In recent years, the partisan divide in Wisconsin has mirrored the divide in the country. Democrats and Republicans routinely point fingers at each other, complaining that if only the other party would concede, we would finally make some progress.
In reality, state legislators are discouraged by their parties for reaching out across the aisle for compromise.
In the past, such gestures have often been greeted by the parties as a sign of weakness, and the accused "conspirators" are removed from key committee assignments or worse – they are challenged in their party’s primary by someone who is more extreme in their political views to the party’s liking.
That historical context is what makes a press conference that happened last week in Milwaukee all the more remarkable.
At a moment when national politicians were divided strictly along party lines over the economic stimulus bill, legislators from both parties in southeastern Wisconsin gathered in the flow laboratory at Badger Meter Inc. to announce their support for a host of projects aimed at moving the region forward economically.
The list of projects receiving bipartisan support includes: the expansion of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Great Lakes Water Institute (and purchase of a new $15 million research vessel); UWM’s plans to construct a new engineering campus near the Milwaukee County Research Park in Wauwatosa; the continuation of state tax incentives for angel investing; continuing the development of wind power generation in the state; and ensuring that transportation projects such as the Interstate 94 north-and-south and Zoo Interchange projects are completed.
The group of legislators finding common ground on the economic issues includes: Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale); Rep. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee); Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee); Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon); Sen. Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield); Sen. Jim Sullivan (D-Wauwatosa); Sen. Alberta Darling (R-Menomonee Falls); Sen. Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee); Rep. Mark Gottlieb (R-Port Washington); Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee); and Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee).
"Our goal is to rev up the economy of greater Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin and the state as a whole," said Stone, who helped form the bipartisan coalition. "We want to create a regional economic vision to move the area forward."
The newly approved federal economic stimulus package will present many opportunities to accelerate projects that might otherwise would take years in the making, and the group wants to ensure southeastern Wisconsin is ready to act.
"This is a unique opportunity – a lot of money is going to get spent in the next couple of years," Stone said. "We need to be sure that we will create opportunities to build our economy in the future."
The UWM projects are particularly important, according to Richards, Sullivan and Darling, because they will help create new companies in an industry poised for future expansion.
"There is a great need to invest in high-end jobs and people with the technical expertise for industry leaders like Badger Meter," Sullivan said.
Investing in UWM’s new engineering campus could create a technology transfer pipeline between the school, the nearby Medical College of Wisconsin, the research park and other companies.
"We’re learning to take our knowledge economy and turn it into jobs and entrepreneurism," Darling said. "We’re spending half of our state budget on education, and we need a real-world alignment of education and work."
The members of the bipartisan group have pledged their support for the projects they have coalesced around, significantly improving the odds of those projects and ideas becoming reality.
And if they keep their word and these projects move forward, it might be a form of change we can all believe in.
Eric Decker is a reporter for BizTimes Milwaukee.