By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – What makes a state more economically competitive than its next-door neighbors or other states time zones away?

During an election season, you might conclude the answer to that question is tied to lower taxes, better schools, safer streets or hot-button social issues. At least, that’s what campaign advertising relentlessly tells us.

The full picture is far more complicated than what can be captured in any 30-second television spot. Competitiveness in an age of economic unease is not driven by a few factors, but a blend of state-based pluses and minuses.

That’s a major takeaway from a 50-state study conducted this year for the Massachusetts High Technology Association.

Called the Massachusetts Technology Talent and Economic Reporting System, or MATTERS, the survey is designed to see how the Bay State stacks up to competitors across the country. Although the focus is tech economy competitiveness, most measures are general in nature and drawn from seven other national studies as well as the MHTA’s own research.

There are no “overall” rankings, but an examination of MATTERS six categories reveals some of Wisconsin’s strengths and challenges. The mix is not as simple as “attack ads” might portray.

Cost of doing business: Wisconsin was 34th in this category, which captures principal expenses that businesses incur operating within each state. That means Wisconsin is somewhat more expensive than average for businesses as judged by the cost of electricity (36th); unemployment compensation insurance costs (18th); median household earnings, which is a reflection of what employers can expect to pay (26th); and family health insurance premiums (46th)..

Fiscal stability and public management: Wisconsin ranked 28th in this category, which illustrates each state government’s ability to manage its finances across key spending areas and fiscal practices. It was crimped by state debt (33rd) and “rainy day” fund (35th) standings but bolstered by its Medicaid spending (16th) and its unfunded public pension liabilities rank (3rd best). Compare that with Illinois (50th on unfunded pension liabilities), which is a tax increase waiting to happen.

Tax environment: Wisconsin was again somewhat middle of the road at 27th among the 50 states. Wisconsin was 37th in corporate taxes, 29th in personal income taxes, 6th in property taxes as a share of housing value, and 32nd in state and local tax burden as measured by the state’s per capita share of net national product. Neighboring Minnesota (49th) and Iowa (47th) were ranked among the nation’s highest tax states.

Growth and innovation climate: This category measures conditions that spark growth in the innovation economy, specifically in sectors where tech jobs make up a growing share of the workforce. Wisconsin was 32nd overall. It broke down as 19th in National Institutes of Health grants; 21st in patents awarded per 1,000 people; 25th in venture capital funding; and 27th in the share of new businesses that make payroll within eight quarters of launching. It was dragged down by sluggish growth in the state gross domestic product (41st).

Talent and workforce index: This profiles each state’s talent pool and labor market conditions. Wisconsin ranked a respectable 19th overall. It was 9th in science and engineering degrees as a percentage of all higher education degrees; 23rd in the number of people employed in high-tech businesses as a percentage of all workers; 26th in total bachelor’s degree holders in the workforce; 27th in the retention of in-state, college-educated adults in the workforce; and 31st in the unmet demand for labor. The latter ranking explains why workforce remains a major impediment for many companies.

Quality of life: Perhaps the most subjective of the six categories, it measures how “livable” a state may be. Wisconsin was 8th best. Here the breakdown included math and reading scores for 4th and 8th graders (9th); commute time rank (13th); how much renters and homeowners pay for housing as a percentage of household income (17th and 18th, respectively); and healthcare quality as measured by United Health Group (18th). Other health rankings show Wisconsin even higher.

This is only one ranking, but there’s no reason for the MATTERS survey to be pro- or anti-Wisconsin, as all 50 states are measured in the same way. It demonstrates Wisconsin excels in some areas, lags elsewhere and generally needs to offer more than perceived “quality of life” to help it stand out in a crowd.

Becoming more competitive for workers, investment dollars and building, attracting or retaining businesses isn’t a function of 30-second ads. It’s about pursuing excellence after the elections are over.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at Here is a link to the survey: