By Tracy Will
MADISON — Seeking less confrontational relations with state government, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce used its legislative lobbying day to roll out a draft of a new collaborative approach to improving the state’s business climate. WMC plans to get input from business, education, agriculture, organized labor and policymakers as it finalizes the “Moving Wisconsin Forward” plan.
But the new approach was met with some hesitation during a question-and-answer session after the rollout, which came during Wednesday’s Business Day in Madison. WMC’s leaders heard concerns that the business lobby may not be doing enough to lower taxes.
James Buchen, WMC’s vice president of governmental relations, responded: “We had a lot of debate on tax issues. We made a goal to get out of the top ten. Let’s start with baby steps maybe, and for a variety of reasons and actions, we’ve seen some tax cuts, we’ve held the line when other states didn’t, so we’ve made some improvements.” Buchen acknowledged that the state could not bend as far as business leaders wanted, “given the fact that they’re running such a large deficit.”
Buchen said that there were areas where state leaders and business could agree: “While there are some of the things in the governor’s stimulus package that we are concerned about, there is the Act 225 legislation that we agree with.” He added a bipartisan note: “Members of the Legislature of both parties are interested in doing what they can to improve the economy.”
“Underlying public policy is not changing,” said WMC communications director Jim Pugh, “the verbs are changing.”
The draft proposal was developed by WMC with input from 13 local chamber board of directors, organized labor leaders, 24 statewide business associations, the University of Wisconsin system and UW chancellors, and Wisconsin vocational system leaders. Additionally, WMC and local chambers of commerce surveyed 20,000 business executives in the state to seek their ideas on how to grow Wisconsin’s economy.
In a draft of the plan, the business lobby identified five areas for improving the state business climate: investing in people, innovation and job creation, investing in fundamentals, fostering a competitive business environment and improving public systems.
“We expect to offer this up to policymakers, to the people of the state,” Buchen said. He suggested attendees work to get newspapers, legislators and other groups to sign on to the effort.
Speaking later at the same event, Gov. Jim Doyle said with the economic difficulty the state and nation are facing, it’s time to come together and end partisan bickering.
“We can’t afford the old partisan games and we can’t afford the name-calling,” he said.
Doyle also said his 2009-11 budget will include “hundreds of millions” in additional cuts to state operations as the state does the same as businesses across the state to bring costs under control in a difficult economy. “We’re going to have to cut everything that moves,” Doyle said.
Appearing separately at a Business Day in Madison legislative panel, Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald urged WMC members to fight the proposed stimulus package that Doyle and Dem legislative leaders released today. Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, repudiated the idea of “extending a hand across the aisle,” especially in light of what he termed an anti-business approach offered in the stimulus package.
“Doyle stuck it to the business community of Wisconsin. It matters. WMC is a group that is moving in a different direction. About 10-15 percent [of the members] want to reach across the aisle,” he said, implying the futility of that approach.
Fitzgerald ridiculed the governor’s stimulus package, which includes $125 million in state budget cuts, a new assessment on hospitals, combined reporting on business taxes and a streamlined sales tax initiative.
“The hospital tax is something that we’ve never agreed with, but it’s going to happen. Combined reporting will chase business out of the state. They want to legislate to change the Menasha ruling, custom software will be taxed. Streamlined sales will result in additional taxes on legal services and products.” Fitzgerald warned. “These things change the direction that the state’s moving.”
Joining Fitzgerald on the panel, Joint Finance Co-Chair Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, told the crowd WMC had contributed to the “degradation” of Wisconsin’s reputation for clean government.
Miller urged members to “revisit how you participate in this political process. I want to challenge you to make Wisconsin better.”
Defending the stimulus package, Miller said: “The stimulus package the governor introduced today, the vast majority of the package is for infrastructure. These are projects in the pipeline, and we hope that we’ll get people back to work in the construction industry, and we hope that will help to have a ripple effect across the state economy.”
Miller also said he hoped the group would revisit its role in campaigns and help promote Wisconsin instead of putting it down.
“Finally, I wouldn’t be doing you a service if I didn’t say this. This organization [WMC] has badmouthed Wisconsin more than any other. We try as hard as we can to bring business in here,” Miller said.
He later said: “I hope there is a willingness to revisit the extraordinary one-sided nature of the participation in the political process. The kind of ads the WMC has run have irritated the people of this state. Wisconsin used to have a reputation for clean government, but it has been diminished over recent elections. WMC has contributed to that degradation.”