MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has made little progress fulfilling a campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs over four years, making the pledge that was a key to getting him elected last year a potentially significant hurdle as he fights off recall efforts.
Walker hasn't been shy about the promise, even saying shortly before taking office that he wanted it branded on the foreheads of his top Cabinet officials. But the Republican has distanced himself in recent months, talking more about building a better environment to create jobs and how Wisconsin's future is tied to a national economy beyond his control.
The new governor wasn't expected to have to defend his jobs promise so soon. But after successfully pushing through a law that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most public workers and made Wisconsin the epicenter of a nationwide fight over union rights, Walker was targeted for recall.
Recall organizers say they have gathered more than half a million signatures, just shy of the 540,208 they need to force an election in mid-2012. The Democratic Party and other critics, meanwhile, have been hammering Walker on jobs numbers.
During an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Walker said he doesn't regret making the promise.
"If you don't have an aggressive goal, you're going to fall short," Walker said.
And while he wishes job creation numbers were better, Walker emphasized the pledge was over a four-year period.
"We weren't going to see them all happen in one month," he said.
Government data indicates there were 16,300 more private sector jobs in Wisconsin in November than there were in January, when Walker took office. The November numbers are preliminary, however, and Walker's administration has been critical of the methodology used by the federal government to reach those estimates, which typically undergo significant monthly revisions.
A recent report by a nonpartisan group also supported suggestions that the national economy was dragging down job creation in the state.
Still, Walker has a long way to go. His own Department of Revenue predicted in October that based on the latest forecasts, about 136,000 jobs would be added by 2015. But at the current pace, only 71,000 jobs would be created in four years.
Walker was the only gubernatorial candidate in last year's race to promise a specific number of news jobs, with no wiggle room, and he brashly repeated the pledge after winning.
"I want my Cabinet secretaries to have branded across their heads, '250,000 jobs,'" Walker said at a December 2010 meeting of the Dairy Business Association. "I want them to know their job is on the line because my job is on the line to create 250,000 jobs in the private sector."
Rep. Peter Barca, the ranking Democrat in the Wisconsin Assembly, said voters assumed Walker had a solid plan to deliver.
"But obviously his plan is not working," Barca said.
Walker hoped his term would mirror former Gov. Tommy Thompson's first four years in office, when the state added roughly 250,000 jobs between 1987 and 1991. Thompson focused on holding down taxes and promoting Wisconsin as a good place to do business, an approach Walker also took in his first budget.
But Walker also lit political dynamite by curtailing public workers' collective bargaining rights and cutting public education funding. The moves enraged political opponents enough to trigger efforts to not only recall him, but also several state senators — including two Republican incumbents who voters tossed from office in August.
"The governor has made some tough decisions and knows that more needs to be done to ensure the state continues on a path of growth," said Walker campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews. It's not fair for Walker to be judged on the promise just a year into his term, she said.
Walker's opponents argue those budget decisions, along with other moves such as killing a high-speed train line that was projected to create 5,500 construction jobs, have done more to impair his jobs promise than fulfill it.
Wisconsin has lost nearly 15,000 jobs since Walker's budget took effect in July and had the highest job loss of any state in November, according to federal data. Over the same time period, more than 100,000 jobs were created nationally during each of the past five months.
Steven Deller, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of agriculture and applied economics, predicted that the funding cuts included in Walker's current two-year budget will result in 20,000 job losses.
Walker said he is working to create a friendlier business environment by easing regulations, passing tax breaks, making it more difficult to sue companies for damages, and taking other steps the business community has welcomed and pushed for years. Many of those measures were passed in two separate special legislative sessions Walker called earlier this year.
Kurt Bauer, president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce — the state's largest business group — praised Walker's conservative budget, collective bargaining restrictions and tax cuts. Bauer said they are creating a better business climate that will create jobs "in the long run."
Bauer said this year's sluggish job creation numbers are mostly the result of the national and global economies. He said polls show that WMC members are confident in Walker's leadership and optimistic about the future of the state's economy.
"What we've tried to do is basically set the stage for businesses to thrive here and for Wisconsin to be very competitive to have an advantage over states in the Upper Midwest," Bauer said. "There's still a tremendous amount of uncertainty, some of it at the state level, but the vast majority exists at the federal level."
A recent report by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance backed up complaints about the national economy dragging down job creation in the state. The report found job growth and unemployment in Wisconsin has been closely tied with the national economy both during recessions like the one that began in 2008, and economic booms like when Thompson was governor in the 1990s.
State officials can change attitudes about the economy, but because it is so closely tied to national and global forces, there's little they can do to affect the actual direction of the economy, said Taxpayers Alliance President Todd Berry.
"This debate over job creation or elimination among Democrats and Republicans, among incumbents and opposition, is for the most part a waste of time," he said.