Journal Times, Racine, Oct. 19

Greater transparency needed from state, Foxconn

The work continues at the Foxconn site in the southwestern corner of Mount Pleasant.

Not as Foxconn originally proposed it.

But the work continues.

As long as Foxconn continues to build on the land purchased for that purpose, what difference does it make?

That may sound blase or flippant, but it’s a sincere rhetorical question. Especially in light of recent news.

Wisconsin is denying Foxconn Technology Group billions of dollars in state tax credits until officials with the company come to the table to draw up a new contract for the project, the Wisconsin State Journal reported last week .

Even if Foxconn were to receive state funding, the company could face financial penalties through claw-back provisions included in the existing contract if a new agreement isn’t reached.

In a letter sent Oct. 12 to the Taiwan-based company’s Vice Chairman Jay Lee, Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. Secretary Melissa Hughes said “Foxconn’s activities and investments in Wisconsin to date are not eligible for credit” under the more than $3 billion contract first signed back in 2017. The letter also underscores that negotiation attempts between the state and company this summer failed to result in a new contract.

“As we have discussed numerous times, markets, opportunities and business plans can and often need to change,” Hughes said in the letter to Lee, which was obtained by the State Journal through a records request. “I have expressed to you my commitment to help negotiate fair terms to support Foxconn’s new and substantially changed vision for the project.”

The company reported in the summer it had created enough jobs in southeastern Wisconsin last year to receive state funds — despite being told almost a year ago that the $3 billion in tax subsidies would not be doled out until a new contract was drafted to match the project. State officials say tax subsidies agreed to in the contract are tied to jobs and capital investment for specific projects, which Foxconn is failing to deliver.

This year would have marked the state’s first payment of refundable tax credits to Foxconn. The company fell 82 jobs short of the minimum required to claim state tax credits in 2018.

Foxconn said it created more than 800 jobs in 2019, above the 520 minimum needed for state subsidies. However, under the contract the goal was to have 2,080 full-time jobs and more than $3.3 billion in capital expenditures by the end of 2019. Foxconn’s jobs report this summer also identified more than $415 million in capital investments — a considerable difference from the $280 million reported by Foxconn in April.

“Foxconn has not received any tax credits from the State of Wisconsin despite achieving employment levels above 520 people and investing $750 million in Wisconsin that includes over a half a billion dollars invested in Foxconn’s manufacturing park,” the company said in a statement.

It’s worth noting that Foxconn and the state are in the midst of a negotiation, and public statements are often for public consumption. Posturing, in other words.

Back to our “what difference does it make?” question.

The $3 billion in tax subsidies is not taxpayer cash delivered in an armored car to a Foxconn representative. It’s a break on the Taiwanese manufacturer’s tax bill with the state.

The tax breaks are tied to job-creation and capital-investment benchmarks, meaning that if Foxconn doesn’t hit the job numbers and capital expenditures stipulated in the contract signed by Gov. Scott Walker in 2017, it doesn’t get the tax break for that year. It pays what it owes at the going rate.

So what difference does it make to the State of Wisconsin if Foxconn’s plans for Mount Pleasant have changed? The state has not had to deliver any tax breaks under the existing deal; wouldn’t a new deal be likely to benefit Foxconn more than state taxpayers?

We’d like to see greater transparency from the state and from Foxconn with regard to tax incentives. That’s the part that involves public money, so that’s the part that should be the most out in the open.

Beyond that, we’ve seen nothing to indicate that there won’t be jobs, and good-paying jobs at that, when Foxconn has its facilities up and running. Whether those facilities are making flat-screen TV panels or smaller panels for smartphones and tablets.

As Racine County residents, we just want to see the work continue near where Interstate 94 meets Highway KR.

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Kenosha News, Kenosha, Oct. 19

Don’t penalize schools for drops in enrollment

The Department of Public Instruction on Thursday released statewide enrollment data, and throughout the state public school numbers are down.

The most significant decreases were in pre-kindergarten (down 15.8% statewide) and kindergarten (down 4.9% statewide), grades that students are not required to be enrolled in per state law.

You cannot really blame families for making that decision. Virtual or in-person, it’s not an ideal year to start a kid in school.

At this point everyone wants to turn the calendar on 2020 and move forward to the next year and try to get things back to how they were.

Unfortunately with the current state school funding formula, schools are going to be hurt for years to come because of 2020 enrollment figures.

The way the formula works is that district funding is based off of three consecutive school years. That means that even if enrollment goes back up next year — which it should at least somewhat — schools would still be feeling the pain from 2020.

As part of a state proposal being circulating in the Legislature, the funding formula would make the 2020-21 school year enrollment number the greater of either the current 2020-21 enrollment or use 2019-20 enrollment numbers if that is greater.

Racine Unified School District’s enrollment dropped by 1,118 students this year from 17,692 to 16,574. Similarly, Kenosha Unified School District lost 1,336 students, according to initial estimates.

Moving forward, if next year, for 2021-22, those enrollment numbers remain down, then that is the figure going forward that should be used in the funding calculations. But this year, schools should be given a break.

If they don’t change the formula, districts all around the state will feel the pain for the next three years and beyond.

In a release announcing the bill, Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said, “It is important to note that the current school funding formula was not designed to compensate for fluctuations caused by this pandemic. Our districts are staring down a future of uncertainty which, without legislative action, will harm the future of public education in Wisconsin.”

He continued by saying, “These pieces of legislation provide clarity on the future financial outlooks for districts.”

That should be something that representatives on both sides of the aisle should agree on.

Once the students fully return to school, many of them are going to be behind. Many will need individual attention and the districts will need the funds and enough staff to help bring children back up to the levels they need to be at.

Because of the decisions districts such as Racine Unified made to start virtually, many families opted to explore other alternative such as open enrollment or voucher schools. KUSD, with its decision first to go all-virtual and then to an in-person plan with virtual options, had many district families looking for alternatives as well.

If those families choose to remain in alternative schools, then going forward Kenosha Unified, Racine Unified and other districts with similar situations will have to deal with the financial consequences. But the formula shouldn’t penalize all schools in the state because of 2020. The pandemic will have enough lingering side effects for students without that added burden.

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Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, Oct. 18

Pay raise would turn public servants into professional politicians

The Madison City Council doesn’t need or deserve a gigantic raise from $13,570 a year to $67,950. That would be a five-fold increase and more money than the $53,000 state lawmakers receive.

The City Council also is considering doubling the length of its terms — from two to four years — which would reduce accountability to the public because members wouldn’t have to defend their records to constituents as often.

Just as bad, moving from part- to full-time positions would increase campaign spending, making a bid for the council harder for an ordinary person who isn’t politically connected or wealthy. Instead of knocking on doors in their neighborhoods to earn grassroots support, candidates would need to raise tens of thousands of dollars to compete for more lucrative and powerful seats.

The City Council should reject this latest attempt, proposed by a city task force, to turn council members from low-paid public servants into professional politicians with full-time salaries, benefits and presumably staff and offices.

To its credit, the City Council hasn’t endorsed such a move — yet. But with the city preparing to redraw the lines of municipal voting districts following the 2020 census, a referendum could appear on local ballots in April.

Now is the time to tell your representative at City Hall that you appreciate his or her time and effort, but you don’t want to turn the City Council into a mini-Legislature with hardball politics and partisan dysfunction.

If the City Council did become full-time, the task force recommends reducing its size from 20 to 10 seats, and limiting members to no more than 12 consecutive years in office.

One of the task force’s goals is to provide more opportunity for people of color and the poor to serve. They could earn a living in the post.

But 40% of the City Council are people of color now, compared to just over 20% of Madison’s population. And the need for more campaign cash and political support would discourage people outside the city’s establishment from running. That means minority representation would be more likely to fall with full-time salaries.

Some of the task force’s recommendations have merit. For example, the City Council absolutely should reduce its vast array of boards, committees and commissions that take up too much staff and council time. Madison has an estimated 102 such panels with more than 700 people. Most cities have fewer than half as many.

In fact, Madison has so many citizen panels that the task force couldn’t definitively say how many exist. Madison has a bad habit of meeting and talking in excess without acting. The task force met more than 90 times over two years. We applaud the dedication. But did it really need to take that much time?

The better route to improving the council is through efficiency and technology. Let council members and the public continue to attend meetings by computer from their homes after the pandemic is over. Reduce the number of committees that council members serve on. Create a hotline for constituent concerns that reduces the volume of calls to council members’ phones.

But don’t turn our citizen servants into professional politicians. Keep the council rooted in local neighborhoods for the public good.