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Bauer: New WMC head says group will remain politically active

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Expect more political activism from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce – the state’s largest business group – after Wisconsin Bankers Association head Kurt Bauer takes over the helm on March 31.

“Our members expect the WMC to be a strong advocate in Madison and that’s what I intend it to be going into the future,” said Bauer, who has headed the Wisconsin Bankers' Association for the past seven years.

Bauer is replacing James Haney. Under Haney's quarter century of leadership, WMC became a big political player.

Bauer expressed strong support for Gov. Scott Walker in his effort to reduce the state’s budget deficit.

“I’m a fan of his and have known him for a long time,” he told WisBusiness.com in early March. “Things are tough and he is to be commended for doing what he said he was going to do. We have to get back to fiscal sanity.”

Bauer said the job was too much of an opportunity to pass up.

“And openings like this don’t come around very often,” explained Bauer, who decided to pursue the WMC job after he was approached by the firm conducting the search to find a new CEO for the group.

“Jim Haney had been at WMC for 27 years. I’ve been an admirer and gotten to know him over the years and respect him very much. He’s an institution in this state.

“I respect WMC. It certainly wasn’t because I was unhappy at the WBA. I love this job and I love the industry. But this was too good an opportunity to pass up.”

Bauer said he believes the turmoil in the banking industry over the past few years has prepared him well to head WMC.

“I’ve been fortunate to be involved with banking trade organizations in two different states for 18 years. I’ve been CEO twice; first with the Arizona Bankers Association and then with the WBA.

“Both offer unique challenges. When you run a trade association you have to be part PR guru, part lobbyist, part sales person and entrepreneur. Every day is a little different.

“But I think what really prepared me for the WMC more than anything was the last two-and-one-half years in banking. It was a very tumultuous time.

“Going through that crisis, we saw the workflow here accelerate dramatically. And it wasn’t sleepy beforehand. That prepared me for the challenges I know I will face at the WMC.”

A Beloit native, Bauer said his work with the WBA has given him a deep understanding of the Wisconsin business scene.

“I have a pretty good grasp of the major tax and regulatory issues facing Wisconsin,” he said. “I look forward to having a chance to broaden my horizons and work with other sectors of the business community more closely.”

On the political front, Bauer lauded Walker for trying to reduce the state’s $3.6 billion deficit.

“Everyone during the election, Democrat or Republican, said they were for cutting spending and getting back to fiscal sanity and that is something that the electorate wanted to hear and it resonated.

“But it’s harder when you get to the specifics because people do not like having things taken away from them.

“Politicians, as a general rule, don’t like to say no to constituents. I hope we can get through this. I remember a statement by Todd Berry of the Taxpayers Alliance not too long ago.

“He said that our situation is very challenging, but if we address it and are willing to take the pain right now we can have a brighter future for Wisconsin.”

Bauer contrasted Walker’s efforts with Minnesota and Illinois, which are raising taxes to lower budget deficits.

“This really can give us an economic business advantage,” he said. “Frankly, I think it will be an interesting case study to watch and see which approach works best.

“If we are successful here with right-sizing our spending with what are tax collections are, it will grow the economy. In Illinois and Minnesota, I don’t think they will be as fortunate.”

Bauer declined to comment on Walker’s efforts to change collective bargaining for public workers.

“I’m going to skirt that question right now because I’m focusing mostly on banking issues,” he said.

“No one likes it when you cut and everyone likes it when you spend, spend, spend. But the money isn’t there anymore and we have kicked this can down the road as far as we possibly can.

“I was the WBA’s chief lobbyist back in the heady days of the 1990s when tax collections were coming in millions of dollars, hundreds of millions of dollars above projections, and the Legislature spent every dime of it, never believing that those good days would end.

“We’ve waited 12 years to get serious about adjusting the spending. We have to do it,”

Bauer said he's happy that Walker’s budget doesn't include any tax or fee increases.

“I think that sends a strong message that we are doing whatever we can given the tough budgetary circumstances we have to make Wisconsin attractive to businesses, retain businesses that we have and to keep them from having to make tough choices as far as efficiencies that include layoffs.

“To me, it is all about jobs. That is how you rebuild the state and that is how we deliver on a great quality of life here in Wisconsin that we are known for.”


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