By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press Writer
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Jobs and the economy.
That’s what Democrats who control the Legislature promised they would focus on this year as Wisconsin deals with high unemployment and a general malaise about the direction of the state.
But at the end of the legislative session, Democrats left town under a fog of criticism that they didn’t do enough to spur job creation or calm voters anxious about the economy.
Democrats point to numerous tax incentive bills they passed, most with Republican support, to help lure companies to Wisconsin and keep those that are here, like Mercury Marine and Republic Airways, in business and growing. They also point to investments made in job training, dairy and food processing tax breaks and research and development incentives as evidence of how they focused on improving the economy.
The question heading into the November election is whether it will be enough to keep Democrats in control of both the Senate, Assembly and governor’s office.
The difficulty for the Legislature is that changes in fiscal policy take awhile to take effect and it’s a challenge to prove to voters that what was passed made a difference, said Wendy Scattergood, a political science professor at St. Norbert College in De Pere.
To a large extent, voters’ perception of the economy is reality and if people feel the economy is bad come November, incumbents will suffer, she said.
A poll done at the end of March showed that 47 percent of Wisconsinites said they felt worse off now than a year ago. Only 34 percent approved of the job Gov. Jim Doyle was doing and just 32 percent approved of the Legislature’s job.
Those are not good numbers for incumbents looking to hold onto power. Doyle is not seeking a third term.
Democratic candidates will be able to point to companies that have expanded or added jobs thanks to one of the roughly 50 economic development bills passed by the Legislature, said state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison.
Each of the three major candidates running for governor — Republicans Mark Neumann and Scott Walker and Democrat Tom Barrett — all say job creation is their top priority. They’ve already had a dustup over claims about who will create more jobs, and how quickly, if elected.
Walker promised to create 250,000 jobs in his first term as governor and Barrett said his goal was to replace the 180,000 lost since the start of the recession. Neumann hasn’t put a number on how many jobs he’d create, while Barrett and Walker have squabbled over how realistic the other’s goals are.
Republicans attempting to regain control of the Legislature — Democrats hold a 52-46 majority in the Assembly and an 18-15 edge in the Senate — are already focusing on that shortfall and attempting to pin blame on the Democrats.
Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, set the tone with a statement shortly after the Senate adjourned for the year Thursday, saying the past year and a half under Democratic control had been an “assault on employers and taxpayers.”
“The solution to our unemployment problem is creating more jobs, but the Democrats have done all that they can to drive them away,” he said.
Democrats got distracted by tangential issues like global warming, high-speed rail and punishing Rep. Jeff Wood, who was arrested three times for driving under the influence within a 10-month span, said Assembly Minority Leader Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon.
Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, defended the work of Democrats at the end of the two-year session that marked the first time they controlled the Assembly in 14 years.
“Assembly Democrats’ top priority, from Day 1, has been to create jobs, boost businesses and get Wisconsin’s economy back on track,” Sheridan said. “We’ve taken big steps toward that goal.”
Sheridan said Democrats helped struggling families by extending unemployment benefits and crisis health care coverage, invested in job training programs and boosted economic development incentives by more than $200 million.
“We have set our state on a track to economic stability and strength,” Sheridan said.
Doyle praised the Legislature, saying it did “really good work on economic development and jobs.”
Even so, unemployment remains high.
In December 2008, a month before Democrats took over control of the Assembly, statewide unemployment was 6.2 percent. It was 8.8 percent in March.
The nonpartisan Pew Center for the States named Wisconsin as one of the 10 most fiscally troubled states in the country in a November report, citing the rise in unemployment and drop in revenues from 2008 and 2009.
Doyle on Friday praised the Legislature for passing the two-year state budget on time last year, putting the state in good position to ride out the ongoing poor economy in 2010 without requiring emergency action.
Republicans say Democrats tried to tax and spend their way out of the state’s budget problem, which was a record-high $6.6 billion last year. Democrats approved roughly $3 billion in tax increases last year, mainly affecting businesses, smokers and those earning over $300,000 a year. There were no general sales, income or payroll tax increases.
Even with those additional taxes, and a bevy of cuts, the state’s budget remains stressed.
The next two-year budget, which will be the first thing the new governor will have to propose early in 2011, is already projected to be more than $2 billion in the red due to existing spending commitments.
But that won’t have to be tackled until after the election.