Job creation is key issue for local state legislators
There was little disagreement among the four legislators who participated in the St. Croix Economic Development Corporation's legislative forum Dec. 14.
That's because the event, held at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in New Richmond, featured four Republican legislators from the region. State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls); State Rep. John Murtha (R-Baldwin); State Rep.-elect Erik Severson (R-Star Prairie); and State Rep.-elect Dean Knudson (R-Hudson) attended and presented a fairly unified message.
The four are part of a Republican majority in the Assembly and Senate. The balance of power shifted with November's election. Democrats controlled both legislative bodies previously.
The evening's gathering was billed as an informal networking session among business leaders, local officials and legislators. A half hour was set aside for people to meet the legislators and to talk about issues of importance to them.
A moderated question-and-answer session related to economic development issues was the key part of the event.
As the legislators responded to questions, they agreed that the most challenging part of the upcoming legislative agenda will be the state budget, which is projected to have a significant deficit.
"We've had some challenging budgets the past few years," Harsdorf told the crowd. "I think this one will top them all."
She said Gov.-elect Scott Walker's (R) proposed budget will be released sometime in mid-February. It will be a budget that won't be propped up by federal stimulus dollars or transferred money from the state's transportation fund.
"We're not going to use any more accounting tricks to make things look good," Severson said.
He said the budget crisis provides Wisconsin with an opportunity to re-evaluate the state's government and to downsize where possible.
"There are painful times ahead with the budget," Knudson agreed. "All the tricks and gimmicks are done. We'll have to decide what we really value the most, because we have to do things differently."
Murtha said elected officials will be open to all ideas about how to balance the budget, and how to prop up the state's economy.
"We can cut and cut (the budget), and we're going to have to," he said. "But the key thing will be to increase our income."
To accomplish greater state revenue, Severson said, the state will need to work with businesses to create more jobs.
"More people with jobs pay more taxes to the state," he explained.
All of the legislators agreed that jobs and economic development will be at the top of the list of the session's agenda.
"That's how we get out of this cycle of budget shortfall after budget shortfall," Harsdorf said.
"We'll try to make the state more inviting," Severson said.
To stimulate job creation, Murtha suggested, Wisconsin's tax structure needs to be modified and the permitting process needs to be streamlined to allow businesses to move quickly on expansion efforts.
"We have to strike while the iron is hot. We can't have a six-month review," he said. "By that time they're going to move on."
Harsdorf said she expects the Department of Commerce to be restructured under Walker, which could help job creation.
"I think you're going to see a major overhaul of that department," she said, noting that existing businesses and potential businesses will find the state receptive to helping create higher-paying jobs.
Part of the job-friendly message will be a concerted effort by the state to reduce taxes, Murtha said. Wisconsin has historically been one of the higher taxed states in the nation, but the Republican majority will work to lower that ranking, he said.
"The governor is committed to that," Murtha said. "And we're on the same page."
Questions from the audience centered around topics such as income tax reciprocity between Minnesota and Wisconsin, and higher education funding for the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and WITC-New Richmond.
Harsdorf said she's already talked to the new governor about the tax reciprocity agreement, which was eliminated this year when Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty ended the decade's-long agreement between the states.
Because so many residents from western Wisconsin work in Minnesota, Harsdorf said she hopes a new agreement can be worked out, but she's not certain it will happen.
"It's far more difficult to reinstate it than if it just continued," she said. "We'll need both sides willing to do that."
On the issue of higher education funding, WITC Campus Administrator Joe Huftel said the local facility is working through its new budget and it's not pretty.
Huftel said he was told to cut 6 percent from his previous year's budget, and he expects expenses to rise 3 percent next year.
Those budget realities will be difficult to manage when WITC faces record enrollments and expanding programs, Huftel noted.
"Anything you can do to help us maintain would be helpful," he told the legislators.
Others in the crowd urged legislators to protect funding for education and job training, noting that the only way to ensure job growth is to have a workforce ready to fill open positions.
Whatever happens in the next session, legislators agreed that voters are looking for a significant shift in Madison.
"I think everyone is expecting and ready for a big change," Murtha said. "We need to do things differently than we have in the past."
"The voters spoke," Severson said. "They want to go in a new direction. There is going to be a need for thinking outside the box."