Former lawmaker Knilans still advocates for small business
JANESVILLE — Former state Rep. Joe Knilans says he's always had an interest in helping small businesses wade through regulations.
Thanks to Deb Kolste and Gov. Scott Walker, Knilans is still in Madison working to cut the red tape that businesses have long said is a scourge on the state.
In what was a surprise to many, the Republican newcomer defeated incumbent Mike Sheridan—then Assembly Speaker—in 2010 to represent the 44th Assembly District, which includes nearly all of Janesville.
He rode into Madison with Walker and quickly threw his support behind most of the governor's controversial initiatives.
His work in the Assembly was limited to one term. Democrat Deb Kolste of Janesville easily defeated him in last November's election.
Knilans wasn't idle for long. Walker's office—through the state's Department of Administration—asked him to be one of two directors of the Office of Business Development.
Created by Walker, the office works with small business owners, trade groups and organizations, and chambers of commerce. It serves as a liaison between those interests, the Small Business Regulatory Review Board, the Legislature and state agencies.
The review board was created in 2003 and revived and reformed in 2011. Its members are seven small business owners who review every rule and work to remove antiquated and unnecessary regulations. Its primary responsibility is to give small business owners a seat at the table when discussing state regulations.
"When I was campaigning, I talked a lot about streamlining the state's regulatory climate," Knilans said in an interview in May at his office in the Department of Administration building just off the Capitol Square in Madison. "But when you're one guy out of 99, it's much more difficult.
"This is a perfect fit for me. The governor's office called, and I think they saw an opportunity to bring in someone familiar with the issues."
Others, however, have said Knilans' appointment has more to do with political cronyism than job skills, a charge that has surfaced for decades in Wisconsin, regardless of the political party doing the appointing.
Knilans is a former worker and supervisor at the now closed General Motors plant in Janesville. He was elected to the Assembly not long after earning a political science degree from UW-Whitewater.
In his new position, he's paid $82,000 a year—64 percent more than what he was paid as a lawmaker.
Stephanie Marquis, Department of Administration spokeswoman, said in an email that Knilans "has first-hand experience in working with the Legislature, and his experience, knowledge and legislative relationships are key to helping resolve business regulatory issues that are included in state law.
"In addition, Joe was born and raised in a small business family—he was the son of a veterinarian who owned his own business. He understands how regulations can impact a small business owner."
Knilans co-directs the office with Nancy Mistele, a former Madison School Board member and unsuccessful candidate for Dane County executive and state Senate. Mistele once ran another state agency and calls herself a "serial entrepreneur" who has started and operated private businesses.
On the road
"Business owners don't have the time to do what they need to do, let alone deal with confusing regulations across a variety of agencies," Mistele said during a May interview. "We're basically the small business ombudsman because we have access to the governor, the Legislature and the agencies."
Added Knilans: "We like to say we're from the government, and we're here to help. We get a chuckle at that, but we really are trying to help."
Knilans has been on the job since February, and his car's odometer shows the miles he's traveled to all corners of the state.
In La Crosse, he heard complaints about Department of Transportation rules that limit milk haulers' weight on state roads. Another agency has a higher limit for tanks on home farms, which creates inefficiencies for the haulers.
"We identified that problem and have taken it to the review board," Knilans said. "If the board agrees, we'll take it to the agencies to work out and then hopefully to the Legislature."
In another part of the state, he heard from veterinarians who believed they were overburdened by detailed recordkeeping of narcotics originally intended for pharmacies.
Other issues raised included boiler inspection exemptions, excessive wall bracing and requirements for continuing education credits.
"It will take some time, and we're really getting the low-hanging fruit now," Knilans said. "Making the rules simpler can free up capital and create jobs.
"In some cases, what we're looking at is aligning the state regulations with federal regulations. We need to be tougher than the feds in some areas, but not all."
On Tuesday, Knilans joined Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in Janesville at a small business roundtable. They heard questions and comments on a variety of issues, including job skills, minimum wage training periods, inconsistencies of state administrative law judges and the impact of the pending Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on small businesses.
"It's important for us to hear from you," Kleefisch said. "Joe and Nancy can serve as your concierge and ombudsman … your partner and helper to navigate the channels of government that many times look like a delta."
In his new position, Knilans said he navigates those channels while working with many of the same lawmakers he sat next to or across from in the Assembly.
Left behind, he said, is the stress of partisan politics.
"My family is certainly relieved," he said. "But I signed up for that, and I think we made some positive steps in the right direction, and we're starting to see that it's working. It was a great opportunity that not a lot of people get. I'm happy I had the opportunity, but now I have a new opportunity to help."