Randy's Ramblings: A showdown over mining is under way in Madison
A lot has been happening downstate that folks on the western fringe of Wisconsin, under the orb of the Twin Cities media, probably aren't aware of unless they make an effort to follow our home-state news.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald disbanded a special Senate committee that was working on a mining bill and announced his support for a bill that the Assembly passed in late January.
The Republicans who control the Legislature say the current permitting process for new mines is too cumbersome. The Assembly bill greatly streamlines it, and sets a 360-day deadline for the Department of Natural Resources to review mining applications.
The Assembly bill also eliminates the ability of opponents to hold up development of a mine through quasi-judicial hearings, and it weakens protection for streams, wetlands and groundwater.
The bill adopted by the Assembly sets a $2 million cap on mining application fees and gives the state 40 percent of the revenue from an ore sales tax. Currently, all of the tax revenue goes to the local governments where the mine is located.
The driving factor for the proposed permitting changes was a company's plan to dig a massive open-pit iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties near Hurley. Gogebic Taconite says it will spend $1.5 billion on the mine and employ about 700 workers.
According to a Madison newspaper report, the mine would be four and a half miles long and up to 1,000 feet deep in the first phase of development.
Some Republican state senators -- most notably Dale Schultz of Richland Center -- thought the Assembly bill tipped too steeply toward the mining industry. They were working on their own bill when Fitzgerald abruptly disbanded the special Senate committee he had appointed.
A contentious public hearing on the Assembly's mining bill took place before the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee last Friday. But the moderate Schultz signaled that he won't vote for the Assembly version.
That means something has to give. Schultz holds the deciding vote in the Senate after Democrats replaced two Republican senators in recall elections last summer. Republicans currently hold a slim 17-16 majority in the body.
Schultz has said he's working with senators from both parties, including Republican Robert Cowles of Green Bay and Democrat Bob Jauch of Poplar, on a compromise bill.
He told the Wisconsin State Journal that the bill would include a fund provided by mining companies to repair any unforeseen environmental damage caused by mines. The Senate bill also would provide for some form of contested-case hearings against mining permits, and allow for the extension of the review period if the state and company agree to it.
In addition, the compromise bill would increase the share of ore tax revenue going to local governments.
Meanwhile, on Monday the Bad River band of Chippewa Indians indicated that it is ready to challenge the proposed mine in federal court if changes in state law endanger the rice beds on its reservation lands.
The Bad River, which feeds the tribe's rice beds, starts near the planned mine.
Tribal representatives say the treaty under which Native Americans ceded the northern third of Wisconsin to the federal government also grants them environmental protections.
Gogebic Taconite has hinted that is could abandon its plans for the mine if the Legislature doesn't amend the permitting process before the end of its session in mid-March.
Republicans are touting the mine as a boon to job creation in a depressed region of the state.
Environmentalists say the changes in the Assembly bill would lead to the destruction of wetlands and streams, and pollute the Bad River watershed and Lake Superior. Former DNR Secretary George Meyer is on record saying there's nothing wrong with Wisconsin's mine permitting process as it now stands.
The issue could come to a head shortly. Schultz has said a compromise bill could be ready for a vote in the Senate this week.
It will be interesting to see how this tug of war turns out. I personally hope the Legislature doesn't abandon responsible environmental protection for the lure of short-term economic gain. I preferred it when manufacturing things with metal from elsewhere was a much bigger percentage of our economy.
The mining debate is just one of the things making political headlines around the state.
Two aides to Gov. Scott Walker when he was the Milwaukee County executive have been charged with illegal campaigning on the taxpayers' dime. Kelly Rindfleisch, Walker's former deputy chief of staff, faces four felony counts of misconduct in office. She's one of five former Walker associates who have been charged with crimes as a result of an ongoing John Doe investigation of his Milwaukee County staff.
It turns out that Walkers' Milwaukee County aides had a secret e-mail system for political activity on government time.
That explains why Republicans thought to check Democratic Senate candidate Shelly Moore's school e-mail account for political activity when she ran against Sen. Sheila Harsdorf in the recall election last summer. A few of them know a lot about campaigning at the taxpayers' expense, and were a lot more sophisticated about it than Moore.
This is just a sample of the political fireworks going off in and around Madison these days. My favorite websites for keeping up with it are http://www.jsonline.com, http://www.madison.com and www.wispolitics.com.