By Steve Jagler Special to Published Jun 08, 2007 at 7:20 AM

Should the government just stand back and let the free market decide which products, technologies and energy sources proliferate and which ones perish? Or should the government provide subsidies that could help speed up the development of certain commodities?

That philosophical debate is playing out in Wisconsin at this very moment.

Gov. Jim Doyle and Commerce Secretary Mary Burke are making their case by seeking to allocate $30 million in state spending for their Renewable Energy Program over the next two years. Doyle wants the state to generate 25 percent of its electricity and transportation fuel from renewable fuels by 2025.

The state funding would help increase the use of renewable fuels and would help develop alternative energy sources, Burke told SBT this week. The funding also would provide seed money to help start-up companies develop new technologies. Such funding is much more effective with such young companies than simply giving them tax credits, since they need the cash flow to get going, Burke said.

The Democrats fell one vote shy on the Joint Finance Committee to getting the money allocated for the program.

Critics say the free market should decide which energy sources flourish, not public subsidies. They also don't like Doyle's proposed method of funding the program – raising the tipping fees for garbage hauled to landfills.

Indeed, the free market has been a guiding light throughout this nation's history. Capitalism has driven innovation, which has driven progress.

However, there are historical instances in which government-induced incentives served the greater good: seat belt laws and gas mileage requirements come to mind, not to mention government-imposed recalls of defective merchandise, drugs or foods.

Burke has not thrown in the towel on this one.

"We're not giving up the fight. This could be the future of our state. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Wisconsin," Burke said.

Burke pointed out that many of our neighboring states are seizing the moment: Illinois has proposed spending $225 million over 10 years in renewable energy technologies; Michigan has proposed investing more then $100 million over the next three years for renewable energy technologies; Minnesota recently approved nearly $38 million in support for renewable energy and ethanol production; and Pennsylvania has approved spending $10 million for innovative, advanced energy projects.

According to Burke, the advanced alternate fuel research projects in other states are luring away some of the brightest bio-fuel minds from Wisconsin – and the angel investment capital that goes with them.

"These are some of our cutting-edge folks, and other states are wooing them away," she said. "To me, it's about jobs. Wisconsin is so well-positioned, but we have to go after it."
It remains to be seen which alternate fuel sources ultimately will win out. They're generating fuel out of sugar cane in the South. They've been making ethanol out of corn in the Midwest. Ultimately, the Wisconsin's most efficient local fuel supply could come from switchgrass, whey byproducts or wood waste.

Then again, maybe hydrogen will jump ahead of all of the fuel sources, leaving all combustible engines behind to be relics.

This is an issue with high stakes. Let's not mess up this moment in history. Let's drop our pre-conceived agendas, look honestly at all the research and make the right decisions.

This should not be a Democrat thing or a Republican thing. This should not hinge upon which special interests are donating the most campaign funds to one side or the other. This should be based entirely on the greater good.

On one thing we can all agree … the less we have to depend upon oil from the Middle East, the better off we'll all be.

Steve Jagler Special to

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes in Milwaukee and is past president of the Milwaukee Press Club. BizTimes provides news and operational insight for the owners and managers of privately held companies throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

Steve has won several journalism awards as a reporter, a columnist and an editor. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

When he is not pursuing the news, Steve enjoys spending time with his wife, Kristi, and their two sons, Justin and James. Steve can be reached at