In his final days in the governor's office, Gov. Scott Walker is making it a priority to keep hundreds of manufacturing jobs in the Fox Valley by striking a deal with Kimberly-Clark.
Walker told reporters Tuesday he doesn't plan to sign a set of proposals passed last week in a lame-duck session until he can find a way to keep open the company's Cold Spring plant in Fox Crossing. The facility, which manufactures hygiene products including Depend undergarments and Kotex pads, currently employs just under 400 people.
"It all ties to Kimberly-Clark," Walker said when asked about a timeline for considering the lame-duck bills. "To me, I can't stress enough, the reason we're not acting on any of this is because my priority is on Kimberly-Clark. It's why I asked the lawmakers to do an extraordinary session in the first place. It frustrated me that they didn't give us the tools we needed then, and my focus is … if I do nothing else, I'm going to find a way, I'm going to do everything in my power to save the jobs at Kimberly-Clark."
Walker said his hope is to find a solution for Kimberly-Clark and "shortly thereafter" consider the lame-duck bills.
The governor called on the Legislature in February to pass legislation offering tax breaks similar to the ones authorized under the state's $3 billion deal with Foxconn when Kimberly-Clark announced it would cut as many as 5,000 jobs and shutter 10 plants globally to save up to $550 million.
The state Assembly passed the bill with a 56-37 vote in February, but it never made it to the Senate floor.
In early October, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said they would call an extraordinary session to pass the bill in November. But Fitzgerald said late last month there weren't enough votes from the Senate's Republican majority to pass the legislation.
Among the Senate's current 18-15 Republican majority, Fitzgerald said the bill likely only had the support of 10 or 11 Republican senators, meaning it would need a "significant amount" of Democratic votes to pass. No Democrats came forward to support the bill, arguing they had been left out of the process and hadn't had a chance to offer input.
That leaves Walker looking for a way to keep the plant open without the Legislature's approval. That could come in the form of a contract with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which is authorized through its enterprise zone tax credit program to award tax credits to companies looking to expand an existing Wisconsin business or move their operations to the state. If done this way, the size of the tax credit package for Kimberly-Clark would likely be smaller than what was proposed in legislation.
Under current law, WEDC can designate up to 30 enterprise zones without legislative approval. The agency has designated 26. However, a provision included in the lame-duck bills passed last week would change the way those credits are administered. Under the new bill, WEDC could exceed the 30-zone limit, but each zone would require approval from the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee.
Although the deal has been framed primarily as a way to keep jobs in Wisconsin, Kimberly-Clark executives told lawmakers last month they would not only keep the plant open, but would invest up to $500 million and hire up to 52 new employees at the Cold Spring plant if a deal is approved.
WEDC Secretary and CEO Mark Hogan told reporters Monday his conversations with Kimberly-Clark executives have not concluded. A request for comment from Kimberly-Clark did not get an immediate response.
"We don't comment on pending conversations or awards, but I will say … I have been actively engaged with Kimberly-Clark since the end of January, and our discussions have continued. We continue to talk and figure out, is there a way to work with them, but relative to where we are in that process I'm not prepared to say," Hogan said.
The WEDC board of directors met Wednesday in a closed session "to review pending economic development projects." It is not known which projects were discussed. The agency does not comment on pending or potential deals unless a contract has been executed, spokesman Mark Maley said in an email.
The company did not ask for incentives from the state, Kimberly-Clark Vice President of Global Manufacturing John Deitrich said in a hearing last month, but when they were offered, "it changed the game."