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Editorial: Venture capital, WEDC bills can help boost economy

7:09 PM, Jun. 19, 2013  |  Comments
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The Legislature has passed a venture capital bill. It is noteworthy for three reasons.

First, the investment in state startup companies received bipartisan support, passing by a 91-2 vote in the Assembly and 29-3 in the Senate.

Second, the price tag alone is noteworthy. The bill calls for the creation of the program to invest $25 million in companies involved in agriculture, information technology, engineered products, advanced manufacturing, and medical devices and imaging. In return, that investment will bring $50 million in private funds.

Finally, oversight of the public-private money will be handled by the state Department of Administration, not the quasi-public Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., which Gov. Scott Walker set up to take over for the Commerce Department.

It might be bad news for the WEDC, but it's good news for taxpayers.

With the state falling to No. 44 in private-sector job creation and the economy taking its time in recovering, some sort of support is needed to help companies improve and hire people. If $25 million in taxpayer money is focused on job creation and yields $50 million in private funds to help that cause, that seems like a good investment.

It also shows the Legislature and the governor's office are serious about fixing the WEDC. The jobs agency is trying to recover from some missteps that occurred since July 2011, when it replaced the Commerce Department.

A state audit found, in part, the WEDC lacked oversight of $56 million in loans and gave money that exceeded set limits to ineligible recipients for ineligible projects.

Since these transgressions have come to light, the WEDC and the state have been working to fix the agency so it can get back to its primary objective of creating jobs.

Because of that, the Legislature gave oversight of the venture capital program to another department.

Also, the Senate moved to hold the agency more responsible. It approved six-year term limits for WEDC board members who previously served at the pleasure of the governor and legislative leaders. A WEDC audit will be conducted annually, instead of biennially, and WEDC workers would have to follow state ethics laws.

These moves are welcomed. The Press-Gazette Media editorial board has been critical of the WEDC's missteps, but we also believe that the agency can serve a vital function in attracting businesses and jobs to the state and should be allowed to correct its past mistakes.

These restrictions are necessary and will govern how the WEDC operates. Meanwhile, a recent study, The Wisconsin Economic Future Study, should help determine what it should focus on.

It found that manufacturing is "the engine that drives Wisconsin," accounting for 36 of the state's 37 largest industries. That fits with the blue-collar image of the state, but the study also found we're lacking in innovation and technology, but development in those areas will help support the larger industries.

The 611-page report offers a direction and strategy for the state as it looks to improve the economic outlook.

Now it's up to the state agencies to put the venture capital bill and a reined-in WEDC to work.

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