Why can’t WEDC get it done right?

Agency was supposed to be nimble and efficient. Instead, it’s just mismanaged.

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WHEN FIRST PROPOSED, we were supportive of Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to replace the bureaucratic and cumbersome Department of Commerce with a more modern and nimble model to be called the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

The plan was to build an agency better able to connect with and understand the needs of business investors and developers. Bureaucracy can be a killer in the competitive world of economic development, a fact that made reform attractive and sensible. Government that seems uncooperative or unfriendly easily can cause investors to take their money and jobs elsewhere, and Wisconsin had an anti-business image it needed to shed.

Still, the old saying applies: Most systems will work just fine if they’re run right.

UNFORTUNATELY, WEDC has been run badly ever since it was formed to succeed Commerce. Audits a couple years into its operation were highly critical, essentially suggesting WEDC had lost track of millions in government money handed off to businesses and, perhaps worse, the agency’s record keeping was so bad it couldn’t really say whether promised jobs actually had materialized.

In response, legislators reformed the reforms, raising the bar of expectations and reporting for WEDC.

Now comes yet another round of audits showing the agency is still a mess when it comes to financial controls. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports WEDC again fouled up the process and failed to appropriately track tens of millions of taxpayer dollars funneled to businesses.

It’s way past time heads rolled.

And it’s time this agency either works up to standards taxpayers have the right to expect — or shut it down and try something else. When the money on the table — money going into the pockets of private enterprises — comes from taxpayers, financial-control standards ought to be higher, not lower. This is patently unacceptable mismanagement.

A FINAL WORD: The governor’s budget plan calls for more changes, notably merging WEDC with another agency, the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA). On paper that makes sense, because of similarities within agencies and matters where they can overlap. Customarily, efficiencies can be made during mergers. But considering WEDC’s record of management deficiencies — and, frankly, neither has WHEDA over the years been a model of efficiency — officials should take a go-slow approach to this proposed marriage. Perhaps WEDC should prove it can run its own affairs before taking on a partner.

Additionally, eyebrows go up over the proposal to remove legislators from the governing board of directors. Legislators are there to represent the taxpayers’ interests and also bring another element of transparency. Reforming board makeup smells a little too much like a play to diminish public embarrassments by limiting exposure.

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