Kurt Bauer of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Brian Birk of Sun Mountain Capital, Kevin Conroy of Exact Sciences, Jack Daniels of Madison College and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank discuss "What's the best case for Wisconsin's future economy?" at the Cap Times Idea Fest on Saturday. 


When you’re talking about Wisconsin’s economic outlook, the Foxconn deal is bound to come up. And it played a prominent role Saturday in a panel discussion on the future of the state’s economy.

And panel participants were divided on the wisdom of throwing $3 billion in tax breaks to the Taiwanese tech giant.

“I think Foxconn is a fantastic opportunity for the state,” said Kurt Bauer, president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group.

Kevin Conroy, who heads up the Madison-based medical testing firm Exact Sciences, had a decidedly bleaker view of the deal.

“The notion of spending $3 billion on Foxconn is maddening,” he said. “It’s like Barnum & Bailey took over the state Capitol. In what world would you spend $3 billion to attract between 3,000 and 13,000 jobs?”

The state Legislature approved the Foxconn deal last week, on a largely party-line vote, and it sits on Gov. Scott Walker's desk for a signing ceremony, likely in coming days.  

The two sparred over the issue during a Cap Times Idea Fest discussion at the UW’s Gordon Center, while other panel members — UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, Madison College President Jack Daniels III and Brian Birk of Sun Mountain Capital — took more nuanced views of the matter.

The discussion covered a laundry list of economic issues that the state needs to address to prosper in coming decades, including moving past the state’s reliance on manufacturing, boosting entrepreneurial investment and training the workforce for the demands of a high-tech world.

Birk, who partners with the Badger Fund of Funds, which uses state and private money to invest in new companies, said the state could benefit from a mix of incentives to bring in companies and boost entrepreneurial efforts. He said looking at what has created high-wage, full-benefit jobs in other states is instructive.

“And one of the things that these states share is they actually have developed economic development policies to think about how to provide support and encourage capital formation for the entrepreneurial economy,” he said.

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Blank painted Madison as an economic engine for the state that is having “explosive growth” in some areas, to an extent fueled by university research.

“There are a number of people who talk about Madison being the next Austin, Texas, which was one of the growth miracles of the last 20 years,” she said. “Madison can do that in the next 20 years if the right things come together, and a lot of them are in place. You can really see this place being the center of a high-tech, high-innovation startup economy.”

Daniels said that the state needs to focus on post-secondary education for jobs in large industries like health care, information technology and other growing fields that are going to need skilled workers. And equal access to education is key.

“We’ve heard over the past few years about some of the disparities that we have in our educational programs,” he said. “I would think that in 25 years we would not just have tackled it, but we have solved some of those issues.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.