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View from around the state: NAFTA has been good for state, region

For Wisconsin, and southeastern Wisconsin in particular, the new year brings hopes for strong, if not spectacular gains on the economy and jobs front based in large part on the plans moving ahead for the Foxconn campus here in Racine County.

That could fuel economic growth not only for the county, but throughout the region. It could also affect the construction industry, jobs and a host of supply-chain businesses.

Foxconn hopes are high. But Wisconsin, along with fellow Midwest states Michigan and Minnesota, also faces nagging worries over the lack of progress of renegotiations of the North American Free Trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

After five sessions of talks last year, and no significant movement, the talks resume at the end of this month in Montreal.

For the Badger State, much is at stake. Almost half of Wisconsin’s exports go to Canada and Mexico, accounting for $9.6 billion in trade and supporting 249,000 jobs.

If NAFTA issues are not resolved and the U.S. decides to pull out of the trade pact — as President Donald Trump has suggested on several occasions — Wisconsin’s agricultural exports would be sorely affected, particularly the dairy industry which could see a 45 percent tariff on cheese exports to its top market, Mexico.

Minnesota faces similar worries, with farm exports to Mexico and Canada topping more than $1.5 billion for exports like pork products, soybeans and corn.

And Michigan tops the regional list of NAFTA exporters with 65 percent of its exports, worth $35 billion, headed to Canada and Mexico.

There is no question that some industries, and some countries, benefit more than others under trade agreement rules and the trade imbalance between the U.S. and Mexico of $55.6 billion in 2016 has been a point of contention.

But the fact is, too, that regional trade among the three countries has more than tripled to $1.1 trillion per year.

The U.S. has already dropped away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, ceding trade rulemaking leadership to China in that 12-country deal. In Europe, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union continues to go ahead with separation slated for 2019.

Clearly the winds of isolationism are afoot, and that could hurt trade and in turn hurt whole industries and consumers as well.

That’s worrisome, as it should be — particularly for Wisconsin, which depends on exports for one of every five of its jobs.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, gets that. According to a Wisconsin State Journal report, Vos told a trade association meeting in Madison last month: “NAFTA has worked for Wisconsin. It’s not the time to put new obstacles in place that would hurt the very markets that our business owners and farmers depend on.”

We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed that Vos’ words get to the president and to NAFTA negotiators before Wisconsin’s trade gets caught in the cross hairs.

— The Journal Times of Racine

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