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Friday, December 14, 2012

Tom Still: Walker begins to lift veil on his budget priorities and economic development


By Tom Still
Skeptics are inclined to view the "Talk with Walker" series as artificial events with pre-arranged questions from pre-selected people. Indeed, the statewide tour launched this month by Gov. Scott Walker this month isn't open to random members of the public.

But that doesn't shield Walker from getting some tough questions from workers at businesses that have been hosting the town hall-style meetings. In fact, there are even occasional snippets of news – especially if you listen closely.

Such was the case Dec. 11 when the governor took his "Talk with Walker" road show to Virent Energy, a Madison-based company that has grown from a handful of employees to more than 120 workers. Symbolic of Wisconsin's larger "cleantech" sector, Virent has developed technologies to replace crude oil with a mix of plant sugars. That's important for next-generation biofuels – as well as products as common as beverage bottles.

The Virent stop provided a natural backdrop for a sneak peak at how Walker is approaching the state's 2013-2015 budget bill, especially as it relates to economic development. Some examples:

Walker is stressing the importance of small business to the state's economy, and shifting away from the notion that raiding other states is a primary strategy. Responding to questions from Virent employees, Walker took note of a recent Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation study that concluded all net new jobs in the United States are created by young, emerging companies.

"Most of the jobs that will be created here in Wisconsin are going to grow organically," he said, from startups and other emerging companies. While there will be occasional relocations or site expansion successes, Walker said, that's not likely to be a frequent occurrence. Wisconsin wants to be open for such expansions and have the right tools in place, he said, but a good deal of the state's growth will come from within.

One of the tools to help emerging Wisconsin grow is more capital. Virent has been successful at raising angel and venture capital to fuel its growth, but that's been more of an exception than a rule for similar Wisconsin companies. When asked if he would support a plan to create a "fund-of-funds" to invest in emerging firms, Walker suggested he's supportive of the concept – as he has been in the past – and it's now down to structural and procedural details.

"Is the best proposal to have a separate bill, or to put it in the budget?" Walker said. He also indicated the administration is examining how to best pay for such a program and mechanisms to protect taxpayers while investing in a market-savvy way.

The governor also made it clear that workforce development in Wisconsin is not just about training more welders – an occupation that has been something of a poster child for workforce shortage – but other sectors where there are immediate or future needs.

He cited information technology and software, financial services and accounting and health care as examples. "These are all clusters where we have tremendous opportunities to put people to work," Walker said.

He also hinted at renewed efforts to give the University of Wisconsin System more flexibility to manage its own budget, mentioning a possible "block grant" strategy that could take the state out of the business of managing every detail of the UW's multi-billion-dollar budget.

Other questions ranged from how the state views its relationship with local governments to pay gaps for female workers to the state's commitment to "green technologies," all of which seemed to defy the notion of a prepared script.

Virent represents a sector of the Wisconsin economy that is growing. It's technology-based, but it's also about manufacturing and dependent on turning raw materials into marketable products. While the "Talk with Walker" tour is carefully managed, to be sure, it's better for him to visit those kinds of emerging companies than not at all.

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

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