By Jerry Deschane
It is time for the economic development discussion in
Wisconsin to shift. We need to move away from a “we tax too much” obsession to
a conversation of “we need to attract talent.” Our future depends upon it.
We have made major strides on the tax front. Property taxes
are consuming the lowest share of Wisconsin income since 1946 and it appears
likely that our total tax burden has fallen out of the top ten among states.
But there’s a more important reason to pivot the conversation. Job creators
have other things on their mind and Wisconsin has work to do in those areas.
Last week Thumbtack.com released its annual survey of small
businesses. Thumbtack quizzed 17,000 business owners about everything from
taxes to hiring, using a survey developed in cooperation with the Kauffman Foundation
and Bloomberg. First the good news.
Wisconsin does well in the area that matters most: helping businesses get the
permits they need. Thumbtack gave us an A- for the process of licensing. Those
high marks for over-the-counter courtesy moved Wisconsin’s ranking of small
business friendliness up from a C in 2014 to a B- this year.
But a B- is not going to light the world on fire.
Thumbtack’s survey identifies areas that need improvement. Tax climate is not one of them. Thumbtack said, “Entrepreneurs perceptions of
their tax burdens were among the least important factors in judging
governments.” Small business owners care more about the clarity, courtesy and
quickness of government services.
Where do we need to focus? It’s the people part of the equation.
Wisconsin earned an “F” in “Ease of Hiring.”
Call it a “brain drain,” “workforce underutilization,” or “an aging
demographic,” Wisconsin has a people deficit. Wisconsin’s civic leaders have
been talking about this (see Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna’s article in the September
Municipality), but the Thumbtack survey drives it home from the perspective
of the job-creators. It’s time for an economic development focus aimed at
We know how to do it. Tom Still of the Wisconsin Technology
about it at this year’s League of Municipalities workshop for Chief
Executives. Stroll through downtown
Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay or Potosi to see how it’s done. City and Village
leaders are organizing music festivals, adding downtown art, encouraging
mixed-use developments and doing dozens of other unique things to make their
community stand out. It’s starting to show results.
The state must help. First, the Legislature needs to give
local governments the flexibility to build their community on their own
strengths. We have to encourage local control and avoid one-size-fits-nowhere
solutions. Next, we need to stop racing
to the fiscal bottom. While tax limits and fiscal restraint are important to
keep taxes affordable, our goal should be prudence, not poverty. And local
control applies to local finances. If the city council approves it and citizens
support it by electing or re-electing their city leaders the Wisconsin
Legislature has no business outlawing it. Cool cities cannot be built from the
Wisconsin’s demographic challenge is serious, but it is
solvable. A good first step is to shift our focus to what really counts: the
Deschane is executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.