By Tom Still
MADISON – If you asked Wisconsin citizens what they knew about the work of the Wisconsin Legislature in the past year or so, the answers would likely include “God, guns and gays,” alliterative shorthand for high-profile bills dealing with religion, concealed weapons and same-sex marriage.
While those issues commanded the heaviest headlines, the so-called “three Gs” weren’t the biggest story of the recently completed session of the Legislature. The real news is that lawmakers, usually working with Gov. Jim Doyle, passed more pro-business legislation than has come out of Madison in 20 years.
There were many reasons for the productive session: Hard economic times created strange political bedfellows, the Legislature underwent a leadership change, and years of hard work on key bills finally paid off. Also, the state’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, proved extraordinarily effective down the stretch.
The net result of the Legislature’s work since January 2003 will be more incentives for companies and investors to create jobs and fewer regulatory and procedural hurdles to slow economic development.
“This Legislature has passed more pro-growth legislation than any Wisconsin Legislature in decades,” said James Buchen, WMC’s vice president of government relations.
That’s not a chest-thumping statement. Here’s a review of major bills passed by the Legislature:
The Jobs Creation Act (Act 118) increased state agency accountability in the rule-making process, streamlining air and water permit applications and removing other regulatory barriers. A related bill (Act 145) will reduce red tape for small business, create a Small Business Regulatory Review Board and an Internet site for proposed rule changes.
The biennial state budget (Act 33) cut state spending and avoided general tax increases. The 2003-2005 budget bill did not remove the threat of future state deficits, however.
Tax disincentives were removed for big companies with Wisconsin expansion plans through enactment of Act 37, which requires the use of the single factor of Wisconsin sales in deciding how Wisconsin will tax multi-state and multi-national corporations.
Tax credits to spur investment in high-tech and other entrepreneurial businesses were created. Senate Bill 261 creates credits ($30 million over 11 years) for “angel” investments in qualified businesses, an early stage seed fund ($35 million over 11 years) and a revamped technology commercialization grant and loan program ($45 million over 10 years). However, another key venture capital bill failed to pass both houses.
The regulation of state financial institutions was modernized through Act 63, which includes clarification of how much workers can claim for wages when a borrower goes bankrupt.
Non-traditional pools of businesses and other individuals will be allowed to join a health insurance cooperative under Act 101.
An existing corporate income tax credit for the sales tax paid for fuel and electricity used in manufacturing will be converted into a sales and use tax exemption beginning in 2006 (Act 99).
A series of bills will improve Wisconsin’s energy infrastructure. One bill streamlines siting and construction of electric generating facilities and transmission lines (Act 89), another provides greater incentives for municipalities to host energy production plants (Act 31), and another creates a new financing mechanism for utilities that install pollution-control equipment (Act 152).
A precedent-setting “environmental results” program was created so that companies with superior environmental performance can gain some regulatory breathing room. Ironically, Senate Bill 61 – also known as the “green tier” legislation – provided a model for other states before it was actually passed in Wisconsin.
Other bills dealing with unemployment compensation and worker’s compensation laws, telecommunications, health care and civil procedures in the courts also passed. A few bills passed by lawmakers, most notably an attempt to prevent local governments from exceeding the state minimum wage standard, were vetoed by Doyle.
It was sometimes contentious and it was often overshadowed by the “three Gs,” but the pro-growth work of the governor and Legislature has given Wisconsin a strong story to tell to business leaders at home and beyond its borders. Spread the good news: Wisconsin is open for business.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.