• WisBusiness

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On boarding and organizational biology

By Pamela Atwood
Joining an organization, or a new a new company business unit from the outside, possesses a unique set of challenges. Transitions are necessary, given companies, at times possesses a limited internal candidate pool for senior leadership positions. Or they may just need a new set of eyes. In some organizations, the new role is ill defined, the politics confusing and the structure fuzzy.

Organizations spend lots of money and time finding and selecting their next leaders. Due to the amount of resources utilized, companies must utilize successful on-boarding strategies. The time to start is during the interview process to ensure proper alignment of the person and interview process. Leaders, if welcomed into a supportive environment, will produce quicker results and are less likely to leave in a quick manner.

Organizations, just like the amazing human body; possess their own" immune system". Michael L.Watkins does an excellent job of explaining this in his book, Your Next Move (Harvard Business Press.) Michael states, "the organizational immune system is ready to isolate and destroy outsiders who seek to introduce "bad ideas". " Companies, like the human body, have an equilibrium state. For example, when systems are working well, they prevent damage. Conversely, if a system is working t too well, positive people, successful strategies and ideas can be easily expelled.

As an executive recruiter, I see three early on- boarding success strategies. First, have a clear understanding of success expectations and that you are comfortable with them. Once hired, ask questions, verify and verify again. Even if you felt you have a clear pictured painted for you during the interview process. The recruiting process is much like dating before marriage. Both parties naturally have their best foot forward. The perceived interview expectations may slightly alter or look different once hired.

Second, immediately gain an understanding of their micro culture and remember that at a deeper level, lies a less visible set of organizational norms, only to be discovered after some time has elapsed. These "deeper norms", define, to its members, the "way the world (organization) works". Third, identify key stakeholders and forge connection based on shared interested. You need to build trust and credibility with these individuals. Ask your direct supervisor or human resource director for a list of people, if not provided one.

Remember, you have ninety days to pave your current and future performance path. The President of the United States has one hundred days. This initial ramp-up time, set the tone and tempo for the duration of your employment at this company and possibility others in the future. It is difficult to alter once set, so chose well and be prepared.

-- Atwood is president of Atwood Associates LLC, a Madison-based executive search, recruiting and consulting services firm.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Serious family health crisis? 10 money steps you need to take

By Kevin Reardon
As our nation's lawmakers continue to arm wrestle over fixes to the U.S. health care system, it's important to realize that health care -- and, specifically, a health crisis involving a member of one's family, can have overwhelming financial implications. For example, a June 2009 article in the American Journal of Medicine reported that medical bills are behind more than 60 percent of U.S. personal bankruptcies, adding that more than 75 percent of these bankrupt families had health insurance but still were overwhelmed by their medical debts.

The article, based on research from Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School and Ohio University, underscores how a single health crisis can financially destroy both individuals and families. It also clearly demonstrates the need for adequate planning ahead of any health crisis, particularly when known risk factors exist in a family. A financial expert such as a Certified Financial Planner professional can help individuals determine if their insurance and savings options are adequate to handle the possibility of any future health crisis.

If you have time to prepare, most financial planners will advise you to:
* Create an adequate emergency fund to cover several months (usually a minimum of three months and, even better, up to a year) of family expenses if a patient can't work during their treatment; * Purchase separate disability insurance to pay everyday expenses since company-bought disability coverage will likely be limited - the benefits on any individual policy need to be coordinated with the group policy;
* Create health care advance directives, health care powers of attorney and financial powers of attorney, health care proxies;
* Build lists of critical phone numbers, major assets and where information on each can be found on investment accounts and other key information in case the person is incapacitated;
* Communicate funeral plans to family members in writing so that wishes can be implemented in the event of death. Even better, complete a personal death awareness document that covers both the practical aspects of death and the interior emotional aspects of death.

But what if you don't have time to prepare? What if you're suddenly faced with a frightening, expensive and potentially life-threatening diagnosis? Here are some basic steps to take:

Start by realizing it's not all about the money: If you or someone you love is sick, obtain the best care possible, not what your bank account and health insurance can buy. A CFP® professional with experience in dealing with healthcare issues can help you assess your financial situation against various goals for retirement, your expenses, your children's education and other matters.

Grill the patient's insurance agent or HR person: If you or family members have bought health insurance through an agent or your employer, insist that they explain exactly what the plan covers and where your deductibles do and don't apply. Generally, a serious illness will quickly use up the deductible (this is where your emergency fund is important). Pay attention to how much the insurance will pay and how much you'll pay out of pocket once the deductible is exhausted.

Check on experimental treatment and see how it will affect coverage: If the diagnosis is cancer or some other potentially life-threatening illness, in addition to tried and true treatments, research medical centers offer clinical trials. And, keep in mind that some insurance plans might not approve certain treatments that could potentially lead to other health issues. Err toward caution in these matters, but if the insurer approves, see if such experimental treatment can get you a break on costs.

Get those directives in order: A health care advance directive is a formal, preferably notarized instruction sheet for doctors to follow in case you or family members are incapacitated. The most commonly known health care directive is a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order. A health care power of attorney designates a particular individual — a spouse, a friend, an adult child — to carry out your medical wishes if you are incapacitated. Meanwhile, financial powers of attorney designate an individual to handle financial affairs if the sick or deceased are single or did not designate joint tenants for certain assets. Again, each state follows a particular set of documents.

If there isn't a will or a complete estate plan, make one: A will doesn't have to be enormously detailed to relieve problems for survivors, but it can create enormous problems if it doesn't exist. If there is no executed will, the estate is intestate, which means that property is distributed by state laws. Yet it makes even more sense to review all of a patient's assets to determine if more detailed directives are necessary and most important, to make sure beneficiaries on insurance, retirement accounts and other investments are up to date.

Consider whether you can make monetary support a gift: It's good to get tax and financial advice on making a one-time gift to support the patient. Would the potential loss of money injure you, and worse, will it injure the relationship? If you don't think you will be repaid would you be willing to consider it a gift?

Ask for generics and samples: Many physicians are willing to recommend a generic substitute or at least supply you with a few samples of the drug they're already prescribing. While doctors can't get away with passing sample drugs to all their patients, always ask. As long as they are prescribing the medication, samples with the proper dosage can provide cost savings to patients.

Begin negotiations before there's a financial problem: The best time to speak with hospital bean counters isn't when you're behind on your payments. Once a diagnosis is made, either you or someone you designate as your agent needs to contact the hospital business office to check on payment schedules and possible discount plans if you are uninsured or fear your insurance may not cover a significant portion of costs. Any creditor appreciates a customer who's willing to come to the table first.

-- Reardon is owner & president of Brookfield-based Shakespeare Wealth Management Inc.


Friday, March 26, 2010

Economic development follows the whistle of passenger rail

By Tom Still
The Marquette interchange in Milwaukee cost more than $800 million to rebuild between 2004 and 2008, and few people seriously questioned whether that "subsidy" of Wisconsin's highway transportation system would pay for itself many times over.

Milwaukee's Zoo interchange, the mix-master for I-94, I-894 and Highway 45, could cost $2.3 billion to rebuild once work begins in 2012. Again, most people familiar with the volume of statewide commerce passing through that intersection can agree reconstruction is a much-needed investment.

But suggest a relatively tiny $7.5 million per year subsidy for a high-speed rail line that could redefine Wisconsin's connections to Chicago and the Twin Cities, and the same folks who barely blink at billion-dollar concrete projects turn into raging fiscal hawks.

That penny-wise, pound-foolish approach should be questioned. Wisconsin has a chance to build a high-speed rail line, with hard-to-get federal money, that will change the economic destiny of its largest cities and many of its smallest communities. Yet this promising track for economic development is being opposed by those who claim a small state subsidy will somehow break the bank.

Before the political debate gets too overwrought, let's examine the economic reasons why Wisconsin should embrace building a Milwaukee-to-Madison rail line and improving the existing Milwaukee-to-Chicago connection.

The Obama administration announced Jan. 28 that 31 states would share in about $8 billion in stimulus dollars targeted for high-speed rail, with the biggest chunks ($5.5 billion) marked for projects in four states: California, Florida, Illinois and Wisconsin. Unlike most states, Wisconsin received the full amount of its grant request, $810 million for high-speed rail, in part because of the quality of the state's plan and its cohesiveness with neighboring states.

As Tom Hefty and John Torinus Jr. noted in a recent Wisconsin Interest column, Wisconsin ranks 48th among the 50 states in overall federal spending on a per capita basis. While Wisconsin sends $45 million in taxes to Washington each year, only 86 cents of each $1 is returned here. The rail money is an opportunity to change that dismal dynamic.

In other American cities and regions with passenger rail, economic growth has taken place within a short distance of the line and its stations. One recent study noted there are more than 100 "transit-oriented developments" in the United States, mostly within walking distance of passenger rail stations.

In communities such as Brookfield, Oconomowoc and Watertown, which are proposed stops along the Milwaukee-to-Madison route, public and private leaders are hustling to persuade planners to build stations in their towns. Why? They expect a mix of commercial, retail and residential development to follow the trains like a caboose.

Studies in states such as Texas, California, Florida and Ohio have shown passenger rail can help lure tech-based businesses and investment.

That's a sector where Wisconsin is poised to compete. The proposed line to the Twin Cities would tie together the major hubs of the "I-Q Corridor," which extends from Chicago through Wisconsin and into Minnesota. A distance of only 400 miles separates two dynamos of the Midwest economy -- Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul. That's a shorter distance than what separates San Diego from the "Silicon Valley" in California. Within the region are some of the nation's leading research universities, federal labs, financial centers, tech companies and talent pools. High-speed rail will help bring them closer together.

It will also help rural Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. There are 15 rural counties with nearly 550,000 people with 50 miles of La Crosse. These people would gain access to Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, and the Twin Cities with a stop in La Crosse.

The Milwaukee-to-Madison route won't start running until 2013, planners say. It will take that long to rebuild tracks, renovate or build stations, roll out satellite navigation technology to prevent collisions and much more.

In other words, there's ample time to manage operating subsidies, which could appear much smaller in the scheme of things if gasoline prices continue to rise due to global demand for oil.

Virtually every form of transportation in the United States is subsidized to one degree or another, but all offer a return on investment. High-speed rail has the potential to pay for itself in Wisconsin for generations to come. Let's not miss the train.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Small business owners: Watch out for employee compensation traps

By Karen Harned
The federal government wants to know if your business is compliant with the Fair Labor Standards Act. Minimum wage and overtime laws can be confusing but not paying the proper wage to an employee can quickly turn into an expensive headache.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has pledged to make wage and hour enforcement a top priority. The Department of Labor is hiring more agents to investigate and charge businesses with overtime and other wage violations under the FLSA. The Wage and Hour Division has a 28 percent increase in its 2010 budget and continues to increase enforcement. With that in mind, now is an excellent time to make sure your business hasn't run afoul of wage and hour rules.

To avoid DOL penalties or claims from disgruntled employees, make sure your business hasn't fallen into these common traps.

1. Allowing hourly employees to waive their right to overtime pay.

An employee may not waive his right to overtime pay. Even if an employee is instructed to only work 40 hours per week, any hours actually worked over 40 hours in a seven-day workweek will be subject to overtime pay. An employer can instruct an employee not to work more than 40 hours per week, and generally may discipline an employee who works unauthorized overtime.

2. Averaging the hours worked over two weeks.

Even though the employer uses a two-week pay period, the FLSA treats each workweek as a single unit. If an employee works 42 hours in one week, the employee must be paid the two hours of overtime, even if the employee only works 20 hours in the subsequent week.

3. Giving time off instead of cash.

The FLSA is very biased in favor of cash compensation rather than "comp time." Neither the employer nor employee can agree to or insist on comp time in lieu of overtime pay.

4. Treating all salaried employees as exempt from FLSA overtime rules.

Being a salaried employee is not solely sufficient to classify an employee as exempt from FLSA overtime requirements. Additionally, neither job title nor job description is sufficient. Employers must be careful to ensure that employees are properly classified. Exempt employees must meet a certain minimum salary and fall under a certain exemption category specified by the FLSA.

5. Docking the pay of an employee who is exempt from overtime payments.

An exempt employee must be paid on a salary basis. This means that the employee on a weekly or less frequent basis receives a predetermined amount of pay, which is not subject to reduction. If you make improper deductions from an exempt employee's salary, the salaried basis of payment is destroyed and the exemption is lost. Don't jeopardize the exemption. Make sure the exempt employee's pay is the same every week, regardless of hours worked. In other words, if an exempt employee shows up for part of a workday, you must pay him for the whole day.

For more information about FLSA compliance issues visit the Department of Labor's website. Additionally, employers need to make sure they are compliant with all state wage and hour laws. Some states have higher wage requirements than the FLSA. Employers should check with their state's labor offices to ensure they are compliant with their state's standards.

-- Harned is the executive director of the NFIB Small Business Legal Center.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In most ways, the national health-care debate is only beginning

By Tom Still
The passage of the health-care bill in Congress marked the end of one political debate and the start of a different struggle that will play out in the fall elections, in court challenges, in state legislatures and through continuing clashes between the nation's largest interest groups.

As a result, what this bill means to businesses, individuals and the health-care industry itself is still largely up for grabs, depending on how the bill is enacted over time.

Under the bill, most Americans will be required -- beginning in 2013 -- to have health insurance or pay a fine. Larger employers will be required to provide coverage or risk financial penalties. Lifetime coverage limits for individuals covered by insurance plans will be banned, and insurers will be barred from denying coverage based on gender or pre-existing conditions.

The bill also allows young people to stay on their parents' health plans until they are 26, reduces federal support for private Medical Advantage plans but spends more on Medicare prescription drug benefits, and provides small businesses with tax credits if they offer insurance plans. Those are among the provisions that take effect first.

But what worries opponents is the bill's long-term effect on insurance premiums, the specter of more deficit spending, unintended consequences within the practice of medicine itself and the extension of the federal "nanny state."

It's the latter point that is likely to be challenged specifically in court. Attorneys general in about a dozen states have already said they will file lawsuits to test the constitutionality of the bill's requirement that individuals must purchase insurance. They contend Congress does not have the power to impose such as mandate -- or to require states to enact the federal plan.

The fall elections and the campaign for control of Congress is another battleground. Republicans will portray Democrats who voted for the bill as big spenders and advocates of big government; Democrats will paint Republicans as naysayers who failed to come up with a better idea for fixing health care.

The lines are drawn between major interest groups, as well. The president of the United States Chamber of Commerce has pledged to oppose the bill "through all available avenues -- regulatory, legislative, legal and political," and the National Federation of Independent Business has called it "a tax bill wrapped up in health-care paper."

But other business groups range from muted to supportive. Hospitals, the American Medical Association and trade groups representing the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries have found reasons to cheer many of the bill's provisions, which they think will cover more Americans, encourage preventive care over expensive emergency room care, foster more research and make life-saving drugs more available.

For example, the Biotechnology Industry Organization applauded the bill's creation of a regulatory pathway for the approval of "biosimilars," which are generic biotech drugs that are substantially similar to the original but not precisely so. The bill helps to protect the intellectual rights of inventors while making such drugs safely available in time.

And while the largest trade group representing health insurance companies strongly opposed the plan, some industry analysts believe those insurance companies that survive may actually prosper under the new model. Why? More people will be covered.

A group to watch in Round 2 of the health-care debate is owners of small businesses, who create a disproportionate amount of the jobs in the United States and whose survival can be threatened by regulations that add costs and force them to think twice about expanding.

In the WisBusiness.com Tech Leaders Survey released in January, tech company executives across Wisconsin said they were worried that health-care costs will get worse instead of better under a reform bill. Now that the bill is passed, those same executives and others like them across the United States will ask how costs will be controlled -- as President Obama and the Democrats contend -- and not increase over time.

Passage of one bill, however massive and far-reaching, won't end the debate over health care quality, cost and access in America. The debate will quickly move from Congress to voters, business owners and others with a direct stake in the long-term results. And in a representative democracy, that's as it should be.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Germany mission highlights green economic growth

By John Imes
Ask me why I'm going to Germany.

Yes, it's partly because I can celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Wisconsin-Hessen sister-state relationship and the 20th anniversary of the fall of The Wall.

Yes, it's partly because the delegation going with me includes the likes of ambassadors Tom Loftus (Norway) and Rick Graber (Czech Republic), as well as Roberta Gassman, secretary of Wisconsin's Department of Workforce Development, and other distinguished leaders from business, academia, and non-profits.

But mainly it's because Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich are rolling out a long red carpet to showcase their bright green economic growth that includes cutting-edge high speed rail technology, advanced water systems, large-scale solar and bio-gas facilities and new directions in environmental and economic cooperation.

I'm going because I want to help Wisconsin look beyond the traditional approaches and solutions of the past to new strategies and policies that let us achieve the environment, quality of life and healthy business climate we deserve. I expect to capture, study, learn and bring back lessons on energy, transportation, manufacturing and higher education that are keys to the emerging green economy.

Where are we going? Here are a few stops:

Cutting-edge high speed rail stations, technology and systems: The largest employer in Germany and a major economic driver is the Deustche Bundesbahn (German National Railroad). Every 500 million euro (roughly $680 million) invested in the network expansion creates approximately 12,500 jobs during the construction phase and roughly 2,500 to 3,400 jobs from related business and service providers. We will get behind-the-scenes tours of high-speed rail stations, construction, maintenance, control and virtual training centers.

Cleantech exchange program: We will study green building design and offshore wind generation that will provide up to 15 percent of German power by 2020.

Reliable and environmentally friendly energy and water resources management: Wisconsin values balanced and diverse energy investments. So we'll get to see examples of that with a large solar farm and a bio-gas facility that feeds refined biogas into the German natural gas grid. Another highlight will be a presentation on Bavaria's water resources management, one of the most advanced water systems in the world.

New directions in environmental governance: What sets Germany apart is its "can-do" attitude and demonstrated ability to bring all the players to the table. Germany's National Association of Manufacturers and the Federal Environmental Ministry work together to address issues like climate change, set meaningful environmental goals and provide flexibility and incentives for superior environmental performance. We know some of this because we borrowed similar ideas 10 years ago to help set up our bi-partisan, groundbreaking Green Tier law that was championed by Sen. Mark Miller and Sen. Neal Kedzie and signed by Governor Jim Doyle.

So why am I going to Germany? Because in the midst of economic turmoil comes opportunity. By learning from German successes and encouraging our own policymakers, businesses and other stakeholders to rethink the traditional approaches and solutions of the past, we can go in a bold new direction -- one that results in new green job growth and investment to help sustain Wisconsin's future economy.

-- Imes is executive director of Wisconsin Environmental Initiative, a statewide coalition based in Madison. The March 21-29 program is sponsored by WisBusiness.com, GKA Research, Ernst & Young and Cultures Venture International.


Monday, March 8, 2010

Illegal debt collection practices and debt collection scams

By J.B. Van Hollen
Imagine getting embarrassing calls at work, harassing calls to your friends and family, or even threats of violence. Unfortunately, a growing number of consumers are experiencing these abusive debt collection practices, in the face of the nation's mounting consumer debt. And like every consumer crisis, the consumer debt crisis generates new consumer scams, which trick consumers into paying money they do not even owe.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the federal agency charged with monitoring complaints against debt collectors, debt collection generates more complaints than any single industry. The number of debt collection complaints has risen significantly in the past five years, with an increase in debt collection scams seeking to collect money from consumers who owe no money. Unfortunately, Wisconsin is right in line with the national trend, seeing a rise in debt collection complaints and an increase in the number of Wisconsin consumers targeted by debt collection scams.

The typical debt collection company purchases consumer debt from the original creditor for pennies on the dollar. The debt collector then attempts to recoup any, if not all, of the original debt. Of course, it is not illegal for debt collectors to collect on a genuine debt. However, unscrupulous methods employed by some debt collectors and attempts to collect debt that is not collectable is illegal.

Some debt collectors utilize intimidating practices, such as verbal abuse, harassment, and even threats of violence in an attempt to collect money from consumers for the debts the company has purchased. Another common, but illegal practice by debt collection companies, is the attempt to collect outdated debts that are older than six years and no longer exist on a consumer's credit record, which is no longer subject to collection under state or federal law.

Particularly troubling is the recent spike in the number of debt collection scams, where scammers pose as debt collectors to persuade consumers to pay debt they do not owe. The typical scam works like this - the scammer calls the consumer and identifies itself as some type of legal enforcement agency. The scammer tells the consumer that if they do not pay a debt immediately, the consumer could be subject to loss of benefits, wages, personal property, or worse they could be arrested. Of course, debtors' prison was eliminated decades ago. The scammer then tells the consumer if they wire money immediately to pay off a portion of the debt, the remainder of the debt will be forgiven. The consumer then becomes frightened and wires the money even though they do not owe it.

The best way for consumers to protect themselves from debt collection scams, is to know their rights as a consumer. First, consumers should always investigate the debt that a collector says is owed. They can do this by contacting the creditor whom the debt collector says is owed money, checking their credit report, and checking personal records. And, even if it appears that the debt is owed, consumers should never wire money, give banking information, or a postdated check, to a debt collector.

In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Consumer Act outlines consumer rights with respect to debt collection. In addition, the FTC enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which also outlines consumer rights and prohibits debt collectors from engaging in unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices.

These two acts prohibit debt collectors from:
- Harassing consumers, their spouses, or any other third party.
- Using obscene language or making threats of violence or abuse.
- Threatening arrest or legal action if it is not lawful or there is no intent to do so.
- Attempting to collect any amount greater than the actual debt.
- Collecting debt that is 6 years old or older.

Consumers who believe that a debt collector has violated their rights and the practices contained in the Wisconsin Consumer Act can file a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions or the Federal Trade Commission. For more information on debt collection rights go to http://www.wdfi.org/ymm/brochures/credit/debt_collection.htm.

These are challenging times for many hardworking Wisconsin consumers who are struggling to get by financially. It is critical that consumers know their rights, and know where to turn when they believe that those rights have been violated, so that scammers are not allowed to prey on consumers in this time of great economic uncertainty.

-- Van Hollen, a Republican, is Wisconsin's attorney general.


Friday, March 5, 2010

The filibuster is over but the lesson lives on

By Craig Thompson
Incredible as it seems, the nation's most important source of surface transportation funding was allowed to lapse at the beginning of this month for the first time in its history, due to a bizarre argument at the federal level in which, somehow, both sides were simultaneously right -- and dead wrong.

On one side of the argument, a single senator took a stand for actually paying for core government responsibilities and against continuing to descend further into debt. People on the other side of the argument said it was irresponsible to allow funding for programs that are universally supported, such as unemployment benefits, COBRA and transportation, to be shut off just so the Senator could score political points.

Both sides are right.

Where they are both wrong is that neither side has stepped forward to offer solutions to actually fund our government, including transportation.

Historically, the federal government has funded surface transportation through six-year authorization bills. The most recent, known by the acronym SAFETEA-LU (for Surface Transportation Efficiency and Accountability Act -- a Legacy for Users), expired on September 30th of last year. Since that time Congress has passed short-term measures to keep the program afloat for one or two months at a time, to buy time until Congress could get down to its business of passing a multi-year authorization.

The most recent short-term measure expired on February 28th, and attempts to extend the program by 30 more days were held up when U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., filibustered. This led to a shutdown in reimbursements to states for highway projects and transit programs. About 2,000 federal transportation department employees were furloughed.

Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood responded to Bunning's actions by stating, "As American families are struggling in tough economic times, I am keenly disappointed that political games are putting a stop to important construction projects around the country. This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed."

Mr. LaHood, of course, was right.

Senator Bunning defended himself by saying, "There are going to be other bills brought to this floor that are not going to be paid for, and I'm going to object every time they do it .... I have got too many young grandchildren that want America to be the same America that I grew up in. And I'm worried to death that that's not going to be the case."

Mr. Bunning made a very valid point.

Because both are right and wrong, though, we must turn our attention to solving the larger problem that this argument illustrated. And to do that, we have to return to more responsible times. While coming up with enough money in a responsible manner may be more difficult for other portions of the budget, it is actually quite simple when it comes to funding transportation. We simply need to charge users of the transportation system a fee that actually reflects the cost to maintain and upgrade that system. The user fee we currently have in place -- the federal gas tax -- remains at 18.4 cents a gallon, which is the same amount it was at in 1993 when gas prices were at $1.11 per gallon.

In 1983, when the country was struggling to come out of a recession, President Reagan increased the gas tax by 5 cents stating, "We simply cannot allow this magnificent system to deteriorate beyond repair. The time has come to preserve what past Americans spent so much time and effort to create."

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed another 5 cent increase in the gas tax. In 1993 President Clinton signed a 4.3 cent increase in the gas tax.

As evidenced by the actions of these three presidents, it was not that long ago that our leaders recognized that we all have a responsibility to pay for our transportation system.

Today, it has been deemed as more practical in the political sense to keep infusing money from our deficit-laden general fund in uncoordinated, halting and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to keep things moving than it would be to pass a multi-year authorization that actually raises the necessary revenue to efficiently plan and maintain a national system.

And yet a federal gas-tax increase of a dime a gallon would cost the average family only about $9 a month. And it would be an equitable and responsible way to fund the safer and more economically beneficial transportation system we all need and deserve.

Some of the problems that face our nation in this day and age are truly confounding. Solving our transportation mess simply isn't one of them.

-- Thompson is executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The theatrics of health care reform

By Dan Danner
The president's health care summit last week may have been great political theater. But what really was accomplished on behalf of the small businesses that desperately need reform?

Small business owners simply aren't interested in political drama or more talking. They want to see less rhetoric and more solutions that produce real results. President Obama's proposal is basically the same as the House and Senate's flawed legislation. We opposed both of those bills because neither addressed the fundament problem: lower overall costs.

To add insult to injury, the president's now promoting even worse ideas that will further threaten the future of small businesses with burdensome new taxes, mandates and fees.

If the White House is serious about reforming health care, then it needs to pursue reforms that help the people that need it the most our nation's small business owners. Otherwise, the summit and its aftermath will only show that small business has simply become a sound bite for reform that provides little relief and increases the cost of doing business.

Small business owners have been constructive and valuable participants in the reform debate. They have worked hard, taking time away from their businesses, to help our leaders understand the struggles they face owning and operating a business. They also continue to urge policymakers to adopt ideas that offer sensible solutions.

For example, the president could give small businesses greater purchasing power to help drive down costs by letting them pool their risks together across state lines to purchase insurance, just like big business and unions do today. Why is that so hard to consider? Or he could support an idea called the optional free choice voucher. This would allow employers to give pre-tax dollars to their workers and let the worker purchase the plan that best fits their needs, like a 401(k) for health care. These two ideas together create choice, portability and puts the consumer in the driver's seat, a win-win for employers and workers.

There are lots of good ideas out there but, sadly, small business owners are left with a bill that's short on savings and big on costs. They're now left asking, "Will Congress and the president stop playing politics and create reform that improves access and affordability, or will they continue down the same path with new taxes, mandates and fees that threaten my ability to run and grow my business?"

It can't be emphasized enough -- in economic times like these, when small businesses are struggling just to survive, policies must be aimed at helping them. No one has a larger stake in this debate. So we must tread lightly and always remind our leaders in Washington to continuously check their ideas by asking one simple question: "Will this help or hurt small business?"

And our leaders also must realize that the old adage of the health care profession applies here as well: First, do no harm. Only then can they address real reform.

-- Danner is president and CEO of the National Federation of Independent Business in Washington, D.C.


Business Plan Contest provides snapshot of entrepreneurism in Wisconsin

By Tom Still
If you want to know where entrepreneurs smell opportunities, take a look at this year's list of semi-finalists in the Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest.

The 52 semi-finalists in this year's contest, who were selected from a competitive field of 284 entries, are a microcosm of innovation trends reshaping the economy. Their ideas, which range from the deceptively simple "Why didn't I think of that?" to complex marriages of different sciences, demonstrate that entrepreneurs have a knack for moving to where the action is in the marketplace.

The contest's broad categories -- advanced manufacturing, business services, information technology and life sciences -- haven't changed since the BPC was launched in 2004 as the nation's first statewide, tech-based business plan contest. But the trends within those categories have shifted over time to reflect changes in major sectors.

For example, the contest's early years generated a number of life science entries in the diagnostics and "toolkit" arenas. That was no surprise: Wisconsin's biotech industry was known for producing analytics and products for other researchers. It's the modern equivalent of selling picks and shovels to California gold miners in 1849.

Over time, however, the life sciences category attracted more ideas for drug discovery and medical devices as the state's health sciences economy matured. The last two years have produced more entries involving bioproducts and uses of biotechnology outside of medicine, such as food production and handling.

Eight of this year's semi-finalists have tech-based ideas related to food, including converting waste to energy, producing "no-cook" natural foods, processing food-grade soybeans for foreign markets, raising cool-water fish in a more sustainable way; an antimicrobial coating for metal fixtures such as door knobs; and using natural antimicrobial proteins to control pathogens that can harm plants and crops.

Energy generation and management and other "cleantech" ideas were barely on the list in the contest's first few years but are a recurring theme today as society struggles to better manage its use of energy, water and other resources.

Spread among all four categories, about 15 cleantech ideas include: a renewable energy system for small businesses and mid-sized industries; a water-saving flow-control valve for showers and faucets; a portable lighting kit designed for the video industry; a process for the green "deconstruction" of buildings; an anaerobic digester that generates biogas from waste in one-fourth the average time; less expensive geothermal heat pumps; a capacitor for high-power applications that use nanotechnology to increase power and reduce waste; a process to recover metals from fluid waste streams; and an intelligent, programmable power strip.

Other cleantech ideas include a "solar window" that can power day-lighting and solar-heating system for indoor pools; a process to convert corn oil syrup from ethanol plants into biodiesel; a free online marketing and networking service that connects green businesses and shoppers; and a product that can restore many failed septic systems.

Wisconsin is still a leading manufacturing state, and many ideas reflect the fact that tomorrow's manufactured products may be created or improved with the help of technology. From papermaking to wheelchairs, from snow-throwers to advances in micro-tool cutting performance, the list includes entries that could transform how things are made.

Sometimes lost in Wisconsin's life science prominence is the fact that software, internet applications and information technology networks are an emerging strength. Some of those ideas include virtual network infrastructure management for small businesses; software that can help manage health-care costs or quality, electronic medical records; and ways for students, businesses and consumers to get -- and manage -- better information.

And some ideas make you wonder why someone else didn't do it first, such as a "live" school yearbook that integrates social media; a game-based way to teach boys about history; and a device that helps bicyclists see what's behind them without losing sight of what's ahead.

This year's semi-finalist plans were entered by entrepreneurs from some of Wisconsin's largest cities and smallest communities. Also, there are a handful of ideas from entrepreneurs outside Wisconsin who have signaled they want to move or expand here, which is a testimony to the state's growing entrepreneurial reputation.

The contest won't end until winners are selected in June, but the semi-finalists already provide a sense of market trends that could lead to new products and processes -- as well as incubators for the next generation of jobs.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which produces the Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest. For a list of contest semi-finalists, visit the newsroom at www.wisconsintechnologycouncil.com


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Political undercurrent runs through organic conference

By Marc Eisen
The Minnesota family chosen as "the farmer of the year" at the 21st annual Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse was meeting the press last Friday when a casual comment about health care prompted Jane Fisher-Merritt to protest:

"Don't get us started -- health care is such a problem!"

Fisher-Merritt, who farms with her husband John and son Janaki near Duluth, had been listening while John proudly explained to reporters how they work around the short growing season of northern Minnesota and have prospered through the selling of subscription garden shares to their customers.

But mention of health insurance prompted husband John to veer off course and complain it cost his family "a bloody fortune" -- he figured the family would pay $12,000 a year in premiums and deductibles to gain their first dollar of insurance coverage.

For years, he noted, his family had qualified for "MinnesotaCare" -- a program akin to Wisconsin's BadgerCare that provides health insurance to poor families.

That was a revealing moment on several counts. First, that a hard-working farm family could find itself forced into poverty program to secure health insurance. Second, it showed how political pressure points would emerge every so often in the three-day conference that was otherwise filled with workshops on topics like conservation tillage and pest control for small organic orchards. More than 2,600 people attended.

The political detour was a pointed reminder that not everything is sweetness and light for the folks who sell child-friendly organic milk, tomatoes that don't taste like cardboard, and hamburger meat that is not subject to stomach-turning investigative stories in The New York Times.

The funny thing is that one of the movement's biggest political victories -- convincing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to tighten the regulation of organic livestock -- has exacerbated a split in Wisconsin's tight-knit organic community.

Because the Badger State is a leader in the organic movement, their dispute has nationwide implications. Ranked second in the nation for the number of organic farms, Wisconsin is also home to the largest organic agriculture cooperative (the Organic Valley network of farms in 33 states), to several feisty advocacy groups, including the Cornucopia Institute and Family Farm Defenders, as well as to a topnotch support agency, the Midwest Organic & Sustainability Educational Service.

As it happens, Wisconsin's fingerprints can be found all over the new rule, which becomes effective June 17. It creates new benchmarks for the pasturing and grazing of organic dairy cows and ends a contentious ten-year struggle over the regulation of what critics consider fake organic dairy farms.

These are the corporately owned 2,000-to-7,000-head dairy operations in the arid ranges of the west. In contrast, most Wisconsin organic dairy farms are family operated and milk less than 100 cows.

The fight was spearheaded by the Cornucopia Institute, which filed multiple complaints with federal regulators alleging that the large operations were nothing more than factory farms using barely disguised feed lots rather than pasturing their animals as federal organic rules require.

An August 2007 consent decree ordering Aurora Organic Dairy, based in Boulder, Colo., to correct its operation gave credence to Cornucopia's suspicions. And the tough new rule -- which both sides applaud -- seemingly is another feather in the organic group's hat.

But is it? Critics wonder if Cornucopia's aggressive approach didn't backfire and actually slow the agriculture department response to large dairy farms attempting to bring mass-scale economies to what had been a boutique market.

"Our groups not working together sent mixed messages to the USDA," said conference organizer Faye Jones, who directs the MOSES organic-services group from its headquarters in Spring Valley.

She sounded philosophical about the dilemma: "It's in the nature of what we do that we have a lot of mavericks with deep passion. That's what interfered. I would say it slowed down [the resolution]."

Similarly, Organic Valley CEO George Siemon, who praises the new rule as "awesome," nonetheless suggests that the USDA flinched and froze up in the face of so much criticism.

"All the controversy shut down the [reform] process," he said.

Siemon's reasoning infuriates the activists. "How ironic," said Cornucopia's senior farm policy analyst Mark Kastel. "George has not a word of criticism for the dairies found to be cheating, but criticizes Cornucopia, which filed the legal complaint that led to the USDA's legal enforcement against some of these dairies."

Equally upset was John Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders in Madison. He blames the Bush administration for what he sees as the USDA's failure to act in a timely manner. "Pasture rules are a huge issue for organic farmers," he said. "The integrity of the standards had to be maintained."

Peck adds: "It was frustrating because we also had all these people in the organic industry who wanted bottom-of-the-barrel standards. That undermined consumer confidence."

That was another issue the two sides tried to claim: Who was responsible for the public confusion over the quality of organic milk?

The two sides wound up blaming one another.

"The constant negative headlines about organics have been harmful to our overall marketplace," said Siemon. "People are losing confidence in organics."

That assessment was later echoed by a California activist, Maureen Wilmot, who told a workshop on "Squeaky Wheels and Organic Change," that after the controversy over milk labeling she was surprised at how many shoppers in her hometown grocery told her: "I don't know what to do" when they considered buying organic milk.

At issue were the giant dairies that frequently sold cheap certified organic milk to the house labels of mass-market retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco. The activists feel nothing more is important than maintaining the integrity of the certified USDA organic label in the public's mind. They're dumbfounded that they're blamed for the negative publicity that may have affected sales.

Indeed, 2009 recorded the first dip in organic sales since the national organic standards were established in 1990. Things were particularly brutal in the dairy sector where a shortage of organic milk from 2004 through early 2008, Siemon notes, prompted a rush of new suppliers reaching the market just as the country fell into a steep recession.

The result: an oversupply of organic milk that may have been worsened by consumers not wanting to pay a premium for an organic product surrounded by controversy.

Jim Riddle, one of the conference's leaders and a former chair of the National Organic Standards Board, was judicious in trying to sort through the issue for reporters. But when he chaired the "squeaky wheel" session, he offered praise for the activists like Kastel.

"We are a movement. We are an activist community. Nobody gave us 'organic' -- we had to insist on it," he said. Of the current controversy, Riddle added, "The activists kept the heat on, and it was something that couldn't be ignored and swept under the rug. We had an inside-outside strategy that eventually worked."

In an earlier interview, Siemon framed the standards debate in a different way. "I'm very happy with the outcome," the Organic Valley leader said. "Whether it would have got there without all the controversy, you can debate that all day long. Personally, I've always been a big supporter of the USDA process."

The big, still-unresolved question for the organic movement, Siemon suggested, is this: "How do you agree to disagree and have an open dialog?"

-- Eisen is a writer and editor living in Madison.


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