Welcome to Wisconsin, Mr. President
Bright spots in the Obama economy are few and far between, as opportunities for small businesses and entrepreneurs are often quashed by a federal government that has grown too large, powerful and pervasive. That’s why it’s telling that the president is scheduled to be in La Crosse, Wis., this week for an event focusing on the economy.
To be sure, Wisconsin’s economy has enjoyed a dramatic recovery over the last few years. But our fortunes have improved in spite of – not because of – the president’s big-government policies. Reforming our bloated federal government is essential to revitalizing our nation’s economy, and I like to think what we have been doing in Wisconsin could serve as a model.
Consider the Environmental Protection Agency, which under President Obama has repeatedly worked to expand its authority without congressional approval, attempting to regulate everything from carbon emissions to drainage ponds.
In Wisconsin, a state known for its great outdoors, many folks had long felt our Department of Natural Resources was cast from the same regulatory mold. Instead of serving taxpayers—the people who pay the bills—the DNR had created an adversarial relationship with the public and seemed to measure its success by how many citations it issued.
We changed that. In 2012 we implemented a “lean government” initiative with the goal of more efficient and productive operations. At the Department of Natural Resources, that meant improving customer service and saving taxpayer money.
The DNR now sees its main job as helping people to navigate complex regulations and avoid potentially damaging violations. It’s a win-win: When we prevent violations that cause harm to the state’s environment, we don’t need to penalize taxpayers. The DNR in Wisconsin, unlike the EPA in Washington, is now seen as a protector of natural resources and a partner in nurturing economy growth.
A similar process took place across other Wisconsin government agencies. We engaged state officials, managers and employees and asked how we could pare back unnecessary regulations, processes and costs. In its first year, the lean-government initiative eliminated 400 unneeded bureaucratic steps in state regulatory agencies, saved nearly 80,000 staff hours, reduced regulatory backlogs by an average of 54% and saved $1.6 million.
I look at unnecessary regulations as irrational taxes that hinder economic growth. Reforming the burdensome regulatory system acts as a tax cut—encouraging entrepreneurs and small business owners and putting money into the hands of consumers. Simple changes allow businesses to focus more on growth than on regulations.
In 2012, we began to require Wisconsin agencies to work with the Small Business Regulatory Review Board to identify rules hindering economic growth. This common-sense change resulted in the repeal or modification of hundreds of rules. For example, we reduced tax-filing frequencies, which reduced costs for more than 25,000 Wisconsin retailers; exempted small haulers from having to stop at weigh stations, which cut costs and brought uniformity across state lines; combined similar forms at the DNR and put them online; and changed a rule that required written prescriptions for eyeglass lenses to allow for electronic prescriptions.
Reining in regulation—along with cutting taxes, reducing costs and improving education—has helped turn Wisconsin’s economy around. When I became governor in January 2011, the state’s unemployment rate was unacceptably high at 8.1%. Behind every lost job was a family worried about groceries, a mortgage, or sending a child to college. Since that time, we have added 145,000 jobs, and in February, we reached a record number of people employed in the state. In the past 4 1/2 years, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has fallen to 4.6%.
Not surprisingly, 91% of job creators surveyed by the state’s Chamber of Commerce say Wisconsin is headed in the right direction. In May, Chief Executive magazine’s annual CEO survey ranked the business climate in Wisconsin the 12th-best in the nation, up from 41st when I became governor.
That isn’t to say that reforming an entrenched government bureaucracy is easy. In Wisconsin we saw 100,000 protesters arrive in our state capital—many from out of state—when we began reforming public-sector union rules in 2011. But we prevailed and, not coincidentally, have over the past four years turned a $3.6 billion budget deficit into a nearly $1 billion surplus.
These are the kinds of practical reforms that could also improve federal-government efficiency, reducing the burdens of overregulation while creating opportunity and economic mobility. If it can happen in Wisconsin, it can happen in Washington.
This is the message I will convey to President Obama when he visits our state this week. For the sake of hard-working taxpayers across the country, I hope he will listen.
Mr. Walker, a Republican, is the governor of Wisconsin.