Wisconsin court appeals process would be changed for Foxconn under bill

By Jessie Opoien, The Cap Times 

Legal decisions related to Wisconsin's deal with Taiwanese electronics manufacturing company Foxconn could be appealed directly to the state Supreme Court under legislation approved Tuesday by the Legislature's budget-writing committee.

The change would allow parties involved in court cases related to the state's electronics and information technology manufacturing zones to bypass the Court of Appeals following a ruling made by a circuit court judge. It would also require a circuit court judge to immediately put a ruling on hold if the decision is appealed to the Supreme Court.

Representatives from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau told lawmakers on the Joint Finance Committee they are unaware of any similar provision under state law applying to a specific company or enterprise zone like the one being created for Foxconn.

Democrats were suspicious of the change. Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, speculated that the company may be anticipating legal challenges and seeking a favorable decision from the state Supreme Court's conservative majority.

"I feel like it's rigging the game and it's a way to speed up the process to get a favorable decision in place at a time when, if anything, we need additional accountability and oversight," Shankland said.

The legislation "fails the accountability test," said Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.

The deal, currently working its way through the Legislature, offers Foxconn environmental exemptions and tax breaks tied to capital investment, employment and construction materials, in exchange for building a $10 billion LCD manufacturing facility in southeastern Wisconsin.

In a 59-30 vote with some bipartisan crossover, the state Assembly approved an earlier version of the bill last month. The amended version passed the Joint Finance Committee on a party line vote.

Supporters of the deal — primarily Republicans — say it is a rare opportunity that will benefit the entire state for years to come. Opponents — mostly Democrats — generally say they welcome the creation of jobs, but that the arrangement raises too many concerns.

The project is "probably the biggest thing to happen to Wisconsin since the cow," said Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who added that Foxconn will "reshape the direction of the state."

"This is going to be transformational. We’re going to be at the cutting edge of technology," said co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.

Under the changes added on Tuesday, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation would be required to "attempt to ensure" that Foxconn "has sought, and is seeking, to satisfy certain hiring goals in this state" before the company could receive $1.35 billion worth of capital expenditure credits.

The Legislative Audit Bureau would be required to audit, annually for five years, the process by which WEDC issues tax credits to the company.

Foxconn announced its intent in July to build the facility in Wisconsin, a project state officials have said would be "transformational" for the state and for the American manufacturing industry. CEO Terry Gou and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a memorandum of understanding last month outlining the terms of the deal, which must be approved by the Legislature by Sept. 30 to move forward.

Under the proposal, Foxconn would be eligible for up to $1.5 billion in credits for $9.5 billion of payroll expenditures over a 16-year period, and $1.35 billion in credits for $10.7 billion of capital expenditures over a five-year period. The company would also be eligible for a sales and use tax exemption on building materials, supplies and equipment used for construction of the facility, amounting to about $139 million.

The bill includes a provision that would encourage Foxconn to hire Wisconsin residents to fill the 3,000 to 13,000 jobs it has pledged to create. It would also set aside $20 million under the state Department of Workforce Development for a worker training and employment program.

The project would be exempted from state wetlands regulations and from preparing an environmental impact statement required by the state for some other projects. If wetlands are destroyed, mitigation efforts would be encouraged to take place within the same watershed. Wetland mitigation would be required to be done on a 2:1 ratio.

Wisconsin would break even on the deal 25 years after it is approved, according to analysis by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said the deal is "stacking the deck" for southeastern Wisconsin, creating an uneven playing field for businesses throughout the state. Erpenbach and other Democrats suggested the amendment approved on Tuesday could give WEDC the option of making the entire state an enterprise zone, thus extending environmental exemptions to other businesses.

Republicans on the committee argued the project will have benefits throughout Wisconsin.

Darling said Democrats opposed to the deal are showing "all this negativity about taking risk." In 10 years, she said, "I think what we’ll be seeing is a reformed, innovative, excellent opportunity for the citizens of this hard-working state."