This morning, together with a group of business and community leaders, I took part in a meeting with Lt. Governor Kleefisch. Here are some of my thoughts and observations:
To start, this was an extremely interesting meeting because I got to listen to some of the most serious and brightest business people in our community explain what they feel the State of Wisconsin can do to help them. Anyone interested in community and economic development should know that this is valuable information and I ended up taking 3 long pages of notes. On the other hand, I have not been in a room, at least in the last month, where several people thanked Lt. Governor and the Governor on the job well done and told them to keep it going. Felt somewhat like being in an alternate universe.
Lt. Governor Kleefisch stated from the beginning that she was there to listen and people really made the most of that. As we went around the room, each business person (there were owners as well as managers) spoke of what was concerning them the most about doing business in Wisconsin. Issues mentioned most consistently were: Education, Cost of Healthcare, Taxes, Excessive Regulation and Unemployment Compensation.
Education was brought up frequently because finding qualified workers to replace the aging workforce was presented by several speakers as a major challenge for Rock county employers. One person even went so far as to say that unless there are more qualified people in construction and trades, in 5 years demand will outstrip the supply.
As the discussion progressed, I observed an interesting conundrum: while employers would like to see more people get technical education, employees themselves are interested in promotions and management positions, for which they may not be prepared if they only have technical education. Additionally, the companies appear to be disinclined in investing in training of their workforce because when the times are tight, training is the first thing to get cut, and when times are good, why waste time and money on training? Additionally, "soft skills" such as being on time and being generally responsible person were a sore spot for many. In the end, I got the impression that Lt. Governor was interested in seeing more people go for technical education instead of undergraduate or graduate degrees which pretty well matched with preferences of many in the room this morning. Attracting educated employees was said to be a challenge that companies are currently able to meet for the most part.
Cost of Healthcare was brought up both by employers and healthcare providers and while some specific solutions were mentioned, I did not get impression that this was high on the Lt. Governor's list of priorities.
Taxes were a favorite subject of most and sharing of various horror stories was limited only by time. From the lack of loopholes to inconsistencies between the Federal and State tax codes, to portability of tax credits, taxes are a subject that affected everyone in the room.
Excessive regulation by DNR in particular, was a hot subject of conversation, with more than one speaker mentioning Department of Natural Resources as standing in the way of business development. And when one person suggested that a company whose expansion was essentially nixed by the DNR may still be interested in expanding, I believe I actually saw Lt. Governor's eyes lit up.
The real anger and frustration about the length of time and the perceived comfort provided to people via unemployment benefits was not something I anticipated to emerge as the hot topic at this discussion. We've all heard references to "welfare queens" but to hear people who work in credit unions and insurance agencies, criticize those who use their services and essentially pay their salaries, for not working harder to find a job, was not something I expected. To that extent, I found assurances by Lt. Governor to do something about the unemployment benefits, to be more menacing than anything. For the record, I have never received unemployment benefits.
When it was my turn to speak, I said that I was there mostly to listen. I echoed comments made by others that being able to transfer tax credits is very important to Janesville in remaining competitive. I said that cutting taxes for businesses is very important, as is adjusting regulations and making sure that the burden of taxes is equitable, however, Lt. Governor would be wise to pay attention to those people standing outside with protest signs. Those people are workers, union and non-union, teachers and substitutes, and they are saying the same thing as the people at the table - they want jobs and they want education.
I also told Lt. Governor that people in the room are business owners already but with the high unemployment in Janesville, we have many people who are looking at starting their own businesses and those people need help as well. This point was suggested to me by my friend John Jenks and sitting at the table, surrounded by business owners, I realized that it was particularly relevant and missing from the discussion.
After two hours of discussion, exactly as announced earlier, the meeting wrapped up and after mingling for a few minutes, all of us went on our way with Lt. Governor going to tour the Monterey Mills, I understand. Driving away, it occurred to me that position of Lt. Governor in Wisconsin is notorious for its lack of importance. After all Lt. Governor's duties have been reduced to stepping in for the Governor should he or she be unable to fulfill their duties. Yet in this polarized climate, having the opportunity to communicate directly with someone in that position, may be more valuable than ever before.
Finally, Statement of the Day made by one participant at today's discussion:
When it comes to productivity, 1 American = 4 Indians.
Update: Here's what Janesville Gazette had to say about the meeting
and here's some footage shot by Local Vision TV: http://www.localvisiontv.com/Home/VideoPlayer/TabId/196/VideoId/8593/Small-Biz-Round-Table-With-Lt-Gov-Kleefisch.aspx