Lt. Gov. Kleefisch Looks to Get Wisconsin 'Back to Work'

John Nance Garner, FDR’s first vice president, famously said that the position was “not worth a pitcher of warm spit.” Rebecca Kleefisch, Wisconsin’s 38-year-old, dynamic lieutenant governor, campaigned for her state’s number two position determined to make it worth something, saying: “The people of Wisconsin deserve to get full measure for the salary they are paying me.”

The former television news anchor and small businesswoman (owner of media marketing firm) entered politics because she was “frustrated at the direction our state was going in,” and decided to rebrand herself as the state’s “chief marketing officer.” She says she is focused on doing what she can to help existing businesses expand operations within Wisconsin, and to persuade others to relocate to the state.

“If you are in charge of marketing and selling the state, you have to know your product. … I try to take my communications skills to become an effective sales person for Wisconsin,” she says. “Once I make the call (to an out-of-state company) I have no fear; the worst they can say is ‘no,’ the best is ‘I see the value of being in Wisconsin.’” She says she informs out-of-state companies that “we have an ethical and skilled work force, and we are investing in the high schools and technical colleges.”

The lieutenant governor’s roots in Wisconsin extend almost to the state’s founding in 1848. She tells a story of her great-great-great-grandmother serving refreshments on her front lawn in Butte des Morts, Wisconsin, to Chief Oshkosh of the Menominee tribe in the 1850s (the chief died in 1858). The lady’s husband, Horatio Gates Howard, came to Wisconsin from New York to help build the Fond du Lac-Milwaukee railroad line, and was later elected to state assembly in 1869.

When her team assumed office after the November 2010 election, Wisconsin was ranked third-highest in the country for its overall tax burden, had a $3.6B budget deficit, had a 9.2% unemployment rate, and well over 100,000 jobs had departed the state. Four years later, the unemployment rate is below 7% (and below the national average). The budget deficit has been entirely eliminated -- and a surplus of $912M is projected for the end of the current biennium (Wisconsin’s legislature and administration work to biennial budgets). Tax cuts have moved the state from third-highest to tenth. And best of all, Wisconsin is the only state in the union to have a fully funded public employee pension plan.

This remarkable change has come about because of a signature piece of legislation, known colloquially as “Act 10.” The act limited public employee unions’ rights of collective bargaining to negotiating salaries only; required that the unions themselves collect their own dues (previously, they were deducted from public employees’ checks); and requires annual recertification votes of their members.

When asked what her biggest surprise had been upon assuming office, Kleefisch said it was the reception Act 10 received from the public employee unions and their Democrat political allies. The state capital  erupted in violent protests, Republican office-holders received death threats, and the entire Democratic contingent of the state Senate fled to northern Illinois to prevent a quorum to vote on the measure. After the dust settled, the bill became law and worked its magic.

This was followed by a brutal and historic recall election in 2011, in which Governor Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall, and Kleefisch the first lieutenant governor to be subjected to recall. Both received more votes than they had received in 2010.

Despite the success, Governor Walker’s election pledge to create an environment in which 250,000 new jobs would be created over his first term has fallen short, victim to the sluggish national economy. Lt. Governor Kleefisch admits that much remains to be done.

Kleefisch lists the following as tasks for the next term: continued review of state laws and regulations to determine those which are out of date, either requiring amendment or repeal; continuing tax cuts (despite the drop from third place to tenth and the difference between Wisconsin’s surplus and Illinois’ shortfall, Illinois’ overall tax burden is still lower than Wisconsin’s); continued improvement of Wisconsin’s entrepreneurial climate; and new job-training initiatives (the official state job listing website carries a current balance of some 67.900 jobs which are unfilled for lack of applicants with the proper skills).

As actions taken towards these ends, Kleefisch cites her regular small business roundtables, in which local businessmen are invited to meet with her to voice concerns and offer solutions, and her annual Small Business Summit, attended by all the state’s cabinet officers and department heads, at which intensive networking and discussion of the interface between government and business takes place. She says the roundtables also help clarify tax reforms and the state's budgets.

Lt. Governor Kleefisch declined to take any credit for Wisconsin’s improvements and initiatives, calling herself a “lieutenant in the army to get Wisconsin back to work.”