Lawmakers consider regional revolving loan funds

A bill to establish regional revolving loan funds managed by WEDC will likely get some tweaks to clarify reporting requirements from companies that get loans.

It could also be turned into a pilot program, two of its authors said during a public hearing at the Capitol yesterday.

The bill from the three Republicans on the Senate Committee on Economic Development and Commerce would give $1 million grants to nine regional economic development groups, which could use the money to set up loan programs. The bill aims to help companies with "gap funding," ensuring the companies get private loans first and the state isn't the primary source of funding for companies' projects.

To be eligible for those grants, the economic development groups would need to get matching money from outside sources and would have to work under the procedures WEDC establishes. The bill also allocates up to $1 million for training the groups in setting up the loan programs.

The regional approach, said co-author Sen. Rick Gudex, R-Fond du Lac, is partly aimed at addressing a handful of past questionable loans made by WEDC. WEDC's current loan program is being phased out partly due to reports on those loans.

"One of the things that's been unfortunately out in the press is that we have some bad loans out there," Gudex said. "How do you get out of the Madison bubble?"

But the two Dems on the committee -- Sens. Julie Lassa, of Stevens Point, and Janis Ringhand, of Evansville -- said they wanted clearer requirements on such reporting aspects as numbers of jobs created or the schedule for repayments.

"We want to make sure the reporting standards are really clear, that they're transparent and accountable," said Lassa, who's on WEDC's board of directors.

Gudex and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said they'll work with both Dems to address those concerns, noting the intent is ensuring transparency and accountability. Darling also noted the progress WEDC has made at correcting some of its problems has been "really impressive."

The two, along with Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, wrote the bill following the committee's listening sessions across the state last fall. One issue that came up repeatedly is that companies need more ways to access money, Darling said.

"The way we can grow and develop more jobs and develop more capacity in our economy is to really look at access to capital. ... This bill is very important to meeting that need," she said.

-- By Polo Rocha

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