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With reforms, state's jobs agency will play important role: Our View (with video)

5:47 PM, Aug. 14, 2013  |  Comments
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The problems that beset the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. in its first two years of existence did not crop up overnight. Failure to track its own loans, opaque or nonexistent criteria for making loans, the appearance of inconsistency and even self-dealing among high-level staffers - each of these things is serious in its own way. None of them is particularly new.

But there is no reason to deny it: The state's transition under Gov. Scott Walker from the government-run Department of Commerce to the public-private hybrid that is WEDC was rocky and the results were both disappointing substantively - poor management and badly designed procedures almost certainly cost the state jobs - and deeply damaging to the public's trust and confidence in the agency as a driver of economic growth.

But there is reason now to think that both of those problems may be on their way to being fixed. The state Legislature has passed a series of new accountability measures that will increase oversight of how the agency spends the public's money. And the WEDC's new director, the even-keeled Reed Hall, former head of Marshfield Clinic, seemed to be clear-eyed about the importance of turning the page on the agency's lousy start when the Daily Herald Media Editorial Board met with him last week.

And Wisconsin does, after all, need this agency to succeed. As the stalled economy shows real signs in recent months of picking up - the state ranked fifth in the nation in a jobs projection by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, a measure that had Wisconsin at 49th only two months ago - a jobs agency that works can help to foster new businesses and expansions. A jobs agency that works can take prudent risks on companies that have a solid plan and a big jobs upside. As Hall explained it, the agency's sweet spot should be to fill a niche of providing businesses with loans that might be slightly too risky for traditional banks to take up - but not to those that do not have a realistic path to true job growth.

A potentially promising area Hall discussed was partnerships within the University of Wisconsin System, and particularly in the colleges including our own UW-Marshfield/Wood County. There are a number of inventions and new businesses that come out of UW-Madison, Hall said - but the culture of fostering inventions and entrepreneurialism elsewhere in the UW System might be a bit of an "untapped market."

That's an intriguing suggestion, and it's an area that UW-Stevens Point Chancellor Bernie Patterson has spoken of as one of his goals there. There could be fertile new ground for Wisconsin job growth in a WEDC-UW partnership.

There's a partisan incentive for Democrats to make hay when WEDC, a creation of Walker and the GOP, struggles. That's not a bad thing in itself; accountability, after all, is accountability no matter the motive. But it does mean that some partisans will not be inclined to accept success from WEDC even if there is a substantive turnaround.

Our view is that the bipartisan reforms passed by the Legislature should be given a chance to work. That means giving WEDC, in good faith, a chance to work. Wisconsin needs job growth wherever it can get it.

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