In 2009, the company that ran Mercury Marine's Fond du Lac plant put a gun to the head of its workers: Either agree to wage givebacks, they warned, or we'll move your jobs to our plant in Stillwater, Okla.
The drama soon involved Gov. Jim Doyle, who was bashed for not being pro-business enough to prevent the company's move. The criticism extended to Wisconsin's tax structure. As Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer, the independent from Manitowoc, declared, for companies like Mercury Marine, "the higher tax burden they now find in Wisconsin is a powerful incentive to look elsewhere."
In fact, the company's "burden" could hardly have been lighter. As a study by the liberal Institute for Wisconsin's Future later found, Mercury Marine's parent company Brunswick had paid not one dollar in Wisconsin corporate income taxes in the eight previous years, though its total profits over that period were $1.1 billion.
Nor was this uncommon. A previous study by the IWF, checking net taxes paid (which are public records in Wisconsin), had found a majority of large companies here consistently paid zero in state corporate income taxes.
For that matter, Brunswick was doing pretty good on labor costs. As a letter to stockholders from chairman and CEO Dunstan E. McCoy (quoted by IWF) noted: "Our employees significantly contributed to our cash position through salary actions, periodic unpaid furloughs, and other measures which directly affected their pay and benefits."
The company had already signed a contract, in 2008, with the union representing Mercury Marine workers that ran through 2012. Now, one year later, the company wanted to further lower its labor costs.
Led by conservative talk radio, the pressure on the union and on Doyle to play ball with Mercury Marine was enormous. The result was complete capitulation.
The union, which had overwhelmingly rejected the company's demands, did an about-face and agreed to a seven-year pay freeze and reduced health care coverage for employees. Doyle and the state gave the company a generous package worth $70 million. Fond du Lac County provided a $50 million loan, paid for by a new 0.5% county sales tax, and the city of Fond du Lac threw in another $3 million in financial aid.
The results must have stunned Oklahoma, one of the country's leaders in corporate giveaways. Wisconsin had made an offer the company couldn't refuse, and it would ultimately close its 700,000-square-foot Stillwater plant and move many of the jobs to Fond du Lac.
But Wisconsin, it turns out, is also a paradise for companies seeking handouts, as a groundbreaking story in The New York Times documents. The story's online tracker allows you to check any state, and it shows Wisconsin spends $1.53 billion in taxes per year on incentives for business. That equals 10% of the state's annual budget and costs $268 per person.
Wisconsin, land of the supposedly bad business climate, ranks ahead of 33 other states and the District of Columbia in per-capita payments to business.
Compared to the states that surround us, only Michigan gives more in corporate handouts. (And as the home of three major American automakers, it is something of a special situation.) Michigan gives $672 per capita to businesses, followed by Wisconsin's $268, well ahead of Indiana ($142), Illinois ($117), Iowa ($73) and Minnesota ($45), the Times data shows. In short, Michigan and Wisconsin make it much tougher for surrounding states to resist calls for corporate welfare.
Even as they have given $80 billion annually to companies, states have slashed public services while raising taxes a collective $156 billion, the Times notes. And that $80 billion is just for state handouts. It doesn't include local giveaways, like the $53 million given to Mercury Marine by Fond du Lac county and city.
And yet, these governments have no idea if these incentives were worth it, "because they rarely track how many jobs are created," the Times story notes. And when they do track it, they admit, "it is impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created without the aid."
Furthermore, the jobs created may later disappear as companies close or move plants. Auto manufacturers have received $13.9 billion in government incentives since 1985, the story notes. Meanwhile, automakers have closed more than 267 American plants since 1979.
The only clear winners here are the stockholders and executives of the companies getting all the goodies. The executives at Brunswick were already paid lucratively, garnering $10.5 million in total compensation in 2009. But after Wisconsin delivered all those incentives and worker givebacks, the rich got richer. Brunswick's executives hauled in $13.4 million in 2010, including $6.6 million for top dog McCoy, and $15.8 million in 2011, with $7.6 million going to McCoy. Yes, Wisconsin's business climate has been blessedly balmy for them.
Bruce Murphy is the editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com.