The new leader of Wisconsin’s economic development agency is saying a lot of reassuring things that should please business people as well as taxpayers.
Melissa “Missy” Hughes has been CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. for four months, and she appears committed to a more focused and fiscally responsible strategy for invigorating Wisconsin’s economy.
For starters, she and Gov. Tony Evers, who picked her to lead the agency, want to make sure Foxconn lives up to its contract if it wants to collect the billions of dollars in state subsidies promised by the previous administration. The Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer appears to be downsizing its plans for a plant in Racine County. We’re glad to see Hughes highlight the need for better communication and transparency.
Though the Foxconn contract may need amendments to protect taxpayers, Hughes last week praised her predecessor, Mark Hogan, for establishing many of the department’s processes and procedures. That’s good to hear, because WEDC has suffered embarrassing audits. If the state is going to provide generous incentives to private businesses to expand here, taxpayers deserve clear benefit and careful accounting of public dollars.
Hughes was the chief mission officer and general counsel for Organic Valley, the nation’s largest dairy cooperative. Based in La Farge, about 90 miles northwest of Madison in Vernon County, Organic Valley includes more than 2,000 farms with annual sales of more than $1 billion.
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So Hughes should be a strong advocate for more attention to rural entrepreneurs. She’s excited to launch an Office of Rural Prosperity in WEDC. Struggling dairy farmers need help to adapt and succeed in the global economy.
Under previous Gov. Scott Walker, WEDC rushed to create jobs in Wisconsin to try to fulfill a failed campaign promise. That led to a lack of detail and some misguided loans that cost taxpayers millions with little benefit. WEDC also spent too much time trying to poach companies from other states with the promise of lower taxes, rather than concentrating its attention to promising start-ups that were already here. It too often was secretive about deals involving taxpayer money.
One thing the previous administration did right was make WEDC more nimble and less distracted. The agency’s mission must be the economy, not spot-checking carnival rides, certifying plumbers or inspecting elevators — duties the old Commerce Department was saddled with.
But WEDC’s obsession with job numbers was misguided. Wisconsin’s biggest challenge isn’t creating more jobs, it’s finding enough workers to fill them. And that will require more than lower taxes or corporate handouts. It will require more people who want to stay or move here because of a high quality of life, lots of opportunity and innovation. It also will require better education and training, and more immigration.
Wisconsin’s entrepreneurs have lots of good ideas. Our universities produce lots of patents. What’s too often missing is enough investment and encouragement for young companies.
Hughes has pledged to keep politics out of WEDC’s decisions, which is key to the agency’s success. WEDC needs trust and strong support across the state to invigorate our economy.