Wis. GOP throws out another mining compromise

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin Republicans threw out more revisions to a contentious bill that would reform the state's iron mining laws Monday, but a key GOP holdout said he still can't support the measure.

The co-chairs of the Legislature's budget committee, Rep. Robin Vos, R-Burlington, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, released what they said were main points of a compromise bill about a half-hour before the committee convened to vote on the measure.

Committee approval would clear the way for a full vote in the Senate, perhaps as early as Tuesday.

The meeting promised to drag on for hours as minority Democrats complained they didn't understand the changes and people in the audience heckled Vos and Darling, calling them crooks.

It made for great political theater, but ultimately could amount to nothing. Senate Republicans hold a razor-thin 17-16 majority, and Sen. Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican from Richland Center, has said he can't vote for the measure. On Monday he rejected the compromise, saying "it makes a bad idea worse.''

Florida-based Gogebic Taconite wants to dig a huge open-pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. The company has claimed the project would create hundreds of jobs for economically depressed northwestern Wisconsin but has put its plans on hold until lawmakers can guarantee a stopping point in the state's open-ended permitting process.

Republicans who control the Legislature have been working for nearly a year to develop legislation for the company.

Environmentalists have rallied against the mine in the meantime, warning it would pollute one of the most pristine regions in the state.

Assembly Republicans passed a bill in January that called for the state Department of Natural Resources to make a permit decision within a year. The bill also eliminated contested case hearings and split an ore sales tax 60-40 between local governments and the state; currently all revenue from the tax goes to local governments.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, kicked the bill to a committee he hand-picked to deal with mining. The committee, which included Schultz, came out with its own bill.

Fitzgerald promptly rejected it and threw his support behind the Assembly version.

That angered Schultz. He has said he supports mining if it's done right, but has vowed not to vote for any bill that doesn't retain contested cases or protect the environment, leaving Republicans one vote short of passing the bill.

Vos and Darling's compromise plan sets out a 480-day deadline for a permit decision. It allows for a contested case hearing, but only after the DNR has issued a permit. Right now the public can initiate hearings during the process.

It also calls for mining companies to pay up to $2 million to the state for job training, a provision Vos and Darling said will ensure Wisconsin residents get the jobs Gogebic Taconite says it will provide.

The mining company also would have to perform mitigation within the northern third of the state to offset the mine's impact on wetlands within the northern third of the state. The Assembly bill allowed mitigation anywhere in Wisconsin, which angered conservationists who questioned how improving a Madison lake would offset damage to Lake Superior-area swamps and marshes.

"We have reached out,'' Vos said. "We have come a long way. We want to get this to a vote.''

But Schultz wouldn't budge. He said holding contested case hearings after the permit has been approved shifts the burden of proof from mining companies to the public. And he said environmental changes should be considered separately.