This time last year, Gov. Scott Walker was days away from skyrocketing to the top of the Republican presidential field.
At that State of the State speech, Walker's presidential campaign wouldn't be officially announced for six more months.
This year, it's already in the rear view mirror — but more than a few phrases from his presidential campaign stump speech found their way into his sixth State of the State address.
Walker boasted Tuesday, "the Wisconsin Comeback is real."
"There are more people working in Wisconsin than at nearly any other point in our history, state finances are stable, our school students are doing well overall, college tuition is frozen, and property and income taxes are down from 2010," Walker said to assembled legislators and state dignitaries at the Capitol in Madison.
No major initiatives were announced, but the governor's speech focused heavily on both K-12 and higher education — all tied to his oft-repeated theme: "our goal is to ensure that everyone who wants a job can find a job."
Walker indicated plans to make changes to state employees' health insurance, which he said could save "tens of millions of dollars." Any savings that would come from those changes would go to public education, Walker pledged.
Republican lawmakers expressed a cautious openness to that proposal.
"I think it's a good idea to look at the cost of health care and to do health care in a more cost-efficient way, and I agree with that," said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee. "The issue is, how are we going to affect the free marketplace? We have one of the best free-market health care systems in the country, and we have to look at unintended consequences."
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he would be happy to take a look at the idea, but wants to make sure it's done in a way that won't disrupt the private insurance market.
"We certainly don't want to drive people into Obamacare," Vos said. "The second thing I want to make sure is there are significant savings."
The state will provide an additional $3 million for dual enrollment programs in schools through the Wisconsin Fast Forward worker training program, Walker promised. He also announced plans to work with the University of Wisconsin System to explore providing a three-year degree program that would start in high schools and continue on some UW campuses.
He lauded high school students' high ACT scores and the impact of his tuition freeze for the University of Wisconsin System, enacted in the 2013-15 budget and extended in the 2015-17 spending plan.
"We need our young people to have as many excellent higher education options as possible to prepare for the workforce needs of the 21st century," Walker said. "It also means changing our perspectives. We must value our students who choose to be highly skilled welders, IT technicians, or certified nursing assistants as much as we do those who choose to be doctors or lawyers."
Walker also touted his college affordability plan, introduced earlier this month.
Included in the package is a bill that would eliminate any cap on the state's tax deduction for student loan interest and one that would make emergency grants available to University of Wisconsin and state technical school students who need them.
Walker urged the Legislature to act quickly in passing those bills, which he said he thinks could earn bipartisan support.
Democrats aren't so sure. While they have championed the issue for several years, they described Walker's proposals as "window dressing" that only "nibble around the edges" of the problem.
Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, and Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, have introduced legislation several times that would allow borrowers to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates. Democrats argue none of Walker's college affordability measures would help as many people as their proposal would.
Mason said Walker's plan is "snake oil" that "by and large ignores the problem."
Walker has signaled his interest in seeking a third term, but in the most recent statewide poll, his approval rating hovered below 40 percent.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he thinks the governor was effective in laying out his vision and reinforcing the positive accomplishments of his time in office.
"I think it’s important to us, as a state, to remember all that Gov. Walker has done in terms of reforms for the state," Darling said. "He’s made a huge leadership contribution. Wisconsin has done a lot to reform how it has done business and to be a leader around the country, so I think a lot of the negativism needs to be reduced, because people have forgotten about all that he’s done."
Walker announced plans to hold listening sessions throughout the state, asking people for their long-term visions for the state.
"Now, more than ever, it is important to consider the kind of state our children and grandchildren will inherit," Walker said. "We need to think more about the next generation than just about the next election."