State legislators last week completed their task of dismantling the state Government Accountability Board. Legislators never hesitated: The dismantling bill was written and passed by both houses quickly and with little real discussion. Republican leaders were eager to wreak their vengeance on the nonpartisan board, largely because of its involvement in the John Doe investigations of the last several years and a handful of other issues.
It’s too bad legislators haven’t shown the same urgency in dealing with the problems at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., which have been more worrisome than any of the issues revealed by the audits of the GAB. Serious changes are needed at WEDC, and although legislators have said they’re working on making those changes, their work seems to lack the same urgency that they brought to the job of tearing apart the GAB, the state’s elections and ethics watchdog agency.
On Thursday, the Journal Sentinel reported another apparent miscue at the state’s top jobs agency: The Legislature’s budget office and attorneys have concluded that WEDC officials awarded $21 million in tax credits to companies but likely lacked the legal authority to do so. The finding by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau came in a private Aug. 19 letter to the WEDC.
Other state attorneys from WEDC, the Department of Justice and the Department of Administration disagree, so the question is in legal limbo for now.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee, said Tuesday that he didn’t believe WEDC had intentionally violated the law or had run the program any differently than it had been under the former Department of Commerce, the Journal Sentinel reported. But Nygren added that state law may need to be clarified because WEDC’s interpretation of it could end up tying the hands of future legislators and governors.
“It is something we’re looking at addressing and clarifying,” Nygren said of the dispute over the law. That echoed the sentiment of GOP leaders in a meeting with the Journal Sentinel Editorial Board and reporters last week: Nygren, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) told the board they were working on proposals to overhaul WEDC in light of past problems at the agency. They should get to it.
They also said they were hoping to get Democrats on board with reforming the agency. We urge Democrats to join that effort, and we urge both sides to keep politics out of it. There’s an opportunity here for a bipartisan effort to fix an agency that can help create an atmosphere for growing much-needed jobs in the state.
We also think Gov. Scott Walker’s concept of what WEDC should be remains sound. The agency was created in 2011 as a replacement for the Department of Commerce. Walker’s idea was to develop a quasi-public agency more streamlined and better able than previous efforts to promote economic development, in part by giving incentives to companies to expand and create jobs.
That can still work, and changes can be made within the current structure to ensure that the agency can do its job properly and with appropriate oversight. Dismantling another agency is not required. But changes are — and they need to be made now.
— Milwaukee Journal Sentinel