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Wisconsin Lawmakers Split On Kimberly-Clark Incentives Package

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Maayan Silver
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Feminine products and adult incontinence products are produced at the Kimberly Clark Cold Spring plant in Fox Crossing, Wisconsin

It was Kimberly-Clark’s first chance to appear before lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday. The company asked for approval of a $100 million incentive package to keep its Cold Springs plant open in Wisconsin.

The legislation was proposed by a group of GOP lawmakers, including a few who represent districts in the Fox Cities. That’s where Kimberly-Clark has two plants: one that’s closing, and one that the company says can only stay open if it gets the incentives package. But it’s asking for the tax breaks in the shadow of a divisive $3 billion state incentives package that's helping Foxconn build a huge plant in Racine County. 

Some Republican lawmakers distanced themselves from that deal, in hopes of winning support for the Kimberly-Clark package. “This is not Foxconn," said state Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton), one of the legislators proposing the incentives. While the terms of what was offered to Foxconn are the same terms offered to Kimberly-Clark, he says the situation is different.

"Unlike Foxconn — wherever you landed on that issue — this was a foreign business. It was a deal that was built on the potential of what could be," Roth said. "What we are doing here is built on a Wisconsin business, with Wisconsin jobs, with union jobs. These are very tangible. They are here right now in our state."

He confirmed that Kimberly-Clark is a profitable company, saying Wisconsin wouldn’t deal with unprofitable compaines. 

State Sen. Mike Rohrkaste (R-Neenah), who was also a sponsor of the bill to create the incentives package, said legislators should support the bill for three primary reasons:

1. Kimberly-Clark’s use of many Wisconsin supply chain businesses, he says, which he adds positively impacts the state. 2. Rohrkaste argues that Kimberly-Clark’s products — including the feminine and adult-incontinence products produced at the plant — are more recession-proof than many other industries in the state. 3. The company has positively impacted the community in many ways, he says.

“I’ve been on boards of local nonprofits who have benefited tremendously from Kimberly-Clark’s not just financial support but by their employees," he testified. "And the next area of community support — these are hundreds of family-supporting union jobs. We need to keep these in the Fox Cities. We need to keep them in the state of Wisconsin.”

The bill’s proponents said Wisconsin should work to keep the anchor business in the Fox Valley. They argue if the Legislature doesn't approve the incentives, some other state will reap the benefits of landing the Kimberly-Clark plant.

But Democratic state Rep. Chris Taylor opposes the incentives plan. She finds it perplexing.

"Why would a profitable corporation like this, that says they had very productive employees, these employees were doing everything right," she queried. "They had a great skilled union, they were making profits, they were making a product that people need. So, it’s baffling to me why we don’t get to the root of the issue. What was it about our state when they had everything going for them?"

Taylor also noted that Kimberly-Clark has tapped into a tax credit, which exempts them from paying state income tax. And it wasn’t just Democrats who had a problem with the proposed package. State Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) attempted to call Kimberly-Clark’s bluff, regarding whether they'd really close the plant if the incentvies package isn't aproved.

“We have to decide should we give you $7.3 million a year to keep you here. I sort of want to know, if we don’t do this, would you really leave? And how much could you really save?” he said.

Olsen asked company executives whether the money being proposed in the package was really a game-changer for Kimberly-Clark.

"The question is, if you can save a whole lot more than that by leaving and I’m a shareholder in your company, I’m not really happy with you because you left a lot of money on the table by staying. If $7.3 million is a spit in the ocean, then what are we doing this for?” he said.

The Assembly passed the bill in February, but the measure stalled in the Senate. Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says he will call for a vote later this month if there's enough support for the incentives package. As of Wednesday afternoon, the proposal appeared to lack the votes.

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