EAU CLAIRE -- Dem Mary Burke argued Friday Wisconsin has fallen to dead last in the Midwest for jobs growth as Gov. Scott Walker’s policies have failed to produce the 250,000 jobs he promised during his first term.
Walker countered during their first debate his opponent was relying on outdated figures and the state is actually in the region’s top five. He also knocked her time as Commerce secretary.
Walker said the state lost 133,000 jobs before he took office, but has since created 100,000. In contrast, he said the state ranked 42nd in the country for job growth while Burke was Commerce secretary and saw its unemployment rate eclipse the national figure for the only time in the last 25 years.
“I don’t want to go backward to those failed policies,” Walker said.
Burke shot back while she was at Commerce, the state’s unemployment rate was 4.8 percent, there were 50,000 more jobs in the state and she cut $70 million from the agency’s budget.
“I don’t think we should be doubling down on a strategy that hasn’t worked for the last four years,” she said.
The debate, sponsored by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and held in the auditorium at Mayo Clinic Health System, included a panel of journalists who asked the candidates on issues that included frac sand mining, voter ID and Act 10, among other things.
Walker refused to be pinned down on whether he still opposed abortion in all cases, including rape and incest, and if he believed someone could live on the minimum wage.
Walker said he is pro-life, but the abortion question was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court 40 years ago.
Burke responded that Walker was glossing over his true position on abortion and said the governor supported “invasive procedures” such as mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking one.
Pressed on the minimum wage, Walker noted that he had made the minimum wage while a teenager working at McDonald’s but that “I didn’t expect that was going to be my lifetime’s work.” He said his administration is focused on creating better-paying jobs through policies such as boosting job training through tech colleges. He also touted the number of jobs posted on a state website.
"We don’t have a job problem in this state," Walker said. "We have a work problem."
Burke said she favored increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour in three steps, saying it was unrealistic to believe all of the workers in sectors like retail could leave their jobs to attend tech colleges to train as welders.
She said Walker cut tech college funding back to 1989 levels in his first budget, resulting in a waiting list of 41,000 people for financial aid.
During the debate, Burke twice slammed the governor over a $700,000 donation from mining firm Gogebic Taconite to the pro-Walker Club for Growth during the recall campaigns. The donation was revealed in documents that were released as part of a lawsuit challenging a John Doe probe into coordination between Walker's campaign and conservative groups.
When asked about the impact of frac sand mining on western Wisconsin, Burke pivoted to Gogebic’s planned iron-ore mine in northern Wisconsin, claiming Walker changed the rules because of the donation.
Walker didn’t reply to Burke’s comments about the donation, although he has previously said he didn’t solicit the contribution and was unaware of it at the time. On the question of mining, Walker said the frac sand industry was a boon to the economy and it could be extracted without harming the environment.
Walker rejected federal money to expand the Medicaid program as part of the Affordable Care Act. Instead, he used BadgerCare to cover those below the poverty line while pushing others who previously received their health care through the program into the exchanges created under Obamacare.
Responding to a panel question, Walker said he wouldn’t change his decision and that doing so would be tantamount to depending on a federal government that can’t get its own fiscal house in order.
“I think Obamacare has failed to live up to its promise,” he said. “I would like to repeal it.”
Walker added that instead of accepting the federal funds, his administration eliminated the BadgerCare waiting list for Wisconsinites under the poverty line.
Burke responded that Walker’s decision cost the state $206 million in the current biennium and noted that most other governors -- including some Republicans -- had accepted the funds.
“This is Wisconsin taxpayer money that we send to Washington, and the fact that we don’t have a governor try to get that money back for Wisconsin is irresponsible,” she said.
The panel also asked the candidates if they would serve a full four years if elected in November. Burke said she’d not only serve the full term, but would like to become the longest serving governor in Wisconsin history. Tommy Thompson now holds that honor after serving 14 years in the post.
“There’s no greater honor, there’s no greater job in the world for me,” Burke said.
Walker, often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2016, said his plan is to serve the full four years.
“Looking at my wife right now, I know there’s no way I could run for four terms, maybe two, but that’s about it,” Walker said.
After the debate, Walker spokesman Tom Evenson wouldn’t clarify if the governor’s quip amounted to a two-term pledge.
“Gov. Walker’s plan is to be the governor for the next four years if the people of Wisconsin decide,” Evenson said.
In the final question of the debate, the candidates were asked to name one of their opponent’s positive qualities. Walker replied quickly that he admired Burke’s philanthropic activity. Burke, who answered the question second, paused before saying Walker deserved praise for his work on domestic violence and on behalf of charity.
The second and final debate will be held Oct. 17 in Milwaukee. It will also be sponsored by the WBA.