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Walker in State of State speech: Start interchange project sooner than later

Associated Press

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker acknowledges the Wisconsin National Guard before his address to a joint session of the Legislature in the Assembly chambers at the state Capitol Tuesday in Madison. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker promised to target public employee benefits and Medicaid programs in order to deal with Wisconsin’s budget shortfall, but offered few details in his first State of the State speech on Tuesday about how he will plug the $3.2 billion gap.

He did wrap himself in Green Bay Packers pride, quoting Vince Lombardi twice, speaking live via video with team president Mark Murphy, and noting that he was speaking under a Capitol dome that was lit green and gold in honor of the team that plays in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

But the thrust of his 30-minute speech before a joint session of the Legislature was on the state’s budget problem, which the new Republican governor promised to solve without raising taxes while also avoiding massive layoffs and reductions in critical services.

“The decisions we face are not easy and the solutions we must approve will require true sacrifice,” Walker said. “But the benefit of finally making these tough decisions and being honest with the citizens of this state will help us to balance the budget in a way that creates a permanent, structurally sound state budget.”

Walker said “rhetoric will meet reality” in the solutions he intends to release to the current fiscal year shortfall that ranges between $79 million and roughly $340 million. He releases his two-year budget plan on Feb. 22.

Democrats derided Walker for his lack of specificity.

“Where’s the beef?” asked Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison.

Republicans said he did a good job outlining the problems the state faces.

“He’s been in office for a month,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. “What he’s doing is laying the groundwork for where he’s headed.”

Walker said union workers should be forced to make a 5 percent contribution to their pensions and increase their share of health insurance costs up to 12 percent. Currently, most workers don’t contribute anything to their pensions and pay between 4 percent and 6 percent of their health insurance costs.
Doing that would save the state more than $30 million over three months, he said.

“Most workers outside of government would love a deal like that — particularly if it means saving jobs,” he said.

State union leaders, who’ve heard Walker make similar comments for months, were not surprised.

“This governor has made no secret of his desire to undercut the earnings of state workers,” said Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, which represents 22,000 workers. “We are willing and able to meet with his administration any time, any place, about any issue. Instead, all we hear from him are press releases and speeches.”

Bryan Kennedy, president of the 17,000-member union AFT-Wisconsin, called on Walker to resume contract negotiations with the unions.

“It’s time that he make good on his word and work with — not against — state employees to solve the budget crisis,” Kennedy said in a statement.

Walker also said Medicaid, which is projected to be $174 million short in the current budget year, was unsustainable — but he didn’t say what he would change.

Walker said the state will save $600 million by making changes to the Zoo Interchange construction project on Interstate 94 near Milwaukee. The project to redo the interchange, the busiest in the state which saw 350,000 cars last year, was originally expected to cost $2.3 billion and take seven years to finish.

But Walker intends to begin it in 2013, two years sooner than planned, and finish it in just six years. He would also delay part of the work being done on I-94 between the Illinois state line and Milwaukee County.

However, the savings will be spread over the life of the Zoo project, so it will do little to help the upcoming budget which runs through June 2013.

Democrats were not impressed with Walker’s comments.

Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, a member of the Legislature’s budget committee, said she was growing weary of Walker’s vagueness and said his promises to balance the budget are nothing more than “pixie dust.”

“There is no plan,” she said.

Unemployed people from Milwaukee participated in a news conference hours before the speech in which they and other critics urged Walker to do more to create jobs. Walker promised during the campaign to create 250,000 jobs during his four years in office and touted bills that he signed into law during his first month in office that cut taxes on businesses, health savings accounts and rewrite rules governing civil lawsuits.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said Walker missed an opportunity with the special session which he said focused more on rebranding the state and addressing the business climate, but won’t create jobs.

Walker plowed ahead with the speech as a massive snowstorm descended on Madison and southeast Wisconsin, which prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency just four hours before he began speaking. In a bit of irony given his slogan that “Wisconsin is open for business,” Walker ordered most state offices closed the day after his speech due to the weather.

Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.

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