Why silence on job creation?

It was only 15-25 years ago that economic development was far and away the biggest political issue in Wisconsin.

What happened to the emphasis on job creation? It’s almost a non-issue in today’s goofy political world. Remember when Scott Walker ran in 2010 on a promise to create 250,000 jobs in his first four years? He won on that theme, but hit only about half that mark.

Now the issues of the day are about a stolen election that wasn’t stolen, the ill-advised overturn of the 60-year compromise on abortion, the pro and con arguments for restrictions on individual rights, on what teachers can teach and on the status of universities and schools. Shallow conjecture on social media has become a major distraction. It has cheapened our political discourse goes nowhere for the economy. Culture wars are in the forefront.

Despite a possible recession, the continuing strength of the economy, with joblessness below 4%, pay levels rising at about 5% per year, and poverty levels dropping, economic development is on the sidelines. That’s sad because the Wisconsin economy is still lagging. For example:

  • It ranks 27th in personal income at 83.6% of the national average, down from 20th and 98.7% in 2002.
  • Job growth in the private sector this year ranks 46th through May.
  • Hospital costs are 4th highest in the country and cause bankruptcy. But price-raising hospital consolidations goes unchallenged.
  • Average earnings per job rank 31st.

We know that good times lift many boats. So, what’s the economic message? Take our collective foot off the prosperity pedal? Or keep economic development in the forefront as a political imperative? I say the latter. If so, what should be on the Wisconsin economic agenda for 2030 and beyond. For your consideration:

  • Push entrepreneurship on all our campuses, from K-12 to tech college to university. Progress on this front has been impressive since the four Wisconsin Economic Summits from 2000 to 2003. We should stay the course and become an accelerated E-state.
  • Encourage immigrants to choose Wisconsin. We have a severe labor shortage, and our birth rates keep falling. Let’s help our foreign students with Wisconsin credit to gain green card visas. Ditch the anti-immigrant rant from the right; go pro-legal immigrant. The leading restriction on job growth today is labor shortage. Solve it!
  • Convince our congressional delegation to bring home the bacon. Our seven Republicans and three Democrats should be able to be bi-partisan on getting Wisconsin’s share of federal spending. Heretofore, we have been a donor state. Our manufacturers are on the front lines in building weapon systems to counter Chinese arms buildups and to defeat Russia’s barbaric war against Ukraine. Note: defense jobs tend to be great jobs.
  • Increase the state’s investment tax credit for new ventures from 25% to 40%. Entrepreneurs reinvent the economy and account for almost all net new jobs – usually good-pay jobs.
  • Instead of disinvesting in engineering education at UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, put capital into expansion of our engineering facilities at all UW campuses. Students in that field are being turned away for lack of facilities. The UW-Milwaukee building is particularly outmoded. Let’s take advantage of the insight that engineers accelerate product development at existing companies and are top risk takers for creating new ventures. STEM enrollments are rising even as other enrollments are generally sharply declining.
  • Don’t mess with the ample funding through the property tax for the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS). Its 16 districts produce a skilled work force. Republican leaders introduced, but then backed off, a bill to shift the tech colleges off the property tax to state taxes, which can be cut arbitrarily. Bad idea. Let WTCS keep the property tax, but require its 16 districts to absorb the struggling UW two-year colleges where appropriate.
  • Create a Blue Ribbon Commission to assess higher education in Wisconsin. The stresses on colleges, public and private, are enormous. Deal with it! They are economic engines.

That is a partial list of economic development issues that should be addressed in campaigns for 2024. Such issues need to be resurrected and get equal or more attention than the culture war issues that have little positive impact on the economy and most people’s lives.

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