Wisconsin Republicans Undercut Incoming Governor's Ability to Cancel $3 Billion Foxconn Giveaway

Now that a Democrat will be governor, Wisconsin GOP is suddenly uncomfortable with letting governors direct economic development schemes.


Nikhilesh Haval/Photoshot/Newscom

As Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker heads for the door, Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin have passed a series of bills that could kneecap his incoming successor's ability to control ongoing lawsuits that involve the state, limit his ability to alter the implementation of state laws, and block his plan to renegotiate a massive taxpayer-funded subsidy for Foxconn, the Taiwan-based tech firm that is planning to build a new manufacturing facility near Milwaukee

Governor-elect Tony Evers, a Democrat, unseated the two-term Walker in November's election, even as Wisconsin Republicans enlarged their majorities in the state House and state Senate—thanks in part to legislative district maps that favor the GOP.

Among Evers' campaign promises was a pledge to review the $3 billion tax break Walker offered to Foxconn. During the campaign, Evers criticized the Foxconn subsidy as "a lousy deal" and promised to disband the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), the public-private agency created in 2011 by Walker to serve as a conduit for state-backed tax breaks, loans, and other corporate give-aways. The deal with Foxconn already looks bad for the state—the subsidies promised by Walker amount to $230,000 per job, and that's if Foxconn follows through with its promise to create 13,000 jobs in the state. Already, Foxconn seems to be backing away from that pledge, saying last month that it may have to import Chinese workers to fill some roles at the yet-to-be-built facility.

Even before the high-profile Foxconn deal, the WEDC had been criticized in audits for poor oversight of its own spending and, as Reason's Peter Suderman put it in 2016,"an almost total failure of transparency and accountability." Walker also used the agency to deliver more than $400 million in taxpayer subsidies for the National Basketball Association's Milwaukee Bucks.

Implementing changes to either the Foxconn deal or the WEDC will be more difficult if Walker signs the bills passed this week by the state legislature, one of which "would shield the state jobs agency from his control and allow the board to choose its leader until September, likely at least delaying Evers' ability to maneuver on the Foxconn subsidy," the Associated Press reported this week. Other bills would block Evers' ability to withdraw Wisconsin from a federal lawsuit over Obamacare and would limit early voting to no more than two weeks before an election. Both chambers of the legislature passed the bills in early morning sessions this week after all-night debates, but Walker has yet to sign them.

The proposals are a mixed bag. Limiting early voting to a reasonable amount of time before an election probably makes reasonable sense—deadlines matter in politics, and Election Day is the ultimate deadline; candidates should be allowed to make their appeal to voters in full before votes are cast. But even if you agree with most of what the Republicans in Wisconsin are doing from a policy perspective, the politics on display are highly toxic.

Republican's willingness to engage in this sort of bad faith legislating should not be tolerated by the state's voters—the majority of whom voted for Democrats in state legislative races this year, too, by the way.

Some of that outcome is due to the fact that Democrats in Wisconsin, like in America as a whole, tend to cluster in a few densely populated places while Republicans are more spread out. It's easy to draw districts that favor the rural party with political geography that looks like that, and Democrats largely have no one to blame but themselves for the trade-offs that come with evolving into a primarily urban and suburban party.

Still, it's not wrong to view what's happening in Wisconsin this week as being fundamentally undemocratic. A defeated governor who championed an unpopular and expensive giveaway to a wealthy foreign company is poised to sign a series of bills tilting power towards a branch of government where his party controls nearly two-thirds of the seats despite having the support of less than half the state—all so that party can maintain a greater degree of power.

Take for example, how Speaker of the House Robin Vos justified the lame duck bills.

Sure, Evers is likely to disagree with "many" of the Republicans in the legislature "believe in," but Evers was duly elected by the voters of the state—something that seems not to enter into Vos' understanding of the situation.

At other times, Vos has argued that the last second changes are a reflection of Wisconsin Republicans' commitment to the separation of powers. "We have allowed far too much authority to flow to the executive," Vos told the AP. "To you, this is all about politics. To me, it's about the institution."

The timing seems to belie that argument. If you think a powerful executive branch is fine when the governor is wearing a Team Red jersey but not when he's wearing a Team Blue jersey (or vice versa), then it doesn't seem like you're actually worried about the separation of powers at all.

The same can be said of each individual proposal being passed this week. If Republicans in the legislature thought it was critical that the governor's control over the WEDC was problematic, they should have proposed and passed changes long ago. Regardless of the merits of any of the individual bills included in the lame duck agenda, the way in which they reached Walker's desk should be enough of a reason for him to veto them—though there is little reason to suspect he will.

Cementing Walker's Foxconn cronyism is bad enough, but the Republican maneuvers in Madison this week also smack of a strong disrespect for the ultimate holders of political power in Wisconsin: the state's voters.