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Buchen: WMC effort looks for consensus on state business climate

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – With Democrats soon to control the state Assembly, as well as the Senate and governor’s office, the state’s largest business lobby is shifting gears to deal with what it calls the “new political landscape."

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which has often been at odds with Gov. Jim Doyle, is reaching out to diverse groups -- including labor -- to develop plans to stimulate the state’s slumping economy.

“We’re facing some interesting economic times here in Wisconsin and nationally,” said WMC Vice President James Buchen in discussing the group's new “Moving Wisconsin Forward” program.  

“Our board concluded we needed to make a broad effort to figure out what it is to move the state forward so that as we emerge from this recession, we can lead the parade as opposed to being at the end of it,” he said.
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Buchen said that philosophy grows out of what he called a “shared set of goals” that business has with labor, academic and political leaders.

“We have a unique opportunity to help Wisconsin be more competitive and more successful,” he said. “Regardless of whether you are Democrat or Republican, you want to see people employed in good paying jobs.

“That’s important for a wide variety of reasons, including having enough tax revenue to adequately fund schools and other government programs. We may disagree about the specifics, but I think we’d agree we have common goals.”

Buchen predicted fewer fireworks in Madison with Democrats running the show in both houses and the East Wing.

“There will be less conflict that leads to impasse. ... because the Republicans are in the minority,” he said. “They can’t thwart the will of the majority. And I think that there may be less rancor because of that, though there will clearly be disagreement.”

Though WMC has done battle with Democrats in the recent past, he said too much is at stake for anyone to seek to settle scores.

“Given the current circumstances, we need to work together to improve the economy,” he said. “I’d be surprised if people pursued legislation that was punitive to the business community. I don’t think the public or elected officials want things that will make our economy worse.”

At the national level, he said he is impressed that President-elect Barack Obama is taking bipartisan steps to turn the economy around.

“I think Wisconsin’s political leaders are interested in doing the same thing,” he said.

Buchen said WMC is meeting with Chambers of Commerce and surveying 20,000 business people to ask what they think could be done, from a public policy perspective, to improve the state’s business climate.

He said WMC is also reaching out to what he called “non-traditional” organizations, including University of Wisconsin chancellors, labor unions, private and tech college leaders and other business associations in the state.  

“We want them to think -- from a broad business perspective -- about what are the top issues and the things that would do the most improve the economy,” he said.

WMC critic Paul Soglin, the former mayor of Madison, recently critiqued the effort in a post on his blog, implying that it's not a "fair and open discussion."

"The problem is this is a top down tightly controlled system," Soglin wrote. "Academic and labor leaders are not partners, they are to be heard, but only incidental."

Buchen said WMC plans to release its findings at the annual Business Day gathering in Madison on Feb. 11.

“Our hope is at the end of the day, we can distill all this down into a short list of things that will have the most impact… and offer to the Legislature a set of suggestions that represents the best thinking of the business community,” he said.  

Buchen said this effort began in the summer and was approved at the October WMC board meeting, before Republicans lost control of the Assembly in the recent election.

He said WMC has produced a pro-business legislative agenda every session, based on input from its policy committees, that is refined by its board of directors.

“We’ve also done member surveys in the past, but this is certainly a more ambitious effort ... by getting a lot broader input from more business people and other stakeholders is new and a dimension that will improve the product.”

Buchen said he did not believe there are any lingering effects from former UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley’s harsh criticism of WMC.

The new chancellor, Biddy Martin, has met with WMC officials and Buchen said he looks forward to having a good relationship with the entire UW System.

“The university has a lot to offer the state and has produced spinoffs that create jobs and are an important contribution to our economy, it obviously educates our workforce of the future and we have a shared interest in a growing economy that is employing more college educated people in the future,” he said.

“We are natural allies in that sense and think we are on the right track with the new chancellor,” he said.

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