Snakes on a train: Wisconsin's unrecovery act | Wis.Community

Snakes on a train: Wisconsin's unrecovery act

Thomas Still, a former Wisconsin State Journal newsman who is now head of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Innovation Network, and an architect of the "Be Bold" competitiveness study that was, well, bold, had an interesting observation in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel today.

In an opinion column, Still wrote that Wisconsin continues to lag behind other states in getting its fair share of federal dollars. He wrote:

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The latest evidence comes from a near-final summary of federal stimulus allocations under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The watchdog group ProPublica has reported that Wisconsin ranked 36th among the states with $1,301 per capita in stimulus allocations vs. the U.S. average of $1,400. Those estimates included the high-speed rail money later rejected by Gov. Scott Walker.

While $99 per head may not seem like a lot, multiply that by 5.7 million people in Wisconsin and a stimulus "deficit" of nearly $600 million emerges. That's $600 million not available for Wisconsin schools, unemployment benefits, Medicaid payments and a mix of other programs and projects supported by the federal government.

 

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Now, this seems like a no-brainer, but Still didn't bother to elaborate on how Walker's rejection of the high-speed rail money shoved Wisconsin into the shallow end of the Recovery Act funding pool. With that rail money, as Still notes, Wisconsin still would have had less than an average return for its federal tax contribution, but without that money it had an absolutely abysmal return -- only by my reckoning around a thousand dollars per citizen, or almost a third less than states on average.

 

#444444; font-size: 12px;">Wisconsin did get and would have gotten a more typical if still mediocre share had the high-speed rail project gone ahead. It was, to borrow Still's words, part of an initiative "deemed necessary for the nation," except that Gov. Walker singlehandedly decided everyone in authority, including past governors Republican and Democratic, were wrong. 

Mr. Still attempts to turn Walker's intransigence into something of a bipartisan problem, citing former Sen. William Proxmire's criticism decades ago of certain federal spending in his famous Golden Fleece awards. But complaining about small, off-beat-sounding federal programs and studies is a far cry from rejecting nearly a billion dollars for a high-profile, high-tech rail network that would eventually serve the entire Midwest while creating hundreds of permanent jobs. Moreover, it has been Democrats like former Rep. David Obey who worked very hard to boost military defense spending in the state. But defense spending is not the best use of our federal tax dollars. Spending on local and state infrastructure, on our environment and on education is the best use. And those are the dollars we least often get.

One of the state's bright spots for outside investment, government and private, is the University of Wisconsin system, particularly the Madison campus, which rakes in hundreds of millions of valuable research dollars. Arguably, Walker's initiatives to spin off the Madison campus and possibly UWM could weaken the UW research effort and hurt that past performance. But even where those research dollars continue to flow in, the state makes poor use of the resulting research, which often gets commercialized elsewhere. 

Some of the state's very greatest needs involve social services that are best handled by public and private, not-for-profit organizations -- especially community-based organizations -- with proven performance. These are the very type of organizations that Republicans right now are busy demonizing on a national scale. If you want to save the environment, manage public health, reduce crime, cut teen pregnancy, improve education, expand transportation opportunities or train young workers, it's often best to try many new approaches at ground level, advancing those that succeed or show the most promise. That means helping small, resource-challenged organizations apply and compete for federal grant monies, then keeping political hands off while evaluating outcomes in terms of sheer performance.

But in Wisconsin the development approaches remain mostly top-down. The state's political establishment seems most inclined to pursue trickle-up opportunities only when there are political side benefits to pocket -- and sometimes those political benefits override the needs of the people. Witness the state school voucher program. And often, the performance of these programs are under-evaluated or not evaluated.

#444444; font-size: 12px;">In any event, when it comes to returning federal dollars to the states, why shouldn't the feds often skip us, given our history of paying only lip service to the process? And why shouldn't Walker's obstinance cause the feds to take an even dimmer view of cooperating with Wisconsin? Our state politicians, or some of them anyway, keep refusing the very dollars Mr. Still and his fellow opinion-leaders-in-other-respects see as intrinisic to the state's future economy.

#444444; font-size: 12px;">ADDENDUM:#444444; font-size: 12px;"> Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett coincidentally notes the importance of the Wisconsin Procurement Institute. Here's an excerpt from an email he just sent out:

The Wisconsin Procurement Institute (WPI) was established as a non-profit organization to help private companies get access to Federal contracting and procurement opportunities. WPI has built an excellent reputation as an effective bridge between Wisconsin businesses and #366388; cursor: pointer;">Federal agencies.

I have a strong commitment to growing Milwaukee-area companies. To that end, I have asked WPI to host a day-long seminar that will provide local firms with information on how to sell goods and services to the Federal government and to the Federal government's prime contractors.

Federal agencies that will be represented include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the #dceeff; color: ; border-bottom-style: dotted; border-bottom-width: 2px; border-bottom-color: ; cursor: pointer; background-position: initial initial; background-repeat: initial initial;">Department of Veterans Affairs and the Midwest Naval Facilities Engineering Command. In addition, the following prime contractors will take part in the day's activities: Oshkosh Corporation,#366388; cursor: pointer;">CH2M Hill, DRS Power and Control Technologies, WPS Health Insurance and GE Healthcare.

The seminar has been scheduled for #366388; cursor: pointer; background-image: initial; background-attachment: initial; background-origin: initial; background-clip: initial; background-color: transparent; background-position: initial initial; background-repeat: initial initial;">Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at the Italian Conference Center.

Published

April 10, 2011 - 1:38pm

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