Jobs, jobs, jobs. Behind every argument about politics and government, budgets and priorities is the big, central question: What will help Wisconsinites get to work?
There is no single answer to that question; more likely, there are a lot of incremental answers.
But to solve the problem, first we need to acknowledge the problem, and that means facing up to the fact - it's beyond the realm of opinion at this point - that Wisconsin's economic recovery has been sluggish, trailing not just neighboring states but most of the rest of the nation.
A report released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed Wisconsin ranked 44th in the nation for creating private-sector jobs. The data studied ran from September 2011 through September 2012. Meanwhile, more recent data have shown an uptick in unemployment throughout the state.
In a recent interview with the Daily Herald Media Editorial Board, state Department of Workforce Development Secretary Reggie Newson denied that such data should be troubling.
"The state had lost more than 150,000 jobs before Gov. Walker took office," Newson said. "The governor stabilized the situation, and now we've gained thousands of jobs. ? The governor is making investments (in the new budget). Now we can invest in these priorities and move forward."
There is a reasonable case to be made that Walker's budget reforms, and specifically the virtual elimination of the state's deficit, will have long-term benefits for the state, making future economic growth stronger than it otherwise would have been.
But Walker ran on the creation of 250,000 private-sector jobs in his first term, a very concrete goal that appears to be all but impossible now. In our 2010 interview, he specifically asked the Daily Herald Editorial Board to hold him accountable on that promise.
And then last week, Walker sought to evade responsibility for the state's slow job growth, blaming it on politics and specifically the recall effort against him.
We don't buy it. It's impossible to disprove, and we would be willing to accept that Wisconsin, in the throes of heated statewide protests in early 2011, might have seen a temporary depression of economic growth. It's not credible to claim that businesses en masse would have stopped hiring for two full years if their leaders saw demand increasing.
There's no single policy that can turn things around. But it is time for the administration to admit, forthrightly, that the policies of Walker's first two years - the cornerstones of which were austerity for public employees, tax breaks for business and the easing of regulatory burdens - did not create the dramatic rebound in job growth that they predicted.
And in the 2013-15 budget, it's time to try something else.