What I Didn't Hear at Senate Economic Listening Session

Let Robert Speak

by Robert Kraig, executive director

The State Senate Committee which oversees WEDC, Governor Walker’s disastrous jobs agency, just started a listening tour on state economic development policy.  The tour will visit Oak Creek, Rhinelander, Appleton, Menomonie, and Platteville.

The round table-style meetings are by invitation-only (not a good sign), but at least could in theory offer some opportunity to discuss how to move on from the WEDC train wreck.

There is something you can do to broaden this discussion (as you will see at the bottom of the blog)

On the first day of the listening session we at Citizen Action of Wisconsin released our new Economic Opportunity Agenda for Wisconsin, in hopes of shaping the discussion of how to move beyond the WEDC debacle. It outlines the scale of the economic challenge facing Wisconsin and a strategy for using state-policy to reverse our state’s drift into a low wage economy.

I attended the first senate session held in Oak Creek. To be honest, I did not expect any progressive economic perspectives to see the light of day, but I at least hoped to hear serious strategies from the conservative politicians, corporate leaders, and economic development professionals who dominate our state’s economic policy.  I also hoped to hear some serious discussion of what went wrong at WEDC.

The group that assembled in Oak Creek was not promising. There were no workers, or even representatives of workers. There was nobody there who works on poverty issues. The group was virtually all white. Most of them were insiders who seemed to know each other.

Despite the narrow range of representation, I wanted to hear what these leaders had to say on big picture economic challenges facing Wisconsin: such as our 90,000 job gap since 2011; that our middle class is shrinking faster than any other state; that our only job growth is in low wage sectors; that poverty is increasing even as employment increases; and that our African American unemployment rate is the highest in the country, to name a few huge challenges.

What I actually heard was virtually nothing on the big structural economic issues that are shrinking economic opportunity in Wisconsin.

Here is a brief list of what was not discussed.

  • On WEDC’s failure, nothing was said. It was not even acknowledged that WEDC has been a disaster. A space alien attending the session would come away thinking that our state’s lead economic development agency was doing a bang up job.

  • On the decline of the Wisconsin middle class and the enormous growth of poverty-wage jobs, nothing was said.

  • On the huge gap in unemployment rates between whites, African Americans, and Latinos, nothing was said.

  • On why Wisconsin job growth has lagged behind most other states, little was said. Most of the small amount of time spent on this was about how to get talented young people to stay in Wisconsin through better branding and creating more cool places (You can’t make this stuff up, good news for the branding consultants).

The only big economic policy question discussed at all would accelerate Wisconsin’s economic decline. When Scott Manley, the VP for Government Relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce was asked what CEOs wanted from state policymakers, he said a dramatic reduction in the personal income tax. The representative of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce chimed in agreeing that personal income taxes should be dramatically reduced and sales taxes raised. The Chair of the Committee, Senator Rick Gudex, praised the leaders of the two most powerful business lobbies in the state for this sage economic advice. Nobody at the table raised an objection or even an eyebrow.

Of course, anyone who follows tax policy knows that lowering income tax and raising the sales tax is actually a huge tax shift from the wealthy to moderate and low income Wisconsinites. Not only is this grossly unfair, it would harm the economy by taking money out of the pockets of average people, causing them to spend less in their local communities, perpetuating a downward economic spiral.

So here are my takeaways from the first day of the Senate economic development listening tour.

  1. Economic development policy as understood by the experts invited to advise the Legislature seems to be silent on the big economic questions for the people of Wisconsin, such as the rapid decline in the number of good family supporting jobs.

  2. The top priority of the big corporate interests that made Scott Walker and are whispering in his ear now are pushing for a massive tax cut for the wealthy funded by a huge tax increase for moderate income Wisconsinites.

This all sounds very depressing, but I am not giving up on having a serious discussion about how to expand economic opportunity in Wisconsin.

Although the Senate Committee is only hearing from invited speakers, it is encouraging the public to email suggestions.  So I am emailing them the Citizen Action Economic Opportunity Agenda.

Even more, I am asking them to let me speak at the remaining hearings in Rhinelander, Appleton, Menomonie, and Platteville.

You can help. If you agree that we need a real conversation about Wisconsin’s economy, please email the committee at http://legis.wisconsin.gov/senate/republicans/News/Tour and ask them to Let Robert Speak.

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