Watching Governor Scott Walker give his State of the State address next to my colleague, Rebecca Kemble, in the Assembly chamber, I was struck by how similar the speech sounded to the President Obama's State of the Union message the night before.
The President and the Governor both began and ended by thanking the troops--Obama had the Joint Chiefs arrayed in front of him, while Walker brought in uniformed members of Wisconsin's 724th Engineer Battalion, returned from Iraq--who happened to be seated right next to me on folding chairs.
The general message: that the economy is getting better, that school reform is working, and that we should all pull together and see ourselves as a united front--were parallel themes.
But in Walker's case, repeated disruptions from the Assembly gallery literally drowned out the unity part of the message.
As Walker finished saying the words, "your opponent today may be your ally tomorrow," a woman stood up and screamed, "You don't care about the poor people!" and was dragged from the chamber.
"You've got to go," a security guard told her, as Walker continued: "The people I've met traveling the state over the past year seem to reflect that simple concept of respect for their fellow citizens."
"Tax the rich!" the same heckler yelled, as she was shoved out the door.
Drums, horns, and singing from downstairs in the Capitol rotunda were audible during other parts of the speech. And one by one, five hecklers in the gallery were escorted out.
As Walker talked about his desire to improve Wisconsin schools, a woman yelled, "Then why are you taking away from the poorest, most vulnerable children?"
When Walker said, "I want to thank the many teachers and public servants from across the state of Wisconsin," the whole gallery stood up and applauded. The Republicans on the floor looked up, then slowly rose to their feet, too.
It was a strange, squirrelly atmosphere as the hecklers were dragged out one by one, and loud, inappropriate applause--for the governor's line about his bipartisan commission to combat "waste, fraud, and abuse," and, oddly, his description of reading to third graders, confused the Republicans on the floor.
A few journalists grumbled about the lack of decorum from the protesters.
But the really strange part of Walker's speech was the way he presented economic data--which show that Wisconsin is doing quite a bit worse than the nation as a whole--as if it were a win.
Wisconsin lost 3,900 private sector jobs in December--making it the only state in the nation to suffer six straight month of job losses--even as the nation experienced a net jobs gain.
After running on the promise that, as governor, he would create 250,000 new jobs, giving hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations on the theory that they would then create those jobs, and calling a special session of the legislature supposedly dedicated to his single-minded goal of job creation, the governor is looking at a state that is hemorrhaging jobs.
How can he paint a rosy picture?
"Our unemployment rate is down from a year ago. In fact, it's the lowest it's been since 2008," he said. "In fact, Wisconsin's unemployment rate is not only lower than the national average, but much better than our neighbors to the south in Illinois."
Wisconsin's unemployment rate dropped from 7.5 percent a year ago, the governor's office points out, to 7.1 percent in the current month.
"During the past year, we added thousands of new jobs," Walker said. (He did not give a precise number, but the state office of workforce development credits him with presiding over a modest increase of nearly 14,000 jobs.)
Laura Dresser, an economist at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, puts those numbers in context.
"The unemployment rate declined because people stopped looking for work," she said. "We have 150,000 fewer jobs today than we did in 2007, when the recession hit," Dresser says. "It's true that we added jobs in the first six months of 2011, but we lost about the same number in the second six months."
Wisconsin also lost 10,000 public sector jobs between December 2010 to December 2011.
Overall, unemployment, which used to be about 4.5 percent until 2007, has hovered between 9 percent and 7 percent ever since. The unemployment rate for any given month is also deceptive, as a report on jobs in 2011 on the COW web site: www.cows.org points out, because workers drop in and out of the labor market, and there are many long-term underemployed.
"Given the flow into and out of unemployment, over the course of a year, unemployment touches many more workers than it does in a single month. As an example, national statistics show that the total number of persons who experienced unemployment at some point in 2009 was 83 percent higher than the average number unemployed each month"
But the Walker jobs failure is worse than that.
As I was leaving the Assembly chamber, I ran into Senator Kathleen Vinehout, a Democrat from rural Western Wisconsin.
I asked her what she thought of the Governor's speech.
"There seems to be an alternate reality between what the governor talked about and what I see in my district," she said. "The problems with schools, and with unemployment are just not addressed."
"I did a little math when I got a copy of the Governor's speech," Vinehout continued.
"Six out of seven of the jobs he says were created in the last year were created by Wisconsinites getting jobs outside the state!"
"The governor should have thanked other governors from the states that surround Wisconsin, because they created six times more jobs for Wisconsinites than he did," Vinehout said, adding that it's ridiculous for the governor to brag about an unemployment drop for Wisconsin that's half that of the rest of the nation.
"It's like someone running a race and bragging because they got half way around the track," she said. "Other governor's have carried him 85 percent of the way. In other words: It's not working."
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Tommy Thompson/Scott Walker Smackdown."
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