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Legislature needs to bring back Mill Bill

When Gov. Tony Evers vetoed AB 367 in early July, it was not over the merits or even politics of what had up until that point, been a bipartisan deal. Rather, it was over concerns if the federal government would allow COVID-19 relief funds to be used as part of the broader economic development deal.

Rather than just complaining about the governor’s veto of the important legislation, Rep. James Edming and other members of the state legislature should get back to work to craft a work-around to keep the momentum going and ensure future markets for Wisconsin’s logging industry.

At the same time, the legislature must make a renewed investment at the state level into working with logging industry groups and leveraging private investment to bring increased diversity to the state’s timber markets especially toward providing alternative value-added uses for timber which would have otherwise been heading to paper mills.

The original “Mill Bill” provided for a $50 million loan package with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) as part of a larger deal involving private funding and loans through the Bureau of Commissioners of Public land and tapping into federal stimulus funds for a group to reopen the Verso Paper Mill in Wisconsin Rapids. This would have allowed Timber Professionals Cooperative, a Wisconsinbased organization made up of timber producers and forest owners affiliated with the Wisconsin County Forests Association, to purchase, retool and reopen the Verso mill in Wisconsin Rapids and the Park Falls mill.

The cooperative business model is an effective tool for this type of economic development because it is less focused on seeking a maximum return on investment and more on providing service to its member/owners. This would make it inherently more responsive to keeping facilities updated rather than focusing solely on short term profits.

As with many government economic development efforts, the public funding portion is vital as a tool to leverage private investment. Tapping into the pot of federal funds seemed like a no-brainer for the state and minimized risk to state taxpayers.

The governor’s veto message for the bill focused on that funding source and left the door open for the legislature to work with the Evers’ administration to make a package that can be made to work. Prior to its passage in the legislature, Evers supported an amendment avoiding the use of the federal funds. Legislators knowingly passed it with the poison pill of mandating use of federal rather than state funds.

If Gov. Evers proves unwilling to work in good faith with the legislature to craft a workable deal using state funds, the legislature should then take steps for a bipartisan override of the governor’s veto and send the message that protecting the future of Wisconsin’s logging industry is more important than playing politics.

Such a move would likewise send a message to private investment that the state is truly serious about keeping logging markets strong and ensuring the vitality not only of the logging industry, but of all the supporting businesses that are also impacted.