Update: The Madison Common Council on Tuesday turned back Mayor Paul Soglin’s measure that would have required businesses bidding on city contracts to report their political contributions. The vote was 11-to-9, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Badger Welding Supplies Inc. has called Madison home since the early days of World War II.
The supplier grew up in what once was a heavy manufacturing part of town, on the near east side, and has been family owned since 1955.
When you’ve been around as long as Badger Welding, you must be doing something right. And you don’t stay for 70-plus years without liking where you are.
But Scott Griskavich, president of the business, says he’s not happy with an ordinance that would have individuals and businesses disclose their private political activity if they want to do business with the city.
Griskavich has a message for Mayor Paul Soglin and the proponents of the policy:
“That’s none of their damn business,” he told Wisconsin Reporter on Tuesday afternoon, hours before the Common Council was expected to act on the ordinance. “If I have to disclose anything like that before I make a sale to the city of Madison they can buy it somewhere else.”
“We just kind of roll with the punches, but this one kind of hit us in the chin,” the businessman said.
Business in Madison has taken its share of punches, some say, in a city exploding with opportunity but dogged by a reputation as a heavy regulation town moved by local government with an adversarial relationship with business.
Earlier this year, a survey by Governing magazine ranked Madison 21st on a list of the most – and least – friendly places to do business. Not horrible out of 57 metros. The capital city fared well in categories such as “ease of starting a business” (eighth) and “ease of hiring” (twelfth).
Madison performed dreadfully, however, in “overall regulatory friendliness,” ranking 51st. Some of the nation’s larger metropolitan areas were not included in the survey, according to Governing. The city’s worst ranking was in “friendliness of employment, labor and hiring regulations, where it finished 54th. It didn’t test much better in environmental regulations, ranking 52nd and finishing 51st in zoning regulations.
Austin, Texas topped the ranking, followed by Virginia Beach, Va., Houston, Colorado Springs, Colo., and San Antonio rounding out the top five.
Milwaukee, coincidentally, ranked 33rd in overall business friendliness, finishing toward the lower middle of the list in most categories.
“It is critical to the economic health of every city and state to create an entrepreneur-friendly environment,” Dane Stangler, director of Research and Policy at the Kauffman Foundation, which conducted the survey in partnership with Thumbtack.com. “Policymakers put themselves in the best position to encourage sustainable growth and long-term prosperity by listening to the voices of small business owners themselves.”
“Historically it has been challenge. Businesses have been frustrated with government and the attitude toward local businesses,” said Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce.
Brandon, who served as secretary of the old state Department of Commerce under former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, said the most common theme he hears from chamber member businesses regards a general city government “attitude of not understanding and valuing the role business plays in providing the resources of how government operates, which is tax revenue.”
The chamber chief says he is a walking testimonial of the strength of Madison’s business allure. He moved his company to the city by the lakes 15 years ago, drawn by the region’s quality of life and opportunities for growth. It was after he arrived that he said he encountered resistance from local government.
He says things are changing, with local leaders experiencing an “epiphany,” realizing that business, not merely an emphasis on the city’s government and university bases, is the critical engine required to drive Madison’s economic engine.
Carole Schaeffer, president of Schaeffer Consulting and executive director of Smart Growth Greater Madison, which represents real estate developers in the area, said Madison is a mixed bag of economic opportunity and challenges. While the city has updated its zoning code for the first time in nearly 50 years and there have been marked improvements in how local government deals with development, Schaeffer said developers still constantly confront overlapping jurisdictions with “plans piled on top of each other.” The result has been regulatory stumbling blocks, territorialism and, at worst, agency and board confusion over planning and development policies.
The controversial political activity ordinance won’t do any favors for a liberal city viewed with a jaundiced eye by some entrepreneurs, such as Andrew Disch, a spokesman for the Madison Area Builders Association, which represents some 600 members.
“The city contracting process is already overly burdensome to the typical small-business owner,” Disch said, citing excessive paperwork and questionnaires required. “This is just one more hurdle. A local business that can provide services in a quality and cost-efficient manner might choose not to do that in the future.”
Under the proposal, any business or individual who owns more than 10 percent of a business that wins a city contract worth $25,000 or more would be required to divulge contributions to super PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations, which include arms of labor unions, corporations and other “social welfare organizations” that may engage in some political advocacy.
The ordinance states the political disclosure cannot be used as a standard for awarding business contracts.
“So we want to know if you were putting money towards that before we sign another contract with you,” he told Politifact. “This would be one more data set that will be used to make decisions.”
Soglin defended the measure in a Wisconsin Reporter story this week.
“This isn’t about selling hamburgers to the city, it’s about political donations — donations that are designed to influence the outcome of elections. It’s about the public’s right to know,” the mayor said.
Christopher Harrison, chief executive or founder Great Lakes SAN, a start-up provider of managed data storage, said he supports the ordinance.
“I believe anyone doing work with the government should have full disclosure, what are their positions and where they stand with contributions,” said Harrison, who described his two-employee firm is “as close to getting off the ground as you can be.” He sees Madison as a business friendly community, and he doesn’t believe the political ordinance would hinder business activity.
The Madison chamber came out in unanimous opposition to the ordinance. Brandon said more than anything, it’s a distraction.
“This sends the wrong message that, in Madison, your politics matter when it comes to our procurement process,” he said. It’s energy poorly spent, the business advocate added.
Schaeffer said the policy does nothing more than create an adversarial climate within a city government that has made improvements in recent years in reaching out to the business community.
“I’m not certain what it’s trying to accomplish, other than shame or fear people into not making donations to a group,” she said.
Contact Kittle at [email protected]