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Howatt: New WMC Board chair looking for bipartisan work on jobs

By Brian E. Clark

Boosting jobs shouldn’t be a partisan issue in Wisconsin.

That’s the word from Thomas Howatt, new chairman of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business lobbying organization. Howatt, 60, is also president and CEO of Wausau Paper, which he has headed since 2000.

According to state figures, Wisconsin has lost more than 163,000 jobs during the current recession.

That means “job growth and a strong business environment is something that both parties should be willing to support with considerable vigor,” Howatt said.

But Howatt said regaining those lost jobs and adding more will be hard to do because of what he called a reluctance to invest in a state “where the business climate ranks near the bottom” in a number of national, high-profile national surveys.

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“We need to change this perception or we won’t even be on the radar screen for private investment,” said Howatt, who lamented “the declining business environment in Wisconsin.”

To encourage job growth, Howatt said WMC is promoting its new Wisconsin Jobs 2010 Agenda.

To become more competitive with other states, Howatt said Wisconsin needs to reduce public spending, balance its budget, repeal recently enacted tax increases, and adopt comprehensive product liability and other legal reforms.

The 2010 agenda also includes a provision to make the Commerce Department the state's central business-permitting agency, charged with quickly and aggressively securing all needed approvals for economic development.

“We think there is a growing concern among the public with respect to fiscal responsibility and we think that our program represents a genuine opportunity to drive job growth and investment in Wisconsin,” he said.

Howatt believes the Badger State has a lot to offer.

“We have talented workers, a strong work ethic, great natural resources and a wonderful quality of life,” he said. “But there are steps we need to take to surround this with a more positive business environment.”

Howatt worries Wisconsin may be getting ahead of other states in the region when it comes to climate change legislation.

“I really don’t think that it would be productive to position Wisconsin in a way that we have a more restrictive environment than other states because, once again, it would create a more difficult business environment to grow jobs.”

Forbes.com says Howatt -- a 30-year veteran of Mosinee-based Wausau Paper -- earned roughly $2.5 million in total compensation in 2008.

He said the last decade was tough on the paper industry. Wausau Paper employs 2,500 workers, down from 3,500 several years ago.

“In some segments of the industry, we’ve seen significant decline in demand, and that has resulted in excess capacity,” he said. “There have been some tough decisions made by companies in terms of shuttering high-cost, non-performing assets. We have been very much in that same environment. We had to idle facilities in Maine, New Hampshire and also sold off other assets.”

But Howatt's encouraged by how his company has adapted.

“The restructuring effort at Wausau Paper has served us very well and we have demonstrated much improved performance despite what has been an exceptionally difficult downturn,” he said.

Howatt anticipates that Wausau Paper will grow in 2010, but he's not predicting any new jobs in Wisconsin this year or next.

“We are continuing to look to profitably grow Wausau Paper Corp.  So we will selectively look for investment opportunities that fit within the core businesses of Wausau Paper,” he said.

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