By Journal Sentinelof the
Madison - Loosening mining regulations is at the top of state lawmakers' agenda in the upcoming two-year session, a goal that eluded Republicans even though they controlled both houses for most of the last session.
Republicans appear to have wider margins in both houses for the upcoming session, which should make it easier for them to pass a bill to their liking. But what form the measure will take, particularly in the Senate, remains unclear.
With a huge GOP majority, the Assembly in January easily passed a bill written with heavy involvement by a Florida company that wanted to develop a massive open pit iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties that it says promises to create thousands of jobs.
Senate Republicans modified the bill because of concerns from some moderates, but Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) said even that version went too far. He joined all Democrats to vote against it in March, preventing its passage and frustrating GOP leaders like Gov. Scott Walker.
Schultz would appear to lack the ability to single-handedly block a bill in the upcoming session because Republicans look likely to come into power with an 18-15 majority after Tuesday's elections. Democrats hold out hope that the official canvass of votes or a recount will reverse the results in one race, leaving Republicans with a 17-16 majority and an increased voice for Schultz.
For his part, Schultz remains optimistic that lawmakers can come up with a bill that he and some Democrats can support, no matter what the GOP margin is in the Senate. He said the political environment has changed since the last session, creating more room for compromise.
"I honestly think we're much closer than people realize," he said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Cullen, a Janesville Democrat who has worked closely with Schultz on a number of issues, said his committee on mining will continue its work into next month in an attempt to find bipartisan agreement. His committee likely will hold a December meeting to identify what provisions of a mining bill both sides can support, he said.
Republicans started the last legislative session with a 19-14 majority, but that was narrowed to 17-16 through recalls and they were unable to pass the mining bill. After the bill failed and the legislative session ended, Democrats took control of the Senate in July after winning another recall. Cullen was appointed to lead the mining committee and develop legislation for the next session. The committee will remain in place until early January, when new senators are sworn in and Republicans take over the chamber.
Cullen's committee took testimony from the Wisconsin Mining Association, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and others, and Cullen said he was hopeful the committee could find common ground between mining interests and environmentalists.
Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), the incoming Senate majority leader, said he was open to some new ideas coming out of the hearings.
"I'd love to sit down with Cullen and pick his brain," Fitzgerald said. "Absolutely, I'd love to have a bipartisan bill."
But he also said Republicans would take into consideration the bill the Assembly passed in the last session since lawmakers in that house had put themselves on the record in support of it. But he still expected at least some changes to that proposal.
"I'd be surprised if the bill remains identical to what was passed," Fitzgerald said. "It doesn't mean it was a bad bill, but I just know how the legislative process works."
The Wisconsin Mining Association is conducting a study of how to attract mining investors to Wisconsin that could be released by mid-December. Cullen said his committee would take its findings into account if it is ready in time.
Kennan Wood, the association's executive director, said the group is focused on updating regulations, not changing environmental laws. Regulatory changes, such as creating a timeline for the state to issue mining permits, would draw interest from those willing to invest in mining in Wisconsin, he said.
Cullen and Schultz saw the association's position on environmental laws as significant and a sign that a bipartisan deal could be reached.
"There was a very clear message coming through," said Schultz, who sits on the mining committee. "I think it's very safe to say the mining association wasn't asking for a wholesale change in our environmental laws."
The governor has not given specifics yet on what he wants included in the next mining bill. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the governor would evaluate that over the next few months in terms of how best to create jobs.
"Governor Walker doesn't want to sign a mining bill just to say he did it - it must result in jobs," Werwie said in an email.
Sen. Mike Ellis (R-Neenah), the incoming Senate president, said he believed some of Cullen's ideas could be incorporated into the new mining bill. He said the debate last session served as a primer on mining that educated all the senators.
"Does the finished product have to parrot that (last bill)? No, it does not," he said.
Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) worked on the bill that passed the Assembly in January. He was promoted to the Senate in Tuesday's election and said he would remain engaged on mining legislation.
Tiffany said he liked the Assembly bill but would now review other information and consult with Senate leaders on how to proceed with a bill. "Hopefully, we can start over again here and move it forward," he said.
The debate over mining next session won't be limited to iron mining. Aquila Resources, a company wanting to develop gold mines at sites in Marathon and Taylor counties, hopes to eliminate a mining moratorium in state law.
A 1998 state law says new mines cannot be established unless those proposing the mine can provide examples of North American mines that have operated for 10 years without polluting water and have not caused pollution 10 years after being closed. The moratorium was enacted after a fierce, years-long debate over developing a zinc-copper mine in Crandon.
Last session's mining bill eliminated the moratorium for iron mines but not other types of mines.
Ron Kuehn, a lobbyist for Aquila, said the company hopes to reverse the moratorium for all mines in the upcoming session, though he expected that to be taken up as separate legislation.
In July, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled a group suing the closed Flambeau Mine in Rusk County had failed to show the copper, gold and silver mine caused any serious violations of environmental laws.
Kuehn said that ruling effectively showed that mines could now meet the standards set by the moratorium. But he said if Aquila proceeds with its operations, it is almost certain to be sued by mining opponents, which would tie up the mine for years.
Amber Meyer Smith, director of government relations for the environmental group Clean Wisconsin, said it shouldn't matter if the moratorium is in place if Aquila believes it can meet the law's current standard.
She said her group was leery of repealing the moratorium for any type of mining because environmentalists fought for years to get it in place.
Jason Stein of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.