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Politics isn't stalling venture capital plan

The average Wisconsin citizen probably believes state government is paralyzed by partisanship.

Recall elections, perpetual campaign fundraising and party-line votes on major proposals, such as last week's Assembly vote on the mining bill, offer little reason for Joe and Jane Badger to think otherwise.

There is one economic issue with the potential for bipartisan action in the Capitol: The idea of creating a state-leveraged growth capital fund.

A mix of Republicans and Democrats in both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature have been involved in pushing for legislation that could create a "fund of funds" to spur more angel and venture capital investment in the state's early stage companies. Many lawmakers in both parties understand that this type of growth - clean, innovative and capable of producing high-wage jobs - is an essential fit for Wisconsin.

While Senate and Assembly versions of a Wisconsin early-stage fund may propose different funding schemes, there's broad agreement around creating a master fund with the state's investment attracting private dollars invested through a number of private funds.
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Those private funds would do the heavy lifting of investing in Wisconsin-based companies, and the state would be repaid over time like any other investor - in addition to realizing the extra "gain" of new jobs, tax revenue and economic activity.

Bipartisan support

On the Senate side of the aisle, Alberta Darling of River Hills has taken the lead on drafting a Republican bill, but Democratic senators such as Julie Lassa of Stevens Point, Tim Cullen of Janesville, Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse and Jessica King of Oshkosh have expressed public support for the concept, as well.

Fiscal conservatives such as Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) were appropriately critical of a predecessor bill that would have allowed the return of out-of-state CAPCOs, or certified capital companies, but have listened carefully on more sharply defined proposals.

In the Assembly, Republicans such as Reps. John Klenke of Green Bay, Mike Kuglitsch of New Berlin and Gary Tauchen of Bonduel are helping to build consensus. Robin Vos of Burlington, the GOP co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, also has voiced support for getting something done.

Democrats such as Peter Barca of Kenosha and Louis Molepske Jr. of Stevens Point also have spoken of the need for more investment. Barca, the Democratic floor leader, is the prime sponsor of a bill that would bring Wisconsin's successful investor tax credits law into line with recent improvements in Minnesota and Nebraska.

Urgency can spawn bipartisanship. The core reason to launch an early-stage fund for Wisconsin is company creation in the short term and job creation over time. Despite having the right ideas, intellectual capital and research investments, Wisconsin has historically lagged in attracting investment dollars for emerging companies.

In 2011, Wisconsin companies raised just $72 million in venture capital, a drop from 2010 and in line with the state's five-year average of $72.1 million.

States with workforces of similar size - Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri and Washington - all outperform Wisconsin when it comes to venture capital. Five-year averages in those states range from a low of $78.6 million in Missouri to $778.7 million in Washington.

Minnesota's experience

Minnesota, a neighboring state with a similar workforce and culture, has averaged $327.8 million in venture capital investments over the past five years. Minnesota has raised $6.5 billion in venture money over the past 40 years, compared with $1.2 billion in Wisconsin.

Over time, that competitive difference has delivered 447,285 jobs for Minnesota - or 19% of its private workforce in 2009.

In Wisconsin, there were 60,156 venture-backed jobs for the same year, according to federal and industry data. That represents only 3% of Wisconsin's private workforce.

The U.S. average is 11% of the private workforce, or nearly 12 million jobs.

Had Wisconsin simply performed at the U.S. average for attracting venture capital, that investment would have produced 259,215 jobs in Wisconsin during a time when some sectors were losing jobs by the tens of thousands.

Wisconsin's investor tax credit law, which took effect in 2005, provided a lift for a while, but other states have caught up when it comes to attracting venture capital and are pulling ahead. Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota have all taken more recent steps to spur investment - and done so with broad political support.

It's time for Wisconsin, a state with the right foundation to grow, to do the same.

Recent articles by Tom Still

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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