In La Crosse for a statewide listening tour, Gov. Scott Walker fielded questions Thursday on everything from the federal health care law to bottled water and the prospects of Wisconsin ever reaching an income tax reciprocity agreement with Minnesota.
Walker spoke to employees at Torrance Casting as part of his statewide “Talk with Walker” tour, which he says is intended to gather ideas from Wisconsinites across the state.
Preparing for his second state budget session, the Republican governor outlined his legislative priorities to about 50 employees and a handful of local officials and lawmakers, including Sen. Jennifer Shilling and Rep. Jill Billings, both Democrats.
Employees were encouraged to ask whatever was on their minds, and they did.
Travis Tisdell wanted to know what the state could do to help small business owners help workers like him get more education and training. Tisdell, who is 25 and operates a grinder, said later he’d like to study to be an electrician but can’t afford to take on the loans and doesn’t expect his employer to pick up the tab.
Walker said it might be possible for the state to provide matching funds for businesses.
Ken Schliesmann said he’d like to see more emphasis on the state’s clean water supply — both in terms of holding polluters accountable and encouraging “home grown bottling plants” to take advantage of it.
Many of the questions concerned the federal Affordable Care Act, putting Walker in the awkward position of explaining the law, which he fought politically and in the courts.
One worker worried that the company would opt to pay the new $2,500 per worker penalty rather than supply health insurance, for which he now pays $5 a week. (Owner Bill Torrance assured him that wouldn’t be the case.)
Walker said he didn’t think that was the intent of the legislators who crafted Obamacare and that the law would likely be tweaked in the coming years.
Thursday’s event was just the third stop on the governor’s listening tour, which kicked off Tuesday at ACE Marine in Green Bay.
Thus far it has included only stops at manufacturing plants that were open only to employees and credentialed media. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the governor plans to hold “a substantial number” of additional events in December and January.
During an interview with the Tribune earlier in the day, Walker said he wanted to get away from the forum-style hearings such as those held every two years by the Legislature’s budget committee.
“Groups from across the spectrum pour people in, and it’s such a big crowd you get two minutes a speaker,” he said. “I was looking for more of a conversation.”
Walker said he’s received good feedback so far, and some ideas he’d like to incorporate. Of Thursday’s session, he said one of the takeaways was the importance of his administration and the state’s congressional delegation working together to help people understand the health care law.
Walker has said he will introduce a budget in February that focuses on job creation, workforce development, transforming education, reforming government and investing in infrastructure.
But he’s also signaled that his agenda includes cutting taxes, expanding the private school voucher program and tying education funding to benchmarks, such as how well institutions prepare students for jobs with worker shortages.
Shilling said afterward that she likes hearing the governor talk about infrastructure improvements — and that he includes broadband in his definition. Access to high-speed Internet is a key concern for employers and schools, especially in the rural parts of western Wisconsin, Shilling said.
As for the transformation of education, she said, “the devil is in the details.”
Torrance said he was honored that the governor asked to visit.
In the 42 years he’s worked for the family business, Torrance said, only four officials have visited — one state senator, one Assembly representative and two mayors. And none stuck around to talk to the workers.