With his powers constrained, Tony Evers tries to nudge state efforts toward small business startups

January 15, 2019 GMT

Gov. Tony Evers is calling for a new panel focused on small business startups, as he seeks to influence the state’s economic-development agenda amid constraints imposed by Republican lawmakers and former Gov. Scott Walker.

Evers announced Monday he is requesting formation of the committee, which will focus on “entrepreneurship and innovation,” according to a statement. It notes that Wisconsin lags other states in measures of small business creation.

The announcement could signal how Evers may seek to influence the mission of the controversial, quasi-public jobs agency created by Walker, Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. — which Evers has sought to eliminate. Evers has criticized, in his words, the agency’s lack of transparency and its focus on giving large tax subsidies to corporations in exchange for jobs.


Lisa Mauer, board chairwoman of the WEDC, said Monday that she hopes the committee is a first step to greater collaboration with Evers.

Evers’ statement said the panel will help ensure “entrepreneurs and Main Street businesses benefit from economic development funding.”

“Gov. Evers knows that we must invest in and support small businesses, local companies and entrepreneurship to create middle-class jobs and grow the economy,” it said.

The statement did not name committee members. WEDC spokesman Mark Maley said they will start to be identified immediately. Mauer told the State Journal she will name committee members in consultation with Evers.

Maley said that while the agency already solicits feedback from Wisconsin entrepreneurs, “the sole purpose of this committee will be to identify new approaches, programs and resources” for them.

Maley said the new committee is expected to make formal recommendations to the WEDC board, lawmakers and the governor “for improving and enhancing Wisconsin’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.” The agency is run by the governing board, members of which are named by the governor and lawmakers.

Various measures have placed Wisconsin at or near the bottom of states for small-business startups. Last year, Wisconsin was ranked 50th in startup activity, for the third straight year, by the nonprofit Kauffman Foundation.

On Tuesday, Evers will address and take questions from the board of the Wisconsin Technology Council at Madison’s Exact Sciences Corp. The fast-growing biotech firm is led by one of Evers’ top advisers for his gubernatorial transition, Kevin Conroy.


For now, creating committees is among a limited array of options for Evers to influence the strategy and direction of WEDC.

As part of a contentious lame-duck session held last month before Evers took office, Walker and GOP lawmakers passed a law that bars Evers from naming the agency’s CEO until September. At least for now, that means Mark Hogan continues as CEO.

The law also diluted the governor’s influence on the WEDC board by adding more legislative appointees.

Evers has said he wants to shift the state’s economic development efforts away from “Hail Mary passes” involving huge job creation subsidies. That was widely seen as a swipe at the $3 billion state subsidy package, approved by Walker and GOP lawmakers, for Taiwanese electronics maker Foxconn to build a massive manufacturing and research campus near Racine.

Evers also has said he wants to ultimately eliminate the public-private agency and move its functions to an agency that is fully public, which almost certainly would be opposed by the Republican Legislature.

Evers recently said he will not propose to scrap the agency in his first state budget plan. Evers’ office did not respond Monday to an inquiry about whether he still will plan to propose to eliminate the agency.

At least one Republican lawmaker on the WEDC board, Sen. Dan Feyen of Fond du Lac, said he’s encouraged by Evers’ latest move. Feyen spokesman Tim Lakin said the senator hopes this means Evers will support “WEDC in all of their economic development efforts.”

Mauer also said she welcomed the panel, which she predicted will bring new entrepreneurial expertise into the fold at WEDC.

“I think it will augment what’s already been occurring within WEDC,” Mauer said.