David Michael Miller
How much evidence do we need that Gov. Scott Walker's pro-corporate, anti-government rhetoric adds up to a whole lot of freebies for his cronies and absolutely nothing in terms of actually creating jobs? Not only is Wisconsin 44th in the nation for job creation, we are dead last in the Midwest.
Meanwhile, on May 1, the Legislative Audit Bureau released its scathing audit of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). We already knew Walker's job-creation agency was grossly mismanaged. The WEDC was slapped by the feds last fall for losing track of millions of taxpayer dollars and failing to track its own loans to businesses, which likewise conveniently forgot to keep up their payments.
Now we learn that the job creators at the WEDC handed out money to companies that didn't create jobs. On four occasions, the agency gave out "incentives" to companies for the jobs they had created long before they got the awards.
You can't say the WEDC staff didn't have fun, though. The Audit Bureau reports that they used taxpayer dollars to buy Badgers tickets and iTunes gift cards and to pay for foreign trips for staff and their family members.
As state Sen. Julie Lassa, who sits on the WEDC board, points out, it's all part of the way the agency was set up. "WEDC management is shielded from oversight and accountability," Lassa wrote in an op-ed on the subject for the Tomah Journal.
As board member and Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca put it in a hearing on the audit: "I've never served on a board that couldn't hold the CEO accountable. They're free to ignore anything the board says. Under the structure we created, they only have to listen to the chairman."
That chairman, Scott Walker, bold reformer that he is, has asked for a $14 million increase for the WEDC in his budget.
During a committee hearing on the audit last week, Madison Rep. Melissa Sargent was incredulous about the request for more funds. "You're asking for more money?" she demanded of WEDC executive director Reed Hall. "Are you proud of the direction your agency has brought us?"
Hall not only said he was proud, he suggested that the people who screwed up the facts were the superwonks at the audit bureau, not the party animals at WEDC.
That was too much for several committee members, including Barca. "Excuse my French, but what the hell does that mean?" he said. "I mean, it's just ridiculous, quite frankly."
Before the Legislature pours even more tax dollars down the WEDC rat hole, it may ask for some improvements in reporting (WEDC failed to monitor spending for the entire 2011-2012 fiscal year, the audit found), as well as more ethics rules for WEDC staff.
Ironically, Lassa points out, these are some of the same measures the Republicans in the Legislature refused to impose when the Democrats asked at the agency's inception in 2011.
It should have been obvious from the beginning that an unaccountable quasi-private corporation staffed by business cronies who were there to hand out free cash was not the best way to run things. But good governance in our state has been lost in the fog of rhetoric about how privatizing everything and making Wisconsin "open for business" will magically lead us to prosperity.
Walker got rid of the state's Commerce Department and replaced it with the WEDC as part of his much-repeated plan to create 250,000 new jobs. And how, you might ask, is that plan working out?
Unless you are one of the lucky WEDC employees or business buddies who got a handout or a loan the state forgot to make you pay back, Walker's economic policies are not looking great. Pretty soon he will have to answer to the public.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.