Wis. Republicans Dismantle Democracy in Favor of Mining Company’s Interests
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald began the day yesterday by calling a 12:01am floor session of the Wis. Senate to rush through a wetlands deregulation bill. If that weren’t crazy enough, later in the day he announced the dissolution of the Senate Committee on Mining Jobs and referred the controversial mining bill passed by the Assembly last month to the Joint Committee on Finance.
Fitzgerald announced the creation of the special mining jobs committee last September. The bi-partisan committee was to develop its own version of a bill that would streamline the permitting process for companies wishing to mine iron ore in Wisconsin at the same time the Assembly Jobs Committee worked on theirs.
Amidst large protests, the Assembly passed their version of the bill on January 26, 2012 after the public had been removed from the gallery for repeated outbursts. In addition to opposing the bill itself, protesters objected to the pro-forma public hearings that yielded no substantial changes in the bill, as well as the process by which the bill was written, amended, and eventually voted upon.
Earlier this week, the Senate Committee on Mining Jobs released a draft proposal of their bill. According to members of the committee, the draft was meant to be a starting point for discussion. One public hearing was scheduled for this Friday, and another one was promised for the following week.
The 191-page proposal was identical to the Assembly version in all ways but a few. The most significant change was the addition of a production tax of $2 per “long ton” of ore extracted. This tax would be assessed beginning after the third year of production and would be split 70/30 between local mining impact committee and state general revenue coffers.
Another provision allowing for the possibility of contested case hearings, legal proceedings by which the public can challenge a mining company to provide data under oath, was inserted. Current mining law requires contested case hearings as part of the process. The Assembly bill eliminated them completely, and this new version would have allowed the Department of Natural Resources to make the call about whether or not a hearing would take place.
Evidently, these two changes were enough to kill not only the bill, but the committee that proposed it. According to Andrew Welhouse, Scott Fitzgerald’s Communication Director, the Associated Press referred to the draft as “the senate bill” which created confusion about who wrote and supported it. Welhouse also claimed that after the draft bill was released, “constituents were calling their senators complaining about the production tax and the contested case hearings.”
I attended the two day-long public hearings and listened to hundreds of people give testimony on the bill. One of the more surprising aspects of the hearing held near the potential mine site in Hurley, WI, was that even people who favored the mine had problems with the bill, and chief among these was the lack of revenue flowing back to their communities from the mining operation. I cannot imagine that any of those “constituents” would have objected to an increased share of mining revenues being reinvested in their community, or even to the opportunity to hold a mining company accountable for the information they reveal to the public about their operations through contested case hearings.
So who might these “constituents” be? Are they members of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, an organization that recorded 386 hours of lobbying on the bill last year? Or perhaps Gogebic Taconite itself, the company that allegedly wrote the first draft of the Assembly bill who recorded 161 lobbying hours in 2011? Or maybe it was X-cel Energy who logged 81 lobbying hours that paid off in an 11th hour amendment to the bill which relaxed the permitting process for high power electric transmission lines serving mining operations?
Whoever they were, their voices were loud enough to convince Senator Pam Galloway (R – Wausau) to author and circulate a statement co-sponsoring AB 426 and disavowing support for the Senate Committee on Mining Jobs’ proposal. By Wednesday morning, eight other Republican senators - Darling, Fitzgerald, Lasee, Lazich, Leibham, Vukmir, Wanggaard and Zipperer - had signed on to the statement. It bears pointing out that all but Leibham are members of ALEC.
The Joint Finance Committee has the largest and most loyal Republican majority of all committees in the legislature. It is comprised of twelve Republicans and four Democrats. Nine of the Republicans are also members of ALEC, including the Committee Co-Chair Rep. Robin Vos (R – Burlington) who also serves as the ALEC State Chair.
The committee happened to be in session when the news broke that they would be expected to take up the mining bill. They were voting on approving the specific items enumerated in Scott Walker’s 2011-2012 budget cuts. At the conclusion of the meeting, Senator Bob Jauch (D – Poplar) who sat on the ill-fated Mining Jobs Committee and also serves on Joint Finance made this statement: “I understand that, in behavior very similar to Richard Nixon firing his Attorney General during Watergate, Senator Kedzie (sic. – he meant Fitzgerald) has now disbanded the Senate Committee on Mining and is going to refer the mining bill to this committee.”
The Watergate reference has to do with the John Doe investigation into abuses within Scott Walker’s reign as Milwaukee County Executive, as well as the six recall initiatives against Walker, his Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, and Senators Fitzgerald, Galloway, Moulton and Wanggaard.
I don’t think that Jauch actually believes that the Mining Jobs Committee chair Senator Neal Kedzie is actually guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury a la John Mitchell, but scandal, subversion of democratic process and secrecy does seem to distinguish the reign of Scott Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers who lead both houses of the legislature.
Jauch struck a more combative tone speaking with reporters after the committee adjourned. “Scott Fitzgerald has once again sold the Capitol to special interests,” he said. “The Assembly passed a bill written by and for the mining company. The Senate had a chance to deal with issues about certainty and predictability in the regulatory process without destroying environmental protections, but the Republican leadership doesn’t care about doing it right. They want victory more than anything. They’re berserk with power.”
While I was waiting in Scott Fitzgerald’s office to speak with his Communications Director, Joint Finance Committee Co-Chairs Darling and Vos walked in, followed by Jeff Fitzgerald, Speaker of the Assembly, and four of his legislative aides. By the time they emerged, they had set a date for the statutory public hearing (Friday morning at 10am, less than two days hence), and hatched a plan for passage of the bill on the Senate floor for next week.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.
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