Pay to play

After a Kimberly-Clark lobbyist and his wife gave Republican lawmakers more than $4,250 in late August, GOP leaders decided to reconsider giving tens of millions of dollars in tax incentives to the company, which had threatened to close its Wisconsin operations.

The Dallas-based maker of Huggies diapers and Kleenex tissues said it wanted the state to give them a deal modeled after the $4.5 billion arrangement that Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature gave Foxconn.

In February, the Assembly passed a deal that would have given up to $100 million in tax incentives to Kimberly-Clark if the company changed its mind about shuttering two plants in the state. Company officials responded they’d consider the deal, but only for its profitable Cold Creek plant. That facility employed 500 workers in January, nearly five times more than the company’s other plant in Neenah.

It’s unclear how much Republicans are willing to pay in order to keep just the larger plant running, but the difference in scale means that the price tag would be in the tens of millions.

Although the Assembly rubber-stamped the initial proposal, which was requested by Walker, Senate Republicans did not have enough votes to pass it.  Republican Sens. Chris Kapenga and Steve Nass publicly said they opposed the giveaway. Senate President Roger Roth and Sen. Alberta Darling were the only Republicans who said they approve the measure, and no Democratic senators offered their approval.

But now Republicans say they want to consider it after the Nov. 6 elections. Critics of the plan have suggested that the lack of support for Walker’s Foxconn giveaway — the largest ever offered in the United States to a foreign company — has something to do with the timing.

Kimberly-Clark had also demanded labor concessions in exchange for keeping open the Cold Creek plant. United Steelworkers District 2 ratified those concessions in late July, although news reports suggested not all of the mill’s employees were happy with the deal.

“In all good faith, I can’t have other people pay for me to have a job,” employee Richard Smith told the Appleton Post-Crescent. “That doesn’t seem right.”

‘It doesn’t even cost that much’

R.J. Pirlot registered to lobby for Kimberly-Clark on Aug. 22. He and his wife donated $4,250 to GOP legislators and committees that work to elect Republican lawmakers between Aug. 15 and Aug. 31. The contributions included $500 to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, $250 to Senate President Roger Roth, $250 to Sen. Chris Kapenga and $250 to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Just weeks later, Fitzgerald and Vos ordered the Legislature to reconvene in a lame-duck session to reconsider the deal that Senate Republicans had passed on previously.

Despite the unethical appearances, Pirlot's donations were entirely legal. State law allows lobbyists to donate to legislative candidates between the last day of the Legislature's regular session and the general election, and there's no prohibition on lobbyist contributions to legislative campaign committees.

Still, Joanna Beilman-Dulin, research director for liberal group One Wisconsin Now, accused Pirlot of using money to ensure the Senate takes up the bill.

“It seems Kimberly-Clark's new hired-gun lobbyist thinks campaign cash is the way to thank supporters like Roger Roth and open others' doors,” she said in a statement.

Matt Rothschild, executive director of government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said in an e-mail that Kimberly-Clark’s lobbyist “is sprinkling donations all around to influential Republican legislators in an apparent effort to grease the skids for the upcoming special session.”

“We've got the best Legislature money can buy, and it doesn't even cost that much,” he added.

Pirlot didn't immediately reply to an email, nor did aides for Fitzgerald, Roth and Kapenga.

Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this article.

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