ASHWAUBENON - Gov. Scott Walker says the work by the state's quasi-governmental economic development agency, in the wake of a scathing legislative audit, has been ‘tremendous.'
The Republican governor made the remarks at the beginning of a Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation – or WEDC – board meeting at Green Bay Packaging in Ashwaubenon Tuesday morning. He also signed a bill limiting WEDC employees and board members with conflicts of interest from participating in contract negotiations. The agency provides money and incentives for businesses to help foster jobs.
In May, the state's non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau released a report that detailed the job creation and economic growth agency broke state law, failed to properly track money and even gave awards to unqualified companies.
"Private companies or public companies need to do preventative, legal medicine," said WEDC secretary and Chief Executive Officer Reed Hall. "Not only to rely on our outside auditors, but to make sure our internal procedures are being followed."
On Tuesday, the embattled agency's board of directors approved new organizational policies with a simple voice vote; no one opposed. Hall says the new policies, in response to the audit, include better tracking of employee purchases, outstanding loans and the acceptance of gifts.
"I think there's going to be great comfort within the board and the Legislature that we're following these policies," said Hall.
Walker, who also serves as WEDC's board chair, says the new policies will actually make it easier for companies to do business in Wisconsin.
"Instead of leaving a lot of wiggle room, having a clear policy for each of the steps and for potential conflicts, my hope is it'll actually speed the process up," said Walker.
The governor created WEDC to replace the state Department of Commerce in 2011. The governor said the agency would help the state reach his campaign goal of 250,000 new jobs by the end of his first term. But according to a June report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state has only produced about 62,000 jobs during Walker's first two years as governor.
State Assembly minority leader Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, who was critical of WEDC after the May audit was released, says he supports the policy changes and the ultimate goal of WEDC: job creation. Barca is also a board member.
"The last couple years, we were in shambles, and anybody would be," said Barca of the lack of policy and oversight. "I mean, to have a change of that magnitude requires careful planning and that's what was missing."
Barca says with the hole filled, now comes the tough part: policy implementation.
Before the start of the meeting, Walker signed Assembly Bill 179 into law. It provides guidelines and regulations for WEDC, dictating that employees and board members are no longer allowed to participate in contract negotiations if he or she has a conflict of interest or can benefit from a contract award. The bill was introduced by Barca and State Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale; Stone is also on the WEDC board.
The WEDC board is also asking state lawmakers to pass legislation giving it more say in hiring and firing its top officials.
Meanwhile, the legislative audit bureau continues its fiscal investigation of the agency.
New WEDC Chief Financial Officer Stephanie Walker (no relation to the governor) was introduced before giving her report to the board. Hired this month, she is the agency's fourth CFO since its creation.
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