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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Citizen Dave: What liberal economic development for Madison looks like
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Madison can do better at economic development by strengthening, not running from, our liberal principles.

Yesterday, I wrote about the dangerous proposals coming out of a city task force on tax incremental financing (TIF). I argued that the proposals would get us into a senseless bidding war for businesses with our neighbors that would amount to wasted tax dollars and squandered civic energy.

But it's not enough to say what you're against. There are things to be for in this arena. The Madison business community thinks that we tend to be a little smug and self-satisfied when it comes to jobs. They'd like us to be hungrier and more ambitious. With that much I agree, but there's a better way to go about it than just giving away money to businesses that don't need it.

We can do better by simply following the principles we've already established, and being smarter about it and more committed to it.

First, let's keep growing local. Raiding businesses from other communities, especially in our own region, doesn't create any net new wealth here. It just rearranges the deck chairs. Growing local means literally that: local foods and the value-added work, like cheesemaking and brewing, that goes with it.

But it really means the University of Wisconsin. Sixteen thousand faculty and staff. Forty thousand bright students. Spin off industries in the university business park. The UW is the economic engine of the region and, to some extent, the entire state. It connects us to the world in a way that no other city of 225,000 without a major research university could dream of. We need to do everything we can to recognize this, and to nurture relationships between the UW and the broader community.

Second, only give public financial assistance to a project when the developers can prove it's needed. The most dangerous thing about the TIF proposals is that they would explicitly allow developers and other businesses to simply claim that they are getting a better financial offer from some other community in order to ask Madison to pony up. It's an invitation to extortion and, as the New York Times has demonstrated in a recent series, it simply does not work.

Third, let's get serious about acting as a region. A lot of lip service has been paid to that over the last several years with virtually nothing to show for it. The business community has spent millions on a new regional economic development entity called Thrive, but most business people I talk with have been underwhelmed by its performance. I think the key problem is a misdefined region. The properly defined region is Dane County, not the clumsy, disconnected eight counties that make up Thrive. Shrink Thrive to make it grow.

The most dynamic and successful metro areas are the ones that have figured out, more or less, how to act as a region: Denver, Portland, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Indianapolis. We need a regional transit authority (again), a stronger Lakes & Watershed Commission to clean up our lakes, and regional tax base sharing to lessen the natural inclination to fight for tax base within our area.

But the TIF proposals would take us precisely in the opposite direction. They would encourage Madison to fight more with its neighbors.

There's more to do than just these three things, of course. Our public schools, for example, are our second greatest asset behind the UW. They've got challenges that won't be met by siphoning off resources to charter schools.

The point is that we have been complacent when it comes to jobs. We do need a wake up call. But this push for regressive,1980s-style, discredited giveaways to corporations is exactly the wrong thing to do. The right thing to do is to strengthen and get serious about the sound principles that have already been established in our liberal community.

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