It is no secret that Scott Walker played the fool in what were generously referred to as “negotiations” with Foxconn, the multinational corporation that reached a sweetheart deal with the former governor in 2017. Walker locked Wisconsin taxpayers into a semi-permanent relationship with a controversial company that has been plagued by news reports about how it has treated workers poorly, harmed the environment, and failed to follow through on agreements.
That was a bad start. Then things got worse. Despite Walker’s cheerleading, a steady stream of leaks and revelations raised questions about the soundness of the deal. And it became abundantly clear, even to those who continued to defend the arrangement, that inflated expectations were being altered and abandoned.
Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently referred to “Wisconsin’s Disastrous $4.5 Billion Deal With Foxconn,” reporting: “A huge tax break was supposed to create a manufacturing paradise, but interviews with 49 people familiar with the project depict a chaotic operation unlikely to ever employ 13,000 workers.” A Business Insider article on Foxconn’s arrangement with Wisconsin concluded that “evidence is mounting it's a terrible deal.” The business-friendly magazine Reason has referred to the deal as a “boondoggle.” Last fall, Fortune magazine headlined an article: “In Wisconsin, Some Fear Foxconn Factory's Main Product Is Smoke and Mirrors.” A February headline in another business journal, Forbes, read: “Foxconn Fiasco Proves Manufacturing Revival Won't Happen Without Accountability.”
Amid the reports of mounting costs and declining commitments, the debate about whether Walker failed Wisconsin was settled. He did. And the mess he made of things contributed to his defeat for re-election in 2018.
Walker is gone. But his failure continues to haunt Wisconsin.
In part, this is because the former governor did not screw up on his own.
Walker had help from the legislative leaders who were supposed to check and balance the former governor’s rank ineptitude. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a popcorn salesman from western Racine County, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a career politician from rural Dodge County, like to portray themselves as fiscally conservative Republicans. But they gave away the store, gleefully placing their rubber stamps on Walker’s crony capitalist commitment to provide Foxconn with as much as $3 billion in taxpayer-funded subsidies in return for the company’s over-the-top promise to create as many as 13,000 jobs. Estimates of the cost to taxpayers rapidly rose, even as signals regarding actual job creation grew mixed.
No one in their right mind imagined that Walker, a desperate political climber who was trying to save his job after a failed presidential bid, knew what he was doing. But Vos and Fitzgerald were supposed to bring some small measure of accountability to the process. That didn’t happen. The Republican legislators were being paid to represent the taxpayers of Wisconsin, but they chose instead to represent Foxconn.
They are still doing so — to the embarrassment of themselves and the state.
Gov. Tony Evers, the man who beat Walker and who now must clean up the messes made by his bumbling predecessor, announced in mid-April that he would work with Foxconn to revise the troubled deal. This was a responsible and necessary move. Yet, in shoot-first, aim-later fashion, Fitzgerald and Vos immediately attacked Evers.
The Senate leader charged that “the governor has wanted to undermine the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. from day one” and claimed ominously that any move to “renege” on Walker’s commitment to Foxconn would cost the state its credibility with corporate interests.
Vos dismissed talk of renegotiation of the bad deal as “naive” and told 1130 WISN radio that Evers was “clearly above his pay grade on some of these decisions.” The Assembly leader charged that the governor does “not understand the full ramifications of the words that he says and the actions he is trying to take with his administration.”
“It is beyond my level of understanding to think a governor of the state of Wisconsin is basically rooting for the failure of the largest economic development project in the state’s history,” said Vos, who announced on April 17 that the Foxconn deal was “ironclad.”
The next day, April 18, Foxconn officials let it be known that they were “open to further consultation, collaboration and new ideas” in their deliberations with the Evers administration and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
It turned out that Evers was speaking from a place of knowledge about the nuanced process of trying to encourage job creation while protecting taxpayers, workers and the environment.
As for Vos and Fitzgerald, well, the Collins English Dictionary refers to a circumstance in which individuals are “beclowned” by making fools of themselves.
When the Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader failed to provide adequate oversight for the Foxconn deal in 2017, they embarrassed themselves. But with their blank-stare defenses of the flawed arrangement, they have compounded that embarrassment, playing the fools again and again.
Vos and Fitzgerald are now fully beclowned.
At this point, the two Republican leaders need to get out of the way and let an adult take the lead. There is still a chance that Evers can, with serious-minded negotiation and an awareness of the realities of a rapidly evolving technological landscape, reach a reasonable arrangement with Foxconn.
But Vos and Fitzgerald need to stand down because, if these clowns screw things up again, the joke is going to be on the taxpayers of Wisconsin. And it will not be funny.
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