SPRINGFIELD -- As thousands of union members protested outside, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told the Illinois Chamber of Commerce in a speech Tuesday that his confrontational approach with organized labor had made his state more business friendly and lowered its unemployment rate.

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SPRINGFIELD -- As thousands of union members protested outside, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told the Illinois Chamber of Commerce in a speech Tuesday  that his confrontational approach with organized labor has made his state more business-friendly and lowered its unemployment rate.

Walker told reporters later his stop in Springfield was “absolutely” a campaign event aimed at showing Wisconsin voters what they could look forward to if they oust him from office in a recall election set for June 5.

“If voters in our state want to know the difference forward or backwards, they need only to use the mess that you have in state government here in Springfield to know what it would be like if the recall were to prevail,” Walker told reporters.

Walker faced protests that garnered nationwide attention when he signed a bill taking away public employee unions’ right to bargain over issues other than wages. Unions representing police and firefighters are exempt from the law.

Contrast with Illinois

In his speech, Walker contrasted Wisconsin’s budget with that of Illinois. Walker said he increased spending on Medicaid while Illinois is looking to cut $2.7 billion this year; eliminated a $3.6 billion deficit, while Illinois has an $8.5 billion deficit even after increasing the income tax; and that Wisconsin has one of the best-funded pension systems in the country while Illinois ranks at the bottom.

On a day of high political theater, Illinois Democrats and their allies in organized labor hotly disputed that Walker has created an atmosphere where business has thrived.

At an appearance in Chicago to announce that his administration had lured the headquarters of a Virginia-based concrete manufacturer to Illinois, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn pointed to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures showing Wisconsin is 50th in the nation in job growth.

"We certainly don't want to follow his prescriptions when it comes to economic growth," Quinn said. "He promised 250,000 jobs and he's way behind. Since the recovery began, our state has created over 130,000 jobs."

Sarcastic response

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, issued a news release oozing sarcasm, thanking Walker for coming to Illinois.

“I really did not expect Governor Walker to work this hard to make Illinois look so good,” Cullerton’s release said. “First he let everyone know how much lower our tax rates are than his, now he's focusing on how much more stable Illinois is than the chaotic Wisconsin he's created. I can’t wait to hear how he’ll help us next.”

Wisconsin has a progressive income tax with individual rates ranging from 4.6 percent to 7.5 percent. Most individual Wisconsin taxpayers pay more than those in Illinois, who are subject to a flat 5 percent rate.

“If Illinois had such a system, it could better fund its pension systems and reduce its bill backlog,” Cullerton said in the release. “But efforts to switch to the Wisconsin tax system face opposition from business groups, including the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.”

Walker’s lieutenant governor boasted of poaching companies from Illinois in a Chicago Tea Party appearance on Monday. Walker said Tuesday his state has not kept track of how many jobs it has lured from Illinois and that his focus is on helping Wisconsin companies grow.

“We just say all are welcome,” Walker said. “We’re not going to lure companies in their entirety. What it’s going to be is companies that want to grow and expand. The biggest thing we keep track of is the unemployment rate. Illinois’ is 9.1 percent. Wisconsin’s is 6.9 percent, and I believe it’ll continue to drop because of our policies.”

Illinois in competition

Illinois Chamber of Commerce President Doug Whitley said he wasn’t bothered by Walker using the chamber’s annual lobby day as a campaign platform. However, Whitley rejected the notion that Illinois businesses should consider relocating to Wisconsin. The event also was sponsored by the Illinois chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.

“It’s a challenge to elected officials in Illinois to recognize it’s a competitive environment in which they have to deal,” Whitley said. “We should be pursuing public policies in Illinois that will encourage businesses in Illinois to grow jobs and invest in our state.”

“I think some of our Democratic leadership has been a little thin-skinned about this event,” Whitley said. 

Chris Wetterich can be reached at (217) 788-1523.