By Tom Still

MADISON – At a November meeting of his statewide Economic Growth Council, Gov. Jim Doyle asked his Cabinet secretaries to talk about what had already been done in their agencies to slice through red tape that might be slowing business expansion. It was an impressive summary – but Doyle promised it wouldn’t stop there. “I want the most aggressive regulatory reform program in the Midwest,” Doyle said.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the Legislature were pressing ahead with their own regulatory relief plan – the Jobs Creation Act. This measure targeted the Department of Natural Resources and its permit processes, which business critics have long contended is too cumbersome, slow and unpredictable.

For all the outward agreement on goals, however, Wisconsin’s regulatory reform movement stalled early this month. The Doyle administration didn’t want to jeopardize core environmental protections for land, water and air, and legislative Republicans didn’t want to pass “reforms” that lacked bite.

Last week, the logjam broke. The Doyle administration and Republican leaders agreed to move ahead with sweeping changes to Wisconsin’s permitting process for business and real-estate development. A committee of the state Senate will hold a public hearing on the revised bill, and passage by both houses of the Legislature is expected in January.

The agreement was a political victory for Democrat Doyle and the legislative Republicans. Primarily, it was a breakthrough for Wisconsin businesses, large and small.

It will speed up permitting decisions which, until recently, had ranked among the slowest in the nation. For some industries, such as papermaking, the permit process had become multiple times longer and more complicated than in other states with significant papermaking capacity. That meant Wisconsin was off the corporate drawing boards when it came to building plants or upgrading older plants. Ironically, that usually meant keeping outmoded, polluting equipment in place.

The Republicans dropped many provisions that Doyle had found objectionable, including automatic approval for permits that the DNR failed to act on within strict timelines. “Presumptive approval” was opposed by environmentalists who thought it would open the floodgates to development requests that wouldn’t otherwise stand a chance of being approved.

While the reform package will add more certainty to the permit process, business leaders should still not expect every request will be granted. Some air and water permit requests simply don’t meet environmental standards. Even in its modified version, the bill is still likely to come under attack from environmentalists who fear development will endanger “riparian zones,” areas near streams and rivers that are often the richest in wildlife.

Also, state officials must now confront a practical question: Can permits be issued more quickly when there are fewer state employees filling out the forms and conducting the inspections?

The long-term regulatory solution in Wisconsin involves moving to a dramatically different system, one in which “good actors” are rewarded for their environmental stewardship, in which market forces are leveraged to create superior environmental results rather than meet minimum standards, and which the enforcement club is kept behind the door to whack “bad actors” when necessary. Such a system would replace expensive “command-and-control” bureaucracies with public-private collaboration.

At the Dec. 15 conference sponsored by the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative, many participants agreed a good first step would be to pass the “Green Tier” legislation recently vetoed in one form by Doyle but likely to be brought back by supporters.

Green Tier would reward businesses with solid histories of environmental regulation compliance by allowing them to conduct their own “environmental audits” in exchange for less direct supervision by the DNR. Under the self-audit, companies must agree to correct any mistakes they found – and the DNR would agree not to fine them for problems uncovered by the audit. It’s not an entirely new idea – former DNR Secretary George Meyer first talked about it in 1999 – but it has gathered momentum under current Secretary Scott Hassett.

Wisconsin’s Green Tier proposal is fast becoming a model for other states. Let’s hope it becomes law here first.

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