Lower taxes and less government red tape often top the wish lists for business groups. But the newly formed Wisconsin Business Alliance has different priorities. Keeping public education strong is one of them.
"Our education system actually affects our ability to hire the best folks," says John Besmer, creative director and co-owner of Planet Propaganda, a design and advertising firm.
Besmer says the culture of Madison and its school system is what helps his small business recruit young professionals with children. But he says recent state cuts to education have hurt the city's reputation.
Besmer was one of the first local business leaders to start talking a few years ago about forming a new trade group. The Wisconsin Business Alliance now has about 60 members, and has been officially active since September 2012.
The group will hold its first lobby day at the state legislature on Wednesday, April 17. Members will talk to lawmakers not only about public education, but broadband access and renewable energy. These are the issues the group chose to focus on after a December survey of its membership.
According to a recent study, Wisconsin ranks 22 in the nation on broadband speed. The State Broadband Initiative and Public Service Commission are currently addressing the issue of Internet access in the state.
The Wisconsin Business Alliance formed as an alternative to the state's largest business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which represents 3,500 employers in the state. The two groups have been at odds on issues including iron mining and school voucher programs. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce supported the elimination of enrollment caps for both the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and the virtual charter school program in 2011 and supports the passage of mining reform. The Wisconsin Business Alliance opposes school vouchers and opposed pieces of the iron mining law that passed this March.
Lori Compas, executive director of the Wisconsin Business Alliance, says the group's membership consists largely of business owners in southern Wisconsin. Compas, who challenged Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) in a 2012 recall election and lost, is a freelance photographer and journalist in Fort Atkinson. Compas says she's not sure how many members will join the Lobby Day efforts.
"We're a brand new organization," says Compas. "It's really hard for small business owners to take a day off work."
On Wednesday the group will ask legislators to remove voucher and private charter school programs from Gov. Scott Walker's 2013-15 budget and add $225 per-pupil in funding.
"We definitely want to remove the privatization schemes... get those off the table," says Compas. "Every business owner in the state has a stake in public schools."
Compas says small communities in particular are threatened by privatization because schools often double as a town hall of sorts in small cities like Fort Atkinson. She says the local high school is the pride of the community, drawing people in for sporting events and plays on the weekends.
The voucher program proposed in the governor's budget is "bad for community and bad for business," Compas says.
Carrie Scherpelz, a member of the Wisconsin Business Alliance and owner of Madison-based Design that Gets Results, says her own children went through public schools and she's concerned that vouchers will "continue to squeeze public school funding."
Compas and Alliance members will ask legislators to support and expand WiscNet, an organization that provides web and network services for municipalities and institutes of higher learning throughout the state.
The group will also ask legislators to support the Clean Energy Choice initiative, which would allow business owners to host renewable energy generators, like solar panels, that are operated by an outside party.
"We're standing up for the issues that we think are important," says Compas. "We're building a strong voice."