By Brian E. Clark
A U.S. Chamber of Commerce study released Tuesday lauds regulatory and tax reforms pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Scott Walker for creating a climate in which companies will want to invest.
But DeLore Zimmer, whose Praxis Strategy Group, prepared the “Growing Wisconsin” report for the National Chamber Foundation, warned that the state cannot cut its way to prosperity.
“It will take investments in growth because that is how we will work ourselves out of this (economic downturn),” said Zimmer.
He also argued that the state has a worrisome mismatch between job openings and the skill sets of potential employees. And he said Wisconsin trails other states in innovation and business creation metrics.
But he said the state’s strengths in high-tech manufacturing and science bode well for future job growth.
The survey said Wisconsin’s manufacturers have retained more jobs than their counterparts in states across the nation. It also noted that Wisconsin has an 88 percent higher manufacturing job concentration than the average U.S. state economy in 2011, up from 65 percent in 2001.
The downside of this equation, however, is that an increasing dependence on manufacturing makes Wisconsin more susceptible to economic downturns that affect that sector.
The report was presented at a luncheon celebrating the 100th anniversary of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
Walker, who attended the gathering, promised to push for additional regulatory and tax reductions and poked fun at neighboring Illinois, which he said has moved backwards by increasing taxes.
Walker acknowledged that his efforts had been controversial and resulted in mass demonstrations. He did not, however, mention a likely recall attempt set to begin next month.
The governor said creating a pro-business climate with a balanced budget that promises long-term stability, confidence and certainty for the state was worth the “short-term political instability of this past spring.”
He noted that numerous business publications have moved Wisconsin up many spots in polls that rank the states as places where companies want to do business.
And Walker, who has promised that 250,000 new jobs will be created during his first term, predicted a potential “massive surge” in employment in Wisconsin if the state prudently invests tax dollars in economic development and worker training.
“It’s not just throwing money (at problems),” he said. “It’s all about connecting the dots.”
Doug Loon, vice president for regional affairs with the U.S. Chamber, said the country is facing “perilous economic times.”
“Our economy, quite simply, is stuck in high unemployment, slow growth and paralyzing uncertainty about the future nationally,” he said. “Business and Chambers are trying to get things moving again. More trade, less taxes, fewer regulations and investments in our infrastructure are the antidote.”
Kurt Bauer, head of the WMC since March, said the manufacturing sector is the “foundation of Wisconsin’s economy” and needs to be preserved. If it were to fail, he noted, 33 percent of the state’s wages and economic output would disappear.
He said many of the same issues that faced WMC’s founders 100 years ago are present today. And he said his group would continue to lobby for restrained government spending, litigation reform, infrastructure investment, quality education and lower taxes.
“That agenda benefits everyone in Wisconsin because when our businesses grow and expand, our families prosper,” he said.
Bauer, former head of the Wisconsin Realtors Association, said the WMC worked closely with the Walker administration during the past legislative session to pass a manufacturers income tax credit that will “make it cheaper to make things” in Wisconsin.
He credited WMC’s lobbyists for pushing 15 pro-business bills that became law, including what he called the first balanced state budget in more than 15 years.
“And for that, we thank Governor Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature for their leadership,” he said.
Now, he said, Wisconsin is well placed to “take full advantage of the eventual economic recovery.”
In a WMC panel held at the end of the luncheon, William Parsons, president of Sturgeon Bay-based Palmer Johnson Enterprises, credited Walker for a “huge attitudinal shift” by business leaders.
He praised Walker for “enabling development” and added, “I believe Wisconsin has a bright future.”
Mike Salsieder, president of Wausau-based Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork, said there will be “slow improvement in the state’s jobs picture” and thanked Walker for bringing “certainty, confidence and stability back to Wisconsin.”