By Tom Still

LA CROSSE, Wis. – The first question that might be asked of the leading candidates for governor of Wisconsin is, “Are you sure you want this job? Really sure?”

The grim statistics discussed at the recent Wisconsin Economic Summit in La Crosse would lead even an optimistic observer to believe the state’s financial status is shaky and its economic foundation is crumbling. Then again, what’s an economic summit without a crisis – and what’s a crisis without a call to action?

No matter who is elected in November as Wisconsin’s next chief executive, the call to action should be the same: Embrace innovation, expand the economy, add jobs and create wealth.

Like most other states, Wisconsin state government is predicting a budget deficit in its next fiscal cycle. The estimated deficit varies depending on how it’s calculated, but the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau expects the state to enter its 2011-2012 budget year with a deficit of $1.2 billion, or roughly 8 percent of general fund expenditures. In other words, if there is no new spending, Wisconsin would need another $1.2 billion of new revenues, spending cuts or a combination of the two to balance its 2011-2012 budget.

A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities placed Wisconsin in the middle of the 50 states with a predicted budget shortfall, in terms of total spending, of 8.7 percent. Less than a year ago, the Pew Center on the States placed Wisconsin among the top 10 states for budget problems, citing the practice of taking money from “segregated” funds to pay for general expenses, overall indebtedness and recurring negative balances in the general fund even before the recession began.

One long-time observer believes Wisconsin’s state finances are among the worst in the nation based on generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP reporting. Using that measure, the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance noted in a recent report, the state’s deficit is roughly 13 percent of general fund revenues and exceeded in severity only by California, Illinois and Maine.

No matter how it’s counted, Wisconsin has a deficit problem. Expect the candidates for governor to talk about spending controls, but the extent of Wisconsin’s budget problems mean the deficit gap cannot be closed by cuts alone. Even if it could be erased through overnight spending cuts, most citizens wouldn’t put up with the dramatic decline in public services.

That means economic growth must be part of the equation. Participants in the Wisconsin Economic Summit, which began Aug. 2 in Appleton and continues Oct. 5 in Milwaukee, hope to contribute to the dialogue by giving candidates for governor and other statewide offices their best ideas.

A Wisconsin Prosperity Strategy being written by summit leaders will deliver some specific recommendations within a broad outline of innovation – innovation in economic development, innovation in education and innovation in government.

Making strategic investments in Wisconsin’s global innovation economy, encouraging the entrepreneurial culture so more young companies are created, capitalizing on the state’s research and development strengths and aligning investments in education with the state’s strategic economic plan are among the recommendations.

Since 1994, Wisconsin’s population, jobs and gross domestic product have been declining as a share of national totals, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. State per capita income was rising against the U.S. average in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but has slipped back to roughly 6 percent below the national norm. Policies that improve Wisconsin’s economic standing would help close state budget deficits because higher economic output leads to more tax revenue – without raising tax rates on income, property, sales or companies.

Wisconsin’s budget problems have been years, even decades, in the making. Republicans and Democrats alike share ownership. Both parties can help reverse that trend by committing to putting a vibrant Wisconsin economy first. Progress will take time, but if a strategic commitment is made now, perhaps the next governor won’t ask himself four years from now: “So, why did I want this job?”

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, one of the conveners of the 2010 Wisconsin Economic Summit Series. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.