By Tom Still

MADISON – The presidential campaign is apparently turning on issues such as the meaning of the phrase “lipstick on a pig,” so there’s ample room in Wisconsin’s statewide elections for a discussion about real problems facing the state’s economy, its schools and its workers.  That’s not as riveting, perhaps, as a daily dose of news about Gov. Sarah Palin, but it might actually affect your lives.

With control of the state Legislature hanging in the balance Nov. 4, and Gov. Jim Doyle mapping out his ideas for the 2009-2011 state budget, here are a few ideas that should take center stage:

Make our tax system fit the times: It’s been decades since Wisconsin’s tax system was updated in any major way, and it shows. There are relatively few incentives in place to drive the high-growth economy of the 21st century but more than enough to protect the economy of the past. Tax policy innovation works. Consider what happened to manufacturing in Wisconsin in the mid-1970s, when then-Gov. Patrick Lucey and the Legislature agreed to exempt manufacturing equipment and machinery from the property tax. It helped propel Wisconsin’s manufacturing sector for a quarter-century. An innovation-driven tax plan now could set Wisconsin apart among Midwestern states. 

The elements of such a plan are sitting on a not-so-dusty shelf. At the 2002 Wisconsin Economic Summit, a tough-love tax and spending cuts plan was laid out by a bipartisan group led by former state Administration Secretary Mark Bugher (now director of University Research Park) and former Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance president Jim Morgan. It would have traded increases in sales and excise taxes for cuts in property and income taxes, which are frequently cited as impediments to growth. It came too late in the 2002 campaign to gain traction, but there’s plenty of time this fall to revive the debate.

Revamp how we pay for local education: One of the landmark political compromises of the early 1990s was the “two-thirds solution” to paying for K-12 education. In return for limits on local property tax levies and caps on teacher compensation through the “qualified economic offer” law, the state agreed to assume two-thirds of the operating costs of the public schools. The deal made sense at the time; property taxes were careening out of control. But it’s time to a more creative approach. While other states forge ahead with innovative ways to attract and retain the best teachers, Wisconsin clings to a system that clamps down on salaries while forcing benefit costs ever higher. Administrative consolidation among school districts is desperately needed, as well as strategies to help pool school infrastructure costs (utilities, information technology and transportation, for example) in a way that leverages efficiencies. Again, there is no need to start from scratch: A recent study led by UW-Madison professor Allan Odden, the Wisconsin School Finance Adequacy Initiative, was cursed with an unappealing name but produced attractive recommendations.

Train, attract and retain tomorrow’s workers:  Wisconsin employers have been poked and prodded for years about what qualities they want in the workers they hire. The answer is universally the same: Strong basic skills in writing and mathematics are important, of course, but so are “soft skills” that can be found in innovative companies – a knack for communicating ideas clearly, the ability to work in teams, and an openness to working in a global economy.

Taxpayers and business leaders aren’t opposed to investing in education, but they want that investment to produce a workforce that fills a range of needs, from the skilled trades to the research laboratories to information technology. They want problem solvers, not order takers. They also believe a more seamless and cost-effective approach to education, beginning at the K-12 level but extending into higher education, will help produce those kinds of workers. With the coming demographic crunch brought on by the retirement of the baby boomers, Wisconsin can’t afford to let young talent slip through the nets.

There are many other issues, such as health-care access and affordability, which also cry out for attention this fall. But state taxes, education financing and workforce development are three that don’t require much federal involvement. They can all be addressed right here in Wisconsin. It’s either that, or we can all spend more time swapping Sarah Palin’s recipes for caribou stew.

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