STATE OF THE STATE

Gov. Scott Walker

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday suggested the state could extend its tax break offer to paper companies besides Kimberly-Clark if the opportunity to prevent job losses is "significant." 

Walker on Monday proposed increasing the tax breaks available to paper company Kimberly-Clark in an effort to prevent the company from shuttering two plants located in Neenah and Fox Crossing, resulting in the loss of 610 jobs from the Fox Valley region.

Under Walker’s proposal, the company could receive a tax incentive of 17 percent of its payroll — up from the 7 percent available under current law. The plan is modeled after the tax breaks offered to Taiwanese electronics company Foxconn, which will receive more than $3 billion in incentives from the state as it builds a plant in southeastern Wisconsin.

"We’d be willing to match for keeping these jobs at Kimberly-Clark and, for that matter, other major paper companies in the state, if you’re talking about significant opportunities to keep and grow jobs in the state," Walker told reporters in Madison Wednesday. "We’re willing to do that, but we want it based on jobs."

Also on Monday, Democrats in northeastern Wisconsin offered their own plan to preserve paper jobs in the Fox Valley, where Kimberly-Clark is the region's third-largest employer

Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay; Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh; and Rep. Amanda Stuck, D-Appleton, were joined by Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson in requesting $60 million to fund two revolving loan programs that would improve the mills' energy and water efficiency and help them transition to making brown paper products.

Nelson, talking to reporters in Madison on Wednesday, argued the problem is bigger than the planned Kimberly-Clark closures and said there are better ways to protect jobs and bolster the industry.

Nelson focused on his request for a $30 million "papermaker fund." While the paper industry faces challenges as digital media consumption grows, Nelson argued mills can stay relevant by producing cardboard boxes like the ones used for shipping online orders from thriving companies like Amazon.

“The difference between the papermaker fund and a Foxconn-like plan — the papermaker fund is a strategy for an entire industry. You're not singling out a particular company,” Nelson said. 

The planned Kimberly-Clark closures come after Fox Valley mills have already shed close to 900 jobs in the last year — more than 600 at Appleton Coated in Combined Locks, about 200 at Appvion in Appleton and 52 at Grand Chute’s U.S. Paper Converters, which shut its doors in December.

"Why did it take 1,400 lost jobs for the governor and state leaders to do anything?" Nelson asked. "We’ve been ringing the five-alarm bell since late summer, early fall, and the paper industry is burning down and no one's really paying attention to it."

Nelson said he first contacted Gov. Scott Walker last fall with concerns about the Fox Valley hemorrhaging paper mill jobs — but Walker said Nelson's pleas were for media attention, not real solutions. 

"People who actually want to get things done call people, they sit down, they meet with them," Walker said. "He (Nelson) put out a press release and then he sent a letter to follow up on his press release. So unlike just about any other elected official in the state, including a lot of Democrats, people who want to get things done actually call and contact, they don’t just put press releases out."

In response, Nelson provided copies of letters he sent to Walker in October, November and February. Walker responded to Nelson's first letter, and the interaction was reported by local media at the time

In Nelson's November letter, he proposed the papermaker fund. He re-upped the proposal in a letter sent on Feb. 1, which included an offer to "meet at your convenience, here or in Madison." 

Nelson said he is "not interested in a (public relations) war."

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"I'm interested in jobs. Period," Nelson said. "People's livelihood is at stake."

Walker said the debate boils down to jobs for him, too. Asked why he favors tax incentives over the proposed revolving loan funds, Walker said the tax incentives are tied to job retention and creation. 

"A fund doesn’t necessarily translate to jobs. If we’re going to provide assistance from the state, we want it tied to jobs," Walker said.

Nelson disputed the governor's argument.

"Of course (the fund) translates into jobs," Nelson said. "If you help save an industry, it helps save jobs."

Democrats who have been critical of both the Foxconn deal and the proposed extension to Kimberly-Clark have asked what would keep other companies in the state from requesting similar assistance. 

Walker acknowledged that's a risk, but said Foxconn and the paper industry are "Cadillac things" in Wisconsin. 

"In the case of, not just Kimberly-Clark, but some of the larger paper industry out there, again, this is a large industry that has a multiple ripple effect out there," Walker said. "And I think in this case we’re looking, when something has such a large impact, we’re willing to put a significant offer on the table to not only keep them here, but in hopes if it were to keep them here, it would help them stay here and grow here."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.