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Republicans introduce bill to merge economic agencies (UPDATE)

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican lawmakers want to merge Wisconsin’s two major economic development agencies into a new entity with legislative oversight through a stand-alone bill rather than Gov. Scott Walker’s budget.

The governor’s budget proposal calls for merging the troubled Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority into the Forward Wisconsin Development Authority.

Sen. Rick Gudex, R-Fond du Lac, and Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, sent a memo to lawmakers Wednesday saying they’ve crafted a separate bill implementing the merger at Walker’s request and need co-sponsors by Monday. Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said breaking the proposal out as a bill will give the agencies and stakeholders a better chance to review the concept and begin the merger sooner. The budget can’t take effect until July 1 and Walker wants the merger done by Jan. 1.

The budget calls for doing away with the agencies’ boards, both of which include legislators, and creating a single board of private-sector employees whom Walker would appoint. The spending plan also would permit state auditors to review only the new agency’s programs biennially. Right now, auditors can check both WEDC’s programs and finances every two years.

Democrats have complained that the budget plan would create an unaccountable entity since no legislators would serve on it. They’ve been blasting WEDC for years after audits in 2012 and 2013 showed the agency, which is Walker’s flagship job creation engine, lost track of $12 million in overdue loans and gave money to ineligible projects between July 2011 and June 2012. The agency also has seen considerable turnover in its upper ranks.

The bill retains much of the budget language in place but would allow the governor to appoint only eight board members. Senate and Assembly majority leaders would appoint legislators to the remaining four spots.

Tony Palese, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, issued a statement likening the merger to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, a member of the current WEDC board, said the last thing the state needs is another “frantic” attempt to rearrange its jobs agency.

WEDC’s board is set to discuss the merger during a meeting Thursday in Milwaukee.

Gudex and Hutton’s memo states that the merger language has been removed from the budget. That’s not true; the finance committee hasn’t made any moves dealing with yet. Burri called the statement a “screw-up.”

Walker, a likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate, also has asked GOP lawmakers to address another contentious budget proposal that would eliminate a decades-old board that regulates for-profit colleges as a stand-alone bill. Walker officials have said they made the request in order to facilitate a deeper debate on the issue.

Republicans have obliged; they’re moving legislation to wipe out the board.

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