WEDC doesn’t need rebranding, it needs an overhaul

W-

E-D-C.

For a lot of Wisconsin taxpayers, those letters stand for one thing and one thing only:

I-N-E-P-T-I-T-U-D-E.

If ever a governmental agency needed a little “branding” help, it’s the state’s jobs agency.

And yet Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) is backing away from that idea and considering giving WEDC even more money. Vos had it right the first time when he said “I almost think (WEDC) is so tarnished that we need to figure out a new model to fit it.”

With a presidential election on the horizon, we can think of no more important issue in Wisconsin than job creation. Many difficulties faced by the people of this state would look a lot less daunting if there were simply more and better paying jobs available. There are not.

Wisconsin continues to lag the nation as a whole and other states in the upper Midwest in job creation. The state was 32nd in privatesector job growth for the five-year period ending in June, according to government figures. Jobs grew here by 7.6 percent compared with 11.2 percent nationally.

Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa and Illinois all did better.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. has to be a part of improving the state’s jobs picture but it will take more than changing the letterhead at WEDC to make this dysfunctional agency work. WEDC has had enormous problems, including giving taxpayer-funded incentives to troubled businesses and a revolving door at the top that has seen executive after top executive take their leave.

And, harder to fix, the agency has become politicized, with Republicans and Democrats alike taking shots.

A few thoughts:

First, WEDC should either sharply curtail or get out of the business of making loans to established companies. The agency’s loan program has left it vulnerable to charges of political favoritism, and it has bungled oversight.

A related problem: We have no sense that the state is being strategic in how it deploys scarce resources generally. What’s most important to

WEDC?

All the more reason to either sharply curtail the loan operation or abandon it.

Second, WEDC should forget about trying to attract companies from other states. Offering subsidies to lure companies from elsewhere has never worked very well for state government here, and it’s a zero-sum game.

Third, WEDC should put more of a focused effort into the state’s entrepreneurs. Wisconsin has a poor track record in developing young companies but that could change. The agency does administer the effective Act 255 investment tax credits aimed at supporting young companies. It should continue to do so and look for other smart, cost-effective ways to support entrepreneurial growth. It could consider, for example, investing in proven strategies already at work to support startups. But there must be clear metrics to monitor how the investments are used and whether they are effective.

Whether it’s called WEDC or something else, a nimble, publicprivate partnership to support job creation can work. And at a time when the state lags badly in job growth, it needs to work. — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jan.1


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