MADISON - Choppers and cheese may soon become official Wisconsin symbols.
Bills to honor Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Lactococcus lactis - a bacterium used in the making of cheese - with the state symbol designation were introduced in the Legislature last week.
Supporters say that naming two of the state's most well-known exports as the official motorcycle and microbe will help promote the dairy and motorcycle industries in lean times.
"It doesn't cost anything to designate a state microbe," said Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, who introduced the microbe measure. "Anything we can do to encourage the dairy industry, we need to do that."
Politicians have never been afraid to try to score political points by capitalizing on Wisconsin's cheese industry and Harley-Davidson's home base in Milwaukee. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson used to frequently refer to Wisconsin as the land where "Harleys roar and the Packers score."
The efforts to honor the state's cheese and bike heritage come at a time when both the dairy industry and Harley-Davidson, along with the entire state economy, are struggling. Unemployment is nearly double what it was a year ago and in the past 12 months nearly 130,000 people have lost their jobs.
Harley-Davidson laid off more than 1,000 this year alone, with about half of the cuts occurring in Milwaukee where it's been based ever since William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson built their first motorcycle in 1903.
As for dairy, Wisconsin is the nation's leading cheese-making state with 2.5 billion pounds produced last year alone, but a steep drop in the price of milk combined with rising production costs has put the squeeze on farmers. The industry has lost $1 billion in equity this year, said Tim Griswold, director of business development for the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association.
Shouldn't politicians be focusing on ways to help the struggling dairy and manufacturing industries instead of memorializing them with an official designation?
Griswold called the move "positive" and said it could promote the state's $18 billion dairy industry.
Hebl said naming Lactococcus lactis the official state microbe would honor not only Wisconsin's cheese-making history but also increase publicity about how important microbes and the state's biotech industry is. Bacteriologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been urging support for the microbe via their Web site.
The idea for naming Harley-Davidson the official state motorcycle came from a family member of Sgt. Jeremy Vrooman, who was killed last year while serving in Iraq. Vrooman lived in Sioux Falls, S.D., but has family in Superior.
Rep. Leon Young, D-Milwaukee, and Sen. Spencer Coggs, D-Milwaukee, were co-sponsoring the bill. In a letter calling for his colleagues' support, Young said the long and storied history of Harley-Davidson in Wisconsin made it appropriate to honor it with the distinction of being the official state motorcycle.
A spokesman for Harley-Davidson did not immediately return a message Friday seeking comment.
If the legislation is approved, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Lactococcus lactis would join 25 other state symbols including the cranberry, milk and the polka. An official Wisconsin tartan, the newest symbol, was added in 2007.
The bills naming the official state motorcycle and microbe have not yet been scheduled for public hearings. To take effect they must pass both the Senate and Assembly and be signed by Gov. Jim Doyle.