Scott Walker Uses Mining Bill as Political Litmus Test
In an address to the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce’s “State of Wisconsin Business” gathering last Wednesday, Scott Walker said his top priority for the next legislative session that begins in January is to pass a controversial iron mining bill drafted by WMC and lawyers for the Gogebic Taconite mining company that passed the assembly but failed in the senate earlier this year when Republican Senator Dale Schultz voted against it.
"We believe there's no other bill the Legislature can pass this session that will more directly result in job creation," said Walker to applause from the audience.
Walker’s hopes for better luck for AB 426 the second time around are based on the three seat Republican majority in the senate after elections last month. WMC poured over $2 million into attack ads against the Democratic Party incumbent Jessica King in the Fox Valley senate race. The ads focused on her vote against the mining bill. King lost the race to Republican Rick Gudex by 599 votes.
A special senate committee on mining was convened by Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) over the summer in an attempt to put forward an alternative mining bill that would address concerns of the mining industry about streamlining permitting processes while maintaining environmental safeguards and public participation in the process.
On Thursday the committee met to hear testimony from three representatives of local government about revenue sharing, the state mining impact fund, local authority over land use decision making processes, and to hear a presentation from mining industry representatives about what they believe to be good mining laws.
The local government representatives raised concerns about the ability of counties and towns to do baseline environmental studies on air and water quality in the absence of mining impact funds and in the current regime of levy limits on local units of government imposed by Walker in his last budget.
Richard Stadleman, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Towns Association which represents 1253 towns in the state said, “Town governments’ principal function is to protect public health and safety.” He continued, “Whether for or against mining, people think their town officers should be able to give them answers. The company is not giving them answers and neither is the state.”
Jeff Beirl, Administrator for Ashland County where the potential iron mine would be located and where most of the water runoff from the site would drain challenged the job creation numbers: “There is a group that says 700 projected jobs make this an important economic development project. Those people have a valid reason for saying, ‘bring this project to Ashland and Iron Counties.’ You’ve also heard a group of people who make their living and love their way of life – they have concerns about what a project like this will do to local assets and resources. If a mining bill does not protect those assets and resources, they are going to lose their livelihood and their way of life.”
Beirl concluded, “What have we accomplished if we have created 700 jobs in the economic impact, but because of the deterioration of local assets 700 other people can no longer make their living on tourism, agriculture or land based jobs? A net gain of zero jobs.”
Arlen Albrecht, UW Extension community development agent for Taylor County in which Aquila Resources is prospecting for gold and copper, says that the county is working on passing an ordinance, “that would allow some say in the development, operation and closure of a mine.”
He too decried the lack of transparency of mining company operations in the county. “A big part of my job is to help the public understand what is being proposed. My mission to be neutral on this and say, ‘these are the issues.’ …It is extremely helpful to keep it from being such a polarized issue. Right now, frankly, we don’t know what’s being proposed, so you really can’t say anything. It’s too nebulous to put an educational program behind that.”
Sen. Schultz agreed that the public has a right to know about mining activities in their community. “I sense that there is a great deal of positive impact when people feel that they are part of the process. People ought to have some sense about what’s going on and have the opportunity to weigh in on it.”
Schultz went on to say that AB 246, “…isn’t based on scientific evidence at all – it’s a political fiction. We have to be concerned to NOT create a highest and best use of any land that contains iron ore and then subject it to special rules.”
But that seems to be precisely what the mining industry wants the State of Wisconsin to do. Many legislators are willing to go along with that plan. Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) said, “I believe that some sort of bill will be put before us next January. If I have to I will vote on a bill on a straight party line vote. However, I don’t think there’s any point in taking up a bill unless the people who want to mine the area are happy with the bill.”
Tim Sullivan, former CEO of the largest mining equipment manufacturer in the world Bucyrus International which was recently sold to Caterpillar, retired after the sale and now serves as the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Wisconsin Mining Association. Earlier this year Sullivan was also appointed Special Consultant for Business and Workforce Development to Scott Walker. As such, he heads Walker’s Office of Business Development, chairs the Governor’s Council on Workforce Investment, and sits on the College and Workforce Readiness Council.
Sullivan testified at the committee in his capacity as Chairman of the WMA, a group organized by the rightwing public relations firm Wood Communications. Both Jim and Kennan Wood, partners in the firm, were also in attendance.
Before presenting the findings of mining industry consultant Behre Dolbear, Sullivan opened his remarks with a statement about how most of the material goods used in the world are derived from mining activity. He then went on to discuss the national security importance of exploiting the national resources within the United States so that we can, “control our destiny.”
Sullivan said, “A positive and effective response to Wisconsin's iron mining opportunities is absolutely critical, but there is other work to be done. Wisconsin also has rich base metal deposits and action on ferrous mining must be quickly followed up with a focus on modernizing current regulations so that those jobs and brighter economic futures can also be made available to the people of our state.”
He went on: “We have other investors that want to invest in base metals in the state and they’re sitting on the sideline saying, ‘What about us? We’d like to create some jobs in your state as well.’”
Presenting the report entitled, “U.S. State Mine Regulatory Process Analysis,”Sullivan promoted the streamlining of Wisconsin’s permitting and oversight processes from the point of view of mining companies: “You have to balance the return on the investment of someone who is investing billions, and their ability to move the process in a fairly expeditious manner.”
Senators Cullen, Jauch and Schultz pointed out several contradictions between the study findings and the provisions of AB 426, which the WMA endorsed and lobbied for last spring. When pushed on the question of whether the WMA would endorse it a second time around, Sullivan said, “Our position is that it can be improved. Whichever direction the legislature decides to take, it should be incumbent on you to use the research available to you to get it right.” He continued, “We can help construct a better iron bill and then a base metals bill. The good news is that there’s a strong desire by many individuals to get the mining industry revitalized in the state.”
The questioning was cut short by Jim Wood, who asked that Sullivan be excused because they had a plane to catch. Sullivan reiterated his availability to assist with drafting any new or amended legislation.
The last person to testify was George Meyer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and former Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He came out swinging: "You have heard repeatedly that AB 426 doesn’t lower environmental standards. They’ve said that repeatedly, and we have responded repeatedly but it gets ignored. Let me be blunt: that is a falsehood.”
Meyer quoted from current state mining law 293.11(2)(d)4: “The destruction or filling in of a lake bed shall not be authorized notwithstanding any other provisions of law.” He said, “There’s no doubt that’s an environmental standard. I will guarantee you that you will not find any variation of that language in AB 426. There are several other examples as well. If there’s anything that’s more precious in WI than our state forests, it’s our state lakes. They remain totally unprotected under AB 426. They can be filled in.”
Meyer also cautioned the committee about overly lax regulations potentially leading to the federal agencies taking over the permitting process, as well as court cases from tribes that have treaty rights in the ceded territories of northern Wisconsin. “If you use AB 426 or its best variations or even with some minor amendments to it, it will not lead to an operating mine in Ashland county for many years, if any. Please be realistic with this. Let’s do it right. The federal process will take over, there will be delays. There will be litigation, even if it gets a permit.”
Sen. Schultz agreed: “I’ve come to realize that you’re right that we are self-delusional if we go down the road thinking that we can move forward without cooperation with the tribes. I’ve met with the Governor and strongly suggested the necessity of getting tribal input early and in a meaningful way. Consultation means more than just, ‘Hi, I’m here, this is what I’m gonna do and I’ll see you later.’ Unless we at least make an effort, we are doomed.”
Meyer told the committee that he and Sullivan have been in conversation about revisions of Wisconsin mining law and that they agree on “80 to 85%” of potential changes. However, he was adamant about opposing AB 426: “You can’t put enough lipstick on AB 426. When you wipe out protection for Wisconsin lakes, don’t expect WWF to support it.”
Sen. Grothman is sticking to his guns in support of the bill. After the hearing I asked him if he simply didn't believe what Sen. Schultz and George Meyer said about how passage of AB 426 would actually increase the probability that there would never be a mine in the Penokee Hills. He said, “If I believed that it would mean that I think the lawyers that the mining company paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to to work on this law didn't know what they were doing.”
When asked whether he actually believes high-paid lawyers more than the analysis of his colleague Sen. Schultz and the former DNR Secretary who has literally been through the wars around mining in ceded territories before, Grothman didn’t have an answer. I think that’s because in his mind, the question itself wasn’t an either/or proposition. Instead it laid bare a larger, secretive political project.
What Sen. Grothman was telling me by saying that he wasn’t willing to believe that the mining company’s lawyers “didn’t know what they were doing” was that their aim actually has very little to do with getting a mine up and running in the Penokee Hills. “What they're doing” is just one step in a larger national, perhaps international political project for the mining industry in which AB 426 is one small part. He was also telling me that his allegiance is to this larger political project, and that he doesn't really care about the content of the bill or the consequences for northern Wisconsin should it be passed.
After covering this story for a year and a half, I’m developing the opinion that the politics around AB 426 is a diagnostic tool used by the corporate and political backers of Scott Walker and his extremist Republican colleagues in the legislature to assess their level of influence on Wisconsin state politics. It is also a litmus test for individual legislators.
From the "I am Spartacus" moment in the assembly when, in answer to repeated questioning about who authored the bill, Majority Leader Jeff Fitzgerald asked everyone who authored it to raise their hand, to WMC outwardly boasting about the $2 million spent to beat Jessica King so that they would be assured of enough votes in the Senate to pass AB 426, the whole thing reeks of intrigue devoid of any reference to actually existing reality.
The fact pointed out by Sen. Jauch that Gogebic Taconite has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a law drafted and passed and not “a single dime” on mining activities despite their having pulled boring permits, also lends credence to this theory.
In his remarks to business leaders on Wednesday Scott Walker all but telegraphed the message that the bill was little more than a political test to his audience. Referring to AB 426 he said, “This is something that we should be focused in on because it's not just important for this project. It sends a tremendously positive message to other employers in other industries that we can make it open for business in Wisconsin and we can still do it in a way that protects the things that are important to us.”
At the end of the hearing after Tim Sullivan and his PR firm support team had gone, Sen. Jauch expressed his disappointment that what Sullivan had communicated to him and others in private did not come out in his public statements. “I appreciated Mr. Sullivan’s presence,” he said. “I know the kinds of conversations we’ve had with him in private, but I’m deeply disappointed at the vagueness of his presentation. The public is not served at all if there is a constant belief by people in this building that the only way problems are solved is in private conversations rather than public deliberations.”
Sen. Jauch went on to decry the corporate takeover of public policy: “I see the strong arm of Wisconsin special interests, particularly the WMC proudly asserting that they have spent $2 million in the Oshkosh/Fond du Lac race so they could make any decisions they wanted. We have the rule of special interests. I am deeply disturbed that there is a train running through the Capitol that is blind to the concerns of the people.”
Sen. Cullen called for another meeting of the committee next Thursday morning to work on a draft of an alternative bill. According to Sullivan, the Joint Committee on Finance will be the decision making body to take up the bill before it goes to the assembly and senate for final passage. Unless Sen. Schultz and the Senate Democrats can convince another Republican senator to vote against AB 426, it could become law as soon as February of next year.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.
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