The Legislature's budget committee approved several bills written by Assembly Democrats, part of a push to show they are trying to boost an economy suffering from the loss of manufacturing jobs and high unemployment.
"Today is sort of like 'Jobapalooza'," said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, a committee co-chair. "We are doing everything we can to see the economy turn around."
Republicans complained the bills were too little, too late and were designed to prop up the political standing of the majority party rather than fix the economy.
"Spinapalooza," according to Rep. Robin Vos, R-Racine. The bills still need approval from both houses.
Democrats said the centerpiece of their plan would expand a Department of Commerce program that awards aggressive tax credits for major economic development projects. The program allows more incentives for projects that add and retain workers, train employees and build new facilities.
Gov. Jim Doyle has called the tax breaks the most powerful in the nation, and he has used them to help companies such as Mercury Marine, Oshkosh Corp. and Republic Airways stay and expand their operations. Changes approved Wednesday would expand the number of projects available to 12 from 10, and allow businesses that develop supply chains in Wisconsin to qualify.
The budget committee also backed a new program to issue loans to manufacturers to improve energy efficiency or implement renewable energy initiatives, such as renovating or expanding their plants to make new green products. Commerce executive assistant Zach Brandon said the goal was to make Wisconsin a leader in sustainable manufacturing.
Committee lawmakers approved a series of tax credits to reward investment in key industries, despite warnings that the state budget's projected balance was already below the required minimum of $65 million.
The measures include an extension of tax credits for dairy farmers who modernize or expand operations, which had been set to expire; new credits for food processing and warehousing plants and equipment investments; and tax credits on the cost of equipment used to harvest and turn woody biomass products such as plants and needles into fuel.
In terms of cost, the tax credits were relatively modest. The Department of Revenue estimates dairy farmers would claim more than $25 million in tax credits in the next two years but the overall cost would be spread out over several years. The credits for the other two industries would be capped at a total of $1.6 million, combined.
The focus on economic development comes as the Democrats begin their campaign to hold on to its majorities in both houses of the Legislature in November's elections. The party currently controls the Assembly 52-46 and the Senate 18-15.
Other measures approved Wednesday would:
- Increase subsidies for employers that hire participants in the state's welfare-to-work program for trial and transitional jobs. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau says the changes could significantly increase participation in the programs, which had only 33 workers as of last year.
- Authorize $10 million in state borrowing for a new rural dental outreach education facility at the Marshfield Clinic, which would need to kick in $10 million in private funding. The clinic is considering starting a new dental school, but the building could offer residency and other dental education programs in the meantime.
- Create a $200,000 grant program administered by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Protection to encourage schools to buy food from Wisconsin farmers.