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Whether Foxconn will deliver on its promise to boost Wisconsin's economy and what the public could lose by the state waiving the company's environmental obligations are still prompting lots of debate.

Those questions were explored Saturday at the Cap Times Idea Fest, where panelists discussed the deal between the state and the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer on a panel titled "Will Foxconn Be Worth It For Wisconsin?" moderated by reporter Jessie Opoien.  

State Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D- Milwaukee; Tressie Kamp, an attorney with Midwest Environmental Advocates; state Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, and Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, discussed their concerns and outlined what the state should do going forward to ensure residents reap the most benefits from the deal. 

The most common question from audience members was whether Foxconn could be stopped at this point. Panelists agreed it would take a breach of contract by either the company or the state, a move that would send a bad sign to other companies looking to do business in Wisconsin, said Still. 

Foxconn has promised to invest $10 billion to build an LCD panel manufacturing plant in southeastern Wisconsin that will create between 3,000 and 13,000 jobs. In exchange, the state will offer about $3 billion in refundable tax credits — the largest subsidy to a foreign company in U.S. history — delivered on a "pay as you grow" basis tied to job creation and capital investment benchmarks. If the company fails to meet certain benchmarks, benefits may be clawed back.

Those provisions make the deal a sound one, said Still, who said the company is bringing a level of innovation to Wisconsin not often seen from the state's legacy companies. Foxconn helped create a $100 million fund of funds, an investment strategy aimed at funding startups and other kinds of business innovation, Still said.

Still said he believes the company is bringing a high tech presence the state has not had. Foxconn is "lifting a lot of boats" in a  state that can be "culturally conservative in terms of how it looks at things."

"Any of the legacy companies in Wisconsin could have done that a long time ago, but didn't," Still said. "What I see is a company that is really prepared to stay for the long haul and do things in Wisconsin for a long time. They are not going to pull out."

In addition to offering tax credits, Wisconsin has also agreed to relax some environmental regulations and change the process for legal appeals for the company. 

Environmental waivers have made it difficult for the public to really know what the details of Foxconn's construction are and its impact, said Kamp. Environmental reports often include additional information like infrastructure and transportation needs, and provides for more transparency that the public will not have the opportunity to see. 

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"The public would have had better access to one set of information to look at these questions, transportation," Kamp said. "From a legal perspective, some of the opportunities for that transparency have now been lost."

Kamp also cited concerns with taking water from Lake Michigan, where Foxconn is aiming to draw its water. The Great Lakes are governed by a multi-state agreement that determines how much water can be taken from the lakes. That agreement provides for Foxconn to take the water through a provision that some are opposing, and have filed a lawsuit to block the company from doing so.  

If an exemption "could be granted over and over again in the other communities ... we need to ask whether or not we can sustain the Great Lakes if all communities creep higher and higher into their historically allocated amounts," Kamp said. 

Johnson and Hintz noted the investments that still need to be made in education and transportation to train Wisconsin workers from Racine and Milwaukee for some of Foxconn's jobs. That is money in addition to the tax credits that the state will have to find, and has already struggled to find with its own in-state projects, Hintz said, who noted that state transportation funding on its own roads have decreased. He said the public ultimately needs more "accountability and transparency."

Johnson said her biggest concern was the employment piece of Foxconn, noting that there needs to be an effort to get jobs to Wisconsin workers first so their income tax dollars can stay in the state. The state will need to improve public transportation for Milwaukee residents to get to Foxconn for work. 

"The investment is going to need to be in education and also in transportation to make sure individuals have a way to make sure they have a way to get to the Foxconn employment positions.... that’s a huge concern making sure our tax dollars are there for the employees that want to work there," Johnson said. 

 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.