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WTN exclusive interview with Commerce Secretary Cory Nettles (part 1)

This is part one of a three-part series focusing on the past, present and future of DOC policy and initiatives and serves as a follow up to WTN’s interview with Nettles in March 2004.

Part 2Part 3

The Wisconsin Technology Network: Looking back over the past year, what accomplishments are you most proud of, in spite of huge obstacles or a set of challenges you faced in your new position?

Cory Nettles: I think what Gov. Doyle and I are most proud of is that we’ve done two pretty significant things in the last year. The first was to balance what was the largest per-capita deficit in the country – a $3.2 billion dollar deficit. Instead of looking away from the challenges, instead of delaying the pain, Gov. Doyle really stepped up the plate and put forward a budget that balanced that budget deficit in the most responsible way. It was the most responsible budgeting our state has seen in at least 20 years. He did that by cutting a billion-and-a-half dollars or more out of state spending, by cutting back 2,300 positions from the state bureaucracy – by saying that we’re going to do the hard things to start to manage our state resources, our budget resources in a much more fiscally responsible way.

The second thing he did, which is the twin side of that coin, is to say we’re going to get really focused on economic development in our state. And he elevated the economic development discourse to such a high level that it’s now become a major part of the public discourse. And I’m amazed at how everybody from all quarters: in government, in the legislature, in business, at the community-development grassroots levels, county, city - everybody is talking economic development. By him making that a priority and elevating that issue and using his bully pulpit as governor, it’s gotten everybody all across the state really focusing on economic development.
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Wisconsin has really been adrift, I think, for the last 15 or so years. Part of our underlying, core fiscal mismanagement was masked by the boom of the ’90s. When that boom burst, it forced us to start to look at some of these fundamental, structural challenges that existed in our economy.

So I think that the greatest accomplishment in the last year is to really deal with the budget deficit and to start to make the hard, strategic choices and decisions about bringing our economy into position for pretty strong economic growth in the coming years. That without a doubt is our greatest accomplishment.

WTN: For what Department of Commerce initiatives can you say, “It’s going to be tough to get it done, but we’ve accomplished it?”

CN: There have been several specific initiatives, but I think that the thing that we’ve tried to do most, at Gov. Doyle’s direction, is to step back and begin to start to think more strategically about how we deploy our resources and to have an economic development strategy that is our yardstick and compass for determining what kinds of projects we will do, what kinds of projects we will prefer and how we will spend extremely scarce resources.

So just in a fundamental, philosophic way, we’ve stepped back and said we’re not going to have this broad, scatter-shot approach. We’re going to get really focused on a couple of particular economic development strategies in specific communities, but also all around our state. So that was a kind of a broad or overarching framework and strategy that we’ve done.

But other than that, we’ve done some very specific things that we’re proud of. Certainly capstone for us, at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, was to get the venture capital legislation done; which everyone said could not happen, would not happen and if it did, not in a significant way at a significant level. Gov. Doyle provided us four or five requirements of the venture capital package that he would sign into law. We then sat down with our friends at the legislature and tried to really work to put a package together. It was a little lighter in terms of the total impact than what Gov. Doyle wanted, but it is a very significant first step and really positions us to come back for a second or third round, dependent on how successful we are with this last round. So that was certainly a major accomplishment.

We also worked on financial modernization legislation, which got done to help bring in a billion dollars of additional capital into the system through all kinds of lenders – whether they’re traditional banks, credit unions or new capital lenders like GE Capital. This is going to be crucial. Particularly as some of our capital-intensive manufacturing businesses are trying to retool and grow in the coming economy.

We’re also involved in TIF [tax-increment financing plans] legislation, which is the major economic tool that exists at a local level. It’s the tool local communities have in their arsenal to be positioned to kind of stoke the economic development inverse in their communities.

So we’ve had several initiatives. I sit down very often with Gov. Doyle at the table with business leaders and economic development leaders and Gov. Doyle says, “What specifically do you need me to do to help to you be more successful?” And they’ll say, “Governor, we need these three things or we need these five things.” Then we go and we work the list and we check those things off one by one.

We’ve done that with our friends in the printing and paper industry. We’ve done that with our friends in manufacturing. [We've done it]in many of our clusters. And we talk to businesses: What do you need to get done? One of the things that they said, they really needed desperately, that state government failed to get done for the last several years, was single-cell factor. And the government signed that legislation into law after negotiating with our friends in the legislature. So that also got done. The banking industry said they needed financial modernization; we checked that off the list. The utility industry said we needed a more aggressive sliding legislation, so we got that off the list.

So we’ve kind of been really focused on saying what are all those very specific things we need to get done to be successful. Many of those initiatives have been in the department house, but they’ve been spread all across the government. And we feel good about those accomplishments.

WTN: At the end of your term, what legacy would you like to leave from your department’s initiatives? What would you like to be known for when someone looks back in 10 or 20 years and says “Cory Nettles accomplished this.”

CN: What I want them to say is that under Gov. Doyle, what we accomplished was to put into place a strategic framework, a plan, that we could execute on for our state’s benefit. We have seen significant decline in our state economy for several years and then you see that on Jan. 6, when Gov. Doyle got sworn into office, he put forth a plan and then you can see it turning around after that. We want to have our legacy 20 years from now to be that we set the table, we provided the foundation to build on – whether it was managing a budget and changing the way we do budgeting in this state or whether it was coming forward with our overarching strategic plan for managing our state’s economy, which is in transition, or whether it was a litany of very specific legislative initiatives.

We think that people will look back 20 years from now and will be able to put out a marker in time and see when things started to turn around under Gov. Doyle’s leadership. And then I want them to be able to say what one of the things that helped him be successful was that he brought in a team of extremely talented cabinet secretaries from all across state government who really executed, at a high level, in his plan – one of whom happened to have been Cory Nettles.

Part 2Part 3

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