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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011

The Anti-Business Governor

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John Mitchell, President Richard Nixon’s attorney general who went to prison for his role in Watergate, gave one honest piece of political advice in his career. At the beginning of Nixon’s corrupt presidency, he said: “Watch what we do, not what we say.”

Applying Mitchell’s principle to the opening days of Republican Scott Walker’s governorship produces a startling conclusion: Walker could be one of the most anti-business governors in Wisconsin history.

Before you scoff, consider the rapidly mounting evidence.

Enough already has been written about Walker’s rejection of $810 million in federal funds for a high-speed train that could have produced from 10,000 to 15,000 jobs for construction firms.

Walker’s move shut down other business opportunities related to improved passenger and freight transportation throughout the state. It also immediately chased away the newly opened Talgo train car production plant, one of the few major industries moving into Milwaukee’s economically devastated black community in decades.

Now Walker wants to shut down another major industry that recently moved into Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley with plans for $1.8 billion in business investment around the state.

That is the renewable wind energy industry, one of those growing “clean energy” industries that will continue to expand as the rising cost of oil and the environmental befouling of coal become increasingly unacceptable.

Walker talks publicly about reducing regulation of industry, but he is proposing prohibitive regulations on wind farms that the American Wind Energy Association says will be the most restrictive in the nation.

There are some legitimate questions about the environmental impact of wind farms. During his election campaign, Walker raised exactly none of them.

Now instead of turning to energy and environmental experts to propose common-sense regulations for a rapidly growing industry, Walker simply wants to put companies ready to spend billions of dollars in Wisconsin out of business.

It’s an oddly anti-business pattern for a governor who claimed in his inaugural speech that his top priority was “jobs, jobs and more jobs.”

Bad for Business

So if Walker opposes clean energy and transportation-related business in Wisconsin, what sorts of businesses does he want to encourage? Clearly, bad businesses.

Walker called a special “economic emergency” session of the state Legislature, but the major legislation he has introduced would not create a single job.

What Walker’s bills would do is reduce the financial penalties for companies that injure or kill their own workers or manufacture products that injure or kill consumers.

Unbelievably, just to make sure other sleazy businesses get the same break, another bill would reduce damages and make it more difficult to sue nursing homes that injure or kill elderly patients through negligence.

Walker touts this vicious legislation as a way of “improving Wisconsin’s business climate.” It would be difficult to imagine a more anti-business statement.

The truth is most Wisconsin businesses are decent companies run by decent people. They do not manufacture products that injure or kill people. They do not maintain unsafe work environments that put the lives and health of their employees at risk.

Scores of terrible companies are not waiting across the border for Wisconsin to reduce the penalties for killing or injuring human beings so they can open up shop here. Those companies can find plenty of 8-year-olds to work for them in Thailand.

The idea that state businesses are hampered by expensive lawsuits is a fraud perpetrated by the right-wing Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce business lobby.

According to a recent study by the conservative Pacific Research Institute, which advocates making it harder to sue businesses, Wisconsin is among the states where plaintiffs filing lawsuits against businesses have the least chance of success.

Besides, lawsuits against companies that do bad things are actually healthy for the free-enterprise system. When doing bad things starts costing a company money, good companies make higher profits.

One of Walker’s bills would make it virtually impossible for plaintiffs to collect punitive damages from businesses that irresponsibly cut corners.

One of the real-life victims who testified against Walker’s bill was Dawn Kellner, the mother of Jared Kellner, the 15-year-old boy killed on Milwaukee’s lakefront last summer when a 13-ton slab of concrete fell on him from a county parking garage.

“After my son died, Gov. Walker (then county executive responsible for maintaining the parking structure) told the media that he wanted to reach out to me to join in any potential lawsuit,” Mrs. Kellner said. “So why is it that his very first proposal as governor is to protect people like those who killed my son? …

“This bill is a slap in the face to my son and the family of the next Jared Kellner and a slap on the back to bad businesses that cut corners and put profits over safety.”

That’s what makes Walker an anti-business governor. He would put good businesses at a competitive disadvantage in Wisconsin.