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GOP budget would spend $4M to attract workers to Wisconsin

Democrats criticized the funding as inadequate, saying it fails to address child care needs

A blue banner at a career fair booth says "Now Hiring."
Students attend a career fair Friday, Feb. 18, 2022, at Random Lake High School in Random Lake, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The state’s economic development agency would have to spend $4 million promoting the state as an attractive place to live, work and do business, under a measure approved by Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee Thursday.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, or WEDC, a quasi-private state agency dedicated to growing Wisconsin’s economy and workforce, would be required to put at least $2 million of that money toward attracting military veterans.

“Folks that are considering leaving their military service, they have the option to go anyplace they want, because that is something that is funded by the military,” said Sen. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan. “It is a real benefit to our state to have this vibrant group of folks that are able, willing and ready to work.”

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The $4 million set aside by Republicans would come from an economic development surcharge on corporations, which is the WEDC’s primary source of funding. It’s less than half the $10 million in state funding that Gov. Tony Evers set aside for talent development in his proposed budget, and it does away with new projects Evers proposed for the agency.

In the Republican-authored proposal, the WEDC would also have to evaluate how those talent development initiatives worked out, including how many veterans choose Wisconsin for their first post-discharge move.

In his proposed budget, Evers called for the WEDC to continue a partnership with the Department of Military Affairs to recruit veterans post-discharge. Evers’ budget also proposed new programs to attract workers to Wisconsin, including a concierge program for new arrivals to the state, and incentivizing housing and child care development in local communities. It also would have funded a pilot program aimed at retaining graduates of Wisconsin colleges.

At Thursday’s hearing, Democrats on the committee argued that broader investments in the state, particularly in affordable child care, would attract more workers than any advertising campaign.

“The reason young people are not moving to Wisconsin in the numbers that we want, and they’re not staying here in the numbers that we need, has nothing to do with whether or not they’re seeing billboards,” said Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison. “It’s because we’re not investing in the things that make it a great place for them to live and work and learn and thrive and build families.”

Democrats proposed a $340 million child care program, which Republicans called an “absurd” amount of money and unrelated to discussions of the WEDC.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, demographic trends are not in the Wisconsin workforce’s favor, and there are more available jobs than available workers in the state.

Wisconsin has seen an overall decline in the number of young households, a proxy for measuring prime-age workers. The Wisconsin Counties Association has estimated that, if that trend holds, the population of Wisconsinites ages 25 to 64 could decrease by about 130,000 in the next decade.

These trends are “likely to continue to suppress the growth of the labor force in Wisconsin,” wrote the Fiscal Bureau.

Endowing a public affairs news network

Also on Thursday, the finance committee unanimously approved up to $10 million in state funding to establish an endowment for WisconsinEye, a public affairs news network that broadcasts governmental proceedings, including meetings, hearings, court proceedings and press conferences.

The government funds would match private grant funding for the endowment.

“Since our first broadcast in 2007, we have worked to provide open, unfiltered access to state government for the citizens of Wisconsin,” said WisconsinEye President and CEO Jon Henkes in a statement after the vote. “This endowment fund will allow WisconsinEye to have a solid foundation upon which we will greatly expand that mission.”