MON AM News: ‘Meeting in Middle America’ to bring Midwest conversations to a national audience; Lobbying expenditures dip over quiet second half of 2019

— Steven Olikara, host of the new video podcast “Meeting in Middle America,” wants to put a national lens on Midwest discussions about innovation, politics and entrepreneurship. 

Olikara is a self-described “nontraditional political entrepreneur” who grew up in Brookfield. As founder and CEO of the Millennial Action Project, he’s been leading conversations with young lawmakers that reach across the political divide. 

“The premise of this podcast is to take those conversations we’ve been having across the state of Wisconsin to the next level,” he told in a recent interview. 

But he says the show will go beyond politics in many ways, highlighting startup leaders, drivers of innovation, and others willing to move past divisive rhetoric.

The new show is a joint production of UW-Milwaukee and, produced at UWM’s Lubar Entrepreneurship Center. A formal launch party is being held Thursday at the LEC, where guests will get a sneak peak of the first episode of “Meeting in Middle America.” 

“I totally acknowledge that in some ways this is an ambiguous and intentionally provocative term,” Olikara said. “What does ‘middle America’ really mean? And what do new opportunities, new ideas and new leaders look like from middle America?” 

Each podcast interview will cover the personal journey of the guests, the projects and ideas they’ve been working on, and why these efforts matter to the entire country. 

See more: 

— Interest groups spent $16.7 million lobbying the state Capitol during the second half of 2019, a big drop from the same period two years earlier, according to a check of filings.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce was the biggest spender for lobbying, dropping $388,450 for the six-month period.

The Wisconsin Hospital Association was No. 2 at $343,432, while the Wisconsin Credit Union League was No. 3 at $308,527.

WMC reported it spent 14 percent of its time on workforce training with another 11 percent on the regulation of PFAS, a chemical used in products such as firefighting foam and nonstick cookware. Several bills have been introduced this session after the chemical has been found in the Marinette-Peshtigo and Madison areas.

The group’s lobbying reports didn’t specify how much work it put in on various proposals introduced this session on PFAS.

The rest of WMC’s lobbying during the six-month effort fell under minor efforts, which are issues that accounted for less than 10 percent of the organization’s overall time.

See more at 

— Department of Safety and Professional Services Secretary Dawn Crim is asking industry councils for input on potential changes to plan review thresholds, as part of an ongoing effort to reduce the agency’s backlog of building permits. 

Crim is asking the Commercial Building Code Council and the Plumbers Code Advisory Committee to consider a new risk-based approach to determining which plans are reviewed. Their recommendations will shape any changes the agency makes to the process, according to a release. 

Currently, plan reviews for commercial buildings and plumbing occur when the proposed project meets certain thresholds for size and number of fixtures. The agency’s newly proposed guidelines could include the type and use of the building, occupancy and “eventual public risk exposure.” 

“We are now looking to our councils for their expertise and insight, and we welcome their recommendations for new thresholds that increase agency flexibility and promote efficiency while still prioritizing safety,” Crim said in a statement. 

Contractors in the state have been raising concerns about the backlog of plans at the agency, where reviews have lagged in recent years. 

The agency last month announced the first wave of changes, including requiring plan submissions to be complete ahead of scheduled review dates and requiring payment of fees upon plan submission. 

See the release: 

— Republican legislators will be circulating legislation for co-sponsorship that would exempt certain buildings from the plan review process at DSPS, in hopes of making progress on the agency’s backlog before the next building season. 

Sens. Roger Roth, R-Appleton and Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville are planning to circulate the legislation this week, according to John Schulze, director of legal and government relations for Associated Builders and Contractors. 

In an email, Schulze said industry stakeholders believe the legislation would “systemically reform the commercial plan review process.” Under the legislation, commercial plans under a certain size would not be reviewed by the Department of Safety and Professional Services, as long as construction is supervised by a licensed professional. 

The new threshold would include exceptions for certain buildings including churches, schools and nightclubs as well as medical and child care facilities. Hazardous projects including manufacturing and flammable or combustible materials would also require review. 

The legislation would also exempt plumbing projects from review if the plan features 25 fixtures or fewer and is approved by a “master plumber.” According to Schulze, the average house with a main and master bath has 24 fixtures, and “isn’t reviewed by the state under the uniform dwelling code.” 

Another provision of the legislation would change the fee reimbursement structure for when plans are withdrawn from the review process, such that only 50 percent of the fee is refunded. 

Schulze says he’s hopeful a committee hearing will be held on the legislation next week. 

See an earlier story on the issue: 

— A Madison-based automation services provider called Esker is touting record growth in sales revenues last year, marking the company’s most successful year yet. 

According to a release, Esker’s sales revenues for 2019 were up 20 percent from 2018. Last year’s growth was boosted by an increase in the size of new contracts, the release shows. The cumulative value of new contracts signed in 2019 was 41 percent higher than the previous year. 

“Esker’s cloud-based solutions remain the foundation of the company’s development, and we expect to again achieve double-digit organic growth in 2020,” said Steve Smith, U.S. chief operations officer at Esker. 

The company’s software platform automates transmission of business documents for customers. It’s used by more than 6,000 companies around the world. 

See the release: 

— WEDC and the Center for Technology Commercialization are accepting applications until April 17 for the Ideadvance program. 

According to the website, the program encourages small businesses to apply that are looking to solve problems in new ways and diversify into new markets.

“Ideadvance is an exciting way to encourage innovation and facilitate connections between the academic and business worlds,” WEDC CEO Missy Hughes said in a statement. “It provides an opportunity for students, faculty and staff to develop the knowledge base they need to bring their ideas to market while offering businesses new insights into the research and training that’s being done throughout the University of Wisconsin System.” 

Stage 1 of the program, which provides funding up to $25,000, is intended to support specific steps or milestones that will reduce business risk in technologies and ideas. Stage 2, which provides funding up to $50,000, focuses on scaling a business model.

This year’s Ideadvance marks the 11th round of funding available to UW System alumni, students, faculty and staff.

See program details: 

See more at Madison Startups: 


# UW study in space explores new way to treat bacterial infections: phage therapy

# Wisconsin wage growth had a strong finish to 2019

# A pivotal year for Harley-Davidson

# Enbridge begins permitting for proposed oil pipeline reroute in northern Wisconsin



– State corn & soybean groups elect board members


– Record number of entries for Championship Cheese Contest

– Winners of Wisconsin Soybean Yield Contest named


– Townhouses proposed for American Legion site in Shorewood


– Spectrum awards digital education grant to Milwaukee Urban League

– UW System approves tuition increases, construction cost overruns


– Millions of dollars going into protecting houses, businesses near Great Lakes


– Insurance company buys Bluemound Road building next door to its Wauwatosa office


– New ownership for Sprecher; another brewery takes swing at hard seltzer craze: Beer Biz MKE


– Summerfest grounds to host DNC ‘Delegate Welcome Party’

– Breaking the log jam: Lawmakers hope to change law to speed up plan reviews


– West Bend sells downtown site for hotel, office development

– West Bend financial aid advances Marriott hotel on former Gehl Co. property


– Updated Menomonee Falls strip malls nab first new tenant


– Crowdfunding dreams: Kiva loans helps several Madison-area businesses grow


– Summerfest Tech to return in 2020 with expanded programming


– Art Museum eyes more diverse audience, greater relevance as it embarks on new direction


<i>See these and other press releases: </i>

Dept. of Safety and Professional Services: Building plan councils release

UW-Milwaukee & New video podcast launching from Lubar Entrepreneurship Center

Beyond Reality Plumbing: Strong partnership expedites expansion loan for beyond reality plumbing