By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – After lawmakers finished grilling members of the Walker administration over the details of a proposed incentive package to bring Foxconn Technology Group to Wisconsin, the mood in Thursday’s public hearing audibly changed.

While their questions were still tough, members of the Assembly Committee on Jobs and the Economy took on a decidedly different tone as they listened to leaders of local government and higher education describe why thought the deal would be good for Wisconsin and its taxpayers.

Those few hours may represent a turning point in the debate over whether Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer, should get $3 billion in public incentives over 15 years in exchange for a $10-billion investment, 13,000 direct jobs and a supply chain likely to employ twice as many workers.

An inherent skepticism is baked into the mix when the executive branch of state government offers ideas that are subject to legislative scrutiny. That tension has been present with every administration in recent memory, Republican or Democrat, and it’s no different under Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Lawmakers are often more willing to listen to others whom they trust, even if the message is identical or nearly so to what they hear from a governor’s team.

That was the case during Thursday’s hearing in the State Capitol, where the mood changed when lawmakers heard testimony from leaders of the University of Wisconsin System, Marquette University, the state’s Technical College System and bipartisan local leaders from Kenosha and Racine counties. Sites in those two counties are where Foxconn will build its 20-million-square-foot plant.

UW System President Ray Cross said he believes the Foxconn project would be “transformative” for the state and would “catapult” the state university system into a “position of global prominence” through partnerships, internships and research opportunities that would build on what is already a strong research base.

His views were supported by UW-Parkside Chancellor Deb Ford and UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone, whose campuses are close to Foxconn’s proposed sites and would be likely sources of talent and industry partnerships.

UW-Madison Engineering Dean Ian Robertson talked about the need for engineering graduates to fill Foxconn-related jobs, either directly or indirectly, and noted the college must add faculty to meet those demands over time.

Marquette President Mike Lovell described his time in Pittsburgh as that city’s economy recovered from the loss of its historic steel industry. That recovery was spurred dramatically with a decision by Google to locate a major facility there, which in turn attracted more tech economy jobs. The same thing will happen in Wisconsin, Lovell predicted, if Foxconn lands here.

State Technical College President Morna Foy was joined by campus presidents from Appleton, Wausau and Kenosha who described the system’s ability to produce graduates who are ready to work – and who usually stay in Wisconsin to do so. In fact, the retention rate for tech college graduates and certificate holders is 97 percent, the committee was told.

Local government leaders from Racine and Kenosha voiced their excitement over Foxconn’s arrival, and described Foxconn leaders as being “tough negotiators” but fair and legitimately concerned about Wisconsin and their region.

Lawmakers also heard the general manager of Kenosha’s water utility, Edward St. Peter, detail how that city’s facilities are ready to handle Foxconn’s enormous water demands and to return clean water to the environment.

Local leaders that included former Democratic legislators Jim Kreuser and John Antaramian suggested some changes in the legislation pertaining to Tax Incremental Financing, but otherwise supported the incentive package.

Other suggested changes that may find their way into the bill before it passes involved a “Wisconsin First” approach to giving state contractors and suppliers a shot at doing business with Foxconn and more targeted wetlands mitigation rules.

There will still be skeptics, but lawmakers on hand Thursday heard how Wisconsin assembled a team approach to bring the Foxconn opportunity to this point. It’s a team that appears poised to finish the job.