Lawmakers, advocates see mixed session on economic development

A long list of economic development bills likely won’t make the cut this session.

But GOP lawmakers say they made progress in the two-year session set to end in March, pointing to several changes in the budget, the passage of right-to-work and a handful of other bills aimed at helping startups and tackling the skills gap.

Dems, however, argue the majority party failed to jolt the economy.

Several bills introduced late in the session failed, partly due to the tightened fiscal picture. Among them is one from Sen. Rick Gudex, R-Fond du Lac, to establish revolving loan funds managed by regional economic development groups.

The idea was scrapped from Gov. Scott Walker’s budget following reports of questionable WEDC loans. But Gudex and his two GOP colleagues on the Senate’s Economic Development and Commerce Committee brought the legislation back after hearing the need for it in the committee’s tour across the state.

“I’m very disappointed with the fact that we didn’t get more done with economic development this session,” said Gudex, who is not running for re-election. “I think we missed opportunities where we could’ve done a lot of good for the people of Wisconsin, and unfortunately, the Legislature chose a different direction. But there’s some great bills sitting here for next session.”

Another example, Gudex said, is a bill that moves up the timeline of approved spending on broadband expansion grants. Instead of spreading it out over multiple years, AB 647 would let the $6 million in spending be done anytime.

Though it passed the Assembly and cleared Gudex’s committee, the bill appears to be stalled due to concerns from some rural senators. The bill, they say, would help those communities where projects are most shovel-ready, but leave others unable to access the grants as the money runs out.

“This is what people are asking for, and we failed to do that this session,” Gudex said.

Other lawmakers — and some interest groups — are more optimistic.

Kevin Little, vice president of the Greater Madison Metro Chamber of Commerce, pointed to bills such as AB 486. That legislation, from Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, would expand tax credits for those who invest in the Badger Fund of Funds, which was established through a venture capital law passed last session. Neylon’s bill cleared the Assembly 95-1 and is awaiting a Senate vote when it meets March 15.

Little also said he was “relieved” lawmakers halted a bill that would have prevented the sale of, or experimentation on, fetal tissue derived from abortions. That legislation, he said, would’ve harmed Wisconsin’s reputation for doing top medical research.

“These things don’t go unnoticed,” Little said. “It sends a statement. So I’m glad to see legislators are putting energy into proposals that, hopefully, will continue to say, ‘This is the best place to invest. This is the place for discoveries.'”

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce’s Scott Manley highlighted earlier successes, from the “right-to-work” law to tax cuts, he said improve the state’s business climate.

Similarly, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce was “very pleased” with the state budget, said Steve Baas, the group’s vice president of governmental affairs. And he gave Republicans “a lot of credit” for developing proposals, such as the regional revolving loan funds bill, late in the session that have stalled.

“Our perception of the session in terms of economic development is not going to be clouded by things that didn’t get across the finish line,” Baas said.

Among the improvements Republicans highlight are:
*the “right-to-work” law;

*a budget item that gave schools money for fabrication laboratory equipment;

*a business development tax credit that was part of the budget;

*the $15 million in matching funds that went to the Confluence development project in Eau Claire;

*and continuing to fund a Milwaukee transitional job program, as well as expanding it to other parts of the state.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca pushed back against the “right-to-work” law, saying it will lead to lower wages. He also dismissed the argument lawmakers ran out of time, noting they can still come back to pass more bills.

Barca, D-Kenosha, said his party proposed economic development bills early in the session that would have, among other things, created a nanotechnology hub, started a new small business grant program and increased funding for broadband expansions.

He also pointed to legislation he introduced with fellow WEDC board member Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, that would have scrapped WEDC and established a new two-pronged agency.

Those Dem bills never got off the ground.

“It’s just remarkable how very little of anything significant was done in terms of economic development and job growth,” Barca said. “It’s very disappointing, given that Wisconsin is faring so poorly in these categories.”

A list of bills that likely won’t get done this session includes:

*SB 515, to establish regional revolving loan funds;

*AB 718, to help startups that are near the limit of funds eligible for the qualified new business venture program;

*SB 523, to boost funds for workforce training grants;

*AB 647, to let the Public Service Commission spend already-allocated money earlier than planned;

*SB 696, to require the Department of Workforce Development give information on job opportunities to UW System students;

*and four of the eight bills that came out of a Legislative Council study committee on tax incremental financing.

Neylon authored two bills, both of which died, that would’ve boosted industry clusters. But he highlighted two of his other bills that are awaiting Senate passage.

AB 665 would establish grants for robotics competitions, which Neylon said invests “in the next generation of our workforce.” AB 251 would require legislative approval of any rules that would cost $10 million or more to implement.

“In the long run, if we have less costly, unnecessary regulations, that’s going to improve our economy,” he said.

— By Polo Rocha,