By Tom Still

FITCHBURG — The rule of thumb about Wisconsin’s economic boom-and-bust cycle has always been that the “booms” weren’t as high as the nation as a whole and the “busts” weren’t as low.

The recession that began in 2003 proved half of that equation wrong. Wisconsin suffered every bit as much as the rest of the United States when it came to losing jobs, especially in the hard-hit manufacturing sector. For 2004, the question is whether Wisconsin’s “boom” will be as loud as what is expected to be heard across the nation.

State officials with an eye on economic trends are cautiously optimistic about the strength of the recovery. Speaking at a forum held last week in Fitchburg, a suburb south of Madison, two of Gov. Jim Doyle’s closest advisers and two of the Legislature’s leading Republicans predicted better times in 2004.

“We feel like our economy is really starting to turn around and that we’re going to be positioned for very positive growth,” said Commerce Secretary Cory Nettles, who noted several indicators that are moving in the right direction.

National manufacturing indexes are running at some of their best levels in decades. Wisconsin ranks second among the states in per capita manufacturing employment, which means the state is particularly sensitive to trends in that sector.

From October 2002 through October 2003, Wisconsin was the only Midwest state to gain jobs – about 4,300. During that same period, Michigan lost 69,000 jobs, Illinois 58,000, Ohio 66,000, Minnesota 6,000 and Indiana 32,000. Wisconsin’s total job gain for 2003 is likely to be significantly higher when final figures are reported.

Wisconsin is a state that lives by exports – a fact sometimes lost on people who clamor for trade sanctions against other nations. For the first three quarters of 2003, Wisconsin’s total exports rose by 10.3 percent to $8.4 billion in goods and services, with industrial machinery, transportation equipment and medical devices leading the way. During the same period, total U.S. exports grew by 2.6 percent.

Wisconsin’s ranking among the 50 states on exports climbed from 22 in 2002 to 19 in 2003. If current trends hold with major trading partners such as China, Canada and Mexico, Wisconsin could climb a few more spots on the 50-state export list in 2004.

Administration Secretary Marc Marotta, whose agency follows revenue trends closely because every blip can affect the state budget, said he’s confident the economy is improving. The only major sectors where Wisconsin lags behind the U.S. average in creating jobs right now are construction and government, he said.

State Sen. Ted Kanavas, a Brookfield Republican who heads a special committee on job creation, was even more bullish. He predicted state economic growth in 2004 ranging from 5 percent to 6 percent – so long as the state keeps working to improve the economic climate.

“The only problem is that (renewed growth) can make us complacent, this notion that we’ve done our job,” Kanavas said. “What we’re talking about here is only laying a foundation for what has to happen as we move forward.”

The chairwoman of a similar Assembly committee, Rep. Terri McCormick of Grand Chute, agreed that lawmakers and the Doyle administration cannot back off progress in streamlining regulations and reducing the tax burden. She reiterated the need for Wisconsin to become more entrepreneurial and to create new jobs in emerging industries, such as biotechnology, advanced manufacturing and information technology.

Many things could derail the Great Recovery of 2004: Setbacks in the war against terrorism, a ballooning federal budget deficit and rising health care costs. Caveats aside, Wisconsin can win over time by sticking with strategies to create high-wage jobs, by leveraging technology, by enhancing existing “clusters” such as printing, advanced manufacturing and medical devices, and by adopting a more entrepreneurial attitude.

If 2004 is a good economic year for the nation, there’s no reason it cannot be just as good for Wisconsin.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which was a co-sponsor of the Jan. 8 forum in Fitchburg. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.