Walker promises to get ‘more aggressive’: What does that mean for businesses?

Whether you see a state that’s pleasantly shaded purple or one starkly divided between joyful reds and melancholy blues, it’s clear that Tuesday’s election results left some Wisconsinites triumphant and some chastened.

The election left little doubt about the mood of the electorate as a whole, however, and while Gov. Scott Walker’s victory was the main headline-grabber, the Republican resurgence across the country and the state can clearly be read as a mandate.

What does that mean for Wisconsin’s business community? It’s safe to assume that much of it is aligned with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s chamber of commerce and an important lobbying force for conservative causes and candidates — but not everyone is on board with the Walker revolution. Particularly in Dane County, there are dissenting voices that believe Walker’s way is simply not the right path for Wisconsin.

“The governor has really targeted income taxes as something he’d like to reduce. We agree with that.” — Kurt Bauer, president and CEO, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce

The day after the election, Walker told his cabinet, “We’re going to be even more aggressive now, because I think we’ve got an even stronger ally in the Legislature.”

That likely sent chills down the spines of liberals and emboldened the governor’s conservative backers.

Clearly, the WMC, which strongly supported Walker’s re-election, is pleased about Tuesday’s outcome. According to WMC President and CEO Kurt Bauer, Walker has already transformed Wisconsin from an anti-business state into a pro-business state.

“I think what we’ve done is remarkable,” said Bauer. “At least 90 pieces of pro-business legislation have been enacted since January 2011, but there is more work to be done.”

One of the main points of emphasis, said Bauer, should be a regulatory reform push that would harmonize the differences between the state and federal versions of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

“There are relatively small differences, but they make a big compliance nightmare, and it’s something that HR people around the state are telling us is very costly and very confusing, and it just makes sense to harmonize those two laws,” said Bauer.

Bauer notes that more work could also be done to lower businesses’ tax burden, and he says that Walker’s second-term agenda, which calls for lower income and property taxes as well as tax relief for the manufacturing and agricultural sectors, is a step in the right direction.

“I think he’s right on target,” said Bauer. “He’s listening to businesses out there, job creators, and he’s trying to react to the things they are complaining about. We’re still a high-tax state. The National Tax Foundation just came out with a report last week, and we’re still in the top 10 for income taxes.

“We have high income taxes, we have high property taxes, and we have relatively low sales taxes. The governor has really targeted income taxes as something he’d like to reduce. We agree with that.”

As for the possibility of another seismic, Act 10-type move — such as introducing legislation to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state — Bauer says he’s not sure whether the WMC would support such an effort at this time.

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“I think that needs to be researched,” said Bauer. “If you look at surrounding states, you’ve got Michigan, you’ve got Indiana, both of which, in a relatively short time after going right-to-work, report some pretty remarkable statistics on job creation and expansion and their pipeline of businesses. … So you have to look at it. We’ve got members who want it, we’ve got members that wouldn’t want it. We don’t have a position on that, per se, but I do think you have to look at it from a competitive perspective.”

Compas pointing south

While Walker’s agenda gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from the WMC, not everyone in the business community is pleased. According to Lori Compas, a small business owner, In Business magazine contributor, and executive director of the Wisconsin Business Alliance, Walker’s re-election is actually a step backward for the state’s businesses.

“My initial take is that history will show that Walker’s policies have hurt most Wisconsin businesses, both in the short and long term,” said Compas. “Our jobs numbers have not kept pace with the national recovery, a drive down Main Street in most small towns will reveal lots of shuttered shops, and our energy and broadband infrastructure is not modernizing at the same pace as our neighbors’.

“Our state needs to invest in a modern economy — we need reliable and affordable broadband access everywhere, not just in the cities. We need to transition to renewable energy. We need to invest in education to foster the next generation of entrepreneurs.”

As for the future of Wisconsin under Walker’s leadership, Compas is not optimistic.

“I think we can expect more of the same,” said Compas. “More cuts to public education and more tax dollars going to private voucher schools. More giveaways to giant international and multistate corporations. More small state tax cuts for the vast majority of Wisconsin business owners, which are then offset by more local tax hikes to support our schools and small-town budgets. And it looks like we’ll see more neglect of the infrastructure that Wisconsin businesses need to stay competitive.”

Meanwhile, there’s been plenty of buzz both nationally and in our own state about the possibility of Walker running for president and failing to finish his term. Does Bauer think that the administration’s focus might falter if Walker decides to throw his hat into the ring?

“No, I think he’s got a great staff, and he’s got a very strong lieutenant governor,” said Bauer. “We’ve got a very strong legislative leadership. Frankly, I don’t know if he’s going to run for president or not. I guess I wouldn’t worry about something that I don’t know is going to happen and can’t control at any rate.”

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