Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Plea for the Necessary Wisconsin Way Mining Reform Act

Have you seen how many jobs we've lost since Governor Scott Walker signed his budget at the end of June last year? Over 35,000 jobs, more than any other state, and our decline is only expected to continue. Unfortunately, the Republicans haven't given much thought to job creation, and they've come up with only one serious plan. The Republicans' only plan to stop the bleeding is to get Gogebic Taconite to open a mine in northern Wisconsin with the promise of jobs in the future. Gogebic Taconite halted plans to open the mine when they heard we might be changing our laws, and now they say they won't open the mine if we don't change our laws.

Walker and the Republicans offered tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy (um, "job creators") last year to try to create jobs. Unfortunately, that hasn't been working, as it never has in the past, while jobs have been popping up all around us. And the Republicans haven't offered any other effective plans. Meanwhile, the Democrats have been proposing jobs bills left and right, and each has been rejected by the Republicans. We need something to spark some job creation, anything, even a promise of jobs to come.

That's what we get with new mining legislation, the promise of new jobs - union jobs to sweeten the deal. Gogebic Taconite estimates that the mine would create about two thousand jobs in Wisconsin, 600-700 from the mine itself, and the rest from equipment purchases and the additional money in the local economy. Most of the 600-700 jobs are promised to be union jobs (JS paywall). However, Gogebic Taconite said that if we don't pass new mining legislation that provides what they need before the end of this session, they will probably walk away.

Let's face it, we need new mining legislation if we're going to try to turn this ship around, because the Republicans don't have anything else to boost employment, and no more laws will be passed this year after March 15. If Gogebic doesn't open the mine, we have no significant increase in jobs to look forward to besides what *might* come out of Washington. Without new mining legislation, we'll have to hope our economy jump-starts itself. But in crafting new legislation, we have to keep our environmental protections. It would be nice if we could strengthen them, but that's clearly not going to happen under this far-right leadership (conservative = conservation?).

The Republicans in the Assembly crafted a bill behind closed doors and then passed it with little public input and no negotiation. The bill severely rolls back environmental protections and restricts public input and review. It would also make getting flood insurance very difficult if not impossible for all Wisconsinites. Residents of the community where the proposed mine would operate are strongly against the bill, as is the rest of Wisconsin, and they appear to be against the mine. We need to let them have their say, and we need to listen to them.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald realized how bad the Assembly bill was, and he created a bipartisan Senate committee to craft a mining bill that finds a balance between streamlining the permit process and environmental protections. However, just as the committee was getting close to a bipartisan compromise, Fitzgerald abruptly disbanded the committee he commissioned. Then Fitzgerald sent the Assembly's mining bill to the Joint Finance Committee to later be sent to the full Senate for passage, hoping to ram it through.

There was one small hitch in Fitzgerald's plan, one Republican, Senator Dale Schultz, can't vote for the Assembly's mining bill without a "clear conscience," even though he votes the party line about 99% of the time. Schultz served on Fitzgerald's mining committee, and he spent a lot of time discussing and listening to everyone he could. He also worked with Democrats, and Senator Bob Jauch was one of those Democrats. The mine proposed by Gogebic Taconite would run through Jauch's district. While they served on the committee, the two visited the residents where the mine would be located and came to an understanding with each other and the residents. From this understanding and our current legislation, the two crafted a bipartisan mining bill entitled the Wisconsin Way Mining Reform Act (bulletpoint overview).

The Wisconsin Way Mining Reform Act is a true bipartisan bill with support from both Republicans and Democrats, well at least one Republican. It streamlines the permit process like Gogebic Taconite requested, and it retains our current environmental protections and process of public input. Schultz's passionate statement on why he crafted the WWMR Act with Jauch and how it compromises with the Republican leadership is a compelling read. I strongly encourage your indulgence.

The WWMR Act gives Gogebic what they asked for, thus creating "thousands" of jobs, and it ensures that the new mine won't pollute any more than it could under current legislation. Not only that, the WWMR Act could spur other mines with its streamlined permit process. And it's an easily passed bill with bipartisan support. What's not to love?

Gogebic Taconite and the Republican leadership flatly rejected the WWMR Act, and the Republican leadership increased their pressure on Schultz to cave and vote for the Assembly bill. Republicans Darling and Vos wrote a fake compromise designed to pressure Schultz into caving. In their press release they wrote, "We have listened to his concerns and responded with a compromise proposal which address many of the concerns we heard from Senator Schultz. We hope he takes the time to thoroughly review the measure and that we are able to find common ground." But Schultz still hasn't caved, because as he said, "My conscience simply won’t allow me to surrender the existing environmental protections without a full and open public debate."

So, why are the majority of Republicans against the WWMR Act? Who knows for sure, but a lack of understanding appears to be one reason. Schultz says the Republican leadership often don't know what they're talking about and continue to exclude experts. "For every question answered, new uncertainties arose, and there was a decided lack of expertise in the room to answer them," he said. Schultz added, "These types of long-lasting and far-reaching environmental changes should not be made by a room full of legislators, staff and a handful of DNR folks behind closed doors."

The WWMR Act gives Gogebic a timeline by limiting the currently infinitely long permit process to 540 days, with extensions only if necessary. The effective timeline isn't much different than that of Minnesota's and Michigan's (JS paywall link). The WWMR Act keeps our current environmental standards, which would allow us to continue to get flood insurance. It also retains the contested case hearings that are similarly offered in Minnesota and Michigan, and the only way for the public to get testimony under oath without the outrageous costs associated with suing a mining company.

Everybody's been saying that new mining legislation is nearly dead, but the Republican leadership isn't giving up, because this is their only jobs plan. In an effort to put more pressure on Schultz, the Joint Finance Committee is scheduled to vote on the Assembly bill (AB 426) Monday afternoon. With an overwhelming majority of Republicans, the committee will pass the bill, allowing the full Senate to vote on it. That's when the Republican leadership will begin to put immense pressure on Schultz to cave and vote for the bill.

The Republican leadership has failed to create any legislation in the open, but they won't risk losing their jobs any more by letting this mine slip away. If the Republicans pass the Assembly bill out of the JFC, they will probably find a way to make Schultz cave. They need this BAD. If the Republican leadership can't get their way, they will have to compromise and pass the WWMR Act or suffer the consequences of bleeding jobs with no plan to even slow the bleeding. That's where we come in.

Talks between Schultz and the two Republican leaders of the committee are set to resume Monday morning. If the two sides can't reach agreement, the leadership will push the bill through committee and do everything they can to make Schultz cave. If the Republicans realize before Monday afternoon that they'd be better off supporting the WWMR Act, they may pass that through committee instead. It's possibly the last chance we have of getting a decent mining bill or any job stimulus. To get jobs, we have to convince the Republican leadership to pass the WWMR Act to save their jobs before Monday afternoon.

Call everyone Monday morning: Schultz, Republican, Democrat, we need mining legislation that doesn't curb existing environmental protections, retains our level of input and review, and gives local communities the funds they deserve. We need the Wisconsin Way Mining Reform Act.

Email them now!

Tell them early and tell them often. Spread the word. (Hint: quick links below :) )

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