The high-stakes fight for control of Wisconsin’s state Senate is over. The even higher stakes debate about securing the state’s economic future should resume now.
With Tuesday’s recall elections keeping Republicans in control of the Senate, albeit with a thin 17-16 margin, an opportunity exists in Madison to get back to the business of governing and rebuilding Wisconsin’s economy.
This is not a partisan issue. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
While the recall election season in Wisconsin isn’t officially over (two Democratic senators face challenges in Aug. 16 votes), it’s hard to imagine the citizens of Wisconsin are clamoring for more recall petitions, more out-of-state campaign contributions and more televised attack ads. It’s time to move on, even if both parties remain at odds over a multitude of issues.
One issue where there should be broad agreement is the need to create jobs and invigorate the Wisconsin economy. It’s an area in which Republicans and Democrats can work together, sharing credit where credit is due.
The challenges to the Wisconsin economy haven’t taken a hiatus while the recall drama played out. Here are some examples where policymakers can help provide the right climate and incentives for growth:
- Encouraging small business growth. According to EMSI, a nationally known economic modeling firm, Wisconsin has bounced along the bottom for “net new business formations” in recent years. Using federal statistics, EMSI concluded Wisconsin ranked between 34th and 50th among the 50 states between 2006 and 2009. Earlier in the decade, the state was actually outperforming most other states, ranking between 7th and 23rd in net new companies – but the bottom fell out in 2006. In 2010, a down year nationally for creating companies, Wisconsin ranked 17th among the 50 states, but that represented only 267 new firms. Small businesses create most jobs in the United States, so it follows that more startup companies translate to more jobs. State strategies that promote entrepreneurism can help.
- Creating and attracting more investment capital. A bill that would have created a venture capital program was on the Legislature’s “to-do” list before it adjourned in late June. Republicans and Democrats agree on the need to renew that idea in the fall session. Wisconsin has all the basics ingredients, except venture capital, to grow companies in technology and other high-growth sectors. Start-up companies need capital to grow and produce jobs. Carefully crafted incentives and a state-leveraged fund can build a source of capital – from within and outside the state.
- Building on our intellectual assets. Wisconsin ranks among the nation’s top quartile of states in attracting academic research and development, but not so when it comes to industrial R&D dollars. Wisconsin is 14th among the states in producing patents, but not as successful in turning that intellectual property into jobs. Wisconsin has a strong workforce in many ways, but not every worker has the skills to match emerging opportunities. In fact, Wisconsin still ranks below the U.S. average in the percentage of adults with college degrees. Encouraging the transfer of technology from the lab to the marketplace and helping companies find the workers they need are legitimate roles for the state.
- Expanding Wisconsin exports and attracting foreign direct investment. Manufacturing in Wisconsin is very much alive and even well, with nearly one in every six Wisconsin workers engaged in manufacturing. Agriculture is also thriving in most sectors. Who buys those goods and services? Increasingly, people in other nations. Wisconsin exports grew to $19.8 billion in 2010 and foreign direct investment – basically, private investments from abroad – are also expanding. Helping Wisconsin companies open business doors overseas is vital, especially in a state that cannot possibly consume everything it produces.
There’s a time for elections and a time for governing. The hopes for Wisconsin’s economy may well rest on one cycle ending and the other beginning anew.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.