By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – Both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature have passed legislation endorsing the framework of an incentive package for the Foxconn Technology Group, which is poised to make a $10-billion investment in the state.
Now, the real works begins.
That’s not intended to diminish the long hours of debate and study devoted to the Foxconn bill by lawmakers since it was first revealed in early summer. Rather, it’s to acknowledge if ever there was a case of the devil lurking in the details of a deal, this is it.
Passed this month by the Assembly, 64-31, and the Senate, 20-13, the process now returns to state negotiators to finish writing the terms of the incentive package. That will take the form of a contract that will outline the more precise terms of how, when and if Foxconn will be compensated for investing up to $10 billion in capital over time and hiring up to 13,000 direct employees.
It will look much like a bank underwriting process, in which provisions are outlined to provide incentives for Foxconn to perform as announced while limiting the state of Wisconsin’s risk through repayment “clawbacks” or payment thresholds for meeting job creation targets.
An amendment passed by the Senate and embraced by the Assembly would require the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to “establish job creation thresholds” for Foxconn that must be met before incentives could be paid, even in partial form.
While that amendment didn’t set specific job ranges – state negotiators will work on that in coming weeks – it helps to address concerns that Foxconn would fall short of its predicted 13,000 jobs and still get the bulk of an estimated $3 billion in state incentives.
It leaves the state in a better position to negotiate with Foxconn over retroactive tax incentives for job creation. Foxconn is the world’s largest contract manufacturer of electronics and the fourth-largest information technology company by overall revenues, a status the company didn’t obtain by having a team of weak negotiators.
In addition to the state contract talks, work is underway to solve what some people predict is the biggest problem of all: Finding enough skilled workers for Foxconn in an already tough labor market.
Marquette University President Lovell touched on that need Thursday at a Tech Council Innovation Network meeting in Wauwatosa. Marquette campus leaders are regularly in touch with the company over its need for scientists, engineers and other technicians, Lovell said. Similar conversations are happening throughout the UW System, the state’s technical colleges and other private colleges and universities.
Lovell said it’s part of a larger trend – in Wisconsin and well beyond – to better align the needs of industry with higher education in a rapidly changing world.
“We have to be nimble; we have to be quicker,” Lovell said. “It’s a service to our students to help them prepare for a world in which many of tomorrow’s jobs don’t exist today.”
Lovell, an engineer who was part of the University of Pittsburgh faculty before coming to UW-Milwaukee and later to Marquette, talked about Pittsburgh’s transformation when Google opened a major office there. In short order, he recalled, Apple, Intel, Microsoft and Disney also took up residence in the former steel-making city.
The same will happen in Wisconsin, he said. “Once you build an infrastructure in a sector, others will follow,” Lovell said.
Finally, as it becomes more apparent that Racine County will be Foxconn’s primary home, local officials there will step up work on the details of what it means for a liquid crystal display plant the size of 11 Lambeau Fields to be dropped in your backyard. Those questions will revolve around land, water, roads, power lines, housing, mass transit and much more.
The Foxconn deal had a highly contentious public airing in the Legislature. Now, the attention will turn to what it means to make Wisconsin the North American home to one of the world’s largest technology companies.