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Evers vetoes bill to finance buying closed paper mills

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday vetoed a bipartisan bill designed to help save two shuttered paper mills and another measure criticized by open records advocates to create a human resources office for the Legislature, saying it would shield documents from public release.

Evers signed bills to eliminate the need for a barbering or cosmetology license to practice natural hair braiding; allow designated local officials to shoot beaver and muskrats within 50 feet of a public road and let 15 year-olds obtain an instructional driving permit, six months earlier than now allowed.

In his message to lawmakers, Evers said he vetoed the paper mill bill because it would tap federal COVID-19 relief funds to pay for loans to purchase the closed Verso paper mill in Wisconsin Rapids and the mill in Park Falls formerly known as Flambeau River Papers.

Evers said state money should be used instead and that using the federal coronavirus money for the loans may not be allowable. Evers said there is ample state money to support coming up with a funding mechanism for the loans.

Republican supporters of the bill had argued that federal money could be used for the loans.

The bill came after a year of discussion with state, local and federal officials about how to save the Verso mill, which closed in June 2020 after more than a hundred years of operation. It employed 900 people.

The measure, which passed with bipartisan support, would have made $50 million available for purchase of the Verso mill and $15 million for the one in Park Falls.

Evers said he vetoed the bill creating the human resources office because as written it would shield records about misconduct by public office holders from the state’s open records law.

The proposal said the office “shall at all times observe the confidential nature of records, requests, advice, complaints, reviews, investigations, disciplinary actions, and other information in its possession relating to human resources matters.”

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, had raised alarms about that wording, saying it gave the office the ability to withhold records.

Evers agreed, saying “the people of Wisconsin have the right to know about misconduct by public officials and employees, including those in the legislature.”

The bill came after The Associated Press and three other news organizations sued the Legislature seeking access to all records related to allegations of sexual harassment made against a Democratic legislator. A judge last week sided with the media outlets, ruling that Assembly leaders misapplied a balancing test, erroneously finding that the complainant’s privacy outweighed the public’s interest in the documents.

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