Scott Walker

Scott Walker traveled to northern Wisconsin last week to announce $1.5 million in grants to expand access to broadband in our state. He didn't mention that back in 2011 he turned down $23 million in federal funds for such expansion — a much bigger chunk of cash that would have allowed for broadband expansion years ago. PHOTO BY JOHN HART/STATE JOURNAL

JOHN HART — State Journal

As he reacquaints himself with Wisconsin after three years of positioning himself as a presidential prospect in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, Gov. Scott Walker traveled to rural northern Wisconsin. The governor announced a plan to expand broadband access for several communities, which was a good thing.

Unfortunately, the plan comes very late, and with far fewer resources than if the governor was serious about developing the economy of Wisconsin.

Walker announced last week the state will provide a grant of roughly $100,000 to Amery-based Northwest Communications to expand broadband Internet access in Barron County — as part of a plan to distribute $1.5 million in broadband expansion grants during this budget year.

"High-speed broadband Internet access, that will help in terms of small businesses,” said Walker. “It’ll help farmers. It’ll help forestry. It certainly will help our schools and education in the state.”

True enough.

But you know what would have helped a lot more?

Accepting tens of millions in federal funding that could have been used to expand high-speed Internet service in schools, libraries and government agencies.

In 2011, barely a month into his governorship, Walker’s administration returned $23 million in federal stimulus money that was supposed to be used to improve broadband connections for 380 Wisconsin communities — including 385 libraries and 82 schools. The money could also have been used "to improve police, fire department and hospital communications in rural areas,” according to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports at the time.

Why did the Walker administration turn the money down? It did not want to make the commitment to meet the grant’s requirements that Wisconsin get serious about expanding high-speed Internet service.

Walker and his aides were too lazy, irresponsible and unfocused to do their jobs.

At the same time, they wanted to make a political point about turning down federal money. The absurdity of Walker’s empty gesture was highlighted by the fact that, as he was turning down the federal funding, forward-looking states with able managers were using the federal funding to jump-start economies that had been ravaged by the recession extending from the Wall Street meltdown at the close of the Bush-Cheney administration.

Walker’s approach confirmed his incompetence.

It also raised questions about corruption.

Mark Pocan, a tech-savvy legislator who then represented Madison in the state Assembly, suggested that Walker wanted to take care of his campaign donors. "Not only is he turning away construction jobs that would have come with the federal grant to expand broadband fiber to schools and libraries across Wisconsin, but he's closing off potential to business growth that comes with bridging the digital divide," said Pocan, who now represents Wisconsin in the U.S. House. "What's worse, the root of his decision wasn't what was in the best interest of Wisconsin, rather the best interest of his big telecommunications campaign donors."

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Following up on Pocan’s point, the Journal Sentinel pointed out: “Employees of AT&T Inc. and its political action committee donated more than $20,000 to Walker's (2010) campaign, nearly three times more than the $7,600 they donated to his opponent, Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, according to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.”

No matter what Walker’s intentions, his administration’s decision to reject the money for building out broadband in Wisconsin was strikingly wrongheaded. And it harmed the state.

There are many reasons why Wisconsin trails neighboring states and the nation when it comes to economic development and job creation. Walker has gotten just about everything wrong with regard to the state’s economy, and he is still getting plenty wrong. But, surely, starting his governorship off by rejecting money to expand high-speed Internet across the state must rank near the top of the list.

"This really could have been a boon for the state," Lisa Strand, the executive director of the Wisconsin Library Association, said with regard to the rejected broadband money.

Now Walker talks about how important investment is in this area — while at the same time posing for photo opportunities as he delivers small grants. But, as usual with this governor, it is way too little (a fraction of what the feds were proposing) and way late.

Walker stumbled at the start of his tenure. He knew nothing about basic economics, and even less about investing in the job-creating technologies of the future. And he surrounded himself with political cronies who shared his ineptitude. Terrible mistakes were made. Walker and his flunkies attacked state employees and their unions, forcing many of Wisconsin’s finest public servants to take early retirement or to seek jobs outside state government. The governor and the clownish legislators who do his budgetary bidding cut state support for public education and public services in the midst of a recession, stalling out an already sputtering economy. It was a recipe for disaster and Wisconsin experienced that disaster, as it has fallen behind neighboring states and national averages when it comes to job creation and wage growth.

No state in the country has been so ill-served by its governor as Wisconsin. No state.

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