Mayor Paul Soglin slammed the state’s job-creation agency and top business lobby in the wake of revelations that they discussed Kraft Heinz facilities being lured out of the state in June, but saw no need to contact the company before it announced in November that Madison’s Oscar Mayer headquarters would close.
Soglin said the Legislature should open an investigation into why the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. didn’t reach out to Kraft Heinz after the company’s merger was announced in March.
“You’ve got a state agency committed to economic development. It’s run by a governor and a Legislature that has claimed that economic development is the most important thing for Wisconsin,” Soglin said Thursday in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal. “Then one of the biggest challenges imaginable slaps them in the face, and they do nothing. That’s the bottom line.”
WEDC officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The State Journal reported this week that emails showed a conversation took place in June between Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and WEDC officials related to other states luring Kraft Heinz facilities away from Wisconsin.
The records don’t show any discussion about Oscar Mayer, but they do show a WEDC official was dissuaded from contacting Kraft Heinz after meeting with WMC senior vice president Jim Morgan. Morgan reiterated Thursday that the conversation was about a cheese-processing facility in Beaver Dam that Kraft Heinz plans to keep open, and not related to Madison.
“To twist the loss of jobs for political gain is shameful,” Morgan said in response to Soglin’s comments.
Soglin called the focus on the Beaver Dam facility a “lame excuse” that “obfuscates the issue.” He said his office contacted Oscar Mayer on March 30 based on the “instinct” that the Kraft Heinz merger could result in layoffs and plant closures. He met with company officials on July 29, before the company announced an initial round of 165 layoffs in August.
A WEDC official spoke with Kraft Heinz executives shortly after the Nov. 4 announcement that the Madison headquarters would close, cutting 1,000 local jobs. They first met with them in person on Nov. 19. After hearing from WMC on June 18 about other states trying to lure Wisconsin facilities, a WEDC official suggested contacting Kraft Heinz as soon as possible but that didn’t happen.
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“When they get evidence of shifts occurring in such a critical industry, they need to respond immediately,” Soglin said. “They should be talking to Oscar Mayer, they should be talking to and notifying us. Now I understand why they tried to shift the blame three months ago. They had knowledge of their own ineptness.”
In the days after the Oscar Mayer announcement, Gov. Scott Walker pointed out that Soglin never contacted his office or WEDC. In Thursday’s interview, Soglin maintained that Madison made no mistakes.
“We’re the ones who are supposed to be more brilliant than them?” Soglin asked. “This is their function. This is their job. We did our job. We contacted Oscar Mayer.”
Soglin also laid some blame on Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, saying, “WEDC was taken for a ride.”
“I think they knew how important WMC was to the governor and the core mission of the Republican Party,” Soglin said. “If WMC says don’t go down this path, they weren’t going to go down that path. That’s a horrible thing, because it compromised the people of the state of Wisconsin. (WEDC) failed to do their mission on our behalf.”
Democrats in the Legislature also renewed their criticism of WEDC at a press conference Thursday. Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, noted the agency has been plagued by reports of problems for the past year, yet the Legislature hasn’t made any changes.
“We want to see an economic development corporation that’s actually accountable to the people, not big special interests who are so influential and seemed to have dictated what happened in this case,” Taylor said.
One bill that would create a felony penalty for lying on a WEDC application has passed the Assembly but is stalled in the Senate and unlikely to be passed.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, issued a statement Wednesday defending WMC and noting WMC President Kurt Bauer originally brought concerns to the WEDC about other states luring Wisconsin facilities.
Neither Fitzgerald nor Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, responded Thursday to Soglin’s call for a legislative investigation.