A wide array of Wisconsin environmental regulations would be waived in an effort to speed up construction of a $10 billion Foxconn electronics factory under a proposal Gov. Scott Walker unveiled July 29.
Walker's deal also would put taxpayers on the hook for paying up to $200 million a year to the Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group as an incentive for locating a plant in the state. That give-away comes on top of Wisconsin's practice of not charging taxes on manufacturing credits in the state.
The total deal would cost the state $3 billion.
Walker called on the Republican-controlled Legislature to consider his measure as early as tomorrow, but that doesn't appear likely. His plan also would borrow $252 million to finish rebuilding Interstate 94, which connects Milwaukee with Chicago and runs near where the massive display panel factory is expected to be built.
The plant would be the first outside of Asia to produce liquid crystal display monitors used in computers, televisions and other devices. Walker calls it a once-a-generation opportunity to transform Wisconsin’s economy.
The envisioned factory, expected to open in 2020, would be 20 million square feet on a campus that spans 1.56-square-miles in what Walker is calling the “Wisconn Valley.” It would initially employ 3,000 people, but the deal calls for that to grow to 13,000 within six years.
According to Walker, failure to create and maintain jobs will affect Foxconn’s annual payout from the state’s government.
The Milwaukee Business Journal reported that the Bucks are pitching Foxconn on naming rights to the team’s new stadium and that the company has been exploring the prospect of opening an office in downtown Milwaukee.
Walker, who’s expected to run for a third term next year, took to the air on July 29 in a campaign-style airplane tour to make the case that the entire state would benefit from a plant three-times the size of the Pentagon.
“There’s a whole lot of people out there scrambling to try and come up with a reason not to like this,” Walker said in Eau Claire. “I can tell you, that’s fine but I think they can go suck lemons. The rest of us are going to cheer and figure out how we get this thing going forward.”
Environmental groups are among those with reasons not to like his plan. It would allow Foxconn, without permits, to discharge dredged materials, fill wetlands, change the course of streams, build artificial bodies of water that connect with natural waterways and build on a riverbed or lakebed.
Foxconn would also be exempt from having to create a state environmental impact statement, something required for much smaller projects.
“Building economic strength, creating jobs, and protecting Wisconsin’s vulnerable natural resources are not mutually exclusive endeavors," Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, said in a prepared statement.
"We all love Wisconsin." she continued. "We want Wisconsin’s economy to be as healthy as its drinking water, air, lakes, and rivers.
"We were surprised by Gov. Walker’s radical exemptions for Foxconn. A rollback of such an extreme nature is unnecessary. Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters asks legislators to get the job done right — protect their constituents’ public health and water resources by rejecting the sweeping anti-conservation exemptions in the Foxconn bill.”
The location of the new plant might also become a troublesome part of the deal. Although the exact location has not been determined, Foxconn is focusing its search on sites in Racine and Kenosha counties.
“Gov. Walker has some explaining to do to taxpayers in every corner of the state who will foot the bill for this deal on the Illinois border,” said Scot Ross, director of the liberal activist group One Wisconsin Now.
Walker might have anticipated that objection in choosing to take his campaign-style rollout of the deal to La Crosse, Eau Claire and Wausau.
Lobbyist Bill McCoshen, who helped negotiate economic development deals in Gov. Tommy Thompson’s administration, said bipartisan support for the project should help ease the bill’s passage.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin attended President Donald Trump’s White House announcement of the deal, and two-time Walker challenger Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett praised it at a signing event on July 28. Other Democratic lawmakers have spoken in support.
University of Wisconsin-Madison agricultural economist Steve Deller said that based on what he knows of the deal, the state structured it in the most responsible way possible.
“It seems as though, if you’re going to do this, this is the way to go about it,” he said.
One of the harshest critics within the Legislature is Democratic state Sen. Dave Hansen, who represents Green Bay. He said moving quickly on the $3 billion incentive package would be “a serious case of legislative malpractice.”
Hansen expressed concerns that Foxconn would replace jobs at the plant with robots, as it has done at other facilities.
“Before the governor and legislators mortgage the future of Wisconsin taxpayers, possibly for decades, they should think very carefully about the long-term needs of the state rather than their own re-election,” Hansen said.
A group of four Republican lawmakers from northeast Wisconsin pushed back against Hansen’s claims.
Rep. David Steffen, of Green Bay, said there will be countless economic benefits across the state. Walker’s administration has estimated that there will be 22,000 other new jobs in construction and other associated fields thanks to the project.
“To think that someone would actively cheer against this type of economic growth is insane,” Steffen said.
[This story has been updated to include response from the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.]
Louis Weisberg contributed to this story.
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