By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Wisconsin may be posting near-record low unemployment rates, but job creation is lagging far behind most other states, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
And those anemic employment numbers have much to do with Democrat Gov. Tony Evers’ big government policies, his conservative critics say.
Wisconsin’s economy shed 2,900 private-sector jobs in January, according to the most recent employment employment data. Wisconsin, according to BLS, was only one of nine states to lose jobs in January, as the U.S. economy continues to recover from the damage done by COVID-19 and liberal governors like Evers who prolonged state lockdowns.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch quickly seized on Wisconsin’s weak employment showing, noting that the Badger State ranks 32nd nationally in private-sector jobs recovered since February 2020 — a month before Evers’ disastrous shutdown. More so, Wisconsin is last in private sector job growth since July 2021.
BLS data show Wisconsin’s job growth rate was a paltry 1.5 percent between January 2021 and January 2022. Only Alabama performed as poorly. Nevada posted a nationwide high of 10.3 percent job growth, according to the federal agency.
Texas and Florida, two Republican-led states that took considerable heat from COVID fear pushers for lifting pandemic restrictions, had some of the highest job-creation rates in the country, at 5.5 percent and 5.8 percent, respectively, over the year.
Evers apologists have blamed Wisconsin’s job-growth malaise on the state’s historically low unemployment, at 3 percent in January. (The state originally was thought to have posted a record-low 2.8 percent unemployment rate in December, but BLS has since revised that number upward to 3.1 percent.)
Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point), vice chair of the Senate’s Economic and Workforce Development Committee, called the argument a “weak smoke screen.” He said the labor figures don’t reflect the thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of people who have stopped looking for work despite help wanted signs in business windows everywhere. Evers vetoed legislation that would have ended enhanced weekly federal unemployment benefits and pushed jobless Wisconsinites back into the workforce, and his administration has refused to make childless recipients of state benefits look for work.
Kleefisch served as lieutenant governor during Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s two terms in office. Wisconsin’s mainstream news outlets dogged Walker throughout his tenure for falling short on ambitious job creation goals. They have been mostly silent on Wisconsin’s sluggish job growth during Evers’ three-plus years in office.
“That’s because it doesn’t fit the narrative,” said Testin, who also is a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. “Scott Walker and Rebecca Kleefisch put out bold job markers. Tony Evers has been asleep at the wheel, and that’s why we had this malaise with his administration for the better part of three years.”
Republicans have criticized Evers for using billions of dollars in federal COVID relief as a kind of re-election campaign slush fund. He’s dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into economic development and business grants and loans, with questionable results — as evidenced by the weak jobs figures. Evers has gotten plenty of big-check photo-ops, though.
Testin noted the governor’s veto of a bill that would have awarded $65 million in federal loans to reopen two shuttered paper mills in Wisconsin Rapids and Park Falls. Evers wanted the money to come from the state’s taxpayers, despite the unprecedented amount of federal funds he had at his disposal. He did award $5.67 million in ARPA funds for a YMCA in Park Falls.
“The good news here for those unemployed lumber and mill workers is that they can at least go to to the YMCA and participate in the water aerobics program,” Testin said sardonically.
“So long as we have Tony Evers as CEO of our economy we can expect this stagnation to continue,” the senator said.