By CLINT WOLF
BELOIT — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker touted historic low unemployment and new opportunities for residents of Beloit and the state Tuesday during his address to about 500 guests at the 91st Annual Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce Dinner.
Walker, who was introduced by Secretary of Tourism and Beloit native Stephanie Klett, noted he grew up in nearby Delavan and he took his first prom date to the Butterfly Club between Beloit and Clinton for dinner.
The governor said the state has made tremendous strides in unemployment, noting Wisconsin is at a historic low of 3 percent unemployment, and he noted Beloit’s improvement has been phenomenal. He said eight years ago Beloit’s unemployment rate was 13.5 percent, In December, the most recent month tracked by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Beloit’s unemployment rate was 3.2 percent.
“That is a testament to everyone in this room — the big companies and the small companies. Now we have gone from focusing on jobs, jobs, jobs to workforce, workforce, workforce,” Walker said.
He said three areas that have helped in improving the Wisconsin economy have been education and training, breaking down barriers and recruitment of workers from other states.
In breaking down barriers, Walker said Wisconsin is among the top 10 states for hiring people with disabilities.
He said he would like to continue that trend.
“We have to find more ways to get these people in the game,” he said.
Welfare reforms are another way to get more people in jobs, transitioning them from government dependence to gainful employment, Walker said. A way he wants to see that come to reality is to make welfare recipients take drug tests, so employers know they are able to do their job, and to get them in workplace training programs.
After his presentation to the chamber dinner audience, Walker answered a few questions for the Beloit Daily News.
He said he generally is supportive of current legislation that would require sex offenders who are released from custody to be placed in transitional housing in their home counties. However, he may use the governor’s line item veto power to eliminate one portion of it.
“The version I have seen takes away the restrictions on how close an offender can be to a school,” he said. He said he would like to see those restrictions remain in place.
Department of Homeland Security reports indicated Wisconsin was one of the states targeted by Russian hackers during the 2016 elections. Walker was asked how the state is working to make sure future elections are secure.
“We have one of the best cyber security systems in the country. Our people found these irregularities and that is why we know about the hackers,” Walker said.
He said the cyber security team will continue to be vigilant to ensure future elections are not compromised.
Regarding the proposed Ho Chunk tribal casino in Beloit, Walker said he would look to see if the proposal meets all the criteria as he has done with previous casino proposals.
He said the casino proposal has yet to be approved at the federal level. He said he has heard the casino plan is close to federal approval, but he has heard that before.
Several businesses and individuals were honored with awards during the chamber dinner at the Eclipse Center.
Doug Britt, CEO of the Stateline Family YMCA, was awarded the Ken Hendricks Community Spirit Award. Britt was credited for a tremendous growth in membership at the YMCA. The new facility along the Rock River in downtown Beloit now has about 4,100 members — more than double the previous number — who enjoy the two swimming pools, the exercise equipment and the added programs.
The Large Business of the Year Award went to Mid-States Concrete, which employs about 250 people and continues to add jobs. The company, founded in 1946, specializes in pre-cast concrete and its product can be found at local facilities such as Nature at the Confluence in South Beloit.
The Small Business of the Year award went to R.H. Batterman and Company, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. The engineering firm has been part of such local projects as the pedestrian bridge over the Rock River in downtown Beloit and Beloit College’s new Powerhouse facility.
The Environmental Leadership Award went to Therese Oldenburg, executive director of Nature at the Confluence. The nature education area in South Beloit has hosted many children and families in the past year to introduce them to nature and history of the area.
Ambassador of the Year went to Jim and Donna Spude, who also own Fish Window Cleaning.
“If you want to have fun, become an Ambassador,” Jim Spude said in accepting the award.