By Tom Still

MADISON – For reasons that may be as innocent as a choked calendar, legislative progress has stalled on a bill that would trade Wisconsin’s city-by-city regulation of the cable television industry for statewide video franchises. The bill, which would create jobs, help many consumers and speed new technologies to the market, passed the Assembly by a wide margin earlier this spring. Since then, however, it has been gathering dust in the Senate.


Meanwhile, Illinois, Iowa, Georgia, Florida and Michigan are moving ahead with similar legislation – and the leading proponent of the bill, AT&T, is getting a bit nervous about where to put the jobs needed to pull off its high-stakes entry into the video markets. Wait for Wisconsin to make up its mind? Or put the jobs in a state where the political debate is settled?


Don’t be surprised if Wisconsin loses its shot at hundreds of high-tech, high-paid jobs if the bill languishes much longer. Other states have introduced AT&T’s Internet-based television system, called U-verse, and faster-than-expected market growth may mean the company won’t have the time to wait for lawmakers in Wisconsin. A new chairman and CEO took the helm at AT&T last week; change at that level usually leads to new marching orders below.


The perpetually cautious might say, “Well, Wisconsin shouldn’t be rushed into passing a new law just because a big company like AT&T wants to move quicker.” Fair enough. In fact, some questions about consumer protection are unresolved. But when does cautious political review end and missed opportunity begin?


The statewide video franchise bill is only one example of the clash between a political system that is purposely built to be deliberate – and markets that don’t stand still for those who prefer more debate.


In Gov. Jim Doyle’s state budget bill, for example, two ideas designed to leverage the state’s existing economic resources may also miss the window of opportunity.


The first and largest is Doyle’s proposal to create a $30-million grant and loan fund to help seed commercial projects that would speed alternative energy and conservation ideas to market.


Wisconsin is positioned to be a leader in cellulosic ethanol because its forest cover (16 million acres out of 34.7 million total), its existing paper and pulp industries, and its experience in managing this resource. Even our conservation heritage comes into play: By removing the excess cellulosic material in our forests and converting it to energy, we would actually improve the health of our forests.


Wisconsin also has an edge in producing hydrogen from biomass, especially sugars. This is another area where state R&D investment today will produce dividends, and jobs, down the road.


The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee deadlocked on whether to move ahead with the $30-million fund, which is a “no” recommendation under the committee’s rules. Other states are leaping ahead to position themselves in this tech-driven market – so why not Wisconsin, which has a wealth of resources and the research base to match?


A second and more modest idea that failed to pass the finance committee involves creating a “venture center” to help enhance the state’s ability to attract venture capital from outside Wisconsin. For $2 million over two years, much of it private matching dollars, Wisconsin could help increase its access to venture capital the same way it has enhanced the supply of early-stage angel capital.


Either or both ideas could find their way back into the budget by the time it reaches Doyle’s desk later this summer. If not, however, the state would have missed well-crafted opportunities to help industries poised for growth.


In today’s global marketplace, the rules of evolution are simple. It’s not the strong or the big who survive, but the quick. Companies, communities and even states must seize the chance to build upon existing expertise or resources, or risk never again being able to grab for the brass ring.


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