The Assembly Committee on Jobs, Small Business and the Economy passed the controversial mining bill out of committee on a 9-6 party line vote early this afternoon. It is scheduled for a vote on the assembly floor on Thursday.
The committee entertained eight amendments having to do with minor changes in fees, revenue sharing and permit notification processes.
Democrats Sandy Pasch, Penny Bernard-Schaber and Louis Molepske Jr. repeatedly expressed their dismay about the process and content of the amendments. They noted that the relatively insignificant changes to the bill proposed by Republicans did not adequately address the concerns raised in a public hearing held in Hurley, and suggested the entire bill be scrapped.
“This whole process has been tainted from the beginning,” said Rep. Pasch. “This is an awful bill.”
Bernard-Schaber added: “In the whole process I’ve said that I believe we probably can set a policy for responsible mining, but I don’t think this bill does that. I think we should have started over again rather than fix what is a poorly written and poorly crafted bill.”
The bulk of the hearing was taken up with discussion of a slight change to the revenue sharing formula of net proceeds tax. In the original proposal, half of the taxes collected from the net profits of the mining operation would go to the state’s general fund and half would go to the local authorities. The amendment changes that to 40% going to the state and 60% to localities.
Rep. Molepske pointed out that even the people testifying in favor of a mine objected to this revenue sharing proposal. He noted that during twelve hours of testimony only two people said that they liked this provision: State Treasurer Kurt Schuller and Scott Manley from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. “In a location that should have had overwhelming support of this bill, not one person other than the two I mentioned supported this. Everyone said no.”
In response, Rep. Jeff Stone from the Milwaukee area noted that if he represented the community near the mine he would be advocating for 100% of the taxes to be returned to the local community, but he added, “My job is to represent the local community where I am an alderman… My feeling is that the committee heard the people that were there and there is an effort to address that concern.”
Stone and Molepske exchanged sharp differences of opinion on how the bill addresses the treaty rights of the tribes that will be affected by this bill.
In a stunning declaration of disdain for the sovereign rights of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, Stone said, “Our job here is to represent the state of Wisconsin … Our job is not to provide a seat at the table for the tribes who want to be treated as a sovereign nation.” See the video of his statement here.
Molepske expressed shock that the committee’s only response to hours of impassioned and vehement testimony by several tribes was to amend the bill to add them to a list of those who must be notified of any mining permit application filed: “Why does it only go so far as to put them on a mailing list, but not bring them to the table formally as a sovereign entity? I would ask that we as a committee recognize, whether you agree with it or not, that tribes have a vested interest in treaty rights and that we have an interest in paralleling federal law.”
He added, “We have been provided testimony that they hold a special place in our state because of treaty rights. They are going to oppose this bill. For them to be, at the get-go, fighting this bill, that is not good for us as a sate. They should absolutely have a seat at the table. Should we not expect them to be upset? That’s why busloads of them, natives and non-natives alike, will be here on Thursday in opposition to this legislation as currently drafted.”
Stone’s response was to say that their rights were not vested in state statute but in federal law, and that they will have every opportunity to pursue those avenues should they choose to.
Another contentious aspect of the bill is the gutting of wetlands protection regulations and the rescinding of authority of the DNR to require mining companies to avoid disturbing archeological sites and sensitive wetlands.
The Legislative Council confirmed that the bill weakens the DNR’s ability to write rules protecting these areas: “The substitute amendment replaces rules that are currently in administrative rules in the statutes, and removes provisions authorizing rule making. Whether the DNR can make rules under general rule making authority is unclear, but it’s not the case that the DNR would be promulgating rules on this issue.”
Molepske pressed the Legislative Council attorney further on the question whether the bill removes the DNR’s authority to deny a permit based on the existence of archeological areas (tribal burial grounds) or sensitive wetlands. She could not answer but said that she would send him a memo on the question within the next day or two.
The bill moves to the full assembly for a vote on Thursday. Opponents of the bill have called a rally at the Capitol tomorrow afternoon at 5 p.m. just before Scott Walker’s State of the State address. On Thursday as the Assembly meets to pass the bill, which Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald has vowed they would do, activists have organized a People’s Mining Tribunal in a hearing room in the Capitol where people who feel their voices have been left out of the legislative process will have their say. The proceedings will be livestreamed on www.indiancountrytv.com.
The bill still has no named authors or sponsors. Several legislators have admitted to working on the bill, but its authorship and provenance is still shrouded in mystery. After the committee meeting, Arthur Kohl-Riggs asked some of the people who have been involved with promoting the bill about who wrote it. Check out his video here.
The vote was taken during the noon hour Solidarity Sing Along, and when news of the bill’s passage reached them they filled the rotunda with shouts of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” You can hear it in the background of this video when Jeff Stone leaves the meeting room.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.