By Jim Cryns
MILWAUKEE — U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke told a Milwaukee audience the United States — and Wisconsin — needs to invest in alternative energy or it risks being left behind by other world powers.
“America doesn’t want to wake up five years from now asking itself how China was able to make the transition to alternative energy and not the United States,” Locke said during a speech to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce on Tuesday. “If you don’t develop your industries in alternative energies here in the state, then those jobs will be created in another state. I can tell you countries like China are spending billions of dollars to create energy alternatives.”
Locke said one way to improve the economy is to break America’s “oil addiction.” Locke said the Obama administration has made major new investments in next-generation clean energy sources like wind, solar and biofuels, as well as a national smart grid that can deliver that energy to homes and businesses across the country.
In keeping with White House push to “win the future,” Locke said Obama’s 2012 budget would increase the nation’s R&D investments as a share of GDP to its highest levels since President Kennedy’s administration.
Speaking more broadly about the economy, Locke said even though the United States overall is a strong exporter, only 1 percent of U.S. companies export and of those that do, 58 percent only sell to one market.
“We can and must do better,” Locke said, adding if businesses hope to grow they have to look at markets in South America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Despite the troubled economy, 8.5 percent unemployment in Wisconsin and 8.8 percent unemployment nationally, Locke said there is some hope on the horizon.
“Finally, the jobs picture is improving,” Locke said. “Since February 2010, the U.S. economy has added private sector jobs every single month, with private employment increasing by 1.8 million jobs.”
The recent avoidance of a government shutdown was critical to the nation’s recovery, Locke said. “It would’ve been the height of irresponsibility to shut down the government at a time when our economy is showing the most strength since the recession hit over two years ago.”
Locke said the Milwaukee region is home to high-tech industry that is among the Midwest’s best, with $2.3 billion in combined payroll from local technology industries.
During his time in Milwaukee, Locke visited a local manufacturer and held roundtable discussions with local companies.
Roundtable discussions held before Locke’s address focused on specific programs. “Those at the tables wanted to know how we (Department of Commerce) could help them sell more of their great products and services, produced and made here in Milwaukee,” Locke said.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said Locke was very interested in his visit to Milwaukee manufacturer Rexnord Industries.
“Secretary Locke was here because he wants to focus on exports and opening more markets for Milwaukee and Wisconsin companies,” Barrett said.
Barrett said Locke was a very successful governor of Washington for eight years and recognized compromise was needed to balance budgets. “He did so without destroying the right to collectively bargain or collectively organize,” Barrett said.
During a meeting with members of the media after his address Locke criticized Walker’s handling of collective bargaining and intimated there is more than one way to skin a cat. “When I was governor of Washington we had to make some tough budget choices, but we were able to work with our public employees. We froze wages and did not give cost of living increases. We did not get rid of collective bargaining rights. I didn’t think it was necessary to get rid of collective bargaining rights.”