By Tom Still
MADISON – Barely a day passes without another discouraging headline about job losses somewhere in Wisconsin. While that’s little different from news in other states, the sense of urgency here may be elevated because Wisconsin’s pre-recession economy wasn’t all that enviable to begin with.
The state’s manufacturing sector has been in transition since 2000, when a slow but steady drip of jobs began. From a peak of 587,000, the state has slipped to about 480,000 manufacturing jobs today. While other sectors have fared better, particularly agriculture, it’s difficult for retail, real estate, tourism and all the rest to thrive if good-paying manufacturing jobs are declining. Tech-based and other “knowledge economy” jobs have increased, but not yet at a pace that can replace manufacturing losses.
Everyone has a stake in reversing that trend. State and local governments, public schools and higher education must reduce services if tax revenues stagnate or decline. Predictions of a $5.4 billion budget deficit in Wisconsin are only the start if a recession becomes an irreversible slide that erodes quality of life – and the ability to regenerate the economy.
A growing number of Wisconsin business and labor groups appear to understand that reality, including some of the largest in the state. Here are initiatives worth noting as Wisconsin policymakers, from the governor to the Legislature to local officials, look for answers.
- Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s single largest business group, is gathering ideas from local chambers of commerce, other business groups and its members through a process called “Moving Wisconsin Forward.” The intent is to look beyond taxes and regulatory issues, which have been WMC’s trademark, to a more comprehensive business agenda. A working group organized by WMC (www.wmc.org) is weighing strategies to invest in the knowledge-based workforce, grow a culture of entrepreneurship and global competitiveness, increase access to capital and invest in the state’s infrastructure. It’s not that WMC will downgrade the importance of tax and regulatory issues, but it wants to make sure other economic drivers aren’t ignored.
- A separate coalition called “The Wisconsin Way” has been working for more than a year on its Blueprint for Change, which was built through a series of public forums. Lead groups include the Wisconsin Realtors Association, the Wisconsin Counties Association and the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which collectively see a “devastating disconnect between public demand and tax capacity.” In other words, organizers believe, Wisconsin citizens want more government services than we can currently afford. Wisconsin Way (www.wisconsinway.org) plans to release its plan within a month.
- Groups such as Competitive Wisconsin Inc., which has brought business and the labor together for 25 years, and the Wisconsin Technology Council have published their own plans for improving the economy. The “Competitive Mandate” published by Competitive Wisconsin (www.competitivewi.com) and the “Vision 2020 white papers” produced by the Tech Council (www.wisconsintechnologycouncil.com) include common themes, especially around increasing access to investment capital and growing a knowledge-based workforce.
It’s hard to know where these efforts will end up, or whether policymakers will listen. But the significance of business groups working together – with labor and others at the table – is a change from past practices. At WMC, for example, it means developing a “shared set of goals” rather than a purely internal wish list.
“Our board concluded we needed to make a broad effort to figure out what it takes to move the state forward so that as we emerge from this recession, we can lead the parade as opposed to being at the end of it,” said James Buchen, WMC’s vice president.
Depending on which economic surveys you believe, Wisconsin’s economy is somewhere between the mid-point and the rear third of the 50-state economic parade. If business can reach consensus around what’s important, Wisconsin can stay ahead of the elephants instead of behind them cleaning up.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.