Reform of Wisconsin's mining laws was at the top of the GOP agenda yesterday as the 2013-2014 session of the Wisconsin State Legislature opened.
Over the past month Governor Scott Walker has been priming the pump for the reintroduction of a highly controversial bill  that would exempt iron mining companies from certain air and water quality standards, and remove effective input from the public on the mining permitting process.
Last week Walker toured several manufacturing plants in the eastern part of the state to rally the troops behind the bill in the name of job creation. Even though officials from the Gogebic Taconite mining company that has expressed an interest in mining the Penokee Range on the shores of Lake Superior has claimed that 700 jobs would be created by the project, Walker greatly exaggerated that number last week.
"About 3,000 direct and 2,800 permanent jobs that would either be on site, or at businesses like this all across the state of Wisconsin," he said while touring a Valley Plating and Fabricating in Green Bay.
Those job numbers are as inflated as the overall job creation numbers his administration lays claim to. A recent editorial in the Capital Times called him out as a liar in the headline for tripling the actual number of jobs created. The article points out that the overall impact of Walker's policies over the past two years has caused Wisconsin to be a leader in job loss.
Walker went on to characterize the mining deregulation bill as a simple matter of regulatory streamlining that would have no effect on environmental protections. "Clean air, clean water, clean land standards are still intact. What it does is put in place a process that is streamlined and makes it easier for them to invest that money," he explained.
Despite formidable opposition to the bill last year that included dozens of hours of testimony by scientists about the devastating effects of a 1,000-foot-deep open-pit mine 21 miles long and a mile and a half wide, Walker and his Republican colleagues in the legislature seem to have missed the point.
In fact, Walker told his audience in Green Bay last week that there was no meaningful opposition to the bill from within the state last year. He claims that the bill failed in the senate due to the efforts of "people from out of state spending money trying to shut the process down because of the politics and the recall at the time."
Republican Senate and Assembly leaders are just as glib about the job creation potential and lack of harmful environmental impacts of the proposed mine around which the bill is constructed.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) wants to expedite the bill's passage. "I am very optimistic it will be introduced hopefully by the end of next week or sooner, and that we can have hearings by the end of the month and move the process along as expeditiously as possible."
In a press conference yesterday, Vos said the bill introduced next week will be "99.9% the same" as the Joint Finance Committee version of the bill that failed to pass the senate by one vote last spring. That version included the appropriation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in workforce development funds to districts represented by conservative Democrats as a way to win their vote.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos holds his first press conference. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
When asked whether legislators have consulted with the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa whose reservation sits at the foot of the Penokee Range and whose watershed would be affected by a mountain top removal project there, Vos said, "Consultation usually occurs after legislation has happened. The Bad River tribe has an opportunity to participate in the hearing process just like any other member of the public." He added, "It is very difficult to negotiate with someone who says they don't want a bill under any circumstances."
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said he hoped the senate would pass the mining bill by early March. Fitzgerald admits that the bill will have to be "tweaked" in order to win the votes of a couple Republicans who have come out against earlier versions of the bill. But he echoed the impatience of Walker and Vos, saying, "There's been almost two years of discussion." He also has no plans of consulting with the Bad River tribe during the drafting process. "It's going to difficult to ever get them on board," he said.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) made reference to the reemergence of the mining bill in a statement released on Monday. "Bipartisanship is not one side going along with the other side's extreme ideas. Limiting public input to simply tweaking extreme proposals is not bipartisanship." He added, "Today needs to mark the end of extremism dominating Wisconsin politics."
Although their rhetoric has shifted to include the words "bipartisanship," "cooperation," and "compromise," Walker, Vos and Fitzgerald seem bound and determined to pursue this extreme bill that is little more than a wholesale giveaway of Wisconsin's natural resources to mining companies. What they don't seem to understand is that the Bad River and other tribes located in ceded territory -- the entire northern third of the state -- have federal treaty rights that will be the legal basis for tying up this law in court for many years.
Rebecca Kemble  reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.