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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Taking Care of Business

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As we slowly emerge from the second-worst economic crisis in American history, strong business leadership is vitally important in order to create good-paying jobs and spur economic development.

Unfortunately, in Wisconsin, business leadership appears to be an oxymoron.

That became glaringly obvious when Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, announced one of his organization's top priorities for public funding in these troubled economic times. No, it's not creating good jobs for all those currently unemployed or reversing the threatened devastation of public education so future generations will be prepared to achieve economic success.

The MMAC wants to convince already struggling taxpayers to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new sports arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Forget about family-supporting jobs. What's important is building a luxurious, new basketball arena when we already have one (two, counting the old Arena) and hiring a few more minimum-wage ushers directing CEOs to higher-priced seats.

This is the same business lobby that didn't raise a word of objection when the governor it supports, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, turned down $810 million in federal funds for high-speed rail development that would have created jobs all over the state.

The MMAC even turned its back on Talgo, the Spanish train car company it recently helped lure to the economically depressed North Side of Milwaukee.

The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and other professional business organizations around the state fought against Walker's ignorant, tea-party-pleasing rejection of nearly a billion dollars in economic development.

But Sheehy and the MMAC publicly declared it was more important to support Walker's budget priorities—code for, "Wahoo! More tax cuts for business!"

Education and Transportation

Never mind that the federal funds Walker threw away included not only rail development that would have been a boon to Madison and northern Wisconsin, but also upgrades to the Hiawatha line between Chicago and Milwaukee, which would have directly benefited Milwaukee business.

You can only imagine the reaction of Obama administration officials when Walker, with support from the MMAC, then submitted an application for federal rail funds that would be limited to the Hiawatha line.

Instead of scrawling "You gotta be kidding!" across the application, the federal Department of Transportation simply announced it was awarding rail funds to "reliable" partners in the construction of a nationwide high-speed rail network.

If you could believe Sheehy's public statements, and clearly you can't, he and the MMAC know exactly what the state should be doing to encourage economic development and job creation.

I've interviewed Sheehy on the radio in recent years and heard him give public speeches in which he's disarmingly candid about what's really important for a healthy business climate.

Surprisingly, Sheehy says the most important issue for attracting successful businesses to the Milwaukee area is not taxes. It's education and transportation.

Despite the constant propaganda out of the Republican Party, no one can seriously argue that corporate tax rates are too high in Wisconsin when so many companies pay little or nothing.

More important than tax rates, Sheehy argues, are high-school graduation rates. Employers need to know they will have qualified employees working for them. And they need a good transportation system to get those people to work.

So why in the world are Sheehy and the MMAC giving both their unqualified support and enormous campaign contributions to Walker, who is making devastating cuts to education and transportation?

Maybe tax cuts aren't the most important factor in attracting new businesses to Wisconsin, but they sure appear to be the only thing that matters to the Republican businessmen who are already here.

With all of Sheehy's pretty words about the importance of high-school graduation rates for the long-term success of Milwaukee business, wouldn't it be nice if he and other corporate leaders would speak out to try to stop their governor's billion-dollar gutting of public education?

Walker so despises funding education that even when he learned Wisconsin would receive hundreds of millions of dollars more in state tax revenues than expected, he refused to consider using any of that bonanza to reduce the drastic cuts to schools.

When Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Thornton first came to town, he said the children of MPS needed support from everyone, including the governor and the business community.

Instead, a new governor kicked Thornton and those children in the teeth by proposing the biggest cut in education funding in state history.

That makes it even more important for business leadership to step up to first save and then improve education, which Sheehy says will determine the future success of Milwaukee business and the state economy.

Instead, the silence from Sheehy and other MMAC leaders is deafening. They're too busy trying to convince taxpayers in dire economic straits to buy them nicer seats for Bucks games.

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