Respect and civility rediscovered

I recently found a place where conservatives and liberals gathered to debate the issues. They did so peacefully, respectfully and cordially, even as they made passionate, forceful arguments for their viewpoints.

They did not yell or taunt. They did not talk over each other. They did not question each other’s patriotism or character. They did not slam through a bill with two hour’s public notice. And they didn’t flee to Illinois.
Heck, they even found some areas of agreement and compromise.

Sadly, this wonderful place was not Madison. And it certainly was not Washington, D.C.

It was Milwaukee at the Public Policy Forum’s recent panel discussion on “Wisconsin’s New Budget Paradigm: Will it Help or Hinder Milwaukee’s Economic Competitiveness?”

The panelists were: Gary Grunau, president, Grucon Group; Rich Meeusen, CEO, Badger Meter Inc. and chairman, Milwaukee 7 Water Council; Jill Morin, CEO, Kahler Slater and co-chair, Greater Milwaukee Committee Quality of Life Committee; Daniel Steininger, co-founder, BizStarts Milwaukee; and Donald Sykes, president and CEO, Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board.

I was fortunate enough to be asked by Public Policy Forum president Rob Henken to moderate the discussion, and it was an honor. It was refreshing be a part of informed and engaged civil discourse. What a concept!
The panelists expressed strong opinions about the issues confronting Wisconsin.

Grunau believes Gov. Scott Walker’s rejection of $810 million in federal high-speed rail funds was a generational tragedy. Grunau also said he believed Walker only stood against the project because he was bowing to pressure from Milwaukee’s conservative talk radio hosts, who hate trains. Grunau noted that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, also a Republican, gladly accepted federal funding to build high-speed rail across his state.

On the flip side, Meeusen applauded Walker for reducing Wisconsin’s corporate income taxes and improving the state’s overall business climate.

“It has improved the perception of Wisconsin,” Meeusen said, referring to Walker’s economic policies. “There was a 17-spot move up for Wisconsin reported in Chief Executive Officer Magazine. This is a dramatic improvement in the perception of Wisconsin and Milwaukee by those who make the decisions.”

Morin expressed concerns that the state is not doing enough to attract the talent needed to fuel the creative economy of the present and the future.

Steininger said the state’s business climate is improving, but more must be done to encourage the creation and growth of new companies.

Sykes lamented the Republican legislative "Wild West" agenda that includes concealed carry and voter I.D.
Along the way, the panelists were unanimous in saying they will not carry concealed weapons when the law is approved, and they seemed to agree that some level of training and background checks should be required before citizens are allowed to carry weapons.

They also seemed to agree that serious changes are needed in the state’s educational system, although they expressed different approaches to fixing that system. Meeusen suggested the time has come to “blow up” the Milwaukee Public Schools model and start over.

And when the forum was done, the panelists shook hands and parted in peace. I got the feeling that if those people were empowered, and they were locked away in a room over a weekend, they would negotiate a sensible way forward for Wisconsin. That way would include concessions from both ends of the spectrum and reasonable compromises.

It’s a shame our government can’t function that way.


Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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