Some might say the legacy of the 2005-2006 session of the Wisconsin Legislature wasn’t formed on the Assembly or Senate floor, but in court, where a few former leaders were prosecuted for illegally using state resources for campaigns. Others might say this Legislature will be remembered for debating a steady diet of social issues, from carrying concealed weapons to banning gay marriage to trying to bring back the death penalty.
There’s a third way to remember this Legislature – for its largely bipartisan attempts to build Wisconsin’s economy. While not as newsworthy as the caucus scandal or as divisive as some of the “wedge” social issues, efforts to develop Wisconsin’s economy will touch far more people and generate more lasting effects.
The session likely to end in April saw the introduction of Democratic and Republican economic plans that shared more similarities than differences. Republican lawmakers, often working with Gov. Jim Doyle, held the line on general-fund taxes; worked towards streamlining Wisconsin’s business regulatory climate; invested in the state’s human capital through its educational infrastructure; improved the process by early-stage investors could claim tax credits for investing in start-up companies; worked to make the tax code more user friendly; and took steps to better position Wisconsin in the emerging bio-economy.
Much work remains undone, of course, and won’t be accomplished in the time remaining. But a few items merit final consideration before lawmakers leave for the election year:
- Senate Bill 338, the so-called “self-dealing legislation,” which would encourage more entrepreneurial activity by University of Wisconsin professors.
- Assembly Bill 297/Senate Bill 152, the so-called “Education Tax Credit” legislation, which would allow businesses and employees to better tailor continuing education programs and attract new workers to Wisconsin.
- Senate Bill 372, which would provide necessary start-up funding for the Bio-Medical Technology Alliance in Milwaukee.
- Legislation that would provide a remedy for a Wisconsin Supreme Court’s “lead paint” ruling that puts at risk companies involved in the production of components, including those in high-tech industries such as biotechnology.
Senate Bill 338, which is awaiting final passage in the Senate, will enable UW researchers from around the state to bring their discoveries to market more quickly, and is seen as a key element not only for the university in their recruitment and retention efforts, but also for the business and high-tech communities in their investment procurement efforts. Wisconsin academic institutions attract nearly $900 million per year in research spending, which translates to 31,000 jobs. This largely procedural change could accelerate technology transfer by making it easier for professors to bring their ideas to market.
Assembly Bill 297 and its companion, Senate Bill 152,enable businesses to collect an income and franchise credit for a portion of the expenses accrued for post-secondary education of its employees. It is seen as fundamental to the continued expansion of Wisconsin’s well-trained workforce, and therefore its competitive advantage.
“Since 1978, Wisconsin’s efforts to increase higher education among its residents have declined by 47.8 percent, which has resulted in Wisconsin being ranked 40th among all 50 states in this area,” noted Sujeet Chand, senior vice president and chief technical officer of Rockwell Automation. “If Wisconsin brought its degreed population to just the national average, it would add $7 billion to the state’s per capita income levels and tax base combined by enabling businesses like Rockwell Automation access to a well-trained, productive workforce.”
Senate Bill 372, considered key in propelling Wisconsin to the forefront of the emerging biomedical industry, would provide sustainable funding for the creation of the Bio-Medical Technology Alliance.
“The funding provided by SB 372 is intended to engage the entire research community in the seven-county southeast Wisconsin region through a network of collaborative research projects,” explained Dr. William Hendee, president of the Medical College of Wisconsin Research Foundation.
Finally, lawmakers and Doyle could devise a legislative remedy to address the 2005 Supreme Court ruling that enables litigants to bring suit against a group of defendants in lieu of identifying the specific manufacturer of a defective product or a product that causes injury.
Because of the scope of the ruling, component manufacturers are at risk of pass-through litigation that could hold liable the manufacturer of the faulty equipment, right down through the smallest component manufacturer of the product. “This ruling, though sensitive to certain defendants’ injuries, sends a chilling message to component manufacturers already located in Wisconsin and provides cause for those outside the state to second-guess locating their businesses here,” said Kevin Conroy, president and chief executive of Third Waves Technologies in Madison.
It’s been a strong legislative session for Wisconsin’s economy. With a little closing push, the legacy could be even better.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.