By Tom Still

GREEN BAY – Lisa Scribner isn’t worried about attracting good workers to Procter & Gamble’s manufacturing plant in Green Bay. Convincing the company to invest in the machinery, equipment and technology used by those workers is another matter.

“Since 1971, Procter & Gamble facilities that produce Charmin and Bounty and Puffs have increased 50 percent, with no machine being put in Green Bay,” said Scribner, manager of the company’s Green Bay plant. “The last time anybody built a paper machine in this state was like 17 years ago.”

Over the years, lengthy regulatory processes and a lack of incentives have discouraged multi-state and multi-national paper companies from investing in Wisconsin. Although Wisconsin continues to be the nation’s leading papermaking state, companies with existing plants here have expanded elsewhere for decades. If aging equipment isn’t replaced over time, Wisconsin’s leadership in papermaking – and the jobs that industry creates — could be threatened.

Scribner’s story, as told last week during the “Building the New Wisconsin Economy” forum in Green Bay, is not all that unusual. Whether it is papermaking, printing or plastics, Wisconsin manufacturers often talk about their reluctance to expand here if given the choice to do so elsewhere.

Those manufacturers rarely fault the quality of workers, but they often lament the regulatory climate and the generally unhelpful attitudes of government officials. As recently as a year ago, a permit that took nine months to obtain in Wisconsin could be secured in 30 days in another state.

Will Wisconsin’s red tape be sliced now that Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature have streamlined some state permit processes? Perhaps, but it will take more than the so-called “Jobs Creation Act” alone. It will require fresh attitudes among the civil servants charged with carrying out the work – and a less litigious approach on the part of people who seem to relish carrying their fights to the courts.

Legislation passed by bipartisan majorities in the Legislature and signed into law by Doyle sets shorter deadlines for regulators to issue permits. It also changes some of the requirements for air, water and land permits. When the bill was signed into law in De Pere a few weeks back, Doyle called it the most aggressive regulatory reform package in the Midwest.

“It sends a powerful signal that we are turning Wisconsin around to make us more competitive to attract jobs,” Doyle said. “International companies with operations in Wisconsin are going to see this is a much better place to do business and a much better place to expand.”

The fight is unlikely to end there, however. Within the state Department of Natural Resources, which is headed by reformed-minded Doyle appointee Scott Hassett, a cultural change must take place. Regulators who have long embraced a “go slow” approach to manufacturing permits will be asked to press the fast-forward button. Environmental groups that have never been slow to file lawsuits will be tempted to test the new state regulations in court, thus adding a layer of uncertainty to the process.

For the most part, however, citizens have lost patience with those who always say “no.” At a time when the state’s economic prosperity is threatened, many Wisconsin residents believe obstacles to doing business should be removed. A poll conducted for the “Building the New Wisconsin Economy” forum showed that many people blame cumbersome regulations and high taxes for a good deal of Wisconsin’s economic troubles.

The Legislature and the governor have adopted new rules for the state’s regulatory process. That is good news. But it will take time for companies such as Procter & Gamble to believe the change is real. They will need to see bureaucrats following the spirit of the law and courts disregarding frivolous challenges. Once that happens, business will once again think first, not last, about investing in Wisconsin.

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