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Race to the Bottom

Gov. Walker Assaults Jobs, Innovation, and Clean Energy in Wisconsin

SOURCE: AP/Andy Manis

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker refuses to support clean energy policies. And now he's going after unions, which will ultimately undermine critical services in the state and hurt investment and jobs.  

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Newly elected Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker held an event called “Wisconsin is Open for Business” the day he was inaugurated. But every move the governor makes shows him to be an antibusiness, anti-innovation politician intent on running the state into the ground.

Let’s take clean energy. Clean energy industries offered a glimmer of hope during the past two years in the midst of a national recession that has hit the Midwest particularly hard. In Michigan, for example, total private employment dropped 5.4 percent from 2005-2008, while during the same period employment increased by 7.7 percent among the state’s 358 “green” firms. Michigan’s new governor, Rick Snyder, recognized the growth potential of these industries when he ran on a 10-point plan that emphasized the need to invest in clean energy sectors such as advanced batteries.

In Ohio, too, the green writing is on the wall. New Gov. John Kasich initially sounded off against clean energy, running on a platform that included rolling back the state’s renewable energy standard. But he reversed this position soon after his election when multiple business leaders told him how important green industries were in the Toledo area in particular. The city, which ranked in the bottom 10 by per capita income in 2000, has seen a renaissance as a hub for solar innovation and production. Over 6,000 individuals are employed in these industries in Toledo today, and the city is home to several major solar panel exporters including First Solar and Xunlight.

Gov. Walker, however, has apparently decided that Wisconsin should take a back seat to the Midwest’s green renaissance. The state has enormous potential to generate homegrown energy from renewable resources. Wisconsin has enough wind, solar, and biomass energy resources to produce power equivalent to the entire state’s electricity needs according to Environment America. But the new governor recently proposed a wind turbine siting law that would effectively shut down most wind power production. The new law, if put into effect, would require wind turbines to be set back at least 1,800 feet from any nearby property unless all affected property owners agree to the turbine in writing.

Only one-fourth of Wisconsin’s current wind turbines would ever have been built if this rule had been in place in the past. In other words, 2,250 fewer people would have construction or maintenance jobs, over a million fewer dollars would be flowing to rural communities in the form of land leases, and the 21 manufacturing plants in the state that supply the wind industry would have far fewer orders and would likely be closing their doors.

Gov. Walker is also taking aim at another potential growth sector: high-speed rail. Right now no passenger rail exists between Madison and Milwaukee, which between them house over 75 percent of Wisconsin’s entire population. A high-speed train running between the cities would serve commuters and business travelers, and it would provide a critical influx of visitors to both downtowns. It would also connect Madison to the existing Milwaukee-Chicago train route. Perhaps most important, studies have shown that the line would create over 13,000 jobs, eliminate 780,000 car trips annually, and save Wisconsin residents 2.76 million gallons of gas each year.

Investing in high-speed rail makes sense in Wisconsin. The state’s major university and state capitol are in one major city, but the majority of industry and commerce is in another. Connecting the two would be a major investment in Wisconsin’s future growth.

But Gov. Walker doesn’t see it that way. One of his first acts once in office was to defund the proposed rail line, turning down over $800 million in federal funds to support the project. That’s a lot of lost jobs today and lost revenue tomorrow.

Gov. Walker clearly wants to cut off Wisconsin from the clean tech revolution. But his job-killing, anti-innovation strategies don’t stop at clean energy. Over the past two weeks it has become clear that the governor wants to cut off the state’s entire public-sector workforce at the knees by using a budget battle as an excuse to take away these workers’ basic right to band together and bargain for better working conditions and fair wages.

This isn’t about the state budget. In fact, Wisconsin’s public-sector workers make about 8 percent less in wages than do workers in the private sector who have similar education and experience. And the state’s pension fund has an actuarial funding ratio—the ratio of actuarial assets as compared to liabilities—of nearly 100 percent. That means that the contributions to the state’s pension fund are sufficient to meet the needs of its retirees—in other words, Gov. Walker’s attempt to make this into a budget issue is a red herring.

Gov. Walker’s proposed state budget cuts are instead a transparent attack on public-sector unions, which are a major reason anyone even takes public-sector jobs anymore. Why work a job for less pay than you’d make in the private sector—an extremely demanding job like teaching in public schools or plowing two-foot drifts of snow in minus-20 degree weather—if that job doesn’t provide the stability, health and safety regulations, health and retirement benefits, and basic equality that come with being part of a union?

Gov. Walker undermines the state itself when he undermines public-sector workers. These workers provide essential services that are the backbone of the state’s economy. They educate children. They keep streets clear of snow and garbage. They process permits, cut through red tape, and keep essential city and state services moving.

Take away the benefits these workers have today—benefits that they have bargained for in exchange for lower pay than they might get elsewhere—and the quality of all these services goes way down. The result is a state with worse schools, worse public services, and an educated workforce fleeing to find a better deal elsewhere. In short, a state where no one wants to invest, start a new business, or make a new start.

Sounds like an antijobs agenda to me.

Kate Gordon is Vice President for Energy Policy at American Progress. She grew up in Madison, WI.

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