Fresh off Tuesday’s primary win, Democratic governor candidate Mary Burke was in Merrill Thursday to visit with town of Scott dairy farmers Hans and Katie Breitenmoser and their five children.
Burke toured the farm, learning about the operation and the energy-saving solar panels on the barn. She spoke with Hans Breitenmoser and Rob Peck, whose company, North Wind Renewable Energy, installed the panels on the barn.
Peck said current public policy in Wisconsin is not friendly to renewable energy.
“It’s really disheartening for us,” he said.
“My concern is that our public policy is coming from deep pockets, old entrenched money,” Hans Breitenmoser said, “and you don’t get good policy like that.”
Creating new policy that encourages energy savings will help Wisconsin’s agriculture and industry, Burke said.
She added that Wisconsin has lost almost 9,000 farms in the past five years, nearly double the national average.
Burke is a former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive and served as commerce secretary under Gov. Jim Doyle. She was nearing the end of a swing through Northern Wisconsin when she stopped at Breitemoser’s farm on Thursday. She had made stops in communities from Stevens Point to Bolder Junction, including visiting Daigle Brothers in Tomahawk.
During her tour of the area, she said she heard a call for more jobs everywhere she went.
“Jobs in the northern part of the state is a really serious issue, as it is in the state overall,” she said. “Out of 10 Midwestern states, Wisconsin is dead last in job creation. I’m competitive enough that that is just not good enough.”
Wisconsin also ranks 10th in the Midwest in terms of consumer spending.
“The economy is driven by consumer spending and people here in Wisconsin we just don’t have the disposable income that can help fuel that growth as well,” she said.
Burke pointed out that Lincoln County has gained only 155 jobs since hitting the bottom of job loss in December 2010. Peak employment in the county was 11,437 in 2007, which fell to 10,316 in 2010. The December 2013 employment numbers were at 10,471.
“At that rate, it’s going to be 20 years before in Lincoln County, we get back the jobs.
“When you lose the jobs, you lose people in the communities,” she added. “Young people aren’t seeing the opportunities and they start to leave. And that impacts school funding, it impacts small businesses in those communities that survive and thrive off of consumer spending. It s the issue I hear about the most and it’s why I’m running for governor.”
A Marquette poll in May showed that voters feel business experience is more important for the next governor than political experience.
“It’s not just what I think,” Burke said. “The people of Wisconsin think we want to have someone who understands business.”
As an executive with Trek, Burke built the company’s European business from $3 million in sales to over $50 in a few years.
“I was selling great Wisconsin products around the world,” she said. “We need to be exporting more here in Wisconsin. It’s how you can increase your sales, and I’ve done that. I know the challenges, but I also know the opportunities.”
In her 20s, Burke started her own business.
“Right now Wisconsin is 46th in the country in terms of new businesses started, and yet it’s new business and small business growth that accounts for nearly 70 percent of net new jobs created in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s sort of a predictor of an economy, so you have to have those new businesses starting and regenerating, and we’re in the bottom five.”
Burke has mentored a small business that makes jam for the past four years.
“I think there’s sometimes way too much emphasis on the large companies,” she said. “What we really need to focus on in terms of public policy and economic development are startups and small company growth.”
Her “Invest for Success” plan lays out five core strategies for rebuilding Wisconsin’s economy.
“I want to reduce taxes, but the best way to do that is you need a growing economy,” she said. “Otherwise you’re really just cutting education, you’re cutting local services like maintaining your roads, your fire, your police department. What we need to do is make the best use of the dollars that we have, but we also have to grow our economy.
If Wisconsin’s economy had just grown over the last three years at the same rate as the national average, the state’s economy would be nearly $4 billion bigger, Burke said.
“That’s $4 billion that’s additional tax base on which you can either reduce taxes overall or you can better fund things like education, whether it’s our technical colleges or our K-12s that have seen serious, continued reductions,” she said.