Struggling to save the Park Falls paper mill

What happened with the legislation that was supposed to help rescue the plant?

By: - November 30, 2021 7:00 am

The historic headquarters building for Park Falls Pulp & Paper in Park Falls, Wisconsin. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

First of two parts

Over three days in the middle of November, online auctioneers sold off bits and pieces of the paper mill that for a century has anchored the city of Park Falls in northern Wisconsin.

The auction began just days after the Wisconsin Assembly passed a bill to steer a $15 million loan guarantee to prospective buyers who Park Falls officials and others hoped would keep the Park Falls Pulp & Paper mill intact and reopen it with a new business plan that could preserve some of the highest-paying jobs in Price County.

“Time is of the essence,” said Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa) just before the Nov. 11 Assembly roll call vote that passed Assembly Bill 682 on a vote of 96-2. “Hopefully this gets over to the state Senate and it’s given the urgency that it requires over there as well.”

From the Senate, the bill would go to the desk of Gov. Tony Evers, who was widely assumed to be ready to sign it into law.

But the Senate had already held its final floor session for the year. And by the time the Assembly held its vote on Veterans Day, the countdown had already begun for the auction and dismantling of the Park Falls mill.

All through the week of the auction people in Park Falls who were paying the closest attention to the mill’s fate hoped for a last-minute rescue that never came. That hope persisted even as buyers from around the world clicked on the auction website and made their bids to purchase tools, equipment and machinery from the sprawling mill from Nov. 16 to 18.

Prospective investors who had proposed to keep the plant intact and restart operations with a new business plan needed the legislation and its $15 million loan guarantee to have the confidence to commit, says Park Falls Mayor Michael Bablick, who has logged countless hours and made the four-hour drive to Madison repeatedly hoping to see legislation to preserve the plant cross the finish line.

“It was too risky without it, even though the business plan was good,” Bablick said in a recent interview. “We all know that the thing was not in great shape and it was going to need some significant capital expenditure in order to get it on a stable footing.”

Instead, the loan legislation got caught up in a side conflict between Assembly and Senate Republicans. It was a conflict that might have been avoided if an unrelated measure had not been tacked on to the “mill bill.”

The stumbling block remains a puzzle to people outside the Legislature.

Bipartisan backing

The new mill bill was the second attempt to rescue the Park Falls plant after an earlier effort foundered this summer in a series of score-settling political maneuvers between the Evers administration and the Legislature’s Republican leadership.

Evers vetoed the first bill because it had included what the administration and its Democratic allies in the Legislature considered a poison pill: a requirement that the funds come from Wisconsin’s share of federal COVID-19 relief funds doled out to states as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Nearly three months later, Krug, who was also the author of the earlier legislation, came back with a new proposal avoiding a repeat of that clash and won bipartisan co-sponsors. This legislation funded the Park Falls loan, along with a much smaller $1 million grant for Verso Paper in Wisconsin Rapids, from the state’s general revenue.

The Assembly fast-tracked it to a committee hearing Nov. 2. Krug said the schedule was cranked up after lawmakers learned of the impending auction to sell off the Park Falls mill equipment.

“We did not actually know, initially, how short of a timeline Park Falls had when the bill was first written,” Krug told the Wisconsin Examiner in an interview Nov. 23. “That’s why, as soon as we found that out, we moved our executive session up in our committee right away for Monday of that week [Nov. 8] to try to help speed things along.”

Krug said he and the bill’s co-sponsors had hoped the Senate would stick around long enough to vote on the legislation immediately.

“We got it up to the [Assembly] floor as quick as we could, but came to find out that the Senate had no plans to come back that week anyways,” he said. “So, as soon as we found out, we tried to move as quick as we could — just couldn’t convince the Senate to get there as quick as we wanted them to be.”

Drug-testing provision

One reason was that there was no Senate companion legislation to the Assembly bill, even though the vast majority of bills that move through both houses of the Legislature have both a Senate and an Assembly version, typically with identical wording.

The Assembly version also had no Republican senator listed among the co-sponsors. The Senate co-sponsor was Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Mason), whose district includes Park Falls.

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The Assembly bill includes a separate section unrelated to either the Park Falls or Verso Paper mills.

The section expands drug- and alcohol-abuse prevention requirements that currently apply to public utilities and some public works projects — including a requirement for drug-testing workers before projects start as well as random drug testing. Under the bill, those requirements would also apply to transportation projects such as highway construction, and to companies that own and install broadband internet, cable and fiber optic systems.  

Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) told the Wisconsin Examiner earlier this month that the addition of that same language to the paper mill bill made it a non-starter in the Senate.

“One of the issues is the drug-testing amendment language that was put in the Assembly bill that was already dead in the Senate,” Felzkowski said.

The same provision had been added in the Assembly as an amendment to an unrelated and essentially uncontroversial bill involving the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District earlier this year. But when the amended Assembly version passed and went to the Senate, the Senate tabled it and passed its own version without the amendment instead.

At the time of the Milwaukee sewerage district bill, “there were not the votes in the Senate to do that,” Felzkowski said on Nov. 11, the day that the Assembly passed its paper mill bill. “So I do not know if the Assembly was seriously interested in helping to get this done. I have no idea why that language was put in there, but in doing so, their version was dead. I mean, it’s not germane to the bill.”

Krug added the provision to the bill at the request of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) “since we’re running out of time in our session,” Krug said. “We thought we could merge these two things together” — the paper mill rescue and the expanded drug-testing language for public projects — “and get it all done.”

‘No inkling’

At the public hearing, “nobody testified against that or raised those concerns to the public,” Krug said of the drug-testing section of the bill. “So we had no inkling at that point, after it went through the public hearing, that that was going to be the issue.”

Not until about the time of the committee vote on Nov. 8, Krug said, did he and others involved in the bill learn of the Senate’s objection to that section.

“At the time, we weren’t that concerned,” Krug said. “That was because we thought that the Senate would simply come in, remove that language in their own chamber and send it back to us if they had such a problem with it, because they had not directly communicated that to us anyway.”

He believes including the unrelated drug-testing provision “really hadn’t had too much bearing” on the bill or the Senate’s failure to act on the legislation. “In the end, we know that the Senate hadn’t really planned to come back in that week [the week of Nov. 8] at all,” Krug said. “I don’t think they would have scheduled dates, regardless, that week.”

Bablick, the Park Falls mayor, is baffled that the language was included at all.

“If they knew that was a sticking point with the Senate, then why was it included in the bill?” Bablick says. “What was the reason for that? For something that was this time-sensitive, I just don’t understand why that would include something that was this historic problem between the Assembly and the Senate.”

Coming: What lies ahead?

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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