The Ongoing Economic Development Privatization Fiasco in Wisconsin
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker must decide what to do with the scandal-ridden Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). Few options remain: ignore it, fix it, or declare it a failure.
The privatized economic development agency was created in 2011. Governor Walker proudly proclaimed that shuttering the state’s Department of Commerce and replacing it with a privatized entity would do wonders for job creation in Wisconsin. Good Jobs First wrote a report documenting the tainted track record of privatized economic development agencies throughout the United States. We warned that these quasi-government agencies frequently lead to unaccountable, opaque organizations spending too much taxpayer dough without jobs materializing. With the Governor’s rosy jobs pledges falling short and the WEDC embroiled in scandal, it appears that the agency is destined to be yet another case study highlighting what can go wrong when a public agency becomes privatized.
Last week another scathing audit by the non-partisan Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau found a slew of disturbing practices. This follows on the back of other issues previously reported on our blog. The issues read like a laundry list of everything agencies tasked with managing the public purse ought not to do:
- Millions in taxpayer money went unaccounted for.
- The law was broken.
- Large amounts of taxpayer money were awarded to ineligible projects.
- Questionable and inexplicable purchases appeared, including sports tickets and gift cards (a similar incident brought down disgraced Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon).
- The agency turned a blind eye to recipients of public subsidies, even though the law required them to report publicly on their progress.
- Staffers at the organization accepted some $55,000 in gifts during a six month period in 2011.
- The agency failed to disclose to the public known conflicts of interest from an IT consultant awarded a no-bid contract.
- The WEDC even went so far as to hire an auditor while that same company was negotiating a subsidy deal on behalf of a client with the agency.
Members of Wisconsin legislature, from both sides of the aisle, are calling for immediate changes (a rarity in Wisconsin politics these days). Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, has stated that, “this audit shows there is a significant disconnect between our expectations of WEDC and the reality of their performance with regard to transparency and accountability.” The Senate Minority Leader sounded like Cassandra foretelling the fall of Troy: “This is what we were saying from the beginning… there needs to be more accountability… more reporting… When you create a pseudo-government corporation, you want to make sure that you’re having the benefits of both, not the downsides of both.”
Despite the outrage by members of the legislature, the agency has embarked upon a public relations campaign to defend itself. The new CEO of the WEDC continues to claim that it has corrected its old ways and that the agency had not made “intentional violations” of state statutes. Whether the new CEO has a firm grasp on the agency is questionable: he has been on the job only a short time. All three of his predecessors have resigned amid scandal: one was found to owe back taxes to the state; another took a more lucrative job at his old company just 24 hours after accepting the WEDC position; and the first head of the agency resigned after federal investigators found mishandling of HUD money.
Governor Walker has called for an emergency meeting of the WEDC to discuss the problems at the agency. Later this week, the legislature is set to vote on the WEDC’s budget. Will Governor Walker insist that the agency take the audit seriously and implement sensible reforms like those we called for in our 2011 report? Will the Governor ignore the troubling findings altogether? Or will he disband the privatized agency and reinstate the Department of Commerce as the flagship economic development organization in Wisconsin?