Democratic, Republican senators work to forge relationship
JANESVILLE A Democrat and a Republican beamed as they talked about shared interests Monday in Janesville and Beloit.
What might be even more surprising in this season of donkey-elephant bickering is that the two are members of Wisconsin's Senate, where battle lines have been drawn sharply since February.
Despite the ongoing rancor, Sens. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, and Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, are joining hands, at least on a limited basis.
Cullen visited Schultz's southwest Wisconsin district recently. Schultz visited Cullen's turf Monday.
They said getting to know each other—and each other's districts—is key to getting things done.
They also agree that one of the top things they need to get done is to fix the economy.
On both men's agendas is finding money to help railroads such as Wisconsin & Southern upgrade their tracks, building more attractive transportation options for industry.
The new state budget cut the bonding authority available for railroad upgrades, Schultz said.
Schultz said the cut was understandable because of concerns over the state's bonding- authority use in general, but he and Cullen agree they need to find a way to help the freight-hauling railroads.
"Tim and I have a great partnership," Schultz said.
That relationship might be easier than for others because Schultz and Cullen are considered by many to be moderates—two of the few in that category these days.
First stop on Monday's tour was a presentation from Rock County 5.0, an effort of local businesses and government that aims to pull the county out of its economic doldrums.
Schultz said he has seen a lot of economic development groups, and he found 5.0's story "impressive."
Schultz noted that his district, like Cullen's, is heavily into manufacturing and food processing. He also noted that with the new Senate district boundaries in 2012, Cullen's district will border his.
"I really look forward to working with you in the future," Schultz said.
"I'm counting on getting a dividend from this. This is not just for show," he added.
The pair also sat down with ECHO, the lead Janesville agency in the area of helping people with food and rent.
Schultz said two things have become clear to him in recent months: "As a society, we need to understand that we need to grow the economy, but also we are our brothers' keepers. If we can learn how to do those two things, I think our future will be bright."
Schultz said his colleagues are telling him that this hands-across-the-aisle effort is the right thing to do, but neither senator knew of any other Dems and GOP'ers pairing up.
Cullen said the atmosphere might improve after the recall elections.
"All we can do is do our best and hope others follow," Cullen said.
Schultz said he talked to Gov. Scott Walker recently, and Walker said he appreciated what Schultz and Cullen are trying to do.
The bottom line, Schultz said, is for the lawmakers to get things done for their constituents, and forging personal relationships is key to doing that.
"A well-thought-out, bipartisan coalition is how you get things done," he said.
Is local economy turning around?
Rock County 5.0 was formed to turn around the local economy after the devastating loss of General Motors and other employers three years ago.
The turnaround might be under way, officials hinted Monday.
The comments came during a presentation to local state Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, and visiting Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center.
Announcements are pending for new business or expansions, but officials said they can't say more because of the customary confidentiality that surrounds such moves.
Positive news also comes from 5.0's ongoing survey of nearly 100 local companies about their economic prospects.
More than half the companies said their market share is increasing, while 39 percent said it was stable, said James Otterstein, Rock County government's economic development manager. Only 6 percent reported declines.
Fifty-seven percent plan a business expansion in the next three years, Otterstein said. Those who aren't expanding were quizzed about impediments to growth, with an eye to removing those.
The survey is not complete. When it is, the organization plans to get its data to those that need it, including job trainers.
Mary Willmer-Sheedy, 5.0 co-chairwoman and community bank president for M&I in Janesville, said unemployment has improved but still is too high.
"The numbers are coming down. The bleeding has stopped," she said.
The 5.0 group has worked with companies that were on the verge of leaving Rock County. The group helped eliminate those companies' difficulties, and they decided to stay, Willmer-Sheedy said.
Willmer-Sheedy told the senators that local governments have being willing to provide incentives to get new businesses to locate here, but "we need help from our friends in Madison and Washington."