There is no doubt that Wisconsin must increase the share of venture capital dollars that it attracts. Elected officials of both parties, business leaders and activists of all kinds have known that for decades. I am not overly dogmatic about the exact method that we choose to accomplish that goal as long as it is done in a thoughtful manner that gives our state the best chance for long term success. But the last thing that we need is to just blindly accept any one approach without asking all of the hard questions and doing our due diligence.
It is also just as important to have this discussion openly. That openness should not only include elected officials but also the high profile individuals that have been most aggressive in trying to influence the eventual outcome. There are certainly people with financial and other interests that are publicly engaged in this policy debate. But what concerns me most is the strong agenda pushing that seems to be occurring behind-the-scenes.
When the initial legislation on this issue was first presented, former insurance company CEO Tom Hefty went on the attack. I read his comments in multiple media outlets and wondered if he was representing someone in particular. I went to the “Eye on Lobbying” website and was fairly surprised, based on his activity, that he was not listed as a registered lobbyist. Later I learned that Mr. Hefty was also writing regular emails personally pressuring a number of legislators. One legislator that does not actually represent Mr. Hefty got at least 7 emails from him in less than a month.
In his emails to at least some of the legislators Tom Hefty repeatedly suggested that the proposed legislation would specifically disadvantage New Berlin insurance company, United Heartland. Hefty goes on to state that he “…served as CEO of Blue Cross for seventeen years and we founded United Heartland in 1990.”(emphasis mine) In his previous comments in the media and in his public statements, I don't recall him specifically advocating for the interests of any one company much less one that he had a hand in founding. So why was he doing so via email to legislators? An explanation would be helpful because without one we are left guessing.
In 2002 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel estimated that then-CEO Tom Hefty owned 30,000 shares in then-Blue Cross(Cobalt) stock. The report also said that he had options at the time to buy about 680,000 shares. Given his email advocacy, it seems fair to ask if a portion of that financial interest included United Heartland. In other words, does Mr. Hefty currently have a financial interest in that company? Obviously I don't know but perhaps that is another piece of information that he might consider disclosing. [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 6/2/02]
My point here is not a statement on the details of the venture capital legislation itself nor is it a challenge of Mr. Hefty’s right to voice his own personal opinions about it. It is to simply state that Wisconsin deserves an open and fully transparent discussion. If powerful individuals in our state are trying to influence legislators in one way or the other, they should also give the public a clear and consistent understanding of their motivations.