Mill Bill" clears Assembly; Senate won't act until January at the earliest

By Erik Gunn

A bill to rescue two shuttered paper mills from the scrap heap passed the state Assembly Thursday, but Senate action is not expected until January, while one of the mills is scheduled to be auctioned off next week.

A spokesman for a co-operative of timber industry businesses interested in buying Park Falls Pulp and Paper said Thursday evening the group lacked the backing it would need to move ahead without approval by the state Senate and Gov. Tony Evers on the legislation.

Co-op members are to meet Friday, said the co-op’s spokesman, Don Peterson. “But everything I’ve heard so far from the co-op board is, we’re in no position to move forward,” he said. 

But there are other prospective purchasers, the Wisconsin Examiner has learned, leaving the outcome for the plant uncertain until the auction, which is scheduled for Wednesday. 

“I know that there’s conversations going on,” Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) told the Wisconsin Examiner earlier Thursday afternoon. “But as far as what the results of those conversations are going to be? I do not know.”

Felzkowski is the author of the Senate version of the bill, which is still in draft form. She said there is to be an informational hearing on that bill in December, and that she hoped for Senate floor action in January.

AB-682 passed the Assembly on a 96-2 vote and includes a $1 million grant to Verso Paper in Wisconsin Rapids. The grant is to cover the cost of keeping the heat on in the plant as the plant owner negotiates the sale of the facility with a private equity firm.

The other portion of the bill is for a $15 million loan guarantee through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. for the sale of Park Falls Pulp and Paper to a new owner who would operate the facility.

Currently the Park Falls plant is in the hands of a liquidation company, which has been planning to auction it off for scrap. 

In the Assembly Thursday, Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa), author of the bill, said that there was “another buyer willing to take over the mill” in Park Falls. Krug did not respond to an inquiry after the session adjourned on whether the bill’s passage would be enough to forestall the plans to scrap the Park Falls mill.

“Time is of the essence,” Krug told lawmakers as he urged support for the legislation.

Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) endorsed the new bill, while expressing disappointment at “multiple squandered prior opportunities” to pass legislation that would have helped the mills.

The remark referred to legislation in June that would have funded aid using the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). With a few exceptions, most Democrats voted against the earlier legislation for that reason, citing concerns that it wouldn’t pass muster with the federal rules for the pandemic relief funds, and Evers vetoed it for the same reason.

“However, today is a new opportunity,” Shankland said, “and I’m grateful it’s here to pass this bill with a strong bipartisan vote to provide much needed and overdue support.”

Shankland urged lawmakers to work together to “find a comprehensive and long-term solution and strategy to support these industries” in times of economic turmoil, “so that we’re not just reacting individually to every single mill, but rather more comprehensively and thoughtfully having a strategy in place.”

The June legislation had provided $50 million in funding to help a proposed cooperative purchase the Verso plant, which closed in July 2020 at a cost of 900 jobs. Since then Atlas Holdings LLC has made an offer for the Wisconsin Rapids plant and two other Verso facilities, which the companies are negotiating.

The $1 million grant to Verso is aimed at keeping heat on in the Wisconsin Rapids plant so that the machinery doesn’t get wrecked by cold weather before Atlas and Verso complete their transaction, according to Krug.

The Assembly bill also included a lengthy, unrelated segment that would impose drug testing requirements on transportation projects. Public works and public utility projects already have those requirements.

Felzkowski said Thursday that the transportation projects drug testing language “was already dead in the Senate,” having failed to gain support on an unrelated previous bill before it was removed.  “It’s not germane to this bill,” she said.

The Senate draft omits that portion, and is “just a clean bill to help pay for the mills,” Felzkowski said. If it passes it would then require a new Assembly vote to concur with the Senate.