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Forum: Stimulus likely to come in form of infrastructure aid, reworked tax credits

By Patrick Fitzgerald
For WisBusiness.com

State business leaders at an economic forum in Milwaukee hinted that the state would piggyback on a possible national stimulus for states with an effort of its own in early 2009 in order to boost the lagging economy.

Bill McCoshen, director of Competitive Wisconsin and a Commerce secretary under former GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson said at Tuesday's forum that the $50 billion infrastructure package now being discussed in Congress as a stimulus package would yield about $350 million for the state of Wisconsin. That money could be used at the state's discretion to invest in infrastructure projects to create jobs.

"They're good-paying, family supporting jobs," McCoshen said. "So that would be obviously be a big plus for us."

McCoshen added that "we need to take what we can from the federal government now."

State GOP Sen. Ted Kanavas said he is confident the governor would include an expansion in ACT 225--a program that gives tax breaks to angel investments--in a state-level economic stimulus/budget adjustment bill in January or February.

"I think it's absolutely appropriate," Kanavas said. "I think it's a tremendous opportunity for us ... to go on offense, stay on offense, and grow our way out of this in a disciplined fashion."

The state's new Commerce Secretary, Dick Leinenkugel, said in its budget request commerce will expand upon Act 225 and allow angel investors to take all of their credits in the first year in order to accelerate entrepreneurship.

Despite economic troubles, former Commerce Secretary Cory Nettles, who works at Quarles and Brady, called for the state to be disciplined, but aggressive in finding ways beyond the federal stimulus to invest in infrastructure.

"This is not the time to pull in our horns and retreat," Nettles said. "We have to decide that we have got to play offense in this market."

Much of the talk also focused on higher education and the ailing Milwaukee Public Schools district.

Leinenkugel said the worst things to do during a recession would be to devastate education and forget about the importance of manufacturing to the state's economy.

"We must continue to maintain investment in education, and can't slip up in tough times," said Leinenkugel, urging state businesses to approach state technical colleges. "We have a strong relationship between manufacturing and our state tech colleges, and they're responsive to moving forward with the business world."

McCoshen lamented that Wisconsin was second-to-last nationally in investing in higher education, according to one report. He called that "very un-Wisconsin like."

"We cannot continue to disinvest in higher education if we want to move the state forward," he said.

Nettles called the current state of Milwaukee's public schools "nothing short of immoral," describing a bleak atmosphere that has failed to produce knowledge-based workers compatible with a global economy.

"We have to have state action; we have to do something transformative," Nettles said. "This economy cannot be strong unless we produce the workers we need."

Kanavas pulled no punches in his assessment of Milwaukee Public Schools and the dire effect it would have on the state economy should its situation not improve.

"MPS is broken to the extent that it needs to be replaced," Kanavas said, calling for the break-up of the district into numerous neighborhood-based districts. "We will be Detroit unless we figure out the education problem."

McCoshen called for a state-appointed school board, saying that would work faster.

The forum, which was moderated by Marquette Law School's Mike Gousha, was presented by WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com in cooperation with Competitive Wisconsin, MMAC and Discovery World. Event sponsors included Quarles & Brady, the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette University Law School and We Energies.

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