By Graham Kilmer
A provision of Governor Walker’s recent budget proposal includes the formation of the Wisconsin Forward Development Authority, which would entail a merger of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA).
The proposal, which is aimed at promoting efficiency and “greater coordination” for Wisconsin’s economic development, contains itemized reforms that are causing concern among some state legislators.
According to the governor’s budget proposal, the mission of the Forward Wisconsin Development Authority would be to provide, “Expertise and financial assistance to companies that are investing and creating jobs within the state.” In a letter, dated March 12, 2015, to WEDC Secretary Reed Hall, four members of the Joint Committee on Finance detailed their concerns regarding the key points included in the proposed merger of the WHEDA and WEDC.
The signatories of the letter were State Senators Lena Taylor and John Erpenbach along with State Representatives Chris Taylor and Gordon Hintz.
A similar letter was sent to Governor Walker calling for him to “formally abandon” his plan to merge the WEDC and WEHDA.
A concern raised by the senators in their letter was a provision which would eliminate legislative representation on the governing board for the Forward Wisconsin Development Authority.
“WEDC, WHDA and Forward Wisconsin will never be a private company as long as they receive public funds to operate and allocate.” wrote the legislators.
According to the WEDC’s operations plan and budget for 2015, 82 percent of WEDC’s source of funds comes from the state of Wisconsin, and 51 percent of their fund source is generated by state general purpose revenues collected through individual income, sales, excise, and corporate taxes.
Currently, the WEDC is governed by a 13-member board of directors, with a representative from both the majority and minority parties of the state Senate and Assembly.
Under the governor’s proposed structure for the Forward Wisconsin authority, there would be a 12-member board appointed by the Governor comprised of individuals from the private sector.
According to the letter signed by four members of the JCF, Secretary Reed of the WEDC indicated that Governor Walker specifically called for the removal of legislative appointments to the governing board of the proposed authority.
“We share the concerns of several of our Republican colleagues that removal of legislative appointments to the governing board of any authority is a poor choice for accountability to taxpayers and the Legislature.” wrote the legislators.
In a statement made by the Secretary Reed to the JCF on March 4, 2015, the proposed Wisconsin Forward Authority would “Establish a more responsive, coordinated, and accountable entity.”
In an itemized list of reforms, proposed by Governor Walker to be included in the formation of the Forward Wisconsin Authority, is a proposal to preclude open records requirements for the Authority and its economic development partners. The Governor’s budget proposal states, “The Governor recommends adopting various reforms including: (a) limiting public records requirements related to the In Force Network and the authority’s economic development partners.”
This provision within the Governor’s proposal has raised serious concern among members of the Legislature.
“Carte Blanch exemptions from Wisconsin open records laws are not needed to protect personally identifiable information or financial information of a person,” wrote the four members of the JCF in their letter to Secretary Reed.
According to the Legislators, those protections already exist in state law. “Under the current balancing test, WEDC or WHEDA can at any time refuse to disclose information requested under Wisconsin’s open records law,” wrote the legislators.
Another issue raised by the letter was a concern over a provision within Governor Walker’s budget proposal which would allow the WEDC to certify businesses for tax credits even in the event that they re-locate their business outside of Wisconsin.
“We want to grow early stage businesses and have them stay in Wisconsin,” wrote the legislators in their letter to Secretary Hall.