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  • WisBar News
    June 10, 2011

    Agency heads give insight on government's role in economic development

    June 10, 2011 – Gov. Scott Walker’s catch phrase “open for business” was the underlying theme of presentations today by secretaries of the Department of Transportation, the Department of Natural Resources, and a representative for the Department of Commerce.

    These agency heads convened at the State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE’s Real Estate and Business Law Institute in Wisconsin Dells to give Wisconsin lawyers a glimpse of what to expect in the coming years under Walker’s administration.

    Department of Transportation

    Mark Gottlieb

    Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb

    Mark Gottlieb, secretary for the Department of Transportation (DOT) since January 2011 and former state legislator, says the DOT is developing plans to enhance economic viability in Wisconsin while working with residents and business owners to reduce the impacts of those plans.

    The DOT plans to rehabilitate over 1,200 miles of the state highway system, rehabilitate or replace 250 bridges, and pursue plans that would give state highway 41 (which runs from Milwaukee through Green Bay) interstate status, Gottlieb said.

    “There are numerous studies that say people in the economic development community – a business or industry that’s looking to locate somewhere – want to locate somewhere in close proximity to an interstate highway,” he said.

    Noting the DOT’s power of condemnation, Gottlieb said “we must be a good stewards of the public dollars that are given to use to make real estate purchases” but “we always want to be fair with property owners we are dealing with.”

    Gottlieb says he knows the DOT’s work can be “inherently disruptive” to communities but wants to work with property owners and create partnerships with stakeholders to work towards viable solutions.

    “We’re going to be open, we’re going to be transparent, and we’re going to listen,” Gottlieb said. “Our goal is to be fair and open so property owners understand the process and their rights.”

    Attendee William Curran, a member of the State Bar Board of Governors, asked whether lawyers who face roadblocks in dealings with the DOT have any recourse beyond the regional level. The department has five development regions.

    Gottlieb said the DOT is striving to decentralize the process, but people should not be reluctant to “kick things up the line.” He also said as secretary, he is emphasizing a consistent application of rules and regulations across regions.

    Department of Natural Resources

    Cathy Stepp

    Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp

    Cathy Stepp, secretary for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) since January 2011, plans to bring an “attitudinal change” to the DNR’s enforcement approach.

    In the past, Stepp said there was not a viable process in place before cases were sent to the Department of Justice for prosecution of regulation infractions. The DNR will take more efforts to resolve issues internally.

    “The willful and wanton polluters and violators will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said Stepp, who is a former business owner and state legislator. But Stepp said the DNR will take a lighter track for those self-reporters who have technical problems or mechanical failures that are beyond their control.

    Stepp says the agency does not want to set up adversarial relationships when  unnecessary.

    “We have to give the public the assurances that we are here to help, not to handbrake,” Stepp said. “And instead of being the agency of ‘no you can’t,’ it’s an agency, now, of ‘here’s how you can,’ and we’re going to help you get there.”

    The state must have job creation and economic viability in order to fund environmental programs, Stepp added. She said the agency will strive to be customer-oriented.

    That drew the ire of an Eau Claire lawyer, who asked how the DNR can promote customer-service as a regulatory agency set up to protect the public interest. “Regulated parties are not customers,” he stated. “It’s the public that needs to be served.”

    He added: “Laws are there to protect the public interest, not to serve a developer that comes in and wants a permit. The burden is on the requestor to meet the law.”

    Stepp responded: “I disagree with you in that we can’t be saying the words customer service and talking as if the applicant isn’t a customer, they are, as is the rest of the public. Our job is to uphold the rules and regulations in place. That does not mean that it’s okay to treat the regulated community as if they’re the enemy, they are not.”

    Like Gottlieb, Stepp plans to enforce procedural consistency across the five regional offices to streamline the process, create efficiency, and show measurable results. She also said the DNR plans to engage the services of the private sector.

    “We can’t do all the things we used to do anymore,” said Stepp, noting a dramatic decrease in the number of employees employed by the DNR since the mid 90s. “Today is the perfect day to start engaging the private sector.”

    Department of Commerce functions

    David Volz

    Department of Commerce Executive Assistant David Volz

    David Volz, executive assistant at the Department of Commerce (DOC), talked about the transition of economic development functions that are currently in the DOC to the newly developed Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC).

    He also explained that under proposals in the state budget bill, regulatory functions that exist in the DOC would fall to other state agencies, and the DOC would be eliminated.

    “We are moving towards a model that a lot of other states have adopted, which is to create a public-private authority to lead on economic development,” Volz said.

    He said the new structure will allow leaders to have a singular focus on economic development and provide flexibility in terms funding, programming, and its ability to respond quickly to business requests for assistance.

    Need to contact someone from the DOC in the future if it is eliminated? Volz said most, if not all, of the economic development staff that currently exists in the DOC will be transferred to the WEDC and retain the same contact information in the short term.

    “We are going to make sure the transition does not create barriers,” Volz said.

    By Joe Forward, Legal Writer, State Bar of Wisconsin

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