Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rebuffed criticisms from "cynics" who have cast doubts on the state's deal with Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, speaking with talk radio hosts on Thursday.
The state will offer up to $3 billion in tax incentives for what would be both Foxconn's first plant in the United States and the country's first LCD, or liquid-crystal display, manufacturing facility.
Foxconn plans to invest $10 billion in the plant, which is expected to employ between 3,000 and 13,000 people at a yet-to-be determined location in the southeastern corner of the state.
Reaction from state and federal lawmakers from both sides of the aisle has been largely positive thus far, but some state Democrats have withheld their blessing from a deal most say should come with bipartisan approval.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said Wednesday she is "skeptical" the company will follow through on its plans and "cautious" about supporting a "$1 to $3 billion corporate welfare package."
Shilling spent much of Wednesday and Thursday sparring on Twitter with Assembly Republicans who support the deal, accusing them of being "hypnotized by the Foxconn frenzy."
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, the co-chair of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, asked Shilling if she plans to "stand against (the) largest economic development project in state, likely national history." Shilling responded that $3 billion is "a lot of money" when the state's budget is 27 days past due.
"Come on Senator cheer for WI," Nygren responded. "I know you want to, don't let politics get in the way."
Shilling wasn't the only Democrat to bristle at the size of the proposed package, or at Foxconn itself.
Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, said anyone thinking about supporting the deal should be "very wary," pointing in particular to Foxconn's stated goal of adding more robots to its workforce. One factory cut 60,000 jobs last year as a result of automation, according to the South China Morning Post.
Hansen argued it "makes no economic sense to build manufacturing plants in the U.S. let alone the Midwest where labor costs are so much higher unless they plan to eventually replace those jobs with machines."
"Based on the rate of technological change in the workplace and Foxconn’s admitted plans to automate its plants is it a wise move for taxpayers to be on the hook for potentially billions of dollars to create jobs that may not even exist in five years?" he asked.
Walker has thanked both Republicans and Democrats for their work in bringing Foxconn to Wisconsin, for a project he has dubbed "Wisconn Valley" — inspired by the "transformational" effect Silicon Valley has had on the state of California.
The news should be positive for everyone in Wisconsin — "Republican, Democrat, doesn't matter," Walker told WTMJ radio host Jeff Wagner.
Walker acknowledged $3 billion is a large incentive package, but said "the beauty is, unlike what the cynics are saying, it's tied to performance."
The contract that the state's economic development agency will ultimately enter into with Foxconn will allow the company to receive the full $3 billion in tax breaks if it fulfills its proposal to spend $10 billion and create 13,000 new jobs at an average annual salary of $53,875.
Spokesmen for the governor's office and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation did not immediately respond to requests for information about whether the contract will address automation specifically, or whether it will dictate how long those 13,000 jobs must remain in Wisconsin.
According to a WEDC fact sheet, the contract will contain "clawbacks that will require the company to pay back tax credits if the jobs and investment are not kept in Wisconsin."
Michael Zinn, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin College of Engineering who specializes in robotics, said it's likely the Wisconsin plant will use a "high level of automation."
"I think that with automation, people rightly worry, 'Oh, it’s going to take away my job,'" he said.
Automation does mean fewer jobs for people, but it can also improve the quality of the remaining human jobs, he said.
"Robots do these things over and over again. They’re repetitive jobs," Zinn said. "They’re not the jobs that most people would consider desirable."
Facilities like the one being proposed are expensive, Zinn said. They require work to be done in a cleanroom, where robots can be useful. And LCD screens are more difficult to handle the larger they are — another place robots can help.
But there are some jobs that still require a human touch.
"Simple things like connecting wiring harnesses are still hard for a robot to do," Zinn said.
Foxconn likely wouldn't be considering building the plant if it didn't expect to use some automation, he said. But the number of jobs being proposed is "quire remarkable for a single factory."
Walker said on WTMJ he believes the state will look back one or two decades from now and say the Foxconn project "was the game changer" that "brought more talent, that brought more attraction, that brought more business, that brought better wages."
"Those are the things that are all tied into this," Walker said. "So for any lawmaker, Republican or Democrat alike, who says those are things you want, if you want to play in the big leagues, you gotta play in the big leagues, and that’s exactly what we’re doing."
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, was one of the lawmakers Walker credited with helping seal the deal. Barca said the project is an "exciting opportunity" for southeastern Wisconsin, adding that Walker and the Legislature "must protect taxpayers and provide opportunities for long-term, family-supporting jobs for our residents."
Barca acknowledged that the deal, if successful, would likely amount to a significant political win for Walker, who is expected to run for re-election in 2018. However, he argued, "one deal does not make an administration."
"When you have opportunities (like this), you can’t look at it strictly from a political lens," Barca said. "You have to look at it from a standpoint of what’s the benefit to citizens of the state, workers and taxpayers."
Cap Times reporter Erik Lorenzsonn contributed to this report.