Businesses are turning backs on WMC

    If it was coming from the usual left-wing suspects, one could dismiss the latest attack on Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

    But given the criticism is coming from Wisconsin’s most successful "new economy" company, it’s hard to ignore.

    I’m talking, of course, about Epic Systems announcing last week it would avoid doing business with companies that belong to WMC, the controversial statewide business lobbying group that has made its latest splash by spending millions to successfully elect two conservative judges to the state Supreme Court.

    With over 3,000 employees, the Verona-based medical software manufacturer is without peer as a homegrown tech firm and is only starting to flex its muscles. Publicly taking on WMC was a bold move by Epic founder Judy Faulkner and her management team, but not one they took lightly. The decision came only after consulting with what Epic called "a wide array of community members from different political backgrounds."

    And Epic isn’t just posturing. It’s hitting WMC members where it matters most: the bottom line.

    For example, David Cullen of J.P. Cullen & Sons left the WMC board last month. He wouldn’t comment publicly about Epic’s move, but it seems like more than a coincidence that his contracting firm has a $200 million deal to work on Epic’s sprawling campus north of U.S. 18-151.

    Mark Furlong, CEO of M&I Bank is facing a similar dilemma. Does he risk losing the lucrative account of Wisconsin’s fastest growing technology company for a seat on WMC’s board?

    Same with Barbara Swan, president of Alliant Energy’s Wisconsin Power & Light unit, who also serves on the WMC Board. With thousands of computers humming, Epic is one of WPL’s largest electric customers.

    Arguably the state’s most important businesswoman, Faulkner has come under attack from some who don’t think a private company should get involved in matters political.

    But the fact is, big business has had its way at the Capitol since the election of Tommy Thompson in 1986. Since then, corporate taxes have been virtually eliminated, public school spending slashed and business regulation relaxed. In other words, WMC has gotten just about everything it asked for.

    And if Wisconsin’s economy were roaring, bringing a better standard of living to families from Alma to Ashland, you could argue WMC and its minions in the Legislature had the state headed in the right direction.

    Unfortunately, the sad reality is Wisconsin is falling behind in college degrees, personal income and entrepreneurship. Talented young people are leaving while high school graduation rates among minority kids are a statewide embarrassment.

    Sure. There’s some excitement related to biotechnology and other high-tech research coming out of UW-Madison. These successes have come despite the drumbeat of attacks from those who for some reason despise the state’s university system.

    But for the most part, Wisconsin remains a rust belt state struggling to find its way in a new global economy. The pending loss of the GM factory in Janesville, after the state spent $10 million to keep it producing gas-guzzlers, is simply the latest example. WMC members Harley-Davidson, John Deere and Wausau Paper have been quietly reducing employment in Wisconsin for years.

    In fact, it’s no accident that two of Wisconsin’s most-respected companies don’t even belong to WMC. S.C. Johnson and Johnson Controls have managed to do quite well competing in the global economy without any help from the lobbying group.

    Clearly, the world is changing and the tactics of WMC to maintain its hold on the statehouse suggest an organization whose influence is waning. There’s a younger generation coming along that believes in health care for all, protecting the environment and equal rights for gays and lesbians.

    Instead of deriding Epic and dismissing Faulkner as a meddling "computer lady," WMC and its members might do well to ask her for advice on creating jobs and attracting talent in a tough economic climate without the benefit of out-of-state tax shelters or hand-picked judges.

     

    Mike Ivey is a columnist at The Capital Times in Madison.
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