MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker promised during his State of the State speech to help more people find work and attain college degrees faster as he works to bolster approval ratings that sank after his failed presidential bid.
Walker dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination in September. By November, a Marquette University Law School poll showed his approval rating at about 38 percent. The governor didn’t call for any ground-breaking changes during his 40-minute Tuesday speech, though, focusing much of it on his record on the state level.
He pointed out the state has a surplus of $135.6 million — actually $165 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau — the state’s unemployment rate has dipped and Republicans have frozen University of Wisconsin System tuition for four straight years. He also touted new requirements that call for people to get job training to obtain food stamps.
“You see, true freedom and prosperity do not come from the mighty hand of the government,” Walker said. “They come from empowering people to live their own lives through the dignity that comes from work. … In 2016, we want to help more people live that dream here in Wisconsin.”
The governor said the key to finding a job is education. He announced his administration will set aside another $3 million for grants through the Wisconsin Fast Forward program, which provides money for businesses to train and hire high school students in high-demand fields.
He also said his administration would work with UW System leaders to develop a three-year degree that would start in high school, saying such a program would move people into the workforce faster. He added that he also wants to work with system leaders to expand enrollment in UW’s flex option program to the level of a new UW campus. The flex option program allows students to earn college credits by demonstrating real-life knowledge through online tests.
The administration would fund the initiatives with money saved from moving to a self-insurance model for state workers, he said. Under a self-insurance plan, the state would pay for benefits directly and assume the risk of cost overruns rather than purchase insurance from HMOs. The state insurance board could vote as early as next month on moving to such a model.
One state consultant estimated the move to self-insurance could save Wisconsin more than $40 million annually, while another said it could save $20 million or cost about $100 million more per year.
Walker also emphasized a series of legislative proposals he announced last week aimed at making college more affordable. The package includes bills that would remove the cap on tax-deductible student loan interest, increasing need-based assistance programs at technical colleges and bringing on more internship coordinators across the state.
The package comes after he proposed cutting the system by $300 million in the last state budget. Republicans who control the Legislature’s budget-writing committee scaled the cut back to $250 million, but UW leader still called the reductions devastating.
Tuesday night, though, UW President Ray Cross and Regents President Regina Millner issued a joint statement praising Walker’s efforts to increase student affordability.
“We accept that challenge,” Millner said.
Walker also said he planned to hold listening sessions around the state throughout the year to learn what Wisconsin residents want to see over the next 20 years.
“We need a shared vision for the future,” Walker said. “This is why I want to hear from you.”
Walker has hinted he plans to run for a third term in 2018 but has yet to declare his candidacy. On Monday, his campaign sent a fundraising email to his supporters saying they need to get ready for the next campaign, the clearest signal yet the governor may run again.
Democrats tore the speech apart, saying it offered little substance that could really help students and the middle class.
“Governor Walker offered nothing more than Band-Aid proposals that are anemic and weak compared to the significant challenges we face,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in a news release.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in her own news release the speech amounted to nothing but sound bites.
“With Gov. Walker’s presidential bid behind us, it’s time to look forward at ways we can improve our state and rebuild our middle class,” she said.
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