MADISON — Republicans neared victory Monday in their legislative fight to lure a giant iron mine to northwestern Wisconsin, pushing the proposal through the budget committee and setting up final votes in the coming days.
The Joint Finance Committee approved the bill on a 12-4 party-line vote, clearing the way for approval Wednesday in the state Senate and next week in the Assembly. With Republicans in control of both houses and GOP Gov. Scott Walker touting the bill as his signature job-creation plan, the measure appears close to becoming law.
“There is going to be a huge economic revival in (northwestern Wisconsin),” Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, the co-chairwoman of the finance committee, told members.
Republicans have been working for nearly two years to help Gogebic Taconite open a massive open-pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. The company has pledged the project would create hundreds of jobs for the economically depressed region and thousands more for equipment manufacturers around the rest of the state. But the company wants state lawmakers to ease the regulatory path before it moves forward.
The GOP introduced a sweeping bill a year ago, sparking a fierce battle with Democrats and environmentalists who derided the proposal as a corporate give-away. They warned the company has exaggerated the job numbers and the bill would open the door to pollution that would devastate the pristine region. The measure failed by one vote in the Senate after moderate Republican Dale Schultz sided with Democrats against it.
Republicans re-introduced a slightly modified version of the bill this past January. Under the proposal, the state Department of Natural Resources would have up to 480 days to make a permitting decision. Right now the process is open-ended. The public would no longer be allowed to challenge a DNR permitting decision through contested cases — quasi-judicial proceedings similar to trials — until after the decision is made. Citizen lawsuits challenging DNR enforcement of mining standards would be barred. And any damage a mine causes to wetlands would be presumed necessary.
The bill has reignited the fight with conservationists, but this time Republicans have a larger majority in the Senate, making passage appear inevitable.
The finance committee’s four Democrats ripped the bill Monday as a “sweetheart deal” for Gogebic Taconite. They tried to attach a half-dozen amendments to the bill Monday, including imposing a tax on ore a mining company extracts, removing a $2 million cap on permit application fees, allowing contested cases before the final decision and removing the presumption wetland damage is necessary and ensuring the DNR can’t issue a permit unless the agency is certain the mine won’t hurt the public.
“We seem hell-bent to move forward on a flawed bill,” said Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine.
Darling told the Democrats she was getting tired of them misrepresenting the bill. She insisted the bill balances the environment with jobs. Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, the committee’s co-chairman, argued people in northwestern Wisconsin are desperate for jobs.
Republicans killed every Democratic amendment on a party-line vote. The debate lasted only a little more than two hours.
“Wisconsin is one step closer to thousands of good-paying jobs in our state,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlingtoon, said in a statement afterward. “This bill provides business a level of certainty that they need in order to invest in Wisconsin and our workforce.”