Posted: October 26, 2012
The scathing report released last week by the Wisconsin Public Research Group (WISPIRG) Foundation highlighted the lack of transparency in how the state's economic development programs operate. At first glance, the report is an indictment of Governor Scott Walker's promise to make government more accountable for how it spends tax dollars. In fact, there was the insinuation by one of the report's authors that tax dollars were being misspent "funding junkets to the Caribbean".
However, based on the response from the state's economic development organization, Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC), there is some indication that the issue as a bit overblown. The WISPIRG report found that the information available online about the economic development programs' return on investment was lacking. The WEDC countered that it is taking the necessary steps to udpate its web site so it can more accurately portray job creation and/or capital investment that occurs as a result of economic development programs. Most of the online information is available for all to see, bu the WEDC is trying to make it easier for taxpayers (and auditors) to search for the facts.
Whatever the outcome of the report, it's important to note that there is plenty of accountability with economic development programs at the local level. All three county economic development directors in the Chippewa Valley report annually to their respective county boards to make sure taxpayers are informed publicly about how their tax dollars are being invested in small businesses.
The key thing to remember about economic development is that it's a game of hits and misses. Even the best business plans can be a bust. Ask any lender. But with intense competition among states and counties to lure jobs, nobody can afford to sit on the sidelines - despite the risk.
With the exception of sand mines, there have not been many major announcements about new employers setting up shop in the Chippewa Valley. Most of the job creation over the past few years has been the result of existing businesses.
But if the economy continues to rebound like the experts say it is, then it will be all the more important to be sure that investments in economic development projects have an ample return. And it will be imperative that taxpayers have the opportunity to see how those investments pan out. Hopefully the WEDC can fine-tune its online reporting so it's not so confusing to the public. Then there won't be any room for anyone to question how the money is being spent.