Kurt Bauer on license plates

Kurt Bauer, president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, is shown during the Cap Times Idea Fest at UW-Madison in September.

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

If license plate slogans made a lick of difference, Illinois wouldn’t continually be ranked as one of the most politically corrupt states in the union.

How could it? It’s slogan is “Land of (Honest Abe) Lincoln.”

If the head of the state’s business lobby really wants to attract more highly skilled millennials to work in Wisconsin, there are better things its boss could be doing than suggesting Wisconsin ditch the slogan it’s had for the past 77 years — “America’s Dairyland.”

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce president and CEO Kurt Bauer says a better license plate advertisement could be the state motto, “forward” — and he first proposed ditching the current slogan in an April 2016 column in his organization’s magazine.

His contention — and the title of his column — is that “Wisconsin needs an image makeover,” especially if it is to attract the kinds of young, highly skilled workers everybody thinks drive the kind of tech-based, 21st-century economy everybody thinks they want.

The problem with “America’s Dairyland” is that it’s too farm-y, he argued, while most millennial workers prefer to live in cities.

He also noted that a national survey found people from outside of Wisconsin see the state as “intolerant.”

“That’s not good, period,” he wrote. “But it is particularly bad if you are trying to retain and recruit minorities and members of the large millennial generation who see themselves as very open-minded.”

WMC has long allied itself with and spent money to elect Republicans. And since Republicans took control of state government in 2011, the party’s lawmakers have drawn national attention for bills dictating which bathrooms transgender students can use, cracking down on so-called “sanctuary cities” and making it harder for women to get abortions.

Fifteen months after his inauguration, Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill repealing a 2009 law that allowed victims of employment discrimination to sue for damages in state court.

So, where was WMC on these issues?

It doesn’t typically take a position on them, according to the state’s lobbying database, although it registered in support of the repeal of the employment discrimination bill.

It doesn’t matter whether any of these legislative efforts are actually intolerant or just, as their sponsors would contend, smart policies that protect state residents.

Because most millennials from outside Wisconsin aren’t going to care about Republican rationalizing. They’re going to think: “Wisconsin — isn’t that the state that wants to tell high school kids which bathrooms they can use?” or “Isn’t that the state opposed to paying women the same as men?”

And Madison’s burgeoning tech sector and state-lowest unemployment didn’t come about because Madison’s leaders, say, support the deportation of immigrant dairy workers, custodians and cooks. (They don’t.)

Bauer didn’t respond to requests for comment for this column, but he said about all that needed to be said about Wisconsin’s ability to attract millennial workers was in the first two sentences of his column last year:

“Perception is reality,” he wrote. “In fact, perception is such a powerful sense that it can create reality.”

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ).

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Chris Rickert is the metro columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, where he's got his laser-like perspective trained (mostly) on all things Madison.