Are Wis. Republicans Trading School Vouchers for Mining Bill?

For the past year I’ve written about the rightwing political takeover of Wisconsin state government, and I’ve focused keenly on two particular subjects: Public education and natural resources, particularly an enormous open pit iron mine proposal and associated changes in wetlands law.

Now a politically charged connection between public education and mining is developing with deals made in barrooms and closed caucuses about two particular bills. AB 426 massively deregulates the permitting process for “non-sulfide” mines, and SB 174 is a fix to the state budget closing a loophole that allows for the expansion of voucher programs that use public school district funds to pay for private and religious school tuition into cities other than Milwaukee and Racine.

The controversial mining bill that would pave the way for a 21-mile long, 1,000-foot deep open pit mine amidst some of the most pristine wetlands along the shore of Lake Superior was passed by the Assembly last month. It was supposed to be taken up by a special Senate Committee on Mining Jobs, but that committee was abruptly dissolved last week by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald after details of the bill’s revisions that imposed a production tax and reinstated a provision for contested case hearings as part of the permitting process were revealed.

The bill was handed off to the Joint Finance Committee. Here’s a video of Sen. Bob Jauch (D – Poplar) asking Co-Chairs Robin Vos (R – Burlington) and Alberta Darling (R – River Hills) how they intend to handle it. Two days later, Joint Finance was holding a public hearing on the bill. Stunning new testimony was presented by University of Wisconsin geologists who shared their findings on the composition of rocks that will be dug up in massive volumes – cubic kilometers -- and left in tailings piles over a 3,000-acre expanse of land at the headwaters of many streams and rivers that flow into Lake Superior. See also this recap of their testimony.

(Tim Myers, Engineer, and Bill Williams, CEO of Gogebic Taconite at the hearing on Friday.)
(Tim Myers, Engineer, and Bill Williams, CEO of Gogebic Taconite at the hearing on Friday.)

The Joint Finance Committee has yet to vote on the bill. One of the Republican senators who served on the dissolved Mining Jobs Committee, Dale Schultz (R – Richland Center), has already said that he will not vote on the current version, but will be writing amendments together with Sen. Bob Jauch that they will bring to the committee when it comes time to vote. Without Schultz’s vote in the Senate, the bill will fail unless Majority Leader Fitzgerald can convince Democrat Tim Cullen (D – Janesville) to vote for it.

The voucher loophole bill, SB 174, is the subject of the conversation between Vos, and Sen. Mike Ellis (R – Neenah) at the Inn on the Park bar across from the Capitol when they got caught on video. This same video captures Ellis referring to Preble High School in Green Bay as “a sewer,” a comment for which he was forced to offer a public apology.

Back in June, a last minute change to the 2011-2013 budget was inserted and passed that included language opening the door to voucher programs in the sixteen Wisconsin second-class cities (population between 39,000 and 149,999), including Green Bay. In this Journal Sentinel article, Vos is quoted as saying, “a deal is a deal,” in agreement with Ellis’s proposal that they co-author a bill closing that loophole. SB 174 bill quickly passed in the senate, but has been languishing in the Assembly since October of last year.

At the conclusion of last Thursday’s Assembly floor session, Rep. Gordon Hintz (D – Oshkosh) moved to remove SB 174 from committee and place it on the floor for debate. Forward to the 3:08:20 mark in part two of this video for coverage of this portion and an entertaining view of the current style of Wisconsin political debate. What you can’t see on the video is Robin Vos’s empty chair as one Democrat after another slams him for saying, “a deal is a deal” in June, and then seemingly reneging on it.

Vos was in Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald’s office during this portion of the floor session and never answered any of the questions put to him. Minority Leader Peter Barca (D – Kenosha) called Fitzgerald out of his office and on to the floor to speak to the issue. Fitzgerald said that there were still plenty more days left in the session to take up the bill and that it wasn’t necessarily dead. Hintz’s motion to withdraw the bill from committee failed, so it remains, oddly enough, in the Homeland Security and State Affairs committee until Fitzgerald chooses to schedule it for passage.

The next morning, Robin Vos presided over the seven and a half-hour long public hearing on the mining bill as co-chair of Joint Finance. Video of the entire hearing is here. The last two hours or so of testimony contain scathing indictments of not just the content of the bill, but the process with which it is being considered. In her testimony, Katy Reeder of Middleton made reference to the school voucher barroom video saying, “I want to be assured that this is not going to be a deal that is going to be hashed out and sealed over a piece of pie over at the Inn on the Park.”

Both bills are now in legislative limbo pending amendments and deals being cut behind the scenes for votes. Speculation is rife that the Fitzgerald brothers are putting together a deal to pass the voucher bill in the Assembly in exchange for enough votes to pass the mining bill in the Senate. Currently, cities represented by Senators Ellis, Cullen, and Cowles (R – Green Bay) are potentially eligible for vouchers, and their school districts are opposed to them. A vote to close the loopholes and protect school districts already reeling from massive budget cuts could go a long way toward garnering the goodwill of senators not currently supportive of the mining bill.

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.