Republicans who run the state Assembly just lost their pick for president in Marco Rubio, and they’re not sure where to turn now.
“I’m still grieving,” Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told the State Journal editorial board Wednesday after U.S. Sen. Rubio, R-Florida, dropped his bid for the GOP nomination.
Vos, R-Rochester, and his budget committee leader, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette,also acknowledged “disappointment” and “regret” over big cuts to the University of Wisconsin System in the last state budget. Yet they touted flexibility UW now has on pay, making it easier to keep star researchers who turn out patents that lead to startup businesses.
Highlights of Vos and Nygren’s conversation with our editorial board follow:
Q: Your guy for president just dropped out. You were for Marco Rubio.
Vos: We both were.
Q: For quite a while, right?
Vos: There were about 20 of us who (endorsed him) last September.
Nygren: I still think he was the best candidate. But in this election, it doesn’t look like being the best candidate matters.
Q: Said the establishment.
Vos: You know what’s funny though? What’s the synonym for establishment: Having won an election before. So I don’t know why that’s a bad thing.
Nygren: Or having been accountable to the people. Although, I guess (leading Republican presidential candidate Donald) Trump came out today and said he’s the establishment now. So that definition is changing as we speak.
Q: Where do you go from here?
Nygren: Cleveland (site of the Republican National Convention in July) is going to be interesting.
Vos: I’m still grieving, because (Rubio leaving the race) just happened yesterday. The reason I chose Marco Rubio was because I wanted somebody who I was proud to support in my party. I think the way he ran his campaign, being hopeful and optimistic and positive and showing what we stand for — not just what we stand against — is what I want in (the candidate) I support. I certainly think each of them had attributes. Of course, Donald Trump is bringing new people in the party — in a way that maybe pushes old people out. I don’t think that’s so positive. You have Ted Cruz, who is fairly doctrinaire. He has a lot of views I agree with. But I want someone who is also welcoming. Then you have John Kasich, who has a lot of positive attributes but just hasn’t caught fire. And I’m wondering what that problem is. So I don’t have a real horse as of yet.
Q: What’s your take on a brokered convention?
Vos: Wouldn’t that be fun?
Q: Former House Speaker John Boehner raised the prospect of Paul Ryan being picked as the GOP nominee at a brokered convention.
Vos: And Paul Ryan shot it right down.
Nygren: Just like he did being speaker.
Q: Would you guys vote for Paul Ryan at a brokered convention if his name came up?
Vos: Well, of course I would. I think he’s doing a fantastic job as the speaker of the House. I will say, that’s a long way between now and then. I think it’s much more likely that whoever goes into that convention is going to spend the weeks prior to it, after the primaries are done, negotiating so that when the convention starts the decision is already made. It’s unlikely they’re going to walk in there with no idea what’s going on and have five raucous days of horse-trading. It’s interesting, though, that the Democrats don’t have this level of controversy because they have all of these superdelegates. When I asked somebody why they did the superdelegates, they said it was really so elected officials don’t run against the activists for spots to be a delegate. That was their rationale.
Nygren: It gives them more control.
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Q: Hillary Clinton is way ahead because of that.
Vos: Something we should think about for the next time — it’s too late now — but I think a political party is its members more than it is just its voters. It’s both, right? So the idea that people who are not even Republicans are picking who the Republican nominee is — and that they should have more say than the people who are elected delegates, people who are involved in the party and have paid their dues — I think we need to figure that situation out.
Q: So you’d be open to Republicans having superdelegates, or more of them? Vos: I’d be open to that idea. We need to figure out a way to make sure that Republicans are in control of the process. I want to be welcoming. I want to bring in as many people as possible. But it’s because they believe in what we believe in — not because they want to change what the Republican Party stands for. And that’s what I feel like some people are attempting to do. I mean, I still believe in free trade. Do I understand the intricacies of every trade deal? No. I’m not at the federal level. But I certainly think that Wisconsin, and the entire country, is better off for having trade with other countries. I look at immigration: I don’t think the current system works all that well, but I certainly want to be welcoming to people who come here because they love America and want freedom. So there are ways we can explain our philosophy without it appearing to be angry and negative and closing the doors to every possibility of finding some kind of reasonable compromise.
Nygren: Rubio got a lot of criticism on immigration. I think he was in his second or third year (in the U.S. Senate) at the time. Somebody willing to take on something that controversial, that early in his career, I give him credit — even if he failed at it. One of things people are frustrated with the current people in Washington is they’re not looking for solutions.
Q: It’s the end of the legislative session here in Wisconsin. What have you done for the economy and jobs, since those issues were such a big part of the last election?
Vos: Consider where we are and what government can actually do to have an impact here in Wisconsin. I have no control over the U.S. tax rate, but I think it’s a big impact of why some jobs are going overseas. I have nothing to say about how these trade deals work. I think more free trade is good. But that’s an impact on the economy, too. So the roll that Wisconsin can play, from my perspective, hits three areas: We can have a good system of training — a good tech college system, a good university system, a good K-12 — and make sure our employees are ready to work. No. 2: We can have a tax code that rewards and incentivizes people to do good things. And then lastly, I think we need to get our benefit programs right so the incentive is to work, and not to not work. And each of those we’ve made progress. I’m not saying we solved the problem. But if you think of where we are on the basic idea of training folks — I am still disappointed that the university had to have funding cuts. Do I think that they have been detrimental to the mission of UW? I don’t. Because as I look, they’re still doing a good job. We’ve had a four-year tuition freeze now. I think that’s good for families. And we’re doing a good job of training and getting people ready to work. So some of the concerns I have, at least with the UW System: We need to do a better job of aligning the needs of employers — everyone from Epic (Systems) all the way down to the machine shop — to say: What employees do you need, and where are they going to come from? We have had this belief in the past that we should let every single person do whatever they want to and the taxpayers will subsidize it because it’s good for society. That’s still true. I’m not faulting that. But if we have limited resources, we have to target those — like in the tech college system — let’s give (resources) to incentive-based systems.
Nygren: We definitely have targeted the skills gap, getting people connected to the jobs that exist in Wisconsin. Having said that, we still have 90,000 jobs that are unfilled, and the skills gap is definitely part of that. ... There’s also a people gap. Our population is aging. We don’t have enough young people coming into the workforce. So our unemployment rate is pretty good. There are jobs out there that are going unfilled. What we really need to do is start selling Wisconsin and the attributes we do have. There are a lot of things attractive about us. People may not like our winters. But we’ve got the four season, the Great Lakes, outdoor activities, and nationally pretty darn good schools and the university system. So I think we have to sell Wisconsin outside Wisconsin more.
Vos: You guys probably see it more than any other part of the state. Dane County is growing — as big as it is — not just because people in Wisconsin are having their own kids, but because people outside Wisconsin are choosing to locate here because of a whole lot of things — good job opportunities, a good university system. We need to figure out ways to incentivize people to move here. It might be for the university to go to an Oshkosh or a Whitewater or a Stout and see that there is a value not only to go to school there, but to also have the opportunity to work there and love Wisconsin. I have been told about 40 percent of out-of-state students stay in Wisconsin after they graduate from our four-year institutions. I think it’s like 80 percent of in-state students. So we have a long way to go there to get more out-of-state students to stay.
Q: You mentioned Epic Systems, which has transformed Madison, even though it’s in Verona. What is the state doing to encourage the next Epic? You guys pay a lot of attention to the traditional manufacturers, and their state income tax is going down to almost nothing. But what about for some of those startups?
A: We passed a bill, authored by Rep. Adam Neylon, which would have done some changes to early-stage investment credits. My understanding is that it did not get through the state Senate, which is unfortunate. I am not a believer at all in corporate welfare. I worry sometimes that by the time someone comes to the state of Wisconsin or the taxpayers for a loan, they have exhausted all their friends, all their family, and many times there’s a reason they couldn’t get commercial financing. So I don’t want to just write out blank checks. But I also think we need to be a whole lot more innovative to find ways to make sure the taxpayers help to make investments. (I’ll tell you about) one idea we’ve talked about. The thing I hear from an awful lot of employers, especially startups, is that access to capital is nowhere near as easy as it used to be. A lot of that is how they’ve changed all the federal banking regulations. So we’ve talked about doing something in Wisconsin: Instead of having (the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.) where they hand pick a few people to give a loan out to or some kind of a grant to, maybe we could form like an SBA (small business association) but allow it to be a loan guarantor to help cover that gap financing for a new startup company or a business that wants to buy a new piece of equipment or hire some new employees. That’s not something we’ve done in the past. It’s been a very targeted effort. And sometimes it’s been grant-based where, then we see WEDC gives a grant and something doesn’t happen or there’s controversy. So I’d prefer it to be more transparent where anybody can quality, as opposed to a system where it seemed to be more who you knew than it did about the quality of your asset.
Q: Does that mean an overhaul of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.?
Vos: I’m open to that. WEDC has done a pretty good job of taking the audits that the Legislature has done (and using them to improve).
Nygren: WEDC has become a political football, and they’ve had shortcomings. But when you look at WEDC as far as the local connections (it has made), community leaders actually sing the praises of WEDC. So it’s not the structure that’s the problem. There are some things that can be tweaked. But, unfortunately, because it was one of the governor’s first initiatives, it was targeted early on, and then they’ve had some missteps. In addition to WEDC, even in an environment of declining revenue at UW — I do regret that that had to happen. We did reduce it significantly, but we also gave them some more flexibility. On pay and research, (they can target) the dollars they do have to incentive-based pay for researchers or higher need faculty. A lot of patents are coming out of the university on a regular basis. You asked about what is the next great Epic? My guess is it’s somewhere down on State Street right now in development. And even in an environment where we’re cutting funding, (we have) provided them the flexibility to keep those people who are working on those next great things. That’s important.
Q: Will you be able to restore that university funding in the next state budget?
Nygren: I’m not sure where we’re going. With the economic projections, we’re going to make budget. But there’s a long time between now and the next budget. So it’s hard to say at this point. I would hope that we would be able to continue to prioritize education in Wisconsin.
Q: What about student loans and finding ways to help on that burden?
Vos: Let me speak as somebody who has no children. I’ll put that out there as a caveat. When I went to college, my parents agreed to pay half my cost of my education, and I paid the other half. So I took out a few small loans. But I worked a lot. I worked through high school. I worked through college. In high school right now, nationwide, one out of four high school students has a job prior to high school graduation. The world is different. It was a significantly higher number when we went to school. So you paid more of your own way. Right? We then know that in college the number is less than it used to be. So fewer students are making the decision to work. Now I have no idea why that is — probably because the federal government took over the lending programs and have made it significantly easier to borrow money. Well, I don’t think that’s such a smart decision for our country when you make it easier for people to not work and to borrow money to be able to go to college. Do I think there is a student finance debt crisis? Yes. Do I think it’s the state of Wisconsin’s responsibility to solve that, when the federal government has easy money and not a lot of work requirements? I don’t know how much is our responsibilities. I fully supported Gov. Walker’s efforts to get financial literacy out there so kids know borrowing money isn’t smart. Let’s make sure we do internship programs. Tax deductions for interest payments.
Nygren: But not breaking the bank. My daughter and I are making these decisions right now. She’s going to have to put some of those dollars up as well. And she’s working. That’s part of it. The average student graduating from college as about $30,000 in debt. But as someone who is going to base that on a career that’s going to pay them throughout their lives, that’s probably a pretty good investment they’ve made. ... You’re hearing a lot of people talk about free college. Personally, I think you have to work for things. I don’t think you appreciate it if things are free.
Q: Why can’t we let a student out of college refinance their student debt loan to get a better rate and save some money?
Vos: We did some research. My understanding is Connecticut is the only state that has actually done this. And they are charging more in interest than the federal government already is. Because it’s still a self-sustaining model. So if you have a default rate, if you have to have a return on investment and you have to pay for the overhead, you still have to have that through the interest rate. So why don’t we see if some other people can show that the model will really save money without any taxpayer subsidies? And they don’t have any facts to show that.
Q: So only Connecticut is doing that?
A: I think Minnesota just launched it. But it hasn’t started yet. I was talking to (U.S. Rep.) Mark Pocan (D-Black Earth) not too long ago and he was working on a proposal to dramatically increase work study so students can actually help to pay off their debt — but they actually work for it. I said, maybe that’s an area you could actually find some consensus to say we’re not just not going to give away free money or forgive loans, you can work it off.