By Tom Still

MADISON – With most of the Legislature’s attention focused on efforts to patch a hole in the state budget, set statewide smoking rules and pass a Great Lakes Water Compact, perhaps it’s not surprising that work on the state’s economic development agenda would be set aside.

That doesn’t make it any less disappointing, however.

For reasons that have less to do with partisan politics and more to do with regional rivalries and tensions between the Legislature’s two houses, most of the economic growth agenda outlined by Gov. Jim Doyle in recent months has stalled. Let’s hope it’s a bargaining position rather than a philosophical mindset, because Wisconsin’s future as a “New Economy” state is at play.

Beginning late last fall and running through his January State of the State speech, Democrat Doyle outlined a series of proposals to improve existing state tax credit programs for investors in homegrown companies; provide targeted incentives in agriculture and manufacturing; spur research and development by companies of all sizes; allow a capital gains tax exclusion for investments in Wisconsin start-up companies; and target specific tax credits to demonstrated tech-based growth industries, such as biotech and nanotechnology.

Republicans and Democrats alike in the 99-member state Assembly seemed to think those were pretty solid ideas. Four of the bills were approved on voice votes, two on unanimous roll calls, and two others by votes of 84-13 and 65-32. For good measure, the Assembly also cleaned up a number of inactive or unfunded economic development programs and gave the state Department of Commerce the go-ahead to better organize remaining programs.

Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, R-La Crosse, said he was pleased the GOP-controlled Assembly had worked with Doyle on his growth agenda, and that most Democrats in the lower house had joined with them.

It has been a somewhat different story in the Senate. In that house, controlled by members of Doyle’s own party, most of the governor’s growth agenda remains stuck in neutral. While one bill consolidating manufacturing tax credit programs has moved to the Assembly, little else on the Doyle list has made the short trip from the Senate to the Assembly chambers.

What gives? The answers depend a bit on who’s talking. Some Senate Democrats say Doyle’s team hasn’t worked the economic development agenda very hard in their house. Others suggest the economic development issues will remain queued up until there’s resolution on the budget repair bill.

There’s another explanation that seems more likely. Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, D-Weston, has never been a fan of economic development plans in general, unless they involve pouring asphalt or concrete, and he’s particularly suspect of programs he believes will do little to help some of the state’s poorest regions. Not coincidentally, his district includes parts of north-central and northwest Wisconsin.

The reality is most of the bills in question would help districts such as Decker’s home base. Expanding the angel and venture tax credit program will help existing angel networks such as the Central Wisconsin Business Angels invest in more local deals, and it would help create more networks in places that now have none. The dairy and manufacturing tax credit programs will speed modernization in smaller plants. The capital gains tax credit exclusion would keep investment dollars at home, versus forcing them to migrate to Arizona or Florida. And the real highway needed in most of rural Wisconsin is broadband Internet connections to the world.

The Senate has been a leader in some areas. For example, an “e-scrap” bill authored by Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, would fit Wisconsin squarely into the national and international mainstream for recycling used computer components and other electronic devices with potentially hazardous materials. It could also create recycling jobs. That bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting Assembly action.

Otherwise, however, the Senate has been a place where “New Economy” bills go to grow old. Other states and nations aren’t waiting – they are moving ahead. Wisconsin should do the same.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.