Governor should keep WEDC’s focus on jobs

GUEST OPINION

STATE LEADERS SHOULDN’T FORGET why they created the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. in the first place.

WEDC was pitched four years ago as a nimble and narrowly focused replacement for the lumbering state Commerce Department.

WEDC was launched to concentrate on jobs and business expansion. It wouldn’t be distracted, as the old Commerce Department had been, by odd and unrelated duties such as inspecting carnival rides, certifying plumbers and tracking underground fuel tanks.

WEDC stumbled badly after Gov. Scott Walker rushed it into place in 2011, trying to fulfill his lofty campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs. WEDC lost track of some loans. It didn’t follow careful financial policies. WEDC suffered turnover and personnel spats. Audits continue to suggest ways it must improve.

So it might be tempting to scrap the agency.

But significantly, WEDC’s mission has been steady and clear: to help entrepreneurs and businesses sell more products and hire more people. That charge shouldn’t change. The concept of WEDC is a strong one. What failed was its execution.

So folding WEDC into another state agency with different goals and duties isn’t justified, especially when WEDC has improved the state’s responsiveness to business people and expanded their reach around the globe.

Gov. Walker just proposed combining WEDC with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority in his State of the State speech.

Yes, both of these agencies have the words “economic development” in their titles. So some overlap exists.

But WHEDA’s core duty has been affordable housing. It helps first-time homeowners get financing. It helps developers find loans for housing projects with lower-cost units.

WHEDA helps small business people and farmers, too, with their finances. But combining WHEDA with WEDC could alter the latter’s laser-like focus on jobs.

Moreover, any savings from a merger would be tiny, perhaps a couple of top jobs.

The Legislature should be skeptical. It might be good politics to get rid of the WEDC name, which has been damaged by mistakes. But saddling WEDC with more duties and complication sounds like a retreat toward the old Commerce model.

Gov. Walker’s second term could give WEDC more time to prove itself and keep its attention squarely on business and jobs. The Legislature shouldn’t allow the state’s flagship economic development effort to be diluted. — Wisconsin State Journal, Jan. 21


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