MADISON, Wis. — State lawmakers on Tuesday approved legislation that would invest millions of dollars in public and private money in Wisconsin startups despite criticism that the investment targets only limited industries.
The bipartisan legislation, sponsored by Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, would create a program that invests $25 million from the state and at least $50 million in private money in young Wisconsin companies. The investments would be limited to companies involved in agriculture, information technology, engineered products, advanced manufacturing, and medical devices and imaging.
A slightly amended version of the measure passed the Senate on a 29-3 vote before the Assembly approved it. It now heads to Gov. Scott Walker's desk for his signature.
Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, a longtime supporter of investment capital programs, said all businesses deserve equal opportunities to grow. She said lawmakers are playing by excluding the biotechnology and life science companies from the investments.
Lassa said she suspects the biotechnology companies were excluded from the legislation because conservative lawmakers and religious groups oppose embryonic stem cell research.
But Darling dismissed the speculation, noting the bill is intended to go after industries that can return investments and create jobs quickly and has nothing to do with social issues.
Wisconsin Technology Council's President Tom Still, who worked with lawmakers in crafting the proposal, said although biotechnology businesses are important, they take longer to grow from an idea to maturity because of the industry's high regulatory and oversight requirements.
Paul Radspinner, president of Madison-based FluGen Inc., which makes vaccines, said an investment in the company today could lead to new jobs in the state.
Radspinner said losing that investment would force the company to move to other states where capital is available. He said he is troubled that it's the Legislature, rather than an investment manager, that decides which types of companies have the best potential.
"How do our legislators with no experience in this area have the foresight to make the choice of the winning industries that will take less time (to grow)?" Radspinner asked.
Democrats also said the $25 million initial investment is too small to make a long-term impact and the bill failed to specify how many jobs it would create in the future.
But Still said the number of jobs created under the bill is dependent on how many companies receive investments and how well they perform, and the $25 million is a good start to revive the state's entrepreneurial activities.
"You need to walk before you can run," Still said.