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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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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Michael Gillick: Worker's compensation: It's the little things


By Michael Gillick
When a worker is injured, the financial impact on his or her family is huge. After all, most of us live from paycheck to paycheck, and, even if we have some savings, it is all eaten up very quickly if there is not a steady paycheck coming into the home.

So it is very important that the injured worker receive every benefit he or she has coming while recovering from the injury. Yet very often the worker receives less than he or she deserves. Here is a brief checklist of ways to make sure you are getting all of the benefits due for you worker's compensation claim.

1. Are you receiving the correct amount of temporary disability?

Under the law of worker's compensation in Wisconsin, an injured worker should be paid 2/3 of his or her wages when he or she is off of work for healing. But how do you calculate wages? The law says that there are two ways: the hourly rate times 40 and the average wage over the weeks worked in the last fifty-two weeks before the injury. If you worked overtime during those last fifty-two weeks, the second calculation will be higher, and therefore you should be getting the higher weekly check.

2. Are you being paid all medical expenses?

Wisconsin law requires that all medical expenses be paid. This includes such things as prescriptions and travel expense for medical care. Often the worker pays for his or her own prescriptions and is not reimbursed, and just as often the worker does not receive payment for mileage, simply because he or she does not know that she should be paid for such things. If you were injured but did not receive payment for mileage to and from medical care, you should send a list of your mileage to the insurer and tell them to pay you the mileage right away.

3. Are you back to work but not getting your old hours or wages?

Wisconsin law requires employers to pay an injured worker for wage loss during the healing period. This includes partial wage loss, as for instance if you only went back to work four hours a day or at a lighter job that pays less than your old job. These payments are often overlooked, and you need to ask that those payments be made if it is appropriate in your case.

4. Are you getting the correct amount of permanent disability?

If your injury has left you with permanent disability, there are many, many times when, by some device or other, the insurer pays you less than you deserve. You might not be paid at the correct rate, or you might not be paid the correct percentage of disability. You might also not know of many other benefits available to workers with permanent disability, such as disfigurement payments, or vocational retraining or loss of earning capacity.

In all of these cases, the injured worker misses out on benefits simply because he or she does not know that those benefits should be paid. There is one simple way to solve that problem. If you are injured, call a lawyer experienced in worker's compensation cases. The lawyer will review your case free of charge and let you know what you might be missing. What you don't know in worker's compensation law will hurt you. Call a lawyer and get what you have coming.

-- Gillick is is president of the firm of Gillick, Wicht, Gillick & Graf, a firm concentrating on representing injured workers in worker's compensation, social security disability and related claims. He is currently chair of the Wisconsin Association for Justice Worker's Compensation Committee.

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Value-added food conference makes first visit to La Crosse

LA CROSSE - More than 350 participants from around the Midwest are expected to take part in the 14th annual Midwest Value Added Agriculture Conference, Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 12-13, at the La Crosse Center.

The conference features several speakers who are considered leaders in sustainable agriculture for small-scale farmers and the development of niche markets for locally-produced food.

Francis Thicke, an Iowa farmer, will speak on "Ecology as a Model for 21st Century Agriculture." Thicke and his wife Susan own and operate an 80-cow, grass-based, organic dairy near Fairfield, Iowa. They process their milk on the farm and market their dairy products through grocery stores and restaurants in Fairfield.

Thicke has a Ph.D. in soil fertility and has served as National Program Leader for Soil Science for the USDA-Extension Service in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Laura Jackson, a professor of biology at Northern Iowa, will speak about "Tallgrass Prairie: Adding reliance value for farms and watersheds."

"The agricultural Midwest is losing its ability to absorb shocks such as the current drought and recent floods," writes Jackson. "Ever-increasing acreage of row crops along with tiling and tillage have reduced our topsoil depth and quality while moving water out of the fields faster into rivers.

"The original tall grass prairies and savannas that built our soils are largely gone, but prairie processes live on where cattle graze on grass. Deep-rooted perennial grasses and wildflowers are well-adapted to both drought and heavy rains, protecting and building the soil while providing forage throughout the summer.

"If we look at agriculture through the lens of ecological restoration, there are many practical opportunities for imptoving resilience at the level of the farm and the watershed."

Dr. John Ikerd, a retired professor and author, will speak on "Re-creating the Food System; Through Cooperation." "The global food system is being re-created in response to growing questions of sustainability," Ikerd writes. "Paradoxically, a quest for ever-greater economic efficiency has led to exploitation of the natural and human resources that are essential for economic sustainability."

Ikerd argues that "vertical cooperation must replace both vertical competition and vertical integration. The new food system must be re-created through cooperation among those who share the ethical and social values essential to moving beyond sustainability fo a new and better way of life."

Other featured speakers include Chris Blanchard of Rock Spring Farm and Flying Rutabaga Works and regional author Michael Perry.

A variety of breakout sessions will deal with grant writing for farmers, market building, "farm to fork" issues and other topics.

The conference is presented by the River Country RC&D Council Inc. It is a non-profit organization that "brings people and resources together to address issues and opportunities, in order to conserve our natural resources, provide sustainability and improve the quality of life for the people who live and work in West Central Wisconsin."

Other major sponsors include the Wisconsin Farmers Union, People's Food Cooperative of La Crosse, Gundersen Lutheran, North Central SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education), Organic Valley, The Cooperative Foundation, Producer's Choice, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Leopold Center, Land Stewardship Project and Daryland Power.

This is the first time the conference has been held in La Crosse. "We are expecting that the conference's location in the heart of the Driftless Area will offer a new and exciting perspective for small-scale farmers, agricultural educators, and local food enthusiasts,": said Marilyn Mayenschein, president of the River County RC&D Council.

Mayenschein added, "This conference comes at a time when the interest in locally sourced food is increasing. Small-scale farmers are developing niche markets, expanding product diversity and sustainability on the farm. At the same time we are seeing increasingly educated consumers reaching out to local farmers for fresh and wholesome foods.

"The stories and knowledge shared at this conference will enhance small-scale producers' ability to create sustainable and profitable businesses that will meet the needs of a growing consumer base.

"The Midwest Value Added Agriculture Conference brings together people from a variety of different backgrounds that all have the same goal of creating sustainable local food systems, complete with thriving rural communities and a diverse and vibrant agricultural sector."

For more about the conference, go to http://www.rivercountryrcd.org.

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Friday, December 7, 2012

Tom Still: While the SEC is better in football, the Big Ten runs up the score off-field


By Tom Still
The Southeastern Conference is the best college football league in the country. We get it, thanks to countless reminders from ESPN. We especially get it now that SEC member Arkansas has lured away Wisconsin head football coach Bret Bielema.

For those who understand football isn’t the only reason major universities exist, some off-the-field comparisons are in order. In these important categories, Wisconsin and its Big Ten Conference counterparts hold an impressive advantage.

Graduation rates: Colleges and universities are usually judged first by the quality and quantity of their graduates. How many skilled people are they sending into the workforce and society? The four-year graduation rate for the Big Ten’s current 12 members is 53 percent and the six-year graduation rate is 66 percent, based on figures through 2011. Northwestern and Michigan stand at the top; Purdue and Nebraska at the bottom. Those averages only climb if Maryland (66 percent and 82 percent) and Rutgers (55/77), two schools that will join the Big Ten in 2014, are counted.

In the SEC, the four-year average for its 14 member institutions is 44 percent and the six-year average is 69 percent. Vanderbilt and Florida were the top two; Mississippi State and Louisiana State were at the bottom.

Edge: Big Ten Conference.

Academic R&D spending: Nearly 900 colleges and universities in the United States raised and spent about $65 billion on research and development in the latest federal fiscal year, according to the National Science Foundation. Virtually all of that R&D spending took place in the sciences and engineering – disciplines that help drive innovation and economic growth.

The Big Ten is an academic R&D powerhouse. Six of its member universities – Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Northwestern – ranked in the nation’s top 30, which accounts for 40 percent of all R&D spending nationally. All Big Ten universities except Nebraska and Indiana fall within the top 50. Maryland and Rutgers, once they join, will also fit comfortably inside the top 50. In the 2011 federal fiscal year, the Big Ten schools reported R&D spending of $8.7 billion to NSF.

The SEC has two schools in the top 30 and one more in the top 50. Its schools reported total R&D spending of about $4.5 billion.

Edge: Big Ten Conference.

Private equity investments: As Thomas Edison famously said, “The value of an idea lies in the using of it.” The intellectual property produced by any university isn’t necessarily important if it only sits on an ivy-covered shelf. That’s why commercialization of ideas, often led by investors who take an interest in startup companies, is vital.

There are many factors beyond academic R&D that influence angel and venture capital investments, of course, but state investment totals in Big Ten and SEC states can be compared. In 2011, venture capitalists invested $2.87 billion in the Big Ten states and $2.27 billion in the SEC states, which included Texas, a state that accounted for $1.47 billion on its own.

Since 1985, according to the National Venture Capital Association, all but three Big Ten states rank among the top 25 states in total dollars invested. Only Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska fall in the bottom half. There were six SEC university states in the bottom tier, and mostly in the bottom third.

The latest report of the Angel Resource Institute shows that through the first half of 2012, the Great Lakes states (a region that includes much, but not all, of the Big Ten) accounted for 15.5 percent of all U.S. angel capital deals and 15.8 percent of angel dollars invested. That compared with 13.6 percent of the angel deals and 6.4 percent of the dollars in the Southeast region.

Edge: Big Ten.

These are only three indicators, of course, and Southeastern Conference schools are no doubt excellent in many ways beyond their football programs. If winning in class and life matters, however, it’s reassuring to know that Wisconsin and its Big Ten friends compete with the nation’s best.

-- 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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