QUEBEC CITY — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker arrived in this historic Canadian city, known for its regal architecture and French cuisine, late last week for a six-day trade mission. But back home in Madison, an intense standoff over the governor’s program-slashing budget dragged on.
It was not an ideal time for Walker, a likely GOP presidential candidate, to leave town, and it provided yet another opportunity for Democrats to criticize him for spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on foreign trips while preaching budget frugality.
Walker has been governor for 4
The visit to Britain cost taxpayers $138,200, according to Walker’s office. He has yet to release costs for the other trips.
The governor also visited Israel for five days in May, but his political organization and the Republican Jewish Coalition paid for that visit.
“Trade missions can be useful,” said Rep. Peter Barca (D), Wisconsin State Assembly minority leader. “By just jumping from country to country and continent to continent, it just appears like it’s more about his beefing up his foreign policy experience than it is about wanting to help Wisconsin.”
Walker said the trips are vital to increasing Wisconsin’s exports overseas and persuading foreign companies to invest or expand in his state. Previous Wisconsin governors typically took three or four foreign trips a year, he said, so there’s nothing unusual about his travel.
Walker’s staff dubbed the Canadian tour a “business development mission,” paid for by the quasi-public Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.The agency is charged with promoting job growth in the state but has been criticized as not properly documenting an unsecured loan it gave a struggling Wisconsin company.
In Canada, Walker attended a weekend conference of U.S. governors and Canadian provincial premiers from the Great Lakes region, a gathering held at Le Chateau Frontenac, a palatial hotel.
“I’ve been a million times to Canada, but I’ve never been to Quebec City,” Walker said in an interview Saturday. “You really do feel like you’re in parts of Europe here. In fact, I joked with a woman on the way in. She said, ‘You get to go to Europe without the jet lag.’ ”
His foreign journeys have been bumpy at times. During his visit to London, he garnered ridicule for repeatedly refusing to answer questions at a think tank — including whether he believes in the scientific theory of evolution.
The problems have not been confined to foreign lands. At a Utah donor retreat hosted by Mitt Romney last week, Walker said British Prime Minister David Cameron told him he was dissatisfied with President Obama’s leadership. Cameron’s staff quickly denied Walker’s account.
Since the London trip, reporters have been discouraged from following Walker overseas, and his schedule has often been a closely guarded secret. Here in Quebec City, Walker did not arrive in time for a news conference with Canadian journalists that focused heavily on the health of the Great Lakes and climate change.
After the weekend meeting, Walker met with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other officials in Ottawa. Walker also talked with business executives in one-on-one meetings, including some scheduled in Montreal.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who was also in Canada this week, said in an interview that he takes a number of foreign trade trips a year, including regular visits to China.
“You have to do it on a sustained basis. Doing one trip once has very little value,” Snyder said. “But if you do it in a fashion where you’re building longer-term relationships, it adds value.”
Many of the declared and likely GOP candidates for president have been spending time abroad. The eventual Republican nominee is likely to have to compete with the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who visited 112 countries as secretary of state.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who announced his candidacy Monday, just returned from Europe. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has made three trade trips since September, visiting Mexico, Canada and Britain — which cost his state nearly $124,000. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal visited Europe in January, spending $73,000 on a security detail of seven state police officers.
Even so, Walker’s four foreign trips in five months stand out. He now sprinkles details of his world travels into his stump speeches. While in Canada, Walker suggested that he had qualms about drinking the water in other countries he had visited.
“There are plenty of places around the world I go to that I would not dare do that,” he said. “I would not be drinking water unless they brought it to me in a bottle and I could make sure the top had not been turned . . . because I wouldn’t know if I would get sick or not.”
Between the foreign trips, Walker has traveled frequently within the United States, visiting four states this month, with two more trips planned for this week. For travel that is purely political, Walker’s organization picks up the bill, including the cost of jetting state troopers around the country.
All the travel does not leave Walker much time at home in Wisconsin, where lawmakers are in the final days of setting a budget for the next two years. He is waiting until the budget has been completed to declare whether he will run for the presidency, and there are reports of a July 13 announcement date.
“I don’t know if he comes in through a tunnel, but I never see him here. Nobody has seen him here,” said state Rep. Chris Taylor, a Democrat from Madison. “I think he wants to be anywhere but the state of Wisconsin. I think he would go to Mars if he could.”
The state budget is a bit of a mess. Republicans who dominate the legislature remain divided on two key issues: how to pay for major road projects and where to get the cash for a new basketball arena in Milwaukee so that the Bucks, a professional basketball team, won’t relocate to another state.
Walker has proposed paying half the $500 million arena cost with taxpayer funds, which he says is more economical than having the Bucks move away and the state lose the income taxes collected on players’ pay. Conservative advocacy groups have slammed the plan, and lawmakers have been slow to give their support — especially as they cut funding for the public university system and long-term care for the disabled.
For transportation projects, Walker proposed borrowing $1.3 billion rather than increasing taxes and fees. Republican lawmakers instead suggested increasing car registration fees, which Walker refuses to do.
Republicans are likely to agree to some borrowing, although not as much as the governor would like, which means some projects probably will be delayed.
Republican state Rep. David Murphy said Walker is not absent as much as Democrats contend and that sitting governors should not be discouraged from seeking the presidency.
“You would never want to limit your field of presidential candidates like that,” Murphy said. “That would be worse. That would not be good for the country.”