WE commentary: Please note the comments by Gogebic Taconite (GTac) regarding the mine tax profits to local government. GTac does not like the split. One more opportunity to divert the attention from the degradation of our water resources to getting a bigger payoff for local government. Ashland County Board leadership has opted to ignore the possibility that GTac will pump water from Lake Superior, divert or dam streams in the Bad River Watershed, and fill wetlands with mining waste, instead at the last board meeting their leadership chose to pontificate on how more money should flow to them. Wow, money rules in Ashland County also! Shame and more shame
Legislators worked with Gogebic Taconite on mining bill - Five Republicans, staff were authors of legislation
By Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel
Dec. 19, 2011 |(300) COMMENTS
Who wrote the Assembly's mining bill?
That's what many people wanted to know after a public hearing last Wednesday at State Fair Park when Republicans declined to provide details on who authored the legislation and whom they relied on for help.
Now, details are emerging:
The bill was largely written by five Republicans and their staffs who huddled for months with different parties, including the business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and representatives of iron ore mining company Gogebic Taconite, which wants to construct a mine in northern Wisconsin.
The Department of Natural Resources's top mining expert, Ann Coakley, and Deputy DNR Secretary Matt Moroney were consulted, Moroney said. But lawmakers said they didn't brief environmental or wildlife groups.
Legislative records show that Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee) instructed the Legislature's bill drafters to write the bill.
Those records don't detail the level of collaboration, but according to legislators the following lawmakers shaped the legislation:
Honadel and Reps. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) and Mary Williams (R-Medford). Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) also weighed in from time to time.
The lawmakers agreed they relied on representatives of Hurley-based Gogebic Taconite, which earlier this year demanded changes in mining legislation if they are to move forward with plans for a $1.5 billion open pit mine and a processing plant in a forested area of Iron and Ashland counties.
WMC, which is the state's largest business lobby, and staff from Gov. Scott Walker also weighed in, according to legislators.
The legislators said that the final drafting occurred among lawmakers, their staffs and agencies that serve lawmakers - the Legislative Council and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
"Of course we worked with getting ideas from the mining company," Honadel said. "If a biotech company came here, we would sit down with and get all of their ideas, too."
No named sponsors
Rather than naming individual sponsors, Assembly Bill 426 was introduced by the Assembly Jobs, Economy and Small Business Committee. That meant no lawmakers are listed as sponsors.
And because details of the bill had been kept under wraps for months, Democrats and environmentalists have raised questions about who was behind the legislation.
"I don't know why everyone is being so evasive about the drafting of this bill," an exasperated Rep. Nick Milroy (D-South Range) said at one point during the hearing last week at State Fair Park.
John Jagler, a spokesman for Fitzgerald, said if Democrats "are trying to imply that this bill was written by the mining company, that's absolutely inaccurate."
Bills sponsored by a committee - rather than lawmakers - are not the norm, but it does happen. Dozens of such bills were proposed that way in 2011, legislative records show.
AB 426 would relax numerous environmental standards involving wetlands, groundwater, rock disposal, and would reduce the level of public participation in the review process.
Proponents say the changes are needed to speed up the permit deadlines for the DNR, which is considered a key change to give companies such as Gogebic assurance the regulatory process doesn't drag on for years.
Environmental safeguards will not be compromised, they say.
After last week's hearing, Republican leaders said the bill will change before it is passed by Assembly. While there has been talk for months of fast-tracking it, that might not happen.
"This is a major bill for the state of Wisconsin and it's too important to rush," said Suder, the Assembly majority leader.
Anatomy of the bill
Based on interviews, here is how major pieces were developed:
Regulator deadlines: There was agreement among Gogebic, WMC and legislators that the DNR needed to be given a timeline to finish its work. The bill would require the DNR to approve a mining permit in 360 days. The current review period by the DNR takes at least 2 1/2 years.
Deadlines for regulatory approval are in place in Minnesota and Michigan, but they also include flexibility to push back times if necessary.
The hearing process: WMC pushed for removing contested case hearings - a process that requires an adjudicated hearing before challengers have the option to file a lawsuit in court.
"It creates huge uncertainty," and it's a barrier for financing a mining project, said Scott Manley, director of environmental policy at WMC.
"This is a lawsuit built into the permitting process."
Taxes: Vos, co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, asked for language that takes tax revenue from a mine and splits it evenly between the local community and the State of Wisconsin. In current law, the locality gets all the proceeds, but Vos wanted to see half the funds go to the general fund.
Gogebic said it doesn't support the split, and several people from the Hurley area said last week that they would prefer to see all tax proceeds stay in the community.
"I have no doubt that will change," Suder said.
Wetlands: Neither Honadel, Suder nor Vos said they could recall who was responsible for language that would make it easier to develop a mine on or near wetlands - something environmentalists worry will harm the local watershed.
WMC's Manley said his organization didn't offer wording, "but we have been advocating for wetlands reform, period."
He said wetlands near a mine must be treated differently from, say, a commercial development, because "iron ore is where it is at - it doesn't move."
Honadel, whose district is the most heavily industrialized in the state, said the legislation is an important step to revive the state's core industries.
"We need to mine, milk and manufacture in this state," Honadel said.
He began working on the bill in January and met with WMC and the Cline Group, a Florida-based company that owns Gogebic and operates coal mines. Cline wanted to develop a known iron ore deposit along Highway 77 between Upson and Mellen.
Early work produced a draft bill that was heavily influenced by Gogebic but was dropped as the Legislature focused on the budget and grew preoccupied with recall elections in the Senate.
Then, after months of what seemed to be little progress, a new bill was unveiled Dec. 8.
Democrats and environmentalists said the latest version bears a resemblance to the earlier draft and that it goes too far in rolling back environmental safeguards.
With Republicans initially tight-lipped about its authorship, Democrats attacked it.
Rep. Peggy Krusick (D-Milwaukee) wondered during the State Fair Park hearing why there was no attempt to work with Democrats to strike a compromise.
When Republicans declined to say who drafted the bill, Milroy asked, "How do we know who we can ask questions to about aspects of the bill?
"We need to know who to talk to so we can find a compromise."