Capitol Report Has state milked 'America's Dairyland' enough?

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The outsider image of Wisconsin often comes down to cheese, milk, and bucolic dairy farms.

Is being known as "America's Dairyland" a good thing for the Wisconsin economy?

A debate is playing out in Madison on that very topic.

IT STARTED on Oct. 16, when Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce President and CEO Kurt Bauer suggested "America's Dairyland" should be removed from Wisconsin's license plates and replaced with something more contemporary like "Forward."

Bauer made the suggestion at WMC's fifth annual State of Wisconsin Business & Industry Luncheon in Madison, saying this replacement "connotes resolve, indomitability and progress."

"It's our state motto - has been since about 170 years ago - and it's not a bad image to project to the rest of the world," he said.

But he said people outside the state hold misperceptions about Wisconsin jobs, namely that they are largely agriculture-dominated. Bauer said the move would help the state improve its economic brand.

AND, HE said, the arrival of the Taiwanese technology company Foxconn in Mount Pleasant would also help in the effort.

"Foxconn can help us change that misperception by highlighting the diversity of jobs we have in technology, manufacturing, health care, biotech, education and the professional trades, just to name a few," Bauer said.

Then a couple of weeks later came a bill from GOP Rep. Scott Allen, to require the Department of Transportation to open an art contest for high school students to redesign the license plate, with Gov. Scott Walker selecting the winning entry.

The Waukesha Republican in an email to fellow lawmakers wrote that although the state is "proud of our heritage as 'America's Dairyland,'" the state needs "to communicate to the nation that Wisconsin is so much more."

HE ALSO cited the state economy's "remarkable transformation from rural to urban, from agriculture to bioengineering and high-tech manufacturing," saying those sectors, as well as Foxconn, the biotech industry and others "will all contribute to Wisconsin's economic future."

"License plates should reflect who we are, not who we were," he wrote. "Our national advertisement should reflect where we are going as a state and not where we have been."

But the suggestions are running into fierce opposition from representatives in the state's dairy industry.

State Dairy Business Association President Mike North reacted strongly to Bauer, defending "the dairy community's continuing contribution to the culture and economy" of Wisconsin.

"THE dairy community - with its hard-working farm families, cheesemakers and host of other supporting businesses - has been the backbone of this state for well over a century," he said. "That heritage, and how far we have come, should be great sources of pride. Those are things to be celebrated, not hidden."

And then the DBA, in reaction to Allen's bill, fired off a round of letters to state lawmakers in opposition to what he called an "ill-conceived" bill.

In the letter, North, though, wrote that the state's "strength in dairy, agriculture and food processing provide one of the best opportunities to grow our modern economy."

And he defended the state's association with dairy and cheese, writing that "people struggle to associate anything with most states."

"We have a brand," he wrote. "It is viewed positively by the overwhelming majority of people. We have spent more than a century and a lot effort and money to create this brand. It does not make sense to back away from it."

WisPolitics.com reports on issues related to state government. This column is distributed through the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

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