WisBusiness: Lawton rips Sen. Decker over film bill delay

By Brian E. Clark

Film backers say Wisconsin has already lost nearly $80 million in production spending this year and they are blaming Sen. Russ Decker (D-Weston) – co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee – for blocking efforts to move up incentives to lure movie and video companies to come here.

They specifically point to a movie on Madison native and big-time poker player Phil Hellmuth that they say the producers want to shoot here this spring and summer.

Without legislation changing the date tax incentives take effect to 2007, however, the movie will be made in Winnipeg, Canada. A bill passed in 2006 has the incentives – which cut 25 percent off taxes on production costs – starting on Jan. 1, 2008.

The bill to move up the incentives is SB 24, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) and Rep. Pat Strachota (R-West Bend).

Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton said she has spoken with Decker and his staff several times and is more than a little frustrated with her fellow Democrat. “I don’t want to back him to a corner on this, but he needs to show some leadership and let this come to a vote,” she said today.

“I mean, come on, it has widespread bipartisan support because it is all about economic development,” she said, noting that has already passed committees in both the Senate and the Assembly.

Decker, who voted for the film bill in 2006, has no plans to permit a vote in Joint Finance, said spokeswoman Carrie Lynch.

“However, I can’t rule anything out,” she said. “But he believes they got what they asked for. He thinks this will cost Wisconsin up to $16 million up front and we can’t afford that this year.”

Lawton and others say no tax refunds would granted be to film production companies until after they have spent money in Wisconsin.

“I’ve explained that to him that money is not paid out up front,” she said. “I can’t fathom why he doesn’t want to take advantage of this opportunity to tap into what is a $40 billion industry that has no presence in Wisconsin.”

Lawton said other states such as New Mexico, New Mexico and most recently, Illinois, have enacted legislation that gives film and video producers tax breaks.

“After Illinois passed its law, it saw an increase of $125 million,” she said.

“New Mexico has a $650 million film industry and Louisiana is being kept afloat with $500 million being spent a year there on movies.”

She said Michigan is about to enact similar legislation that would take effect when signed by that state’s governor.

“We are not so wealthy that we can pass up this kind of opportunity,” she said. “Moreover, this is a chance to put a face on Wisconsin that is more than beer, cheese and the Packers.”

Lawton said film production companies have been “circling like airplanes waiting to do business here.”

“But when they find out the start date for the incentives is next year, they go elsewhere.

“I can’t tell you how disappointed with Sen. Decker over this,” she added. “And this isn’t just a Madison or Milwaukee bill. It would help areas all over the state. But for some reason, we just aren’t getting through to him.”

Dave Fantle, who heads VISIT Milwaukee (the city’s defacto film office), said moving up the start date for the tax incentives has support from not only Republicans, but labor, the arts community and chambers of commerce.

“This is not corporate welfare for Hollywood, as some think,” he said. “We have no film industry here, so we can’t lose money, only gain.

“I think it is the responsibility of government to at least bait the hook and then let the private sector do the fishing and lure dollars here,” he said.

“Some films that might well have been produced here this year are gone with the wind,” he said. “We shouldn’t let that happen to others.

“Especially the poker movie,” he said. “It’s a perfect Wisconsin story about a Madison phenomenon, with a screenplay by UW-Madison grad Bob Soderstrom being produced by a film company run by another UW grad, Armyan Bernstein.”