If there was any question about Gov. Scott Walker’s core message, the slogan on the signs that surrounded the newly elected Republican as he delivered his victory speech Nov. 2 provided the answer.
“Wisconsin is open for business” became Walker’s victory motto and a guideline for every piece of legislation introduced during a special legislative session in January.
But as Madison’s legislative stalemate over Walker’s plan to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employees made news across the country, his “open for business” message faded into the background or became a punchline on pro-union picket signs.
For Wisconsin’s business community, the last month of debate in Madison and elsewhere has been largely encouraging, with no effect on their faith in the Republican governor who pledged at every campaign stop to create 250,000 new jobs in the state by the end of his first term.
Officials charged with encouraging business growth in Wisconsin said there’s no concern that political rifts and uncertainty about the bargaining law, signed by Walker on Friday, will discourage new business creation or investment.
“Sure, (the debate) gives people pause if they think the state is run by mob rule,” said Jim Haney, president of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce trade group. “But (business investors) are more sophisticated than that. They see the underlying cause (of the debate), the fundamental change in the way we do business.”
Democrats, union organizations and other anti-Walker organizations have pledged to recall every Republican lawmaker who voted in favor of the bill, and several complaints challenging the Legislature’s passage of the bill have been filed.
Despite the continuing opposition, Walker’s promise to cut the deficit by 90 percent in the next two years will mean more to Wisconsin business owners and those considering a move to the state than any protests or other political unrest, Wisconsin’s National Federation of Independent Business Director Bill Smith said.
During a stop in Wausau on Thursday, Walker said he doesn’t believe the last month of political turmoil has affected — or will affect — investment decisions by business owners from Wisconsin or elsewhere. The protests were largely peaceful and should serve as a national model for how to debate “big, bold” changes, Walker said.
“Balancing our budgets long term gives us the ability that hardly any other state in the country can deal with right now,” Walker said. “This is precisely the place investors want to put their money, their job creation, because we have shown we have what it takes to make the state work again.”
For at least one company considering a move to Wisconsin, unrest and uncertainty about the bargaining law is a minor factor.
Brent Shelton, a spokesman for online coupon provider FatWallet.com based in Rockton, Ill., said the company is evaluating a number of states after Illinois’ passage of a law charging sales tax on online purchases.
“The economic issues in Wisconsin would pale in comparison to Illinois,” Shelton said. “I’d imagine our CEO saying ‘That looks more attractive,’ regardless of the political uncertainty.”
A state’s financial situation absolutely influences business owners considering a move, hiring more employees or opening another facility, Paul Will, president and chief operating officer of Celadon Group in Indianapolis, said.
The long-haul trucking company is one of the city’s top 25 employers, with close to 4,000 employees. Celadon relocated to Indiana from Texas years ago largely because of Indiana’s workers’ compensation laws, Will said. Indiana also offered some of the fastest permitting and approval processes in the U.S. for new companies.
“If Indiana was in the same boat as Wisconsin (with a budget deficit), we’d probably be adding more employees to repair centers in Texas or another state that’s more financially viable,” Will said.
While Haney and Smith both admit the past month hasn’t exactly helped Wisconsin’s business climate, they argue that the long-term view is more important to business owners. Allowing the state’s budget deficit to remain or grow is the equivalent of hanging a flashing neon sign at the border: Don’t invest here.
A “truly balanced” budget, Haney said, will make Wisconsin more competitive, as dozens of states grapple with their own deficits.
According to the non-partisan research group Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 44 states expect budget shortfalls in 2012 and governors across the country have slashed millions in spending from their own budgets.
In that context, “it’s more likely for a business owner to agree with (Friday’s) Wall Street Journal editorial, saying Wisconsin is moving in the right direction,” Haney said.
States with deficits “allow uncertainty to continue,” particularly for business owners trying to calculate how much they will owe in taxes several years down the road, Smith said.
“You have a whole new level of uncertainty,” he said. “You have employers sort of in retreat from hiring, from investing in their businesses.”
Will said he sees Walker’s plans in Wisconsin as mirroring Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’: steep budget cuts, elimination of collective bargaining and specific proposals affecting businesses.
“Gov. Daniels’ idea has always been creating a good business environment, letting owners know what they can expect from the state,” Will said.