MADISON, Wis. (AP) – With the two-year legislative session over, the campaign season is now heating up in Wisconsin.
Republicans will spend the next seven months campaigning on the roughly $2 billion in tax cuts signed into law over the past three years, while Democrats will argue that Gov. Scott Walker and his GOP colleagues who control the Legislature ignored the needs of the middle class by refusing to raise the minimum wage and failing to create more jobs.
Other divisive issues from the session that wrapped up Tuesday are also certain to play major roles for campaigns on both sides, most notably the relaxing of environmental regulations to ease the siting of a massive iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin, expansion of the private school voucher program statewide and new limitations on early in-person absentee voting.
Politicians are less likely to talk about the handful of significant items on which Republicans and Democrats worked together. Those include bills designed to fight the spread of heroin use, improve mental health services and lower the cost of chemotherapy drugs that can be taken at home in pill form.
Walker’s re-election bid tops the ticket as the premiere statewide race. But Republicans are also trying to maintain or expand their control of the state Legislature, where all 99 Assembly seats and 17 of 33 in the Senate are up for grabs. The attorney general seat is also open.
Fifteen incumbent members of the Assembly – 10 Republicans and five Democrats – have announced so far that they won’t be seeking re-election. In the Senate, three Democrats and one Republican are retiring.
Republicans currently hold a 60-39 majority in the Assembly and an 18-15 majority in the Senate.
Incumbents have until May 23 to announce whether they intend to seek re-election. Candidates for office can begin circulating petitions to get on the ballot April 15, and those are due June 2.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, just minutes after the Senate concluded its work for the year Tuesday night, told reporters Republican senators will highlight the tax cuts on the campaign trail.
“We’re benefiting certainly because the economy’s expanding, but we still feel like we’ve done a really good job this session and hope that the voters treat us fairly when we go to the polls in November,” Fitzgerald said.
Democrats were in the minority in both the Senate and Assembly the past two years, making it impossible for them to get votes on issues such as increasing the minimum wage, creating a nonpartisan redistricting process and undoing the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Democrats will try to paint Republicans as extreme in their policies and concerned only with their own self-interests and not those voters care about, such as creating jobs, Democratic legislative leaders Sen. Chris Larson and Rep. Peter Barca said Wednesday.
“It’s not just Democrats that are frustrated, but the people of Wisconsin,” Larson said.
But based on a recent poll, most Wisconsin residents are happy with the Republican tax cuts and are divided on how well the state is doing in creating jobs.
Fifty-five percent of respondents to the Marquette University law school poll last month said they favored the most recent $500 million tax cut passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Walker.
Also, 49 percent of respondents said they thought Wisconsin was keeping pace or exceeding other states in creating jobs, compared with 45 percent who thought Wisconsin was lagging. The poll of 801 registered voters had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
The strength of Wisconsin’s economy under Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature the past three-plus years is sure to be the central issue in the governor’s race.
Mary Burke, a former state Commerce Department secretary under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and a past Trek Bicycle Corp. executive, has focused much of the opening weeks of her campaign criticizing Walker’s performance creating jobs and growing the economy.
Walker promised in 2010 to create 250,000 private sector jobs over four years, but after more than three only about 100,000 have been created. And Wisconsin remains in the bottom third of states in job creation.
A minority – only 13 percent – said in the Marquette poll that they expected Walker to fulfill his campaign pledge. Twenty-nine percent said that was a very important issue for their vote, and 44 percent said it was somewhat important. Twenty-six percent said it was not important.