Republicans on the Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted Thursday to remove Governor Scott Walker as chairman of the board of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the state’s job creation agency. Democrats in the panel used debate on the issue to criticize WEDC, the public-private partnership formed in 2011 as successor to the state commerce department.
“Once upon a time, WEDC was supposed to be our absentee governor’s economic development engine. It was supposed to create 250,000 jobs,” said Representative Chris Taylor (D-Madison), alluding both to the governor’s frequent absences as he considers a campaign for president, and numbers released on Thursday showing the state had added 129,131 private-sector jobs in the four years of Walker’s first term in office. The Republican governor had pledged to create 250,000 jobs in his first term.
Republicans on the finance panel said Walker asked to be removed as chair of the WEDC board. “We did not fire the governor from the board,” said committee co-chair, Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). “The governor asked to be removed from the board. Whenever the governor was there it became tit-for-tat.” Darling said Walker wanted to “de-politicize” the board.
Democrats weren’t buying that explanation. “He’s taking the chicken way out, if he asked to get off this board,” said Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton). “If he called you guys and said ‘take me off the board,’ he is taking the chicken way out, and turning his back on Wisconsin.”
“I think he loves Wisconsin so much, that he felt that if some of the members on that board feel like that if the group would be better off if he would not be the chair, I’d say that’s leadership on his part,” said Darling.
Under the changes approved by JFC Thursday, the WEDC board chair would be a member of the public voted on by a majority of board members. The committee also tossed out a merger of WEDC and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, something Walker has included in his proposed budget, but recently reversed course on.
WEDC has dogged by ongoing problems since its formation. The latest include a state audit released earlier this month by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, showing that WEDC continues to have problems complying with a number of state laws and regulations, and a Wisconsin State Journal report which found that the owner of a Milwaukee construction firm received a half-million dollar business loan that Walker’s top aides had pushed for.