Dale Schultz, Wisconsin Senator, Rejects Mining Compromise 03.01.12

Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, said he can't support legislation that eliminates public challenges to mining permit decisions and downgrades the state's environmental standards. He added that legislators are making long-term decisions about the environment without consulting experts.

"I am far from the perfect legislator, but when all is said and done, I'm the one who has to look myself in that mirror, and today I do so with a clear conscience," Schultz said during a news conference.

Schultz's stance left the rest of the state GOP shaking its head.

"We came a long way on stuff," John Hogan, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald's chief-of-staff, said of the compromise. "It's frustrating."

It's unclear what might happen next. Republicans hold a one-vote majority in the Senate so they need everyone in their party on board. The regular legislative session ends in mid-March, but GOP leaders or Republican Gov. Scott Walker could call lawmakers back in an extra session to deal with the mining bill. Schultz said he's still willing to discuss changes.

Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, the bill's chief Assembly sponsor, said the bill still might get through the Senate before the session ends. He said he hoped Schultz takes time to read the compromise thoroughly.

"I hope it's not dead," Tiffany said. "I think he should propose a counter proposal."

The bill is designed to help a Florida-based Gogebic Taconite dig a huge open-pit mine just south of Lake Superior. The company has promised the mine would create hundreds of jobs, making it attractive to Republican lawmakers looking to deliver on job creation promises they made. Environmentalists, though, fear the mine would pollute one of the most pristine areas in the state.

Gogebic Taconite officials have put their plans on hold until lawmakers can guarantee a stopping point in the state's open-ended permitting process. Republicans who control the Legislature have worked for most of the past year on legislation to help the company, sparking one of the fiercest debates over how to balance business and the environment Wisconsin has seen in years.

Assembly Republicans passed a bill in January that called for state regulators to make a permitting decision within a year of receiving an application. The bill would wipe out contested case hearings, quasi-judicial proceedings that environmentalists and other members of the public often use to challenge permitting decisions. It also would divide a tax on ore sales 60-40 between local governments near the mine and the state.

The bill moved to the Senate. Fitzgerald kicked it to a special committee he hand-picked to work on mining, but abruptly dissolved the panel after members put out their own bill. He then threw his support behind the Assembly version.

Schultz, a moderate who sat on the Senate mining committee, said he couldn't vote for the Assembly legislation. He introduced his own version that included contested case hearings, and extended the approval decision deadline to 18 months while providing numerous avenues for extensions. It also handed all the proceeds from the ore tax to the locals and earmarked 20 percent of the revenue to pay for catastrophic environmental damage.

Schultz said he met with Rep. Robin Vos, R-Burlington, the co-chair of the Legislature's powerful budget committee, and DNR officials on Monday to talk about the bill. He ultimately concluded that lawmakers need to consult experts and do it in public.

"For every question answered, new uncertainties arose, and there was a decided lack of expertise in the room to answer them," Schultz said. "These types of long-lasting and far-reaching environmental changes should not be made by a room full of legislators, staff and a handful of DNR folks behind closed doors."

Republicans released the compromise moments before Schultz called his news conference. Hogan said they got the documents to Schultz just half an hour before the conference began, signaling that Schultz had his mind made up before he even saw the proposal.

The compromise backs off the original bill in a number of areas. For example, the DNR would have 14 months to make a permit decision. Mining activity would have to meet flood plain ordinances to ensure communities remain eligible for national flood insurance coverage. The DNR would no longer have to consider the economic ramifications when permitting mining water withdrawals.

But it wasn't good enough for Schultz.

"My conscience simply won't allow me to surrender the existing environmental protections without a full and open debate," Schultz said.

Tiffany countered that the bill has been thoroughly vetted — Assembly Republicans have held two public hearings on it and the budget committee held a hearing of its own — and the measure keeps in place the state's groundwater and air quality standards. He says he's willing to talk about a limited contested case process, but still feels the hearings could extend the approval process by years.

"I wish he would come back and talk to us about the proposal this afternoon," Tiffany said.

Gogebic Taconite President Bill Williams has hinted the company might give up on Wisconsin if a bill doesn't pass this session. On Monday he said the company would be willing to wait through any sort of extra session.

"I don't know what Dale's looking for," Williams said.