By Jessica McBride Special to Published Jun 24, 2015 at 3:16 PM

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Gov. Scott Walker needs to stick around this state for a while and start leading his state and his party. If he won’t do it because his priorities are simply elsewhere, then he should let someone else step up to the plate.

I was willing to give the governor the benefit of the doubt on his presidential aspirations, even though he assured all of us just last October that he planned to serve his full term. After all, he has a viable chance to become president. That’s no small thing. I listened when he said that, in this day and age, it’s easy to lead from afar, even though telecommuting was not in the gubernatorial job description. I get it: The governor stays in touch, electronically. He certainly does Tweet a lot.

The problem is that his leadership has been lacking over the past few months – nix that, it’s been lacking since he proposed his mess of a budget, currently being remade by Republicans in the legislature – and the distraction of the presidential campaign is showing. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

We deserve more than leadership by self-imposed exile. We deserve a governor who’s engaged here. You can’t run the state on auto-pilot with job numbers the way they are and with the Republican-controlled legislature fracturing along various lines. Weirdly, the only thing in this state that seems to have captured the governor’s attention is spending a lot of public money on the Bucks, and even that’s fallen off the radar the past week.

It’s time for Walker to put us first, to come back to this state and stay here for a significant period of time. Offer real solutions to the road building mess that go beyond, I won’t raise taxes and fees – ever. Minimally, he should stay here until the budget is done and not run for president until that point; after all, he previously said he wouldn’t run for president until it was completed.

If that harms the presidential campaign he still claims he hasn’t decided to launch, then pick. Maybe it’s just not compatible to run for president while governor. Not in these tough economic times. Sometimes the slogans that work on a campaign trail don’t really work when it comes to what’s good for Wisconsin.

Yeah, I get it. It’s not unusual for the state budget to be approved past July 1. In fact, it’s pretty common. If that deadline comes and goes, the government doesn’t shut down, either. The current friction between the governor and his own party isn’t bad in some ways; it’s how Democracy should work. In fact, one could argue it’s healthy. I personally think the legislature has gotten a lot more right in this budget than the governor did in his proposed version. But if the budget is approved in a few weeks, it doesn’t seem like he is having much to do with that.

There’s a serious budget impasse, and the state party is fracturing along various lines in ways it hasn’t for a long time. The legislature has been remaking the governor’s proposed budget in many ways (when Scott Fitzgerald takes shots at the governor’s budget in the New York Times, you know times are tense).

When John Nygren comments in the media that it would be helpful to have the governor in the room, one wishes for more than a Walker tweet expressing confidence the budget will soon get done. When top Republican leaders and venerable Republican Alberta Darling are going at it in the press about a project as important as the Zoo Interchange, one wishes for the steady hand of a strong governor. When outstate and Southeastern Wisconsin Republicans have differing views, and when debates like prevailing wage and transportation funding are heating up, one wishes the governor would use his bully pulpit more strongly to lead. When jobs numbers are as weak as they’ve been comparatively, one desires a governor who comes back to our state to articulate a plan.

Instead, Walker’s been in Canada, and goodness knows where else (I’ve lost track). Instead of presenting the legislature with a viable, responsible alternative to the irresponsible proposed roadbuilding debt in his budget, the governor was instead (at least for a day) dodging questions about the Confederate flag flying outside the South Carolina statehouse (I’m also confused why it was inappropriate to comment on the flag because families were grieving but then became fine to comment on it the following day after Nikki Haley did, but that’s another story).

So I will come out and say it: We didn’t elect Walker to run for president. We elected him to be the governor of this state.

The roadbuilding morass is a case in point. The governor has put the legislature into a box. He won’t raise registration fees without more tax cuts (which is incredible considering the fact that plowing the surplus into tax cuts reduced revenue, precipitating some of this). So basically he’s making the legislature pick bad policy or all of that $1.3 billion in debt – which is also bad policy. He won’t raise the gas tax. He’s thus given them two choices: basically all of that debt, or delay road projects all over the state.

And his budget has more proposed debt in it than one of Gov. Doyle’s budgets. It astonished me when his spokeswoman told the media that he’d been told not approving all of that debt could be very bad for the state, but he was willing to do it anyway. That sounds like a dangerous game of chicken for us. What’s the cost of a tax cut headline? (Of course, a third option would be taking the Medicaid money like other Republican governors did, but that’s a non-starter too).

I’m confused how option one – all that debt – is supposed to be conservative. Good for the legislature for standing its ground on that. After all, a bunch of those legislators ran campaigns on the notion of how average people have to balance their checkbooks, so why shouldn’t government? It's a pretty weak selling point come election time to argue, oh, we kicked the can down the road.

What troubles me, deeply, about option two is that I’ve seen zero evidence presented as to whether delaying projects will imperil public safety. Shouldn’t that be clearer first before we take that option? Outstate Republicans then indicated that any cuts should be shared geographically, raising the prospect of delays to the Zoo Interchange. I think the governor’s spokeswoman was right when she said that any delays should be determined by the state Department of Transportation, not politicians. But they have a lot of votes. And, yes, the roadbuilding budget may be bloated with waste, but the time to identify that sort of thing was months ago, with great care and study, not on the fly with a week to go.

Delaying road projects on the fly because you are out of options doesn’t strike me as good governance, either. If the road projects were needed in the first place, why can they so easily be delayed now? That doesn’t mean that I don’t think any CAN’T be delayed; it means that we’ve seen zero data on this point.

The bottom line is that the governor basically gave the legislature a bad choice or a bad choice and then hightailed it out of Madison, leaving them holding the bag. Not to mention the fact that the Bucks arena debate remains contentious, and some Republicans are standing their ground on total repeal of prevailing wage, a debate that Walker also seems to be leading by absentia (meaning barely at all). He can tell primary voters in Iowa that "I won’t ever raise taxes" and "my proposed budget got rid of the deficit" and to heck with what it’s doing to our state, I guess. Or his party.

I’m thinking that some Republican legislators are hearing from angry constituents right now because the governor’s proposed budget ticked off a lot of groups, ranging from seniors to those who work in the UW system.

Is that melodramatic? Probably a little. I am sure there is a way out of this situation. It’s just that it would be nice if the governor was helping our state find that way out and offering the legislature reasonable choices. 

Come back to Wisconsin, governor. If your heart isn’t here, give the keys to someone whose is. And I say this as a past Walker voter (though I voted for the Libertarian during the last election, in part because I was unhappy about the Kenosha casino dithering and the big projected shortfall of the type I recall criticizing Doyle over.) So I don’t say this lightly, but it needs to be said.

Jessica McBride Special to

Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.

She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.

Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.

Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.