MILWAUKEE— Wisconsin's top environmental official gave the proposed Foxconn incentives package a glowing review Wednesday, but the bill faces delays as a debate between legislative Republicans spilled over to talk radio and Twitter.
The disagreement boiled over when Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he was unsure whether he had the votes to pass the bill. WISN/1130AM talk radio host Mark Belling ripped him, threatening "there will be hell to pay" if Republicans don't close the deal with Foxconn.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos chimed in to say he, like Belling, wanted a bill approved by Labor Day. Fitzgerald said he wouldn't commit to that timeline.
Republicans who control the state Capitol have hit a rough patch, having failed to reach agreement on a new state budget that is now 40 days overdue. Now, they can't agree on a timeline to approve $3 billion in incentives for Foxconn that Gov. Scott Walker and Assembly Republicans want to finalize quickly.
The company has proposed building a $10 billion plant in either Racine or Kenosha counties to manufacture LCD components for flat-screen TVs.
A nonpartisan analysis released Tuesday complicated matters by concluding Wisconsin taxpayers would not break even on the project for at least 25 years. The state would make payments to Foxconn of up to $312 million in some years if the company follows through on plans to hire 13,000 people, analysts found.
Meanwhile, Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp couldn't contain her excitement about the proposal while briefing her agency's board Wednesday.
"It is a gift to us to have the confidence of the company to understand that we're here to work with them in partnership again to protect and enhance the environment and still have job creation," Stepp said. "Wisconsin DNR will absolutely prove it can be done, and this is the project to do it on."
Board members, who are tasked with setting the state's conservation policy, didn't ask a single critical question about the Foxconn deal. One member concluded the deal was "fantastic."
Another praised "the mighty southeast," referencing the region of the state where Foxconn wants to build a facility. A third board member determined the deal to be "a pretty good deal for the state, if you ask me."
"Yes, it is," Stepp agreed.
The proposal includes a series of changes to Wisconsin's environmental regulations.
For example, the proposal would lift the requirement that state agencies prepare environmental impact statements on plant construction and operations. Foxconn also wouldn't need to obtain state permits for a wide range of activities, including filling wetlands, building on lake or river beds, changing the course of streams, building artificial water bodies that connect to existing waterways and modifying shorelines.
"The regulations, the standards, are the same. It's just the processes will be streamlined," Stepp told reporters.
It's still unclear exactly what permits the plant would need since Foxconn hasn't yet settled on a site for the plant, Stepp said. But she pledged the department will evaluate the environmental impact for every required permit.
Conservationists have ripped the environmental exemptions. The lack of environmental impact statements will leave the public in the dark about what harm the plant might cause and the lack of permit requirements will lead to the destruction of wetlands.
"I'm not surprised that folks who are proponents of the deal as-is would be critical of any information to suggest that they're reading the situation wrong," said Raj Shukla, executive director of the Madison-based River Alliance of Wisconsin.
Assembly Republicans announced they were delaying a committee vote planned for Thursday until next week so they can work out amendments. A floor vote in the Assembly could happen as early as Thursday, August 17th.
Only one amendment, from a Republican state assemblyman, has been posted to the Legislature's website. However, lawmakers have predicted some 50 changes will be offered to the bill, including many from Democrats.
Fitzgerald said the discussions about amendments haven't included Senate Republicans. He said he feared the Assembly's amendments would affect the memorandum of understanding that Walker signed with Foxconn.
"Wisconsin Assembly GOP is working WITH Gov. Walker to improve the deal and get it to his desk!" responded Vos on Twitter.