Bipartisan mining compromise brings GOP objection

MADISON (AP) -- Two Wisconsin state senators on Tuesday proposed a new approach to streamline the state's mining permitting process, with the hopes of reaching a compromise before the legislative session ends next month.

Republican leaders in the Assembly immediately objected to the proposal. The Assembly has already passed a bill designed to help a Florida company open an iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin, but that measure doesn't appear to have enough support to pass the Senate, where Republicans have a narrow 17-16 majority.

Moderate Republican Sen. Dale Schultz has already said he wouldn't support the Assembly version of the bill, forcing additional changes. Schultz joined Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch on Tuesday in introducing a new approach, which they called a responsible plan that protects the public interest while balancing the desire to move quickly to create jobs.

Schultz said he was optimistic a bill could pass before the Legislature adjourns in mid-March, but that Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker could always call them back in a special session to take it up.

The Legislature's budget committee held a hearing on the issue Friday and was expected to quickly pass a bill for the Senate to consider. One of the Republican co-chairs of that committee, Rep. Robin Vos, rejected the proposal along with Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder.

They said it largely represented anti-business ideas that the Assembly had already voted against. All three said they were still committed to finding a compromise they could support.

A spokesman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald declined to comment.

Gogebic Taconite officials have promised the project will create hundreds of jobs and bring decades of income to economically depressed northern Wisconsin. But they've put their plans on hold until lawmakers can guarantee a stopping point in the state's open-ended mining permitting process.

The fight over what changes to make has pitted environmentalists and Democrats concerned about potential pollution from the mine against the state's business community and Republicans who say the promised jobs would give a much-needed jolt to an economically depressed part of the state.

The fight has come over several key portions of the proposal, including who would benefit from a sales tax on the minerals being mined, how quickly the permitting process would take, and whether the public would have an opportunity to object.

The new proposal allows 540 days for the state to issue a permit, longer than the 360 days in the Assembly bill that Jauch said was unrealistically quick. Schultz called the 540-day timeline "extremely aggressive.'' It is broken into two parts: the DNR would have 270 days to draft an environmental impact statement and it would have another 270 days to either approve or deny the permit.

The new version also provides numerous ways that the DNR, the company or federal regulators could delay the permitting process to address problems that may come up.
While the Assembly bill eliminated contested case hearings, which give the public a chance to object to the process, the new bill would retain them in the final phase of the application. They would be eliminated at an earlier point in the process. "It is a fair and flexible plan that provides predictability and certainty but also retains safeguards to protect the public voice,'' said Jauch, who represents the Penokee Hills area near Lake Superior where the mine would be located.

The Assembly bill divides a sales tax on ore sales 60-40 between local governments near the mine and the state. Under the new proposal, all of those proceeds would remain with the local governments. Of that, 20 percent would be set aside to pay for what Schultz described as any unforeseen, unthinkable catastrophic event related to the mine or its abandonment.

Under the new version, permit applicants would have to pay $5 million up front to make guaranteed payments to location communities over the first five years of the mine's operation. They would not have to pay property taxes during that time.

A $2 million cap on any fees that could be paid by those applying for a permit is in both versions.