A controversial mining bill that would ease the way for the development of a 21-mile-long, thousand-foot-deep open pit mine in the Penokee Hills near the shores of Lake Superior is careening toward its conclusion in the Wisconsin legislature during these final days of the 2011-2012 legislative session, which ends on March 15. The bill passed the Assembly on a party line vote on January 26. It was referred back to committee in the Senate late Tuesday afternoon.
A special Senate Committee on Mining Jobs was created by Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) last fall to develop a law that would change current mining law to create separate regulations governing “ferrous” vs. “sulfide” mining. This distinction has been discredited by geologists as scientifically meaningless, since sulfides that produce sulfuric acid when exposed to water are present in the rock surrounding iron ore bodies.
After the Mining Jobs Committee released a draft of their work, Fitzgerald abruptly dissolved it and referred the bill to the Joint Finance Committee, which has a 12 – 4 Republican majority. Nine of the Republicans are also members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, including the Committee Co-Chair Rep. Robin Vos (R – Burlington) who also serves as the ALEC state chair.
Over the weekend, Joint Finance Co-chairs Vos and Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) worked on a Substitute Amendment to the bill as a way to bridge the gap between the original bill and the proposal by Senators Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) and Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) that prompted the dissolution of Mining Jobs committee.
At a press conference on Monday morning, Darling and Vos claimed they had arrived at a compromise bill that would pass the senate. Democratic members of the Joint Finance Committee were eager to hear about the proposal, but it did not come out in written form until the committee was already well into its proceedings later in the afternoon.
As Vos and Darling related details of the proposal at the press conference, Senator Jauch quipped, “This takes a bad idea and makes it worse.” The other Democratic members of Joint Finance ripped the co-chairs for misrepresenting their proposal and rushing it through the committee without sufficient time for legal and policy analysis.
Representative Cory Mason (D-Racine) said, “This morning I got word that a compromise had been reached on the mining bill, only to find that it was the announcement of the agreement between the co-chairs.”
Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) had similarly harsh words for the committee: “I want to express my dissatisfaction with the co-chairs, who have been able to prepare for this but I don’t even have time to read the amendments.” Jauch added, “This is a pattern of the violation of the democratic process and it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Co-chair Vos defended his proposal by saying, “If you’re in the minority, compromise does not mean fifty-fifty. You’re lucky if you get twenty percent. That’s how it was when I was in the minority.” Referring to taxing and revenue-sharing provisions in the bill that heavily favor the mining company, Vos said, “When a new company comes to town, we don’t ask them to pay us taxes for the privilege of them doing business here. We give them tax breaks.”
As the discussion came to an end, Rep. Mason named the political elephant in the room and cut to the heart of the matter: “You have one proposal with bipartisan support, and another that has bipartisan objection. If it’s really not about the rhetoric, why not look at the bipartisan bill that could actually pass?”
Neither Vos nor Darling answered. None of the other ten Republicans on the committee said a single word during the six-hour session. Two votes were taken – one on Jauch and Shultz’s proposal which failed 4 – 12 and one on Vos and Darling’s proposal which passed 12 – 4.
Rumors blazed over social media networks Monday night that Democratic Senator Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) might vote for the bill, cancelling out Schultz’s vote and allowing for a slim 17-16 passage. Carpenter, who is running for the office of Treasurer of the City of Milwaukee, is allegedly under intense pressure to vote for the bill by lobbyists promising campaign donations and trade union leaders who earlier this week came to an agreement with Gogebic Taconite to hire union members for mining construction and operations jobs.
Some of those union members joined a rally organized by lobbyists from the Wisconsin Mining Association Tuesday in support of the bill. They were the very same people who protested the elimination of collective bargaining in the Capitol last year, so it was strange to see them inside the rotunda during the Solidarity Sing Along in an oppositional stance to people singing songs of labor solidarity, and side by side with the very same lobbyists who promoted the union-busting legislation.
The bill was placed on the senate calendar for Tuesday as a special order of business, but was passed over for consideration until later in the day. The latest copy of the bill and amendments to it were passed out to Senators and the press at 4:45 pm. Thirty minutes later it was abruptly brought to the floor and rejected on a 17-16 vote, as expected. The bill was then unanimously referred to the Senate Organization Committee where it will sit until a passable compromise can be crafted.
Senators Jauch, Schultz and Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) all related their willingness to continue to work on a compromise, but asserted that the process must be transparent, respectful of the rights of sovereign tribal nations, and include the input of scientists and Department of Natural Resources staff.
In a hard-hitting speech directed at his fellow Republicans, Schultz said, “the legislative findings in the summary of this bill are not based on good science. By all accounts, this lacks scientific credibility.” He added, “It is full of subjective, squishy language on public health and welfare.”
Cullen had the last word before the vote saying, “We need serious involvement of the Bad River Chippewa if we are going to move forward on this. Referring this back to committee will give us time to pause. The Governor can call us back into special session in April if he wants a mining bill passed before elections.”
In an interview after the vote, Scott Fitzgerald expressed disappointment in his failure to obtain the elusive 17th vote for the bill. He said he thought he had a vote lined up on the Democratic side, but speculated that, “someone must have gotten to them.”
Late Tuesday evening Bill Williams, CEO of Gogebic Taconite, the mining company who has leased mineral rights to the Penokee Hills ore, released a statement indicating they will be pulling out of the area.
“Senate rejection of the mining reforms in Assembly Bill 426 sends a clear message that Wisconsin will not welcome iron mining. We get the message.” He concluded, “GTac is ending plans to invest in a Wisconsin mine. We thank the many people who have supported our efforts.”
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and is a founding member of the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative.