Our Views: State politicians must share blame for development agency's woes

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Thursday, November 7, 2013

It's a case of exuberant politicians touting a new program and creating great expectations in the eyes of the public.

The politicians then expect those charged with organizing and carrying out the program to do too much too fast with too few people and too little oversight and technical firepower. When problems emerge—as they often do with new programs—elected leaders then order changes in desperate efforts to fix them.

Sounds like the woes Americans face with Obamacare, right?

Instead, we're talking about the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. Gov. Scott Walker replaced the antiquated Commerce Department with this new quasi-private agency in 2011 with hopes it could focus on investments that help companies expand and relocate or get started. Instead, problems have plagued WEDC from the get-go. Too many new hires lacked experience in the field; some appeared to be bad fits, and many good people didn't stay long. Without proper oversight and policies, WEDC lost track of millions in business loans. Likewise, job creation fell short of goals.

Last week, The Gazette explained a new interactive map designed to help the public track WEDC's investments and job creation. It's great that the map might offer transparency for how agency money is used and that students in UW-Whitewater's topnotch business school could gain experience in helping create the map.

Unfortunately, as The Gazette's Jim Leute reported, the map's reporting capabilities lag reality. The map lists 278 jobs created in Rock County in the past two years and almost 1,200 retained. Yet companies such as ANGI Energy Systems and County Materials employ far more workers than the map suggests.

Why is that? Again, it might be because WEDC—already short-staffed—spends too much time on compliance and recordkeeping while placating those ordering changes each time political winds shift. Besides, the map is almost certain to remain inaccurate and outdated because each deal WEDC cuts with a company varies in regard to when allocated money is doled out and when reporting is required.

The map might be more useful if businesses could upload the data themselves after the state verifies payroll numbers.

As far as WEDC itself, the agency competes with similar ones across the country. It's great that lawmakers have allocated more dollars for investments. But the agency must be nimble. If businesses and entrepreneurs find applying for funding too onerous and complicated, the agency can't swiftly help when and where good opportunities arise.

Citizens are right to be riled about wasted money through bad investments or improper monitoring. Realize, however, that not all business ventures pan out. While each failure exposes WEDC to public criticism, its rate of bad loans might not look so bad if compared to those of the average bank.

Wisconsin's new development agency has overcome many challenges but faces many more. Politicians might best help WEDC by demanding only reasonable policies, offering reasonable goals to the public, ensuring it has adequate resources and then getting out of the way.

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