Return to ‘Wisconsin Idea’ in New Year

wi-ideaIn the aftermath of one of the most polarized periods in Wisconsin history, wouldn’t it be reassuring if the political agenda for Wisconsin in 2014 centered on “The Wisconsin Idea,” a return to deliberative governance?

The “Idea” means the sifting and winnowing of ideas for the good of Wisconsinites to the boundaries of the state. That process has largely disappeared, except when occasionally pulled together by organizations like Competitive Wisconsin. The last three governors have convened almost no blue ribbon commissions.

In contrast, when former Gov. Tommy Thompson had to deal with big, complicated issues, he put together an unending string of task forces and commissions on a wide variety of issues like export stimulation, school-to-work initiatives and workforce development.

The legislature used to do companion work through its legislative councils on a variety of subjects. And the University of Wisconsin weighed in with its economic summits from 2000 to 2003.

They all involved citizens with knowledge and experience on the varied topics. They contributed in a healthy, considerate way to the strategic directions of the state. The mantra was that good policy makes for good politics.

Let’s be realistic, though. The toughest issues, like abortion rights, rolling back the power of public sector unions, right to work legislation and some environmental issues are not going to be tempered by blue ribbon commissions. They are too divisive at this point in history. Majorities in the legislature and courts will have to make those calls.

Of late, the public agenda for the state has been controlled by a small group of insiders in the Capitol, mostly on a governor’s or legislative leader’s staff. Party leaders get input behind closed doors. A few powerful lobbyists also get access to the staffers. Act 10 came from behind those closed doors. The insular approach needs more voices.

Gov. Walker has shown a recent inclination for more openness in floating his ideas about reducing or eliminating the state income tax. A healthy debate has already ensued.

There are other major reforms that could open up government to deliberation and produce better results for citizens for the new year, such as:

• Go to a non-partisan primary open to a variety of candidates. The top two vote-getters go on the ballot for the general election. That would break of iron grip of party hard-liners and their moneyed backers on the primary nomination process. Centrists would have a chance again. Other states have done this.

• Create an independent, nonpartisan commission for redistricting political boundaries in the state. Legislative majorities now set the boundaries for the good of the parties, not the good of the people. Current maps have been gerrymandered into weird, incoherent patterns. Both parties are guilty of the practice.

• As former Congressman Mickey Edwards has urged at the federal level, require the legislature to consider any bill or amendment that draws more than 25 sponsors. It would be given a hearing and a vote on the floor. That would open the window for fresh ideas.
There are other pressing matters that could be addressed by intelligent, non-partisan task forces. Here is a partial list:

• Reorganization of the University of Wisconsin System. It is one of our main economic engines, but is hugely challenged with a search for new revenues amidst rapidly changing models for the delivery of higher education. Faculty concerns generally trump citizen interests. If UW leaders don’t reorganize, it may get done for them. Political leaders of all stripes have been cutting UW state funding for more than a decade. Partially as a result, tuitions have risen to painful levels. University merger was four decades ago, the last reorganization.

• Updated mission for the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Our educational flagship needs to revisit The Wisconsin Idea. It has become largely the University of Dane County, with little impact on the broader issues of the state. It does export its graduates to the rest of the state, an enormous benefit, but is otherwise disengaged from the other 71 counties.

• Implementation of the Be Bold – Wisconsin Prosperity Strategy. That 2010 plan, drafted by a broad cross section of stakeholders, emphasized development of the state’s economic clusters and the pivotal role of high-growth startups. Regional economic development organizations are supporting the cluster strategies, with some help from state government. Yet it is the entrepreneurs who are reinventing the struggling Wisconsin economy. As one example, our foundations have billions in their investment portfolios; they could get off the sidelines and invest much more in early stage funds alongside angel investors. Several foundations have led the way. The Wisconsin economy still lags the nation.

• Getting a grip on public health care costs. Private sector payers have developed game plans for improving health and cutting costs, but state government has been timid. The explosion of Medicaid costs is smothering every other form of public investment. The university is just one victim of the under-managed program. Providing coverage for poor people has to be done, but it won’t be sustainable without innovative management. Indiana is leading the way.

There are many other issues that need high level attention in the new year, such as the enduring poverty in Milwaukee and all its related problems, the growing poverty issues in Madison, the increasing disincentives for going to work, inequality of wealth and incomes, high prices for Worker’s Compensation, mining in the context of cutting edge environmental protections and improving performance for K-12 education across the state.

The state needs an ambitious agenda, but it can’t be accomplished or even thought out by small cliques in the Capitol alone. They insiders don’t have enough bandwidth. Task forces that engage the talents of many capable leaders and thinkers across the state could take on a broad agenda.

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