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Democrats push jobs agency overhaul

Republicans say steps have been taken to fix WEDC

May 15, 2013
 

MADISON — Minority Democrats in the state Legislature on Wednesday urged Republicans to join them in reforming Gov. Scott Walker’s troubled jobs agency by taking away the governor’s power to hire and fire top officials at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

It’s an idea Democrats have unsuccessfully sought to attach to the 2013-15 budget and other legislation in the past week.

A scathing Legislative Audit Bureau report released two weeks ago found the two-year-old quasi-public WEDC failed to track loan repayments, verify job-creation numbers submitted by companies or follow state law and its own policies in granting aid. In some cases, companies got tax credits for jobs that had already been created, auditors found.

“The sirens are going off,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said at Wednesday press conference at the Capitol. “The problem is that, our Republican colleagues aren’t even willing to get off their couch when they’re hearing these sirens go off.”

The Democrats’ proposals focus on giving more power to the 15-member WEDC board, which is chaired by Walker. Among the changes would be allowing the board to elect its own chairman and hire top WEDC officials including the chief executive, the chief operating officer and the chief financial officer. Barca, who is a member of the WEDC board, has described it as “toothless.”

Last week, the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee recommended that the agency’s 2014-15 funding be withheld if WEDC fails to enact a series of steps recommended by the Legislative Audit Bureau to increase accountability and ensure adherence to state law by Jan. 1.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Wednesday he wants to see if those changes work before agreeing to any more measures.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said WEDC “is taking necessary steps to address its issues and provide more accountability to taxpayers. (Gov. Walker) believes the front-line staff at WEDC is doing great work with local economic development efforts. WEDC is more responsive and helpful to job creators than the old Department of Commerce and is contributing to our economy’s growth.”

Democrats said the agency isn’t doing enough.

“Currently we have zero verified jobs in the state of Wisconsin since WEDC was created,” said Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison. “They’ve spent over $80 million of our taxpayers’ money dollars. This is not OK.”

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