A plan to reform Wisconsin’s closely scrutinized economic development agency is advancing at the Capitol, despite some concerns by Democrats that it doesn’t go far enough. The legislation is a response to a highly critical audit of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation released in May.
“Wisconsin . . . needs to stay committed to economic development, give the corporation a second chance, and make sure these issues are fixed moving forward,” said Senator Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay), co-chair of the legislature’s Joint Audit Committee. “Wisconsin’s economic incentives need to be measurable and accountable to ensure the effectiveness of our efforts and to make sure our money is spent wisely.”
The bill creates a new position, Lead Director, on the WEDC Board of Directors. “This change is modeled after many private sector boards, and this member will give the WEDC board the focus it needs, we believe,” Cowles explained during Wednesday’s Audit Committee hearing.
Audit committee member, Senator Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) had some misgivings over the reform package. “I would like to go on record as saying this is a first step, and the problem isn’t completely solved,” she said. “We have a board that was not aware that there were policies that were not in place. And we have an administration that really was not competent. And it was in their incompetence and the board’s lack of oversight that many of the findings in the audit came to pass.”
Democrats want the WEDC board to have the authority to hire and fire top officials within the public-private partnership – a role currently reserved for the governor. They also want to require board approval of all agency policies.
“I’m wondering why we’re going in the direction of creating a lead director, rather than actually appointing a chairman of the board that has that position,” said Representative Melissa Sargent (D-Madison). “I just worry that right how we’re very top down.”
Despite those misgivings, Democrats were on board when the committee voted unanimously on Thursday to approve the reform incorporated in identical Senate and Assembly companion bills (SB 205/AB 228).
Other provisions in the bills, as outlined in a press release from Cowles’ office:
– increase the frequency of financial audits of WEDC to an annual basis.
-require that WEDC adopt transparent and appropriate procurement procedures
-set term limits for members of the WEDC board
-create a governance committee on the WEDC board, led by a new lead director
-subject most WEDC employees to state ethics laws
-require that WEDC include additional information it its annual report to the Legislature about its economic development programs