By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources would face a two-year-deadline to approve iron mining applications under a plan a Democratic state senator released Thursday.
Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, formed a committee this summer to research how best to streamline Wisconsin’s mining regulations. He unveiled a list of ideas he wants to see in a bill during a hearing, including the deadline, allowing the public a chance to challenge regulators’ decisions after the DNR issues a permit and requiring the state to collaborate with federal regulators and American Indian tribes.
Cullen told the committee he hopes to introduce a bill after the legislative session begins in January. Whatever proposals he ultimately produces probably won’t go anywhere, though, at least not as a comprehensive bill. Republicans will control the Assembly and Senate and have their own designs on how to revise mining regulations.
The GOP has worked for more than a year to help Florida-based Gogebic Taconite open a huge iron mine just south of Lake Superior. Company officials have promised the mine would create 700 jobs in the economically depressed region but want legislators to ease the regulatory path. Environmentalists fear the project would devastate one of the last pristine areas in the state
Assembly Republicans passed a bill in January that would have required the Department of Natural Resources to make a permit decision within a year and eliminated contested case hearings, quasi-judicial proceedings the public can use to challenge DNR decisions along the way to approval.
Republicans held only a one-vote edge in the Senate, though, and moderate Republican Dale Schultz of Richland Center refused to vote for the bill unless the hearings and environmental protections were restored. Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee offered him a compromise, setting the approval deadline at 480 days and allowing the hearings after a permit had been issued, but Schultz wouldn’t budge.
Schultz, who sits on Cullen’s committee, said Thursday he supports Cullen’s plan to allow the hearings after permits are issued. He said his opposition to last spring’s bill was based on an array of problems and Republicans were moving so fast he wasn’t confident he understood the bill’s ramifications.
Gogebic Taconite pulled out of the state after the measure failed, but Republican Gov. Scott Walker has said he’s confident the company would return if lawmakers can quickly pass a bill easing its regulatory path.
Cullen decided to form his own committee to gather data on mining laws after Democrats briefly gained control of the Senate following this summer’s recall elections. But Republicans surged back into control of the chamber in November’s elections, gaining a three-vote edge that removes Schultz and Democrats from the equation.
Cullen said his efforts are still worthwhile.
“This is about educating everybody, regardless of their party,” he said. “There’s a lot in here they ought to take seriously.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in email that Senate Republicans are working on a bill and they hope Cullen joins them in voting for it.
Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, one of the Assembly bill’s chief sponsors a year ago who won election to the Senate in November, said he hadn’t seen Cullen’s ideas but said he’d look at them to see if the GOP could use any of them.
“We’re going to reach out to all members of the Senate and hope they support the legislation we bring forth,” he said. “This is going to be one of the biggest economic development efforts in the state of Wisconsin.”