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Lawmaker pressures Commerce for business plan

Paul Snyder

A Wisconsin lawmaker wants accountability from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, which, so far, is reluctant to share specific strategies for attracting and retaining businesses.

“We are almost always in competitive situations,” said Zach Brandon, Commerce’s senior policy director. “If you want us to lay out our playbook for everyone to see, that puts us at a direct disadvantage with other states.”

New business startups in Wisconsin — those fostered in the state and those attracted from out of state — dropped 10 percent from July 2008 to June 2009, according to the state Department of Financial Institutions.

Startups dropped 2 percent during the same period between 2007 and 2008.

State Rep. Kitty Rhoades, R-Hudson, is not sure Commerce is doing all it can do to reverse that trend. She has introduced a bill requiring Commerce study and report methods to retain businesses considering moving or expanding outside Wisconsin.

The concept was in the 2009-11 state budget before Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed the requirement, calling it unnecessary because the department already tries to attract and retain businesses.

“If they’re already doing it, then it should be very easy for them to give us the report,” Rhoades said. “All you hear about now is people losing jobs, and we want to know: What’s the plan to keep them, and how is it going to work?”

Not one lawmaker, Brandon said, has discussed with him Commerce programs or initiatives, nor has anyone requested the department’s annual report detailing expenses and programs used to foster growth in the state.

“The public has a right to know what you’re doing and what you’re going to do, and a lot of that information is laid out on our Web site and in the budget,” he said. “But doing another report doesn’t advance our ability to work on job creation.”

As an example, Brandon said, Wisconsin might try to lure a business to the state by asking the secretary of state or governor to call company executives. If that kind of information was to be made public, he said, nothing would stop Minnesota or Illinois from using the same tactic to beat Wisconsin to the punch.

It’s bad news for builders when other states win the businesses, said Bob Barker, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin. A private market rebound is the only way to keep all of the builders in Wisconsin working, he said.

“We’re clearly not a business-friendly state,” Barker said.

But that is not Commerce’s fault alone, he said. If the state is to attract businesses, Barker said, it needs to give tax credits and other financial assistance to companies considering Wisconsin. Commerce can provide the grants, he said, but lawmakers need to come up with the cash.

“The question is whether there’s the political willingness to help take on issues and help businesses grow in the state,” Barker said. “Right now, it seems like we’re going in the opposite direction.”

Of course, said state Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, there’s one problem with that plan: “We’re out of money.”

But Richards said Wisconsin still can compete, as it did in keeping Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac.

In Middleton, Greg Piefer, founder of Nuclear Energy Labs LLC, said state support helped him move his business from his house and into offices in 2006. The company has benefited from a $50,000 Commerce grant, and he said the firm might get $500,000 later this year.

But as much as he wants to stay in Wisconsin, Piefer said, it doesn’t mean he will.

“If there were a golden opportunity, say, $10 million to move to Michigan, and Wisconsin couldn’t match it,” he said, “well then you have to move forward.”

It’s the exodus to other states that Rhoades said she is trying to prevent with her bill.

“The longer it takes,” she said, “the further we’re going to fall.”

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