A bipartisan amendment securing support for the Verso Paper Mill in Wisconsin Rapids and the Park Falls Pulp and Paper Mill in Park Falls failed to pass the Wisconsin State Assembly.
Assembly Bill 367, which was taken up by the Assembly Tuesday, allocates $50 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds toward the Verso Paper Mill in Wisconsin Rapids and $15 million in ARPA funds for the Park Falls Paper Mill in Park Falls. However, according to a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, these expenses might not be allowed under ARPA, potentially jeopardizing the state’s support for the paper mills.
In light of the concerns highlighted by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Gov. Evers Monday convened a meeting with a bipartisan coalition to reach a bipartisan agreement on a proposed amendment to AB 367 in an effort to secure support for the Verso and Park Falls Paper Mills, an amendment which was in turn introduced on the Assembly floor Tuesday. Attendees included State Reps. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa), Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point), Beth Meyers (D-Bayfield), Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D-Mason), State Senator Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point), Wisconsin Rapids Mayor Shane Blaser, Park Falls Mayor Michael Bablick, workers, and leaders from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC).
The Assembly refused to take up and adopt the bipartisan agreement.
"We had a great meeting where we worked together to address parties’ concerns and find consensus on a solution to get resources to Verso and the Park Falls Paper Mills and help support local families, communities, and economies in Wisconsin, so it’s pretty disappointing that it seems like those words yesterday from Republican legislators rang hollow and our bipartisan amendment wasn’t adopted by the Assembly,” said Gov. Evers in an official statement. “We can’t afford for anyone to play politics with our state’s economic recovery. 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.”
The bipartisan amendment the Assembly failed to adopt to AB 367, which can be found here, would have:
- Provided more flexibility for a party to be eligible for the loans by adding “or another eligible buyer” language in addition specifically to naming the cooperatives currently seeking to buy the mills;
- Given WEDC the discretion to make the loans forgivable;
- Provided greater flexibility to meet the buyer’s needs by removing the requirement that the buyers first secure a Board of Commissioners of Public Land loan before WEDC can award a loan;
- Allowed WEDC to issue below-market interest rates for the purposes of these loans only; and
- Replaced ARPA funding with a WEDC appropriation in the state budget and lift the cap on expenditures for the appropriation for the purposes of these loans.
The Assembly’s failure to adopt the bipartisan amendment is not the first time the Legislature has stalled on providing meaningful support for the mills. Gov. Evers had previously proposed support for the Verso and Park Falls paper mills in his special session call to expand BadgerCare and invest $1 billion into economic development projects and initiatives across the state. The governor's proposal included $15 million for the purchase of the Park Falls Paper Mill and $50 million for the purchase of the Verso Paper Mill. Republicans in the Legislature gaveled out of the special session without any debate or consideration.
WEDC leaders have been in close contact with executives for the Verso and Park Falls paper mills. Since Verso initially announced the mill’s closure in May 2020, WEDC, at Gov. Evers’ direction, has worked with Verso’s executive leadership and the Wisconsin Rapids Tomorrow Task Force to help the community respond to the mill’s closure. In addition, with a $95,000 grant to the Sustainable Resources Institute, WEDC is supporting the development of multi-stakeholder cooperative to acquire and operate a Wisconsin paper mill, including but not limited to the Verso Paper Mill. In March 2021, WEDC approved a $36,000 grant to the Wisconsin Rapids-based Heart of Wisconsin Community Incubator to assist the community’s recovery from the mill closure and the impacts of COVID-19. These funds will be used to develop a detailed recovery and redevelopment plan and initiate implementation. The Board of Commissioner of Public Lands has also been involved with local community leaders.
In early June 2020, WEDC approved a $250,000 grant to the City of Park Falls to support downtown redevelopment adjacent to the idled Park Falls mill. According to the City, the redevelopment site is “a crucial catalyst for potential reinvestment in the larger community.”
WEDC, in partnership with the Governor’s Council on Forestry, the DNR, and UW-Extension, is hosting an EDA-led Regional Economic Diversification Summit to develop and fund strategic projects to diversify Wisconsin’s forest product industry scheduled to take place in late 2021