By Tom Still

MADISON – People who often follow news from the state Capitol might easily conclude lawmakers are obsessed with debating “wedge” issues – topics that divide rather than unite Wisconsin.

Depending on your perspective, the Legislature is making government more efficient… or threatening clean elections and civil service. Lawmakers are keeping the streets safe for law-abiding citizens… or making it easier for guns to infiltrate school grounds. The Legislature is protecting property rights… or pillaging the environment. It is protecting the unborn… or turning scientists and researchers into felons.

Those are the headlines that dominate, often with good reason, but they obscure the fact that Republicans and Democrats also work together on issues that matter to everyone. Economic growth is one such example.

A recent public hearing by the Assembly Committee on Jobs and the Economy provided a glimpse at what can happen when lawmakers focus on bills that stand to make Wisconsin’s economy stronger. Within the course of a few hours on Jan. 27, and without a lot of partisan exchanges or finger-pointing, lawmakers heard testimony on three bills that could reach a vote by spring.

Assembly Bill 636 is the Creative Economy Development Initiative, a public-private partnership that would establish a matching grant program through the Wisconsin Arts Board. It’s designed to encourage communities to plug into arts and cultural activities while encouraging entrepreneurs.

Attracting and retaining millennials is an economic must for Wisconsin, which faces a demographic slide as the “Baby Boom” generation retires. Millennials value a sense of place and a “live, work, play” spirit the arts often capture. By the way, the arts are big business. A recent survey noted that Wisconsin’s arts and cultural sector is a $535-million industry, producing $65 million in local and state tax revenues, 22,872 full-time equivalent jobs and $479 million in resident income.

Speaker after speaker told committee members about projects in Neillsville, Manitowoc, Superior and other cities that will help those communities compete for talent and keep young people home.

Senate Bill 526 and its companion, Assembly Bill 757, would create an industry cluster tax credit. Industry clusters are groups of similar and related firms in a defined geographic area that share common markets, technologies, worker skill needs, and which are often linked by buyer-seller relationships.

The idea of clusters isn’t all that new. In fact, it was a leading topic in the Wisconsin Economic Summits nearly 15 years ago. What’s new is that some Wisconsin clusters are emerging. The Water Council in Milwaukee is one example, with its emphasis on connecting major companies, startups and researchers in freshwater science.

The bills would support industry clusters through state matching funds to help get ideas from the lab bench to the marketplace. That would include a tax credit for research expenses incurred as part of a specific industry cluster support strategy.

Assembly Bill 718 would build on one of Wisconsin’s most successful tax credits, its 11-year-old program to encourage angel and venture capital investments. Investors in “qualified new business ventures,” or young Wisconsin companies that meet standards set by state law, can qualify for a 25 percent state tax credit. That means $4 in private money must be invested for every $1 in state tax credit.

The program has worked well… so much so that other states have essentially copied it. Assembly Bill 718 is a bipartisan effort to update the law by lifting a cap on credit-eligible investments in any one company. That cap has stood at $8 million since the law took effect in 2005. Meanwhile, just as costs have climbed in other sectors of the economy, so has the cost of growing early stage companies.

The bill would raise the company cap to $12 million, a threshold that would help about 40 Wisconsin companies in varying technology sectors without depleting the overall pool of tax credits or making it harder for startups to obtain those credits.

The rationale for the $8 million cap has long since passed. When the Legislature created the program, some feared credits wouldn’t be spread over enough companies or claimed by a few major investors. Time has proven those concerns wrong, as scores of young companies have benefited and Wisconsin has built a deeper bench of investors.

Those are just three that can get lost, at least publically, amidst rancor over other topics. The Legislature has a chance to move on those economic growth bills and more before it adjourns for the year. Wedge issues sometimes make good politics, but bipartisan work on common problems produces better policy.