Wis. Republicans Push Mining Bill Through Committees

Yesterday Wisconsin lawmakers passed a controversial mining deregulation bill out of two committees. Assembly and Senate mining committees were scheduled to meet at the same time on opposite sides of the state Capitol building. Both Republican-dominated committees passed the bill on party-line votes over strenuous objections of Democrats.

At the beginning of the executive session of the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Mining, Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber (D-Appleton) moved to adjourn for a month so that committee members would have enough time to study the 206-page bill introduced less than a month ago, and the eleven amendments rolled out by the Republican authors the day before the vote.

Referring to the freshly introduced amendments, Bernard Schaber said, “Attempts to fix bill are admissions that AB1 is seriously flawed. We should slow this down.” Committee Chair Mary Williams (R-Medford) said the motion to adjourn was out of order and launched into what became a nearly four-hour meeting.

Before the start of the meeting, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) and Majority Leader Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) were challenged by Brett Hulsey (D-Madison) and Fred Clark (D-Baraboo) about the ban on visual aids during the meeting. Hulsey brought several large posters displaying a photo of a mine and a comparison of mining laws between Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, but was not allowed to display them and they were eventually removed from the room.

Much of the debate on the amendments and final passage of the bill focused on the legislative process during the short life of the bill with Democrats calling it a “sham.” Rep. Clark announced that at last week’s one and only public hearing on the bill, 98 members of the public who signed up to testify did not get the chance to do so. Fewer than 70 people actually testified during the 12-hour hearing. No other hearing was scheduled.

Clark said, “We’re being asked to consider a piece of legislation that’s the product of over 18 months of closed door meetings between the owners of an out-of-state mining company, the governor’s staff, and the authors of bill that has excluded stakeholders from northern Wisconsin: the tribes and Ashland County residents.”

Republicans countered that there has been more public input on this issue than on any other issue in their memories, with several public hearings on a similar bill last session. Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), who famously said last year that it was not the legislature’s job to give Native Sovereign Nations a seat at the table, noted that members of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa got their chance to speak at public hearings.

That chance consisted of strict two-minute slots per person. But that does not amount to the government-to-government consultation between the State of Wisconsin and Native Sovereign Nations mandated by federal treaties and upheld by state executive orders. Last week Bad River Chairman Mike Wiggins, Jr. sent a letter to Senate mining committee chairman Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) enumerating some of the ways in which their treaty rights had been abused and violated in the process of crafting and passing this bill.

Although Republicans characterized their amendments as measures to increase environmental protection that had bipartisan support, Democrats on the committee called them “window dressing” compared to the massive regulatory giveaways to mining companies contained in the remainder of the bill. These include allowing a mining operation to drill as many high-capacity wells as they need without regard to the impacts the wells have on drawing down water levels of nearby municipal water supplies or groundwater tables from which rural households get their drinking water. It also allows for the filling of a lake or pond that is less than 2-acres in size with mining waste and tailings piles, and eliminates the administrative law proceeding known as a contested case hearing from the permitting process itself.

Calling it alternately the “Lawyer Full Employment Act” and the “Toxic Waste Creation Act,” Rep. Hulsey said that the amount of deregulation contained in the bill practically assured that the state would lose its ability to issue permits under federal clean air and water law, and that companies seeking to do business in Wisconsin would have to travel to Chicago to obtain them.

Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee) agreed, saying, “None of these amendments are significant enough to prevent the inevitable onslaught of litigation in state and federal courts if this bill is passed. This is a political bill, not a jobs bill.”

Gogebic Taconite, the company owned by coal-mining magnate Chris Cline that has proposed to build the biggest open-pit iron mine in the world in the Penokee Hills and that has helped write the bill, also came under fire from Democratic lawmakers. Rep. Mike Kuglitsch (R-New Berlin) unintentionally opened the discussion with these remarks: “We have a good corporate citizen that wants to invest $1.5 billion in Wisconsin. Let's move on.”

Rep. Hulsey responded that GTac is “far from a good corporate citizen.” Noting that nobody in the company had any experience operating an iron mine, Hulsey went on to enumerate multiple health, safety and environmental law violations incurred by Chris Cline’s coal mining operations in Illinois and West Virginia.

Rep. Clark went further, saying, “This company has done almost nothing to present information to the people of this state about what the scope and nature of the project will be.” He added, “I’m astounded at how Wisconsin has been forced to deal with a highly controversial issue with so little information and apparently so little good faith on the part of the company.”

Over in the Senate Committee on Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining and Revenue, a similar drama was being played out: Democrats railing against the lack of transparency and openness to the input of the tribes and residents of Ashland County, and Republicans downplaying the environmental, health and safety risks of a massive mountain top removal project, asserting they needed to balance those risks with the need to create jobs.

In both committees Democrats brought two amendments of their own. The first would replace the net proceeds tax (taxes paid only after the mining operation turns a profit) with a gross tonnage tax (taxes paid for every piece of ore removed from the ground as soon as it is taken).

The second would allow citizens and any other interested party to challenge the quality and type of data a mining company was submitting in their permit application. Rep. Clark’s reasoning for restoring the judicial proceeding to a point in the process before any mining activity takes place: “You can’t repeal a 1,000-foot hole in the ground.”

Both amendments were voted down in both committees. Because of the tax provisions, the bill moves on to the Joint Committee on Finance before final passage on the floor of each house. Governor Scott Walker said he hopes the bill will pass by early March.

Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website.