Evers Cabinet secretaries meet business

WMC lobbying day puts aside political differences with the governor’s administration

Cabinet secretaries
Members of Gov. Tony Evers' cabinet, from left, Revenue Secretary Peter Barca, Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole, and Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman, wait for the start of a presentation to attendees of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Business Day lobbying event on Wednesday. (Photo by Erik Gunn)

On the annual lobbying day for the Republican-leaning Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, three cabinet secretaries appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers made a pitch for why policies under his administration were good for business.

At the Department of Revenue, Secretary Peter Barca promoted a proposal to double the impact of a tax credit for research and development that took effect two years ago, and advertised the department’s business advocacy program.

At the Department of Natural Resources, Secretary Preston Cole emphasized the importance of a clean environment to preserving the state’s tourism industry — but also declared the agency’s intent to work with business even as it pursues policies to combat pollution problems ranging from lead to PFAS “forever chemicals.”

At the Department of Workforce Development, Secretary Caleb Frostman espoused workforce re-entry for former prisoners and for disabled people as well as employer-based training programs and youth apprenticeships.

“We’re really bullish on the idea of the learn and earn model,” Frostman told the audience of several hundred attending WMC’s Business Day at Monona Terrace convention center in Madison.

The WMC audience politely applauded each of the three; an originally scheduled question-and-answer session was dropped because of a delayed start to the session after a previous speaker ran over the allotted time.

It was a notably friendly meeting between a lobby group that worked hard to defeat Gov. Evers and members of his administration. 

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks election spending, calculates that WMC spent $1.2 million against Evers on behalf of Scott Walker’s bid for a third term in 2018. And when Evers introduced his first budget a little more than a year ago, the state’s largest business lobby declared it “irresponsible” and warned it would be “destructive to our state’s economy.

But more recently, WMC has complimented Evers. “The governor has been very good to us,” WMC’s CEO, Kurt Bauer, told an audience of Waukesha business people in October, in a speech reported by the Milwaukee Business Journal. “He’s showed up at a number of our events. And considering that WMC spent a few million trying to defeat him, I think that’s very gracious of him.”

At the  Wednesday forum, the  atmosphere of goodwill continued — even as Evers was vetoing a Republican-authored bill to cut income taxes and exempt manufacturers from local personal property taxes.

Credit pragmatism. “Interacting with state agencies is just a necessity when you’re doing business in Wisconsin,” said WMC’s senior director of workforce and employment policy, Chris Reader, as he introduced the panel of Evers cabinet secretaries. 

As Frostman said in a brief interview after the presentations, “This is not a red or blue or Republican issue of making sure our economy is strong.”

In his portion of the presentation, Frostman touched heavily on workforce issues — something that WMC has also stressed. He referred to conversations he’s had with business people who have concluded that good pay and benefit programs were a boon to reducing turnover and job stress and enhancing employee productivity. 

Frostman also described his recent visit to Germany, and his admiration for business culture there that valued “respect for all stakeholders” — business, government, and labor alike — as well as “respect for the viability of careers through apprenticeship.”

In his presentation, Barca ran through data points depicting Wisconsin’s economy, while also promoting his department’s customer service, its efforts to combat identity theft, and the DOR’s Business Development and Government Relations program, which he said serves as an “advocate for business” whether starting up or expanding.

“Any issues you have, please come forward and bring them to our attention,” Barca said.

Cole focused on the DNR’s role in advancing Evers’ Year of Clean Water initiative launched last year, making the case for the urgency of addressing problems that include lead in drinking water, the ubiquity of PFAS chemicals from products like firefighting foam,  and nitrites from farm runoff in groundwater. 

Throughout, he returned to the notion of government and business as partners, even as regulators work to remove dangerous industrial chemicals from the environment. “There’s a myriad of processors around the country that use PFAS in their manufacturing, and so we want to make sure that they have a seat at the table so we can begin to solve some of these issues,” Cole said.

Lead exposure from residential water pipes especially continues to be a problem, he said, and high levels of the heavy metal have been found in blood tests of people charged with crimes in some Milwaukee neighborhoods. “That’s why we pay attention to lead levels,” he said.

The DNR secretary also broached a subject that the Walker administration had erased from discussion during its eight-year tenure: climate change.

“October last year, the warmest October on record. December of 2019, the warmest December on record. So we have a new bottom in terms of these levels,” Cole said. Alluding to climate skeptics who profess not to believe in the broad scientific consensus about human-caused global warming, he added: “You can believe or not believe, but let’s just pay attention to what’s going on in our environment.”

Major businesses, he declared, have gotten the message. 

“You don’t have to believe me. You don’t have to believe what they say in the paper,” Cole said. “You can believe the Fortune 500 companies in the state of Wisconsin. You merely have to go to Kohler [Industries], Harley-Davidson, Kwik Trip and the like and see on their websites that they all have a climate mitigation strategy. They’ve figured out that this thing that we call climate change [is something] that we can do something about.”