An overflow crowd filled a hearing room at the state Capitol Thursday, as lawmakers held their first hearing on a bill that would offer $3 billion in incentives to Taiwanese electronics maker Foxconn to build a major factory in southeastern Wisconsin.
While billed as a public hearing, lawmakers heard several hours of testimony from invited speakers first, who continued to speak well into the night.
Thursday’s hearing opened with the heads of multiple state agencies fielding questions from lawmakers, while touting the potential development from Foxconn as a transformative investment in the state. “This project is a once in a generation, maybe once in a century opportunity for our state,” said Department of Administration Secretary Scott Neitzel.
The incentive package unveiled less than a week ago includes tax credits for the company, along with changes in environmental permitting and wetlands replacement requirements for the factory Foxconn hopes to build in the state.
Democrats on the panel questioned many of the bill’s provisions, and whether the state runs the risk of handing out massive tax benefits with no guarantee of job creation. Representative Amanda Stuck (D-Appleton) also noted the absence of company officials at the hearing. “If they expect taxpayers to shell out $3 billion, why don’t they have someone here to answer questions?”
Foxconn provided written testimony, which was read by the chair of the committee at the start of the hearing.
Neitzel and other agency heads stressed that the bill provides multiple protections for the state, such as credits not kicking in until Foxconn has started construction of a factory and has started to employ some of the up to 13,000 workers the company says it could eventually hire. DNR Deputy Secretary Kurt Thiede also stressed that the bill will not prevent the state from monitoring Foxconn for potential air or water pollution, and other environmental hazards.
Neitzel touted the agreement as a chance to reverse a trend of talented people leaving the state – often referred to as the “brain drain” – and setting the stage for Wisconsin to become a leader in the technology industry. “This opportunity will produce a Wisconsin brain gain,” he argued.
The legislation is on the fast track in the Assembly, although majority Republicans in the Senate have so far shown no signs of urgency to take up the bill. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said earlier this week that his members are more focused on passing the state budget, which is now more than a month overdue.