It depends on where you stand: Opposing views of economic ‘glass’ both have merit

In his first State of the State speech since taking office, Gov. Tony Evers spoke of the Wisconsin economy as a glass he sees as half empty for many people.

In the Republican response to Evers’ address to the Wisconsin Legislature, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos portrayed that glass as more than half full — thanks in large part to GOP ideas that had primed the pump for the past eight years.

Whose measurement of the “glass” is correct? It’s all about the angle from which it’s viewed.

Democrat Evers described Wisconsin as a state with a rich history of innovation “but, today, we are a state that’s behind on broadband expansion, and we trail the country in startups and small business creation.”

He also called for “fixing our economy,” citing his request that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. create an innovation and entrepreneurship committee to focus on small businesses, seed capital, and technology development.

“There is more to an economy than counting job creation. And the state of our state is more than just our unemployment rate,” said Evers, who pointed to the need for more full-time, family-supporting jobs, access to health care, kids who go to school hungry, and natural resources that aren’t protected.

The state of business startups in Wisconsin depends on where you live. Madison is routinely cited among the nation’s best medium-sized cities for young companies, Milwaukee is gaining ground in some surveys, and cities such as Eau Claire and Green Bay point to emerging hubs. Cities everywhere outperform rural areas, however, and the kind of economic dynamism seen in urban settings can be hard to duplicate in smaller communities.

Location also matters when it comes to Evers’ view of family-supporting jobs and people in poverty. A report in June 2018 by the UW–Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty showed the overall state poverty rate climbed to 10.8 percent in 2016, with some wide geographic fluctuations. Milwaukee County stood out as much higher than the state average, while 45 counties hovered at the average, and 26 were better than average. Better than average is relative, however, when a family’s refrigerator is empty. 

Personal income has grown in Wisconsin, but not as much as other states. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis in September placed Wisconsin just below the mid-point of the 50 states (31st) for the growth in personal income during the first two quarters of 2018. Again, that may reflect the urban-rural split.

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Vos spoke of a state that doesn’t need to be “fixed” when it comes to economic performance, even if there’s room for improvement.

“You simply can’t ignore the facts,” said Vos, who represents a district in southeast Wisconsin. “The Wisconsin unemployment rate is at its 11th straight month at or below 3 percent. New businesses are up nearly 7 percent. We’re seeing the fewest mortgage foreclosures in 18 years. Exports have increased by 3.2 percent. Tourism spending now tops $20 billion. And Wisconsin families have the lowest tax burden in nearly 50 years. Economists agree the state economy is the best in decades.”

Vos also noted areas where the Republican-controlled Legislature could work with the governor’s office.

“Things like enhancing internet access, preventing homelessness, improving foster care, and cutting middle-class taxes should all be slam dunks. Wisconsinites want us to work together and these are shared priorities that we can begin working on,” he said.

Governors and legislators can affect the economic climate in their respective states, although national and international factors play the dominant roles. The opportunity facing Evers and the GOP legislature is not to diminish or threaten progress already made, but to help embed economic prosperity in a larger base.

Half-empty or half-full, Wisconsin’s economic glass is always fragile. Lack of cooperation will most likely spill some water.

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