MILWAUKEE — Gov.-elect Tony Evers said Tuesday that after taking office he will propose to dissolve Gov. Scott Walker’s public-private jobs agency, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
Evers spoke to reporters while touring Sherman Phoenix, a retail and cultural center under construction in north Milwaukee. It was his first public stop in Milwaukee since his election win earlier this month.
Evers’ plans for WEDC match what he said during the campaign. But Tuesday was the first time he publicly affirmed, after becoming governor-elect, his intention to follow through.
“I think it’s important that economic development be part of state government rather than a public-private partnership,” Evers said.
The comments come amid heightened debate, following Evers’ win, about how the state uses taxpayer dollars to attract and retain jobs. Republican lawmakers have signaled they may act soon to protect the agency they helped Walker create — potentially by enacting a law before Evers takes office to give the governor less say over the makeup of its governing board.
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An Evers spokeswoman declined to address specifics of when and how he will propose to eliminate WEDC. Evers spoke during the campaign about moving economic development functions back to the Department of Commerce, which handled them before the creation of WEDC.
WEDC spokesman Mark Maley declined to comment Tuesday on Evers’ remarks.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, posted on Twitter that Evers’ position is “concerning.”
“The public-private partnership WEDC has fostered is crucial,” Nygren wrote. “Reverting back to the ways of the failed Department of Commerce is a recipe for over-burdensome government regulation. This will not only stifle the (Wisconsin) comeback but could end it.”
Days after Walker took office in 2011, he and Republican lawmakers passed a law creating WEDC. Agency proponents have said its structure enables it to be more nimble and focus exclusively on economic development.
But the agency has been dogged by scathing audits and failed loans, including one issued — at the urging of a top Walker lieutenant — to a business owned by a top donor to Walker’s campaign.
Speaking more broadly about his approach to state job-creation efforts Tuesday, Evers panned what he described as “Hail Mary passes” to give subsidies to huge employers to attract or retain them.
Asked if that means Evers won’t propose large refundable tax-credit packages in exchange for jobs, as Walker has given to electronics manufacturer Foxconn and proposed for paper manufacturer Kimberly-Clark, Evers responded, “I just don’t know how sustainable that is.”
“I’m not going to say that we’re never going to do it again,” Evers said.
“But the fact of the matter is, it’s things like this is where we’re going to grow jobs,” Evers added, referring to the Sherman Phoenix project. “Making sure that money is created and shared locally is what’s going to make this state a better place to live.”
The $4.5 million project is redeveloping a former BMO Harris Bank that was among the buildings burned during the 2016 civil unrest in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood after a 23-year-old man, Sylville Smith, was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer.
The facility will house 29 small food, retail and service businesses, most owned by African-American entrepreneurs. It is partially funded by a WEDC grant, as well as by the city of Milwaukee and crowd-funding donations.