Walker calls special session on jobs bills
Bipartisanship sought, but focus of some bills raises questions
e-mail print By Jason Stein and Thomas Content of the Journal Sentinel
Sun Prairie - With the economy still struggling and his own political prospects in the balance, Gov. Scott Walker said Wednesday he would seek a bipartisan approach on a second special session of jobs bills. Saying lawmakers should focus on jobs like a laser beam, Walker said he wanted to pass by November roughly 30 bills written by both Republicans and Democrats and targeting everything from biotech companies to farm and trucking businesses.
But consumer advocates and Democrats immediately raised red flags on some of the legislation, noting that one bill would require families and small businesses to subsidize lower power rates for large manufacturers, other bills were still just drafts, and some - which would loosen regulations on everything from piers to wetlands - wouldn't necessarily create any jobs.
For now, the special session doesn't include the two highest-profile pieces of economic development legislation - a bill to boost venture capital investments and another to rewrite the state's mining regulations and permitting process.
"We just want to make it easier for all the people who want to come and grow and expand in Wisconsin . . . to get away from all the other stuff, all the other subjects debated around the Capitol that distract us from this," Walker said, speaking at the firm Thermal Spray Technologies.
In his speech, Walker struck a conciliatory tone, noting that many jobs bills in a January special session received bipartisan support.
The call to refocus on jobs follows a spring dominated by a divisive debate over the Republican governor's repeal of most union bargaining for public workers and a summer overshadowed by recall elections against nine state senators for their stances on that legislation. So far the disagreements are lingering, with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) taking the unusual step on Tuesday of refusing to appoint to a mining committee the senators recommended by Minority Leader Mark Miller (D-Monona).
This year, the economic picture in Wisconsin and the country has been mixed. The state created a net total of 30,100 jobs between December and August, after accounting for seasonal differences in hiring, but the unemployment rate has risen to 7.9% from 7.5%.
Democrats welcomed the focus on jobs but questioned whether some of the bills, such as one that dealt with piers and others to limit lawsuits, would accomplish that goal. They asked whether the bills should be part of a special session that allows them to be potentially moved more quickly.
"We want to see bills rushed that will create jobs. We want to see bills slowed down that do not have any promise for creating jobs now," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), who has one of the bills on the list.
The bill on utility discounts is being touted by Republican lawmakers as a tool to help Wisconsin's economy grow.
The bill would expand a pilot program to offer a discount of nearly $5 million over five years to Mercury Marine, the final piece of a more than $120 million state-and-local financing package that helped the Fond du Lac engine maker decide not to move to Oklahoma.
Charlie Higley, executive director of the ratepayers group Citizens' Utility Board, objected to a news release by Walker's office that referred to the bill as "tax relief," saying that it dealt with utility rates and had nothing to do with taxes. Higley said that the proposed lower rates for certain large manufacturers would end up being paid for by what is essentially a hidden fee on other consumers.
"That's been prohibited for over 100 years because it's simply unfair to make ratepayers pay for discounts that go to other ratepayers," Higley said.
A trade association of the state's largest power consumers backed the proposal.
The bill "would increase our competitiveness and help job creation efforts in Wisconsin. Many other regulated states across the country offer similar programs as part of their economic development tool kits," said Todd Stuart, executive director of the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group.
The announcement highlighting the bill Wednesday came one day before the state Public Service Commission, controlled by two Walker appointees, is scheduled to vote on whether to award the utility bill discounts to Mercury Marine.
Discounts for the engine maker were announced as part of a package that included funding from the state, county and city to persuade Mercury not to move its manufacturing from Wisconsin to Stillwater, Okla.
The company ended up receiving $122.7 million in state, county, federal stimulus and local funding, but Alliant's request for Mercury to receive a rate break was never authorized.
It has been challenged by the Citizens' Utility Board but supported by Stuart's group.
At a May public hearing on the utility rate bill, We Energies and the Municipal Electric Utilities of Wisconsin joined CUB in raising concerns about the impact the utility rate legislation would have on small businesses, which would be funding discounts for larger ones.
But Wisconsin Power & Light and manufacturers backed the bill, saying it would help Wisconsin attract businesses by giving it a tool that other states, including Iowa and Minnesota, have.
Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee) said Wednesday the bill is being revised to address concerns raised at the hearing.
Another proposal highlighted by Walker Wednesday would create a program to make grants and loans to biotech companies. Those would be paid for by redirecting the growth in income taxes withheld by businesses in that sector for their workers. That draft legislation would be capped at $50 million a year and run for 15 years or $500 million over the life of the program.
Walker's list also included draft legislation to allow for construction on wetlands if new wetlands are created in other locations. Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison) said that he believes the draft bill would make it easier to allow so-called "wetland mitigation" - moving wetlands from one spot to another. He said he feared it was a backdoor effort to help mining company Gogebic Taconite of Hurley, which is proposing to construct a large iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties.
But opponents of the current law say that the Department of Natural Resources has long inhibited commercial development by restricting what can be done on wetlands. Dan Johnson, an aide to Sen. Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn), a co-sponsor of the legislation, said the wetlands bill has nothing to do with mining.
Another draft bill would make changes in how Wisconsin regulates the construction and size of piers on public waterways and grandfather in all existing docks on lakes and rivers. Pier regulation has also been controversial, with the DNR under the administration of former Gov. Jim Doyle saying that changes were needed to protect the sensitive shore area of water bodies and property owners saying they should be able to keep long-standing piers.
Regulations approved in 2008 grandfathered most but not all piers, when the state set new standards on the size of new docks. This spring, the Legislature allowed pier owners one more year to meet the deadline to comply with the 2008 regulations. The new deadline is April 1, 2012.
Democrats such as Barca questioned how that proposal could create any jobs at all. Walker spokesman Chris Schrimpf said that it was a measure to streamline regulation that "has been worked on for a long time and made sense to be introduced as part of an overall package."
Jason Stein reported for this article in Sun Prairie and Thomas Content in Milwaukee. Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.