Nick Hylla

Whatever the new normal is, it is still possible it will better than the old one.

I’ll admit, it doesn’t seem like we are on a path to better times. But our leaders disagree less than you might think. The Evers administration’s reopening guidelines and the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce “Back to Business” plan are fundamentally in agreement. They recognize that no matter what the governor, state Supreme Court or even President Donald Trump might say, public disposition and consumer sentiment will dictate how we reopen the many facets of social and economic life.

This agreement is good news because it is hard to overstate the impact that our next decisions will have on the future prosperity of our state. The federal response to the pandemic has been nothing short of nuclear. It has ballooned the annual federal budget deficit and the national debt to levels exceeding the peak of World War II. The experts tell us, “Now is not the time to worry” about that. The statement contains a simple truth: The time to worry is coming.

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In the shadow of a global trade war, disrupted supply chains, a divisive partisan election year, and fundamental insecurity about the future of social activity, it seems the time will come sooner rather than later. If we waste the next five months arguing instead of planning and investing, we will likely end up awash in debt and trapped with aged resources unsuited to the new normal.

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Our next investments must create real value and wealth for communities in Wisconsin. We are well positioned to be a leader in recovery efforts. With a sound state budget, a diversified economy, abundant natural resources, leading research institutions, a high-performing educational system, relatively low COVID-19 rates, and $3.5 billion in federal stimulus to leverage state investments, Wisconsin has a very real opportunity to come out ahead.

With the goal of leading the country in recovery by putting the people of Wisconsin first, the reopening of our state should start with three strategies:

1. Open our food system to real food. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the Wisconsin farm crisis and further destabilized global commodity markets. It is threatening food supplies at a time when consumer awareness of the food system is at an all-time high and large farms were already dependent on billions in federal aid. Wisconsin should invest in a local and innovative food supply chain that prioritizes less-processed foods, and more access to healthy food.

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2. Open our communities to people. Green spaces will be critical to bringing people back to public and commercial spaces. By prioritizing pedestrians, creating green corridors for recreation and local commuting, opening outdoor seating areas to support local restaurants and bars, and expanding tourism, we can support the growth of a wide variety of businesses in rural and urban areas.

3. Open our electricity system to in-state resources and investments. Modernizing our electricity generation and distribution system could power a widespread economic recovery. Nearly one in every 20 jobs in the United States is in the energy industry, and more than 152,000 of those jobs are in Wisconsin. Our state energy efficiency program is the most cost-effective in the country, saving $5 for every $1 spent. While Wisconsin has consistently spent $14 billion a year from outside the state, that has changed dramatically. Investments by electric utilities, businesses and households have made solar energy the leading source of new electricity generation. The young industry already supports more than 350 in-state businesses in the manufacturing supply chain.

A limited window of low interest rates and economic stimulus will favor states, communities and businesses that plan and invest quickly and strategically. Those that don’t may find themselves out of options, waiting in line for bailouts from an increasingly irrelevant federal purse and continuing the blame game that feeds the destructive politics of today.

We can do better than that. We must.

Hylla is executive director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.