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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Trash talk is fun, but state needs to focus internally too

By John Torinus
A little pre-game trash talk can liven up the scene – the 12-5 Chicago Bears still suck -- but let’s face it, to win, you still have to play the game.

As it plays out in sports, so it goes in politics. Last week’s flurry of jibes at our neighboring state of Illinois, which is dramatically raising personal and corporate income taxes, provided a lot of good fun. New Gov. Scott Walker became a media darling, because the media loves nothing better than a good fight, the more superficial the better. He made the Wall Street Journal, which follows Wisconsin issues because its editorial page editor Paul Gigot grew up in Green Bay.

The Wisconsin heckling was pay-back for the signs on the Illinois border in the 1980s when their governor jeered: “Would the last business to leave Wisconsin please turn off the lights?”

So, now we’re going to do the billboard thing to them? Let us count the ways that doesn’t make much sense:

* Recruiting seldom works for Wisconsin. With the exception of some shifts over the borders from Illinois to Kenosha and from the Twin Cities to Hudson, recruiting has generally been a non-starter for this state for 40 years. Some maintain we haven’t done it right or spend enough on attraction. I say to them: Go for it; knock yourselves out. But let’s do some real work, too.

* Recruiting from other states is a costly zero sum game for the nation. One state wins; the other state loses. The price tag for the subsidies, sometimes to job reducing corporations, is high.

* The Wisconsin economy is inextricably linked to those of our neighbors, especially to Chicago. A good number of strategists in Wisconsin and the Midwest are trying to figure out how to make those connections work better. For instance, a Midwest coalition in Congress could do a lot more to pull in federal dollars than our small delegation can pull off on its own.

* Illinois is not the enemy. The real competition for the Wisconsin economy is coming from overseas, particularly China and the rest of Asia.

* Wisconsin’s fiscal position may not be as bad as Illinois’, but it’s still a mess. Our deficit and debt per capita are among the worst in the land.

* Our tax rates are still higher than theirs. Their top personal income tax rate is now 5%; ours is 7.75%. Their corporate rate is 7%; ours is 7.9%. We have some work to do on our tax structure before we start strutting.

That said, the Walker team has created a new atmosphere for business, and a positive advertising campaign to proclaim our many virtues makes sense.

As anyone in the PR or advertising game knows, though, the message has to built on substance, or it rings hollow.

Wisconsin has an economic strategy for the first time in its history, called the Wisconsin Prosperity Strategy. It was supported by most of the major stakeholders in the state. It is a strategy based on the enormous reservoir of innovation resources in our very smart state.

It calls for technology advancement, more capital and support for startup ventures, a more effective linkage between the academic R&D at our universities and the commercial world, fiscal sanity in Madison, a lean commission to streamline government, innovative approaches for broad access to health care at an affordable price and the attraction of our fair share of federal dollars.

All of the above will take some hard, serious work. It doesn’t need buckets of state spending to accomplish. But will take a willingness to reshape our institutions to fit the global, innovation economy.

It is not a slogan; it is a game plan that can work.

I have a tentative bet with a friend. It’s $5 that Wisconsin won’t pull in three significant Illinois companies in the next three years. He’s a smart guy, so he hasn’t accepted the bet. Anyone else up for that bet?

Meanwhile, let’s start a fleet of new companies – the creators of jobs for the future – and let’s hug our market leading companies – the job deciders who create wealth and maintain our current job base all along the supply chain.

And, one more thing: did I say that the Bears will always suck?

-- Torinus is the chairman of Serigraph, Inc. and author of the book "The Company That Solved Healthcare." Learn more about the book: http://www.thecompanythatsolvedhealthcare.com.


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