Dozens of people packed into a room at the State Capitol on Thursday for a public hearing on Foxconn’s plans to build a huge plant in southeastern Wisconsin. An Assembly committee heard testimony on a bill that would provide $3 billion in tax incentives for the Taiwanese company.
Foxconn plans to invest $10 billion and eventually employ up to 13,000 people, in a massive operation that would make LCD screens for TVs and other electronics. Gov. Walker is pushing for the plant – and the incentives package. Some of the governor’s top lieutenants were on hand to make the case for the legislation.
The LCD screen plant would be Foxconn’s first major manufacturing operation in the U.S. Company officials have been scouting a few sites in Kenosha and Racine counties, but haven’t announced a specific location.
Department of Administration Secretary Scott Neitzel told the Assembly committee the plant is a “once in a generation” opportunity. He credited the governor and other Republicans for making it possible.
“The reforms implemented by Gov. Walker and the legislature over the last six years have drastically improved the business climate," he said.
Neitzel says the partnership with Foxconn would transform the economic landscape and establish Wisconsin as the nation's leader in electronics manufacturing. “This opportunity will produce a Wisconsin brain gain which will end our brain drain."
Another person touting the agreement was Mark Hogan, CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. He insisted that the state would not issue any tax subsidies until the company turns some soil.
“Foxconn will not receive any dollars from the state until they begin making the capital expenditures and hiring employees,” Hogan said.
Some Democrats on the committee were skeptical, including state Rep. David Crowley of Milwaukee. He wondered whether the Foxconn plant would provide jobs to those who need them, such as his constituents who would have to commute to work.
“I’m concerned about those who are unemployed and underemployed and their ability to get to Foxconn," he said. "What are we doing to make sure that there’s a public transportation infrastructure so that people can get to these jobs?”
Crowley got this response from Walker’s team: “There are a number of assets on transportation that are in that corridor and we have reviewed and looked at all of those, including the possibility of strengthening some of those options.”
Another Milwaukee Democrat, Christine Sinicki, had a different question about the thousands of people who would work for Foxconn. She asked whether the state's generous incentives package would ensure that Wisconsin residents will be able to find employment.
“You talked earlier about the possibility that Illinois workers might get these jobs and I want to know if you can amend the bill to put some type of revision in there that would call for the construction work and any work following be done by Wisconsin workers,” Sinicki said.
Mark Hogan of WEDC said he couldn’t honor Sinicki’s request. “We will fill as much as we can with Wisconsin residents but naturally we’re going to look elsewhere, the company will look elsewhere.”
Many others voiced their concerns at the lengthy hearing, including Stephanie Bloomingdale of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. She told the Assembly committee that the Foxconn incentives package lacks guarantees related to working conditions.
“The bill as it sits right now, is silent on worker protections. In fact, in its current form, it does not even mention worker rights, training, skills or safety," she said.
Bloomingdale urged lawmakers not to rush the bill through the legislature. Yet lawmakers are expected to act relatively quickly on the package, in hopes of a Foxconn groundbreaking in the not-too-distant future.
In the same breath that Department of Administration Secretary Scott Neitzel outlined the benefits of the Foxconn deal, he assured the committee the project would not degrade the environment.
The bill would exempt the company from state wetland regulations and, critics fear, reduce the DNR’s ability to keep environmental tabs on the project.
“The modifications do not impact any federal requirements, nor does it change any state air, water quality, or solid and hazard waste standard,” Neitzel added, “Wetland mitigation is strengthened under this legislation. Any wetlands that are filled within the zone must be mitigated at a ratio of two to one. That is a higher ratio than is currently required under state law which is 1.2 to 1.”
The bill eliminates a commonly-required, in-depth environmental analysis called an Environmental Impact Statement.
DNR deputy secretary Kurt Thiede said removing the time-consuming step will not compromise his agency’s review of Foxconn’s plans: “The Environmental Impact Statement itself has no regulatory consequence, it’s gathering of information. There’s nothing in this bill that rolls back any of the air construction permits that will be required, the air monitoring requirements that are going to be in place and the standards that are associated with those permits, the stormwater requirements, the waste requirements and how that’s managed. And the DNR’s committed to work with the company throughout the operation and construction.”
The business group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce also said it's not concerned that Foxconn would get a pass on environmental analysis. Spokesman Lucas Veber dismissed the process as a meaningless book report.
"Environmental advocates have been misleading the public for the past several days about the extent of the permitting reforms in this legislation. (For example) the Environmental Impact Statement, it just simply maps out forward what may or may not be required in the future," Veber said.
Jennifer Giegerich with the League of Conservation Voters disagrees.
“What the Environment Impact Statement does is it looks at the whole project and gives you an idea of all the different permits that will be needed, all the different pipes that will go into the waterways, all the smokestacks that go out, all the wetlands that will be disturbed.” Giegerich added, “If you don’t give local communities and citizens the ability to weigh in on that, that is where there starts to be distrust and concern about what’s happening.”
She is also concerned about the bill’s wetland provisions. “They are literally what filters our drinking water, so any rain water that comes off a parking lot or a farm field, the wetland is what clears it off before it goes into the ground. It’s also the major source of flooding protection.”
Southeastern Wisconsin, where Foxconn is expected to put down roots, is historically rich with wetlands. Under the bill, Foxconn could offset the impact of disturbing wetlands, by “building” wetland somewhere else.
“A wetland is like a fire extinguisher, it really only gives you the benefits if it’s nearby. And so the fact that there is no requirements about where they’re built, that gives no flooding protection, that gives no clean water protections for the local community,” Giegerich said.
The public hearing lasted for nearly ten hours. The committee heard from a lot of invited speakers along the way.
One of the people who stuck it out to the hearing’s final minutes was Mike Dickman, because the Stoughton resident said of his deep environmental concerns.
“In 2017 at a time where we know the value of water. It’s (the bill) is not even denying science, it’s it’s defying science. What will be the cost if this does not work out well for us environmentally,” Dickman said.