02 May Legislature adopts one tech bill, leaves two others twisting
Madison, Wis. – The Wisconsin Legislature has passed a bill that will make it easier for University of Wisconsin professors to commercialize their discoveries, but two other bills endorsed by the technology community are apparently going nowhere during the remainder of the 2005-07 legislative session.
On separate voice votes, the State Assembly and the State Senate enacted their respective versions of Senate Bill 338, which would streamline the process UW researchers use to bring their ideas to the market. Gov. Jim Doyle has expressed support for the measure and is expected to sign it.
Meanwhile, a bill that would have allocated an additional $2 million in grant money for the Bio-Medical Alliance of Milwaukee was doomed by legislative divisions over embryonic stem cell research, and a measure creating an education tax credit for continuing education has stalled due to its price tag. Neither bill even made it to the floor.
This session’s legislative milestones thus far include technical improvements to Act 255, the law which enables early-stage seed and angel investment income and franchise tax credits to be claimed by investors, the adoption of tax credits to promote broadband deployment, and the establishment of the Governor’s Consortium on Bio-based Industry.
The passage of SB 338, introduced by State Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield, is designed to streamline the process in which UW faculty and staff gain approval to move their discoveries to the private sector.
In the past, it could take a year or longer for the Attorney General’s office to complete a “conflict of review” procedure that is part of the approval process. The delay, which sponsors believe can jeopardize the commercial prospects of cutting-edge research, was due more to practice than to statute, according to James Mitchell, a committee clerk for Kanavas. “It wasn’t so much that the conflict of review was that stringent, it was just something that got put in a stack of papers, and when they finally got to it, they got to it,” Mitchell said.
SB 338 gives the Attorney General’s office 30 days to complete reviews of contracts over $75,000 in value between the university and the business that is spun out of research, and it gives the Attorney General the opportunity to ask for an extension. The new process has a five-year sunset, and it will be evaluated after that period has elapsed.
Mitchell said the UW pressed for passage of the bill because it will be useful in attracting and retaining faculty researchers.
Stem cell wreckage
Meanwhile, SB 372 got caught up in the state’s stem cell divide. Kanavas hoped to serve as a broker between supporters and opponents of embryonic stem cell research, but ended up pleasing neither. As a result, an attempt to increase funding for the Bio-Medical Alliance of Milwaukee has failed in this session.
The bill would have boosted the alliance’s annual grant funding from $500,000 to $2.5 million, better enabling a network of collaborative research projects in southeastern Wisconsin and delivering more funding to Milwaukee area research universities. Mitchell said sponsors hoped the $2.5 million grant also would spur private investment.
However, conservatives opposed the additional funding until Kanavas drafted an amendment to ensure the money would be spent in a manner that is consistent with federal funding restrictions imposed on embryonic stem cell research by the Bush Administration. That placated the political right, but was viewed as a poison pill by advocates of stem cell research, who were in no mood to settle for half a loaf.
Meanwhile, Mitchell said the state has, for the time being, lost a great opportunity to strengthen the IQ corridor between Milwaukee and Madison. “We were stuck in a position where we couldn’t make enough people happy,” Mitchell said. “We’re definitely dedicated to it, and we’re going to try it again in the next session.”
“It’s an idea that remains on the table,” said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. “I think it will continue to be pushed by all of those involved.”
Elsewhere, cost considerations ground SB 152 to a halt. The bill would provide an education tax credit to employers to incentivize the continuing education of their workers, and was designed to help Wisconsin meet a stated goal – to increase the number of citizens with bachelor’s or advanced degrees. But since the state would have lost an estimated $20.6 million in tax revenue annually, the measure did not generate enough support.
Under the bill, employers would have received a tax credit equal to 50 percent of the tuition they pay to send current or prospective employees to any Wisconsin college, university, or technical college. The credit would rise to 75 percent of the tuition paid for lower-income employees or their parents who qualify at 185 percent of the poverty line.
Its main sponsor, State Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, testified on behalf of the bill by noting that in the old economy, prosperity came from gaining a competitive advantage in land, labor, or financial capital. Providing tax incentives to employers to fund the continuing education or the skilled-trades training of their workers, she stated, is one of the most effective and cost efficient ways to “ensure our workforce is able to adapt to the rapid changes in the high-tech economy of the next century.”
“We were hoping it would be a bigger priority for our [Republican] caucus than it turned out to be,” added Tom Petri, communications director for Darling. “It’s a winning issue, we believe.”
Another legislative thrust that has thus far failed is the attempt to address the potential scope of the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s controversial lead-paint ruling. Critics contend it permits litigants to bring lawsuits against a group of defendants in lieu of identifying the specific manufacturer of a defective product that causes an injury. As a result, they believe it subjects manufacturers involved in the production of components, including those in high-tech and biotechnology, to increased risk.
Senate Bill 58 would have established strict criteria to determine whether a product manufacturer, distributor, or seller is liable to a person injured by a manufactured product. Gov. Doyle vetoed the bill in January.
Given the bills that were passed, Still [Wisconsin Technology Council] characterized the current legislative session as a productive one. “We feel very good about what has happened so far,” he said, “except for the Bio-Medical Alliance bill.”