By Marti Mikkleson, WUWM News
State lawmakers have held several meetings about the huge Foxconn plant that the Taiwanese company wants to build in southeastern Wisconsin. But, Tuesday’s hearing was different. It was the first crack the Joint Finance committee had at the deal. And, the public hearing was held in Racine County – one of the counties likely in the running to land the LCD screen manufacturing facility.
Gov. Walker is promoting a $3 billion incentives package to help the Foxconn plant get off the ground. And he wants to loosen some of the state's environmental regulations in order to accommodate the Taiwanese electronics giant. Foxconn has said it plans to initially employ 3,000 people, but could end up creating up to 13,000 jobs.
Mark Hogan, of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, was among the first to sell the plan to members of the Joint Finance committee. He reiterated a position he's shared the last few weeks, that the state’s contribution would be a pay-as-you-grow investment.
“Foxconn will not receive any dollars from the state until they begin making the capital expenditures and hiring employees," Hogan said.
But some members of the panel shared their doubts about Foxconn's jobs promise. Democratic state Rep. Katrina Shankland addressed Department of Administration Secretary Scott Neitzel and said she's concerned the plant may close before the state's investment pays off.
Shankland pointed out that technology changes quickly, and there's no guarantee that the LCD screens the company makes will be needed in coming decades. She cited the shuttered Motorola plant in Harvey, Illinois; it manufactured flip phones, now a thing of the past.
"I’m wondering if you’ve assessed other marketplace conditions in other states and countries where Foxconn has made these investments and left?" Shankland asked.
To which, Neitzel responded: "To the Motorola story, that was a flip phone and yes, technology can change but think about all the uses for screens, going forward. It’s not just for entertainment, it’s in the medical field, it’s in automobiles, self-driving cars, it is across the spectrum."
Gov. Walker and his department heads have been making the case for Foxconn, saying Wisconsin desperately needs the jobs. But Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee asked why the incentives package is missing a couple of provisions she considers key. She told WEDC's Mark Hogan that the bill should have included provisions for minority contractors: "What’s in this bill to address the crisis issues that you speak about, not only minority businesses being able to get an opportunity to get state contracts but in this deal?"
Hogan said, "There are no guarantees on any of this, but the guarantee that I have is that we have a commitment to make this work, and to make sure that the underemployed and the unemployed people that have the abilities and we are going to give them the training, that they have the opportunity to work for Foxconn. That’s our responsibility as public servants."
During the lengthy question and answer period between committee and cabinet members, others waiting to speak milled about in the halls. Nabeeh El-Amin of Racine said he likes the idea of jobs coming to the area, but shares some of Sen. Taylor's worries.
“There’s no specific plan for employing the least employed of Wisconsin and that’s probably my biggest concern,” he said.
Tammy Wood, who drove from Elroy to attend the hearing, said she's concerned both about the plant's impact on the environment, and the financial implications of the deal. The $3 billion incentives package Gov. Walker and fellow Republicans are backing is the largest in the state's history.
“Our state is going to be cutting a check to Foxconn every year for 15 years and that money is going to come from other valuable resources that we don’t have," she said. "We don’t have money for our roads right now, we don’t have money for our education system."
The governor's plan includes $250 million in borrowing for freeway improvements from Milwaukee south to the Illinois border. The Joint Finance committee will vote on that measure when lawmakers resume work on the two-year state budget.
The broader incentives package is working its way through the Legislature. The Assembly passed it last week. The bill goes next to the state Senate.