The state Legislature is moving at a brisk pace this week, pushing pieces of Gov. Scott Walker’s special session agenda closer to his desk.
Walker on Monday signed his first bill, which will make contributions to health savings accounts tax deductible. The Legislature also has debated and passed bills related to lawsuit reform and tax incentives.
But Democratic lawmakers say Wisconsin is no closer than in December to Walker’s promise of 250,000 new jobs.
“We’re in a special session that’s created zero jobs, 20 days in,” state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said.
Even if that’s true, though, John Schmitt, president and business manager for the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council, said contractors and construction workers never thought the Legislature could work magic during its first month in session.
“Everybody is saying they want jobs right now. We all do,” Schmitt said. “But it might take a little longer than we all hope. And that’s nobody’s fault. It’s the economy’s fault. I’m not blaming either side.”
Democrats aren’t sharing Schmitt’s diplomacy. They’ve criticized Walker for mixing in legislation related to wetlands and wind farms during the jobs special session, and they’ve argued that even bills directly geared toward job creation won’t fulfill Walker’s pledge.
For instance, the Assembly on Tuesday passed a bill that would give back to companies between $92 and $316 for every new job they create, an amount critics called too little to make a difference.
Meanwhile, the Senate passed a bill authorizing the Department of Commerce to distribute $25 million in tax credits to state businesses, but Democrats complained the tax credits would not be used until 2014.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can for business, apparently through tort reform and HSAs and wind turbines and tax breaks that won’t take effect for three years,” state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said with sarcasm.
But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said January marks only the beginning of a long journey toward making Wisconsin a viable place to do business.
“The hypocrisy coming out of the minority party is unbelievable,” Fitzgerald said, adding Democrats failed to create jobs when they held a majority in the Legislature. “Gov. Walker has a vision for the state. He laid that out when he ran for governor. This is one piece in a big puzzle.”
Republicans, Fitzgerald said, are working on “dozens of other bills that will create an environment to incubate business.” The legislation on the table this week, he said, “is all part of that plan.”
State Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, said he doesn’t see how any of the special session bills fit in with a job-creation agenda.
“My question is: What kind of puzzle are we putting together?” Risser said. “We need jobs now. We need some help now.”
In particular, Wisconsin’s rural areas are being left behind in the special session, Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, said. The senator used Michigan’s $30 million tourism marketing campaign as an example of something Wisconsin should consider rather than handing over $25 million in tax credits to Commerce.
“Businesses that make up Main Street aren’t looking for businesses to move into their community; they’re looking for tourists,” Jauch said. “This Legislature is turning a blind eye to (Wisconsin’s) third-largest industry and adopting a hocus-pocus solution.”
Senate President Michael Ellis, R-Neenah, countered it’s ridiculous to debate the effectiveness of an entire legislative session during its first month.
“The fact of the matter is, this is a first step,” Ellis said. “No one said these bills are going to change the world.”
Even the people who most need jobs weren’t expecting immediate solutions, Schmitt said.
“We’ve had members who’ve worked over 20 years for the same contractors, and this is the first time they’ve ever been laid off,” he said. “We need job creation.”
But, Schmitt added, “They’ve been patient this long. They can be patient a little longer.”