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Scott Neitzel (center), secretary of the Department of Administration, speaks during the public hearing of the Foxconn bill at the state Capitol Building on Thursday in Madison. 

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

Making liberal use of words like "transformational" and "historic," state officials made the case on Thursday for spending $3 billion to bring a massive manufacturing facility to southeastern Wisconsin. 

But almost as frequently as supporters of the project have used those words, Democrats have used the word "skeptical" — and their skepticism came through during hours of public testimony.

A public hearing on the bill outlining the state's incentive package for Taiwanese electronics company Foxconn began at 1:30 p.m., with a long listed of scheduled speakers going into the evening.

Lawmakers first heard comments from a list of invited speakers including members of Gov. Scott Walker's administration, leaders from universities and technical colleges, economic development groups and local government officials. Many of those speakers spoke in favor of the bill. 

"This project is a once in a generation and maybe once in a century opportunity for our state. Before us is the opportunity to bring 13,000 new family-supporting jobs and a high-tech manufacturing ecosystem to Wisconn Valley," said Department of Administration Secretary Scott Neitzel, using the nickname Walker has given to the project.

Walker has argued bringing Foxconn to Wisconsin would "transform" the state, in a similar fashion to Silicon Valley, the tech industry in Northern California. 

Foxconn announced last week that it plans to invest $10 billion in an LCD panel manufacturing facility in Racine or Kenosha County. In exchange, the state will offer up to $3 billion in incentives tied to job growth, wages and capital investment.

The company can only receive the full incentive package if it creates 13,000 jobs with an average salary of $53,875 and invests the full $10 billion.

"The way this is designed, the jobs come and the credits follow," said Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy, who supports the deal.

Once the facility is fully operational, Neitzel said, the company's payroll could reach $800 million per year. 

Rep. Tod Ohnstad, D-Kenosha, said his enthusiasm for the possibility of thousands of new jobs coming to his district is "tempered by many unanswered questions."

Lawmakers on the Assembly Committee on Jobs and the Economy peppered members of Walker's administration with questions about jobs, wages, state funds and environmental regulations.

Neitzel and Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation CEO Mark Hogan framed the project as one that would have wide-reaching, positive effects throughout the state. 

Of the 13,000 jobs projected to be created within the facility, 9,000 would be hourly operators making $20 or more per hour, Hogan said.

Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, said she'd like to see a $20-per-hour starting wage written into the legislation, but Hogan said he is "comfortable" that it will be addressed in the contract the company ultimately signs with WEDC.

Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, urged lawmakers to add provisions to the bill to require labor and supplies for the project come from Wisconsin.

Committee chairman Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, said he would be interested in adding "Wisconsin-first" language to the bill as long as it wouldn't tie the company's hands "too tightly."

Sinicki said the deal may be a hard sell, especially to lawmakers outside of the region where the facility would be located, noting that some people are "still hurting" from a vote two years ago to publicly fund a new Milwaukee Bucks arena. 

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Democrats' positions on the proposal ranged from cautiously optimistic to bordering on hostile.

Rep. Amanda Stuck, D-Appleton, called into question Foxconn's track record, citing a report that the company's CEO had referred to workers in China as "animals" and noting that the company has not followed through on promises to build plants in other places, including Pennsylvania. 

Stuck questioned why the state should be "held ransom for $3 billion," and asked why the company didn't send a representative to answer questions at the hearing. 

Foxconn chairman Terry Gou sent a written statement that was read by Neylon.

The first substantial opposition from the right also came on Thursday, with Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin announcing it "cannot support the expensive refundable tax credits in this package, which are not available to every other business in our state." 

In addition to the tax credits outlined in the bill, the project would be exempt from preparing an environmental impact statement and from some state wetlands regulations.

Those provisions have earned criticism from environmental groups throughout the state, while proponents of the deal argue it only removes "duplicative" requirements between state and federal regulations.

The bill would also make the state responsible for up to 40 percent of local governments' expenses related to the deal — for instance, street and sewer costs — if Foxconn doesn't follow through on its plans.

Also included in the legislation is $252 million in borrowing, to be matched with federal funds, to resume construction on Interstate 94 north-south, which runs from the Illinois border to Milwaukee.

The Thursday hearing was on track to run late into the evening. Assembly Republicans have said they would like the committee to vote on the bill on Tuesday, bringing it to a full vote later this month.

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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.