Dana Milbank
Opinion writer June 20, 2011

Where are the jobs, Gov. Walker?

Scott Walker, the chief executive of Wisconsin, is riding a wave of triumph. The state Supreme Court just upheld his famous crusade to strip collective bargaining rights from public workers. The state legislature just voted, along party lines, to approve his 2012 budget reordering the state’s finances to his conservative tastes.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

On Monday morning, Walker stopped by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to participate in a roundtable discussion about “what works and what doesn’t” in job creation.

Walker regaled the assembled business leaders and governors with tales of his job-creating acumen. He boasted about passing tort reform, tax cuts, a “major regulatory reform” and his celebrated fight against the public-sector unions. “That’s powerful for job creators out there,” he said.

How powerful? “Since the beginning of the year in Wisconsin we’ve seen 25,000 new jobs,” Walker reported.

Sorry, governor, but that’s not very powerful.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin’s nonfarm payroll in May was 2,764,300 on a seasonally-adjusted basis, up 20,300 from January’s 2,744,000.

That’s an increase of seven-tenths of one percent in the workforce -- not much better than the anemic nationwide growth in nonfarm payrolls to 131,043,000 in May from 130,328,000 in January.

This doesn’t mean Walker’s policies have failed; by his own account, the benefits could take years to materialize. But it does suggest that the conservatives criticizing the Obama administration’s handling of the economy don’t have a silver bullet of their own. Walker, who has large Republican majorities in the Wisconsin legislature, experimented with a long conservative wish-list, but the state hasn’t been a standout in job creation during his six-month tenure.

The truth is that there’s not much more that government can do to boost jobs in the short term. That’s up to the private sector now. Corporate America has recovered so well that profits have been at or near record levels of an annualized $1.7 trillion in the last two quarters – but businesses have yet to spend their piles of cash.

Instead, flush CEOs are demanding still more government spending. This was a theme of Monday’s session at the Chamber, where 23 men and one woman sat around a u-shaped table and listened to Chamber president Tom Donohue describe states as “laboratories of democracy,” where businesses are more likely to find “common sense solutions, innovations, experimentations, bipartisanship.”

Walker, whose tenure has made Wisconsin more of a laboratory of theocracy, clenched his jaw at the mention of bipartisanship. “The very first day I was elected,” he said when his turn came, “I put up a sign that said, ‘Wisconsin is open for business.’” He waved a bumper sticker for the Chamber crowd with that same message. “I called the legislature into a special session based solely on jobs.”

That led to the fight over collective bargaining, the fleeing of Democratic legislators across state lines, and huge protests in Madison. “We got a little more attention than most,” he said.

The attention continued on Monday. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, one of two Democrats on the panel, said he “took a different approach” than Walker did: “I invited the unions to the table.” Markell said that the cuts he got from the unions exceeded his target by 30 percent, without creating statewide bitterness.

The other Democrat, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, implicitly rebuked Walker when he said “with a Republican House and Democratic Senate we passed our budget with at least 75 percent in both houses.”

In terms of job-creation, neither Democrat’s approach has worked any better than Walker’s. Colorado added 9,000 non-farm jobs this year and Delaware has been flat. Iowa, represented on the panel by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, added 12,000. Virginia, represented by Gov. Bob McDonnell, added 22,000.

The biggest job creator of the six, Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), boasted that his tax cuts, deregulation and tort reform enabled him to cut “unemployment every month since I came into office, and last month our job creation was more than the entire rest of the country.” That’s nice, but even Scott’s job growth amounts to just 1 percent of the state’s workforce, and Florida’s unemployment is among the highest in the country.

Eventually, the governors – like President Obama – will have more to show for their job-creation policies. But for now, they’ll have to settle for baby steps. Walker told the Chamber that Wisconsin moved up 17 places in Chief Executive magazine’s annual ranking. “Last year we were 41,” he said. “This year, we went up to No. 24.”

If only those happy CEOs would start hiring.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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