Republicans on the state Assembly's jobs committee Tuesday approved a bill that would streamline Wisconsin's iron mining permit process, brushing aside Democrats' claims that the measure is a license to pollute.
The bill is designed to jump-start Florida-based Gogebic Taconite's plans for an iron mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. The measure has triggered a fierce debate between Republicans looking to deliver on campaign promises to create jobs and environmentalists who say the mine would ruin the pristine area.
Committee Republicans presented a handful of last-minute changes to the bill they said would make the measure more balanced, but Democrats said the revisions didn't go nearly far enough. In the end the committee voted 9-5 along party lines to approve the bill and send it on to the full Assembly. Republicans who control the chamber have already scheduled a vote for Thursday's floor session.
"This is still an awful bill," said Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Whitefish Bay. "It certainly doesn't deserve to make it to the floor."
Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale, defended the measure. He said the mine will create sorely needed jobs for northwestern Wisconsin and the Milwaukee area, home to a number of mining equipment manufacturers.
"We're trying to emerge from the deepest recession since the Great Depression. We need the people in the state to have jobs, to work," he said. The bill "may not be perfect ... but I believe it moves our state forward at a time when we desperately need to move forward."
The first phase of Gogebic Taconite's plans call for mining a 4½-mile stretch of the Penokee Hills near Mellen, a city of about 900 people south of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's reservation.
Company officials insist that phase alone would create 700 jobs for the area as well as another 2,000 ancillary positions in the region's transportation and service industries. But they've put their plans on hold, saying they want state lawmakers to guarantee a clear end to the state's complex, open-ended permitting process before they proceed.
Republicans looking to deliver on campaign promises to create jobs have spent most of the last year working on a bill. Under legislation released in December, the state Department of Natural Resources would have to approve an iron mining application within a year. Other provisions in the bill would eliminate contested hearings challenging the DNR's decisions, forbid anyone who isn't directly injured by a mining operation from suing over mining law violations and require the DNR to issue a mining water withdrawal permit even if the withdrawal could hurt state waters, if the agency decides the mine's benefits outweigh the damage.
Conservationists fear the bill would clear the way for Gogebic Taconite to pollute the surrounding watershed, ruining Lake Superior's crystal-clear waters and the Bad River tribe's traditional rice beds. Questions also have swirled about how many jobs the mine would really create for Wisconsin residents.
Republicans came to the committee meeting with a revamped bill they said they drafted after considering opponents' concerns.
One of the revisions calls for splitting the revenue from a state tax on ore sales between local governments and the state's general fund 60-40. The original bill called for a 50-50 split.
The cap on application fees would go from $1.1 million to $2 million. Applicants would have to share their applications with tribes with land near mine sites. And rather than requiring the DNR to issue a permit if a mine's public benefits outweigh the harm to state waters, the agency now would only have to consider that question.
Democrats spent two hours picking the changes apart as Gogebic Taconite President Bill Williams looked on from the audience, silently taking notes. He said later he didn't hear anything from Democrats that surprised him.
One of the Democrats' biggest problems was the ore tax revenue division. Under current law, all the tax revenue goes to local governments to help offset damage the mine or its equipment might cause to roads and infrastructure. Rep. Louis Molepske, D-Stevens Point, said things should stay that way. The locals deserve every cent from the tax, he said, since they'll be responsible for repairing the region's roads.
Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale, countered that local officials obviously want every dollar they can get. But the mine traffic could damage state roads, too, he said.
Molepske went on to complain about the $2 million application fee cap, saying the Gogebic Taconite mine is so massive it would cost the DNR more than $2 million to properly review its application. He questioned, too, whether the provision ensuring the tribes get a copy of the permit application means anything at all.
"Simple notice to these tribes isn't going to cut it," Molepske said. "They want a seat at the table."
Stone noted that other state permits have set application fees and the notification requirement is simply meant to keep everyone knows what's going on and the tribes can mount their own challenges.
"I don't think our job is to provide a seat at the table for the tribes, who want to be treated as a sovereign nation," Stone said.
The bill is almost certain to pass the Assembly. From there it will go to the state Senate, but its fate in that house is far from clear. Republicans there have been moving cautiously; they hold only a one-vote majority and four of them are battling recall efforts sparked by their support for GOP Gov. Scott Walker's contentious law stripping public workers of their union rights.
Senate Republicans have appointed a special committee to study mining issues, but the panel has met only once since it was formed in September. The committee's chairman, Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, didn't immediately return a message.
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