Wisconsin lawmakers approve $50 million for cooperative to buy idled Wisconsin Rapids paper mill

By Molly Beck

MADISON – Assembly lawmakers passed legislation Tuesday that would provide $50 million in federal pandemic aid to a timber cooperative to buy and upgrade the Verso paper mill that was shut down in Wisconsin Rapids, costing 900 people their jobs.

But a memo by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau suggests that federal aid may not be allowed to be used to purchase the mill from Verso, which idled the factory in July after the coronavirus pandemic significantly decreased the need for its products, such as printer paper.

State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said she worries the bill will sell the area "false hope" if the funds end up being ineligible for the purchase. Shankland, Rep. Beth Meyers of Bayfield and Rep. Nick Milroy of South Range, all Democrats, ultimately joined Republicans to approve the bill. 

The bill also authorizes the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to award a loan of up to $15 million to a cooperative or other eligible borrower to purchase another shuttered mill in Park Falls. 

The legislation left Republicans and Democrats pointing fingers and saying their political adversaries weren’t doing enough to address the impact of the closure on the area's economy.

Republican Rep. Scott Krug of Nekoosa said Gov. Tony Evers didn’t suggest an amendment for his bill until the night before Tuesday's vote on Krug's bill.

Krug said he didn't believe the guidance from the federal Treasury department precluded his plan because the mill's closure was considered a direct impact from the pandemic. 

Under Treasury guidance, recipients of the federal aid generally may not use the money for general economic development or workforce development. But the guidance also says recipients "must demonstrate that funding uses directly address a negative economic impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency, including funds used for economic or workforce development." 

Democrats noted Evers offered funding for the Verso mill weeks ago and the governor claimed Republicans endangered the project by rejecting Evers’ amendment language that would have changed how it was funded.

“We can’t afford for anyone to play politics with our state’s economic recovery,” Evers said in a statement. “We had a great opportunity to get things done, support our paper industry, and protect good jobs for families in our state — it's unfortunate all of that lost out to partisan politics today.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester said lawmakers were using the legislation to try to press Evers into helping the paper mill.

“The bill that’s coming now forces his hand,” Vos said.

Lawmakers on Tuesday also passed bills that ban food manufacturers from calling their products milk unless the liquid is derived from a cow, and meat unless made from animals. A third bill passed Tuesday would bar manufacturers from calling products dairy unless cow's milk was used.  

Other bills approved Tuesday include:

  • Legislation that would penalize cities and towns that reduce funding for police departments. The Republican bill, approved 61-37, was introduced in response to calls in the months following the police killing of George Floyd to "defund the police," or change the way local governments respond to calls for help or alleged crimes in an effort to reduce the risk of police shootings amid a national reckoning over deaths of Black men by law enforcement.
  • Assembly Bill 163, which allows Department of Natural Resources officials and local government agents to shoot beaver and muskrats if they are damaging highways. 
  • Senate Bill 14, which would expand the list of people who may perform marriage ceremonies to include a mej koob, who negotiates terms of marriages in Hmong communities. Currently, the list includes clergy, the two marrying parties themselves, a judge and a court commissioner. 
  • Senate Bill 15, which lowers the age at which teenagers may obtain a driver's instruction permit to 15. Current law requires a student by 15 years and 6 months old.

Patrick Marley and Hope Karnopp of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.